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20.3.09

Human, All Too Human: BBC's Martin Heidegger Documentary

Martin Heidegger
'He was born. He thought. He died.'
Martin Heidegger on Aristotle
In 1999, the BBC broadcast a trilogy of documentaries discussing leading influential philosophers of the 20th Century. Named after Friedrich Nietzsche's Human, All Too Human, the focus fell on the European tradition of what is loosely termed Continental Philosophy, and discussed the life and work of three major thinkers of the last two hundred years. 

From Nietzsche, the series moved onto a biography of Martin Heidegger and culminated in a review of Sartre's theoretical contributions. Perhaps the commission was intended to combat a sense of pre-millenial angst: with the looming anxiety of a new century upon us, perhaps we were required to cling to some kernel of truth for comfort. Or, to put things more bleakly, perhaps the BBC was taking its cue from Montaigne, who, paraphrasing Cicero, observed that to philosophize is to learn how to die. But whatever the reason for the documentary's original broadcast, each episode appears to offer a succinct and entertaining glance at each of the philosopher's lives, while neatly summarizing some of their central ideas.

Heidegger once reduced the biography of the philosopher to being born, and subsequently dying, with room to think in-between. The BBC wholesomely rejects this approach, and instead delves into recent historical evidence revealing Heidegger's rather unwholesome involvement with National Socialism in the 1930s. There are references to the philosopher's key concepts, and a general introduction to the influence of Being and Time for the uninitiated - such as myself - but much of the focus is placed on biography.

I must admit, I was kept interested from start to finish. The thoughts and reflections of Jacques Derrida, Simon Critchley and George Steiner have inspired an interest in Heideggerian thought, but the dark realities of his political involvement have stark implications for the reception of his ideas and his philosophy in general. 

It's speculated in the documentary that dividing one's life from one's work isn't so neat as first suggested, and there seem to be numerous problems in glossing over Martin Heidegger's commitment to the ideological ideals of Nazism. George Steiner and Richard Rorty, among others, appear as witnesses for the prosecution, while maintaining that Heidegger's work offers moments of brilliance that place him among the most influential thinkers in Western thought.

You can watch the hour-long documentary at Youtube, which is divided into six parts, by selecting the first of the links below: