This website, martinheideggerbiography.com, offers the first drafts of the initial three chapters of what will eventually be a full-length biography in eight chapters of Martin Heidegger. These initial chapters cover Heidegger’s childhood and years as a student, 1889 to 1915, his first years as a university lecturer, 1916 to 1923, and his time as an associate professor of philosophy at Marburg University, between 1924 and 1928, when he conducted an affair with Hannah Arendt and wrote Being and Time.
Most biographies of Heidegger approach him almost exclusively through his philosophy, reconstructing the details of his life as the background for his ideas (see section four of this website for my discussion of existing biographies). This is almost certainly how Heidegger would have wanted it. When in 1924, he opened his lecture course on Aristotle with the words: “what was Aristotle’s life?” his answer was uncompromising: “well, the answer lies in a single sentence: he was born, he thought, he died.”
Such sentiments seemingly relegate the biographical urge to an irrelevance: biography has nothing to say about ideas or the man who holds them: they occupy different worlds. It is certainly true that Heidegger’s philosophy cannot be explained through his life; nor can his life be explained through his philosophy: the relationship between two is not a matter of unilinear intelligibility. It is clear, for example, that Heidegger’s early work in medieval philosophy was largely determined by his need to secure financial support from Catholic sources so that he could continue to study and do research. Detailing those sources and the fraught nature of Heidegger’s relationship with his Catholic benefactors is highly important to our understanding of the young Heidegger, both his life and his work. But it is equally clear that later developments in his philosophy, such as his Contributions to Philosophy (from Ereignis), written after his famous “Turning” in the 1930s, emerged from entirely intellectual sources: from his desire to renew the conceptual language of western thought.
Heidegger would have been the first to admit that philosophy (and his philosophy, in particular) was not a static entity, which finds its raison d’être simply in academic publications, in the canonical magnum opus. On the contrary, philosophy is a process of thinking, and thinking as a process. Philosophy comes from somewhere and is going somewhere: it has a source and a destination. In Heidegger’s case, that process of thinking involved not only important cultural encounters, such as his discovery of the poetry of Hölderlin through the edition of the poet’s work made by Norbert von Hellingrath, or the viewing (during a visit to Holland in 1931) of the paintings by Vincent van Gogh, who served as the stimulus for Heidegger’s essay on the “Origins of the Work of Art” (1935), but also his affiliation and friendship with people, other philosophers such as Karl Jaspers, with whom he corresponded for most of his life, and poets such as René Char, who provided much of the inspiration for Heidegger’s later investment of hopes in the synergy between thinking and language. The sources would also include his colleagues, those that taught him such as Wilhelm Rickert, and Heidegger’s own students, Hannah Arendt, Herbert Marcuse and Hans-Georg Gadamer. These too belong to Heidegger’s philosophy and his “path” of thinking.
A life lived is certainly more than philosophy; it may not be greater than philosophy but it is certainly more. For that reason, I focus on Heidegger’s life experiences, his response to life, what he did and what he said, his personal relationships, his goals, aspirations, his ambitions, but also the contexts (institutional, social and, in his early years, religious) that facilitated or impinged upon those goals and aspirations, his self-image (vulnerable and fragile, at times), his hopes for his philosophy, and his fear for the future of thinking as a process of critical and self-critical enquiry in the Western world.
I quote Heidegger’s own words as often as possible, but I do not do so uncritically. It is not my intention to give the impression that his point of view was always correct: this biography is not a hagiography. On the contrary, Heidegger’s readings of people and events were often disastrously wrong, and nowhere more so than in the early days of the Third Reich. Nevertheless, if we are to criticise what he said and did at that time, and on other occasions, we must understand what he thought he was doing and why he said what he said. My aim is not to legitimise Heidegger’s actions, but to understand them.
7 July 2017