Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) is widely considered one of the most original and important philosophers of the twentieth-century, and, thanks to his (failed) attempt to assume philosophical leadership of the century’s most execrable political movement (Nazism) and his later critique of the history of metaphysics from Anaximander to Nietzsche as inherently nihilistic, he is also certainly the most controversial.
Heidegger was born in Messkirch, Germany, on the outskirts of the Black Forest. Like Nietzsche, he came from a devoutly religious lower middle-class family. Those familiar with their philosophies may find something strangely appropriate in the fact that Nietzsche’s father was a Lutheran pastor while Heidegger’s was a Catholic sexton (the caretaker of the vestments and sacred vessels: a bell-ringer and grave-digger). From very early on, the young Martin’s intellectual gifts marked him out for a career in the Priesthood, and, although he eventually abandoned this path (formally at least), the education it afforded him proved a firm foundation for his remarkable intellectual trajectory.
Focusing on Heidegger’s earliest philosophical work, Kisiel characterizes the period from 1917-1927 as Heidegger’s “phenomenological decade.” After ten years spent on the proving grounds of Aristotle and Medieval theology, Heidegger published his early magnum opus, the brilliant but unfinished Being and Time (1927). Although this text remains Heidegger’s most famous and influential work, the legendary difficulties posed by its forbidding combination of jarring philosophical originality and stylistic opacity make understanding its major claims an arduous enterprise for even a philosophically-trained reader. The facilitation of such an understanding is thus the primary goal of this “philosophical snapshot.”
In Being and Time, Heidegger develops and deploys a method called “phenomenological testimony” in order to interpret our ordinary everyday (“ontic”) experience of phenomena such as guilt and anxiety “ontologically,” that is, in terms of what they reveal about the structural characteristics definitive of human existence. (Ontology is the study of what is. It thus makes perfect sense that Heidegger’s pursuit of “the question of Being” focuses on ontology. But what is so original is the way Heidegger uses phenomenology, the study of the way things manifest themselves, to answer ontological questions about what those things are.) For example, Heidegger argues that our ordinary feelings of guilt bear phenomenological witness to the fact that as we make the choices that determine who we are, we are always actualising one possible self at the expense of many others. Our guilty indebtedness to these other possible selves is thus an ineliminable structural feature of existence which reveals our essential ontological “finitude” (the fact that we cannot “be all that we can be”).
Using the same methodology, Heidegger argues that our ontic feelings of anxiety testify to the “groundlessness” of human existence, revealing an ineradicable insecurity which Heidegger connects to the fact that our existential trajectories—the life-projects, roles, and identities that define who we are—have “always already” been shaped by a past that we can never get behind and head off into a future in which these self-defining projects will always be incomplete, cut short by a death we can neither avoid nor control. In Heidegger’s famous phrase we exist as a “thrown project”: thrown out of a past we cannot get behind, we project ourselves into a future we can never get beyond. “Existence” (from the Latin Ek-sistere, out-standing) is this standing-out into time, a temporal suspension between natality and mortality.
Heidegger divides this temporal suspension into its three “existential structures” (or “existentials” for short): affectivity, telling and understanding. These existentials are three in number because they characterise phenomenologically the way in which the past, present, and future allow things to show themselves to us. Thus the past filters the way things matter to us through our moods (which are public, shared, and transmissible); as Wittgenstein said in the Tractatus: “The world of the happy is quite another than the world of the unhappy.” In the present, things are made manifest through our use of language to articulate the meaning of our situation (and in Division II, Heidegger’s critique of “the one” [Das Man] emphasises that here there is a constant temptation to “falling,” that is, to covering-over these ontological structures by interpreting them in the publicly available terms of everyday ontic life). Finally, the horizon of the future shapes the way things show up for us in that the projects that define us extend into the indefinite future, thus running ultimately up against death, the final horizon which our projects can neither occupy nor secure. Deflected by this impenetrable horizon, our projects come back to us subtly in an “uncanny” feeling of not being at home in the things with which we are most familiar.
Heidegger’s analysis of the three temporal “ecstases” privileges futurity, then, because it is this running out toward and rebounding back from death that underlies the reflexive self-awareness distinguishing the “world-constituting” existence of “Da-sein” (human be-ing) both from the “world-poor” awareness of the animal immersed in perceptual immediacy (Heidegger’s example is of a frog sunning itself on a rock), and from a “worldless” entity (like a chair) which has no awareness at all. Strictly speaking, only human Da-sein “exists” for Heidegger (and he shows how Cartesian intentional-content skepticism is in fact a philosophical pseudo-problem which results from the category mistake of treating human be-ings like “worldless” objects).
Thus the big “fundamental ontological” pay-off toward which Being and Time is on the way is Heidegger’s claim that the three “existentials” map onto the three “ecstases,” and in their unity constitute the temporal structure according to which we make existence intelligible. (Because all three existentials structure the way in which things show up for and come to matter to us, Heidegger characterises their common feature as “care.”) In other words, Heidegger’s “existential analysis” yields a picture in which “intelligibility”—which is Being as it shows-up phenomenologically to the human be-ings who constitute the place of its happening—is grounded in time. (This insight that Being is grounded in time eventually leads to Heidegger’s begrudging recognition that Being-in-the-world has a history. This recognition effects the progressively more radical historicisation of ontology know as the “turn” [Kehre] which connects Heidegger’s early to his later thinking.)
More precisely, Being is grounded in the temporal structure of those beings (“Da-sein”) who have an understanding of Being. With this famous reconceptualisation of the self not as a subject, consciousness, or ego but as a “Dasein,” Heidegger takes the German word for “existence” (Dasein) and interprets it in terms of its basic semantic elements (“there” [Da] + “Being” [Sein]) in order to illustrate his claim that existence is fundamentally a “being-there,” that is, a temporally-structured making intelligible of the place in which we find ourselves. (“Dasein is its disclosedness,” Heidegger says.) He understands this “making-intelligible” as “truth” in its most “primordial” sense. As shown by the Greek word for truth, A-letheia (the alpha-privative + Lethe,, the river of forgetting), truth is primordially a kind of “un-concealment,” a “dis-closing” or manifestation of presence which in fact any correspondence theory of truth must implicitly presuppose (in order even for there simply to be something to which to correspond).
In the second (“existentialist”) division of Being and Time, Heidegger argues in a secularised Kierkegaardian vein that once we have used “phenomenological testimony” to become aware of the ontological structures conditioning our “existence,” an “authentic” life lived in ontic-ontological accord becomes possible. Heidegger claims that in decisive instants of resolution, we can envision ways of integrating our new-found existential knowledge into the projects which constitute our lives, thereby appropriating “existence” so as to make it our own. Such “authenticity” (or “ownmostness,” Eigentlichkeit) thus characterises an existence in which an individual’s life projects are brought into harmony with the existential structures which condition them, transforming that individual’s guilty and anxious repression of their essential finitude and groundlessness into a reverence for the possible.
Even this thin sketch of authenticity allows one to glimpse why prominent existential psychotherapists (Binswanger, Boss) and theologians (Bultmann, Tillich) found inspiration in Heidegger’s thinking of authenticity. But, in the light cast back on Being and Time by Heidegger’s disastrous political commitment in the 1930’s, we cannot overlook authenticity’s most glaring philosophical deficiency: its formalism makes it ethically indiscriminate and open to the (very real) dangers of political decisionism. As the famous reductio alleges, there is nothing inherently contradictory about the idea of an “authentic Nazi.” If Heidegger’s own politics make him a good candidate for this opprobrious appellation, then, ironically, his own life bears particularly dramatic witness to the self-deconstruction of authenticity as the cornerstone of an existential ethics.
Heidegger was an extremely prolific writer (the on-going publication of his Collected Works looks to fill about seventy volumes), and one should recognise that his work did not come to a stop with Being and Time. He continued to develop, extend, and in some places revolutionise his own thinking for another half century. In fact, Heidegger’s later thinking makes for an incomparably fertile—and troubling—philosophical terrain, but one which we will have to reserve for the occasion of a much more careful and extended hermeneutic reconnaissance.