What Does Martin Heidegger Mean by Being?

The concept of ‘being’ was central to Martin Heidegger’s philosophy. We sketch out some of the key ideas in his most important work.

Aug 5, 2023By Luke Dunne, BA Philosophy & Theology

what does martin heidegger mean by being


The term ‘Being’ is of singular importance for Heidegger’s philosophy – but what does it really mean? How is the concept of ‘Being’ (with a capital ‘B’) any different from that of being (with a lower case)? We offer a brief introduction to Heidegger’s concept of ‘Being’, a sketch of Heidegger’s life and career before trying to explain the central question of his most important work, Being and Time. Namely, “what is the meaning of Being?”. 


Heidegger’s Life and Project

Bronze plaque of Martin Heidegger 1978
Bronze plaque of Martin Heidegger, 1978, via Wikimedia Commons


Martin Heidegger was one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century. After studying theology at the University of Freiburg, he then studied philosophy. He was greatly influenced by Edmund Husserl phenomenological approach to philosophy, which attempted to understand our efforts to comprehend things by way of a reduction to the most basic elements of subjectivity, and also emphasized the role of intention in how we come to understand things.


At the very start of Being and Time, which remains the work for which Heidegger is best known and on which most interpretations of his philosophy as a whole are disproportionately based, he poses the question: “what is the meaning of Being?”. He also observes that this is not a question that we are naturally called to ask, in the sense that we are not disturbed or dismayed by a lack of understanding of being, and so the terms of the question – its ground – needs to be explored. In other words, this is the question, and Heidegger wants to answer it and justify it as a question worth answering. 


What Is Being?

Immanuel Kant 1724-1804 Johann Gottlieb Becker 1768
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), Johann Gottlieb Becker, 1768, via Wikimedia Commons


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What is ‘Being’? Firstly, we should be careful to note the capitalization. Heidegger’s definition of ‘Being’ hinges on a contrast with ‘being’ (lower case -b). Secondly, we should be careful not to take the capitalization of the -b in “Being” as the creation of a proper name, as with the capitalization of the -g in God. ‘Being’ is not some particular thing – those are ‘beings’. Having cleared that up, some context is useful. Heidegger can be seen as working within the phenomenological tradition of Edmund Husserl, who was a great influence on Heidegger and to whom Being and Time was dedicated.


Phenomenology can be defined in various ways, but part of the project was to do with attempting to do something which philosophers since Immanuel Kant had felt themselves unable to do. That was to speak of things in themselves, rather than things a mediated or structured by our faculties. Heidegger encapsulates this idea quite well, with his famous slogan “back to the things themselves”. 


Ontological Difference

Martin Heidegger François Fédier
Martin Heidegger, François Fédier, via Heidegger Gesellschaft


The idea of “Being” will be described in some works following Being and Time as ‘ontological difference’. Again, we’re having to paraphrase and therefore speak approximately, but it seems right to say that ‘ontological’ in this context is to be understood in contract with the ‘ontical’. ‘Ontical difference’ refers to the difference between different kinds of entities, whereas ‘ontological difference’, which serves to examine the status of things as things which exist, rather than in contradistinction to other things.


The simplest way to understand Heidegger’s project here is to say that he is attempting to ask: what does it mean for something to exist, at all? That question has to be understood in terms of the various resonances of ‘meaning’. First, what is it for something to exist? Second, what is the significance of things existing at all – what are the wider implications for philosophy that this is possible? Both are in play here, because Heidegger wants us to think hard both about the conditions of existence in theory and practice, and about the significance of those implications for philosophy as a whole. Heidegger was exceptionally conscious about his place in a wider philosophical tradition, and wanted his work to represent a real break from what had preceded him in that canon.

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By Luke DunneBA Philosophy & TheologyLuke is a graduate of the University of Oxford's departments of Philosophy and Theology, his main interests include the history of philosophy, the metaphysics of mind, and social theory.