Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre on Existentialism and Humanism
The Essentials of Essentialism
Martin Heidegger's philosophical opus is both deep and complex and a comprehensive examination of it here would be impossible. However it is possible to provide an overview of his essential teachings - of the essential aspects of his essentialism. Doing so will allow us, in later sections, to explore his criticisms of Jean-Paul Sartre's far more famous version of existentialism as well as to examine the ways in which - despite Heidegger's criticism of Sartre - the two are in many ways the same.
Heidegger, like all modern philosophers (and possibly the ancient ones as well), incorporated the work of a number of earlier thinkers into his own formulation of existentialism and his understanding of the nature of reality of the place of humans in the world. As an existentialist, Heidegger believed in a philosophy that was relatively concrete, that is concerned with addressing the place of people in the world, dealing with concrete, real problems. This is a cornerstone of existentialism, this insistence upon the reality of existence in a real world, and an existence moreover that is marked by no Cartesian dualism. Heidegger (along with Sartre and other existentialists) would soundly reject the kinds of ideas about consciousness that were promulgated by Descartes, a form of human consciousness that hovers somewhere outside of consciousness and that is used to intuit or to infer the existence of other things in the world.
For the existentialist, the reality of the world was not such a difficult proposition. Heidegger believed that the world exists and that it in many ways governs our actions and that the nature of human life is one that is affected in fundamental ways by the real nature of the things that we encounter in the world. One of the major impetuses of existentialism, in fact its core, can thus be said to be concerned not with "knowing" but with "being." Heidegger was not so much concerned with how one knows that there are things in the world other than oneself but with one's own state of being or existence in conjunction with those real things in the world. In more technical terms, one can summarize the position of Heidegger to be that phenomenology (which is the study of the nature of things and their existence) is the same as ontology (which is the study of the nature of beingness - to coin a word - for sentient creatures like ourselves).
It should be clear from the above description that Heidegger could not escape (although, given the turn that his life took, he might well have wanted to) responsibility not only for the actions that one takes but for the decisions behind them. The great claim that existentialism makes on behalf of all of us is that humans are essentially free, and thus that all decisions that we make must be judged in that context if we are to understand a person's character, his or her chosen way of being in the world. Heidegger argued that while other entities that have their undeniable existence in the world - from trees to slabs of marble to dragonflies - they have no choice about their mode of being. But humans have no such "essential" nature. We are each as individuals free to choose and to act. And because we are free, we are defined by those choices that we make.
Heidegger's Opposition to Sartre
Although from the outside and from the advantage of a number of decades of further thought on these issues, it might appear to us that Heidegger and Sartre are - at least relatively speaking - on the same side of the issue of what it means to be human - in fact the two saw themselves as having a rather fundamentally different understanding of humanity and of existentialism, and Heidegger would criticize Sartre over the differences in their versions of their shared philosophy.
Before we enter more deeply into these differences, however, it is important to note once again the overarching similarity between the two in terms of human responsibility: Any philosophy that takes as its central tenet the requirement that people take responsibility for their own actions and own thoughts must be founded upon the idea that people can accurately perceive the world, for if they cannot do so, their ability to act in appropriately responsible ways is limited by the ways in they are deceived by the nature of the world around them. And upon the heels of such accurate perception must come the ability to divorce perception from reality. However, it is possible to disagree about the ways in which we come to perceive reality and the relative importance of different degrees of responses to those perceptions.
While Sartre would focus on the importance of acting in the world, Heidegger was more concerned with ontological questions: If existentialism does in fact combine ontology with phenomenology, then we may still see Heidegger on the ontological end and Sartre huddled with the phenomenologically inclined members of the group.
Heidegger argued that Sartre did not pay sufficient attention to the fact that - as he argued in Being and Time - to the question of what is the meaning of existence (or of "being") to human life. Heidegger did not believe that such a question could be answered with reference to the ordinary events of everyday life. We do not, as humans, usually understand what it means to be not because the answer to understanding being is actually so complicated but because it lies hidden in the surface details of life. We look too deeply for it, and so we miss the answers.
Heidegger was not in fact sanguine about whether people were ever capable of finding answers to the meaning of being, but he believed that no life could be justified without such a search, and that indeed this search defined a good life. Heidegger would come to believe in the end in an idea that was dangerously close to having an affinity with dualism, the idea of Da-sein. This idea suggests that the nature of human existence is in some deep way merged with the existence of other things in the world. We are unique and independent, yes, but we are also dependent for our knowledge of our existence (which, after all, comes about in a real world inhabited by real objects) through interactions with these other objects. Heidegger believed this idea to be a breakthrough, and one that made his own version of existentialism more refined and a more accurate description of the ways in which humans both exist and know in the world.
Heidegger's Da-sein and Sartre's Consciousness
It may well be, as is so often the case, that the passage of time has smoothed over (at least for an observer) the differences between these two versions of existentialism that seemed so importantly different to the two philosophers, allowing their essential and core similarities to be revealed once again. It may be that the differences between the two were never that great in terms of their philosophy; it is hard to imagine that their very different political choices did not tend to make them think of themselves as being inclined to see themselves as intellectually farther apart than they in fact were.
There are many points of similarity between the work of the two, including their belief in the importance of a sense of alienation that exists among people, a sense that Heidegger called "fallenness." This sense of the inauthentic is to some extent different between the two writers, but its existence as a category and as a point of Structuralist differentiation with authentic existence is essentially the same. Both the state of Da-sein and the state of enlightened consciousness depends on the defense of an opposing state.
We may in fact understand both something of the relatively minor differences between the two philosophers as well as a great deal about the more important similarities by looking at their understandings of the concept of authenticity. For both of them, the idea of authenticity helped them to understand what an ideal state of being would look like.
Heidegger (again, in Being and Time) argued that the concept of authenticity (and therefore the authentically lived life) can be derived from the ontological difference between an essentially abstracted idea of "Being" ("Sein") and individuated "Beings" (Seiendes) or unique things that exist in the real world. For humans, engaged in "Da-sein," or human beingness) as uniquely sentient beings possessed of the undeniable gift or free will, an essential part of authentic life was an acknowledgement of the reality of death, or Sein sum Tode. Death for both philosophers provided a sense of the absolute: It provides something against which we can measure all other things. We do not have to occupy ourselves with worries that it is not itself real or authentic or only a product of our imaginings. Heidegger's Da-sein is…