Heidegger as Teacher
Heidegger began his university teaching career in 1915, a century ago as I am writing, following achievement of his habilitation – the qualification for becoming a privatdozent: a university instructor or teacher (one who can teach and supervise doctoral candidates independently and who may be considered eligible for a tenure-track position). This achievement required two main steps, the first of which was successful completion of his “qualifying dissertation” or “Habilitationsschrift” (Sheehan 1988, p. 77). The Habilitationsschrift (still used in many European countries) is undertaken after the doctorate (which Heidegger completed in 1913), requiring a further dissertation to be written and argued. A major difference between the two is that the doctoral dissertation is conducted under direct supervision, with the Habilitationsschrift reflecting work of a more independent nature.
After successful completion of his Habilitationsschrift, Heidegger was required to undergo the second main step in acquiring one’s habilitation – the “licensing examination” (Sheehan 1988, p. 81) – which involves delivery of a trial lecture. This he duly undertook, and, being deemed successful, Heidegger was awarded the venia legendi in philosophy on August 5, 1915 – his actual license to teach philosophy. During the second week of November of that year, “he officially initiated his teaching career with the lecture course Grundlinien der antiken und scholastischen Philosophie [The basic trends of ancient and scholastic philosophy]” (p. 82) at the University of Freiburg. In this lecture course Heidegger encountered “among the twenty-one students enrolled in the lecture … one Fraulein Elfriede Petri from Wiesbaden. A year later she and Heidegger would be engaged to be married” (p. 82). I mention this for two reasons: (1) I shall use some excerpts from Heidegger’s many letters to Elfriede, his wife, to help illuminate his experience of teaching, and (2) understanding Heidegger as a teacher requires insight into how he related to his students, of whom Elfriede was one.
The renown associated with Heidegger’s philosophical work did not initially spread through his publications but through his teaching. In fact most volumes of his Gesamtausgabe (collected works) have been constructed using notes from lectures and seminars. Different to many academics, Heidegger focused on his teaching more than his publishing. Hans-Georg Gadamer, a student of Heidegger’s who followed him in his move from Freiburg to Marburg in 1923, drew a sharp contrast between Heidegger and the professor “who devoted the full force of his interest to his publications and saw teaching as a secondary form of activity” (1992, p. 5). “With Heidegger, it was the exact opposite,” Gadamer (p. 5) recounted. “In fact, we can see today that after Being and Time he didn't even write any more books actually. Those were all more or less university lectures or seminars” (pp. 5–6). And yet it was the focus on his teaching which lent success to the writing he did publish. “Heidegger’s ‘fame’ predates by about 8 years the publication of Sein und Zeit (Being and Time) in 1927,” observed Hannah Arendt (1971, p. 50), another of Heidegger’s students of that time. “Indeed it is open to question whether the unusual success of this book … would have been possible if it had not been preceded by the teacher’s reputation among the students” (p. 50).
One aspect of this reputation was due to the way in which Heidegger connected with his students through his teaching. “It was remarkable,” Gadamer (1992, p. 6) asserted, referring to “the personal attention to and awareness of the student which we saw particularly in Heidegger.” “It was amazing how he took hold of every question that was asked and saw something in it that was positive” (p. 6). And “because of him the lecture format became something totally new. It was no longer the ‘lesson presentation’ of a professor who put his essential energy into research and publication” (1985, p. 48). Elisabeth Hirsch was another student of Heidegger’s at Marburg. She “took several seminars with Heidegger” which she identified as “equally exciting although by no means easy. We would read a text and discuss it sentence by sentence. Heidegger’s most valued quality was that he would listen to the student with patience and interest” (1979, p. 340).
Another aspect of this reputation was how Heidegger, instead of merely communicating time-worn interpretations of classical philosophical texts, employed a means of philosophizing that brought these texts to life in an existential way. “It was technically decisive,” argued Arendt (1971. p. 51), “that, for instance, Plato was not talked about and his theory of Ideas expounded” – in the traditional manner – “rather for an entire semester a single dialogue was pursued and subjected to question step by step, until the time-honored doctrine had disappeared to make room for a set of problems of immediate and urgent relevance.” Hence “the rumor [amongst students] about Heidegger put it quite simply: Thinking has come to life again; the cultural treasures of the past, believed to be dead, are being made to speak” (p. 51). “There exists a teacher,” Arendt proclaimed, attempting to capture the mood of the time, and so “one can perhaps learn to think” (p. 51). “Today this sounds quite familiar,” she acknowledged, “because nowadays so many proceed in this way; but no one did so before Heidegger” (p. 51).
It is important to comprehend these two reputational aspects of Heidegger’s teaching not as separate but united – as features of the task of teaching through phenomenological philosophizing. As one they illuminate the new philosophical and pedagogical pathway along which Heidegger was trying to lead his students. Through careful consideration of Heidegger’s philosophic pedagogy, Ehrmantraut (2010) astutely discerned that “in Heidegger’s lectures on philosophy … it could be said that the subject matter of the philosophic lecture is the existence of the auditors themselves” (p. 41). In other words, “the aim, content, structure and procedure of the lecture are determined not only by the subject matter … but also by the existence of those who attend the lectures” (p. 41). Gadamer (1985) alluded to this when he recalled how “Heidegger’s mode [of teaching] consisted in him making the interpretation of a text as convincing as possible, to a point where we risked losing ourselves in it. That is how things went in Heidegger’s lectures” (pp. 38–39). And the same pedagogical event was evident in the teacher. “The unique thing about his person and his teaching lay in the fact that he identified himself fully with his work and radiated from that work” (p. 48).
Heidegger’s teaching was an attempt to work phenomenologically in the manner in which he had further developed Husserl’s work and to have his students engage phenomenologically. As Arendt recalled, “the rumor … had it that there was someone who was actually attaining ‘the things’ that Husserl had proclaimed, someone who knew that these things were not academic matters but the concerns of thinking men [sic]” (1971, p. 51). However the difference between phenomenological thinking and that evident in more traditional lectures presented a formidable pedagogical challenge for Heidegger (as for any teacher) because of the “distinction between the expectations that a student usually brings to academic lectures and the fundamental ‘comportment’ that is demanded by genuine philosophizing” (Ehrmantraut 2010, p. 52). Such genuine philosophizing is phenomenological, and this was how Heidegger interpreted the classic philosophical work of Aristotle, Plato, and other early Greek thinkers. This phenomenological thinking was not the usual academic thinking characterized within debates between empiricism and rationalism. In phenomenological thinking the concepts remained living, existential, thus necessitating a “turning around of philosophical comportment” (Heidegger 2004, p 11). For “it is only where empirical and rational moments work together that experience rings true” (2002, p. 46). This “philosophizing” thus “demands something more of the student than does ordinary scientific study, it requires a ‘different kind of attentiveness’” (Ehrmantraut, p. 52). But “just what comportment is demanded is, Heidegger admits, ‘confused’ and ‘uncertain’” (p. 52).
The challenge Heidegger had taken on was to reinvent philosophy phenomenologically, and he found that the best way to do this was through teaching his students, many of whom were more open to challenging the philosophical status quo than university colleagues. “Who among those who then followed him can forget the breathtaking swirl of questions that he developed in the introductory hours of the semester,” Gadamer (1985) recounted, all “for the sake of entangling himself in the second or third of these questions and then, in the final hours of the semester, rolling up the deep-dark clouds of sentences from which the lightning flashed to leave us half stunned” (p. 48). This was a memorable situation for students like Gadamer and Arendt, but for others the philosophical “leap” (Gray, 1968, p. 21) that was required by phenomenology presented too much of a challenge. In a letter to Elfriede dated 1932, Heidegger confided that “even though I have the large lecture hall firmly in my power, I cannot rid myself of the feeling that it passes them by and if it does hit the mark it is hardly worthwhile” (2008, p. 136). This concern was patently visible during a lecture series that Heidegger taught in the winter semester of 1920–21 in Freiburg titled Einleitung in die Phanomenologie der Religion [Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion]. Part way through the semester Heidegger was forced to make an “abrupt change in course content” as a “direct result of student complaints to the Dean of the Philosophical Faculty over the lack of religious content in a course on the philosophy of religion” (Kisiel 1993, p. 172). Many students held expectations that they were to learn more about the traditional philosophy of religion, whereas for Heidegger (2004) the course entailed engaging phenomenologically with “factical life” (p. 45) as expressed through “religious experience” (p. 47).
While some students struggled unsuccessfully with Heidegger’s phenomenological teaching, those who managed to make the leap set off with enthusiasm along the pathway that now opened before them. “We were an arrogant little in-group and easily let our pride in our teacher and his manner of working go to our heads” Gadamer (1985, p. 49) reminisced. But this was not “a ‘circle’ centered around and directed by a ‘master’” Arendt (1971, p. 50) argued. “Here there was neither a secret nor membership; those who heard the rumor were acquainted with one another, to be sure, since they were all students” (p. 50). “But there never was a circle and there was nothing esoteric about his following” (p. 50). “Still,” Gadamer (1985) acknowledged, “it was remarkable how Heidegger, who had invented the term ‘liberating care,’ could not prevent a large number of people from losing their freedom to him. Moths fly into the light” (p. 50).
This close connection between Heidegger and many of his students, encouraged by the challenges of working phenomenologically, seemed to be at the center of the justification to ban him from teaching at the end of the Second World War. Insight into this event is made accessible via a letter penned by Karl Jaspers, a close colleague of Heidegger’s since the early 1920s, when asked to contribute his opinion to the denazification committee which was hearing Heidegger’s case in 1945. Jaspers had no major concerns with Heidegger being allowed to continue his philosophical work postwar, if this was to be primarily through his writing – but he did not condone Heidegger continuing his teaching. He recommended that the committee suspend Heidegger “from teaching duties for at least several years” (Jaspers, cited in Wolin, 1993, p. 150). Following a fairly drawn-out process, a suspension did result, which had a deleterious effect on Heidegger’s health. Shortly after, in 1946, Heidegger spent 3 weeks at a sanatorium having succumbed to a depressive episode. It was not until 1951, Gertrud Heidegger (2008, p. 218) notes, that Heidegger was “made an emeritus professor” at the University of Freiburg and “able to take up his lecturing at the University once again.” He continued lecturing until 1957, after which his teaching consisted mainly of seminars.
Jaspers justified his recommendation regarding Heidegger by way of a concern with “the education of youth” which “must be handled with the greatest responsibility” for “the youth must first reach a point where they can think for themselves” (cited in Wolin, 1993, p. 149) – before being exposed to Heidegger’s thinking. “Heidegger’s manner of thinking, which,” argued Jaspers, “seems in its essence unfree, dictatorial, and incapable of communication, would today in its pedagogical effects be disastrous” (p. 149). Jaspers’ reference to Heidegger’s teaching as unfree accords somewhat with Gadamer’s observation that students lost their freedom to him. And while there was a definite political concern in such statements, also highlighted is the strength of the teacher-student relation which Heidegger achieved through his pedagogy.
As soon as Heidegger was able to return to teaching, he delivered a lecture series titled Was Heisst Denken? [What is called thinking?] in which he expounded perhaps his most well-known commentary on teaching. And yet even while pronouncing on teaching, it was Heidegger’s pedagogy which stood out, as revealed in comments from J. Glenn Gray, the translator of these lectures, who through his close affiliation with the text perceived how “Heidegger is first and foremost preoccupied with the students before him, only secondarily with the wider circle of readers who will necessarily miss the vital character and nuances of the spoken word” (Gray, 1968, p. vii). It is this vital character and nuance of phenomenological engagement which is better served through teaching via the spoken word than the written word. Heidegger’s teaching, as Gadamer has relayed, engaged students in question and response, in dialogue that enabled access to phenomenological philosophizing. “We learned from him what a lecture could be,” Gadamer (1985, p. 37) attested, “and I hope that none of us has forgotten.”
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