Salvaging Heidegger?

martin-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.)

rothman
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.”

babich4
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. 

The “Hampstead Marxist”

hobsbawm3
E. J. Hobsbawm

During the last couple of days we’ve been looking at the worshipful tributes that issued forth in the mainstream media after the death of Stalinist historian E. J. Hobsbawm. The Guardian called him “arguably Britain’s most respected historian of any kind.” A writer for the New Yorker praised the Kremlin apologist’s fierce determination “to save the world.”

It took the prolific British novelist and biographer A.N. Wilson to say what needed to be said about Hobsbawm. Noting the “fawning” panegyrics by the BBC, the Guardian, and other media, Wilson said: “You might imagine…that the nation was in mourning.” But, he added, “I do not believe that more than one in 10,000 people in this country had so much as heard of Eric Hobsbawm, the fashionable Hampstead Marxist.” (Hampstead is an upscale, artsy neighborhood in London.)

wilson
A. N. Wilson

Unlike Hobsbawm’s admirers, Wilson recalled the historian’s “open…disdain for ordinary mortals,” his determination to mix “only…with intellectuals” and to avoid, in Hobsbawm’s own words, “the suburban petit bourgeoisie which I naturally regarded with contempt.” Wilson also foregrounded the 1994 TV interview in which Hobsbawm admitted his support for Stalin’s murder of millions of Soviet citizens. “Just imagine what would happen,” suggested Wilson,

if some crazed Right-winger were to appear on BBC and say that the Nazis had been justified in killing six million Jews in order to achieve their aims. We should be horrified, and consider that such a person should never be allowed to speak in public again – or at least until he retracted his repellent views and admitted that he had been culpably, basely, wrong.

blair3
Tony Blair

But what really happened to Hobsbawm after that interview? The opposite. His career soared. He was offered (but rejected) a knighthood. Later he accepted from Tony Blair the title Companion of Honour. Oxford gave him a prize worth half a million pounds. As Hobsbawm got older, the media increasingly described him as the country’s greatest living historian. All this despite the fact, as Wilson pointed out, that Hobsbawm never learned the lessons of the century he had lived through. On this subject, Wilson was nothing less than eloquent:

Stalin_Joseph
Josef Stalin

The tens of millions dead, the hundreds of millions enslaved, the sheer evil falsity of the ideology which bore down with such horror on the peoples of Russia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Germany, never occurred to this man. He went on believing that a few mistakes had been made, and that Stalinism was “disillusioning” – but that, in general, it would have been wonderful if Stalin had succeeded.

Any barmy old fool is, thank goodness, entitled to their point of view in our country. Unlike Stalin’s Soviet Union or Hitler’s Germany, Britain is a country where you can more or less say or think what you like. What is disgraceful about the life of Hobsbawm is not so much that he believed this poisonous codswallop, and propagated it in his lousy books, but that such a huge swathe of our country’s intelligentsia – the supposedly respectable media and chattering classes – bowed down before him and made him their guru.

More tomorrow.