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Article abstract: Though within the Continental tradition of philosophy known as existentialism, Heidegger strove to free philosophy from what he claimed were its millennia-old metaphysical shackles. Using complex and arcane terminology, he sought to penetrate the nature of the confrontation of the human being with being itself and to clear a way for the answer to the age-old question of why there is something rather than nothing.

Early Life

Martin Heidegger was the son of Friedrich Heidegger, a Catholic sexton at Messkirch, a small village in the Black Forest region of southwestern Germany, and Johanna (Kempf) Heidegger. Martin, the elder of the couple’s two sons, attended public school in Messkirch and then entered the Gymnasium at Constance, with an intention to study for the Jesuit priesthood. In 1909, after three years of study at the Gymnasium at Freiburg, he entered the University of Freiburg. Unable to pursue the priesthood because of poor health, Heidegger’s study of Christian theology and medieval philosophy—after courses in physics and mathematics—drew him toward a lifelong devotion to philosophy.

Heidegger’s doctoral dissertation in 1913, Die Lehre vom Urteil im Psychologismus (the doctrine of judgment in psychologism), published the next year, took issue with the kind of simplistic reductionism that would collapse speculative philosophy into mere psychology. Heidegger acknowledged the influence of Edmund Husserl, the father of phenomenology, who called for the critical examination of the phenomena of consciousness on their own terms. Heidegger continued his studies even after the outbreak of World War I in 1914, his poor health leading to a quick discharge from military service.

By 1916, a second book-length work, on the doctrine of categories of the medieval Scholastic philosopher John Duns Scotus, enabled Heidegger to teach philosophy at Freiburg as a privatdocent (an unsalaried lecturer paid out of students’ fees). Elfriede Petri became Heidegger’s wife in 1917; the couple had two sons, Jörg and Hermann.

In 1916, Husserl went to Freiburg, and by 1920 Heidegger had become his assistant, though Heidegger began to be uncomfortable with the kind of analysis of the “things” of consciousness promoted by Husserl. Heidegger believed that the ancient Greeks, especially the pre-Socratics, had had an experience of being itself—that is, the “isness” of all things—something Husserl’s epistemology, or theory of knowledge, merely obscured.

From 1923 until 1928, when he returned to Freiburg to succeed Husserl in the chair of philosophy, Heidegger taught as an associate professor at Marburg, where he was exposed to influences to which he would owe much in the shaping of his ontology (or theory of being). A new friendship with the theologian Rudolf Bultmann introduced Heidegger to the work of another theological writer, Karl Barth. That opened the way to a study of Martin Luther and existentialist Søren Kierkegaard. It was at Marburg that Heidegger published the first volume of his masterpiece, Sein und Zeit (1927; Being and Time, 1962).

Life’s Work

Being and Time was Heidegger’s attempt to start philosophy over again, to return to the pre-Socratic insights into being lost with the advent of the rationalistic metaphysics of Plato. Heidegger was convinced that the pre-Socratics—true “thinkers” such as Parmenides and Heracleitus—had stood astonished before the presence of being: that which was manifested in all the actually existing beings of the universe. For Heidegger, authentic human being was an openness to exactly this same astonishment, obscured by centuries of forgetfulness of being, of neglect of the most important question: Why is there something rather than nothing? By an extraordinary etymological analysis of the pre-Socratics, Heidegger detected evidence of this primordial awareness of being. Heracleitus said “One is all” (panta ta onta), and for Heidegger this was precisely the insight that “all being is in Being.”

The questioning of being is Heidegger’s task in Being and Time. This questioning is what gives humanity to man, who in his human being is a “being-in-the-world” (In-der-Welt-Sein), a finite creature bounded by death. Time and being are inextricably linked, contrary to Western metaphysical thought, which had attempted to ground its theories in some notion of the eternal. Human being (Heidegger’s Dasein) is open to its “thrownness” into the world with no reference except to that of “no-thing-ness,” or death. Yet Dasein often fails to respond to its being-in-the-world and instead, says Heidegger, becomes an alienated “they,” mass man, with the incessant chatter of words drowning out the speech through which being expresses itself. Dasein does not listen. Only with the experience of an existential angst, or dread—the realization that one’s being-in-the-world is an open question—can the voice of being be heard once again.

There is no easy way to achieve authenticity in one’s human being, for one’s very existence means being-with-others and a falling away from true self-possession. Yet the uncanny feeling of homelessness in the world, elicited by one’s angst, serves to shatter complacency and allow the human being to see that his authenticity must come in the caring for being, in the answering to being. This insight allows Heidegger to commend, in his later writings, those who care for the earth by working with it, and to condemn the technological rapacity of both the Soviet Union and the United States. Dasein is a being-toward-death, and this future inevitability must mark how man perceives his past as well as his present. It must be the same for whole peoples: History is a working out or working with the destiny that will come to all. It is here that Being and Time abruptly ends.

Despite the book’s convoluted German coinages and abstract analysis, Heidegger’s fame grew. Returning to Freiburg in 1928, he replaced Husserl at the elder philosopher’s retirement; Heidegger’s inaugural address, published as Was ist Metaphysik? (1929; “What Is Metaphysics?” 1949), represents, in the estimation of some scholars, a Kehre (or turning) from the thought expressed in his magnum opus. He sought not to repudiate his central insights into being, but to deemphasize the anthropocentrism of his work, in which the truth of being “uncovers” itself through Dasein; the truth comes not by way of man but by language itself.

On May 27, 1933, Heidegger gave another inaugural address, this time as the newly elected rector of the university. Entitled Die Selbstbehauptung der deutschen Universität (published in 1934; the self-determination of the German university), it affirmed the autonomy of the university (in the face of National Socialist pressure, as Heidegger later maintained) and the Führerprinzip by which Heidegger would take control of the school, bypassing its senate. In the speech, Heidegger glorified the historical mission of the German people, though he was not clear on the exact nature of that mission. Regardless, the rector must guide students and teachers alike into the “spiritual mission of the Volk,” the destiny of the German people. Elsewhere, Heidegger was not so ambiguous; on November 3, 1933, he told students that “the Führer alone is the present and future German reality and its law.”

Heidegger had joined the Nazi Party, reluctantly or not, but he apparently never resigned. He did resign the rectorate in 1934, disillusioned with the grand promise of National Socialism—not the “inner truth and greatness of the National Socialist movement” but with the “works that are being peddled about nowadays as the philosophy of National Socialism.” Heidegger had appeared at official Nazi functions wearing National Socialist insignia and as rector had secretly denounced several colleagues and students as having unsuitable philosophy. In November, 1944, with the end of the war approaching, Heidegger ended his lectures at the university; the next year, the Freiburg denazification committee issued its report on Heidegger, charging him with holding significant Nazi office and of Nazi propaganda, with introducing the Führerprinzip, and with inciting students against certain professors. Heidegger’s health broke in 1946, and he spent three weeks at a sanatorium. The denazification hearings dragged on into 1949, when Heidegger was declared a Nazi “fellow traveler” and forbidden to teach until 1951; subsequently, he participated in periodic university seminars and continued to speak elsewhere, especially in France.

During the war years, Heidegger had taught several courses on Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, who had also called for the death of Western metaphysics; yet Heidegger contended that Nietzsche’s “will to power” was merely the culmination of Western metaphysical nihilism and not its overcoming. Power was a manifestation of all that was wrong in European civilization—the need to exert human will over the forces of nature, to bend and shape nature into human design. The conception of truth, that of a correspondence between statements and states of affairs, encouraged this imposition of man’s will upon the world, shaping it to “correspond” with what his power willed. Heidegger returned to the early Greeks for his understanding of truth. Man does not pursue truth, truth pursues man and opens itself up to him. Dasein must be open to the truth; man must be a mediator, not a calculator. The survival of civilization depended on it.

In his Über den Humanismus (1947; Letter on Humanism, 1962), Heidegger disdained any affinity with French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, though Sartre himself was much influenced by Heidegger. Sartre’s form of humanism, as all humanisms, only recast man’s relation to other beings, not to being itself; Sartre’s dictum that existence precedes essence was still a metaphysical construct. Such “language under the dominance of the modern metaphysics of subjectivity . . . still denies us its essence: that it is the house of the truth of Being.” In Being and Time, Heidegger had spoken of the resoluteness to choose authenticity in order to encounter being; now he said the guardianship of being lay in language, and in the greatest poets of the language. True thinking was an openness to being as it disclosed itself to and in man. Man was the trustee, or shepherd, of being; his must be an active readiness to receive the disclosure. Great art, especially poetry, brought Being to man in a way that no metaphysical construct, concerned as it is with beings, could do. Great art was no mere imitation of something eternal; it housed being, as all human creations should. Technology, said Heidegger, alienated man from nature, and in turn nature alienated man from being.

Heidegger was enamored of the countryside, turning down opportunities in the 1930’s of a professorship in Berlin to remain near the Black Forest and his ski hut above Todtnauberg near Freiburg. In his later years, the stocky Heidegger, with piercing eyes, mustache, and thinning hair, often affected the garb of a Swabian peasant for his ascetic and contemplative life.


Martin Heidegger exerted a profound influence on the development of existentialism, especially through Jean-Paul Sartre. Additionally, his reflections on language and the way in which it disclosed the truth of being were central to the French deconstruction movement, notably to Jacques Derrida. Theologians such as Bultmann have been deeply influenced by Heidegger’s ambiguous depiction of man’s fallenness “into the world.” The hermeneutic movement, associated with former student Hans-Georg Gadamer, built on Heidegger’s work in textual criticism; psychoanalysis, especially the schools of existentialist therapy and phenomenological psychology, also benefited from Heidegger. In philosophy, the Marxists warmed to Heidegger’s critique of technology, and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s analysis of language showed some affinity with that of Heidegger.

Heidegger’s thought has been praised as offering a revolutionary way back to being and has been excoriated as obscurantist and almost meaningless, based on fanciful etymological interpretations. Above all, in the years since his death both friends and foes of Heidegger have wrestled with the fact that, whatever the quality of his thought, he was also a Nazi. Some have seen an organic connection between Heidegger’s thought and National Socialism in Heidegger’s sense of German destiny and narrow nationalism; others have excused him as one among many who were caught up in Hitlerism. Most vexing of all was Heidegger’s determined silence about the Holocaust; despite his critique of the perversions of technology, he refused to make any public statement about the death camps. Heidegger’s lifelong questioning of being would endure to challenge future philosophers; some of the “answers” he chose to endorse would endure as a warning.


Biemel, Walter. Martin Heidegger: An Illustrated Study. Translated by J. L. Mehta. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976. Biemel, a student under Heidegger, elucidates Heidegger’s concern for being and truth in an accessible analysis of seven works, including Being and Time. Dozens of black-and-white photographs of Heidegger and his contemporaries, a five-page chronology, and a twenty-page bibliography (including English translations and important secondary works) contribute to this essential introduction to Heidegger’s thought.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question. Translated by Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. “The question” is that of Heidegger and Nazism, and in this slim volume Derrida seeks to distinguish Heidegger the philosopher from Heidegger the man yet caught up in the false humanisms of the world. Derrida’s work, though burdened with deconstructionist rhetoric, is a compassionate attempt at a (partial) explanation.

Farías, Victor. Heidegger and Nazism. Edited, with a foreword, by Joseph Margolis and Tom Rockmore. Translated by Paul Burrell and Gabriel R. Ricci. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989. An indictment of Heidegger’s philosophy through a study of Heidegger the man. Farías, a Chilean who studied under Heidegger, claims Heidegger’s involvement in Nazism was both more extensive and more consistent with his philosophy than previously acknowledged.

Heidegger, Martin. Basic Writings. Edited by David Farrell Krell. New York: Harper & Row, 1977. Krell provides a generally sympathetic introduction to Heidegger’s life and philosophical concerns, as well as concise introductions to each of nine key essays by Heidegger along with Heidegger’s own introduction to Being and Time. A three-page bibliography lists other of Heidegger’s works in English.

Naess, Arne. Four Modern Philosophers: Carnap, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Sartre. Translated by Alastair Hannay. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968. A lucid presentation of the facts of Heidegger’s life and the essence of his philosophy. A brief bibliography of Heidegger’s major works in German is included in this accessible semitechnical study.

Steiner, George. Martin Heidegger. New York: Viking Press, 1978. Intended for the general reader, Steiner’s short work, published soon after Heidegger’s death, intertwines a short biography of the philosopher and an exposition of Being and Time, with a nod toward Heidegger’s later works. Clarifies the central themes of Heidegger’s philosophy. A brief chronology of Heidegger’s life, a short bibliography of English titles, and an extensive index supplement a helpful text.