Martin Heidegger is one of the more fraught figures in modern philosophy. On the one hand, he is responsible for important advancements in the field of ontology, which investigates the nature of being. On the other hand, he was, for a time, a member of the Nazi party and held arguably unconventional yet nonetheless anti-semitic opinions about Jews. Heidegger is most honestly remembered in a manner that admits of both his contributions and his controversies.
Heidegger was born September 26th, 1889 in Southwestern Germany to strict Catholic parents. His father Friedrich worked as a church groundskeeper while his mother Johanna remained at home to care for young Martin and his siblings Marie and Fritz. Heidegger was raised in Messkirch, a rural and deeply religious town.
Because his family was poor, Heidegger could not afford to attend university. Instead, he enrolled in a Jesuit seminary, but was quickly forced to leave after he failed a health exam, allegedly due to a psychosomatic heart condition. Luckily for Heidegger, his father’s church funded his college career at the University of Freiburg, where he briefly studied theology before switching to philosophy. He completed his doctoral thesis on psychologism: specifically, he argued that the laws of logic exist independently of psychology.
Soon after, he was conscripted into the German Army during WWI. He served for two months before being dismissed for health reasons. Back at Freiburg, Heidegger completed his habituation thesis, which enabled him to lecture at the University. During this time, Heidegger met Elfride Petri, his student and future wife. They married in 1917 and had a son named Jorg in 1919. Between these years, Heidegger once again served in the German army, this time for ten months.
Upon his return, Heidegger formally broke with Catholicism, having become increasingly unendeared to the system. Heidegger spent the next number of years teaching at both Freiburg and Marburg University before becoming the Chair of Philosophy at Freiburg in 1927 after his mentor Husserl vacated the position. In 1933, after Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany, Heidegger was elected rector of the University. In May of that year Heidegger officially joined the Nazi party and in November he gave a speech declaring his support for Hitler and National Socialism.
Less than a year later, however, Heidegger resigned his rectorship after refusing to comply with an anti-Jewish faculty overhaul. Thereafter, he was viewed suspiciously by the Nazis, and even sent by the party to dig trenches in 1944. Nevertheless, after the conclusion of WWII, Heidegger was punished by the French military authorities for his Nazi sympathies and received a teaching ban that remained in place until 1949. He spent the remainder of his life writing and lecturing before passing away in 1976 of an unspecified infection.
While Heidegger theorized about many topics, his primary concern was, as previously mentioned, being. Heidegger asserts that, save for the Pre-Socratics, the tradition of Western philosophy has ignored a fundamental distinction between beings and being. Put differently, Heidegger believed that philosophy from Plato onward had failed to distinguish the concept and essence of being itself from individual beings or entities. To Heidegger, being comes before actual beings and is a precondition for their existence. This recognition is the starting point of Heidegger’s philosophy and is known as the Ontological Distinction.
Heidegger proceeds to recognize that humans are the only type of beings suited to make such a distinction. As far as we know, no other species can inquire into the nature of being. Heidegger describes this “openness” to being as the Existential Analytic: the recognition that before any being — plant, animal, or otherwise — can be recognized as such, there must first exist “a being for whom Being matters.” Heidegger gives a name to this unique type of being: Dasein. Derived from the German words for “there” and “being,” Dasein is a human being situated in a given place and time.
Dasein encounters other beings in two main ways. The first is presence-at-hand being, in which the subject Dasein perceives a separate object sensuously or conceptually. Heidegger believes this to be the inferior mode of encounter, as viewing or thinking about an entity in a removed manner confers only a limited understanding of it. For a genuine understanding, readiness-to-hand being is required. This mode describes instances in which Dasein comes into direct contact with an entity and uses it.
The classic example is that of a hammer, which, as readiness-to-hand being, is taken into Dasein’s hand and deployed. When Dasein moves from abstractly cognizing the hammer to actually wielding it, Dasein experiences the act of hammering and thus establishes a “primordial relationship” with the hammer, learning about it in a way that only comes about with doing. Furthermore, in the moment of hammering, the distinction between subject and object, between Dasein and hammer, disappears and is replaced by a unity of being, with the hammer becoming an extension of Dasein.
A wielded hammer is an example of what Heidegger calls equipment: an entity encountered as a tool for a task. The contexts in which equipment finds itself during Dasein’s activity are known as involvements. Crucially, equipment does not have one stand-alone involvement but multiple, interconnected involvements. For instance, the hammer is involved in driving a nail into a piece of wood but also, say, in constructing a dresser, and, by extension, storing Dasein’s clothing, keeping Dasein’s room clean, allowing Dasein to feel organized, and helping Dasein concentrate. Entities are thus entwined in a complex network of involvements. Taken collectively, this network, for Heidegger, constitutes the world.
The world of involvements is the world into which Dasein is “thrown.” From birth, Dasein is exposed to a set of pre-existing laws, ideologies, norms, and customs that “dispose” or color Dasein’s perception of the world. They also delimit Dasein’s possibilities for “projection,” or Dasein’s range of choices for enacting itself in the world. Dasein’s projection is realized through understanding, which Heidegger regards as either conceptual or mechanistic activity.
So far, we have investigated the past (thrownness) and the future (projection). But what about the present? Heidegger argues that Dasein often finds itself in a state of “fallenness,” or inauthentic being characterized by hedonism and uncritical thought. He uses the term “fascination” to describe a state of pleasure- and novelty-seeking combined with an inability to parse information and warns that such a disposition closes off Dasein to real understanding.
Achieving authenticity requires re-temporalizing being so that Dasein can appreciate the underlying unity of the past, present, and future as the influence of what has been on the possibilities of what can be creating the current moment.
An inevitable part of this temporal awareness of being is the awareness of death. Confronting death forces Dasein to acknowledge it as a concrete, personal fate, rather than an abstract, general phenomenon, and to be resolute before it. This re-situates Dasein in an individual perspective conducive to authenticity.
The concept of authenticity is at play in Heidegger’s later work on technology and nature. Heidegger diagnoses modern society as “fallen” and therefore oblivious to the poetry and unity of nature. In the technological age, Dasein has divorced nature from its ecological roles and aesthetic beauty, reducing it to a mere collection of exploitable resources. To Heidegger, technology is not only humanity’s invented machines and devices but, more importantly, its transactional orientation to nature that interprets nature solely as what can be exploited for self-gain. Far from harnessing nature in a harmonious manner, technology reduces beings (e.g. plants and animals) to non-beings and interacts with them destructively. This is exemplified in modern animal agriculture, which Heidegger argues has become,
“…a motorized food industry, the same thing in its essence as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and the extermination camps, the same thing as blockades and the reduction of countries to famine, the same thing as the manufacture of hydrogen bombs.”
The way back from this oblivion lies in identifying nature poetically, holistically, rather than just as a “standing reserve.” But regarding the perceived feasibility of this, Heidegger is a pessimist. In his final interview, Heidegger opines that the psychosocial grip of technology on humanity is too strong and that neither philosophy nor “any human reflection or endeavor” can loose it. The best humans can do is, “prepare…in our thinking and poetizing…for the appearance of a god,” as “only a god can save us.”