Heidegger's seeker personality
and his initial poor health are discussed in
Therivel's GAM/DP Theory of Personality and Creativity.
Was Heidegger a Seeker Personality?
How about Other Existentialist Philosophers and Psychologists?
The above is the title of chapter 26 of volume 1 of
volume 4 of William A. Therivel's The GAM/DP Theory
of Personality and Creativity (G stands
for genetic endowment, A for assistances of youth,
M for misfortunes of youth, DP for division
of power, UP for unity of power). For an introduction
to the GAM part of the theory click "Introduction
to GAM"; for an introduction to the DP
part click on "Introduction
In this website, the reader is also offered a shortcut:
The GAM/DP Synopsis
and an expanded version, The GAM/DP
Summary of volumes 1 through 4.
Hereafter I report a few pages from this chapter.
The Seeker Personality
As outlined in table
1, the seeker personalities have been shaped in their
youth by physical infirmity and good assistances. These
persons are called seekers because they "seek answers"
in the fields of religion or philosophy, or of mathematics,
science, and engineering. Those of the first group escape
their bodily limitations by moving into the world of
the spirit, of God, where the body has little importance
or is even a stumbling block, where pain acquires a
positive meaning and becomes a way of salvation or of
understanding. The second group escapes this world by
pushing the body aside as a simple bearer of the mind,
and putting emphasis on the less socially oriented worlds
of mathematics, science, and engineering.
Physical infirmity prevents
these youths from participating normally in the family
life, from playing with other children, from attending
school regularly. Like the universalists who
suffered of early parental death, the seekers have known
much solitude in their youth, but a solitude adumbrated
by the betrayal of their bodies. In consequence, for
them, "true life" moves away from the realm
of body and action to that of feelings and thoughts.
Seeker Aspects in Heidegger
Heidegger did not teach
of God and Hell, but for him "a prerequisite for
living an authentic life was coming to grips
with the fact that 'I must someday die.' That realization
dealt with, the person could get busy and exercise his
or her freedom to create a meaningful existence. . .
. Since acceptance of the fact that at some time in
the future we would be nothing caused anxiety, such
acceptance took courage. . . . For Heidegger, anxiety
was a necessary part of living an authentic life"
(Hergenhahn, 1986, p. 378). Similarly, for him, "the
relevance of time, of the finiteness of human existence,
is then experienced as a freedom to meet his own death
(das Freisein für den Tod), a preparedness
for and continuous relatedness to his own death (Sein
zum Tode)" (Naess, 1978, p. 740). Specifically,
in "'Being towards death' (Sein zum Tode).
. . .death has retro-active power: without it, there
would be no understanding of life" (Naess, 1968,
pp. 206, 208). "In a sense, the history of existentialism
in its major phases is an exegesis of man's experience
of death" (Feifel, 1969, p. 61).
One way to interpret this
is to relate it to what Heidegger learned from the teachings
of the Jesuits, especially from their Spiritual Exercises.
On the first evening of the Spiritual Exercises,
the participants are vividly reminded of the inexorability
of their death, of the fact that death can come at any
time and that death is the supreme moment. At death,
they will be judged and, if found wanting, condemned
to Hell. To stress this, St. Ignatius of Loyola, the
founder of the Jesuits, prescribed "to see in imagination
the vast fires, and the souls enclosed, as it were,
in bodies of fire. To hear the wailing, the howling
cries. . . . With the sense of smell to perceive the
smoke, the sulphur, the filth, and corruption. To taste
the bitterness of tears, sadness, and remorse of conscience"
(1951, pp. 32-33). Ignatius had designed his exercises
for those who were at a turning point of their spiritual
life, and, indeed, many good Catholics take the exercises
(in their reduced format of three days only) several
times in their lives.
Heidegger was, indeed,
very familiar with the Jesuits and their Spiritual Exercises.
Son of a Catholic sexton, he wanted to become a priest:
attending first a Jesuit school in Constance for three
years, then a Jesuit high-school in Freiburg for another
three years. "Those six years of secondary school
were momentous in the formation of the young thinker.
They were the time, he tells us, when 'I acquired everything
that was to be of lasting value'" (Sheehan, 1981,
p. 4). Then, in 1909, at the age of 20, he entered the
Jesuit seminary at Feldkirch, as a novice, but was dismissed
for reasons of health after only a few weeks. He then
moved to the archdiocesan seminary at Freiburg, where
the spiritual directors were also Jesuits.
Another piece of evidence
for the profound religious or seeker nature of
many of Heidegger's writings is the fascination that
Heidegger's existentialism has had for many theologians,
for instance for Rudolf Bultmann, perhaps the leading
New Testament scholar of the 20th century. "Heidegger
was enormously influential upon Bultmann, in part because
Bultmann felt that he was developing, in philosophical
terms, an analysis of human existence that was strikingly
parallel to the understanding of human existence implied
by the theologies of Paul and John, as Bultmann interpreted
them" (Perrin, 1978, p. 479). "When Bultmann
'applied' [Heidegger's] Being and Time to Christian
theology he was 'de-formalizing' the existential analytic,
and articulating it in terms of a historically specific,
existentiell ideal, viz., historical Christianity.
. . Bultmann was largely reversing the process that
had brought Being and Time about in the first
place" (Caputo, 1993, p. 173).
Probably the strongest
influence was exercised on the Jesuit Karl Rahner who
"made significant use of Heidegger's conception
of Being-unto-death in a short treatise entitled The
Theology of Death . . . [Christian] theologians
have found Heidegger's thought so amenable to theological
application only because that thought had drawn in the
first place upon theological resources" (Caputo,
1993, p. 180).
In 1988 I wrote that:
"Most mystics are seekers" and (important
for the second part of this chapter) that the radiologist
personality too "has some 'seeker' traits,
because of the similarity with the basic misfortune
of the seeker. The radiologist will show
some religious/mystical interests, but at a lower level,
and impregnated with pessimism;" (see also table
1). Was Heidegger a mystic? Not exactly, but sufficiently
so to justify a whole book by John D. Caputo (1978 &
1990) titled The Mystical Element in Heidegger's
Thought. Heidegger himself said that "one might
easily come to the idea that the most extreme sharpness
and depth of thinking belongs to the mystic. This is
moreover the truth. Meister Eckhart testifies to it"
(quoted by Caputo, 1978, p. 27). Also, Caputo noted
that "like the mystic Eckhart, Heidegger's 'way'
to Being is not the 'discursive' reason, but the way
of meditative stillness. . . As with Eckhart, there
is the same 'ascetic' tone of 'surrender' which is expressed
in terms like 'poverty,' 'sacrifice,' 'grace,' and,
most important of all, 'detachment' itself. These are
not the categories of philosophers-or even of poets-but
of the mystic" (1978, p. 29).
In his introduction to
the 1990 revised reprint of his The Mystical Element
in Heidegger's Thought, Caputo also wrote that "in
their profound distrust of the idols of metaphysics
and their openness to the mystery which withdraws we
find the common teaching of Heidegger and Meister Eckhart.
Each seeks his own way of staying open to the
self-deferring, of sheltering what withdraws from the
harsh lights and grasping hands of metaphysics"
(pp. xxiv-xxv, my italics).
When Heidegger died in
1976, "he was buried in the Catholic churchyard...
[At his request] a Catholic mass was celebrated by Bernard
Welte in the church of St. Martin's where Heidegger's
father had been sexton. . . . [In his eulogy, Welte
said:] 'He who seeks'--that could well be the
title for all of Heidegger's life and thought'"
(quoted by Caputo, 1993, p. 184; my italics). With all
these "seeker results" (personality and works),
it made sense to look for the basic misfortune at the
origin of the seekers.
"In 1909, the end
of his secondary education, the twenty-year-old Heidegger
entered the novitiate of the German Province of the
Jesuits at Feldkirch, Austria, near the border with
Lichtenstein, but he was dismissed after only a few
weeks for reasons of health. Thereupon he entered the
archdiocesan seminary at Freiburg, where the spiritual
directors were also Jesuits, and simultaneously matriculated
at the Albert Ludwig University in Freiburg. From the
fall of 1909 through the Summer of 1911, he studied
theology and some philosophy" (Sheehan, 1981, p.
4). Then his poor health intervened again: "Forced
to break off his studies for the Catholic priesthood
in 1911 for health reasons, Heidegger turned first to
mathematics and the natural sciences and then to philosophy,
where he was openly identified with the Catholic confession"
(Caputo, 1993, p. 170). Mathematics, natural sciences,
and philosophy, as said, are among the most common interests
of the seekers.
"In August, 1914,
with the outbreak of the war, Heidegger enlisted in
the military but was dismissed on October 9, 1914, for
ill health. From 1915 through 1917, he worked in Freiburg
with the Control Board of the Post Office" (Sheehan,
1981, p. 6). And this in World War I, when nearly every
young German was sent to the front! The point, for our
inquiry, is probably less the intensity, or pains if
any, or the time span of his ill health, but the consequences:
the fundamental disappointments, the forced vocational
changes, probably dreaded since years. He was betrayed
by his body, by nature and life.
Let's remember that "those
six years of secondary school [with the Jesuits] were
momentous in the formation of the young thinker. They
were the time, he tells us, when 'I acquired everything
that was to be of lasting value'" (Sheehan, 1981,
p. 4). He then asked to become a Jesuit, but was refused
because of his poor health. He entered the seminary
but had to exit for the same reason. And then the same
happened when he wanted to be "normal" and
serve his country. In the span of five year, because
of his physical infirmity, Heidegger was refused three
times by the world which he wanted to join: as a Jesuit,
as priest, and as soldier. In the following years, the
refused-Jesuit transformed the well known Christian
emphasis on death into his existential contemplation
Post Scriptum: Additional Information, and a Major
Piece of Evidence for GAM
Several months after
the preceding section became part of the manuscript
of this book, I read an article by Mark Lilla (1999)
titled "Ménage à trois," the
three being Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt, and Karl
Jaspers. In it, I found a brief mention of what was
the physical infirmity that afflicted Heidegger in his
youth: heart problems with chest pains. I thus realized
that I had missed some important information on his
youth. Looking for more Heidegger biographies, I found
that by Rüdiger Safranski (1994/1998) which had
been reviewed in 1998 by Ray Monk. This, in turn, led
me to the biography of Heidegger by Hugo Ott (1988/1993).
These two were the probable source of Lilla's comment
on Heidegger's health problems.
In Safranski's words:
"On September 30, 1909, Heidegger entered the Society
of Jesus as a novice at Tisis near Feldkirch, in the
province of Vorarlberg in western Austria. A mere two
weeks later, however, on expiry of his probationary
period, he was dismissed. Apparently, according to Hugo
Ott, Heidegger had complained of heart trouble and had
therefore been sent home for medical reasons. Two years
later, these pains would recur, causing him to discontinue
his training as a priest" (1998, p. 15). So, I
was wrong in assuming tuberculosis--a truly preliminary
assumption on my part on the basis of what affected
so many young people at that time: instead it was the
More important is what
Safranski reported for 1911:
After three semesters at the seminary, while
studying theology, his heart began to act up again.
Perhaps he had "overexerted himself,"
as he recorded in his 1915 Lebenslauf,
or perhaps his body was rebelling against the
wrong kind of work. At the suggestion of the seminary
physician, Martin was released in February 1911
for a few weeks of "absolute rest' in Messkirch.
His superiors had gained the impression that the
physical constitution of the talented theology
student was not sturdy enough for later employment
in the service of the Church.
Heidegger spends the whole of the summer with
his parents in Messkirch. He does not know what
road to take. His mood is gloomy; he seeks relaxation
in poetic attempts. In these his career doubts
are dramatically magnified into 'Gethsemane Hours'
- the title of a poem published in Allgemeine
Rundschau in April 1911:
hours of my life,
in the dim light of doubt and despair
how oft have you seen me!
My tearful cries were never in vain.
My youthful being, weary of lamentation,
trusted only in the angel of mercy.
Hugo Ott discovered this
poem. (1998, pp. 40-41)
I could not believe what
I was reading. Here was the evidence that--as said at
the beginning of this chapter-would "prove GAM
right or wrong in this case, and the most important
one would be the discovery of some papers by him or
others dealing with his youth."
To begin my analysis,
I report hereafter what the Webster says on Gethsemane:
"A garden on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem,
scene of the agony, betrayal, and arrest of Jesus: Matt,
26:36. Also, often, any scene or occasion of agony."
Based on this, I read something more than career doubts,
even if dramatically magnified. One does not "seek
relaxation" when referring to the "Gethsemane
hours of my life." That would have been blasphemy
for the young religious man of profound theological
understanding. The same applies for his "doubt
and despair, how oft have you seen me!"
and his "My tearful cries were never in vain. My
youthful being, weary of lamentation, trusted only
in the angel of mercy" (my italics to highlight
the recurrence, probably year after year, and the severity
of the condition).
Instead of relaxation,
I see here a seeker poem that could have been written
by young Teresa of Avila, or Julian of Norwich, or Pascal,
or Simone Weil. I read in this the desperate cry of
a "youthful being," who feels betrayed by
his body when it should be blooming. Not only does the
young Heidegger not know what road to take in the professional
sense, but what road his health will allow him for his
life in its totality, in its ontology.
Later Heidegger seems
to have been able to control his health problems, but
they were with him long enough, and severe enough--especially
during the most formative years of his youth--to influence
his personality, and make a seeker of him. Based on
this, it may be easier to understand what I wrote at
the beginning of the above section "Seeker aspects
did not teach of God and Hell, but for him "a
prerequisite for living an authentic life
was coming to grips with the fact that 'I must someday
die.' That realization dealt with, the person could
get busy and exercise his or her freedom to create
a meaningful existence. . . Since acceptance of
the fact that at some time in the future we would
be nothing caused anxiety, such acceptance took
courage. . . . For Heidegger, anxiety was a necessary
part of living an authentic life" (Hergenhahn,
1986, p. 378).
When I wrote this, hoping for the discovery, one day,
of some papers on his youth, I had no idea that something
so important would come forth so quickly (speed of evidence
is also an evidence). Accordingly, I am grateful to
Mark Lilla for having put me on the right track, and
then to both, Hugo Ott and Rüdiger Safranski, for
having devoted enough attention, and space in their
books, to young Heidegger's health problems.
There may be something
more that can be inferred from what Hugo Ott said on
Heidegger's health problems of October 1909: "Heidegger
left the novitiate exactly at the end of his two-week-candidature.
According to a well-documented rumour current among
Jesuits, Heidegger complained of pains in his chest
while hiking up on the mountain pastures near Feldkirch;
so he was discharged from the order on account of his
weak physical constitution--a highly plausible explanation,
as will appear below" (1993, p. 56). Then, referring
to what happened two years later, Heidegger himself
wrote in his 1915 curriculum vitae: "My
earlier heart complaint, brought on by too much sport,
returned in such force that I was told there was very
little prospect of my being offered a position in the
Church" (quoted by Ott, 1993, p. 85).
Ott gave more information
on the second occurrence: "In mid-February 1911,
before the winter semester was over, Heidegger had to
break off his studies when a medical examination once
again revealed nervous heart trouble 'of an asthmatic
nature'--a complaint from which the young student had
probably been suffering at least since the autumn of
1909, when he stayed as a postulant at the Jesuit novitiate
of Tisis near Feldkirch. Heidegger had to struggle
with this condition throughout his life" (p.
64, my italics).
I discussed the above
with an experienced family physician who concluded that,
probably, Heidegger suffered of angina pectoris,
an infirmity characterized by spasms of deep, aching
pain felt beneath the breastbone and over the heart
and stomach, with sensations of strangling, pressure
or suffocation. The attacks, in which the heart sends
painful sensations to the chest, are precipitated by
exercise or emotional stress, and are caused by the
inability of the coronary arteries to deliver sufficient
oxygen-laden blood to the heart muscle.
Beside the pain, there
might have been the fearful knowledge, acquired from
a physician or books, that a person who suffers from
angina pectoris may die unexpectedly, and that
coronary artery disease is the most common cause of
sudden death (1975 data). In all, a real Gethsemane,
possibly also an ontological one for such a great thinker.
A severe case of angina
pectoris would also explain how quickly (after a few
days) Heidegger was discharged from the military in
1914 and, relatively quickly, from active duty, the
following year, when he was called up again on August
18: "After a good four weeks in a military hospital
(13 September to 16 October 1915) in Mülheim/Baden,
where he was treated for neurasthenia and heart disease,
he was assigned to censorship duties at the Postal Control
Office" (Ott, 1993, p. 83; my italics, with a reminder
that military doctors, especially in 1915 Germany, would
not have been impressed by a mild case of physical and
psychological difficulties, when the front was in such
Finally, moving from cause
to results, Safranski confirmed my GAM reading of Heidegger
as a seeker personality, and part mystic, when
he wrote: "Heidegger's passion was asking questions,
not providing answers. That which he asked questions
about and that which he was seeking, he called Being.
. . . He truly was a 'master' from the school of the
mystic Master Eckhart" (1998, pp. ix and x).