Martin Heidegger

Man is not the lord of beings. Man is the shepherd of


Martin Heidegger was born on 26 September 1889 in the village of Messkirch in southern Germany. After an abortive training for the Roman Catholic priesthood, he studied philosophy at Freiburg University—from 1919 as assistant to the renowned philosopher, Edmund Husserl. His reputation as an incisive and radical thinker was sealed in 1927 with the publication of his magnum opus, Being and Time. His reputation as a man, on the other hand, was later sullied by his fervent support of Nazism during the early 1930s. In these early years of the Reich, Heidegger saw in Nazism a means to combat the rise of technologism and globalization and to thereby recover the rootedness of the German people in their homeland. After the mid-1930s, however, he became both increasingly disillusioned with Nazism2 and increasingly dissatisfied with his earlier philosophical project in Being and Time. Now the 'later' Heidegger came to see his earlier work as being infused with the anthropocentrism or 'humanism' of the Western philosophical tradition, a tradition which, he contended, lay at the root of our modern 'technological' estrangement from nature. Accordingly, in his later years Heidegger concerned himself with the possibility of 'recovering' an authentic non-technological 'dwelling' in harmony with nature. Heidegger died on 26 May 1976, and was buried in the churchyard of his beloved Messkirch.

Heidegger's thought has had repercussions throughout the intellectual world, having influenced fields as diverse as literary theory, theology (both Catholic and Protestant), psychology, political theory and aesthetics. In the 'Continental' philosophical tradition, the movements of existentialism, hermeneutics and deconstruction all take their cue from his work, philosophers of the prominence of Sartre, Habermas, Foucault and Derrida all admitting their indebtedness to him. Although Anglo-American philosophers have traditionally dismissed Heidegger's work, in recent years many have come to recognize his status as a (post-) modern thinker of a stature comparable perhaps only to Wittgenstein.

Before considering Heidegger's relevance to environmental thought, one must first come to grips with some basic features of his analysis of the human condition. Heidegger maintains that, at the most profound level, to be a human is not to be a particular type of thing, but to be a space or 'clearing' in which things show up as things in the first place. In Being and Time Heidegger articulates this point by claiming that Being (the process whereby things 'reveal' themselves as things) occurs only within the space provided by human being (referred to in these earlier works as Dasein). Later, after the so-called 'Turn' (die Kehre) in the direction of his thought, he came to reject this 'existentialist' position in favour of a less anthropocentric conception of humans as humble participants in a wider clearing of Being. For the later Heidegger then, to be truly human is not to determine Being but to keep watch over the revealing of things, to act as a humble 'shepherd of Being'.3

Heidegger claims that Being is essentially historical in the sense that different things reveal themselves in different historical epochs (and to different cultures). A witch, for instance, might reveal herself to a medieval but not to a post-Enlightenment European; an individual citizen might reveal themselves to a modern-day American but not to a fourth-century Chinese. (Note the language here: for Heidegger, these are not changes in perspective or worldview but the results of Being 'granting' different things in different epochs.) Heidegger contends that in the modern world we are increasingly finding that things come to reveal themselves 'technologically'.4 Technological revealing Heidegger associates with a 'setting upon' or 'challenging' of nature. He tells us that it makes the 'unreasonable demand' that all nature submit to human ends, that all things reveal themselves as 'standing reserve' (Bestand), as resources for our use.

Heidegger's account no doubt jars with common sense: surely technology consists of various man-made artifacts, food blenders, calculators, dynamos, and so on. And surely, while these technological things may be put to good or bad uses, they are themselves neither good nor bad but merely neutral. Heidegger, however, would contend that this is precisely what any pragmatically minded individual who was fully inculcated into the technological way of revealing would say. For to maintain this is to offer a technological or instrumental explanation of technology and hence to remain blind to the essence of technology as a mode of revealing.

Heidegger claims of the 'technological' mode of revealing the peculiar and 'dangerous' power to 'drive out' all other modes of revealing. As it encroaches into all areas of life, non-technological understandings find themselves levelled down and destroyed: poetry, for instance, becomes nothing more than clever wordplay; great artworks, divested of their intrinsic power, become mere decorations, or perhaps worse, investments. Nowadays, Heidegger would no doubt complain that the authentic appreciation of wild nature has become levelled down to a pitiable concern with the proper management of natural resources. Heidegger sees the greatest danger in the possibility that technology might eventually come to extinguish all other modes of revealing. In such a nightmarish future all would have been sacrificed to the modern technological idols of efficiency and management. The world would have become a featureless expanse of standing reserve, a domesticated world shorn of 'otherness' and mystery, and impoverished as a result.

How then can we resist this insidious spread of technologism? For Heidegger, the question is inappropriate: we will not, he tells us, be able to halt the encroachment of the technological understanding through an act of will, for our will counts for nothing compared to the remorseless 'destining' of history. We and our technological world are the powerless products of the blind dictates of the history of Being. To contend otherwise, he points out, is to exhibit a characteristically technological arrogance. Yet our situation is not entirely without hope: Heidegger affirms the possibility of salvation, not indeed through stubborn resistance to technological developments, but through 'questioning' or meditating on the essence of technology itself. For deep questioning reveals that technology is a mode of revealing itself, and this realization invites us to discover our essential nature as 'clearings' wherein things reveal themselves in the first place. Accordingly, Heidegger calls for us to recognize the flip side of our historical destiny, namely, the contingency of the technological mode of revealing. We can, for instance, contemplate the fact that other peoples in other eras—the Ancient Greeks, for instance—were free from the urge to 'technologise' the world. Calm contemplation on technology reveals further that the world is not entirely technological, that other modes of revealing still persist (at least for the moment). Thus Heidegger calls for us to remain open to those facets of life which have so far resisted being subsumed in the technological understanding and have been marginalized as a result. We must cherish art and beauty, for instance, as well as simple pleasures such as hiking, fishing or laughing and chatting with friends.

Elsewhere, Heidegger offers a series of 'poetic' meditations on the nature of a wholesome, non-technological way of life he terms 'dwelling'.5 In describing this way of life, he develops a quasi-mythic account of a world consisting of a 'fourfold' of 'earth, sky, mortals and gods'. Dwelling, he writes, involves a way of being which allows things to reveal themselves in such a way that they come to unite or 'gather' these four dimensions. In this manner, even a lowly and unremarkable thing such as an earthenware jug can become resplendent with world, coming to gather the 'dark slumber' of the earth, the cool radiance of the sky, the nobility of authentic mortal life and the promise of divine deliverance. In these meditations, Heidegger seems to be articulating what we might refer to as a 'deep ecological' holistic vision of nature. However, it must be noted that Heidegger's holism does not involve the dissolution of things into some idealized whole—the Environment, Nature, or whatever. Rather, the experience of Heidegger's dweller combines a realization of wholeness with an appreciation of the inherent worth of individual things. Accordingly, dwelling involves, not the reverence of some nebulous idealization of nature, but a 'poetic' sensitivity to particular things, a sensitivity of the sort one might associate with a Zen haiku poet, for instance.6 Heidegger maintains that dwelling 'poetically' in this way enables the dweller to come home to the environment as the milieu in which they live as a worldly being. (In this respect, the deep affection Heidegger retained throughout his life for the land of his birth is surely significant.)

Not all writers however are happy with the possibility of a Heideggerian environmental philosophy. Some critics have expressed concerns that Heidegger's thought cannot be abstracted from his disturbing commitment to what he once referred to as the 'inner truth and greatness of National Socialism'.7 Indeed, Heidegger himself told Karl Lowith, a former student of his, that his 'political engagement' was based on his philosophical concept of historicity.8 Considerations of this sort have led some critics to see in Heidegger's appropriation by deep ecologists a cause to fear the rise of totalitarian or so-called 'eco-fascistic' elements in radical ecological thought.9 Nevertheless, although such concerns are undoubtedly justified, they ought to induce scholars, not to reject Heidegger altogether, but to determine more precisely the connection between his politics and his thought.10 Such efforts would be worthy indeed, for it would certainly be a great and unnecessary loss if Heidegger's profound insights were lost to contemporary environmental thinkers. Indeed, it seems possible that modern thinkers may find in Heidegger a solid philosophical foundation on which to build a robust conception of an environmentally virtuous way of life.


1 Basic Writings, p. 245.

2 Nevertheless, the fact that he never offered a satisfactory apology for his involvement has struck many as appalling. See, for instance, Emmanuel Levinas, 'As If Consenting to Horror', reprinted in Critical Inquiry, 15, pp. 485-8, 1989.

3 Heidegger explains this change of tack in his 'Letter on Humanism', Basic Writings, pp. 217-65.

4 See especially 'The Question Concerning Technology' in either The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt, New York: Harper & Row, 1977, or Basic Writings.

5 See Heidegger's essays 'The Thing' in Poetry, Language, Thought and 'Building Dwelling Thinking' in Basic Writings.

6 Similarities with Zen may not be accidental: Heidegger took a keen interest in East Asian philosophies, Taoism and Buddhism in particular. See Graham Parkes (ed.), Heidegger and Asian Thought, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987.

7 An Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Ralph Manheim, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, p. 199, 1959.

8 Cited in Richard Wolin, The Heidegger Controversy: A Critical Reader, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p. 142, 1993.

9 For an appraisal of this line of criticism see Michael E.Zimmerman, 'Martin Heidegger: Antinaturalist Critic of Technological Modernity', in David Macauley (ed.), Minding Nature: The Philosophers of Ecology, New York: Guilford Press, 1996.

10 For a good introduction to the question of Heidegger's politics (and much else in Heidegger's philosophy) see Richard Polt, Heidegger: An Introduction, London: UCL Press, pp. 152-64, 1999.

See also in this book

Chuang Tzu, Marx

Heidegger's major writings

Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell, New York: Harper & Row, 1996. Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter, New York: Harper & Row, 1971.

Further reading

Dreyfus, Hubert L., 'Heidegger on the Connection Between Nihilism, Technology and Politics', in Charles Guignon (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Taylor, Charles, 'Heidegger, Language and Ecology', in Hubert L.Dreyfus and Harrison Hall (eds), Heidegger: A Critical Reader, Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1992.

Zimmerman, Michael E., 'Heidegger, Buddhism and Deep Ecology', in Charles Guignon (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger.


Was this article helpful?

0 0
Pregnancy And Childbirth

Pregnancy And Childbirth

If Pregnancy Is Something That Frightens You, It's Time To Convert Your Fear Into Joy. Ready To Give Birth To A Child? Is The New Status Hitting Your State Of Mind? Are You Still Scared To Undergo All The Pain That Your Best Friend Underwent Just A Few Days Back? Not Convinced With The Answers Given By The Experts?

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment