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The Question Concerning Heidegger


 

Here are two truths about Martin Heidegger:

1. He is one of the most revered figures in the 20th century philosophical canon

2. He was a committed Nazi.

At issue, then, is whether there is a connection between his political beliefs and activities under the Third Reich on the one hand, and his philosophical thought on the other. And further, whether he ought to be excommunicated from the philosophical ranks.

A confession: I did my undergraduate honours thesis on Heidegger’s later philosophy. I wasn’t terribly interested in the man or his work going in,  but I was lazily casting about for a topic, the semester was marching on, and a TA I liked gave me a copy of an article Charles Taylor had written about whether we could derive a “deep ecology” environmental ethic out of Heidegger. The article was interesting, and the TA suggested the question of Heidegger’s ethics, and if there even is one implicit in his writing, could be worthwhile.

And so I spent my senior year buried the essays in The Question Concerning Technology, Basic Writings, and Poetry, Language, Thought, along with a pile of secondary literature. It was fun enough, a useful exercise in reading deeply and widely, and the paper that came out of it was good enough to help get me into graduate school (for better and for worse).

My conclusion, as far as I can recall, was that there was an obviously normative cast to Heidegger’s account of technological thinking and of how language enframes and distorts being, but that there was little in the way of a “thick” moral program. Or as my advisor said, in what was his only comment on the paper: “Heidegger seems to have painted himself into a corner, where he can no longer speak. And what has he taught us that Kant hadn’t already?”

(If I’d actually read Kant at the time I might have been better positioned to answer that… but that’s for another confession.)

The one question I did not really trouble myself with was the question of Heidegger’s own politics. I knew he’d been a Nazi, and was vaguely aware that there were concerns with his actions upon being named rector of the university at Freiburg in 1933. But philosophers I respected didn’t seem to think it was relevant, and the profs I knew who were vulgar enough to point out Heidegger’s nazism struck me as reactionaries (an early but unheeded sign of how twisted the politics of academe can get).

Besides, it was a subject that my philosophical idols at the time – Charles Taylor and Richard Rorty – didn’t seem too fussed about, rarely mentioning it while treating Heidegger as a legitimate and challenging interlocutor. The only book that took Heidegger’s politics as seriously problematic  was Heidegger and Nazism by Victor Farias, and it was hard to find, and nobody really cited it anyway. Heidegger remains firmly part of the continental canon, a major thinker in the tradition stretching from Kant through the phenomenologists, an important hinge figure between the existentialists and the deconstructionists.

Should he be?

According to reviews, a new book by the French philosopher Emmanuel Faye called  Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism Into Philosophy, suggests that philosophy needs to treat Heidegger’s writings like hate speech, and libraries should file his work along with other Nazi writings, like Mein Kampf. This has led to a great deal of debate, even though the book is just appearing in English now.

Here’s Patricia Cohen writing in the NYT

Here’s Carlin Romano’s essay on the book

The thing about Heidegger is that while he obviously believed in many Nazi ideals, his philosophy is far from a theory of National Socialism. As Richard Evans points out in his first book on the Third Reich, Nazi officials themselves found his writing to be too airy to be of much use, and on closer inspection his ideas “did not really seem to be in tune with the party’s”.

The reason why Heidegger’s later philosophy has been so appealing to leftists is that what it boils down to is little more than neo-Rousseauian countermodernism wrapped in what Evans appropriately calls “rebarbatively abstract language.” To the extent that there’s an ethic buried in there, it is the usual anti-technological and anti-progress mumbo jumbo. To the extent that he has something to say about language, Wittgenstein is far better.

I’m probably going to read Faye’s book, if only to remind myself of how naive I was as an undergraduate. But my suspicion is that  Heidegger is a bad philosopher who also happened to have evil politics. Is there a connection between the two? Maybe, but again, maybe only because stupidity is hard to compartmentalize.


 
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The Question Concerning Heidegger

  1. "At issue, then, is whether there is a connection between his political beliefs and activities under the Third Reich on the one hand, and his philosophical thought on the other. And further, whether he ought to be excommunicated from the philosophical ranks."

    Potter seems to take for granted that if there was a connection between Heidegger's political beliefs and his philosophy, then he "ought to be excommunicated from the philosophical ranks". But that prejudges the whole issue. Either his beliefs were right or wrong, or profound or shallow, etc, and whether or not they involve – or even and especially if they necessarily entail – Nazi political commitments is secondary. To "excommunicate" Heidegger if that turns out to be the case is only to admit that Andrew Potter is not really interested in philosophy at all, i.e., in the quest for truth, but rather in producing propaganda for a priori moral commitments. Regardless, Potter goes on to answer his own questions:

    "The thing about Heidegger is that while he obviously believed in many Nazi ideals, his philosophy is far from a theory of National Socialism. As Richard Evans points out in his first book on the Third Reich, Nazi officials themselves found his writing to be too airy to be of much use, and on closer inspection his ideas “did not really seem to be in tune with the party's”."

    But of course the fact that the Nazis did not understand there to be a connection does not prove that there wasn't; it only proves that Nazis weren't sophisticated enough to understand Heidegger one way or the other – as most people are not.

    As for Faye's book, it was widely trashed in France, and Romano's screed which makes use of the book is a travesty which should never have been published.

    • You're right. From the sentence "And further, whether he ought to be excommunicated from the philosophical ranks" I left out the qualifier. It should have read:

      "And further, whether, even if such a connection is there, he ought to be excommunicated from the philosophical ranks."

      I left it out not for ideological reasons, and not to prejudge the issue, and not for propaganda purposes, but merely to keep things moving. I should also have stressed that when I wrote "at issue" I meant "At issue for Faye's book and its critics", not for me. I haven't read Faye's book, so I shouldn't prejudge his argument. But of course as you point out I more or less do — I think Heidegger is a bad philosopher with evil politics who should remain in the philosophical canon.

  2. “Heidegger seems to have painted himself into a corner, where he can no longer speak. And what has he taught us that Kant hadn't already?”

    I'm not sure about painting himself into a corner, but I do know he could drink you under the table.

  3. I don't see where Heidegger is a revered figure. I understand there's a bust in the village he was born in, but that's pretty much it. No avenues nor airports named after him. Sure, he's the most cited XXth century philosopher, but those citations are mainly specialists engaging with his works, and not with Heidegger himself. The man on the omnibus is more likely to have have heard of Camus, Sartre, Russell, Wittgenstein, Baudrillard, Foucault, and others.

  4. Thank you Mr. Potter for this post. Do you know if Faye has anything to say about Karl Schmitt? He was also a Nazi supporter, and it seems his philosophy would be even more in tune with philosphy. According to my reference book I dug out…

    "For Schmitt, authority, order and the defintion of who one's enemies and friends are in the struggle to control scarce resources is the aim of political life. Consequently every religious, moral, economic, ethical or other antithesis transforms itself into a political one if it is sufficiently strong to group human beings according to friend and enemy. According to Schmitt there is simply no exception to the rule that what matters in politics is the definition of who one's friends and enemies are."

    So that would seem to be an ideology that would support fascism fairly well, and Schmitt seems to have supported Hitler because he felt it was better than a chaotic alternative. So does Faye think his works should be classified as Nazi writings?

  5. It’s been a long time since I read any Heidegger but there was a definite whiff of brimstone in his essays on Nietzsche that made them very put-downable and that, I suspect, does Nietzsche no favours.

  6. I don't know anything about Heidegger except that he was a boozy beggar so I am speaking in generalities.

    As long as Heidegger did not write anything that would be considered incitement against jews, or other ethnic groups, than I believe his work should not be "excommunicated from the philosophical ranks." Lots of liberals and progressives of today might have been Nazis if they found themselves in Germany early last century. Nazi platform throughout 1920s was just boilerplate left wing thought and policies, so saying someone was a Nazi does not automatically disqualify them.

    If Heidegger was a fascist, than he should still be studied, but if he was a Nazi who wanted to kill all jews and other ethnic groups who weren't Aryan, than I have problem with studying him.

  7. yeah

    I wasn't too fond of our Olympic colors either.

  8. I believe there's a quotation from Faye in the NYT article to the tune of., "IF there is indication that thinking along Heidegger's lines LEADS to Nazism, it should have a warning label." And then the point of his book is proving those links.

    I don't see anything wrong with this: ideas are not pristine and sealed-off. We forget our lessons and relearn them only when something awful results; in the interim we play with daring ideas as if they are toys. Then someone loses an eye (or 12 million). It is not a question of thought-police, it is a question of providing historical context: "Oh, you believe X, Y, and Z. Well, so did these people and look, you, you're just at the starting point! If you follow those ideas through, here is where you will end up."

    Hey, does anyone know a publicity minded philosopher with a notion to get involved in politics? Oh, never mind.

    So the onus is on the analyst to PROVE those links, and the logical progression, but then, duly warned, the responsibility lies with the reader to digest the ramifications of the ideas. For example, Schopenhauer was by all accounts an a-hole, but I wouldn't be worried that reading him will turn you into an a-hole, though it likely won't make you any more popular either.

  9. I should point out, I don't know if Faye's book actually has merit, but I'm behind the concept.
    The Slate article trashing Arendt for screwing Heidegger was pure trash though.

  10. If academics applied a consistent standard on hate speech, consider for example that people who have argued that laws governing immigration should be tightened have been called purveyors of hate speech and shouted down on some university campuses, the, yes, Heidegger is unquestionably hate speech. But …although I don't have much time for Heidegger myself, I remember reading "The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking" when I was an undergrad and thinking it was just warmed over platonic mysticism, I'd rather have things go the other way on hate speech. We need more intellectual diversity not less in our universities.

    Again, when I was an undergrad in the 1980s, I desperately wanted to study Hayek. Only one course with substantial Hayek content came up in my three years. I remember walking in the first day and the prof announced in his introductory lecture that he'd chosen to cover Hayek because he thought the great Austrian economist was dangerous hate-filled racist and he hoped to convince us all that we should be reading Rawls instead.

  11. "Either his beliefs were right or wrong, or profound or shallow, etc, and whether or not they involve – or even and especially if they necessarily entail – Nazi political commitments is secondary."

    This would carry more weight if arguments about the stature and place of philosophers like Heidegger were purely technical issues. But they are not purely technical. A very explicit appeal is always being made to their moral stature and their "humanity" in promoting a thinker such as Heidegger.

    The issue is noty whether the Nazis "misunderstood" Heidegger, it is that Heidegger either misunderstood the Nazis or was complicit in what they were doing. Either way, it doesn't look good on him. Heidegger is not a thinker like Frege or even Russel, the moral implications of Heidegger's work cannot be separated from the purely technical issues. If he was morally blind, and he certainly seems to have been, then that has to affect the way we read him. He belongs on the curriculum but, just like artists who collaborated with the Nazis, there needs to be an asterisk beside his name.

    • You've misunderstood my posts. I wasn't trying to separate "technical" and "moral" questions. Just the opposite: philosophic questions are ultimately inseparable from moral questions, because philosophy ultimately involves investigating morality. But that means that if you start your investigation with a fixed moral position, then you're just looking for support for a priori moral commitments, and then your 'philosophic' work will simply be an expression of, and limited by, pre-determined, and therefore unexamined, moralisms. I'm not saying that Heidegger's morality shouldn't effect the way that we read him. But precisely insofar as his work expresses a certain morality, one has to actually investigate its truth, rather than operating under the assumption that if it clashes with one's own morality then it must not be philosophy

      • I'm not so sure I agree with the idea that you have to become entirely neutral in thought and belief before you can study philosophy. It is the job of the philosopher to convince you through his observations and arguments.

        In other words, why shouldn't I start with a fixed moral position? If my ethics and outlook are wrong, then I should be able through reason overcome that if exposed to wisdom.

        • I don't say that you have to be "entirely neutral", only that if you place some questions beyond the bounds of reasoned arguments then you're not engaging in philosophy, just a kind of very sophisticated propaganda at best.

          • Ah, that we can certainly agree on. A philosopher should always be willing to talk to anyone.

      • I think it is entirely possible to separate technical and moral questions in some fields. A morally worthless person could do very good work in logic or epistemology. And in almost any field, a philosopher who is primarily analytic in approach can do very good work. Quine's reported arrogance, for example, had no more impact on the value of his philosophic work that Tycho Brahe's poisonous beliefs affected the value of his work as an astronomer.

        But someone whose work is a speculative construction in ontology as is the case with Heidegger, work that does not easily submit to verification on a point-by-point basis, it is reasonable to treat the undeniable fact of his moral failings as justification to put a warning label on everything he wrote.

        • I still think that you're missing my point. I'm not arguing about a distinction between technical and moral questions. Rather, I'm saying that morality is the subject of philosophy, and for that very reason, one shouldn't enter into it pre-judging the moral questions. "Warning labels" may sometimes be justified. But at some point one must also ask whether, when, and why they are justified – and that is the task of philosophy. Thus, to put a warning label on philosophy is simply to make some things a matter of authoritative faith: it is to say that we don't reason about X, but instead we simply make assertions about it. Maybe that is a good idea sometimes, but it is not philosophy.

          • "Rather, I'm saying that morality is the subject of philosophy"

            No, it is not "the" subject of philosophy, it is a subject of philosophy. Aesthetics, Epistemology and ontology are also subjects of philosophy. You can study any and all of them without touching on any more morality than your average plumber meets in the course of his or her work.

  12. I've barely read a line of Heidegger, mainly because it's unreadable. It's beyond me why he should be the great exception to the universal rule that if you're not writing clearly you're not thinking clearly. Maybe he needs some follower to come along and redraft the whole thing; call me when that happens.

    So, bearing in mind that I haven't read much of anything about Heidegger, here's my two cents. German academic philosopher thinks he's defined the hollowness of modernity in its dualism. Along comes violent political movement that exists for the sake of crushing dualism (by crushing thought: but the point is that it did away with dualism). Said movement also offers German academic a prestigious job. Careerism and pathetic belief that he has "lived to see the day" in which said modern hollowness would be dissolved, potentially acclaiming him as prophet, induces German academic to embrace evil. The disconnect lies in that, from the Heidegger angle, it's just a farce, but from the Nazi angle it's deadly. But what is the moral? That unreadable German philosophers seldom understand much about real life? That greed and vanity are often more powerful motives than conscience? That the Heidegger soap opera is fifteen times more interesting than his existentialism?

    Such are my uninformed 2 cents.

    • You know, I've never been able to understand this universal rule, "if you're not writing clearly, you're not thinking clearly." What if the person doing the reading simply doesn't have the skills to comprehend the work that they are reading? It strikes me that the onus is on the writer and not at all on the reader when these sorts of universal rules are created.

      Besides, Heidegger is understood by plenty of people. What does that say about them? Are they mind readers? If so, should I be scared?

      Furthermore, why does this only apply to philosophy? Does it apply to literature as well? What about Science? I mean, I've tried to read some of Einstein's writings but for the life of me, I will never be able to understand his special theory of relativity or his general theory of relativity. At least, how they are written in his papers. Does that mean Einstein wasn't thinking clearly?

      For the record, I'm not trying to insult you, or imply that you're dumb, I just disagree.

      • I'd bet there are a lot more people who claim to understand Heidegger, who can pass exams on Heidegger, who've written dissertations on Heidegger, and who've slept with people who slept with Heidegger, than really understand Heidegger.

        See what I just did there? I used language to make my point clearer. Let me translate that for you into Heideggerese:

        "That some exist, whose Heidegger-Verständigung (1) is predicated transcendentally on Aristotle's definition of the 'τὸ τῆς ψυχῆς ἀπότομον κωμικόν," does not limit the specific ens (in this case) to the Prüfung-dependent, the authorial, or the connubial."

        (1) Heidegger uses the untranslatable phrase Heidegger-Verständigung either (as here) to denote a contingent quality derived from knowledge or (alternately and sometimes simultaneously) a characteristic antecedent to being and reality.

        What a philosophical question you ask! Which I'm sure you know is unanswerable in hard and fast terms. You can't understand Einstein's theoretical physics, Einstein couldn't build a car from scratch, the car itself cannot understand Schiller. And yet relativity governs the orbits of planets, cars race down the street every day, and Schiller is immortal. Perhaps you can specify what has been proven about Heidegger's theories and then, independently and empirically, we can decide if they are gibberish or not.

        • grouchy today?

          • Au contraire, I'm full of esprit.

  13. It seems there is a lot of "I've never read Heidegger" in these comments. I'm afraid I'm among the list, because I've avoided most of modern and continental philosophy. I prefer classical and scholastic philosophy (which I'm sure will surprise no one). I've been trying fix the gap in my knowledge of philosophy, but I haven't read anything yet that convinced me that I made the wrong choice in my focus of study as an undergrad.

  14. Two things:

    One:

    "My conclusion, as far as I can recall, was that there was an obviously normative cast to Heidegger's account of technological thinking and of how language enframes and distorts being, but that there was little in the way of a 'thick' moral program."

    You have a good memory! Thank you for your confession. Are you recanting this "conclusion" from long ago, or dismissing it entirely, or offering it to us so that we might agree with it? Is it a youthful indiscretion, like stealing pears? Or (more likely) a warning to those who might disagree with you that they remain at the level of a 22-year old's understanding of Heidegger?

    What — other than the fact that you were a superbly well-read undergraduate who did deep reading in Heidegger — is the point of your confession, since you are also suggesting that you barely remember it? What is the relevance of your autobiography to a "thick" critique of Heidegger?

    Two:

    Since you have concluded that Heidegger is a "bad philosopher," what is a "good" philosopher?

    • Andrew Potter and Joe Heath seem to have neither patience nor empathy for people who haven`t managed to entirely overcome their reservations about modernity. I once sat in a Joseph Heath lecture in which Heath was – as he often does – assuring his students that capitalism was the best economic system that humanity can come up with. As a caveat, Heath added – before giving an evil laugh – "But the penalty for certain kinds of failure [within capitalism] is extreme!" On another occasion Heath chuckled heartily and asked "if you fail as a philosophy student [under contemporary capitalism], what do you end up as – a waiter?"

      It doesn`t surprise me that Potter thinks Heidegger is a bad philosopher. It would surprise me if Potter thought that any thinker who isn`t overwhelmingly positive about markets and about liberal democracy was worthy of being called a good philosopher.

  15. "But my suspicion is that Heidegger is a bad philosopher who also happened to have evil politics. Is there a connection between the two? Maybe, but again, maybe only because stupidity is hard to compartmentalize."

    Your writing consistently shows keen insight, but in my view, never more than what's displayed in this quotation.

  16. Heidegger gave a speech on becoming Rector, saying the University should serve the nation and its leader (fuhrer) and stepped down a year later, but never turned in his party card (needed for travel).

    So what?

    His punishment after the war was a ban from teaching for 5 years.

    Slog through a few of his books and what he says about being, greatness, ontology, etc.

    Heidegger is the most maligned but ripped-off philosopher in modern times and may be the only person recognized from our times in 1,000 years or so.

    Marxists hate Heidegger's Metaphysics and that's the only reason this question keeps coming up for discussion.

  17. I've been following this resurgence since a friend sent me the NYT article about Faye's book. (I'll likely read it since I'm open to all sorts of things). The main argument , it seems to me, and in lay language, is that Heidegger's work (at least early work) is essentially Nazi propaganda. Having read much of the early work, I just don't see it, but perhaps I'm not reading into it. Now, the Rektoratsrede is a different story, but I don't see that bearing out his philosophy (even though a similar style is used in it). I've also heard critics suggest that Heidegger's account of Dasein in B&T is A) an endorsement of the State over the individual and B) a overly individualistic position with no moral regard for the collective. The way I was introduced to Heidegger suggests neither, but all of this only suggests Heidegger's writing is sufficiently ambiguous to allow many different readings. If anyone can point out any place in B&T where Heidegger supports Nazism, I'll re-evaluate my thoughts.
    Thanks for the post. Interesting thoughts.

  18. The Faye book is a part of a facile brand of French academic criticism – for a real book about the relationship between Heidegger and his politics see Pierre Bourdieu's: The Political Ontology of Martin Heidegger.

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