An overview of Heidegger is extremely difficult, dangerous in that it can give a trivialized impression that obscures the great profundity of his thought, and perhaps even impossible. Consider what follows to be less than even a mere introduction, and if it interests you then ask lots of questions. First let’s put him in historical perspective. He is in many ways the beginning of an entirely new approach to thought (he discards the term philosopher as used up by metaphysics and prefers the term “thinker”) after the culmination of the two major thrusts in philosophy starting with the Enlightenment and ending with Nietzsche: 1. The destruction of metaphysics; 2. The overthrow of reason as the privileged mode of knowledge which is given over to the senses.
He was the single most important thinker of the 20th Century and, despite more often than not being misunderstood, the most influential. The only other 20th Century figure who would compare is Wittgenstein, who followed a similar path of beginning within an academic approach of systematic philosophy, rejecting that approach as insufficiently free of metaphysics, and in the end focusing on language as the key to understanding our place in the world.
Heidegger is probably the thinker that the most people regard as impossibly difficult to understand. Part of this stems from the initial strangeness of non-metaphysical thought, and much comes from Heidegger’s use of the German language. I’ll state at the beginning that it is impossible to understand Heidegger in translation since his meaning derives from the poetic/musical nature of German. Poetry can never be translated. I’m fortunate enough to speak fluent German and when I think of Heidegger’s thought I think it in German. All I can do in English is give you hints at the meanings.
The next thing to consider is the “Turn”. This marks the sharp break in his thought from the earlier Being and Time. I always suggest that we skip Being and Time, What is Metaphysics and other pre-turn writing altogether. It merely adds considerable and needless complexity as an approach he disavowed. Being and Time, which Heidegger left more than half unfinished, was written in order to justify his offer of a teaching position and adheres to the systematic hermeneutic phenomenology of his mentor, Edmund Husserl. It necessarily trapped him in subject/object metaphysics and has no real impact on his later important work. He later referred to it as the mistake of writing too soon. It is interesting that many traditional academics still consider that his major work because it is the most accessible to them, working within the limits of early 20th Century academic philosophy.
Being is the key to everything in Heidegger. In metaphysics, Being is a metaphysical conjecture which grounds the world, but is not part of it. Heidegger inverts that to accord with its more apparent meaning of actual existence in the world, and that which engenders the world. It is one unifying force, but much more than the English word force conveys. Being reveals itself in individual beings which we encounter, but all beings along with man are connected and stem from the essence of being. In German, Being and essence are etymologically and grammatically related words which we can’t use the same way in English. Man is a special case of being as Dasein. Sein is the word for Being – the manifold essence of all that exists, and man is the case of Being that is aware of its being-there. In as sense, man is the evolved consciousness of Being and destined to be the experience of/for Being and its expression. He sees Hölderlin’s line in the poem “In Lieblicher Bläue” as an expression of the authentic dwelling of man on this earth:
Voll Verdienst, doch dichterish wohnet der Mensch auf dieser Erde
(Fully industrious, yet poetically man dwells on this earth)
We strive but as the experience of Being in this world. The experience is a poetic one, not an analytic exercise. This is seen again in Heidegger’s poem: Aus der Erfahrung des Denkens:
Wir kommen für die Götter zu spät und zu früh für das Sein, dessen angefangenes Gedicht ist der Mensch.
(We come too late for the gods and too soon for Being, whose just begun poem is man.)
The meanings of this line are too much to go into at this moment, but it again poses man as the poetic experience of/for Being itself who at this moment in history has unburdened himself of the metaphysical gods but is yet to discover the essential truths of Being in this world. Until that truth is experienced we remain rootless and stuck in the vertigo of Nietzsche’s madman as he proclaimed god’s death.
Being is in a sense the same mystery sought by physicists, but from a poetic mode of thought. It is the search for the fundamental truths of the universe, which always hides more than it shows yet irresistibly fascinates us.