The fields of phenomenology and existential philosophy found a powerful voice in Martin Heidegger, a German philosopher best known for his concept of Dasein. A controversial figure who initially embraced and later repudiated Hitler and the German Nazi Party, Heidegger’s philosophical and even cultural influence remained strong until late in his life.
As a university student, Heidegger abandoned early clerical leanings in favor of mathematics and philosophy and made significant contributions in the latter field. While on the faculty at Freiburg University, Heidegger affiliated himself with Edmund Husserl, a man widely regarded as the founder of the philosophical discipline of phenomenology. Heidegger published his best-known work, Being and Time, in 1927, while a professor at Marburg University. In Being and Time, Heidegger took very strong exception to the prevailing tendency of professional philosophers of the time to focus on questions relating to theory of knowledge (epistemology). In stark contrast, Heidegger took up classical metaphysical questions from the fresh standpoint of the early 20th century. Rather than quibble about how or whether we can know this or that, Heidegger resurrected many of the deep questions that occupied the earliest philosophers. His enquires focused on the question of being and the nature of existing things in general.
Although much of Heidegger’s thought is rightly regarded as abstract, it is no less true that he sought to temper his pursuit of the larger question of Sein (being) with the equally significant question of Dasein (“being there”). Dasein is a difficult word to translate and is typically rendered in English simply as “being there.” This awkward translation does not, however, even begin to capture the nuances Heidegger intended with Dasein, which has the sense of “human existence” or, rather more broadly, “what it means to be human.”
Dasein is the central concept of Heidegger’s philosophy. So concerned was Heidegger with capturing and explaining the meaning of Dasein that his Being and Time begins with an analytic, or explanatory analysis, of Dasein. Among other descriptions, Heidegger characterizes Dasein as “average everydayness,” the ordinary condition of typical human existence. Dasein represents, among other things, the emergence within the individual of a conscious awareness of his presence in the world as an emerging manifestation.
In his concept of Dasein, Heidegger gives voice to the idea that “existence precedes essence.” While Jean-Paul Sartre, a French contemporary of Heidegger, would make more explicit use of this notion than did Heidegger, this idea remains in the background of Heidegger’s thinking about human existence. Although the idea that “existence precedes essence” dates back to at least the beginning of the second millennium, it figures prominently in the existential philosophies of Heidegger, Sartre, and other existentialists. As applied to existential philosophy, the notion that existence precedes essence means that there is no set “human nature” and that consequently each individual must create his or her own identify. To create one’s identify out of the bare fundaments of the fact of one’s existence in time and place is to live authentically, to take responsibility for one’s own life and character, and to become in the end the person one has chosen to be.
- Brown, J. (1955). Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Buber, & Barth. New York: Collier Books.
- Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and time. San Francisco: Harper/Collins.