Heidegger: the mortality of Man and the nothingness of Being


Martin Heidegger is founder of the “philosophy of existence” of Modern Times.

He was born on September 26th, 1889, in Germany, in a village located south of Stuttgart. His father was a cooper combining this with working as a sexton in a local (Roman Catholic) church. His mother was a mere peasant. Martin’s parents were pious and brought him up accordingly. However, not everything was so soft and pleasing in the village church, in this primary citadel of absolute values. Martin knew that somewhere nearby there lived “other Germans”, the Lutherans. Moreover, after the 1st Vatican Council held in in 1870, a rift appeared within the bosom of the Roman Catholic Church itself, as a result of which the village residents were split into two feuding communities. Those early impression could not but cause in the little Martin a latent mental turmoil. Maybe, it was already at that time that an ambition was born in him to seek more credible foundations of Being in general and of human existence, in particular.

Martin attended elementary school. He was an able boy, and he would often help his father during the liturgy. The dean suggested sending him to a theological seminary in the city of Konstanz. That was done in 1903, when Martin turned 13. In 1906, he continued his education, again, at a theological seminary, but now in Freiburg. There, the youth Heidegger plunged into a profound study of natural sciences and humanities, and his erudition was noted by the teachers. After finishing the seminary, at the age of 18, Heidegger became a novice in the Society of Jesus.

At about that time, Heidegger felt heartache, which caused him to interrupt his preparations for being devoted to the service of the Roman Catholic Church. He returned home and, having undergone some medical treatment, he continued his education. This time, he decided not to instantly plunge into monasticism, but rather try to look at things from a wider perspective. Now, his choice fell on the faculty of theology at the University of Freiburg. There, he tried with renewed vigour to gain a deeper insight into the mysteries of Christian apologetics, patristics, and scholastics. But after a while, his heartaches resumed, and he, again, started to think about taking a break.

Then one of his teachers attracted his attention. The teacher’s name was Karl Braig, and he was considered to be a theologian, like many other teachers. But the more attentively Heidegger listened to what Braig was saying, the more he became convinced that the God Whom Braig meant, was, as a matter of fact, not the God of traditional Christianity. It was a different, non-anthropomorphous Arche, Which may open Itself to Man, but not to everyone, but to the one who is himself “open”. What Truly Exists is, certainly, “not-I”. Still, It is not “Nature”. All in all, it turned out that it was philosophy, not theology that really interested Heidegger. So, in order to lend the feeling of Truth that dawned upon him visible contours, Heidegger had to go through a substantial philosophical school.

Martin’s friendship with one of his fellow students, Ernst Laslowski, helped him find himself as a philosopher and as a person. Laslowski identified his friend’s outstanding cogitative potential and rendered him every possible assistance. It was precisely Laslowski who noticed a philosophical leaning of the young theologian. First, he advised Heidegger to develop his philosophical gift within the framework of Catholicism. But later he changed his mind and insisted that Heidegger should not restrict himself to Catholicism and go along the pathway guided by his genius. Still, he also suggested Heidegger not to scare away his Catholic patrons and not to be hasty with expressing his “revelations” publicly. All of all, he first ought to strengthen his position in the academic community, that is, defend his thesis, be appointed to the chair, etc.

In 1911, Heidegger transferred to the faculty of philosophy at the same university. There, he had as his scientific adviser a well-known follower of I. Kant, H. Rickert. Accordingly, Heidegger’s graduate thesis was executed in the vein of Neo-Kantianism. But it was the founder of “phenomenology” E. Husserl, who influenced Heidegger most. Husserl tried once again to promote the Kantian defective Subject to the rank of the Absolute. As a matter of fact, it was the last, desperate attempt to deify Subject – all such previous ones had invariably slipped into Nature and ended in the deification now of Its Mind, now of Its Soul, now of Its Body. Heidegger, who seems to have managed to spot the Subject’s “bleeding wound”, His mortality (which still is not His essence), failed to avoid philosophy’s ineradicable propensity for Nature and attempted to reinterpret Husserl’s “phenomenology” as “fundamental ontology”.

In 1914, the 1st Word War broke out. Initially, Heidegger was declared unfit for military service for health reasons, so he continued his philosophical studies. Having defended his thesis, he started teaching at the University of Freiburg. As the war unfolded, Heidegger would be more and more often called up for various military courses. By the end of the war, he was sent to fight on the front line and even conferred the rank of corporal.

Having become keen on Husserlian “phenomenology”, Heidegger dreamed of meeting Husserl in person. The latter had heard of Heidegger, but considered him chiefly a Catholic philosopher and did not seek closer relations with him. However, they did meet in 1917, and they took to each other straightaway. Heidegger, despite his recognition by the scientific community, still needed a worthy and unbiased interlocutor. As for Husserl, his son had recently been killed in the war, so Heidegger came partly as a replacement. They would spend long hours in joint reflections, and, when Heidegger was called up for military training and then to the front line, their dialogue continued through correspondence. After the war, Heidegger worked for several years as Husserl’s assistant at the University of Freiburg.

The war was not perceived by Heidegger as a catastrophe. On the contrary, he thought that a war-related extreme experience, helped arouse in Man certain primordial emotions and certain primordial clearness, which were otherwise hidden under the veneer of rationality. Possibly, Heidegger’s observations of such kind were largely influenced by the philosophy of life, which was the dominant philosophical trend of the time. Nevertheless, having returned from the front in 1918, he tried to provide his own philosophical grounds for his war-time revelations.

At about that time, Heidegger announced his final break-up with Catholicism, which he quite rightly considered a remnant of the Middle Ages. And that break-up was not just theoretical: he refused to have his child baptized in the Catholic Church. Neither joined he Lutheranism, but wholly gave himself up to philosophy proper. But that was not the philosophy of Nature: Heidegger came up right away as a staunch follower of the “critical” philosophy of I. Kant, which proceeds from the primariness of Subject. In doing so, he tries to identify Subject’s “primary state”, when objectification has not yet occurred (i. e., when Subject has not yet become Such). Indeed, we do not at all “notice” many things we use in our everyday life. Only under certain conditions, in particular, when some problems arise, they appear as “objects”.

In 1920, Heidegger met his fellow-philosopher K. Jaspers, who had come to philosophy from the field of psychiatry. The latter proved to be Heidegger’s friend and single-minded person. They jointly outlined what was destined to become another breakthrough in philosophy. They proceed from the existence of some Being, Whose existence is marked with a certain unrest or concern, and Which takes an interest in Its being. Basically It is concerned with its finiteness in time, or mortality. Actually, both Heidegger and Jaspers, set themselves a task to show the life of Subject (“the One Who Exists”), bypassing objectification, i. e. outside and independently of Nature. At the same time, Heidegger was distancing himself from Husserl, whom, however, he continued regarding as his teacher. Husserlian “phenomenology” had helped Heidegger “disobjectify” Subject, but the philosopher was impatient to go further. Most of all, Heidegger became disillusioned with Husserl’s idealism, and it was a “Human”, not “Consciousness”, that he tended to conceive as Subject.

In 1922–1928, Heidegger taught at the University of Marburg. That was also when he wrote the book of his life, “Sein und Zeit” /Being and Time/. The book is written in a heavy, “dark” language (which, though, Heidegger had always been noted for). Maybe, this heaviness is accounted for by Heidegger’s effort to attach to his teaching of the nihility of Being as much solidity as possible. There, he tries to identify “a priori” characteristics of the existence /”existentials”/ of a peculiar object, Dasein /Being-there/. Those “existentials” are: “having-been-thrown-into-the-World”, “being-in-the-World”, “being-with-Others”, etc. But the most fundamental characteristic of this object’s existence, according to Heidegger, is “being-towards-Death”, or “Dread”. Heidegger effectively asserts that (human) existence has no other meaning than its mortality and the related emotional experience. Striving to distract Him from, to put it mildly, an uncomfortable situation He has found Himself in, the “Being-there” tries to find consolation in “being-like-others”, or “being-with-others”, and also in the “eternal values” preached by metaphysical philosophy and traditional religion. Heidegger designates all such aspirations as “inauthentic” and only calls for “courage”.

At about that time, Heidegger met yet another outstanding thinker, a protestant theologian, the founder of the so called “dialectical theology”, R. Bultmann. The latter enthusiastically embraced Heidegger’s doctrine of “existence” and attempted to deduce from it the necessity of religious faith. Heidegger, however, like I. Kant had earlier done, categorically objected any “metaphysical” interpretation of his ideas. He was convinced that philosophy should not go beyond “experience”, but had only to rely on its own resources, since it is “a free quest of a being, left on Its own devices, abiding in the openness of Being”.

In 1928, Heidegger returned to Freiburg and lectured at the university of that place.

In 1929, in the Swiss Davos, a renowned philosophical dispute was staged between Heidegger and the idealistic philosopher E. Kassirer. The latter extolled culture as the highest level of human Spirit’s objectification. Heidegger, however, warned against a deceptive feeling of comfort and complacency, which culture provides Man with. In his view, Man still has to feel as the “Existing”, i. e. abiding in dread in the face of “Nothing”.

In the meantime, the political situation in Germany, which had taken on the shape of the “Weimar Republic” by then, was becoming heated, facing the prospect of developing into a full-scale civil war. There, clashing were the 3 great ideologies, representing Nature’s Body, Soul, and Mind, with skirmishes occurring in the streets between the Rotfront militants, Nazi storm troopers, and the Republic defenders. Whereas Mind and Body had already triumphed in Liberalism and Communism, respectively, Soul was still waiting for being properly materialized. The Latter’s existence had already been confirmed by Schopenhauer, while Its aiming for dominance had been proclaimed by Nietzsche. Germany’s future lay then with Nazism.

The ideological preparation of the upcoming Epiphany was unfolding in the country. The mass media extolled “national roots” in every possible way. Heidegger was criticized for conniving political indifferentism, and also for cultivating a breach between the “private sphere of salvation and the public sphere of power.” The philosopher was unequivocally given to understand that the Subject at issue was now not Man, but the World Soul.

Heidegger, however, was becoming more and more inclined towards Antiquity, which had always been dear to him. But whereas Aristotle had earlier been his predominant interest, now he devoted his another lecture course to Plato. In doing so, he believed that he thereby did not escape from reality, but, on the contrary, expanded himself the ground for subsequently taking a “running jump” into the present. Time and again, he would reconstruct in his mind the way from the moment of philosophy’s originating in Europe to its culmination in Plato’s teaching.

And yet, one of Plato’s ideas occupied Heidegger’s imagination most, that is, the possibility of building an ideal state on the basis of the cognized Truth. According to Plato, human society must be transformed in the image and likeness of the harmonious Cosmos, consisting of Body, Soul (Will), and Mind. Accordingly, at the basis of the State there should be labourers, with warriors and guardians occupying the intermediate position, and philosopher kings crowning this structure. But how could Heidegger’s philosophy, with its extolment of the existing Subject, afford a basis for creating an ideal social order?

Anyway, Heidegger perceived the victory of Nazism in Germany not just as a political coup, but precisely as a revolution. For him, that was the beginning of a new era, similar to that which had once been announced with the rise of antique philosophy. Then, in his view, Being revealed Itself to not only a particular individual, but to the entire nation, in all Its redoubtable catastrophism. Unfortunately, It subsequently fell into oblivion, and Man found false consolation in the embraces of “reason and enlightenment”. Therefore, Heidegger saw in the triumph of Nazism an opportunity of a new revelation of Being. He got actively involved in the “revolutionary transformation of reality”: he would deliver free lectures to the unemployed and make numerous appeals, in which he tried to provide a philosophical basis for the ongoing events.

The victory of Nazism in Germany appeared as a decisive impulse for the transformation of Heideggerian existentialism into a “fundamental ontology”. Heidegger estranged from the “Existing Subject” His Being, which, thereby, started living His own life. Moreover, Heidegger tended to perceive the “Existing Subject” more and more as Nature’s Subject, or, to put it bluntly, the “Nation”. Thus, his “fundamental ontology” became very much aligned with the teaching of the World Will, which accounted for Heidegger’s enthusiasm towards Hitler. Besides, both doctrines were made similar by their negation of culture and the so called “eternal values”. Subsequently, however, he would “feel the difference” and realize that he prayed to a wrong God; he would realize that the call of “blood and soil”, recreation of the Primordial Race and Its fusion into a single “Blond Beast”, inculcated by Nazism, had little in common with the feeling of eeriness, characteristic of the genuine experience of Being. Heidegger would later explain it by the vicissitudes of the “fate of Being”, the herald of Which he thought he was, and Which “went astray”.

In 1933, Heidegger was elected rector of the University of Freiburg and joined the Nazi party. He actively cooperated with the Nazis, skillfully adapting his characteristics of “genuine existence” to the needs of patriotic and Nazi propaganda. Basically, his message now amounted to the maxim that in this historical situation the “call of conscience” urged a genuinely existing Subject to fight and give up His life for the Fatherland, for the Party, and personally for the Führer. Heidegger’s hero was still not a nation proper, but, rather, a particular individual, who took the “right” decision on his own, even when cut off from his fellow fighters, just like the Russian hero Ivan Susanin, who had laid down his life for “Faith, Tsar, and Fatherland”, even when in an impenetrable forest. Absolute monarchy, as well as Liberalism, Communism, and Nazism use the religion of the true God to suit their own ends, since they themselves are historical forms of religion. “An individual shall be rooted in the nation’s wholeness and the nation’s fate”, – wrote Heidegger, – and “our Führer ‘s supreme will” shall be the pillar of such a faith. Eventually, Heidegger would give preference not to an Individual, but to a Nation, more precisely, to the German Nation, Who “stands alone“ among other nations and may well force Its way to the “genuine existence”.

Heidegger’s active participation in the Nazi revolution resulted in his relations with his colleague Jaspers being cooled down, and in a complete breakup with his teacher, Husserl. However, Heidegger’s disagreement with the official doctrine of Nazism showed before too long. Being a philosopher, he did not understand that Nazism was effectively a full-scale religion with all its essential attributes, implying, among other things, human sacrifices. He recoiled from the “extremities” of Nazism and quitted his position as rector of the University of Freiburg, which he had held for about a year. Subsequently, he attempted to set up a sort of Platonic Academy or Plotinus’ City of Philosophers in Berlin. But the Nazis treated his plans with suspicion, and Heidegger was increasingly distancing himself from politics.

Soon, he found a refuge in the poetry of F. Hölderlin. Heidegger came to the conclusion that poets (not professional ones, but, rather, folk narrators) played a decisive role in the formation of a nation’s self-awareness: first and foremost, they introduced to their people their paternal Gods. Then, philosophers come into operation – they try to comprehend Being. Finally, politicians complete the cause of poets and philosophers, elevating their people to the level of a state.

Heidegger was more and more shrinking into himself and drawn to solitude. In 1936–1938, he wrote his philosophical diary, which he entitled “The Offerings to Philosophy” (Beiträge zur Philosophie). He strayed from poetry and once again gave preference to philosophers, whom he compared to mountain peaks serving as orientation points for the rest of mankind. He became disillusioned with Nazism and regarded it as a phenomenon on a par with both Communism and Liberalism. He was now inclined to think that Truth would open Itself to Man in the silence of solitude, far off from noisy social and political upheavals. Being, Which he had tried to grasp all this time, would now be often designated by him as “the Holy”, and take on for him the contours of a personal God.

The unleashing by Hitler of the 2nd World War did not seem to have any apparent impact on Heidegger. Just as if nothing had happened, he kept on delivering occasional lectures, and writing his “opera philosophica”.

After the war, Heidegger was persecuted for his collaboration with the Nazis. He was stripped of the right to teach, his flat in Freiburg underwent “compaction”, and he lived in his country-side cabin barely making both ends meet. His two sons were held captive in Russia.

But, as the saying goes, “every cloud has its silver lining”. Despite the oppression Heidegger had to endure from the French occupation regime, the latter opened up new opportunities before him. Among the French, there proved to be quite a few fans of Heidegger’s philosophy, who were in a hurry to pay him their respects. One of them handed him the recently published book by J.-P. Sartre “L’Être et le Néant” /Being and Nothing/, and Heidegger was very much surprised to learn that it was in France that a direct continuer of his teaching turned up. This circumstance largely helped him get rid of the depression he had often slipped into in the face of the severities of the war and post-war times.

Sartre agreed with Heidegger on the question of the primacy of “Existence”. However, recognizing the exceptionally personal nature of “Being-towards-Death”, Sartre put forward as the fundamental characteristic of human existence not “Dread”, but the “freedom of choice”, and also the “responsibility for one’s choice”. Besides, Sartre rejected the abiding beyond “Existence” of some mysterious, overall “Being”, the revelation of Which Heidegger was so looking forward to. In other words, Sartre did not find it necessary to address the “philosophy of Nature” in order to provide a basis for the baseless “Existence”. So, it appeared like a “lite” version of philosophical existentialism.

The above differences were articulated in “The Letter on Humanism”, which Heidegger wrote in 1947 in response to Sartre’s work “Existentialism is a Humanism”. In his “Letter”, Heidegger again distanced himself from traditional humanism deifying Man, in one way or another, and striving to transform the World for the sake of His well-being. In Heidegger’s view, Man is a “Guardian of Being” Who enables Existing Things to show in Their truth.

In 1962, Heidegger undertook a trip to Greece, the place, where, as it seemed to him, Nature had revealed itself to Man in Its truth. Certainly, first of all, there were still Gods there. But not only They. There already was Nature there, and not just as an object of cognition. There already was Man showing through It, which was distinctly embodied in Greek sculpture. Really, that was a great, promising Start.

Heidegger spent the rest of his days in Freiburg, enjoying world recognition and visited by numerous fans. By then, there were hardly any notable attacks against him over his collaboration with the Nazis or the unintelligibility of his philosophy. Only the writer Günter Grass once derided him in his novel “Dog Years”, just like Aristophanes had earlier derided Socrates in his play “The Clouds”.

Martin Heidegger breathed his last and died quietly on May 26th, 1976. According to his wishes, he was buried in his native village, observing a church ceremony.

So, what kind of philosopher was Heidegger? What did he posit as the Truly Existing? What did he contribute to philosophy, compared to other, previous philosophers of the Modern Era? Is any philosophy possible after he’s gone? Or existentialism is God’s last attempt to become aware of Himself on the eve of His genuine incarnation?

As is the custom, God, having reached in His development the stage of being a Human, was tempted with His Reflection and deified the Subject of His cognition, i. e. Nature. His shy attempts to turn to Himself, to Subject proper would, as a rule, end up with estranging of Himself some essential Property and positing It as a basis of that very Nature. Thus, Mind was deified, then Life (Soul), and, finally, Body. Subject’s Creative Force was deified, too. In the end, all those attempts proved a failure; although historically necessary, they were doomed from the start, since they proceeded from recognizing Nature, not God, as Truly Existing. Therefore, those attempts could not be crowned with the manifestation of the true God, but only with the accession of an autocrat or a tyrant.

When all those attempts have been carried out, in one way or another, Subject felt the total bleakness of His existence: He was left with a hostile World around Him and moving towards His death. So, nothing seemed left to deify now. But the inventive human mind found a way out here, too. Unlike Sartre, who treats human life as openly absurd and fundamentally causing only nausea, Heidegger strives to attach to human existence whatever, even if the most impossible meaning. He sees in the unsettled, troublesome, mortal human life the manifestation of some primeval, divine Being. Thus, Subject’s “mortality” is now estranged from Him and posited as the basis of Nature.

Earlier, Hegel, trying to overcome the Kant-declared subjectivity of human Knowledge, had asserted that Thinking was dialectical. Heidegger, in his turn, trying to overcome the subjectivity of human existence, virtually asserted that Being was catastrophic and, in purely human terms, It was Nothing, Dark, and Abyss.

Heidegger would complain that bare “what-ness” fell to the modern thinking’s lot, whereas the “theoretical attitude” in our experience of the Surrounding Reality was needed by no means always. He took it into his head to identify some “primeval experience”, which was allegedly prior to the purely “objective” perception of Reality, that is, prior to splitting It into the “Cognizing Subject” and “Cognized Object”. Heidegger regards the natural-science attitude of cognition as “secondary”, “artificial”, and asserts the primacy of an “emotionally experiencing Subject”, Who is countered not by Nature, not by the “world of objects”, but by the “world of meanings”. Therefore, genuine thinking, according to Heidegger, must not give answers, but “put questions”, helping to return to things their “primary” meaning, and restore treating the Surrounding Reality not as an Object of Cognition, but as a Miracle.

In Heidegger’s view, “Being” is elusive exactly by virtue of Its immediate availability. In this connection, he puts forward the idea of Being’s “historical fate”: It now opens Itself to Man, now slips away from Him. Accordingly, modern civilization is the result of developing false ideas of Being, overemphasizing scientific, “object-based” thinking, rooted in human history since the times of Socrates. It turns out that the history of mankind went the wrong way, because Being “went astray”.

So, it is just good, that Man, at last, did feel Its immediate presence! Instead of floundering about in “nausea”, Heidegger, again, suggests returning to a pre-scientific, primitive world view, to primitive way of thinking, to primitive lifestyle. He glorifies the archaic epoch, and extols folk narrators and poets as genuine heralds of Truth. The worldview, opening up in the “light of Being” appears to Heidegger as a “mirror play” or a “round dance”, of two cosmic pairs: Earth and Sky, and People and Gods.

Heidegger has a presentiment of the future return of Being, which would signify the beginning of a new era in the history of mankind, while he regards himself as a forerunner of such a return. No wonder that he mistook the advent of Nazism for the revelation of Being. And yet, he increasingly tended to identify his “Being” with a (personal) God. He said in one of his last interviews, that we must “prepare ourselves for the manifestation of God or for His absence and destruction” At the same time, Heidegger did not seem to condemn Nazism, considering it to be a great epiphanic attempt.

Since Heidegger rejects theology and fails to unequivocally recognize a personal God, he stays within the religion of Nature. Virtually, he remains a philosopher of Nature, and his “Being” is, ultimately, the being of Nature. Still, Heidegger’s covert pathos is the transition from believing in Nature to believing in God, it is the expectation of the end of the modern era and the anticipation of some new Beginning.

This anticipation was shared by the most sensitive thinkers, Heidegger’ kindred spirits. Even his female friend, Hanna Arendt, penetrating into his teaching with her loving feminine mind, tried to reinterpret his “being-towards-death” as “being-towards-beginning”, towards a new birth. A religious existentialist philosopher, G. Marcel, noted that secularization had led to creating and worshipping the idols of Mind, Nation, or Social Class. The theologian R. Guardini speaks bluntly of the end of Modern Times: “Evidently, Man had first to lose His natural and cultural wealth, so as, thanks to this misery, He could reveal Himself anew, as a naked personality, standing before God. Maybe, the “mist of secularization” with dissipate, and a new day of history will start. The same sentiment has been expressed with the utmost simplicity by K. Jaspers: “The very fact that we’ve survived, must have certain significance”.


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