Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Heidegger on Teaching

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_137


 Phenomenology;  Teaching

Central to the contributions Heidegger makes to education are his pronouncements on teaching. These statements are not numerous, but where they appear they are significant because they situate teaching within Heidegger’s broader philosophy. In addition they offer a concrete way to comprehend how this philosophy may be applied – as Heidegger applied it – in terms of the encounters between teacher and student(s), by way of Da-sein.

Perhaps the most famous of Heidegger’s statements on teaching occurs in his 1951–1952 lecture series Was Heisst Denken? [What is called thinking?], the first lecture course he delivered on his return to teaching following his postwar suspension. I include the major section of this proclamation on teaching here, while acknowledging that more of relevance was said in the flow of this first lecture in the course:

Teaching is even more difficult than learning. We know that; but we rarely think about it. And why is teaching more difficult than learning? Not because the teacher must have a larger store of information, and have it always ready. Teaching is more difficult than learning because what teaching calls for is this: to let learn. The real teacher, in fact, lets nothing else be learned than – learning. His conduct, therefore, often produces the impression that we properly learn nothing from him [or her], if by “learning” we now suddenly understand merely the procurement of useful information. The teacher is ahead of his apprentices in this alone, that [s]he still has far more to learn than they – [s]he has to learn to let them learn. The teacher must be capable of being more teachable than the apprentices. The teacher is far less assured of his [or her] ground than those who learn are of theirs. If the relation between the teacher and the taught is genuine, therefore, there is never a place in it for the authority of the know-it-all or the authoritative sway of the official. It is still an exalted matter, then, to become a teacher – which is something else entirely than becoming a famous professor. (Heidegger 1968, p. 15)

On reading this statement many teachers will find themselves in agreement with Heidegger on the point that “teaching is more difficult than learning.” However Heidegger seems to contradict this position in a less well-known statement on teaching made in an earlier lecture course of 1935–1936 titled Basic Questions of Metaphysics and translated as What is a thing? In this pronouncement the same themes are prominent around teaching and learning, and yet he here proclaims learning to be more difficult than teaching:

True learning only occurs where the taking of what one already has is a self-giving and is experienced as such. Teaching, therefore, does not mean anything else than to let the others learn, i.e., to bring one another to learning. Learning is more difficult than teaching; for only he who can truly learn – and only as long as he can do it – can truly teach. The genuine teacher differs from the pupil only in that he can learn better and that he more genuinely wants to learn. In all teaching, the teacher learns the most. (Heidegger 1967, p. 73)

There is much of Heidegger’s broader philosophy embedded within both of these statements – and it is to his broader philosophy that we must turn in order to belie this seeming contradiction. Heidegger signposts the way to their complementarity through the notion of “to let learn” or “to let the others learn,” as mentioned in both statements. To let learn evokes a sense similar to that of “letting be,” which is an important phenomenological concept for Heidegger. As phenomenological it holds a different meaning than the same phrase expressed in the vernacular. For Heidegger letting be speaks to our existential engagement, as Da-sein, where “Da is namely the word for the open expanse,” thus Da-sein is “being-in-an-open-expanse” (2003, p. 69), an open characterized by meaning rather than as a mere collection of things. Heidegger employed the hyphen in Da-sein to highlight the Da (for a detailed unpacking of Heidegger’s use of Dasein and Da-sein see von Herrmann 2011).

Ordinarily we speak of letting be whenever, for example, we forgo some enterprise that has been planned. “We let something be” means we do not touch it again, we have nothing more to do with it. To let something be has here the negative sense of letting it alone, of renouncing it, of indifference and even neglect. However the phrase required now – to let beings be – does not refer to neglect and indifference but rather the opposite. To let be is to engage oneself with beings. On the other hand, to be sure, this is not to be understood only as mere management, preservation, tending, and planning of the beings in each case encountered or sought out. To let be – that is, to let beings be the beings they are – means to engage oneself with the open region and its openness into which every being comes to stand, bringing that openness, as it were, along with itself. (Heidegger 1998, p. 144)

Letting be, while generally considered to refer to our engagement with this open region (as Da-sein) and through this with beings which appear meaningful in some way via this open region, also embraces our engagement with other human beings as other Da-sein, other versions of being-in-an-open-expanse. This comes to light in statements made by Heidegger in conversation with Medard Boss (Heidegger 2001). Boss was a psychiatrist and concerned with application of Heidegger’s philosophy in understanding another human interaction – between doctor and patient. In these statements we see Heidegger emphasizing how important it is for “the investigator,” the person concerned with the other human being, to first be able to “experience him[or her]self as Da-sein.” Without this it is difficult if not impossible to accomplish an “appropriate letting be” of the other Da-sein – as contrasted with “inappropriate representations”:

The letting-be of this being (the human being) in light of Da-sein is extremely difficult, unfamiliar, and must always be examined anew by contemporary scientists, but also by the one who has gained familiarity with the projection of Da-sein. The “letting-be,” that is, accepting a being as it shows itself, becomes an appropriate letting-be only when this being, the Da-sein, stands constantly in view beforehand. [This can only happen] when the investigator has experienced and continues to experience himself as Da-sein, as ek-sisting, and when all human reality is determined from there. The elimination and avoidance of inappropriate representations about this being, the human being, is only possible when the practice of experiencing being human as Da-sein has been successful and when it is illuminating any investigation of the healthy or sick human being in advance. (Heidegger 2001, p. 223)

The difficulty of letting be in relation to an-other Da-sein lies in the ability to engage Da-sein – which is perhaps the most difficult challenge of phenomenology: gaining the starting point of phenomenology (see Quay 2015). In this sense learning is more difficult than teaching, for one must learn to engage Da-sein, to experience being-in-an-open-expanse of meaning–ascribed things and other Da-sein (being-in-the-world), before one can teach. “Only [s]he who can truly learn – and only as long as [s]he can do it – can truly teach.” This “truly” (synonymous with “genuine”) is a Heideggerian pointer toward the importance of learning how to achieve the starting point of phenomenology (Da-sein) in order to engage with another human being via and as Da-sein – and thus to be able to teach this person. “How difficult this is has been demonstrated by decades of misinterpreting being-in-the-world as an [ontic] occurrence of the human being in the midst of other beings as a whole, of the ‘world’” (Heidegger 2001, p. 223). This misinterpretation is based on misunderstanding the Da as ontic, as a collection of separate things of which meaning has to be constructed (which is why Heidegger places ‘world’ in quotation marks), rather than as an open expanse through which these things are first meaningfully encountered. This misunderstanding also positions Da-sein as Dasein, as a separate thing amongst other separate things, but “Da-sein is not a being,” Heidegger (2013, p. 120) implores; being-in-an-open-expanse is not a thing, but can be understood as one amongst other possible “ways of being” (Heidegger 1985, p. 295). However, he did acknowledge that his use of Dasein/Da-sein in Being and Time – “very awkwardly and in an unhelpful way” (2003, p. 69) – contributes to this misinterpretation.

Additionally, Heidegger points out that engaging Da-sein and applying this awareness to investigating another Dasein need not, of itself, develop into a full-blown phenomenological investigation. “The method of investigation ‘appropriate to Da-sein’ is not phenomenological in itself but is dependent upon and guided by phenomenology in the sense of the hermeneutics [interpretation] of Dasein” (2001, p. 223). In other words, while this experiencing of other Da-sein is not a full blown phenomenological investigation, it still requires achieving the phenomenological starting point, which is Da-sein. It can then be guided by application of phenomenological concepts attained through other more detailed phenomenological investigations. Heidegger’s phenomenological concepts – such as care, attunement, understanding, and letting be – can make such a contribution.

So learning can be understood as more difficult than teaching, because we must be able to learn in this way (by gaining the phenomenological starting point, Da-sein) before we can truly teach. But what of Heidegger’s other claim that teaching is more difficult than learning? This seeming contradiction can be unwound if we pay heed to Heidegger’s emphasis on the teacher’s learning. In both circumstances it is teaching which is more difficult because of the challenge of the teacher’s learning in relation to other Da-sein. When learning is more difficult than teaching, it is the teacher’s learning in relation to other Da-sein we are referring to. When teaching is more difficult than learning, this is understood on the basis that teaching (underpinned by teacher learning in relation to other Da-sein) is more difficult than student learning. The heart of the matter is that “the teacher is ahead of his [her] apprentices in this alone, that [s]he still has far more to learn than they – [s]he has to learn to let them learn.”

Having identified the difficulty inherent to learning in this way, the focus of Heidegger’s statements on teaching shifts from the teacher’s learning to the teacher’s teaching, the application of this learning in relation to other Da-sein, when teaching; in other words, “to let learn.” But how does one, as teacher, accomplish this in concrete terms? One pointer toward this may be Heidegger’s identification of possible concrete “modes of concern” for another, such as “being for-, against-, and without-one-another, passing-one-another-by, not-mattering-to-one-another” (2010, p. 118). It is obvious that most of these examples reveal an “indifference” (p. 118) to another. However there are also “positive modes,” of which Heidegger identifies “two extreme possibilities” (p. 118): to “leap in for” (p. 118) and to “leap ahead of” (p. 119). Here, to leap in for another is “to take the other’s ‘care’ away from him [or her] and put itself in his [or her] place as taking care” (Heidegger 2010, p. 118). This is care understood phenomenologically, acknowledging how Da-sein “is concerned in its being about that being” (p. 185). Leaping (in this example) is always understood in connection with this existential care. Problematically, by leaping in for another Da-sein and taking away existential care, a major problem is created for the other Da-sein in its concern for being, even though this leaping in for may have been undertaken with positive intentions.

[In leaping in for] the other is thus displaced, [s]he steps back so that afterward, when the matter has been attended to, [s]he can take it over as something finished and available or disburden him[or her]self of it completely. In this concern, the other can become someone who is dependent and dominated even if this domination is a tacit one and remains hidden from him [or her]. (Heidegger 2010, pp. 118–119)

Expressed in terms of teaching, here the teacher, not acknowledging the other as Da-sein, comprehends the meaning of the situation from his or her own Da-sein exclusively, and is not even aware that the other’s existential care is taken away. The other, positioned in this way, adapts (or not) their Da-sein to be able to function in this situation.

However, “in contrast to this, there is the possibility of a concern which does not so much leap in for the other as leap ahead of him [or her] in his [or her] existentiell potentiality-of-being” (Heidegger 2010, p. 119). To “leap ahead of” is “not in order to take ‘care’ away from him [or her], but rather to authentically give it back as such” (p. 119). Hence leaping ahead of is concerned with the other as Da-sein, as their own being-in-an-open-expanse as a “potentiality of being.” “This concern which essentially pertains to authentic care – that is, it pertains to the existing of the other and not to a what which it takes care of – helps the other to become transparent to himself in his care and free for it” (p. 119). This authentic care is the authenticity of acknowledging the other as Da-sein, and thus as their own “care,” which can also be expressed as freedom: the freedom of letting be, as Da-sein; which in a teaching-learning situation is the freedom of letting learn. Heidegger’s point is that teaching must let-learn by letting-be by leaping ahead of, through embrace of the other as Da-sein, with all of the challenges that this may introduce.

For Heidegger a teacher is not someone who has “a larger store of information … always ready” like a “know it all” or “official,” and thus a teacher is different to a “famous professor.” This emphasis on content expertise alone overlooks how the teacher must also learn to embrace the other as Da-sein, which can never be fully perfected. Teaching is “an exalted matter” because teaching works by way of Da-sein. Herein lies the candor of Heidegger’s statement that “in all teaching, the teacher learns the most.”


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Melbourne Graduate School of EducationThe University of MelbourneMelbourneAustralia