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  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: September 2014

8 - Martin Heidegger (1889–1976)


Life and Work

Heidegger polarizes opinion. To some, he is the most important philosopher of the twentieth century; to others, he is little more than a mystifying word-spinner. The perplexingly difficult nature of his work derives to a significant extent from his exploitation of the resources of the German language, so — even more than with most other philosophers — there is a clear advantage in reading him in the original rather than in translation. In the immediate postwar period, the vogue for Existentialism favored Jean-Paul Sartre (whose early philosophy was largely based, as Hubert L. Dreyfus once put it, on “a brilliant misunderstanding” of Heidegger's Sein und Zeit), but the German thinker has since eclipsed him. However, while Heidegger's seriousness of philosophical purpose is beyond doubt, and while his critique of metaphysical abstractions often reads as yet another metaphysical abstraction — in the words of Malcolm Bowie, “a motor-cycle does appear in Being and Time, but such intrusions are rare” — his reputation is tarnished by some very concrete real-world decisions he took during a key period in his life.

Martin Heidegger was born in the Swabian town of Meßkirch, in southwestern Germany, on 26 September 1889. Initially destined for the priesthood, he studied theology and philosophy in Konstanz and Freiburg, flirting with the idea of a Jesuit novitiate. In the summer of 1911, he abandoned his plans to become a priest, dropped theology, and continued with philosophy alone, combining a study of the leading phenomenological and hermeneutic thinkers — Edmund Husserl (1859–1938) and Wilhelm Dilthey (1833–1911) — with a focus on Scholasticism (medieval Roman Catholic thought).