Martin Heidegger: Between Good and Evil Martin Heidegger

Rüdiger Safranski

Martin Heidegger

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Rüdiger Safranski, a German freelance writer with academic training in philosophy and German language, first achieved international recognition with Schopenhauer and the Wild Years of Philosophy (1991), a biography of the nineteenth century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Safranski’s ability to present difficult philosophical concepts in clear language and to explain how thoughts emerged from the life of a thinker made that earlier work appealing both to general readers and to specialists in philosophy. With his newest biography, Safranski takes up an even more challenging philosophical subject, the life and thought of Martin Heidegger.

Heidegger was one of the most influential and controversial philosophers of modern times. During his own lifetime, he became a cult figure. His work was a major source of inspiration for the existentialists of the post-World War II period. Political theorists, psychoanalysts, ecologists, and theologians have all drawn on his ideas. Nevertheless, some philosophers have argued that Heidegger really had nothing meaningful to say. At the heart of his work lay the concept of Nothing, and his chief concern was the nature of Being. His critics have claimed that it makes no sense to treat Nothing as something that can be contemplated and discussed. Moreover, Heidegger’s complex writing style and his penchant for inventing words have led these critics to maintain that his work was little more than jargon masquerading as profundity.

The controversies surrounding Heidegger have not been limited to his writings. Following Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, Heidegger became a member of the Nazi Party. This fact raises questions both about the man himself and about his philosophy. How deeply involved was he with the Nazis, and how much guilt did he bear for Nazi crimes against humanity? Were his political beliefs and activities part of his philosophical thinking or simply personal errors that had nothing to do with his insights? How highly should we regard any philosophy that can be compatible with Nazism?

Most previous books about Heidegger have concentrated either on his philosophy or on his politics. Safranski’s biography is one of the first works to consider both of these subjects in depth and to show how the two were related. The book traces the development of Heidegger’s ideas and attempts to explain how these ideas led a brilliant but morally flawed individual to support Hitler.

Growing up in a small town in Catholic Germany, Martin Heidegger acquired his education with the support of the Church, and he first made his name as a Catholic philosopher. This may be the source of the profound spiritual feeling that continued to be a characteristic of his writing even after he moved away from formal religion altogether. By 1917, he had married a Protestant, Elfride Petri, and two years later he formally broke with the Catholic system of philosophy.

At Freiburg University, Heidegger became the assistant of the phenomenologist philosopher Edmund Husserl. Phenomenology, as developed by Husserl, was a method of examining the objects in consciousness (phenomena) by careful intellectual scrutiny of one’s own process of perceiving the objects. It was, then, concerned with investigating the foundations of experience. This concern with the foundations of experience, Safranski demonstrates, remained with Heidegger even after he abandoned phenomenology.

In the early 1920’s, Heidegger’s lectures on ontology, on the fundamental structures of existence, established him as something of a cult figure among students. He became a friend and mentor to some of Germany’s most prominent emerging intellectuals, including the philosopher Karl Jaspers. It was at this time, also, that he entered into a romantic relationship with one of his students, Hannah Arendt, who later became an eminent philosopher and political thinker in her own right. Although Safranski does help readers obtain some understanding of Heidegger’s emerging ideas during these years, he never manages to convey precisely what magnetism drew such brilliant individuals as Arendt to the young philosopher. We conclude that Heidegger must have been in some way an individual of enormous charisma, but we never really get a sense of that charisma from these pages.

The year 1927 saw the publication of Heidegger’s masterpiece, Being and Time (English translation by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson in 1962). Both during the philosopher’s lifetime and afterward, Being and Time was more widely discussed than read and more widely cited than understood. In it, Heidegger was concerned with two questions: What is Being, and what is Being for humans in particular? He characterized the Being of humans as “Being-there” (Dasein, in German), a state of being situated in existence, and he emphasized the “thrownness” or...

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