Martin Heidegger rose to prominence with the publication of his magisterial ontological treatise Being and Time. The work opens with a reflection on the nature of being, “Being is the most universal concept,” Heidegger declares, and that the question of being “has today been forgotten.” Why did Heidegger write his seemingly incomprehensible work and to whom was it directed against?
As a German philosopher Heidegger is situated in the post-Hegelian, post-Nietzschean, post-romantic tradition of philosophy. He is also situated in the post-Cartesian crisis: the crisis of ontology and our (human) relationship to the world. Heidegger was instrumental on Sartre, in fact, Sartre’s Being and Nothingness is more a response to Heidegger’s Being and Time than it is a rebuttal to Hegel and Christian ontology as sometimes presented; Sartre read little Hegel and most of what he knew of Hegel and Freud, when Being and Nothingness was published, had come second hand through Heidegger. Like many of the existentialists who came after Heidegger, Being and Time deals with the problem of existential ontology: self-consciousness in a world of facticity and materiality. It also deals with the crisis of atomization, liberalization, and uprootedness from the world and relationships. All of this can be traced back to Bacon’s functional separation of man from world and Heidegger, believing doctrinal Christianity cannot “put back together” (so to speak) the world Bacon deconstructed, embarked on his own to overcome the challenges presented by Bacon, Descartes, Hegel, and Nietzsche.
Heidegger’s work is multifaceted which adds to its complexity, and no less its genius. It is a work influenced by Greek and Christian philosophy, though it rejects the eudemonistic teleology of Greco-Christian anthropological thought. It affirms the importance of a world of relationships, relationships with the world and other humans, but recognizes the inherent problems of selfhood and others. It launches a critique of Hegel, between the lines, though itself is a work of revisionist Hegelianism. As a work of revisionist Hegelianism it is also indebted to Nietzsche, the greatest of the revisionist Hegelian critics of the 19th century; though Heidegger also rejects Nietzsche. In English the work is difficult to translate because of Heidegger’s implementation of new terms that don’t read well in German, but German definitions afford a certain understanding superior to English concepts and words that don’t invoke the same meaning as Heideggerian German does; thus many English translations retain the use of Heidegger’s original German terminology with attempts to explain what they mean in elaborate footnotes or bypass any attempt to translate the meaning at all.
At its heart Being and Time is a work that wants to recapture the tradition of metaphysical ontology as the only basis of universality. In other words, Heidegger knows something that the ancients knew: In order for their to be Truth there has to be Nature. While he sidesteps the question of God, he does not sidestep the question of metaphysical ontology. Thus, the work is one which is attempting to confront nihilistic relativism to reassert basic universal truths that we can know. At the same time, Heidegger’s work is a rebuke of Hegelian historicism and the monistic materialistic yet functionally dualist worldview stemming from Bacon and Descartes. Heidegger believes that philosophy’s absorption into the philosophy of history (historicism) had done significant harm to philosophy qua philosophy. Likewise, the existential dilemma that people now find themselves—namely the crisis of uprootedness and “feeling alone”—was largely a byproduct of the reductionist materialist philosophy of the new science which, paradoxically, placed man as a subjective being in conflict with the world (and other subjective beings) which had unleashed cataclysm to the “meaning of human existence.” Yet, Heidegger is still indebted, in certain ways, to Hegel’s philosophy: Dialectical Ontology especially.
Thus, Heidegger’s work is firmly in the tradition of German anti-nihilist romanticism. He attempts to put together the “synthesis” that will resolve the crisis of modern philosophy, which is primarily the crisis of nihilism: living an unmeaningful life, the denial of truth, and the absorption of philosophy to history. Heidegger, like Hegel, is engaged in the project of constructive critique. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree in this respect.