Heidegger takes a turn

With a pinch of this brief (and pretty tasty!) online biography of Martin Heidegger and a soupçon of Martin Heidegger from Wikipedia, this post notes the different intellectual “turns” Heidegger makes throughout his life.

"As soon as man comes to life, he is at once old enough to die." 

Martin Heidegger was born September 26th, 1889 in the Black Forest region of Messkirch, and died just 117 kilometres away, in Frieburg on May 26th, 1976, aged 86.

Turn 1: the meaning of being

Aged 17, Heidegger was Introduced to ‘Phenomenology’ - (from Greek: phainómenon "that which appears" and lógos "study") the philosophical study of the structures of experience and consciousness – via Brentano’s book, "On the Manifold Meaning of Being According to Aristotle", which had great impact on both Heidegger and Husserl. Phenomenology attempts to create conditions for the objective study of topics usually regarded as subjective: eg., being. It is not an attempt at ‘objective’ study, but it seeks through systematic reflection to determine the essential properties and structures of experience.

Turn 2: Dasein as consciousness of consciousness

Heidegger (was) turned from becoming a Jesuit priest (theology) to mathematics and philosophy, studying Husserl and completing his doctorate, "The Doctrine of Judgement in Psychologism". Aged 30, Heidegger decided to break with "the dogmatic system of Catholicism."

His key philosophical influences were Husserl, the pre-Socratics, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Heidegger - qua phenomenologist - became Husserl’s assistant in 1919, and would later succeed him as professor of philosophy, at Freiburg. He wrote his most recognized work, Being and Time (Sein und Zeit) in 1927.

Heidegger’s project in Being and Time is concerned with what he considers the essential philosophical (and human) question: What is it, to be? To even ask the question, remarks Heidegger, implies that at some level the answer is already understood. He describes the quality of Being in the concept of Dasein. The subject is thrown into a world that consists of potentially useful things, cultural and natural objects. Because these objects and artifacts come to humanity from the past and are used in the present for the sake of future goals, 

Heidegger posited a fundamental relation between the mode of being of objects and of humanity and the structure of time. The individual is always in danger of being submerged in the world of objects, everyday routine, and the conventional, shallow behaviour of the crowd. The feeling of dread (Angst) brings the individual to a confrontation with death and the ultimate meaninglessness of life, but only in this confrontation can an authentic sense of Being and of freedom be attained. Dasein is a consciousness of the thrown quality of being between concepts that form the reality of the present, and the concern for the safety of the subject into the future. Dasein in this sense is a consciousness of consciousness. Being comes into existence at the limit of the thrown-ness of everyday existence between past and future.

Turn 3: ‘the turn’

Heidegger's later works, beginning by 1930 and largely established by the early 1940s, seem to reflect a shift of focus, if not indeed a major change in his philosophical outlook, which is known as "the turn" (die Kehre). One way this has been understood is as a shift from "doing" to "dwelling" and from Being and Time to Time and Being. However, it can be argued that Heidegger did not have a ‘turn’, but rather pursued and refined the central notion of unconcealment throughout his life as a philosopher.

In such works as An Introduction to Metaphysics (1953; trans. 1959), Heidegger turned to the interpretation of particular Western conceptions of Being. He felt that in contrast to the reverent ancient Greek conception of Being, modern technological society had fostered an instrumentalizing attitude that had deprived Being and human existence of meaning, a condition he called nihilism. Humanity had lost its true vocation; to recover a deeper understanding of Being that was achieved by the early Greeks and lost by subsequent philosophers.

Turn 4: Heidegger and Nazism - flawed philosophy or personal ‘error’?

Not strictly considered a philosophical ‘turn’, rather the real-world relationship of Martin Heidegger to the Nazi Party Germany is troubling and unresolved – and must be considered in any approach to Heidegger’s work.

Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933. Heidegger was elected rector of the University of Freiburg on April 21, 1933, and assumed the position the following day. On May 1 he joined the Nazi Party. He delivered his inaugural address, the Rektoratsrede, on "Die Selbstbehauptung der Deutschen Universität" ("The Self-assertion of the German University") on May 27.

His tenure as rector was fraught with difficulties from the outset. Some National Socialist education officials viewed him as a rival, while others saw his efforts as comical. Some of Heidegger's fellow National Socialists also ridiculed his philosophical writings as gibberish. He finally offered his resignation on April 23, 1934, and it was accepted on April 27. Heidegger remained a member of both the academic faculty and of the Nazi Party until the end of the war. Heidegger never publicly apologized for his involvement with National Socialism. With the de-nazification hearing in 1945, Heidegger was banned from lecturing and teaching at any university by the French Military Government, and furthermore ruled that the university refuse Heidegger Emeritus status and pension him off, stripping him of his professorship. Though he continued to write and speak, he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1946. He applied for, and was granted, emeritus status, providing that he would refrain from teaching. By 1950, Heidegger was reinstated to his teaching position, and, one year later, he was made professor Emeritus by the Baden government.

The debate remains unresolved. In particular, philosophers disagree on the consequences of Heidegger's association with Nazism on his philosophy:
  • Heidegger’s affiliation with the Nazi Party derived from his philosophical conceptions thus revealing flaws inherent in his thought (detractors: Günther Anders, Jürgen Habermas, Theodor Adorno, Hans Jonas, Karl Löwith, Pierre Bourdieu, Maurice Blanchot, Emmanuel Levinas, Richard Rorty, Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut)
  • Heidegger’s involvement with Nazism is a personal "error" – a word which Arendt placed in quotation marks when referring to Heidegger's Nazi-era politics - that is irrelevant to his philosophy (supporters: Hannah Arendt, Otto Pöggeler, Jan Patocka, Silvio Vietta, Jacques Derrida, Jean Beaufret, Jean-Michel Palmier, Richard Rorty, Marcel Conche, Julian Young and François Fédier)

Turn 5: Heidegger’s legacy

Being and Time anticipates both hermeneutics (i.e., Gadamer) and post-structuralism (i.e., Foucault, Derrida, Levinas). Through his lectures at Marburg, Heidegger influenced many thinkers, including Herbert Marcuse, who would become a primary figure in Critical Theory. Heidegger's work had a crucial influence on the French existentialist Jean Paul Sartre - although Heidegger published On Humanism in 1947 to distinguish his phenomenology from French existentialism. Since the 1960s his influence has spread beyond continental Europe making an enormous impact on Western philosophy.