An Introduction to the Thought of Martin Heidegger

Martin Heidegger’s work is difficult because of its novelty and complexity. A summary can point to several basic phenomena he discusses, but one inevitably first understands these phenomena in ways that Heidegger does not intend. There can be no substitute for confronting his works directly. Heidegger (1889–1976) is arguably the foremost philosopher of the twentieth century and surely the foremost in the continental or European tradition. Those who studied with or were significantly influenced by him include many of the best known thinkers of the past seventy-five years: Hannah Arendt, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Hans Jonas, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Jacob Klein, Alexandre Kojève, Karl Löwith, Herbert Marcuse, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Leo Strauss.

Heidegger studied the works of the leading German professors during his student and early teaching years (roughly 1910–1925), but he was most influenced by Edmund Husserl, the founder of the “phenomenological” attempt to describe and discuss matters exactly as they present themselves to us, and to clarify who we are and what we take for granted when we allow things to show themselves to us for observation or use. Heidegger was especially concerned to understand the meaning or intelligibility of “being,” because everything we deal with in some way “is.” This concern led to his first and still most significant publication, Sein und Zeit (Being and Time), in 1927. He approached the question of being by examining the being of human “being” (or Dasein, to use Heidegger’s term), because we must always determine our own being or possibilities, and thus must understand being itself in some manner. In choosing our way, moreover, we also release other entities in their meaning.

Being and Time

Heidegger highlights elements of human being that have been overlooked traditionally or are currently misunderstood. He emphasizes the fact that we first exist in worlds or contexts in which we uncover things’ meaning and characteristics in terms of their use. For example, consider a hammer. The hammer’s being is its readiness to hand. Its true weight is its being too light or heavy to use effectively, not a neutral one or two pounds, and its true place is the fact that it is too near or too far away to use well, not a point or number on a geometric grid. Such practical time, space, and utility are just as much as the neutral times and spaces of physics and mathematics, and cannot be reduced to them. Indeed, theoretical observing and measuring occurs only as a narrowing or reducing of practical action.

Heidegger concentrates on practical activities when he first develops the elements that characterize human beings because what is useful comes to light only in terms of something that is a possibility for humans. One central characteristic of our being is that we “fall” into the things with which we deal. We thus tend to (mis)understand our own being as equivalent to the being of objects. Moreover, the possibilities we understand, and for the sake of which we are, are those whose meaning we share with everyone else. We are thus not usually our authentic selves but, rather, merely instances of what “we” are and “they” choose and believe. Furthermore, it is not only our understanding of possibilities and our falling into everyday entities that reveal matters meaningfully. Our moods or states of mind also do this. Fear, for example, reveals entities—terrifying or dreadful things, say—that are just as fully real as what causes them chemically or biologically.

Certain moods—radical anxiety, most clearly—can wrench us from our fallen misunderstanding of ourselves and bring us face to face with our own responsibility for being or meaning. When anxiety comes together with my seeing the unity of all my possibilities in my anticipation of dying—the potential impossibility of all my possibilities—and with how my always being thrown into one tradition negates other options, it becomes possible for me to resolve upon my human being as it truly is: the ways that I am responsible for meaning or being and am not a tool or thing. I become authentic; I become my own.

Authenticity, thrownness, resolve and other phenomena that Heidegger made intellectually famous are, he claims, not meant morally. Indeed, the content of an authentic action would vary with time and place. Authenticity at most illuminates the world freshly; it does not offer guidance. Still, no one who reads Heidegger would rather fall into inauthentic understanding than be authentic.

In the course of Heidegger’s discussion of the elements of human being (which, collectively, he calls “care”) he argues that we always understand our being in terms of time. We project our possibilities by expecting or anticipating them; we illuminate what has been as we reach forward toward our possibilities; and we deal with things practically and scientifically in their presence. Heidegger here is opposing his understanding of human being with the dominating traditional meaning of being, which has been what is purely and never-endingly present.

Later Work

Heidegger intended to complete the first division of Being and Time by analyzing how the interplay of the dimensions of time, properly understood, is the horizon for understanding being as such, and not only human being. He did not complete the analysis, however, and much of his work from the mid-1930s forward attempts to examine and reexamine how time and being, or opening and presence, belong together. Heidegger also continues to develop his novel grasp of truth as bringing entities out of hiddenness so that we can deal with or make correct statements about them. The truth—in this sense of entities, of their highest and most general characteristics, and of being as such—becomes his explicit theme.

Heidegger’s later courses and publications develop several areas only touched on in Being and Time: works of art seen not as imitative, expressive, or abstract but as revealing or placing us within a world of meaning; the characteristics of things that are neither objects of science or merely useful means to ends but, rather, stand out as the very bridges, buildings, or sacrificial jugs that they are; the gods who are present together with such artworks and things; technology as a way that all things today come to light as merely reserves of formless energy for the release of still more formless resources; and, our forgetfulness of being as such. As with the material in Being and Time, Heidegger’s discussions of these matters in essays such as The Origin of the Work of Art and The Question Concerning Technology are both novel and acute.

Other Thinkers

Another characteristic of Heidegger’s thought is his deep understanding of other thinkers. Because we are essentially temporal we always understand our possibilities in terms of views that we have inherited. Studying past thinkers, therefore, is not merely a scholarly occupation but necessary for grasping our own philosophical activities.

Heidegger primarily examined other thinkers by “deconstructing” their understanding to the realm of human being and our openness to being that he had discovered and that he believed they had overlooked. His attempt to situate Descartes’ (and all modern philosophy’s) understanding of consciousness, certainty, and the importance of the ego or subject within his own broader view of Dasein, truth, and being changed fundamentally much scholarly understanding of the supposed priority of consciousness.  His fresh look at Aristotle liberated Aristotle from time-worn views of him, and enabled Heidegger to use Aristotle’s view of practical activity, truth, rhetoric, and metaphysical categories to develop his own arguments. Students of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Leibniz, Nietzsche, and others have much to learn from Heidegger’s analyses of these thinkers.


Heidegger became rector of the university in Freiburg in 1933, and he joined the Nazi party. He left the rectorate after ten months but remained a party member and was associated with many of those who gave intellectual support to the regime. The connection of Heidegger’s thought to his support of the Nazis is thus the central issue in considering the implication of his work for politics and political philosophy. Opinions about this have ranged between the two extremes of denying any association to claiming that his thought was always merely a fancy version of Nazi views.

The speech Heidegger gave on assuming the rectorate, and seminars he gave between 1933 and 1935, make it evident that his support of the Nazis was indeed in accord with his philosophical views. His discussions of the people’s destiny, the being of the state, and the place of the “leader” used and developed analyses already indicated in Being and Time to justify the Nazis. Indeed, some of Heidegger’s statements in these seminars came perilously close to advocating the harshest treatment of Jews and others. He never acknowledged the unique horror of the Holocaust, and claimed more than once that America and Soviet communism were the same, from the metaphysical standpoint.

The ground of the link between Heidegger’s thought and the Nazis is his view of an individual “people’s” destiny, within which all resolute individual choice must take place. We are essentially historical, not universal or cosmopolitan. To see politics in light of natural rights or the naturally best form of government is, therefore, a mistake. Still, Heidegger’s views need not at all times lead to support of regimes such as the Nazis’, and during the 1960s his views were apparently left of center. Many of his analyses, moreover, are connected to politics only remotely.

The link between Heidegger’s thought and the Nazis should not lead us to ignore his probing discussions of man, being, art, technology and the history of thought. But the link is a strong warning of the danger of understanding man and politics in terms of the closedness and exclusivity of peoples, fatherlands, destiny, and fate. In the last analysis, freedom of thought and action must be open to what is natural and rational.

–Essay by Mark Blitz