By Christopher Wink | Feb. 26, 2008 | 1,002 words
Martin Heidegger was born poor and Catholic in a rural village of southern Germany. Believers in fate will know that he was destined to go to university, take academic ranks in Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist Party, fall out of favor, regain a position of scholarly authority and become, today, one of the most highly regarded philosophic minds of the 20th Century.
There is little debate that the most important work contributed by Heidegger (1889 to 1976) was Sein und Zeit, published in 1927 and quickly translated in English as Being and Time. By most accounts, it was written in haste and, indeed, never completed the goals he set for himself in the introduction he wrote, yet it remains a fundamental work of Western philosophy. Using that and other precepts ascribed to the man, what follows will, in great brevity, review some of his powerful conceptions of the great questions of philosophy has ever posed, those of existence, of being and of death.
There is no beginning without a question of existence, something Heidegger was posted to take on. He was plagued thoughts on why there is something and not nothing. In his very introduction, Heidegger seems to suggest that others overlook this, the most basic, and necessary, of questions. If we can come to understand being, we can understand what makes being, and, how, in that way, something might approach being. What does it take for me to approach being a lobster, beyond physiology? There are fundamental aspects to being a lobster, or a couch, for source of argument. Then, it becomes important to come to grasp why there is a lobster, or a couch or finger nail clippers, to understand why, instead, there exists nothingness. The difficulty, of course, becomes that, as a being myself, I cannot pursue definitions of myself without further complicating them with my own biases of understanding who, what, where and even why I am.
One of his most involved interpretations is that of that being we try to define. For Heidegger, there are three staples of self, facticity, existentiality and in-authenticity. Facticity is a questioning of who one is by determination of those who surround him. The first self I am is the self they tell me I am, and I did not choose them. At birth, we do not choose our parents, our home, our physical, emotional or mental gifts or anything else of the sort. From our very beginning, the facts of who we are are determined by outside forces, unknown to us. I am tall and white, gifted in some areas and lacking in others, very largely due, not to my own choices, but by a swarm of factors I will likely never fully appreciate or understand. The sooner I accept these decisions made for me, embrace them even, the sooner I can pass this, the first step in understanding my being.
The next is existentiality, perhaps the fundamental question of being. Wherever there is the already-of me, there is the not-yet me. We as people grow and expand and mature and develop and fall and stand and more, with dazzling grace and puzzling disaster. While too many wallow in what has been, too few understand we are not solely defined by what we have been. This backward thinking, linear understanding of our being limits us, indeed, harms us by forcing that we evaluate mistakes made with knowledge since acquired. Instead, it is more valuable that once we be, wherever or however that is, we afford the inevitability of being there again, in almost certainly a different form.
Lastly is inauthenticity, the most human of all dilemmas. We feel the very weight of ourselves, and so society has developed to share that burden, but there is difficulty understanding how much of others we can use as our own before we lose who we are now and are meant to become. Individuality is lauded without a full appreciation of what such a task requires. Our being, with all the specificity and complications that existence involves, is so highly classified that, it might, to some, offer us preclusion from an interaction of true human interest. The defense of this is society, a collection of commonalities and agreements. The social contract, as many call it, long evolved and disparately disseminated, is meant to offer the protection and safety of the similar. We can embrace having experiences of surprising common theme. We watch the same television, and see the same sights and feel, it so often stands, the same emotions. This affords a connection, but threatens an understanding of me as an individual being. The irony, of course, is that a challenged authenticity, burdening our being in the fight between comfort and sense of self, is likely the most encircling of all human experiences.
Scores of questions that plagued the great minds of Western civilization were lost on Heidegger, cast aside as trivial, trite or boring. Instead, he was fascinated with the idea of death as a possible interpretive factor in our lives.
On that issue of death, Heidegger confronted Epicurus (341 to 270 B.C.E.), the historic Greek philosopher of sizable influence himself. Where I am, death is not, Epicurus roughly wrote. Where death is, I am not. In response, Heidegger espoused that there were two elemental schools of thought. If death is an actuality, then it is the stage of one’s life when the being is at its end. If, rather, death is a possibility, then it is the stage of one’s life when the being is towards its end. The difference is remarkable.
Perhaps more remarkable still is how interrelated these three topics of existence, being and death, are. Understanding existence comes with the complication of death and its dispute with being. Understanding being involves capturing existence and fearing death. Understanding death is knowing its conflict with being and sourcing of existence. No questions as to why Heidegger, social rhetoric and personal background aside, is so highly regarded in the sizeable world of Western thought.
Text as was prepared after a reading of Heidegger’s work for a relgion class at Temple University.