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Heidegger's Ultimate Question

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Heidegger in a question mark

Martin Heidegger (1898-1976) was a controversial German philosopher who lived and wrote in the Black Forest, close to nature, for most of his life.

His work inspired the Existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)1, which he wasn't that pleased about (compare Marx - 'if these are Marxists then I'm not a Marxist') and the Postmodernists such as Jacques Derrida (born 1930), which he wouldn't have liked at all.

The Question

For Heidegger there is a Fundamental or Ultimate Question which if thought about carefully, and if its implications can be understood, could critically change our perception and understanding of life, the universe and everything. This Question is:

Why is there anything rather than nothing?

This he referred to as The Question of the Meaning of Being. (It could actually be worth looking at and thinking about the question and the blankness that surrounds it. In that way you might understand more than this entry can tell you. But be careful you don't hurt your eyes.) This became his life's project - to work on what he described as philosophy's 'forgotten question'. His aim was to underline its fundamental importance, which he felt was undiminished by the lack of a straightforward direct answer, by trying to understand what it means for anything to be.

Direct answers such as 'the world exists because God created it' can seem facile and almost evasive in the light of this question, its depth, uncertainty and implications as a possible portal to the void.

As Ludwig Wittgenstein, (1889-1951) put it in his own book, The Tractatus (1921), such matters lie beyond the limits of language, and can only be shown, not said - though Wittgenstein was by no means a follower of Heidegger.

When the Question Can Hit You

It's as much an experience as a question. It occurs to some people in a really major way, to others fleetingly, to others not at all. It can hit you between the eyes, or it can occur to you quietly, like a muffled bell. It can occur to people in the darkness of depression and despair, when they no longer care if anything exists or not, or in moments of heartfelt joy, when you see things as if anew. It also often occurs in children. There can be an initial experience of uncanniness, as if the floor had suddenly opened beneath you - but it's an experience of how things are.

Some Implications

In the everyday, life goes on by taking the existence of the world for granted. This is OK, even necessary, for Heidegger, but for him it's an 'inauthentic' mode of life. An 'authentic' existence is one living in the deep uncertainty raised by the Question. (In reality, we need both. We can't think about life, the universe and everything all the time. We also need to participate in the everyday world.) If the world might very well not have existed, then its existence is contingent (it could be otherwise), not essential (could not be otherwise).

And this applies to everything in it: India just happens to be attached to Asia rather than Antarctica; each person you know just happens to be that person; you just happen to be you; the computer in front of you just happens to be there. They could all be different, or somewhere else - or they could equally not exist at all. The laws of science could be completely different too, or not exist.

Can there Be any Sort of Answer?

Yes and no. There is no way to answer this question directly, as it arguably lies beyond the limits of language. But yes, there may be a sort of answer.

In the first place, the meaning of existence can be hinted at indirectly, (shown, not said), by the experience of art, poetry, philosophy and music.

Secondly, the answer can be in your perceiving of the world and your place in it as the miracle of existence. Which means caring for the world by seeing its miraculous beauty, tending it instead of despoiling it by technology, and caring for others as miraculous beings in themselves. For Heidegger, this is definitely not mysticism but true perception of reality. Whether this constitutes a satisfactory answer to the question is a moot point, though. For Heidegger, indeed, it was no more than a step or two on the way.


Much of this entry has been based on Heidegger's Introduction to Metaphysics, one of his more exciting and accessible books. There's a wonderful new translation by Gregory Fried and Richard Polt in paperback, Yale University Press, 2000 (ISBN 0300083289). However this is neither an introductory book nor one about general metaphysics.

Quite the best start for most people would be Heidegger For Beginners by Eric Lemay and Jennifer A Pitts (Readers and Writers 1996 - ISBN 0863161723). It's a serious cartoon paperback, and a very sound one, with some good stuff on other important thinkers.

1 Existentialism was a more humanist version of Heidegger's and others' ideas, focussing on the isolation of human beings 'condemned to freedom' in a meaningless and therefore absurd universe. It was also a fashionable movement among young people in France from the end of the war to the mid-1950's. Girls and young women wore black clothes and black make-up, to show their contempt for the absurdity of all rules and arbitrary social authority.

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