Martin Heidegger Biography

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(History of the World: The 20th Century)

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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...

(The entire section is 2,424 words.)