Born a son of a village church sexton in rural Germany, Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) became known as one of the 20th century’s most influential philosophers.
Heidegger, whose birthday is on Sept. 26, made significant contributions to the field of existentialism, as well as psychology, political theory, and theology. His main interest, however, was ontology or the study of being.
His seminal treatise in this field, Being and Time, was published 90 years ago. Although never finished and not translated into English until the early 1960s, it has become a pop phenomenon of sorts when its original German title (Sein und Zeit) was used for a 2000 episode of the U.S.television show The X-Files.
As the title suggests, the subject of this work is the concept of “being.” While other philosophers, including Georg Hegel and Jean-Paul Sartre, had also studied this concept, Heidegger’s approach differed in that he analyzed the over-arching subject rather than specific beings.
Heidegger aimed to reawaken the overall question of the sense of being itself, a task which many before him had deemed either undefinable or for which the answer was already thoroughly obvious. He also asserted that the sense of being itself preceded any notions of how any beings exist.
Being and Time was hailed as a groundbreaking work, open to much debate and controversy, as was his membership in the Nazi party from 1933 onwards. The work’s content is believed to have shocked and influenced Sartre, who read it while he was a prisoner of war. This treatise inspired the French philosopher to publish Being and Nothingness in the early 1940s, where he attempted to show that existence precedes essence and that free will does exist.
Today, Heidegger’s work has also been welcomed by environmentalists, used as a counterpoint to consumerism and the march of technology.
To leave the final words to the author himself: the human being is not the lord of beings, but the shepherd of Being.