Philosophy is a broad field that groups many of the greatest minds that have ever lived. One of the most important of these in the twentieth century was Martin Heidegger. A disciple of Husserl, he also developed phenomenology, but in a different way than his master. Instead of being preoccupied by conscience, he believed what was important was Being itself. He believed that this was the true object of philosophy and that the best way to approach it was through the analysis of man’s existence. He attempted to characterize what is unique about man, describing his Being-in-the-world as anxiety-inducing because of all the possibilities one has that may lead him towards or against his authentic self. After publishing Being and Time, a monumental work, he wrote essays and poetry, as he believed language to be the key and the hindrance to the wonder of Being. Thus, it is paramount to study the basics of this philosopher, if only to have a basic idea of what he proposed.
Even though he was a pupil of Edmund Husserl, he deviated significantly from the ways of this great phenomenologist. The bond was so strong that he dedicated his masterpiece, Being and Time, to Husserl. They both approached philosophy through experience, intuition and interpretation. Their systems do not stand on sets of logical principals that may be true or not, held together by reason. What they try to do in their texts is draw the reader’s attention to certain aspects of life and experience in order to convince him or her of their philosophy. Even though they were both phenomenologists, Husserl believed that after peeling away all the layers of reality, one was left facing consciousness. On the other hand, Heidegger believed that there was no pure consciousness, leading him to focus on the world and the way people are in it. He centered his theory on Being, trying to determine and characterize what all things that are have in common. For him, the separation between consciousness and the world was artificial, and thus served as an obstacle to determine the nature of Being. Therefore, even though people recognize both of them as phenomenologists, their theories are so different and monumental that critics divide them into two different currents.
As determining the meaning of Being was not an easy task, he decided to introduce himself in this forest through human existence. Out of all the beings in the world, humans are exceptional in two ways: they do not have a being and they ask what it means to be. First, for Heidegger, humans are not; they only exist. This is due to the fact that they do not have the unchangeable qualities they would need in order to be. Instead, as one will be able to read later, they are filled with possibilities. He differentiates the way in which humans are by the use of the word Dasein, a German word that literally means being there. As one can see, it is not just a matter of being, but there is a temporal and spatial aspect to it.
Furthermore, man is extraordinary because he raises ontological questions. “We are unique in that we are the only kind of entity in the world able to raise questions about what it means to be” (Lawhead 548). For Heidegger this is extremely important because it serves as a window that allows us to wonder at Being. “Dasein, that being which we ourselves are, is distinguished from all other beings by the fact that it makes issue of its own being” (Korab-Karpowicz). Thus, as humans have the ability to question Being, as philosophy does, this not only allows them to peer into this great aspect of reality, but also modifies their own being.
Although this is of utmost importance, even in the metaphysical tradition, he believed that Western philosophy had forgotten about Dasein and Being, preferring to study objects separated from Being itself. “The central aim of Being and Time, first published in 1929, was to reopen the question of the meaning of ‘Being,’ a question which Heidegger believed to have been covered over and forgotten by the history of Western philosophy” (McConnel 94-95). Even though the early Greeks were on the right track towards the discovery of the meaning of Being, but that they got diverted by a philosophical tradition that isolated objects from the world in order to study them rationally.
Therefore, he begins to study Dasein and its structural characteristics, which he calls existentials, evidencing that one can characterize men by their infinite possibilities and looseness of time. In man, past present and future are tangled together in a special way. For instance, in whatever situation man finds himself to be, there are elements of the past at play that influence the present moment. These range from the decisions a person has made that have changed the course of his events to givens, such as the historic period of time he lives in. However, one can also see how one becomes absorbed in the routine in such a way that one is a differentiated part of the world; supposed instruments like a car become an extension of the human body, acting without consciously doing to. This leads to a sort of depersonalization or anonymity in the present. Furthermore, our life is constantly oriented towards the future, and many of our past and present decisions are determined by what will come. Thus, we are not in the world in the same way as an object whose being is determined by what it is in each moment. On the contrary, the existence of man involves him with his Being and these responses are filled with significant consequences.
Stemming from this he makes a distinction of two different modes of existence on the way one accepts the responsibility of existence. An authentic person is someone that, even though he has been thrown into his life and his situations, realizes that he is that one that decides what to do with his possibilities. On the contrary, an inauthentic person would just let himself disappear into the background, into the one or the they that people use in common speech. However, there is no definite way to lead one’s life; one only has historical tradition as a guide. This lack of absolute values causes anxiety, an affect that stems from our human condition.
The greatest problem with this is that a human cannot choose all the options because he or she will die. “The possibility of death is indefinite, for it is not confined to any particular moment or time span. The possibility of death can materialize at any moment” (Guignon 202). The realization of one’s own Being-towards death is one of the most anxiety-producing aspects of living. One realizes that one is finite and cannot do everything that he or she could do. There is no way to live up to the expectations that freedom leads humans to have. Thus, a person can see his or her whole existence as a lead-up towards that final moment.
After writing this colossal text, he began to writer shorter works and even poetry. Even though some believe this to be a different project altogether, others claim that he did not change his philosophy; rather, that he saw that the manner he was conducting it was incorrect and changed it, interpretation that he seconded. One of the most interesting aspects of this part of his theory was the importance and conception he gave to language. “Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact language remains the master of man. Perhaps it is before all else man's subversion of this relation of dominance that drives his nature into alienation” (Heidegger 1-2). For him, language is not a tool, but the very manner humans have to reveal things. However, the petty chit-chat that one usually makes out of it hides Being. To solve this, poets take people closer to language by allowing us to see aspects of the world that they do not generally notice.
In conclusion, Martin Heidegger was one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century, divulging an astounding theory about the meaning of Being. Even though he too was a phenomenologist, he strayed away from Husserl by thinking that pure consciousness was not the most important aspect of philosophy, but the world itself; for him, the division ego-world was artificial and only hindered the true manifestation of Being. He believed Dasein, the mode of being that man has that is different from that of other beings, allowed to see Being itself, so he studied it in his masterpiece Being and Time. He gave many characteristics of man’s existence in order to better comprehend what being was as a whole, as men are characterized by an intricate tangle of time; past, present and future all make up human existence at the same time. People are filled with possibilities, which make them anxious, as they realize that they cannot fulfill them all due to their ultimate death. Finally, he took up language and poetry as a manner to keep studying Being. Heidegger is a complex philosopher that gave the discipline a turn that one will always have to take into account.
Graybel, Jean. Language and the Feminine in Nietzsche and Heidegger. United States of America, 1990. Print.
Guignon, Charles. The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Print.
Heidegger, Martin. “Building Dwelling Thinking. 6 Jan 2007. 1-9- Web. 23 July 2015.
Korab-Karpowicz, W.J. “Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. 23 July 2015.
Lawhead, William. The Voyage of Discovery. A Historical Introduction to Philosophy. Stamford, USA. 2015. Print.