Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) was born in Messkirch, an agricultural community in southwest Germany. He entered the seminary to become a Jesuit priest, but was soon attracted to philosophy and transferred to the University of Freiburg. There he studied under Edmund Husserl (see Chapter 35). After graduation he became a professor at the University of Marburg, where he wrote his famous Being and Time (1927) and became a colleague of two of the leading Protestant theologians of the twentieth century, Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich, both of whom he significantly influenced. In 1928 he was chosen as Husserl's successor at the University of Freiburg and was elected Rector of the University in 1933. For a brief period he was a member of the Nazi party, believing that it offered the best hope for the renewal of the nation. Although his reputation has been sullied by his brief support of the Nazis, there is no evidence that he shared Nazi fanatical beliefs. To his credit, he became disillusioned with the party and resigned the Rectorship and his party membership. After the war, he retired to the Black Forest where he spent his days writing. Meantime, his work had attracted worldwide attention, and philosophers came from many countries to visit him in his mountain home.
Heidegger's thought is concerned with the question of the meaning of being, the question which he claims motivated the inquiries of the first philosophers but which had become neglected by subsequent philosophers. Some, such as Gilbert Ryle, would say it is a “pseudo question,” for being is not a thing but a word referring to concepts that are instantiated. Heidegger disagrees and holds that we intuitively realize that there is something in the idea that a common reality underlies all reality. He then asks, Is there a particular being that is particularly suited to inquire into the meaning of being? His existential philosophy is a response to that question. Since human beings experience openness to the future and have a measure of freedom and responsibility, the question of who he is, is inescapable for him; but this question, if pursued in a correct manner, leads with equal inescapability into the question of Being in general. As Heidegger says in our reading, “Each of us is grazed at least once, perhaps more than once, by the hidden power of this question, even if he is not aware of what is happening to him.”
The central question in the essay before us, “The Fundamental Question of Metaphysics,” is “Why is there anything at all, rather than nothing?” Some may dismiss this as a nonsensical question, but that only shows that it is so primordial and, perhaps, unanswerable, that it seems pointless to raise it. Yet it leads us to wonder—What is the explanation of reality, of the universe, of our being here? According to Heidegger, wondering about this basic ontological question opens oneself up to the presence of Being. Heidegger traces the quest for Being back to the ancient Greeks, especially Parmenides.