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Martin Heidegger at Eighty

Hannah Arendt, translated from the German by Albert Hofstadter

Martin Heidegger’s eightieth birthday was also the fiftieth anniversary of his public life, which he began not as an author—though he had already published a book on Duns Scotus—but as a university teacher. In barely three or four years since that first solid and interesting but still rather conventional study, he had become so different from its author that his students hardly knew about it. If it is true, as Plato once remarked, that “the beginning is also a god; so long as he dwells among men, he saves all things” (Laws 775), then the beginning in Heidegger’s case is neither the date of his birth (September 26, 1889, at Messkirch) nor the publication of his first book, but the first lecture courses and seminars which he held as a mere Privatdozent (instructor) and assistant to Husserl at the University of Freiburg in 1919.

For Heidegger’s “fame” predates by about eight years the publication of Sein und Zeit (Being and Time) in 1927; indeed it is open to question whether the unusual success of this book—not just the immediate impact it had inside and outside the academic world but also its extraordinarily lasting influence, with which few of the century’s publications can compare—would have been possible if it had not been preceded by the teacher’s reputation among the students, in whose opinion, at any rate, the book’s success merely confirmed what they had known for many years.

There was something strange about this early fame, stranger perhaps than the fame of Kafka in the early Twenties or of Braque and Picasso in the preceding decade, who were also unknown to what is commonly understood as the public and nevertheless exerted an extraordinary influence. For in Heidegger’s case there was nothing tangible on which his fame could have been based, nothing written, save for notes taken at his lectures which circulated among students everywhere. These lectures dealt with texts that were generally familiar; they contained no doctrine that could have been learned, reproduced, and handed on. There was hardly more than a name, but the name traveled all over Germany like the rumor of the hidden king.

This was something completely different from a “circle” centered around and directed by a “master” (say, the Stefan George circle), which, while well-known to the public, still remained apart from it by an aura of secrecy, the arcana imperii to which presumably only the circle’s members are privy. Here there was neither a secret nor membership; those who heard the rumor were acquainted with one another, to be sure, since they were all students, and there were occasional friendships among them. Later some cliques formed here and there; but there never was a circle and there was nothing esoteric about his following.

To whom did the rumor spread, and what did it say? In the German universities at the time, after the First World War, there was no rebellion but widespread discontent with the academic enterprise of teaching and learning in those faculties that were more than professional schools, a disquiet that prevailed among students for whom study meant more than preparing for making a living. Philosophy was no breadwinner’s study, but rather the study of resolute starvelings who were, for that very reason, all the harder to please. They were in no way disposed toward a wisdom of life or of the world, and for anyone concerned with the solution of all riddles there was available a rich selection of world views and their partisans; it wasn’t necessary to study philosophy in order to choose among them.

But what they wanted they didn’t know. The university commonly offered them either the schools—the neo-Kantians, the Neo-Hegelians, the Neo-Platonists, etc.—or the old academic discipline, in which philosophy, neatly divided into its special fields—epistemology, aesthetics, ethics, logic, and the like—was not so much communicated as drowned in an ocean of boredom. There were, even before Heidegger’s appearance, a few rebels against this comfortable and, in its way, quite solid enterprise. Chronologically, there was Husserl and his cry “To the things themselves”: and that meant, “Away from theories, away from books” toward the establishment of philosophy as a rigorous science which would take its place alongside other academic disciplines.

This was still a naïve and unrebellious cry, but it was something to which first Scheler and somewhat later Heidegger could appeal. In addition, there was Karl Jaspers in Heidelberg, consciously rebellious and coming from a tradition other than the philosophical. He, as is known, was for a long time on friendly terms with Heidegger, precisely because the rebellious element in Heidegger’s enterprise appealed to him as something original and fundamentally philosophical in the midst of the academic talk about philosophy.

What these few had in common was—to put it in Heidegger’s words—that they could distinguish “between an object of scholarship and a matter of thought” (Aus der Erfahrung des Denkens, 1947)1 and that they were pretty indifferent to the object of scholarship. At that time the rumor of Heidegger’s teaching reached those who knew more or less explicitly about the breakdown of tradition and the “dark times” (Brecht) which had set in, who therefore held erudition in matters of philosophy to be idle play and who, therefore, were prepared to comply with the academic discipline only because they were concerned with the “matter of thought” or, as Heidegger would say today, “thinking’s matter” (Zur Sache des Denkens, 1969).

The rumor that attracted them to Freiburg and to the Privatdozent who taught there, as somewhat later they were attracted to the young professor at Marburg, had it that there was someone who was actually attaining “the things” that Husserl had proclaimed, someone who knew that these things were not academic matters but the concerns of thinking men—concerns not just of yesterday and today but from time immemorial—and who, precisely because he knew that the thread of tradition was broken, was discovering the past anew.

It was technically decisive that, for instance, Plato was not talked about and his theory of Ideas expounded; rather for an entire semester a single dialogue was pursued and subjected to question step by step, until the time-honored doctrine had disappeared to make room for a set of problems of immediate and urgent relevance. Today this sounds quite familiar, because nowadays so many proceed in this way; but no one did so before Heidegger.

The rumor about Heidegger put it quite simply: Thinking has come to life again; the cultural treasures of the past, believed to be dead, are being made to speak, in the course of which it turns out that they propose things altogether different from the familiar, worn-out trivialities they had been presumed to say. There exists a teacher; one can perhaps learn to think.

The hidden king reigned therefore in the realm of thinking, which, although it is completely of this world, is so concealed in it that one can never be quite sure whether it exists at all; and still its inhabitants must be more numerous than is commonly believed. For how, otherwise, could the unprecedented, often underground, influence of Heidegger’s thinking and thoughtful reading be explained, extending as it does beyond the circle of students and disciples and beyond what is commonly understood by philosophy?

For it is not Heidegger’s philosophy, whose existence we can rightfully question (as Jean Beaufret has done), but Heidegger’s thinking that has shared so decisively in determining the spiritual physiognomy of this century. This thinking has a digging quality peculiar to itself, which, should we wish to put it in linguistic form, lies in the transitive use of the verb “to think.” Heidegger never thinks “about” something; he thinks something. In this entirely uncontemplative activity, he penetrates to the depths, but not to discover, let alone bring to light, some ultimate, secure foundations which one could say had been undiscovered earlier in this manner. Rather, he persistently remains there, underground, in order to lay down pathways and fix “trail marks” (a collection of texts from the years 1929-1962 had this title, Wegmarken).

This thinking may set tasks for itself; it may deal with “problems”; it naturally, indeed always, has something specific with which it is particularly occupied or, more precisely, by which it is specifically aroused; but one cannot say that it has a goal. It is unceasingly active, and even the laying down of paths itself is conducive to opening up a new dimension of thought, rather than to reaching a goal sighted beforehand and guided thereto.

The pathways may safely be called Holzwege, wood-paths (after the title of a collection of essays from the years 1935-1946), which, just because they lead nowhere outside the wood and “abruptly leave off in the untrodden,” are incomparably more agreeable to him who loves the wood and feels at home in it than the carefully laid out problem-streets on which scurry the investigations of philosophical specialists and historians of ideas. The metaphor of “wood-paths” hits upon something essential—not, as one may at first think, that someone has gotten onto a dead-end trail, but rather that someone, like the woodcutter whose occupation lies in the woods, treads paths that he has himself beaten; and clearing the path belongs no less to his line of work than felling trees.

On this deep plane, dug up and cleared, as it were, by his own thinking, Heidegger has laid down a vast network of thought-paths; and the single immediate result, which has been understandably noticed, and sometimes imitated, is that he has caused the edifice of traditional metaphysics—in which, for a long time, no one had felt quite at ease in any case—to collapse, just as underground tunnels and subversive burrowings cause the collapse of structures whose foundations are not deeply enough secured.

This is a historical matter, perhaps even one of the first order, but it need not trouble those of us who stand outside all the guilds, including the historical. That Kant could with justice, from a specific perspective, be called the “all-crushing one” has little to do with who Kant was—as distinguished from his historical role.

As to Heidegger’s share in the collapse of metaphysics, which was imminent anyway, what we owe him, and only him, is that this collapse took place in a manner worthy of what had preceded it: that metaphysics was thought through to its end, and was not simply, as it were, overrun by what followed after it. “The end of philosophy,” as Heidegger says in Zur Sache des Denkens (On the Matter of Thinking); but it was an end that is a credit to philosophy and holds her in honor, prepared for by one who was most profoundly bound to her and her tradition. For a lifetime he based his seminars and lectures on the philosophers’ texts, and only in his old age did he venture to give a seminar on a text of his own. Zur Sache des Denkens contains the “protocol for a seminar on the lecture ‘Zeit und Sein‘ [‘Time and Being’],” which forms the first part of the book.

  1. 1

    This short poetical work has been translated and will appear under the title The Thinker as Poet in the near future in a volume of translations from Heidegger entitled Poetry, Language, Thought, by the present translator, in the Harper & Row series of Heidegger’s Works under the general editorship of Professor J. Glenn Gray. (Tr.)

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