The existentialist theory of Martin Heidegger is considered one of the main exponents of this philosophical movement, associated mainly with authors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In turn, existentialism has been a movement that has greatly influenced the current of Humanist Psychology, whose main representatives were Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, and which during the last decades has been transformed into Positive Psychology.

In this article we will analyze the main approaches of the controversial German philosopher Martin Heidegger in his contributions to existentialist philosophy, including his own understanding of his work as part of existentialism. Let’s start by looking at what exactly this philosophical trend is.

What is existentialism?

Existentialism is a philosophical current in which thinkers as disparate as Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Miguel de Unamuno, Gabriel Marcel, the psychologist Karl Jaspers, the writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky or the film director Ingmar Bergman have been categorized.

All these authors have in common their focus on the nature of human existence . In particular, they focused on the search for meaning as the engine of an authentic life, for which they stressed the importance of individual freedom. They were also joined by their criticism of abstraction and the conception of thought as a central aspect.

Martin Heidegger, the philosopher in question, denied his connection with existentialist philosophy ; in fact two periods have been distinguished in his work, and the second of them cannot be classified within this current of thought. Nevertheless, the proposals and objects of study of his first stage have an evident existentialist character.

Biography of Martin Heidegger

Martin Heidegger was born in 1889 in Messkirch, a village in Germany. His parents were devout Roman Catholics; this led Heidegger to study theology at the University of Freiburg, although he eventually decided to devote himself to philosophy. In 1914 he received his doctorate with a thesis on psychology, a current that highlights the role of mental processes.

In the 1920s he worked as professor of philosophy at the University of Marburg and later at the University of Freiburg , where he would practice for the rest of his career. During this period he began to give talks focused on his ideas about human existence and the meaning of it, which he would develop in his book “Being and Time”, published in 1927.

In 1933 Heidegger was appointed rector of the University of Freiburg, a position he left 12 years later. It is worth noting his affiliation and active participation in the German National Socialist Workers’ Party – better known as the “Nazi Party” ; in fact, Heidegger tried without success to become the leading philosopher of this movement.

Heidegger died in 1976 in the city of Freiburg im Breisgau; at that time he was 86 years old. In spite of the criticism he received for his collaboration with the Nazis, for the contradictions between his works and for his lack of knowledge of other authors of his time, today this philosopher is considered one of the most important of the 20th century.

Heidegger’s Existentialist Theory

Heidegger’s main work is “Being and Time”. In it the author tries to answer a key question: what exactly does “being” mean? What does existence consist of, and what is its fundamental characteristic, if any? In this way he recovered a question that, in his opinion, had been left aside by philosophy since the classical period.

In this book Heidegger states that this question must be reformulated in search of the sense of being, more than of this one in itself. Around this he affirms that it is not possible to separate the sense of the being of a space and temporary context (with the death like structuring element) determined; thus, he talks about the human existence like “Dasein” or “being-in-the-world”.

Unlike what Descartes and other previous authors proposed, Heidegger considered that people are not thinking entities isolated from the world around us, but that the very interaction with the environment is a nuclear aspect of being. That is why it is not possible to dominate the being and trying to do it leads to a life without authenticity.

Consequently, the human capacity to think has a secondary character and should not be understood as that which defines our being. We discover the world through the being-in-the-world, that is to say, of the existence in itself; for Heidegger the cognition is only a reflection of this one, and therefore so are the reflection and other similar processes.

Existence does not depend on will, but rather we are “thrown” into the world and we know that it is inevitable that our life will end . The acceptance of these facts, as well as the understanding that we are one more part of the world, allows us to give meaning to life, which Heidegger conceptualizes as the project of the being-in-the-world.

Heidegger’s interests later shifted to other issues. He highlighted the relevance of language as a fundamental tool for understanding the world, explored the relationship between art and the search for “truth” and criticized the derogatory and irresponsible attitude of Western countries towards nature.