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Martin Heidegger, 1889-1975

Martin Heidegger was an influential German philosopher best known for his Being and Time, published in 1927 and known, too, for his support of Hitler's fascism.

Heidegger tried to shed new light on the question of being. He thought he could cut to the essence of the question with an imaginative array of words. He often used the word "essence," including in a title of an article: "The Essence of Truth."

The British philosophers Bertrand Russell and A J Ayer disliked Heidegger's work, Russell commenting that "One cannot help suspecting that language is here running riot. An interesting point in his speculations is the insistence that nothingness is something positive." 

Heidegger believed in German culture. He believed in tradition and a third way between communism and capitalism. He said: "Everything essential and great has only emerged when human beings had a home and were rooted in a tradition." He was a critic of modern science and what he thought was humanity's subjugation to technology. He wrote with a sense of impending social crisis or catastrophe. He spoke of a "darkening of the world" and an "enfeeblement of the spirit." Here is the same spirit that Oswald Spengler wrote about. It had something to do with emotions, German culture and nationalism. Heidegger described Germany as caught between Anglo-American democracy to the West and Soviet communism to the East. Germany, he believed, was thereby under pressure and "most endangered." He wanted Germans to look inward and "to wrest a destiny from within itself," a destiny different from the Soviet Union and the United States. He saw them suffering from "the same dreary technological frenzy and the same unrestricted organization of the average man." He saw cultural decadence and unbridled mechanization in Western industrial society. He saw Germany as "the most metaphysical of nations," and believed in the German "geist," which translates "spirit-mind."

Was this an emotion produced by Wagner's music – which a few Swedes have thought excessive and symptomatic of the German character?

Heidegger had a view about people similar to that of Nietzsche. He looked with favor upon the spirit of exceptional people – thinkers like himself. He looked with disfavor upon the average people, the weak-willed individuals who took no risk and sought only comfort and security. A rival view was held by enemy theorists: Marxists. Whatever one can say against Marxists, they had respect for the humanity or spirit of common people. We can include among them those revisionist Marxists known as Social Democrats, who had started Germany's Weimar 's labor unions – Hitler's enemies all. 

Heidegger, reared a Catholic, taught at the Protestant University of Marburg and attracted students from all over Europe. Students then tended to be from wealthy families and little interested in the daily toil and hardships of blue-collar workers. Because of their parents' wealth they were able to pursue an interest in the spirit that Heidegger was sensationalizing.

Among Heidegger's students were two Jews who would end up at the University of Chicago in the 1950s: Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss. Heidegger was not one of those German anti-Semite fanatics such as Goebbels or Hitler. Strauss was impressed by Heidegger but was to criticize Heidegger's concern for Being (the great abstraction) rather than beings in particular. Heidegger was seventeen years older than Arendt, and married with two children. He was meeting with Arendt at her place, an attic apartment, with diffidence according to Arendt, who asked him in a note: "Why do you give me your hand shyly, as if it were a secret? Are you from such a distant land that you do not know our wine?"  

Following Hitler's rise to power in January 1933, Heidegger joined the National Socialist (Nazi) Party – while communists, labor leaders and others in Germany were being thrown into concentration camps. The rector of the University of Freiberg was dismissed and Heidegger was appointed in his place. In his inaugural as rector, Heidegger mentioned essence numerous times, spoke of "spiritual leadership," the will of the German people, their "historical mission" and he ended with a quote from Plato that "All that is great stands in the storm."

The nationalist spirit and belief in German superiority that he shared with Hitler served neither him nor Hitler. Their chauvinism and emotionalism were condusive to recklessness. But with Germany losing the war, Heidegger revised his thinking. Like many former Nazis he bent a little to the values of the victors – and in telling his past some have said that he distorted that past. His political response to the Holocaust was opposite that of Hannah Arendt: he urged a withdrawal from public life and resignation.

Heidegger confused his own failings with the significance of philosophy and humanity's power to respond rationally to impending problems. He said, "Philosophy will not be able to bring about a direct change of the present state of the world. This is true not only of philosophy but of all purely human mediations and endeavors." 

Copyright © 2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.