(1889–1976), German philosopher whose early works contributed to phenomenology and existentialism (e.g., Sartre) and whose later works paved the way to hermeneutics (Gadamer) and post-structuralism (Derrida and Foucault). Born in Messkirch in the Black Forest region, Heidegger first trained to be a Jesuit, but switched to mathematics and philosophy in 1911. As an instructor at Freiburg University, he worked with the founder of phenomenology, Husserl. His masterwork, Sein und Zeit (Being and Time, 1927), was published while he was teaching at Marburg University. This work, in opposition to the preoccupation with epistemology dominant at the time, focused on the traditional question of metaphysics: What is the being of entities in general? Rejecting abstract theoretical approaches to this question, Heidegger drew on Kierkegaard’s religious individualism and the influential movement called life-philosophy – Lebensphilosophie, then identified with Nietzsche, Bergson, and Dilthey – to develop a highly original account of humans as embedded in concrete situations of action. Heidegger accepted Husserl’s chair at Freiburg in 1928; in 1933, having been elected rector of the University, he joined the Nazi party. Although he stepped down as rector one year later, new evidence suggests complicity with the Nazis until the end of the war. Starting in the late thirties, his writings started to shift toward the “antihumanist” and “poetic” form of thinking referred to as “later Heidegger.”
Heidegger’s lifelong project was to answer the “question of being” (Seinsfrage). This question asks, concerning things in general (rocks, tools, people, etc.), what is it to be an entity of these sorts? It is the question of ontology first posed by ancient Greek philosophers from Anaximander to Aristotle. Heidegger holds, however, that philosophers starting with Plato have gone astray in trying to answer this question because they have tended to think of being as a property or essence enduringly present in things. In other words, they have fallen into the “metaphysics of presence,” which thinks of being as substance. What is overlooked in traditional metaphysics is the background conditions that enable entities to show up as counting or mattering in some specific way in the first place. In his early works, Heidegger tries to bring this concealed dimension of things to light by recasting the question of being: What is the meaning of being? Or, put differently, how do entities come to show up as intelligible to Page 371 | Top of Articleus in some determinate way? And this question calls for an analysis of the entity that has some prior understanding of things: human existence or Dasein (the German word for “existence” or “being-there,” used to refer to the structures of humans that make possible an understanding of being). Heidegger’s claim is that Dasein’s pretheoretical (or “preontological”) understanding of being, embodied in its everyday practices, opens a “clearing” in which entities can show up as, say, tools, protons, numbers, mental events, and so on. This historically unfolding clearing is what the metaphysical tradition has overlooked.
In order to clarify the conditions that make possible an understanding of being, then, Being and Time begins with an analytic of Dasein. But Heidegger notes that traditional interpretations of human existence have been one-sided to the extent that they concentrate on our ways of existing when we are engaged in theorizing and detached reflection. It is this narrow focus on the spectator attitude that leads to the picture, found in Descartes, of the self as a mind or subject representing material objects – the so-called subject-object model. In order to bypass this traditional picture, Heidegger sets out to describe Dasein’s “average everydayness,” i.e., our ordinary, prereflective agency when we are caught up in the midst of practical affairs. The “phenomenology of everydayness” is supposed to lead us to see the totality of human existence, including our moods, our capacity for authentic individuality, and our full range of involvements with the world and with others. The analytic of Dasein is also an ontological hermeneutics to the extent that it provides an account of how understanding in general is possible. The result of the analytic is a portrayal of human existence that is in accord with what Heidegger regards as the earliest Greek experience of being as an emerging-into-presence (physis): to be human is to be a temporal event of self-manifestation that lets other sorts of entities first come to “emerge and abide” in the world. From the standpoint of this description, the traditional concept of substance – whether mental or physical – simply has no role to play in grasping humans. Heidegger’s brilliant diagnoses or “de-structurings” of the tradition suggest that the idea of substance arises only when the conditions making entities possible are forgotten or concealed.
Heidegger holds that there is no pregiven human essence. Instead, humans, as self-interpreting beings, just are what they make of themselves in the course of their active lives. Thus, as everyday agency, Dasein is not an object with properties, but is rather the “happening” of a life course “stretched out between birth and death.” Understood as the “historicity” of a temporal movement or “becoming,” Dasein is found to have three main “existentials” or basic structures shared by every “existentiell” (i.e., specific and local) way of living. First, Dasein finds itself thrown into a world not of its choosing, already delivered over to the task of living out its life in a concrete context. This “facticity” of our lives is revealed in the moods that let things matter to us in some way or other – e.g., the burdensome feelings of concern that accompany being a parent in our culture. Second, as projection, Dasein is always already taking some stand on its life by acting in the world. Understood as agency, human existence is “ahead of itself” in two senses: (1) our competent dealings with familiar situations sketch out a range of possibilities for how things may turn out in the future, and (2) each of our actions is contributing to shaping our lives as people of specific sorts. Dasein is future-directed in the sense that the ongoing fulfillment of possibilities in the course of one’s active life constitutes one’s identity (or being). To say that Dasein is “being-toward-death” is to say that the stands we take (our “understanding”) define our being as a totality. Thus, my actual ways of treating my children throughout my life define my being as a parent in the end, regardless of what good intentions I might have. Finally, Dasein is discourse in the sense that we are always articulating – or “addressing and discussing” – the entities that show up in our concernful absorption in current situations. These three existentials define human existence as a temporal unfolding. The unity of these dimensions – being already in a world, ahead of itself, and engaged with things – Heidegger calls care. This is what it means to say that humans are the entities whose being is at issue for them. Taking a stand on our own being, we constitute our identity through what we do.
The formal structure of Dasein as temporality is made concrete through one’s specific involvements in the world (where ‘world’ is used in the life-world sense in which we talk about the business world or the world of academia). Dasein is the unitary phenomenon of being-in-the-world. A core component of Heidegger’s early works is his description of how Dasein’s practical dealings with equipment define the being of the entities that show up in the world. In hammering in a workshop, e.g., what ordinarily shows up for us is not a hammer-thing with properties, but rather a web of significance relations shaped by Page 372 | Top of Articleour projects. Hammering is “in order to” join boards, which is “for” building a bookcase, which is “for the sake of” being a person with a neat study. The hammer is encountered in terms of its place in this holistic context of functionality – the “ready-to-hand.” In other words, the being of the equipment – its “ontological definition” – consists of its relations to other equipment and its actual use within the entire practical context. Seen from this standpoint, the brute, meaningless objects assumed to be basic by the metaphysical tradition – the “present-at-hand” – can show up only when there is a breakdown in our ordinary dealings with things, e.g., when the hammer breaks or is missing. In this sense, the ready-to-hand is said to be more primordial than the material objects treated as basic by the natural sciences.
It follows, then, that the being of entities in the world is constituted by the framework of intelligibility or “disclosedness” opened by Dasein’s practices. This clearing is truth in the original meaning of the Greek word aletheia, which Heidegger renders as ‘un-concealment’. But it would be wrong to think that what is claimed here is that humans are initially just given, and that they then go on to create a clearing. For, in Heidegger’s view, our own being as agents of specific types is defined by the world into which we are thrown: in my workshop, I can be a craftsman or an amateur, but not a samurai paying court to a daimyo. Our identity as agents is made possible by the context of shared forms of life and linguistic practices of a public life-world. For the most part, we exist as the “they” (das Man), participants in the historically constituted “cohappening of a people” (Volk).
The embeddedness of our existence in a cultural context explains our inveterate tendency toward inauthenticity. As we become initiated into the practices of our community, we are inclined to drift along with the crowd, doing what “one” does, enacting stereotyped roles, and thereby losing our ability to seize on and define our own lives. Such falling into public preoccupations Heidegger sees as a sign that we are fleeing from the fact that we are finite beings who stand before death (understood as the culmination of our possibilities). When, through anxiety and hearing the call of conscience, we face up to our being-toward-death, our lives can be transformed. To be authentic is to clear-sightedly face up to one’s responsibility for what one’s life is adding up to as a whole. And because our lives are inseparable from our community’s existence, authenticity involves seizing on the possibilities circulating in our shared “heritage” in order to realize a communal “destiny.”
Heidegger’s ideal of resolute “taking action” in the current historical situation no doubt contributed to his leap into politics in the 1930s. According to his writings of that period, the ancient Greeks inaugurated a “first beginning” for Western civilization, but centuries of forgetfulness (beginning with the Latinization of Greek words) have torn us away from the primal experience of being rooted in that initial setting. Heidegger hoped that, guided by the insights embodied in great works of art (especially Hölderlin’s poetry), National Socialism would help bring about a world-rejuvenating “new beginning” comparable to the first beginning in ancient Greece.
Heidegger’s later writings attempt to fully escape the subjectivism he sees dominating Western thought from its inception up to Nietzsche. “The Origin of the Work of Art” (1935), for example, shows how a great work of art such as a Greek temple, by shaping the world in which a people live, constitutes the kinds of people that can live in that world. An Introduction to Metaphysics (1935) tries to recover the Greek experience of humans as beings whose activities of gathering and naming (logos) are above all a response to what is more than human. The later writings emphasize that which resists all human mastery and comprehension. Such terms as ‘nothingness’, ‘earth’, and ‘mystery’ suggest that what shows itself to us always depends on a background of what does not show itself, what remains concealed. Language comes to be understood as the medium through which anything, including the human, first becomes accessible and intelligible. Because language is the source of all intelligibility, Heidegger says that humans do not speak, but rather language speaks us – an idea that became central to post-structuralist theories.
In his writings after the war, Heidegger replaces the notions of resoluteness and political activism with a new ideal of letting-be or releasement (Gelassenheit), a stance characterized by meditative thinking, thankfulness for the “gift” of being, and openness to the silent “call” of language. The technological “enframing” (Gestell) of our age – encountering everything as a standing reserve on hand for our use – is treated not as something humans do, but instead as a manifestation of being itself. The “anti-humanism” of these later works is seen in the description of technology (the mobilization of everything for the sole purpose of greater efficiency) as an Page 373 | Top of Articleepochal event in the “history of being,” a way things have come-into-their-own (Ereignis) rather than as a human accomplishment. The history or “sending” (Geschick) of being consists of epochs that have all gone increasingly astray from the original beginning inaugurated by the pre-Socratics. Since human willpower alone cannot bring about a new epoch, technology cannot be ended by our efforts. But a non-technological way of encountering things is hinted at in a description of a jug as a fourfold of earth, sky, mortals, and gods, and Heidegger reflects on forms of poetry that point to a new, non-metaphysical way of experiencing being. Through a transformed relation to language and art, and by abandoning “onto-theology” (the attempt to ground all entities in one supreme entity), we might prepare ourselves for a transformed way of understanding being.