Martin Heidegger Essay - Critical Essays

Heidegger, Martin


Martin Heidegger 1889–1976

German critic and philosopher.

Heidegger is considered by many critics the most original thinker to have emerged from modern European aesthetics. His entire oeuvre was devoted to the question of the meaning of Being in the universe. For humanity, Heidegger believed, Being is limited, because all who exist eventually die. His term for this life cycle was "Dasein," or "being there." Heidegger used his idea of "Dasein" to explain that existence is predicated on its negation, death.

Although Heidegger's concept of Being is philosophically oriented, he also used his theories to comment on both language and poetry. For Heidegger, language is fundamental to Being. Language is the foundation on which the entire idea of existence rests; as he said, "Only where there is language is there world." And, for Heidegger, the purpose of poetry is to define "the condition of man's existence as historical beings." In Was Heisst Danken? (What Is Called Thinking?), Heidegger declared that the supreme purpose of the poet is to combine his ideas with those of the philosopher to solidify the foundations of Being. Heidegger wrote important hermeneutical studies of Stefan George, Georg Trakl, and Rainer Maria Rilke, among other poets.

Heidegger's concept of "Dasein" was introduced in European philosophical circles around the same time as existentialism. Despite being associated by other philosophers with Jean-Paul Sartre, however, Heidegger denied any existentialist influence. He stated that he was concerned with Being as a concept, rather than emphasizing the human element of that concept, as Sartre did. Although Heidegger's influence in Germany has waned, his opinions are still considered extremely important by most philosophers due to his influence on Sartre, Albert Camus, Jacques Derrida, and Paul de Man.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84 and Vols. 65-68 [obituary].)

Michael Hamburger

The mere fact that Heidegger has thought Trakl worthy of his particular form of exegesis, which combines what seems like close textual analysis with the most far-reaching philosophical deductions, implies one kind of affinity between Trakl and the other German poets—Hölderlin and Rilke—to whom Heidegger has devoted [studies similar to his Georg Trakl]; this affinity, of course, is one of perception, and it undoubtedly exists. But only a poet who uses words with the utmost precision, and with the utmost consistency as well, can be expected to bear the weight of Heidegger's exegesis; and Trakl's use of imagery, on which every interpretation of his poems must rest, was not consistent. (p. 250)

[It] is from Hölderlin that [Heidegger] derived many of his ideas about the function of poetry, and it is in the light of these ideas that he examines Trakl's work, inevitably linking it to Hölderlin's. Heidegger believes that the function of poets is "to name what is holy"; but this naming, he writes, "does not consist in merely giving a name to something already known, but only when the poet speaks the significant word is the existent nominated into what it is. Poetry is the institution in words of being." This view is not very different from Rilke's conception of poetry as affirmation and praise of the visible world, and its transformation in the poet's "inwardness" into pure significance. Heidegger goes further than Rilke only in clearly stating that poets "institute being", rather than merely affirming it in words. Hölderlin, however, had a more modest end in mind when he wrote—at the end of Patmos—that the function of poets is to see that "the existing be well construed". The difference, once more, is that between a religion of the logos and a religion of the heart. If the logos was at the beginning, there is no need for poets to create the world all over again by endowing it with meaning. The question, in Trakl's case, is whether his poems were intended to "institute being" or merely to construe it.

Heidegger sees Trakl as the poet of the transitional age of which Hölderlin wrote in Broad und Wein, an era of Night in which there is no divine revelation, but only waiting and preparation for a new epiphany. It is certainly true that, in a very different sense from the later Expressionists, Trakl wrote of a "new humanity" or at least of a humanity different from that of the present day; but he did so in the form of images and of those mythical personages who inhabit his poems, not in the form of statements which one can easily quote in support of an argument. It is also true that his images of decay, his nocturnes, autumnal landscapes and visions of doom are often relieved by images of regeneration which point to a reality quite distinct from his immediate circumstances. These images Heidegger interprets as intimations of a regenerate Occident.

Trakl wrote poems that refer explicitly to the Occident. These are Abendländisches Lied and Abendland. The first, which is the earlier poem, begins with images of a past, feudal and pastoral, way of life; it is difficult to place these images historically, for there are allusions to shepherds, to "blood blossoming beside the sacrificial stone", to the crusades and "glowing martyrdom of the flesh", to the "pious disciples" now turned into warriors, to "peaceful monks who pressed the purple grape", to hunting and to castles. The general impression is that the poem moves from a remote pastoral age to New Testament times, then to the early and later Middle Ages…. [In the last stanza of Abendländisches Lied] Trakl sees the present as "the bitter hour of decline, when in black waters we gaze at a stony face"—images that suggest a narcissistic isolation and the guilt which, as in other poems of Trakl's, petrifies every faculty; and that the next three lines express a hope of regeneration. It is the nature of that regeneration which is obscure; for "die Liebenden" could be lovers "lifting up silvery eyelids" to look at each other; they could be Christian worshippers raising their eyes after prayer towards the altar. The ambiguity is maintained in the next line; for "ein Geschlecht" could mean "one sex", "one kind" or "one generation". And the "rosy cushions" from which incense wafts could conceivably be hassocks, if one takes the colour epithet to be symbolical. Perhaps Trakl intended both meanings: the fusion into one of the sexes, which symbolizes an integration of the psyche—so that the individual is redeemed from narcissistic solitude; and the fusion of Christian worshippers into one...

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Sidney Hook

The influence, direct and indirect, of ["Being and Time" ("Sein und Zeit")], not only in philosophy but literature and psychology, has reached a point where its admirers characterize it as a work that has changed the intellectual map of the modern world. To this some of Heidegger's detractors agree, but add that he has changed the map of the world by overturning a bottle of ink on it. Numerous interpreters have tried to make sense of the blots produced, projecting naturally their own needs and interests into the reading of it.

The claims and counterclaims are both exaggerated. Heidegger has exercised a profound influence on European (and Japanese!) philosophers, on the existentialist school of psychoanalysis, and on theologians who have used his critique of reason to reinforce their leap of faith over the abyss of dread to which his thought leads. His influence on the literature and drama of the absurd has been mediated through Sartre. It would be far truer to say that Heidegger has given technical and elaborate expression to the sense of dislocation, strangeness, loneliness, and the cult of the arbitrary already manifest in modern literature than to assert he has inspired them.

Nor has Heidegger blotted out the map of the world. He has redrawn it to make the agony of man a part of its geography. Herein lies the clue to his influence. For Heidegger a voyage of discovery on the seas of being becomes an exploration of the labyrinths of the self. It charts the cares and anxieties, the hidden dimensions of conscience, the fearful prescience of death which are covered up by the trivialities and tyrannies of everyday living. He believes that our rational thought and our sensible habits have narcotized our primordial awareness that we are alone in the void.

His work appears to be a declaration of nihilist independence which invites us to awake from our uneasy, terror-filled sleep and go in quest of an authentic self. We must shed the responsibilities imposed upon us from without by the conventional, the popular, the traditional decencies and pieties. Living is a matter of choice, decision and action. We cannot deduce them from all the scientific facts in the world or give valid moral reasons for them.

If we are sufficiently resolute, understand that God is dead and that we are engulfed by Nothingness into which we must disappear, that there is no rock we can build on except the possibilities of what we may become—then and only then do our decisions acquire the hallmark of authenticity. We realize our freedom and our destiny.

This is by far not all there is to Heidegger, who has much to say about technical matters related to the above. But it explains the fascination his ideas have for intellectuals who have lived and still live in an age of crisis in which death, betrayal and panic are familiar phenomena. The very complexity and terminological refinements with which the philosophical position is presented adds a resonance of profundity to the echoes of doctrine that reach the wider world….

To the uninitiated most of ["Being and Time"] will appear to be gibberish with very occasional lapses into lucidity. The sentences sound as if written by a philosophical Joyce or Gertrude Stein in their most outré moods about the "thingness of things" the "notness of not" and the "temporality of the temporal." Analytic philosophers have made and will make easy game of it. Put on a semantic griddle, the text melts away into a thick blinding smoke.

It is yet both unfair and futile to convict [Heidegger] of nonsense. There is interesting nonsense, vicious nonsense and just simple nonsense. Simple nonsense Heidegger is certainly not. In the interest of understanding, we must put the niceties of syntax aside, and ask: What is Heidegger trying to say? Why do so many who have wrestled with him feel it a rewarding experience, and testify that they have been touched and left permanently marked by a powerful spirit?

Heidegger's thought marks a break with the dominant traditions of Western philosophy—with its emphasis upon knowledge as vision, reason and scientific objectivity. He purports to describe things as we encounter and deal with them in our experience. He writes as if he were trying to understand the world kinesthetically, despite the distorting medium of words, to grasp its intractabilities and compulsions, its just-so-ness which no purely intellectual beholding or seeing can reveal.

The meaning of Being (Sein) on which everything is supposed to hang, is approached through the meaning of one's own personal existence (Dasein), and a bitter, anguished existence it is. At the close of a long inquiry,...

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Frederic Will

If literature can accurately be said to capture and embody knowledge, it follows that it embodies "truth" or objective reality. The capacity of poetry to capture reality, in the highest sense, has in our day been most forcefully asserted by Martin Heidegger.

His aesthetics, which amounts to a theory of poetry, is of the greatest importance as an effort to argue the fulness of poetry. The argument is a dominant concern of his recent thought, and shows how much its author had profited from the experiences with Being which he had already dramatized in Sein und Zeit…. Like all his thought, Heidegger's aesthetics is intended for the initiate and demands participation. It rewards a good reading,...

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L. L. Duroche

The influence of Martin Heidegger on recent German letters has so far outweighed that of any other contemporary German thinker and has had such a profound influence on so many aspects of contemporary German thought that it is only to be expected that German literary criticism and literary theory have also felt the impact of his thinking. Without a doubt, the contribution of Heidegger to modern philosophical thinking surpasses that of any other contemporary philosopher. His work represents in a very true sense a "Copernican turn"; especially significant and probably the most important direct (intended) contribution is Heidegger's "ex-centric" emphasis in the analysis of human existence, the phenomenological attempt to...

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J. Glenn Gray

Some day the major significance of the existentialist movement may be seen to lie in the recovery of poetry (in the generic sense of imaginative literature and art) as a subject matter for philosophy. For many generations philosophers have looked to natural science for a model of philosophic method as well as for standards by which to judge the worth of philosophic effort. Anglo-Saxon philosophers have also used the findings of the sciences, social and natural, increasingly as the proper material for reflection—indeed as the very core of their discipline. In conceiving philosophy to be a criticism of culture, they have been impelled to pay more and more attention to science as the enterprise that has revolutionized...

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Robert Mugerauer

I take it that one of the reasons Heidegger wrote [Discourse on Thinking] was to invite us to think. And if we are aware of the difficulties of reading and thinking, we might fairly assume that Heidegger was aware of them too. Indeed, we may assume he was more aware of them than most of us are. Further, if I or anyone else claims to be able to help us to read Heidegger, we need to discover some clues as to how to go about it and then pass these on. I say discover, rather than invent, because I believe Heidegger himself shows us how he is to be read.

Parts of Discourse on Thinking do not make obvious sense, but I contend that they do make sense. The book translated as...

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Erich Heller

Thinking about poetry is not the same as poetic thought, but such "thinking about" would certainly busy itself in a void if it cut itself loose entirely from its subject matter's imaginative intellection; and it is the alpha and omega of Heidegger's philosophy that poetry is thought, just as true thought—that is, thought concerned with the meaning of Being—partakes of the essence of poetry. Yes, the alpha too, although it is only in his writings after Being and Time that poetry, above all Hölderlin's, assumes the role of Being's authentic and most "thoughtful" messenger…. Heidegger says in the essay "Why be a Poet?," "that the making of poetry … is a matter of thinking." For the domain of poetry...

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Marjorie Grene

What has this Heidegger, the prophet of the Seinsfrage, to say to us? That is hard to assess. German philosophical thinking speaks a language doubly different from English: different not only in the language itself, but in its conception of language. British philosophers are haunted by Berkeley's distrust of words; yet distrusting words as guides, they limit themselves happily to the study of words as instruments. A German philosopher is much more inclined to trust to "the wisdom of language," to allow words to tell him their meaning, and guide him, beyond themselves, to an understanding of what they mean. For British philosophers, equivocal words are, philosophically, bad words. For German philosophers,...

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[BRYAN MAGEE]: Professor Barrett, if you can imagine that I am somebody who knows absolutely nothing at all about the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, and you are going to set about giving me some basic idea, how would you begin?

PROFESSOR WILLIAM BARRETT: … I would start with the fundamental concept of 'being in the world'. You and I are together in the same world. You are not a mind attached to a body, and I am not a mind attached to a body; primarily, we are two human beings within the same world. The way in which average, ordinary (or extraordinary) human beings are concretely in the world—that is where we start from and that is where we begin to philosophise about it….


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David A. White

Since Heidegger's discussion of language in any form nearly always originates from a consideration of poetic texts, his own hermeneutical techniques and those of literary critics are frequently at odds. But at the very outset of the fourth edition of the Hölderlin lectures, Heidegger clearly states his position with respect to literary criticism. His writings on Hölderlin are not intended to be contributions to "literary and historical research"; but are rather a series of reflections which arise from the needs of thinking (Denken). The assumption is warranted that this claim holds not only for the Hölderlin lectures but also for all Heidegger's discussions of poetic language. If so, then it is evident that...

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George Steiner

[Literary] influences were not absent from Heidegger's early work. But it is only in the mid-1930s, under stress of public events and in the conviction that the language of Sein und Zeit had proved inadequate to its innovative, revolutionary purpose, that Heidegger turned fully to Hölderlin. The four readings of Hölderlin that Heidegger gave in the guise of lectures and essays between 1936 and 1944 make up one of the most disconcerting, spellbinding documents in the history of Western literary and linguistic sensibility. Spoken against a backdrop of deepening barbarism and national self-destruction, these commentaries on a number of Hölderlin's major hymns are nothing less than an endeavor to pierce, via a...

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William V. Spanos

Martin Heidegger's philosophical thought has been a guiding presence on the European continent for half a century, having influenced virtually every area of the human sciences from psychology to art in what must be called a revolutionary way. And, yet, a meaningful understanding of the enormous importance of his thinking, especially of his unmethodical methodological impulse, which informs the more immediately appealing "existential analytic" in Being and Time (Sein und Zeit, 1927) and his later ontological meditations in such texts as Holzwege (1936–46), Vorträge und Aufsätze (1936–53), Gelassenheit (1944–55), and Unterwegs zur Sprache (1950–59), is still limited in the...

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Victor Lange

The evident impact of Heidegger's thought on modern critical theories has resulted from three aspects of his system: he replaces, first, in Sein und Zeit and in his later lectures, particularly in his reexamination of Nietzsche, the classical concept of thought by a modern notion of thinking, idea by process, Gedanke by Denken. Thinking is for Heidegger the act of giving "presence" to an object, to remain within the resonance of the object which offers itself to thinking in order to be "realized." The phenomenal world is for him not a fixed given to be reproduced in the act of reflection, but the result of a production, a "practice," in which the world is integrated into our consciousness of...

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