The greater part of Martin Heidegger’s writings consists of lecture courses delivered during his years of teaching, but he also employed a number of other genres: treatise, dialogue, essay. Many of his essays were first delivered orally before reaching a broad audience through publication. These pieces include some of the most dramatic and provocative of his works. While they cannot serve as complete guides to his thought, they are highly successful as stimulants which serve to indicate that a certain topic is, as the Heideggerian expression has it, “worthy of questioning.”
Heidegger’s first influential essay was his inaugural lecture, “Was ist
Metaphysik?” (1929; “What Is Metaphysics?”)—a piece that is cited by almost all existentialists thereafter—but it was in the postwar period that the essay became his primary form of expression. His essays treat a broad range of topics: truth, art, theology, the poetry of Hölderlin, the nature of language, critiques of traditional philosophy. They also explore several subgenres. Many are exegetical essays, focused on the elucidation of a brief philosophical or poetic text. Others, such as “Brief über den Humanismus” (1947; “Letter on Humanism”) and “Zur Seinsfrage” (1956; “The Question of Being”) are epistolary essays, open letters to Jean Beaufret (and indirectly to Jean-Paul Sartre) and to Ernst Jünger, respectively.
Heidegger often begins, ends, or titles his essays with questions. An initial question is soon transformed into a surprising or enigmatic position, such as the assertion that “the essence of technology is by no means anything technological,” in “Die Frage nach der Technik” (1954; “The Question Concerning Technology”). This process of transformation continues in carefully crafted but bold steps, leading to a conclusion that frequently faces the audience with a riddle. The classic example here is the final line of “What Is Metaphysics?”: “Why are there beings at all, and why not rather nothing?”
Heidegger’s purpose is not to answer these questions, but to raise them—to make the problems they express come alive for his audience. An essay by Heidegger is not a linear argument directed toward proving a thesis; it is a path, sometimes a circuitous one, on which we are meant to learn the art of thinking. Heidegger titles one of his collections of essays Holzwege, or “woodpaths.” In German, to be on a Holzweg means to be lost, or on a wild goose chase; but for Heidegger, striking out on woodpaths, even if they are dead ends, is the only way to get to know the woods. The statements we encounter on these paths must always be read in the context of the movement of the essay as a whole; readers must develop an ear for the provisional and even ironic tone in which Heidegger writes many of his sentences, for he is likely to challenge the assumptions on which these assertions rest when he takes the next step in his thought.
Heidegger shows a gift for apothegms: “language is the house of being” (“Letter on Humanism”), “questioning is the piety of thought” (“The Question Concerning Technology”). He prefers a spare, concentrated style that loads each crucial word with many meanings by drawing on its phonetic and etymological resonances with other words in the essay. These resonances often prove quite difficult or impossible to translate, as when Heidegger writes in “Der Weg zur Sprache” (1959; “The Way to Language”), “Das Ereignis ereignet in seinem Er-äugen…” (roughly, “the event appropriates in its envisaging…”). This is poetic prose that depends on a gradual accumulation of sounds and senses. Heidegger both respects the history of language and is willing to experiment boldly with words and typography in order to allow this history to point us toward being itself, or the overall significance of things. He also makes demands of a different sort on his readers: he assumes that they are thoroughly familiar with the history of philosophy, so that they will understand a quotation in Greek from
Aristotle or a passing reference to Hegel.
Political questions are often in the background of Heidegger’s postwar essays, and many contemporary critics focus on this dimension of the texts. Heidegger is given to the trope of claiming that what ultimately matters is not some concrete fact of pressing urgency (the atom bomb, the housing crisis, poverty) but its basis or analogue in the “history of being”—which he himself is in the best position to interpret. The most notorious example is found in “Die Gefahr” (wr. 1949; Danger), where Heidegger claims that mechanized agriculture is “essentially the same” as death camps, for both are rooted in a technological understanding of being. One may surmise that these claims served as a reassurance for postwar German audiences seeking to transcend the all-too-troubling facts of their recent past, and as an apologia for Heidegger’s own choices during the Nazi period.
Heidegger’s style lends itself to imitation, as is proved by the work of many commentators and followers. Jacques Derrida’s essays take many Heideggerian mannerisms to an extreme (for example, Derrida has often adopted the practice of crossing out words in a text—a technique used by Heidegger in “The Question of Being”). Others, such as Anglo-American analytic philosophers, have denounced Heideggerian phrases such as “the nothing nothings” (das Nichts selbst nichtet) as absurdities. The latter phrase, in particular, which stems from “What Is Metaphysics?,” was asserted by Rudolf Carnap to be strictly meaningless in his influential essay “Uberwindung der Metaphysik durch logische Analyse der Sprache” (1932; “The Elimination of Metaphysics Through Logical Analysis of Language”). Today, however, when Carnap’s own “logical positivism” has long fallen out of fashion, and in a period which is more tolerant of linguistic experimentation, Heidegger’s essays find a wide audience in the English-speaking world.
Born 26 April 1889 in Messkirch. Studied at gymnasia in Konstanz and Freiburg, 1903– 09; the University of Freiburg, 1909–13, Ph.D., 1913. Military service, 1915–18.
Lecturer, 1915–23, and assistant to Edmund Husserl, 1920–23, University of Freiburg.
Married Elfride Petri, 1917: two sons and one daughter. Associate professor of philosophy, University of Marburg, 1923–28; professor of philosophy, 1928–51, chancellor, 1933–34 (resigned), and professor emeritus, 1951–57, University of Freiburg.
Banned from teaching by occupation forces, 1945–50. Member, Academy of Fine Arts, Berlin; Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts. Died in Freiburg, 26 May 1976.
Essays and Related Prose
Existence and Being, edited by Werner Brock, translated by Douglas Scott, R.F.C.Hull, and Alan Crick, 1949
Vorträge und Aufsätze, 3 vols., 1954
Was heisst Denken? (lectures), 1954; as What Is Called Thinking?, translated by Fred D.Wieck and J.Glenn Gray, 1968
Was ist das—die Philosophie, 1956; as What Is Philosophy?, translated by Jean T.Wilde and William Kluback, 1958
Zur Seinsfrage, 1956; as The Question of Being, translated by Jean T.Wilde and William Kluback, 1958
Identität und Differenz, 1957; as Identity and Difference, translated by Kurt F.Leidecker, 1960, and Joan Stambaugh, 1969
Unterwegs zur Sprache, 1959; as On the Way to Language, translated by Joan Stambaugh and Peter D.Hertz, 1971
Gelassenheit, 1959; as Discourse on Thinking, translated by John M.Anderson and E.Hans Freund, 1966
Zur Sache des Denkens, 1969; as On Time and Being, translated by Joan Stambaugh, 1972
Poetry, Language, Thought, translated by Albert Hofstadter, 1971
Early Greek Thinking, translated by David Farrell Krell and Frank Capuzzi, 1975
The Piety of Thinking, translated by James G.Hart and John C. Maraldo, 1976
The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, translated by William Lovitt, 1977
Basic Writings (various translators), edited by David Farrell Krell, 1977; revised, enlarged edition, 1993
Other writings: many philosophical works.
Collected works edition: Gesamtausgabe, 48 vols., 1975–94 (in progress; 100 vols. projected).
Guignon, Charles B., editor, The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993:358–80
Nordquist, Joan, Martin Heidegger: A Bibliography, Santa Cruz, California: Reference and Research Service, 1990
Sass, Hans-Martin, Heidegger-Bibliographie, Meisenheim-on-Glan: Hain, 1968
Sass, Hans-Martin, and others, Materialien zu einer HeideggerBibliographie, Meisenheim-on-Glan: Hain, 1975
Sass, Hans-Martin, Martin Heidegger: Bibliography and Glossary, Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Philosophy Documentation Center, 1982
Anderson, John M., Introduction to Discourse on Thinking by Heidegger, New York: Harper and Row, 1966
Bailiff, John, “Truth and Power: Martin Heidegger, The Essence of Truth,’ and The Self- Assertion of the German University’,” Man and World 20 (August 1987):327–36
Biemel, Walter, “On the Composition and Unity of Holzwege,” in Continental Philosophy in America, edited by Hugh J.Silverman, John Sallis, and Thomas M.Seebohm, Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1983
Caputo, John D., Demythologizing Heidegger, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993
Dauenhauer, Bernard P., “Heidegger, the Spokesman for the Dweller,” Southern Journal of Philosophy 15 (Summer 1977): 189–99
Fritsche, Johannes, “On Brinks and Bridges in Heidegger,” Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 18, no. 1 (1995):111–86
Hofstadter, Albert, Introduction to Poetry, Language, Thought by Heidegger, New York: Harper and Row, 1971
Kockelmans, Joseph J., “Heidegger on Theology,” Southwestern Journal of Philosophy 4 (Fall 1973):85–108
Krell, David Farrell, “Schlag der Liebe, Schlag des Todes: On a Theme in Heidegger and Trakl,” Research in Phenomenology 7 (1977):238–58
Lovitt, William, Introduction to The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays by Heidegger, New York and London: Harper and Row, 1977
Maly, Kenneth, “Toward ‘Ereignis’,” Research in Phenomenology 3 (1973):63–93
Sheehan, Thomas J., “Getting to the Topic: The New Edition of Wegmarken,” in Radical Phenomenology: Essays in Honor of Martin Heidegger, edited by John Sallis, Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1978
Singh, R.Raj, “Heidegger and the World-Yielding Role of Language,” Journal of Value Inquiry 27 (April 1993):203–14
Spanos, William V., editor, Martin Heidegger and the Question of Literature: Towards a Postmodern Literary Hermeneutics, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979
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