Existing Biographies

Although the definitive account of Heidegger’s life has as yet to be written, there are a number of biographies that have opened up his work and his life for us in different ways. I will consider these in their order of publication:

Walter Biemel, Martin Heidegger in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten. Rororo Bildmonographien (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1973), pp. 178 (with illustrations). Published in English as Martin Heidegger: An Illustrated Study (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977).

Walter Biemel was a student of Heidegger in the 1940s at the University of Freiburg, and he speaks in his book of the excitement that he felt in Heidegger‘s seminars, swept along in the “movement of thought” that “electrified” the intense work that was undertaken there through in-depth readings of the key texts of Western philosophy (p. 16). In his short study, Biemel takes the reader carefully through Heidegger’s philosophy, acknowleging that he can do no more than describe  the “fragments” of the greater whole (p. 8), focusing upon Being and Time, the essay “The Origins of the Work of Art”, the “Letter on Humanism” and a selection of Heidegger’s later writings on language and technology. Biemel’s methodology is exegetical and expository; a “following” (a word he uses often) of Heidegger’s ideas rather than a confrontation with them. As such, his monograph has much in common with the seminal accounts of Heidegger’s philosophy, such as Otto Pöggeler’s Martin Heidegger’s Path of Thinking (1963) and William J. Richardson’s Heidegger: Through Phenomenology to Thought (1963) in providing a comprehensive introduction to the philosopher’s work.

Biemel concedes from the very beginning of his book that many readers will regret the lack of information on Heidegger’s personal life. As he notes, “it is a widespread opinion that a work can be made accessible by understanding the life of its author; indeed, can virtually be explained by the latter” (p. 7). Biemel’s approach is to reverse that equation: “here we are not presenting a life that we can experience beyond the work, but his work is his life” (p. 7). This assertion may be true, but many will still feel disappointment that so many important areas in Heidegger’s life, from the personal to the crucially political (there is no discussion, for example, of Heidegger’s actions in the Third Reich), are left undiscussed or only touched upon in a marginal way. To argue that “the attempt must be made to reveal the stimulating experiences of his thinking in his apparently monotonous life” (p. 8) seems unnecessarily to privilege one form of Heidegger’s existence over another. This is perhaps not the best basis for a biography.

When it was published, Hugo Ott’s Martin Heidegger: Unterwegs zu seiner Biographie (Frankfurt am Main: Campus, 1992), pp. 366. Translated into English as Martin Heidegger: A Political Life (London: Harper Collins, 1994). pp. 406, was the most substantial biography on Heidegger although Ott terms it a “preparatory biographical study”, p. 6), his focus being largely upon Heidegger’s childhood and student days, and on the years 1933–1945. Ott’s biography is the product of thorough and original research. Between 1972 and 1997, he was professor for economic and social history at Freiburg University, and he used his proximity to the Heidegger archive in Freiburg to bring to light a large amount of primary material that previously had been unexplored. This is most notably so in the case of Heidegger’s early years. Here, Ott found the letters of Heidegger’s friend, Ernst Laslowski, and the diaries of Engelbert Krebs, as well as many of the essays and poems published in small journals by Heidegger himself. The result is that we now have a much more detailed picture of Heidegger in his formative years as a student of Catholic theology.

Ott, however, makes it quite clear from the very beginning of his biography that what really interests him is Heidegger’s politics and political career, and most notably his affiliation with the Nazi party in the years 1933–1934, and how this influenced his treatment of his colleagues (what Ott calls his “devious behaviour”, “abwegiges Verhalten”, p. 4), with the result that everything either leads up to 1933–1934 or is a consequence of those years. Ott ignores those areas that lie beyond his political focus. He observes, for example, that “relatively little discussion [in my book] is devoted to Heidegger’s Marburg period, important though it is. It seems to me that these years from 1923 to the summer of 1928 were something of an interlude [my emphasis] in Heidegger’s life” (p. 5). On the contrary, these were crucial years for Heidegger the man (which involved a much documented relationship with Hannah Arendt), as they were for Heidegger the philosopher (they saw the publication of his magnum opus, Being and Time). Ott argues that he avoids this period in Heidegger’s life out of considerations of tact: “I was searching throughout for criteria that would help me to understand Heidegger from the inside. One finds oneself walking a very fine line on these occasions. Where do the limits of discretion lie? At what point does one begin to invade personal privacy?” (p. 6). Ott cites Heidegger’s relationship with Hannah Arendt as an area that he is too discreet to explore. The fact is that Hannah Arendt, a Jewish intellectual living in New York, came out in an article published in the journal Die Merkur in 1969 to defend Heidegger against precisely the accusations that Ott makes in his book. Indeed, Heidegger’s philosophy qua philosophy, as opposed to its status as an emanation of his political views, receives little to no coverage in Ott’s book. Instead of which, we learn much about the shortcomings of Heidegger’s character, such as his “inability to participate with any moral authority in the creation of a liberal political democracy” (p. 373). Ott does not mention the obvious fact that all of Heidegger’s colleagues, from Wilhelm Rickert to Edmund Husserl, likewise held themselves distant from politics during the Weimar period.

Ultimately, Ott’s biography lacks the detail, the breadth and scholarly objectivity that any successful study of Heidegger’s life must possess. That omission is fully redressed in what is the longest and most detailed of Heidegger biographies to date: Rüdiger Safranski’s Ein Meister aus Deutschland: Heidegger und seine Zeit (Munich and Vienna: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1994). Translated by Ewald Osers as Martin Heidegger: Between Good and Evil (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998) pp. 474. As the title of his book indicates, Safranski is fully aware of the complicated and pained relationship that existed between Heidegger and the pressures of the age, and he treats this relationship in a balanced and measured way. Safranski, who cannot be accused of sharing Heidegger’s politics (he studied with Adorno in Berlin in the late 1960s, and his previous publications grew out of his research into working-class literature in the Federal Republic), adopts a more objective position than Ott on Heidegger’s engagement with the politics of 1933. As he notes in his introduction, “on philosophical grounds, he became, for a while, a National Socialist revolutionary, but his philosophy also helped him to free himself from the political scene” (p. x). The positive consequence of such an approach is that it allows Safranski to produce a broader, more impartial treatment of Heidegger’s ideas, and one that keeps our assessment open to their complexity and sometimes contradictory nature.

Safranski writes with great fluidity, creating a sense of movement and drama even in his narrative, painting on a large canvas with bold strokes, covering much material quickly, often with perhaps over-imaginative reconstructions, in an energetic process of Verstehen, in which the motives and intentions of individuals are reconstructed in an act of empathy. Such a style is certainly in keeping with one form of biographical writing but, seen from the point of view of scholarship, it is an approach that has its pitfalls, often leading to speculations that remain factually ungrounded. Describing, for example, Heidegger’s decision to support the events of 1933, Safranski tells us that Heidegger was motivated by a “hunger for concreteness and compact reality”, and that he welcomed the violence that the events of that year as “redeeming” (p. 231). They are colourful tropes; but the words are those of Safranski, not Heidegger. Rather too often Heidegger’s mentality is reconstructed rather than documented. These are reservations that do not, however, detract in any way from what remains the most compelling and comprehensive biography on Heidegger published to date.

In 2005, Rowohlt commissioned a second monograph on Heidegger to supplement the earlier volume by Walter Biemel, which had almost exclusively focused on Heidegger’s philosophy rather than his life. The result was Manfred Geier’s Martin Heidegger (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt rororo Monographien, 2005), pp. 138 (with illustrations). Geier came to his project after writing biographies on Kant, Karl Popper, and Jean-Paul Sartre, all for Rowohlt in their rororo Monographien series. All of these works demonstrate Geier’s exemplary ability to analyse, summarise, condense information, clarify difficult ideas (without simplification) and find appropriate examples from primary material.  Geier approaches Heidegger’s philosophy through the lecture courses that he gave at Marburg and Freiburg, and which were subsequently published as volumes in his Gesamtausgabe (Collected Works). Using these as a basis he attempts “to follow the individual stages of Heidegger’s thought, which [Heidegger] himself experienced as hesitating and circumscribed by setbacks and mistakes. It was also a path that went through the great illusions and catastrophes of the twentieth century, which found their philosophical expression in Heidegger’s work” (p. 8).

Some readers will have reservations about Geier’s approach. It could be argued that from the very beginning of his career Heidegger set himself a number of quite specific philosophical problems to solve (for example, devising a language for his new version of ontology, as in Being and Time, or later finding an idiom in which Being could manifest itself in its own terms, as in Contributions to Philosophy), and that his attempts to solve these problems were carried out quite independently of historical factors. Nevertheless, the terms of reference are productive ones. Viewed this way, Heidegger’s philosophy can be seen as a sustained product of enquiry, as a constellation of ideas that was constantly in the process of being formed and re-formed. Such an approach allows Geier to move back and forth between Heidegger’s life, his writings, and the time in which he lived, with great economy and illustrative verve. Geier’s incisive and superbly written monograph should be translated into English.

The most recent biography of Heidegger is Alfred Denker’s Unterwegs in Sein und Zeit: Einführung in Leben und Denken von Martin Heidegger (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 2011) pp. 238. Denker sets himself a clear goal: “in this book I will attempt to follow Martin Heidegger on the path of his life and work. In doing this, we will not only come closer to Heidegger the man, but also be introduced to his philosophical thinking” (p. 10). Denker is the director of the Martin-Heidegger-Archiv in Meßkirch and has used his access to the archive to excellent effect in other publications, such as Martin Heidegger und seine Heimat, edited with Elsbeth Büchin (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 2005). For the Heidegger-Jahrbuch he has also co-edited, with his colleague Holger Zaborowski, several volumes of primary materials related to Heidegger’s life, including Heidegger und die Anfänge seines Denkens (2004) and Heidegger und der Nationalsozialismus (2009.

Unterwegs in Sein und Zeit is more general in its ambit than these works, and largely aimed at readers new to Heidegger. As its title indicates, Denker attempts to provide an overview of both Heidegger’s life and his work in the same volume. It is an ambitious task. The author strives for balance in his book, a balance of material (between the philosopher’s life and writings) and a balance in approach (between compassion and critical distance). On the controversial matter of Heidegger’s affiliation with National Socialism, Denker rehearses the arguments made against the philosopher by Victor Farias and Emmanuel Faye (although Hugo Ott is not mentioned), while outlining the case made by apologists, such as Francois Federer and Friedrich-Wilhelm von Hermann. Denker seeks to move beyond both camps, stressing the “many-sidedness” (“Vieldeutigkeit”, p. 106) of the political and ideological factors that faced many, and not just Heidegger, in the early months of Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933, because matters were less clear to those who were participating in these events at that time as they now appear retrospectively to modern historians. It is true that at times Denker’s rather Olympian style leads to pronouncements that are just a little too sweeping. To be told that “Martin Heidegger always behaved in a modest fashion, which was friendly and straightforward. Nevertheless, his character was complicated – a mixture of pride, obstinacy, guile and modesty. He found it difficult to make relationships with others” (p. 11) is to compress too many generalisations into a single statement. It is possible that what we are being told here is that Heidegger’s philosophy was greater than the man. But what we need to know is: why? Alfred Denker is at present working on a study of Heidegger’s life in three volumes: all readers of Heidegger will look forward to its publication.