Key Theories of Martin Heidegger

Husserl’s student Martin Heidegger  (1889–1976) proved to be one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century, and the major modern exponent of existentialism. His impact extends not only to existentialist philosophers such as Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir but also to psychiatrists such as Ludwig Binswanger and to theologians such as Rudolf Bultmann, Paul Tillich, Martin Buber, and Karl Barth, as well as to poststructuralist thinkers such as Jacques Derrida. Influenced by the phenomenological method of his mentor as well as by writers in the hermeneutic tradition of Friedrich Schleiermacher and Wilhelm Dilthey, Heidegger’s central project consisted in a radical reexamination of the notion of “being,” in its intrinsic relationship with time. His major work, Sein und Zeit (Being and Time), was published in 1927, making an immediate impact in both the halls of professional philosophy and the educated reading public. Heidegger argued that we had inadequately addressed the question of what Being is, and that the answer to this question would determine the future of humankind. Heidegger, moreover, developed his own hermeneutic or method of interpretation of texts; his later work focuses increasingly on the analysis of poetry and language.

maxresdefaultBorn into a Roman Catholic family, Heidegger was originally trained in theology, writing a thesis on Duns Scotus (1915); his philosophical studies at Freiberg University, where Husserl was Professor of Philosophy, brought him into contact with the work of Husserl and Brentano, as well as thinkers in the neo-Kantian tradition of Windelband and Rickert. Heidegger was appointed Professor of Philosophy at the University of Marburg in 1923; he was subsequently, in 1929, elected Husserl’s successor to the Chair of Philosophy at Freiberg and then elected rector in 1933 under Hitler’s recently inaugurated regime. It was in this year that Heidegger joined the National Socialist Party; in fact, in his inaugural address at the university, The Role of the University in the New Reich, he decried freedom of speech in the interests of national unity, and lauded the advent of a glorious new Germany. He resigned his position as rector in early 1934. Did these events represent merely a brief flirtation on Heidegger’s part with Nazism or an enduring collaboration and commitment? The controversy remains, yet it is undoubted that his work is marked by a vehement nationalism (he thought, for example, that philosophizing was possible only in German and Greek). Other significant works by Heidegger include Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, which offers a new interpretation of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason; and his inaugural lecture, What is Metaphysics?

In his Being and Time (1927) Heidegger insisted that philosophers to date had still failed to answer the question raised by Plato and Aristotle: what is being?1 In this work, Heidegger analyzes what he terms dasein or human being. What characterizes human being is its “thrownness” into the world or “facticity”: a human being is already cast into a series of relationships and surroundings that constitute his or her “world” (BT, 82–83). A second feature is “existentiality” or “transcendence,” whereby a human being appropriates her world, impressing on it the unique image of her own existence and potential. In other words, she uses the various elements of her world as given to realize herself (BT, 235–236). Yet this positive feature is accompanied by a third characteristic, that of “fallenness”: in attempting to create herself, the human being falls from true Being, becoming immersed instead in the distractions of day-to-day living, becoming entangled in particular beings (BT, 220). The authentic being, the authentic self, is thus buried beneath the cares and distractions of life (BT, 166–168).

How does a human being overcome such inauthentic existence, such loss of true being? Heidegger’s answers to this question comprise one of the classic statements of existentialism. Inauthenticity consists in losing sight of the unity of human being, of human existence, caused by attention to the practical interests and cares of daily existence; human being is thereby prescinded and experienced as a series of desultory phenomena. Heidegger suggests that there is one particular state of mind which is unique: “dread” or angst (BT, 227–235). This refers to a sense of nothingness, of loss, of the emptiness, when we look at life or existence in its totality, as essentially oriented toward death. In such a mood, the human self attains knowledge of itself as a whole, as “being-to-death.” In other words, death is the fundamental fact that shapes our existence and the course of our life. And the mental state of “dread” enables us to rise above our immanence, our dispersion in the immediate and transitory affairs of the world, to reflect upon our life as a whole, in the fullest glare of its finitude and its potential to lack meaning (BT, 293–299). The vehicle through which we acknowledge this responsibility to ourselves is “conscience,” which acknowledges both our facticity, our being placed within a world and our obligation actively to fashion our selves in relation to this very world. Conscience makes us aware of this guilt or obligation (BT, 313, 317–319).

Like Bergson, Heidegger views time as integral to the constitution of the self or human being. As in Bergson’s concept of durée or “internal” time (as opposed to mechanical “clock” time which merely spatializes time), time for Heidegger is integral to being; it is the profoundest substratum of human existence (BT, 466–472). What Heidegger calls existential time is time that is unique to a particular person’s consciousness; a person’s life, her traversing of the journey between birth and death, is most fundamentally constituted by time (BT, 376). Hence, her sense of existential responsibility is a temporal notion, lying in the ability to view her life from beginning to end (to a projected end) (BT, 395–396). This ability to situate my present (immersed inauthentically in temporary distractions) within a broader context of past and future, this attempt actively to engage in the world into which I have been cast, this assertion of my freedom in the midst of determination, is seen by Heidegger as living out one’s “destiny” (BT, 416–417, 436–437).

In his later works, such as Introduction to Metaphysics (1953), Heidegger warns that we have fallen away from Being and have lost ourselves in the distractions of worldly and proximate aims, as well as in technology and gadgetry. In tones which are reminiscent of Husserl, Heidegger wishes to save Western man from this dire fate. Ironically, like humanists such as Arnold, he attaches overwhelming importance to poetry in this salvific enterprise. The works of Heidegger which directly concern literary theory and criticism include The Origin of the Work of Art (1935), Hölderlin and the Essence of Poetry (1936), and Language (1950). In these later works, Heidegger appeals increasingly to the power of poetry to express the truths of authentic being. Indeed, in his essay The Origin of the Work of Art, Heidegger states that the origin of a work of art is art itself: “art is by nature an origin: a distinctive way in which truth comes into being, that is, becomes historical.”2 We can attempt to follow Heidegger’s elaboration of these general statements. He defines art as “the setting-into-work of truth.” This process has two aspects: art fixes truth in place within a particular figure, and it also preserves truth. Heidegger broadens his definition of art to “the creative preserving of truth in the work. Art then is the becoming and happening of truth” (PLT, 71). What Heidegger seems to be indicating here is that art does not simply express prior or ready-made truths: rather, it both creates truths and preserves them, the latter being a historical function, for, as Heidegger says, art grounds history (PLT, 77). Heidegger proceeds to say that, in the midst of ordinary objects, art “breaks open an open place, in whose openness everything is other than usual . . . everything ordinary and hitherto existing becomes an unbeing” (PLT, 72). Hence, art has the power to transform our earlier and “ordinary” conceptions of truth, exposing the unreality of the arrangements of our ordinary life, releasing us from the closure and rigidity of conventional perception. Heidegger states that the “truth that discloses itself in the work [of art] can never be proved or derived from what went before” (PLT, 75).

Like many twentieth-century theorists, Heidegger insists that language has an important role beyond its merely communicative function: “language alone brings what is . . . into the Open for the first time . . . Language, by naming beings for the first time, first brings beings to word and to appearance” (PLT, 73). The emphasis here is characteristic of Heidegger’s later, somewhat mystically oriented, writing: language not only creates but also reveals the true being that is already there, bringing this being to the light of expression. In this sense, language “itself is poetry.” Poetry “takes place in language because language preserves the original nature of poetry” (PLT, 74). Heidegger calls this type of revelation of being through language and poetry “projective” statement. Such projection renounces the “dim confusion” which conceals things, and brings to light what was previously “unsayable.” Such revelations, such bringing of realities to light and exposing the narrowness of previous conceptions, is projective also in a historical sense: it lays the groundwork for a people’s understanding of itself, its self-image and its entrance into world history (PLT, 74).

Given this historical function and nature of art, Heidegger insists that, just as poetic as the actual creation of a work of art is the process of its preservation. He proceeds to affirm that the “nature of poetry, in turn, is the founding of truth.” He sees “founding” as consisting of “bestowing,” “grounding,” and as “beginning” (PLT, 75). A genuine beginning, he says, is always a leap, and “always contains the undisclosed abundance of the unfamiliar and the extraordinary, which means that it also contains strife with the familiar and ordinary. Art as poetry is founding . . . of the strife of truth” (PLT, 76). Hence, whenever “art happens,” Heidegger explains, “history either begins or starts over again” (PLT, 77). In other words, art’s relation to history is one of founding but also of strife, since it transforms the fundamental concepts and truths by which individuals and nations live.

In his epilogue, Heidegger quotes Hegel’s statement that in the modern era, art is no longer the highest expression of truth, this function having been assumed by philosophy. Heidegger points to the fact that in the work of art, the truth of being appears as beauty: “the beautiful belongs to the advent of truth . . . It does not exist merely relative to pleasure” (PLT, 81). In other words, in contrast with some modern affective theories which view beauty as a function of the taste or pleasure of the reader or listener, Heidegger views beauty as intrinsic to the expression of truth in art. In Western thought, he says, there is “concealed a peculiar confluence of beauty with truth” (PLT, 81). Ironically, perhaps, Heidegger’s position here hints at a return to Platonic and even medieval conceptions of the connection between being, truth, and beauty.

In Hölderlin and the Essence of Poetry (1936), Heidegger develops certain insights of the poet Hölderlin. The first of these is that poetry is the “most innocent of all occupations.”3 Heidegger takes this to refer to poetry’s unfettered invention of a world of images, in the guise of “play” (EB, 272). He attempts to reconcile this insight with Hölderlin’s further comment that language is the “most dangerous of possessions,” given to man so that “he may affirm what he is” (EB, 273). It is language that creates the danger of confusion and loss of existence, of falsehood: “only where there is language, is there world, i.e. the perpetual circuit of decision and production, of action and responsibility” (EB, 274–276).

Hölderlin’s line “We have been a conversation” is analyzed by Heidegger as indicating that only in conversation is language realized, and that the single, unitary “conversation” of man grounds his historical existence: “it is precisely in the naming of the gods, and in the transmutation of the world into word, that the real conversation, which we ourselves are, consists” (EB, 279). Language is indeed “the supreme event of human existence,” and poetry is “the establishing of being by means of the word” (EB, 280–281). Through Hölderlin, we can understand poetry, says Heidegger, as “the inaugural naming of the gods and of the essence of things”:

poetry is the inaugural naming of being and of the essence of all things – not just any speech, but that particular kind which for the first time brings into the open all that which we then discuss and deal with in everyday language. Hence poetry never takes language as a raw material ready to hand, rather it is poetry which first makes language possible. (EB, 283)

In poetry, “man is re-united on the foundation of his existence. There he comes to rest.” As in his earlier essay on the origin of art, Heidegger sees poetry as “an act of firm foundation” (EB, 286). In the language of Hölderlin, the poet stands between the gods and men, interpreting the signs of the gods and making them available to humanity. On the other hand, he is also the voice of the people, and it is these two tendencies in himself that mark his position of “betweenness” (EB, 288–289).

This notion of “betweenness” is developed and imbued with further associations in Heidegger’s subsequent essay Language (1950). Here, Heidegger analyzes a poem entitled Ein Winterabend (A Winter Evening) by Georg Trakl in order to arrive at certain insights into the nature of language. Heidegger’s “analysis,” like much of his later work, is itself written poetically and presents the kind of difficulties that we might encounter in a complex and obscure poem. The style and the insights of this piece anticipate Derrida’s prose, as well as Derrida’s rejection of a distinction between philosophy and literature, between prose and poetry, and between literal and figurative language. Heidegger begins by reaffirming his view that “only speech enables man to be the living being he is as man” (PLT, 189). Given this primordial status of language, Heidegger makes it clear that he does not wish to ground language “in something else that is not language itself ” (PLT, 191). He notes that certain broad views of language have persisted for two and a half millennia. These are: language as expression (whereby something internal is externalized); language as an activity of man; and, finally, language as the presentation or representation of reality or unreality. But these views, says Heidegger, fail to confront language as language. By this, he appears to indicate that language cannot be treated merely as an appendage or adjective of the “human,” an instrument of human communication and self-definition. It is not man, says Heidegger, but language, which speaks: “It is language that first brings man about, brings him into existence.” In this sense, man is “bespoken by language” (PLT, 192–193).

Heidegger’s “explication” of Trakl’s poem anticipates some of the central positions of much reception and reader-response theory. The language of Trakl’s poem, says Heidegger, does not merely name familiar objects such as “snow,” “bell,” “window,” “falling,” and “ringing.” Rather, it “calls into the word . . . The calling calls into itself,” into a “presence sheltered in absence” (PLT, 199). Inasmuch as we can “explain” this statement, we might take it to indicate that language does not name things which are somehow already there, waiting to be named. They achieve their very status as “things” only by being called into the word, only by being given a status, a position, a situation, in language. The status they occupy in the uniqueness of their current combination in language is different from that which they occupied prior to this combination, this current “calling” of language. Moreover, they are called into the act of calling itself: they achieve their very thinghood only in the process of this calling, of which they are an integral element. As things they are called into “presence”; but this is not a literal or immediate presence. The “falling snow” of which the poem speaks is not actually present in the immediate world of the listener or reader: it is called into presence in her mind, hence it is a “presence sheltered in absence.”

The various images of the poem, according to Heidegger, such as snowfall, the vesper bell, house, and table set with bread and wine, evoke respectively the sky, the divine, mortals, and earth. Heidegger refers to this combination as the “unitary fourfold” which makes up the “world” (PLT, 199). It is this “world” that is called into being by the things that are named in the poem: “In the naming, the things named are called into their thinging. Thinging, they unfold world, in which things abide . . . The world grants to things their presence. Things bear world.” Language speaks by “bidding things come to world, and world to things . . . For world and things do not subsist alongside one another. They penetrate each other” (PLT, 199–200, 202). If “world” expresses the core elements of a vision of unity or totality (sky, earth, mortals, divinities), and “things” express isolated features within that world (such as snowfall, or the ringing of a bell), the language that names these things does not merely name them in their isolation previous to the poem; rather, it names them as things in their current mutual combination, and as such, it is language which brings into visibility – into being – the bearing by each thing of its participation in a larger scheme, the self-gesturing of each thing toward its own essential relatedness, its implication of its own environment. In other words, language allows things to achieve their thinghood by bringing to light the “world” borne by them or implicitly contained within them. A thing becomes a thing only by release, through the power of language, from its bare immediate particular existence (a condition that can be only hypothetical) and access into its own mediation by more general categories, access into the fullness of its thinghood as part of a relational complex through the naming of it in language.

Heidegger’s further explication of this situation appears to anticipate certain features of Derrida’s notion of difference. He states that the “intimacy of world and thing is not a fusion.” There is a persistent separation between the two. Between world and thing prevails a condition of “betweenness,” or what Heidegger calls dif-ference where the latter part of this noun may refer to the “bearing” or “carrying” of world by thing. The intimacy of world and thing, says Heidegger, “is present in the separation of the between; it is present in the dif-ference. The word dif-ference is now removed from its usual and customary usage. What it now names is not a generic concept for various kinds of differences. It exists only as this single difference” (PLT, 202). This formulation anticipates Derrida’s hypostatization of difference – his treating of it as a primordial essence, a linguistic primum mobile, an aseitic first cause prescinded from the very relationality into which it plunges all else. But what can Heidegger possibly intend? He has told us that it is language which speaks, language which brings together world and things in their intimacy which is a relation of absolute difference. He proceeds to tell us that the “dif-ference carries out world in its worlding, carries out things in their thinging. Thus carrying them out, it carries them toward one another” (PLT, 202). The neologisms “thinging” and “worlding” represent an extension of the gerund verbal form to the nouns “thing” and “world.” In everyday language, the gerund form (which has the form of the present participle, such as “singing”), could be used as the subject of a sentence (“singing is healthy”) or as an object (“she likes singing”). What is thereby emphasized, by the ending “ing,” is not a noun (such as “song”) but the act of singing. Hence, Heidegger’s extension of this verbal form to a noun such as “world,” transforming this into “worlding,” draws attention to the world not as a thing but as an act; to be more accurate, it stresses the nature of the world or thing as an act. Hence, it is language, language that speaks, which brings the processes of world-composition and thing-composition into the mutuality in which alone either can be realized.

Heidegger proceeds to explain that the “dif-ference does not mediate after the fact by connecting world and things through a middle added on to them. Being in the middle, it first determines world and things in their presence, i.e. in their being toward one another, whose unity it carries out” (PLT, 202). In other words, dif-ference is not an external relation that connects two entities (world and thing) that are already there: rather, dif-ference is internal to their relation, shaping the very entities themselves. Heidegger insists, then, that the word is not merely our way of representing a distinction between objects; nor is it merely a relation between world and thing. If language speaks by bidding, by calling “thing and world, what is really called is: the dif-ference” (PLT, 203). Language speaks by bidding “thing-world and world-thing, to come to the between of the dif-ference. What is so bidden is commanded to arrive from out of the dif-ference into the dif-ference” (PLT, 206). If dif-ference primordially preexists identity, if dif-ference is prior to the constitution of world and thing, then language is the vehicle by which world and thing are called into being, through mutual relation, from this primordial dif-ference into the dif-ference which is language itself: “Language goes on as the taking place or occurring of the dif-ference for world and things” (PLT, 207). What ultimately takes place in the speaking of language is the creation of what is human: “What has thus taken place, human being, has been brought into its own by language” (PLT, 208). Man speaks, says Heidegger, “in that he responds to language,” and “mortals live in the speaking of language” (PLT, 210).

While much of what Heidegger says in these later works leans toward mysticism, his insights into language overlap with those of many modern theorists such as Barthes and even Lacan. Heidegger indicates not only that the human being is “thrown” into the world (his or her particular world), but also that the human is characterized by a thrownness into language. It is the language that we are born into (not this or that particular language but language in general) that speaks through us and that speaks to us. At the core of language is dif-ference, the irreducible relation between world and thing, the irreducible self-transcendence of all of the elements of our world in a larger unity toward which they point; it is language that constitutes the human; all of our attempts to understand and act upon the world and thereby to create ourselves are mediated by the speaking of language, a speaking in which we must enter to find our own voice. In other words, it is when we arrive at a dialogue with language that we truly speak.


1 Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), pp. 19, 21–23. Hereafter cited as BT. Given the necessarily brief nature of my account, I have referred the reader to passages that provide useful summaries or definitions of important terms.
2 “The Origin of the Work of Art,” in Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York and London: Harper and Row, 1975), p. 78. Hereafter cited as PLT.
3 “Hölderlin and the Essence of Poetry,” trans. Douglass Scott, in Martin Heidegger, Existence and Being, ed. Werner Brock (Indiana: Gateway, 1949), p. 270. Hereafter cited as EB.


Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Reader Response Criticism

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