Study Guide

Martin Heidegger Influences

Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin

Hölderlin's poems served as the foundation for most of my later philosophizing about poetry. As I am fond of saying, reading Hölderlin's work, we encounter a sayer who more sayingly says. (This is how I speak. Deal.) Pretty much, I just mean that this dude's poetry reveals Being better than most people's poetry does.

It was from Hölderlin that I took the expression "poetically man dwells." What this means is that it's poetry that lets us dwell (or be at home in Being), and it's poetry that causes dwelling to be dwelling in the fullest sense. The poet uses language, but he is not the master of language—language speaks, and the poet listens. The poet builds with language, so he builds with the house of Being.

If that sounds a little too weird to you, let me put it this way. I think that poetry gets us closer to ultimate reality (Being). I think that poetry also comes from ultimate reality; it's as if ultimate reality reveals itself through the poet, who works with it to try to convey it in language (the house of Being).

If language is the "house of Being," it's sort of like the poet is the one who gets to hang out in that house and get to know Being. The poet uses that same house (language) to convey Being to rest of us.

You read it here first, folks.

Rainer Maria Rilke

Like Hölderlin, Rilke is another poet whose insights inspired me to think about the question of Being. Rilke talked a lot about the way technology objectifies things. He also talked about how daring humans are to venture into the unknown and the unexpected, and he examined the place of the human will in this adventure.

St. Augustine's Confessions

"But what is closer to me than myself?" asks Augustine. His answer: "I labor here and I labor within myself; I have become to myself a land of trouble and inordinate sweat."

In one sense, Augustine is close to himself: he experiences his everyday world through his own individual eyes. He's Augustine, and not somebody else. But in another sense, he is far from himself: he still has the huge task of understanding himself ahead of him.

It's just like that with Dasein. Because the essence of Dasein lies in its existence, it is through the existence of Dasein that the essence of Dasein is sought. Think of it this way: you know you exist, but what does your existence mean? How can you understand yourself if you don't know why you're here in the first place?

The only tool you have is the knowledge of your own existence. That's the "closest" thing you have—you just know it. But this existence is also very far from you—it's a huge mystery, maybe the hugest mystery. The task of describing or finding Being, then, must be, in a sense, existential (but, please, people: let's keep Sartre out of it).

Blaise Pascal

Following St. Augustine, the philosopher Blaise Pascal suggested in his Pensées that to know truth one must first love truth. This has an existentialist ring to it that sings in my old German ears.

I don't know if love is all you need, but you sure do need it. Being is accessible to us only if our way of being is open to it. If we're closed off to Being, if we have no care for it or interest in it, then Being is sure to elude us. It's not just an object that can find and define; it's something we have to experience and create.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Our way of being is a being-towards-death. This wouldn't be German philosophy without some good old-fashioned death, right?

Look, we're all going to die. We're all heading towards the undiscovered country. We're all... well, you get the idea. Strangely, this fate doesn't faze us most days and nights. Death happens all around us, every day. We read about deaths in the news; we see deaths on TV; we even kill people in video games. Only rarely does death ever upset us.

We're constantly tranquilized about death. We don't want it to disrupt our day-to-day affairs, so we don't think about it. If death takes some other person, someone not close to us, it can be an inconvenience, or a bother, but that's about it. We try not to let the deaths of others cause us to ponder our own deaths.

Tolstoy's short story The Death of Ivan Ilyich captures these aspects of Dasein's everyday being-towards-death, and it captures the crisis of meaning that death, once it is present-at-hand to us, presents to us.

Basically, it's the story of this dude who never thinks about death and just leads a pretty easy, shallow life—until he gets terminally ill. Then, with the knowledge that he's for sure, 100% going to die in near future, everything starts to look different, and he tries to search for meaning.

Hey, here's an idea I just like to throw out there: maybe we should think about death a little more often so that we're not stuck at the end of our lives without any idea about what our lives actually meant.