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Martin Heidegger (1889–1971)

Heidegger was a theology student before he became a phenomenologist, and his concerns were existentialist concerns, questions about how to live and how to live "authentically," that is, with integrity, in a politically and technologically seductive and dangerous world. His philosophy falls into two parts. His early work as a phenomenologist, culminating in his great tome, Sein und Zeit (1927; English trans. Being and Time, 1962), suggests that he deserves to be counted among the existentialists. Like Kierkegaard, he investigates the meaning of authentic existence, the significance of our mortality, our place in the world and among other people as an individual. Heidegger's later work takes a different turn as he comes to see how his early work is still mired in the suppositions of traditional metaphysics. His philosophy seeks a new openness, a new receptivity toward the world, one that turns out to be very much in line with the program of many radical or "deep" ecologists and, as Heidegger himself later discovered, with several non-Western cultures, which had never been distracted by humanistic arrogance of his own philosophical tradition.

Heidegger's "existentialist" philosophy begins with a profound anti-Cartesianism, an uncompromising holism that rejects any dualism regarding mind and body, the distinction between subject and object, and the very language of "consciousness," "experience," and "mind." Thus he begins with an analysis of Dasein (literally, "being-there"). But the question emerges, because we are the "ontological" (self-questioning) creatures we are, just who this Dasein is. Thus Heidegger's philosophy becomes a search for authenticity or "own-ness" (Eigentlichkeit), or personal integrity. This search for authenticity will carry us into the now familiar but ever-renewed questions about the nature of the self, and the meaning of life, as well as Heidegger's somewhat morbid central conception of "Being-unto-Death." It will also lead to Heidegger's celebration of tradition and "heritage," the importance of resolutely committing oneself to one's given culture.

In contrast to the Cartesian view of the primacy and importance of knowledge, Heidegger suggests that what attaches or "tunes" us to the world is not knowledge but moods. It is in our moods, not the detached observational standpoint of knowledge, that we are "tuned in" to our world. Mood is the starting point for understanding the nature of the self and who we are, and much of Heidegger's analysis of Dasein is in terms of its moods, angst and boredom, for example.

What Dasein cannot be is what Descartes called "a thinking thing." But, then, who is Dasein, what is the self? It is, at first, merely the roles that other people cast for me, as their son, their daughter, their student, their sullen playmate, their clever friend. That self, the Das Man self, is a social construction. Their is nothing authentic, nothing that is my own, about it. The authentic self, by contrast, is discovered in profound moments of unique self-recognition, notably, when one faces one's own death. It is not enough to acknowledge that "we are all going to die." That, according to Heidegger, is merely an objective truth and inauthentic. It is one's own death that matters here, and one's "own-ness" thus becomes "Being-unto-Death," facing up in full to one's own mortality.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Evolution to FerrocyanideExistentialism - Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), Martin Heidegger (1889–1971), Jean-paul Sartre (1905–1980)