Controversial due to his radical questioning of philosophy—and his unfortunate dabbling in National Socialism—Martin Heidegger has nonetheless made a mark on the history of ideas like few others. He's like a main character on Cheers: everyone in philosophy knows his name. He's even a force to be reckoned with outside of philosophy, in theology, political theory, and literary criticism.
What can we say? He's a sensation.
Heidegger was an odd duck, intellectually speaking. He just loved shooting the breeze about the deepest meaning of existence—he calls that "Being," with a capital B, thank you very much—but he also accused pretty much the whole of Western philosophy, from the ancient Greeks up to the early 20th century, of faulty thinking and faulty questioning.
That's a pretty big claim, folks.
Heidegger's oddities sure got him an audience; he had us at "Hello, Being." And perhaps because of his ability to speak powerfully to the past, present, and future of philosophy, his major work, Being and Time, hit the world of ideas like the Hulk's mightiest punch.
His legacy is more about the questions he asked and the paths he followed than with the success of his project. Heidegger never was able to answer his foundational question: what is the meaning of Being, or why is there something instead of nothing? (Seriously, can anybody actually answer that question? Heidegger would sure like to know.)
Yet Heidegger's failure to find the Answer to Everything turned to the advantage of philosophy. While his most influential students and disciples didn't take up his main question, they learned from his example, including his mistakes. They took aspects of his thought into new directions, building on what he started.
The central term you need to know when reading Heidegger is "Dasein." He didn't use it in the typical way, as in "existence" or "presence"; he looked to its roots, "da" and "sein," to build a new way of descriptively identifying the human being. Dasein refers to the way human beings exist in the world. Heidegger associated what we are with how we are.
By studying Dasein, Heidegger hoped to uncover the meaning of Being. Unlike other philosophers, he wasn't trying to define Being by tossing a bunch of manmade categories of philosophical concepts onto it.
He had something else in mind. To understand Being, Heidegger said you had start with Dasein. Only Dasein—that is, only human beings—are bothered by the question of existence or ultimate reality (Being), so the only way to figure out anything about Being, you have to look at how Dasein deals with Being.
Translation: ultimate reality is way too big for us to comprehend, but we can try to comprehend how people deal with and relate to the issue of ultimate reality. Everything else is just pseudo-intellectual fluff.
Sound complicated? We're here to help, so read on, intrepid Shmooper. If you've made it this far, you can make it to the end.