The impact of Martín Heidegger on two generations of French philosophers is one of the most important—and peculiar—episodes in modern intellectual history. In many ways, the story begins with Sartre; not because he was the first Frenchman to discover Heidegger (he was not); but rather because he was the first to put Heidegger on the French cultural map—to make his thought the touchstone for philosophy in our time.Continued.
By the Late 1930s, when Sartre first read him seriously, Heidegger was already one of the most influential philosophers in Germany. As Hannah Arendt, one of Heidegger’s earliest students, later recalled, “the rumor of the hidden king” had spread since 1919, when he became an instructor and assistant to the great philosopher and phenomenologist Edmund Husserl. “The rumor about Heidegger put it quite simply,” Arendt wrote. “Thinking has come to life again; the cultural treasures of the past, believed to be dead, are being made to speak, in the course of which it turns out that they propose things altogether different from the familiar, worn-out trivialities they had been presumed to say. There exists a teacher; one can perhaps learn to think”
Neither Sartre, nor Foucault, ever studied with Heidegger. But both men read his work, and for both, the decisive text was Heidegger’s masterpiece, Being and Time, first published in 1927. Reading this book twelve years later, in quest of a philosophy that somehow might embody “a wisdom, a heroism, a holiness,” Sartre, certain that he had found what he was looking for, exulted in “the apparition in the world of a free consciousness.”
It was a paradoxical meeting of two minds, based on a monumental misunderstanding perhaps, but one fateful for both parties. Sartre was in many ways everything Heidegger was not: classically French, stubbornly Cartesian, a rationalist at heart, an old-fashioned moralist, too. And odder still, Sartre, at the moment he was reading Heidegger, and noting in his diary entry for February 1, 1940 the apparition of a “free consciousness,” was himself a prisoner in a German camp. Heidegger, meanwhile, was ensconced at the University of Freiburg, having pledged his allegiance to the “inner truth and greatness” of the Nazi regime, which in September of 1939 had plunged the world into total war.