Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)

Martin Heidegger

Martin Heidegger was an important and influential German philosopher born on September 26, 1889, in Baden, a small village in the Black Forest region of Germany, to a Roman Catholic family.

He entered a Jesuit seminary to become a priest, but due to ill health he was turned down and instead went on to study theology, physics, mathematics and philosophy at the University of Freiburg.

It was at the university that he met and came under the influence of Edmund Husserl later becoming his protégé. 

Although Heidegger's main and most well known work Being and Time was dedicated to Husserl, he broke with Husserl's phenomenology and went on to establish his existentialist phenomenology which was influenced by both Nietzsche's and Kierkegaard's work.

In Being and Time, considered to be one of the most important philosophical works of the 20th century, Heidegger tackles the question of being.

In it he complains that the history of philosophy has been preoccupied with the wrong kinds of questions. Since Plato philosophers had been asking about what there is and what they can know about it.

They were inclined to view the human condition as being one of a subject in a world of objects rather than asking themselves the question "What is Being?"

According to Heidegger, before we can ask about what sorts of properties objects might be said to have, we must first look at and examine what it means for something to 'be'. In other words, why is there something, rather than nothing?

Up to this point few philosophers had addressed the question yet for Heidegger, an answer was vital before any other philosophical question could be considered.

He felt that the Pre-Socratic philosophers were more in touch with the concept of being, whereas since then, philosophy had managed to bury and obscure it.

For Heidegger the question 'What is Being?' comes down to contemplating what sort of being one is. To refer to it he came up with a word 'Dasein' which translated means 'being-in-the-world' or 'the entity which each of us himself is'.

In Heidegger's phenomenology, Dasein's first comprehension of objects is not of independent material things to be analyzed and measured; instead, it is of things as tools to be used as needed. Secondly, it is important to explore what Dasein's comprehension of self is.

According to Heidegger, Dasein is a temporal, self-conscious phenomenon that knows its own fate, that of being finite and mortal.

This awareness invariably generates angst or dread; however, only in full realization of our mortality can life take on any purposeful meaning. Therefore, it is this self-awareness leads to the 'authenticity' of a life created out of nothing (the existential part of Heidegger's philosophy).

Heidegger, like Nietzsche, rejected the notion of a world that existed outside the conscious observer. From a phenomenological point of view, the world is the condition we engage with and inhabit; it is essential to how we live.

Rather than seeing it as a physical object against which we exist as individual thinking subjects, we should regard that we exist as 'beings-in-the-world.' Dasein, our human reality, is the ways in which we inhabit life.

Like Husserl, Heidegger believed that consciousness is basically 'intentional' in that it is about, or directed, towards objects. We are never just conscious, we are always conscious of something.

However, what generates this intentionality, according to Heidegger, is our 'activity in the world'. It is through our engagement with the world that meaning and intentionality are created.

Heidegger's views are in contrast to Descartes' view of the human situation - one which divides us from the world. Descartes detaches us from the world by focusing on a reflective consciousness and rendering the philosophical puzzles epistemological (of knowledge), while Heidegger places us within the world, not separate from it.

Thus the world becomes something we need not infer the existence of. He argues that the distinction between a thinking subject and an exterior objective world is a false one.

Instead, a correct phenomenological account of how things are reveals that beings who set out to construct a proof of the existence of an external world are already parts of that world. They are beings-in-the-world, not distinct and apart from it.

Although Heidegger often used unclear, sometimes difficult language to lay out his philosophy, it came down to the point that it is only in full awareness of our temporality and mortality that we beings can take on any purposeful meaning in life. It is this self-awareness which leads to the 'authenticity' of a life created out of nothing.

Even though Martin Heidegger was a controversial figure in his time due to his purported ties to the Nazi party, he is widely acknowledged as being one of the most original and important philosophers of the 20th century. His influence extended beyond philosophy (Sartre) to literature, psychology ( May, Ellis) political theory and theology (Tillich).

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