A background to Heidegger


Martin Heidegger (26 September 1889 – 26 May 1976)

Martin Heidegger was a German philosopher who grew up in Messkirch, in the black forest of West Germany. As a practicing catholic, the young Martin aspired to becoming a priest, and successfully gained a scholarship to study theology at the University of Freiburg. Whilst undertaking his studies, he became interested in philosophy, and realising that this was where his passion lay, he changed the direction of his study. In doing so he relinquished his scholarship from the Catholic Church and had to finance his own studies by taking part time work tutoring. As a Doctoral student he received tuition from the eminent Heinrich Rickert and Edmund Husserl. His doctorate in philosophy was awarded to Heidegger in 1913 with a dissertation entitled “The Doctrine of Judgment in Psychologism: A Critical-Positive Contribution to Logic”. His relationship with Edmund Husserl continued, with Husserl adopting a paternal role to the young Martin, and making him his personal assistant. Husserl was by this time becoming renowned in the field of phenomenology, a philosophy which he had founded and developed.  In 1923 Heidegger was appointed associate professor of philosophy at the University of Marburg. In 1927 Heidegger published his Magnus opus, “Being and Time” which he dedicated to Husserl; “in grateful respect and friendship” On Husserl’s retirement in 1928 from the chair of philosophy at the University of Freiburg he recommended that his successor be Heidegger. In 1933, Heidegger joined the Nazi party, and in 1934 he became Rector of the University of Freiburg, a position which he kept for less than one year before resigning. At the end of the Second World War Heidegger was the subject of the denazification process, which banned him from teaching for five years. In 1951 he was readmitted to teaching at Freiburg University and was granted emeritus status.


Being-in-the-world according to Heidegger.

Heidegger studieworldd the classics, and always urged his students to do the same. He theorised that the great philosophers, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Descartes had all missed the most basic and primordial question, of what it is to be. It is from this vantage point that Heidegger’s quest begins. He notes that being is not an entity in itself, but every entity has its own being, which in every case is our own. Therefore in order to understand another person, we must first understand ourselves. Heidegger refers to our being-in-the-world as Dasein. Dasein comes from the German word that means “being there”, and conceptualises the view that we cannot separate ourselves from the world in which we live, or its influences. Dasein has its own ability to make choices, and realise its own possibilities, choosing an authentic or inauthentic mode of being. The hyphenated phrase being-in-the-world represents the unitary phenomenon of our relationship with the world. To be is to be part of the world and to be worldly. Heidegger posits that Dasein is fundamentally in-the-world with care. Care is described as a ‘structure’ of our being, and is revealed in the ways we relate to things in the world.

Let me now briefly explain the care structure. Heidegger explains that this begins its formation at our birth, as it is without any personal choice or determination that we are born into this world at a certain time and place, within a specific culture or religion. This situation is termed by Heidegger as Throwness, as we are literally thrown into the world. There exists therefore a facticity which basically applies to those things which are not in our control, such as the body we are born into. Facticity comes from our throwness, which makes the first dimension of the care structure. The second dimension is that of fallenness which is when we adopt an inauthentic mode of being, conforming to societal norms, and taking on a they-self. Heidegger calls this fallenness because he sees it as falling from our potential. Authenticity is the third dimension of the care structure, when we choose to actualise our possibilities and potential, by not conforming to the-they. It is important to note that authenticity and inauthenticity are not to be seen as positives and negatives, or morality and immorality, as Dasein adopts both authentic and inauthentic modes throughout our lives. Since our being-in-the-world involves being with other human beings, the influence of others is also of interest, a concept which Heidegger conveys in the phrase Being-with.

Heidegger and how we experience the world

8f55b70e54f44774a591c022b45fd8afHeidegger often tried to give examples of everyday situations to help  understand his theories. When he speaks about the ways in which we interact  with the world. Our immediate environment in our average everydayness is  referred to as umwelt, where we are absorbed by our everyday pursuits and everyday concerns.

Heidegger describes our coping in a familiar environment, where we have existing knowledge and experience as zuhanden or ‘ready-to-hand’ and it is in this way that we engage with the world most of the time. His example of this is when we see a skilled carpenter hammering a nail into a piece of wood. The carpenter skilfully uses the hammer, not having to contemplate the hammers size, shape or weight. Indeed he could be thinking of other things. The hammer becomes almost an extension of his own hand. This interaction is described by Heidegger as ready-to-hand coping. Dreyfus (1991) terms this as transparent coping, as it no longer needs to pass through our consciousness. A further example which would suffice here, would be an experienced driver, driving a car. He is not consciously aware of changing gear, and of how to position the steering wheel. Indeed an experienced driver can be thinking of a whole host of things whilst driving.

However when this transparent and skilful coping is interrupted for some reason we experience Unzuhanden or ‘unready-to-hand’. Returning to Heidegger’s example of a carpenter, let us assume there becomes a problem with the hammer he was using, perhaps the shaft becomes loose. The hammer is now no longer able to complete the function, and is now no longer transparent in his hands. The carpenter must now openly focus on the hammer and problem solve. The carpenter may feel frustration and annoyance as he is now encountering a deficient mode of readiness-to-hand. Heidegger also observes that we experience the world as vorhanden or ‘Present-at-hand’ which would be present when the carpenter stopped hammering and started to think about the hammer, its shape, colour, or weight. When engaging in a ‘Present-at-hand’ mode the hammer becomes purely an object with specific properties. We are no longer hammering with the hammer, instead we are studying its properties.

Heidegger gives another example to clarify this theory of how we experience the world by illustrating that we only become aware of things when things go wrong, and we have to resort to problem solving. At the beginning of a lecture he asked his assembled students how they had entered the room. The entrance into the room involved them turning a door knob, but because they were familiar with the door knob and the door, the door knob had become almost invisible to them, and they could not recall using it. If the door knob had become stuck, they would have been forced to change their coping mechanism from zuhanden to become unzuhanden, a problem solver who needs to focus on the task.

It is interesting to note that when we are in our familiar everyday umwelt we fail to recognise our zuhanden coping mechanisms, and equipment becomes almost unseen as we skilfully utilise it. When things malfunction, or we are thrown into a new situation or role, our coping mechanisms change to unzuhanden and we gain new awareness of our umwelt.