PHILOSOPHY – Heidegger


Martin Heidegger is without doubt the most
incomprehensible German philosopher that ever lived. Nothing quite rivals the prose in his masterpiece
Being and Time, which is filled with complex compound German words like ‘Seinsvergessenheit’
‘Bodenständigkeit’ and ‘Wesensverfassung’. Yet beneath the jargon, Heidegger tells us
some simple, even at times homespun truths about the meaning of our lives, the sicknesses
of our time and the routes to freedom. We should bother with him. He was born, and in many ways remained, a
rural provincial German, who loved picking mushrooms, walking in the countryside and
going to bed early. He hated television, aeroplanes, pop music and processed food. At one time,
he’d been a supporter of Hitler, but saw the error of his ways. Much of his life he spent
in a hut in the woods, away from modern civilisation. He diagnosed modern humanity as suffering
from a number of diseases of the soul. Firstly: We have forgotten to notice we’re
alive. We know it in theory, of course, but we aren’t
day-to-day properly in touch with the sheer mystery of existence, the mystery of what
Heidegger called ‘das Sein’ or in English, ‘Being’. It’s only at a few odd moments, perhaps late
at night, or when we’re ill and have been alone all day, or are on a walk through the
countryside, that we come up against the uncanny strangeness of everything: why things exist
as they do, why we are here rather than there, why the world is like it is. What we’re running away from is a confrontation
with the opposite of Being, what Heidegger called: ‘das Nichts’ (The Nothing). The second problems is we have forgotten that
all Being is connected Most of the time, our jobs and daily routines
make us egoistic and focused. We treat others and nature as means and not as ends. But occasionally (and again walks in the country
are particularly conducive to this realisation), we may step outside our narrow orbit – and
take a more expansive view. We may sense what Heidegger termed ‘the Unity
of Being’, noticing for example that we, and that ladybird on the bark, and that rock,
and that cloud over there are all in existence right now and are fundamentally united by the basic
fact of our common Being. Heidegger values these moments immensely – and
wants us to use them as the springboard to a deeper form of generosity, an overcoming
of alienation and egoism and a more profound appreciation of the brief time that remains
to us before ‘das Nichts’ claims us in turn. The third problem is we forget to be free
and to live for ourselves Much about us isn’t of course very free.
We are – in Heidegger’s unusual formulation – ‘thrown into the world’ at the start
of our lives: thrown into a particular and narrow social milieu, surrounded by rigid
attitudes, archaic prejudices and practical necessities not of our own making. The philosopher wants to help us to overcome
this ‘Thrownness’ (‘Geworfenheit’ as he puts it in german) by understanding it. We need
to grasp our psychological, social and professional provincialism – and then rise above it to
a more universal perspective. In so doing, we’ll make the classic Heideggerian
journey away from ‘Uneigentlichkeit’ to ‘Eigentlichkeit’ (from Inauthenticity
to Authenticity). We will, in essence, start to live for ourselves. And yet most of the time, for Heidegger, we
fail dismally at this task. We merely surrender to a socialised, superficial mode of being
he called ‘they-self’ (as opposed to ‘our-selves’). We follow The Chatter (‘das Gerede’),
which we hear about in the newspapers, on TV and in the large cities Heidegger hated
to spend time in. What will help us to pull away from the ‘they-self’
is an appropriately intense focus on our own upcoming death. It’s only when we realise
that other people cannot save us from ‘das Nichts’ that we’re likely to stop living
for them; to stop worrying so much about what others think, and to cease giving up the lion’s
share of our lives and energies to impress people who never really liked us in the first
place. When in a lecture, in 1961, Heidegger was
asked how we should better lead our lives, he replied tersely that we should simply aim
to spend more time ‘in graveyards’. It would be lying to say that Heidegger’s
meaning and moral is ever very clear. Nevertheless, what he tells us is intermittently fascinating,
wise and surprisingly useful. Despite the extraordinary words and language, in a sense,
we know a lot of it already. We merely need reminding and emboldening to take it seriously,
which the odd prose style helps us to do. We know in our hearts that it is time to overcome
our ‘Geworfenheit’, that we should become more conscious of ‘das Nichts’ day-to-day,
and that we owe it to ourselves to escape the clutches of ‘das Gerede’ for the sake
of ‘Eigentlichkeit’ – with a little help from that graveyard.

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