Martin Heidegger(1889-1976); Biography and famous work

Martin Heidegger(1889-1976) was a German philosopher. He is a controversial figure too because of his active involvement with the Nazis. His work is a major focal point for post-World War II continental philosophy, particularly in France where the backlash against psychoanalysis, Marxism, and Jean-Paul Sartre manifested as a return to Heidegger. With the conspicuous exception of Gilles Deleuze, most of the leading figures of post structuralism have engaged extensively with Heidegger’s thought (e.g. Pierre Bourdieu, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Luc Nancy, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Jean-François Lyotard, and Bernard Stiegler).

Heidegger was born in the town of Messkirch, in the Baden region of Germany. His father was a sexton in the local parish and a cooper of modest means. The local priest in Messkirch recognized his talent and undertook to teach him Latin, thus enabling him to gain entrance into a prestigious grammar school in Konstanz and from there into academia. He completed his undergraduate and postgraduate degrees at Freiburg University, where his teachers  included Edmund Husserl, the founding father of phenomenology.

Initially, Heidegger studied theology, but when ill-health showed him to be unsuited to a life of the cloth he switched to philosophy. He completed his studies in 1916, and then undertook war service, but not active duty. After the war, he worked as Husserl’s assistant until 1923, when he obtained a post at Marburg University. Marburg dithered for years over making Heidegger’s post permanent and in the end, managed to do so just in time for Heidegger to be lured back to Freiburg to succeed his stalwart mentor Husserl. In the five years he was at Marburg, however, Heidegger managed to complete the book that many regard as the most significant work of philosophy of the 20th century, Sein und Zeit (1927), translated as Being and Time (1962).  Aristotle’s conception of phronēsis, or practical wisdom, which helped Heidegger to define the peculiar “Being” of the human individual in terms of a set of worldly involvements and commitments; and the German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey’s notion of “historicity,” of being historically situated and determined, which became crucial in Heidegger’s view of time and history as essential facets of human Being.

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Heidegger set out to tackle the one great philosophical problem philosophy had in his view assiduously ignored, namely the problem of being itself; his aim was to uncover the process whereby being-ness is possible. His argument is that it is only possible because there is an entity to whom being matters, this entity he termed Dasein. Owing to the difficulty of translating this neologism, which literally means there-being, it is usually left untranslated (in some translations Dasein is rendered as ‘man’, but in spite of the fact that Dasein does imply humans, ‘man’ is too humanistic to be satisfactory).

In 1933, four months after Hitler was made Chancellor of Germany, Heidegger was appointed Rector of Freiburg University. On the 1st of May that year he joined the Nazi Party, and ostentatiously wore a swastika lapel pin for years afterward, even in the company of Jewish friends; then on the 27th of May he gave his (now infamous) inaugural address as rector in which he exhorted students to align themselves with the Führer and embrace Germany’s national destiny. As rector, he implemented the Nazi race laws, which meant extinguishing the university privileges of his mentor and staunchest supporter Husserl. In spite of his obvious support for National Socialism, the Nazis did not support Heidegger in return and within a year he felt compelled to resign his post. He thereafter described his period as a rector as a failure.

At the end of the war, when the Allies occupied Germany, Heidegger was called to account for his association with the Nazis. The Denazification commission labelled him Mitläufer (fellow traveller) and in view of his influence as an intellectual, he was prohibited from teaching. He was rehabilitated in 1951 and continued to teach until 1976. Today, no one seriously disputes that Heidegger expressed sympathy for Nazism, the question that remains is whether this sympathy was personal, or born of philosophical conviction. His defenders argue that it was an unfortunate quirk of character that had nothing to do with his philosophical thinking, while others-notably Karl Jaspers and Theodor Adorno-claim his philosophy was fascist at its core. His stunning failure to publicly condemn the Holocaust is often cited as evidence of the latter case, as is his seemingly callous equation of modernity with gas chambers.

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