Nur ein Gott kann uns noch retten: Only a god can save us.
Heidegger, interview in Der Spiegel, May 31st, 1976

I work for my own ‘I am’ and my particular spiritual origins.
1921 letter to Karl Lowith

For us contemporaries the greatness of what is to be thought is too great.
Heidegger, interview in Der Spiegel, May 31st, 1976

In a lecture on Aristotle, Martin Heidegger began with the sparse sentence: he was born, he worked and he died. It was as if Heidegger was tersely suggesting that what mattered in any philosopher was not related to their individual lives but to their thought. Yet the remark belies Heidegger’s own penetrating insights into the entangled nature of human existence and the ever-changing history of self-consciousness. For the very fact that Aristotle was the son of a particular physician, a Macedonian and not a Greek, and that he came to Athens in the year 367 BCE to study under Plato, were decisive events not only in the man’s life, but also in the particular formation of his tempered and dissecting thought. The same is true of this philosopher.

If Martin Heidegger had not been born in 1889 – the same year as Adolf Hit- ler – the son of a Roman Catholic sexton and master cooper (whose ancestors were peasants and craftsmen), if he had not studied as a young man under the pioneering phenomenologist, Edmund Husserl, and if he had not been formu- lating his interpretation of the human predicament in the same epoch in which the Nazi Party in Germany was coming to ascendancy, he would not have lived the life he did, nor given expression to his own particular idiom of subversive philosophy. The existential and historic intricacies of a person’s existence are all but never incidental to the intellectual labour. And, paradoxically, it is this insight into the temporal nature of the self that lies at the hub of Heidegger’s most influential book, published in 1927, Sein und Zeit: Being and Time.

To begin to understand the revolutionary power of Heidegger’s first major work and its transformative influence on our understanding of identity it is, as always, necessary to put the text in the context of his life and times, of his birth, background and inner struggle. His favourite aphorism, perhaps first discovered by him in Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo, was Pindar’s: become what you are. In this brief existential command was buried a penetrating insight into time, where time future and time past converge in the present moment. But who was Heidegger? What had shaped him and how could he most fully express all that was latent within him. And where did that sense of being belong in the wider realm of Being? From early on these funda- mental questions harried him, and were to haunt him till the end of his life when he began to return to many of the pious Catholic rituals of his youth. And before his death he requested a Catholic burial next to his father in the church of Saint Martin’s where he had served as an altar boy. His life had come full circle.

As a grown man he stubbornly retained his local accent, wore a beret and dressed well, resembling a Black Forest farmer honouring the Sabbath. He loved solitude. He seldom travelled and returned often to his home town which his younger brother, Fritz, never left. The two brothers had served on the altar together, picked flowers for the church and rung the seven bells of the tower to summon the parishioners to worship. The culture was pious and traditional. The pattern of passing days was close to that of Medieval Christendom. The ringing of bells marked the passage of time while the calendar of the church gave a compelling narrative to people’s lives from birth to death, conferring a common rhythm, a metaphysical coherence.

Remembering his childhood Heidegger wrote: The mysterious fugue in which the church feasts, the days of vigil and the passage of the seasons and the morning, midday and evening hours of each day fitted into each other, so that a continual ringing went through the young hearts, dreams, prayers

and games – it is this, probably, that conceals one of the most magical, most complete, and most lasting secrets of the tower. The idea that the self was not separate, not a discreet essence occupying its own independent space, but an inextricable part of the huge rhythm of everything else, seems to be already there in his childhood experience – and not only in the various symbolic rituals of the church, but equally in his involvement with the daily life of the lo- cal farms and the cycle of the seasons. His philosophy always had a profound inner relationship to the culture and landscape of the Black Forest.

And Heidegger was especially proud that his grandfather, on his father’s side, had been born in a remote sheepfold on an isolated farm beneath high crags in the valley of the Danube. Fittingly, he scribbled a note recording the incident in the margins of a lecture he had given in 1942 on the poetry of Hölderlin. No doubt, Heidegger’s famous epigrammatic utterance that the human being was not the Lord of beings but the Shepherd of Being had its animating source here in the memory of his family. Not unlike Wordsworth, he saw himself as a philosophical witness to his own cultural and rural inheritance. Even his surname, deriving from die Heide denoting heathland and moorland, carries the cadence of the wild. In fact, Heidegger had an uncanny sensibility to the mood of place, the quiddity of things, the machinery lying out in the farm yards, functional implements shaped by the blacksmith and cooper, as well as religious icons displayed in the local houses and the church of Saint Martin’s. But, slowly, he came to recognize that, due to huge historic changes in consciousness set in motion during the Renaissance and Industrial Revolution, their value may have changed forever.

After he had completed his education at the junior school, the parish priest at Messkirch urged his talented pupil to join the Catholic seminary in Con- stance. In 1903 Heidegger entered the residential seminary and, then, in 1906 moved to the seminary at Freiburg. Bent over a desk he mastered the logic of Thomas Aquinas, while on bended knee he received the sacraments of the Eucharist and Confession. It was a total immersion and, for a time, he envisaged himself becoming a priest of the church. He joined the League of the Grail, an evangelical wing of the Catholic Youth Movement, and began writing polemical articles. He was quick to attack the spirit of Modernism. Lashing out at the dandy Oscar Wilde and the solitary Ni- etzsche, he condemned the narcissistic cult of personality. As for the Über- mensch, it was to be redeemed by the joint action of supernatural grace and received theological wisdom.

At this early stage of his life, Heidegger was committed to a triad of interlocking energies: faith, tradition and what he named, the Transcendental value of Life. The scholastic logic he had mastered in his study of Aristo- tle and Aquinas was regarded as the structural correlate to the ineffable mysteries of devout faith. This curious amalgam of abstract argument and mystical intuition was to become the, often baffling, hallmark of nearly all his later work.

However, gradually, Heidegger began to doubt, especially to question the concept of the immortal soul and the various ontological arguments which supported it. It was an uncertain and ambivalent movement of inner reflection taking place over a number of years. In 1907, Heidegger read Franz Brentano’s The Manifold Meaning of Being according to Aristotle. Using the concept of intentionality Brentano proposed a third realm between inner subjective ideas and external things.The self was already in and of the world; the who and the what were bound inextricably together, part of one manifold. The book flashed a beam of searing light over the iron grid of Heidegger’s assumptions. He later described how he had taken the book with him on long country hikes and pored over it for hours. The transformative encounter was not unlike that of the young Nietzsche discovering the work of Schopenhauer in a second-hand bookshop in Leipzig. The first part of the title of Brentano’s book could be raised as a philosophical banner to stand over what was to become Heidegger’s immense body of writing. The notion of intentionality, a term dramatically resurrected from scholastic philosophy for a further understanding of consciousness, was to become central to Heidegger’s conception of an embodied self continually trying to make sense of the multi-woven world in which it had been, without consent, dramatically plunged. He was later to call Brentano the rod and staff of his early philosophical breakthrough. With it he could beat his own path through the thick theological undergrowth to achieve a primary sense of exist- ence itself: philosophy as the explicit seizure of factual life.

In 1916 Heidegger submitted his thesis The Doctrine of Categories and Meanings in Duns Scotus. Following the phenomenology of Franz Bren- tano and Edmund Husserl (whose seminal Logical Investigations had been published in 1900) Heidegger explored the ways in which consciousness manifested itself in the actual world of immediate life, here, now, not in the recorded text, but in the moment of experience Like the English poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, a few decades before him, Heidegger was cap- tivated by Duns Scotus’s concept of haecceitas: the specific thisness and thusness of each thing. Along with the concept of intentionality, the term was to become crucial. It lay at the heart of his analysis and to a general return back to the things themselves, things which had been dimmed under layers of concealing presupposition and linguistic dust.

Even so, in this early academic study the scholastic concept of universals and of a logic transcending space and time is still in full play. At this stage, a decade or so before Sein und Zeit, Heidegger’s work is half Catholic theology and half phenomenological philosophy. Aquinas is there, but so are the dissident voices of Brentano, Husserl and William Dilthey. Then, as Heidegger began to listen more and more faithfully to the voices within and without, to the scream and scrum of actual and historic consciousness, the fragile compound began to break. Almost in spite of himself and his Catholic polemic, his inherited metaphysics was beginning to melt in the fiery crucible of modern thought.

Around this time of growing doubt, Heidegger began to engage more fully with the Protestant spirit of defiance and experiment. Inspired by his friend Rudolf Bultmann, he plunged into the writing of Paul and Augustine, Martin Luther and Søren Kierkegaard, and could see, at once, their indelible mark on the history of western consciousness. He admired their singularity of vision, their notion of existential time – that ringing moment of individual salvation – as much as their proclamation of freedom, their right to follow their own thoughts, to act as individual witnesses. More and more, he felt the need to free himself from the authoritarian elements of Catholicism so that he could contemplate his own encounter with the numinous and make his own sense of the development of philosophy. As a young man he was traversing the path of western culture: from Aristotle and the Greek philosophers, to Catholicism (under the shaping powers of Augustine and, later, Aquinas) to the Protestant Reformation (especially Luther) through to the prophetic figures of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, to the first phenomenologists: Brentano and his mentor, Husserl. It was a profound act of recapitulation: a stepping back to step forward. And as he studied the seminal texts he became convinced that the movement was shaped by an inner teleology, requiring a further sum- mation. He envisaged he was living inside a hidden flow of a yet to be fully consummated revelation. After the First World War, in a defeated Germany it was a period of apocalyptic uncertainty. The Greek appreciation of ‘the right moment’ kairos and the Pauline expectancy of parousia were never far from his intellectual imagination.

One other experience played an important part in Heidegger’s measured but decisive shift from Catholic theology: his marriage in 1917 to the Prot- estant, Elfride Petri. The marriage took place in the university chapel of Freiburg but within two years, at the birth of his first son, Heidegger de- cided to break finally from the Church. Later in 1921 he wrote a long letter to Karl Lewith, the priest who had married the couple, openly confessing that he was no longer able to conform. Sounding like a twentieth-century Luther, Heidegger thundered: I do only what I must do and what I believe to be necessary, and I do it as my powers permit. I do not embellish my philosophical labours with cultural requirements suitable for a vague his- torical present. He continued: I work for my own ‘I am’ and my particular spiritual origins. From this facticity surges the fury of ‘Existence.’

The letter marked the beginning of a philosophical journey in the traditional sense, an inner search for wisdom or what Heidegger called die Seinsfrage: the quest for being. The Romantic concept of Bildung comes to mind, for the passionate letter captures a formative moment of inner revelation; that sense of the self in a critical stage of change, constantly examining its experience, finding new meanings and having the courage to give them utterance: Here I stand, I can do no other. Like Luther, here was a defiant note of an emerging thinker.

Heidegger’s letter was followed by a number of years of comparative ob- scurity; years that marked a period of creative incubation, of intense read- ing and ruminating, of open drifting and rough drafting. From 1918 to 1923 Heidegger worked as an assistant to Husserl at the University of Freiberg. And it was here that he came to master the emerging terminology and methods of phenomenology. It was a period of learning and unlearning, of agreeing with his mentor, then disagreeing, then starting out again. Often, he retreated to a remote cabin at Todtnauberg where, like Nietzsche before him, on long solitary walks he did much of his most original thinking. Soli- tude was always important to him, a condition for genuine thinking.

But, although he was not widely known, his reputation was beginning to spread among the students at the University of Marburg where he gave his lectures and seminars. In the summer of 1923, Heidegger introduced a series of talks on ontology. The presentations set out to sketch some of the major themes of what would soon become his most influential and systematic book, Sein und Zeit. He subtitled the course: hermeneutics of facticity. Inspired by Brentano, Husserl and Dilthey, Heidegger felt ready to make his own study of existence, of what he had already by this time called Dasein: being there. His students were immediately aware that they were attending the birth of a new intellectual firmament. Hannah Arendt, a young Jewish student who had become his mistress, talked of the ru- mour concerning the arrival of a Hidden God, while another student, Hans George Gadamer, described Heidegger’s intense rhapsodic presentations (given without notes) as possessing the power of elemental events. He was hailed as the magus from Messkirch.

A charismatic weaver of spells, it was clear that Heidegger did not intend to offer a descriptive history of philosophy or a set of useful tools. He sought to immerse his students in an immediate experience of engaged thinking. He offered an exhilarating exploration of the nature of finite existence, but also opened a labyrinth of aporias, which he refused to resolve. Sometimes he talked as if he was in a state of frenzy; at other times he was silent. These open moments of Socratic speech and meditation lay at the heart of his philosophy. (Most of the young students were mesmerised, some were utterly baffled and, at least, one seriously considered suicide.) Heidegger saw what he was doing as a dramatic act: the art of awaking existence to itself.

In these early febrile explorations of a philosophical revolution, three ideas were of particular importance and were to run through all his later thinking. The first concerned the very act of thinking. For the young Heidegger phi- losophy had never been a row of canonic texts arranged in chronological order on a library shelf, nor had it been a set of logical procedures moving from the simple to the more complex. He had always been haunted by being – why there was something and not nothing – and perplexed by his own existence. For him, philosophy was a thinking through and out of this primary state of wonder and terror. The mind had somehow to turn back and strike open its own undifferentiated flow. Thinking was an act of reflexive mindfulness. Always provisional, never complete. The problem was how to conceive the everyday moment; how to hold up for understanding the strangely opaque stream of fleeting experience.

To do so, Heidegger employed the metaphors of journeying, of peregrina- tion. He talked about tracks, pathways, clearings. He used the German Weg. The word was all but identical to the Chinese notion of TAO: the way. The Romantic love of peregrination – of just walking – was always present. As we have seen, he was drawn to the notion of aporias, of getting lost, of los- ing one’s path, and of then having to change direction and starting out once again. His long hikes through the Black Forest had become analogues for the existential act of thinking.

Of course, Heidegger never disowned the established philosophical texts or the methods of logic. He saw them as providing a long tradition within which one had no choice but to work. Their influence was present in the very language one had to use, even in the words and syntax of everyday sentences. But the philosophy was there to be taken in, and tussled with: materials for a further de- construction, an inward sublation. Heidegger hoped, for a further renaissance: a new dawn to follow his apocalyptic times. And in this struggle he began to surmise that, from Plato onwards, with rare exceptions philosophy had failed to render the truths of human existence. Paradoxically, the haunting question

of being which had given birth to philosophy had become completely eclipsed in the very attempt to think systematically about it. It was as if the concep- tual representations had begun to follow a logic of their own. The emerging ‘conclusions’, thus, came to relate more to the requirements of a rational form of enquiry than to the original ontological engagement with its intoxicating sense of awe and strangeness. Heidegger began to view western philosophy as a story of forgetting: a collective amnesia towards being.

And what was needed was exactly what Brentano and Husserl were advo- cating: an open-eyed attention to the lived moment – the hermeneutics of facticity. The task of the modern philosopher was to hold back all the inher- ited assumptions, to ‘bracket’ them out, to allow experience to speak. And this seemed like the return of philosophy to its roots. Heidegger felt it was simultaneously a journey back to primary sources and a journey forward to a more subtle and accurate mapping of the self.

For Heidegger thinking about thinking always involved thinking about lan- guage; the two could never be decisively separated. Concepts structured thought; cadences nuanced feeling. As with his contemporary, the poet Paul Celan, one senses in Heidegger’s writing a formidable struggle to unpick estab- lished usage to weave new meanings and possibilities. He was out to create his own idiolect. Following the syntactical organisation of his mother tongue, he was forever coining new words and playing with unexpected compounds. Of- ten clumsy and obscure, he was yet a formidable inventor, an exuberant word- welder. With great originality and daring he often hyphenated isolated words to mirror a hyphenated universe. Perhaps two of his most compelling inventions were concepts he coined for the self: in-der-welt-sein (being-in-the-world) and Sein-zum-Tode (being-towards-death). They offered new ways of seeing our- selves; always in the world; always part of death. The compound words im- mediately joined together what the inherited language had falsely sundered.

Another linguistic strategy was to recharge discarded concepts. As Brentano had adopted the medieval notion of intentionality, so Heidegger brought back into play such words as gellasenheit (letting be) from the German medieval mystics and aletheia (truth) from the ancient Greek philosophers.

And, as no philosopher before him, he loved to etymologize. Like an ar- chaeologist excavating an ancient burial ground, he dug into the layers of language to expose forgotten nuances and jettisoned insights. To get close to the first use of a word was to catch the flash of lightning that had origi- nally accompanied it. Heidegger was often in pursuit of that nano-second of cognitive illumination. Language was not a neutral means of communi- cation, it was more a divining rod penetrating the subterranean currents of life. It was this understanding of language as an unpredictable power for creation and discovery which clearly dictated the form of his lectures and seminars during this early period at Marburg. In the same spirit, at a much later date, he was to proclaim: Language is the house of being and everything depends upon learning to dwell in the speaking of language.

It was during this settled period of intellectual gestation that Heidegger also became preoccupied not only with the nature of thinking and language, but also with the place of moods in the ecology of existence. He wanted to understand a certain state of disorientation that lay at the centre of Dasein. He named it geworfenheit: thrownness.

Around this time he probably encountered Kierkegaard’s description of the philosopher as the person who left his native hovel each morning to erect a magnificent palace outside, a glorious building which bore little relation- ship to the actual place in which he lived. The angst-ridden Kierkegaard was, of course, mocking the lofty abstractions of Hegel. Heidegger ap- plauded Kierkegaard’s honesty and rather like Freud, but with a fundamen- tally different approach, set himself the task of entering the untidy hovel to inspect the shadowy rooms, to identify the various cracks and crevices. Us- ing the emerging methods of phenomenology, he began to examine the hu- man condition, to describe what was simply (but never that simply) there. In his lectures he included accounts of boredom, ennui, guilt and anxiety. He outlined the finite conditions in which each person had no choice but to live. The mood of his own philosophy at this stage seemed often both bleak and intense. His intention was to sketch a fuller image of the self: an individual thrown into the world without permission or prior meaning, stumbling towards death and with no obvious metaphysical foundations.

His childhood Catholicism was now formally over and yet, somehow, the embers still burned fiercely in both the style of his thinking and in his ulti- mate preoccupations with life and death.

As a boy serving at the altar at Saint Martin’s, Heidegger had often pushed up the melting wax of a burning candle to intensify the flame and keep back the final moment of darkness. It was a characteristic act. Now it stood as a metaphor. Heidegger always admired a defiant brightness, an existential ecstasy. However problematic, the flame of resolute life held up against the inevitability of death mattered to him more than anything else.

In 1927 Heidegger’s period of creative incubation came to an end. In that year, the year of Hitler’s Nuremberg Rally, the outcome of his great labour, though still incomplete, was finally published. Sein und Zeit broke upon an unsuspecting world to receive instant acclaim and a growing recognition. Heidegger was thirty-eight. In a matter of ten formative years he had left Catholicism, absorbed the critical spirit of Protestantism, and was close to embracing Nietzsche’s death of God. In his thinking he had moved from theology, to traditional philosophy, to his own distinctive and poetic form of phenomenology. As he placed his first book in the hands of his dying mother, he must have experienced one of those intense moments of existential affir- mation, one of those high states of charged significance for which he lived. And, as he looked resolutely forward, he must have felt the future augured well. The demand for extreme political change surrounded him on all sides. And he was drawn to the challenge, to the need for a cultural transmutation.

Always inspired by the Pauline notion of kairos he, no doubt, believed that the moment of transformation was close, that chronological time was about to give way to a new dispensation of being, that a further chapter in the story of the self was about to be scripted.

In his next essay Peter Abbs will examine the existential content of Heidegger’s philosophy and explore his relationship to Hitler and the Third Reich. For further details of the story of the self see: 

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