Martin Heidegger was a 20th-century German philosopher known for his existential and phenomenological explorations of the question of being. His best-known work, Being and Time, is considered one of the most important philosophical works of the 20th century. In it and later works, Heidegger maintained that individuals’ ways of questioning defines their nature. The question of being was Heidegger’s central concern because of his belief that human affairs generally, and philosophy explicitly, are oriented toward being. Heidegger’s work has influenced a number of areas, including philosophy, theology, literature, art, and environmentalism. Within philosophy, his work spawned the development of existentialism, hermeneutics, deconstructionism, postmodernism, and continental philosophy. Despite his influence, Heidegger was a controversial figure, largely because of his support for National Socialism and his affiliation with the Nazi Party.
Heidegger was born in rural Meβkirch, Germany, and raised a Roman Catholic. His father was sexton of the village church and his parents followed the First Vatican Council of 1870, which was observed mainly by the poorer class of Meβkirch. Heidegger’s family could not afford to send him to university, so he entered a Jesuit seminary, but was soon turned away because of a psychosomatic heart condition. Heidegger eventually left Catholicism because he felt it was incompatible with his philosophy. He studied theology at the University of Freiburg from 1909 to 1911 and then switched to philosophy. He completed his doctoral thesis on psychologism in 1914, influenced by neo-Thomism and neo-Kantianism, and in 1916 finished his professional thesis on Duns Scotus influenced by Heinrich Rickert and Edmund Husserl. Heidegger married Elfride Petri on March 21, 1917, and their first son was born in 1919. He spent much of his time at his vacation home at Todtnauberg, on the edge of the Black Forest, where he considered the seclusion to be the best environment for philosophical thought.
Heidegger first worked as an unsalaried lecturer before serving as a soldier during the final year of World War I. During the war he worked at a desk job and was able to remain in Germany. After the war, he served as a salaried senior assistant to Edmund Husserl at the University of Freiburg in the Black Forest from 1919 until 1923. In 1923, Heidegger was elected to a professorship in philosophy at the University of Marburg, where a confrontation with Aristotle inspired his interest in the question of being. In 1927, Heidegger published his main work Sein und Zeit (Being and Time). When Husserl retired as professor of philosophy in 1928, Heidegger accepted the University of Freiburg’s election to be his successor, despite a counter-offer by Marburg, and remained at Freiburg for the rest of his life.
Heidegger was elected rector of the university on April 21, 1933, but would resign the position a year later amid controversy surrounding his affiliation with the Nazi Party. He openly supported Adolf Hitler and his referendum to remove Germany from the League of Nations, and Heidegger would often show his support by wearing the Nazi insignia and by reporting to authorities when students and colleagues did not sufficiently adhere to the ideals of National Socialism. Heidegger continued to speak and write about National Socialism into the 1940s and 1950s. There is evidence that he privately regretted his support of Hitler’s regime; however, his position in public remained ambiguous at best. Due to his connection with the Nazi Party, the French military determined that Heidegger should be forbidden from teaching and participation in other university activities. He resigned as rector in 1934, but remained a member of the Nazi Party until 1945. Heidegger was granted readmission to teaching at Freiburg University in the winter semester of 1950-1951 and was granted emeritus status. He taught regularly from 1951 until 1958, and by invitation until 1967.
Being and Time was Heidegger’s most significant achievement of his early career. It was also his first academic book, which he was pressured to publish in order to ensure his appointment to the chair’s position at the University of Freiburg. Heidegger felt as though traditional ontology had overlooked, or ignored, the question of being and centered his philosophical inquiry on this concept. Heidegger was interested in the being for whom being was in question—and names this being Dasein.
Dasein is a German word that is sometimes translated as “being there” or “being here.” Heidegger used the term to denote the continually interpretive nature of our experiences. Being and Time was significant in the development of both the history of philosophy and the development of social science. The social sciences in general and poststructuralism in particular, were inspired by Heidegger’s notion that human culture is something individuals both create and something they are formed by.
Heidegger’s philosophical approach also emphasizes that experience, or being, is already situated through various presuppositions about the world. To properly describe an experience, one must find another for whom the experience might matter—someone to connect with, which refers to Dasein—the being for whom being is a question. Thus, Dasein is rooted within a structure of care. For Heidegger, the fundamental basis for being-in-the-world is care. This is related to Husserl’s argument that all consciousness is intentional, and thus is always toward something or about something. Heidegger believes this something to be another being, which grounds his philosophy in care.
Questioning the concept of being can be traced through Aristotle and back to Parmenides. However, Heidegger felt as though this fundamental question had been forgotten, or lost, in the metaphysical tradition. Heidegger’s early influences included Aristotle, Franz Brentano, Saint Augustine of Hippo, Catholic theology, medieval philosophy, and German and Greek poetry. Specifically, Aristotle’s works related to ethics, logic, and metaphysics were central to the development of Heidegger’s thought during the 1920s. In addition, recent scholarship has declared that Being and Time would not have been possible without the influence of Saint Augustine’s Confessions. Disagreement exists about the extent to which Heidegger was influenced by Husserl, and there is some disagreement as to whether his philosophy is grounded in phenomenology. These disagreements relate to the degree to which Husserl’s phenomenology is disputed by Heidegger, as well as how much of Husserl’s work informs Heidegger’s own understanding.
Heidegger’s work has inspired others as well. For example, Heidegger studied with Hannah Arendt, Karl Löwith, Leo Strauss, Alexandre Kojève, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Herbert Marcuse; Emmanule Levinas and Georges Bataille were also significantly influenced by his work. Additionally, Karl Jaspers, Rudolf Bultmann, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Jacques Derrida wrote books that were heavily influenced by his work.
Many consider Heidegger to be the most significant and influential philosopher of the 20th century. His work significantly influenced the areas of philosophy, literature, the humanities, contemporary art criticism, literary criticism, and environmentalism. Within philosophy, his analysis played a fundamental role in the development of hermeneutics, deconstructionism, postmodernism, continental philosophy, and existentialism. In recent years there has been a resurgence of existentialist thought and concepts in criminological scholarship about crime, deviance, crime control, and criminal justice.
The most fundamental theme addressed by existentialism is the question of being. This, for Heidegger, means that people are creatures who, uniquely, can inquire into the nature of their own being. Existentialism is that form of inquiry about the nature of human being that locates the essential quality of being human in the notions of freedom and authenticity. In Existential Criminology, various scholars analyze a number of criminological topics that lend easily themselves to existential analysis. For example, Don Crewe applies the work of Heidegger to establish how humans come to view themselves as objects of the future—leading to the conclusion that a “will to crime” is not possible; George Pavlich discusses how Friedrich Nietzsche’s thought enables people to grasp criminality as “complex being” rather than “essential being”; Willem Schinkel discusses an ontological definition of violence as reduction of being—leading to a reflexive critique of moral and legal order; Stephen Farrall analyzes the resettlement experiences of those who, wrongfully convicted, are then released; Simon Mackenzie considers a phenomenology of exchange as it relates to civility and the prevention of criminality and antisocial behavior; and Ronnie Lippens introduces and expands on the notion that critical criminology may be able to reinvent itself through Sartre’s existentialism.
Despite the popularity and significance of Heidegger’s influence, aspects of his work have received criticism—even from those who acknowledge his influence. Critics have questioned elements of ontology, the study of animals, the nature of the religious, the neglect of ethics, and whether his analysis even provided anything worthwhile. Critics have also questioned how influential Heidegger’s ties to Nazism were toward his thinking and philosophy. Nevertheless, there are few people who have contributed as much as Heidegger to human understanding of the human being, modern humankind’s crisis, and humanity and place.
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- Lippens, Ronnie and Don Crewe, eds. Existential Criminology. New York: Routledge-Cavendish, 2009.
- Thompson, Christiane. “Theorizing Education and Educational Research.” Studies in Philosophy & Education, v.31/3 (2012).
- Vedder, Ben. “The Provisionality of Thinking in Heidegger.” Southern Journal of Philosophy, v.63 (2005).
- Visker, Rudi. “Dropping: The ‘Subject’ of Authenticity. Being and Time on Disappearing Existentials and True Friendship with Being.” Research in Phenomenology, v.24/1 (2001).
- Wollan, Gjermund. “Heidegger’s Philosophy of Space and Place.” Norwegian Journal of Geography, v.57 (2003).
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