Salvaging Heidegger?

Martin Heidegger

We’ve been exploring the curious case of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), whose public loyalty to the Third Reich and support of its anti-Semitic policies didn’t keep him from being a hero to philosophers and philosophy students around the world, some of whom managed to convince themselves that his Nazism hadn’t been prolonged, or deep, or authentic, or important to his work. These fans, however, were rocked by the 2014 publication of a set of his diaries – known as the Black Notebooks because of the color of the blank volumes in which they’d been scribbled – that provided ample evidence that Heidegger had, in fact, been a genuine and profoundly dedicated devotee of Nazi thought (Jew-hatred included) throughout the Hitler era, and that he viewed this ideological proclivity as inextricable from his own philosophical oeuvre.

hitler1One of the reviewers of the Black Notebooks was Joshua Rothman, who recalled in The New Yorker that reading Heidegger had supplied him with one of the two or three most profound intellectual experiences of his life. “I was in my late twenties, and struggling with a dissertation on the nature of consciousness (what it is, where it comes from, how it fits into the material world). This had turned out to be an impossible subject. Everything I read succeeded only by narrowing the world, imagining it to be either a material or a spiritual place—never both.” (Why not study neurology? Oh, never mind.) Then he read Being and Time. It was as if, having been trapped on the ground floor of a building, I had found an express elevator to the roof, from which I could see the stars. Heidegger had developed his own way of describing the nature of human existence. It wasn’t religious, and it wasn’t scientific; it got its arms around everything, from rocks to the soul.” He then turned to another Heidegger book, The Essence of Truth, wherein Heidegger “proposed a different and, to my mind, a more realistic idea of truth than any I’d encountered before. He believed that, before you could know the truth about things, you had to care about them.” (This seems wrong on the face of it: after all, it is possible to know, say, that Ashgabat is the capital of Turkmenistan without caring in the least about this information. But again, never mind.)

Joshua Rothman

Rothman reported on a recent confab at which philosophers had gathered – in a sort of philosophical equivalent of an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council – to figure out what to do about the explosive contents of the Black Notebooks. His account shed a fascinating light on the mentality of academic philosophers. One prominent participant started off by making clear the importance to him of career considerations. “I’m the director of the Martin Heidegger Institute,” he said, “and I actually want to be that for a longer time.” The audience laughed. “If we would say that Heidegger really was an anti-Semitic philosopher, then,” he added, “yeah, that would be really a catastrophe, in a certain way, for me.”

Babette Babich

Rothman appreciated the honesty of this admission; yet the ensuing remarks by many of the philosophers in attendance exhibited a reflexive desire not to get at the truth, however intellectually uncomfortable and professionally inconvenient, but to rescue Heidegger from himself – to find some way to preserve and esteem his philosophy in spite of his Nazism and anti-Semitism. One prominent philosopher, Babette Babich, made an argument that Rothman summed up as: “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

1EN-625-B1945 Orwell, George (eigentl. Eric Arthur Blair), engl. Schriftsteller, Motihari (Indien) 25.1.1903 - London 21.1.1950. Foto, um 1945.
George Orwell

Yet the baby and bathwater metaphor is utterly inappropriate here. A baby and bathwater are two different things. A philosophy is of a piece – a man’s commitment to Nazism cannot be neatly separated from the rest of his thinking about life. However much some of Heidegger’s admirers may wish to isolate his Nazism from the rest of his philosophy, then, it’s an impossible task.

But no great loss. There are many other potential life guides out there – among them writers like George Orwell, who saw totalitarianism (in all its forms) for what it was, despised it, and expressed his contempt in clear, unpretentious language from which most philosophers would be well advised to learn. 

No apologies: Martin Heidegger

Yesterday we saw how Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), considered by many to be the most distinguished philosopher of the twentieth century, was also a devout Nazi and anti-Semite.

Martin Heidegger in 1933, with his Hitler mustache

What happened to him after the war? Well, while other high-profile Nazis were put on trial or at least enrolled in denazification programs, he was forbidden from teaching but otherwise left alone. Fortunately for him, he had a number of prominent friends and admirers (among them Jean-Paul Sartre) who were eager to help in his postwar rehabilitation. His most fervent champion was Hannah Arendt, his former student and lover, whose 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism made her a big name and gave her a great deal of influence in intellectual circles on both sides of the Atlantic. Arendt, who had fled Europe for America in 1941, was herself Jewish, but Heidegger’s longtime, outspoken anti-Semitism didn’t keep her from doing everything she could to try to rescue her mentor’s reputation and to try to make everybody else believe that he hadn’t really been as devout a Nazi as he actually was.

Hannah Arendt

She promoted him tirelessly, and as late as 1971 was still trying to get him off the hook by comparing him to Thales, an ancient Greek philosopher who became “so absorbed in the heavens that he stumbled into the well at his feet.” (One point: isn’t it curious for a Jewish woman to describe a Hitler-besotted man as “absorbed in the heavens”? Another point: isn’t it pretty obvious that a philosopher who’s “so absorbed in the heavens that he stumbled into the well at his feet” is absolutely useless as a guide to life, which is supposed to be the whole point of philosophy?)

For his part, Heidegger, after the war, guilefully spun his sincere devotion to the Third Reich as, alternatively, (a) a charade he’d pulled off solely to save his own skin or (b) a noble effort by a serious educator to protect German education from pollution by Nazi thought.

Jean Paul Sartre

Even after the war, however, Heidegger couldn’t entirely disguise his real sympathies. For example, he actually equated Nazi death camps with the “motorized food industry” – the idea being that both phenomena were deplorable instances of runaway technology. In a letter to a former student, he suggested that the student, who had apparently expressed outrage about Nazi genocide, should instead be angry about the Communist treatment of East Germans.

In any event, Heidegger never explicitly apologized for his own Nazism. Never.

Sartre and Arendt weren’t alone in striving to clear Heidegger’s name. He had innumerable apologists, and to read through their writings is to see the same arguments surfacing again and again. One: he was only a Nazi for a certain number of years, and then snapped out of it. Two: hey, a lot of Germans were Nazis – it was in the water back then. Three: he may have been a Nazi, but he was not as fanatical as many other Nazis, and in fact his intellectualism may well have helped take the edge off of Nazism in the minds of his students and others who came under his influence. Four: okay, he was a Nazi, but that fact doesn’t discredit his philosophy, because they’re too different, utterly disconnected things.

Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels, during a speach in September 1934.
Paul Joseph Goebbels

But none of these arguments will wash. Yes, he was an outspoken Nazi for only a few years in the 1930s, until he was removed from his post as university rector – but after that, he never openly opposed the regime, and in his private notebooks continued to express admiration for Hitler’s regime. Yes, a lot of Germans were Nazis – but nobody’s asking us to treat their philosophical reflections with respect. Yes, he might not have been as evil as Goebbels or Goering or Hitler himself, but what kind of standard is that to hold a philosopher up to?

T.S. Eliot

As for the idea that Heidegger’s philosophy and his Nazism can be viewed as unrelated to each other – no, this won’t do. T.S. Eliot was an anti-Semite too, and his anti-Semitism crops up once or twice in his poetry. But it doesn’t completely cancel out the value of his work. Eliot was an artist. Heidegger was not. He was a systematic thinker, all of whose ideas were parts of a coherent whole. His philosophy, indeed, was all he had to offer, and his prose was nothing more or less than a sturdy vehicle by means of which he communicated it. And an inextricable element of Heidegger’s philosophy was his Nazism.

Adolf Hitler, Austrian born dictator of Nazi Germany, 1938. Hitler (1889-1945) became leader of the National Socialist German Workers (Nazi) party in 1921. After an unsuccessful coup attempt in Munich in 1923, for which he was briefly imprisoned, Hitler set about pursuing power by democratic means. His nationalistic and anti-semitic message quickly gained support in a Germany humiliated by defeat in World War I and the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles and, from the late 1920s, suffering from economic collapse. Hitler came to power in 1933, and persuaded the Reichstag (parliament) to grant him dictatorial powers. He proceeded to crush opposition both within his own party and throughout German society, and set about re-arming Germany. Hitler's aggressive policy of territorial expansion to secure 'lebensraum' (living space) for the German people eventually plunged the world into the Second World War. A print from Kampf um's Dritte Reich: Historische Bilderfolge, Berlin, 1933. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Many a professional philosopher, to be sure, has strenuously resisted this view. There is a tendency in the philosophical profession to act as if a philosopher’s real-life conduct, prejudices, and public statements do not necessary have anything to do with the value of his published philosophical works. They behave as if philosophy is all about abstractions on the page or in the classroom. On the contrary, philosophy is supposed to be a guide to living life, a set of prescriptions for how to conduct oneself in the company of one’s fellowman.

For years, Heidgegger’s defenders sought to preserve a firewall between his Nazism and his philosophy. Then, in 2014, came the publication of his so-called Black Notebooks, which contained expressions of Nazi enthusiasm and Jew-hatred more vehement than anything of his that had been previously published. The notebooks, which were widely discussed and reviewed, made it harder than ever for his admirers to dismiss or minimize his politics and prejudices. More on this tomorrow.