Among philosophers of time, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) is one of the most famous. He describes humans as essentially temporal—that is, as “beings in time.” Bringing together philosophical currents including phenomenology, philosophy of life, hermeneutics, and ontology, he developed a new philosophy he called Existentialism. His interpretation of the history of philosophy is critical for understanding his works.
Life and Works
Born on September 26, 1889, in Messkirch, in southwestern Germany, Heidegger intended to become a Roman Catholic priest, but after 2 years of theological studies at Freiburg University he switched to mathematics and natural sciences, finally taking a doctorate in philosophy (1913). After completing his postdoctoral thesis, Die Kategorien und Bedeutungslehre des Duns Scotus (Doctrine of Categories and Theory of Meaning in Duns Scotus), Heidegger broke with classical Catholic philosophy in 1919 and became an assistant to Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology. In 1923 he was appointed professor at Marburg University and in 1927 Heidegger published Sein und Zeit (Being and Time), regarded as one of the most important and at the same time most controversial books in philosophy. He returned to Freiburg one year later as Husserl’s successor, where, in 1929, he published three influential books: Vom Wesen des Grundes (On the Essence of Ground), Kant und das Problem der Metaphysik (Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics), and Was ist Metaphysik (What is Metaphysics).
Heidegger’s most controversial years were from 1933 to 1945. As a conservative and staunch antiCommunist, he supported some aspects of Hitler’s policies and was elected rector of Freiburg University on April 29, 1933. He joined the party shortly afterward—less out of conviction and more to strengthen his position, and although he never embraced Hitler’s anti-Semitism, he remained vague about his relationship with the Nazis even after the war. More positively, as rector he prohibited anti-Jewish posters in the university and protected the Jewish professors Hevesy and Thannhauser. He shared a close personal friendship with the Jewish philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt in 1925 and again after 1950. His major work Being and Time is dedicated to Edmund Husserl, his Jewish predecessor at the University of Freiburg. Heidegger’s tenure as rector lasted less than a year, as he was forced to resign after refusing to remove two deans in disfavor with the Nazis. While he never renounced the party, his distance from it was clear in 1944 when he was declared expendable from the university and sent to dig trenches along the Rhine. The relatively few publications from this period include his important essays on Plato’s concept of truth (1942-1943). Heidegger’s “philosophical turn,” which may have begun during the 1930s, seems more evident after the war in his books on Nietzsche and the English publication in 1950 of Off the Beaten Track (Holzwege). The nature of this turn is contested among scholars, but the theme of philosophical inquiry as a continuous path of understanding is especially appropriate for Heidegger—one that he used repeatedly to describe his own work. He died in 1976 and was buried in Messkirch.
Philosophy of Being and Time
The title of Heidegger’s renowned work Sein und Zeit (Being and Time) describes the book’s key insight about the essential temporality of human existence. In the book, he reveals a remarkably original philosophy that required a whole new vocabulary in order to transcend inadequate understandings of human existence. His lifelong philosophical project attempted to correct a perceived deficiency of Western philosophies from Plato (427-347 BCE) until the rationalistic and scientific worldviews of the 20th century. Many of those philosophies provide great insight into the human condition, especially the classic works of Plato and Aristotle, but according to Heidegger they went astray by inadequately explaining human existence as the precondition for all understanding.
Various English translations preserve his technical terms by keeping them in the original German or by capitalizing them, and often by using hyphens to string together words that together form a unique idea. “Sein” or “Being” is the indefinable concept that begins to convey insight into the human condition when it has been considered carefully—with “Sorge” or philosophically reflective “Care.” “Zeit” or “Time” is paired with Being because humans experience reality only within a temporal framework. We experience reality not as a series of present moments, but rather as creatures with memory of the past, awareness of the present, and expectations for the future. Humans come to know Being temporally, in Time, and achieve self-understanding within specific historical circumstances. This insight is conveyed by the term “Dasein” or “There-Being”; illumination, or “Disclosure” of Being’s meaning is achieved with reflection upon how humans think about existence in our necessarily limited and temporal way. Humans are thus “beings in the world” and “beings in time.”
According to Heidegger, the Being of the human being is fundamentally temporal. This position is the result of an existential analysis of the human being as mortal—Being in relation to death (“Sein zum Tode”). Heidegger’s existential analysis of humans’ fundamentally temporal nature includes a reflection on this relation to death. Death is the end of each individual’s human possibilities (“Sein zum Tode”). Human beings know about their death and are thus able to anticipate the end of their possibilities as their end. Human beings as Beings-in- the-world and Beings-in-time realize that no one else will die their deaths. So the anticipation of death “invites” human beings to live their lives with awareness. If human beings do not take this invitation seriously, they fail to be what they should be. They fail their true nature.
Just as humans do not choose whether to come into existence, the circumstances of particular human lives are also very much given. Heidegger describes this with the term Geworfenheit or “Thrown-ness.” This means that individuals as Dasein comes to know that they are in Time without having been their own cause.
Only an entity which, in its Being, is essentially Futural [oriented to the future] so that it is free for its death and can let itself be thrown back upon its Factical “there” by shattering itself against death—that is to say, only an entity which, as Futural, is equiprimordially in the process of having-been, can, by handing down to itself the possibility it has inherited, take over its own Thrown-ness and be in the moment of vision for “its Time.” Only authentic temporality which is at the same time finite, makes possible something like Fate—that is to say, authentic historicality. (Sein und Zeit, p. 385, translation by Macquarrie & Robinson)
The person as Dasein is thus substantially structured by temporal relationships—in relationship with the past as memory and history, with the future as anticipations that include the inevitability of death, and with the present as a reality shaped by both past and future. The focus on death and mortal limitations is not meant to be morbid, but rather to deepen the understanding and appreciation of human life. Life appears to be diminished in approaching death, but this process reflects the essence of the human being as a presence becoming absence. Awareness of Dasein limitations such as impending death drives home this reality. On the one hand it is frightening, because death implies the end of all potentialities for the person. But on the other hand, the deep awareness of death’s ultimate finality brings with it a call to consciousness. Consciousness is not a moral motivation, it is the deep awareness that makes personal freedom possible. This dynamic gets at Heidegger’s idea that “Non-Being” makes Dasein (“There-Being”) possible. In terms of Time, the reflection of nothingness transforms time and fills us with a wonder for every moment.
Heidegger’s Later Philosophy
as Philosophy in Time
By the 1930s Heidegger had already begun to revise his ideas in Sein und Zeit. The problem is that his philosophical analysis of Time presented it as an eternal and transcendent truth, even as he was attempting to establish the essentially temporal structure of humans as Dasein. This motivated him to struggle with these themes in the philosophical systems of Schelling and Hegel, as well as with the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin. His goal was to uncover a thoroughly temporal phenomenology, but he was not satisfied with the historical aspects of his thinking and wanted to uncover a more fundamental understanding of the temporal structure of human “Dasein.” He used two words that sound similar in German to emphasize the importance of history and time: Geschichte means history and Geschick means destiny, future, fortune, but also skill. While it is historical, his philosophy is at the same time a skill that makes it possible for the person to accept the future.
Heidegger’s investigations into the history of philosophy focused on the question of understanding itself and on the way historical circumstances shape the whole structure of thought. The image he used to describe this situation was a horizon that is formed by the meeting of the land and the sky, that is, between what is given and what is absent. The absence is as important as the existence, or “Dasein,” in philosophy as well. Metaphysics is the philosophical enquiry into the nature of Being that began with Plato. From that time until Hegel, philosophers continued to contemplate the nature of Being as divine. The reversal of this connection that came with Nietzsche had great consequences. The natural sciences and technology progressed with great achievements during this time, but they did so according to greatly mistaken assumptions about the nature of existence.
This can be perhaps best shown with an example. Uranium fission creates an object that, in itself, remains insignificant. Only after its possible uses have been considered, such as the creation of energy, can it be meaningfully understood as fuel for “nuclear energy.” Nuclear energy, with its both peaceful and wartime uses, serves as a good example because it demonstrates how human understanding is never neutral. A purely technical and practical understanding of objects is an illu- sion—and an illusion made possible by the modern scientific mindset that had radically alienated careful attention to Dasein. Even while presuming to be neutral in terms of metaphysics and value, it actually assumed an anti-historical metaphysical standpoint. It presented Being as the eternal pres- ent—a never-ending “now.” Within this worldview, existence is classified according to a functional rationality of technical production. This idea, which Heidegger describes with the term “Ge-stell,” explains how such a dangerous technology such as nuclear bombs could be developed by scientists claiming to be neutral. Even so, the chance for a “turn” is possible with new ways of thinking. According to Heidegger later in his career, a new understanding of human existence could reveal itself that is aware of both existential absence and presence, as well as both the holy and the divine.
This later view was an even more radical conception of existence. Being can be grasped intellectually only when it is aware of what is absent. This reality is demonstrated by serious reflection on human history. Yet, as Heidegger reached the end of his career, he became more skeptical about whether humans would “turn” from their objectification of reality.
Heidegger’s Significance and Influences
Heidegger has been generally recognized as the most important philosopher to carefully investigate the nature of time and of being. He reached beyond the usual philosophical history from Plato to Nietzsche where the question of human existence had always been assumed as a given. As such, the understanding of existence itself remained shrouded, especially the peculiarly temporal nature of being that is known by its absence. His philosophy is a phenomenology because it considers how Being is revealed in human experience—often in explicit ways, but also in implicit and overlooked ways. Heidegger’s is also an existential philosophy, because it considers the structure of all existence from the particular perspective of human existence. He uncovers the nature of human existence as situated in place and time, but also in how humans are capable of contemplating, discovering, and shaping existence. His philosophy is a metaphysics because it is an understanding of existence developed from what is—in other words, from Being itself—and not from a natural science point of view. His philosophy is a hermeneutics (way of interpretation) because it starts from the position that we come to greater understanding of Being by being made aware of our prejudices, and never by observing Being from a supposedly objective perspective. At the same time, by becoming ever more aware of our own prejudices, we can subject them to examination.
Much of Heidegger’s philosophy remains in dispute. Analytical philosophers have ridiculed Heidegger’s play with language, and linguists have shattered his etymologies. Yet, French existentialists like Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre embraced it and used it to influence a whole generation of educated Europeans and Americans. The autonomous subject was understood to be capable of constructing its own personal exis- tence—an existence potentially independent of reasonable coherence. Hermeneutic philosophers such as Gadamer have further developed many of Heidegger’s ideas, especially the notion that preunderstanding (or prejudices understood in a neutral sense) structures more conscious understanding. Heidegger has also profoundly influenced theologians such as Rudolf Bultmann and Karl Rahner. Bultmann developed an existential biblical theology based upon the conviction that the Bible’s meaning must be intelligible for modern people and relevant to their existing concerns. Rahner was a former student of Heidegger’s who developed a new existential theology that reflects on death, the meaning of freedom, and the nature of God. Without straying from traditional Roman Catholic teaching, Rahner benefited from Heidegger’s understanding of God as absolute mystery that, Rahner believed, is revealed as love in Jesus Christ.
Heidegger also influenced ethical thought, especially with his critique of the modern technological way of thinking that has forgotten about Being. Technological progress warrants suspicion because it professes no values and thus its progress is judged according to implicit and hidden principles. The apparent technological successes of the modern period convinced people of its power, and yet blinded people to the dangers that its worldview represented. As environmental and political disasters have demonstrated, technological resources can be used in dangerous ways when guided by wrongheaded principles. Even Heidegger himself was forgetful of this point during the period of his support for the Nazis. Still, Heidegger’s philosophical insight remains important, that our understanding of Being requires that we appreciate its relation to Time—to its past, its future; and that this appreciation will continually shape our present.
Nikolaus Knoepffler and Martin O’Malley
See also Becoming and Being; Husserl, Edmund; Jaspers, Karl; Metaphysics; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Ontology; Rahner, Karl
Guignon, C. (Ed.). (2006). The Cambridge companion to Heidegger. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and time (J. Macquarrie & E. Robinson, Trans.). New York: Harper & Row.
Heidegger, M. (1998). Pathmarks (W. McNeill, Ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press.