Why they’re really scared of Heidegger

The philosopher still makes some academics feel itchily uncomfortable, not because they truly believe his Nazism will leap from the pages of his works, but because his deeply anti-humanist arguments sound a little too familiar.

Tim Black

Tim Black

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It is a sign of these confused, amnesiac times that a straight-faced discussion can be held across the liberal-leaning pages of the New York Times and the Chronicle Review about whether to burn the books of one-time Nazi and full-time philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976).

Not literally burn them, of course; the irony would surely be too much even for the most historically forgetful. No, should they be metaphorically burnt? That is, should publishers stop churning out new editions of his collected works, should libraries cull him from their collections, and should university courses purge him from their syllabuses? ‘Is it degenerate literature?’, they just about stop themselves from asking.

The occasion for this mini-outbreak of illiberal liberalism is the imminent publication of the English-language edition of Frenchman Emmanuel Faye’s 2005 intellectual scandal-mongerer, Heidegger: the Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy. For anyone who’s laboured, heavy-lidded, over Heidegger’s excursus on Austrian poet Georg Trakl, Faye’s conclusions may come as something of a surprise: ‘If [Heidegger’s] writings continue to proliferate without our being able to stop this intrusion of Nazism into human education, how can we not expect them to lead to yet another translation into facts and acts, from which this time humanity might not be able to recover?’ This is what you might call a leap of Faye. One minute an undergraduate is getting to grips with fundamental ontology, the next he’s given himself a severe side-parting, donned a brown shirt, and has begun planning the systematic extermination of Jewry. Being and Time today, being a Nazi tomorrow.

While commentators might not have quite caught Faye’s Nazi-fever, they have been suffering from considerable liberal self-doubt. In the New York Times, Patricia Cohen wondered if a philosopher’s unsavoury life-history should see his philosophy disregarded. She concluded with Faye’s warning: ‘Teaching Heidegger’s ideas without disclosing his deep Nazi sympathies is like showing a child a brilliant fireworks display without warning that an ignited rocket can blow up in someone’s face.’ Over at Slate, Ron Rosenbaum, the author of Explaining Hitler, worried that Heidegger’s thought is so permeated with Nazism that it had rubbed off on his long-term lover, the venerated Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt. And Carlin Romano, in an entertainingly disrespectful piece for the Chronicle, just wanted the ‘Black Forest babbler’ ridiculed out of the cultural canon.

But should readers beware? Will an afternoon with Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics or the work of one of Heidegger’s acolytes – Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, for instance – really see readers washed away, unawares, by the undercurrents of Nazi thinking? It doesn’t really seem very likely, and that’s not just because there’s very little actual Fuhrer-loving, Semite-hating stuff to be read in these works. It’s due to the fact that readers are not empty receptacles into which ideas, good, bad and ugly, are just pumped. People interpret, engage, and – yes – think about what they are reading. To worry that philosophical works, and works as prolix as Heidegger’s, works that demand efforts of interpretation, might accidentally turn readers into Nazis is as patronising and absurd as the early-1990s concern that kids, listening to Judas Priest records, were being turned into the children of Beelzebub.

Let’s be clear about this: Martin Heidegger, a thinker many regard as the most important philosopher of the twentieth century, was indeed a bona-fide, arm-aloft, palm-outstretched Nazi. Zealously renewing his party membership every year between 1933 and 1945, his commitment to the National Socialist cause was unstinting. Nowhere was this more in evidence than in his public role as rector of Freiburg University, where he praised ‘the inner truth and greatness’ of Nazism in his 1933 rectoral address, and later penned a paean to murdered Nazi thug Leo Schlageter. Heidegger was no token fascist; he was jack-booted and ready. Wearing a swastika on his lapel at all times he, alongside his proud, virulently anti-Semitic wife, also practised private discrimination against Jews, from fellow existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers to his one-time mentor Edmund Husserl. Not that he was without friends. In fact his friendship with Eugene Fischer, director of Berlin Institute for Racial Hygiene, lasted years.

Faye does enrich this portrait of Nazi-era Heidegger with new research. We learn that in seminars from the 1930s and 1940s he defined a people in terms of the ‘community of biological stock and race’. And we now know that, according to witnesses, Heidegger would turn up to teach, dapperly attired in a brown shirt, and salute the students with a ‘Heil Hitler’. But that’s not the central claim to fame of Faye’s thesis. Rather he argues that Nazism underpinned Heidegger’s philosophy. In other words, to read Heidegger is to encounter a philosophy of Nazism. A thinker deemed by many to be the most important thinker of the twentieth century is a Nazi thinker.

There are many problems with this view, not least the fact that Heidegger’s opus, Being and Time, was conceived during the early 1920s and published in 1927 – that is, during a time when the Nazi Party went from being nothing to being as significant as the BNP is now. Stranger still, if Heidegger’s thought was so riven with Nazism, why have its principal proponents not been Nazis? Surely, given the breadth of Heidegger’s influence, one would have expected at least a few Heidegger-inspired putschists to have made a stab for Aryan domination in the 80-odd years since his work began its sinister conquest of Western culture.

Instead Heidgger’s influence is such that any attempt to see the fascist thread loses itself in the weave and weft of an immense, largely leftish legacy. In Germany itself, such radical, or semi-radical, icons as Herbert Marcuse or Jurgen Habermas, or liberal paragons like Hannah Arendt, were all at one stage in thrall to the ‘secret king of thought’, as Arendt herself dubbed him. In France, his impact was even more spectacular. From the identikit Heideggerian existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre, to the post-subject, anti-humanist philosophising of Louis Althusser or Jacques Derrida, Heidegger provided the inspiration. In Derrida’s words ‘an authority, a legitimacy’ clung to Heideggerian discourse during the 1950s and 60s. So much so, in fact, that Althusser, a prominent theoretician in the French Communist Party, used his thinking to inform his own nominally Marxist offerings. As he was later to admit, Heidegger’s 1946 Letter on Humanism ‘influenced my arguments concerning theoretical anti-humanism in Marx’ – and to be fair, if you read Althusser’s 1964 essay Marxism and Humanism the influence is bordering on plagiarism. In fact it’s probably fair to say that the empyrean of continental philosophy, so starry-eyed and radically risqué during the 1970s and 80s, was carried aloft on the thought of a rustic, Lederhosen-wearing German, with a politics to match his Hitler-era ’tache.

There are of course many more strands to Heidegger’s decidedly un-Nazi fanbase, from Jewish theologians like Emmanuel Levinas or poets like Paul Celan, to liberal political theorists like Richard Rorty. Take political philosopher Leo Strauss, the supposed granddaddy of American neo-conservatism, for example. A student of Heidegger’s in the 1920s, he drew much of his critique of the privations of modernity from his master’s pre-Socratic utterings. Little wonder that Strauss’s own student, Allan Bloom, an arch-conservative 1980s cultural warrior and real-life basis for Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein, called Heidegger in The Closing of the American Mind ‘the most powerful intellectual force of our times’.

What such a brief sketch of the influence of Heidegger shows is that keen students of Heidegger do not become Nazis. They don’t even become his friends. But Heidegger’s vast influence does hint at why the controversy over his Nazism erupts into public life again and again. Never have so many owed so much to the work of such ‘a small man’, to use George Steiner’s damning epithet. More pointedly, Heidegger is just too central to a culture for which the one remaining claim to moral authority is anti-fascism. His moral failure as a man niggles.

And it didn’t take long to niggle either. Between 1945 and 1948, the Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and de Beauvoir-edited Les Temps Modernes was preoccupied by the relation between Heidegger’s thought and the advent of Nazism. And then a few years later, the French journal Critique dwelt upon the same question. More recently, Victor Farias’ 1987 Heidegger et le Nazisme raked over Heidegger’s Nazi-muck to scandalous effect. Not only did he prompt rebukes from those tarnished, such as Derrida and fellow philosophers Phillipe Lacoue-Labarth and Jean-Francois Lyotard, his book also became a national issue with daily broadsheet Le Monde dedicating several pages to it. And then in 1992 Hugo Ott’s sober, desecrating Martin Heidegger: A Political Life stirred the debate once more, this time in Germany. While the concern with Heidegger is perhaps less keenly felt beyond European shores, such is Heidegger’s influence and import that it is never far away.

The discomfort Heidegger’s Nazism repeatedly causes is revealing. This is not because he was a Nazi propagating a Nazi philosophy, as Faye contends. Heidegger prompts discomfort precisely because he was a Nazi propagating a non-Nazi philosophy. He is just not alien enough. His is a philosophical vision that sits too comfortably with many mainstream attitudes, whether it’s an environmentalist assault upon human hubris or a snobbish disdain for consumerism. Which might seem strange given that it’s the rather remote topic of Heidegger’s ontology, his obsession with the Seinsfrage, the ‘question of being’, that always seems to be to the fore in discussions of his work. And it’s true, this is the ostensible centre of his thought.

As he puts it in Being and Time, man has forgotten the question of being, has forgotten to ask ‘what is it to be?’. This isn’t any old forgetting, it’s an age-old forgetting stemming back to classical times and the beginning of the Western cultural tradition. In Heidegger’s words, Western civilisation has ‘grown up both into and in a traditional way of interpreting itself’, a self-understanding ‘thoroughly coloured by the anthropology of Christianity and the ancient world’. Animale rationale, zoon politikon, Man even; all such terms efface the question of being by pre-empting it. That is, they provide a conceptual framework with which to understand the world and man’s place in it. Which, for Heidegger is always a little too central.

This is what Heidegger rejects. And in doing so he gives his project its unique linguisitic character. Forcing himself to do without traditional philosophical terminology on the basis that it’s too reifying, he builds, brick by unusual lexical brick, a portrait of both how we come to approach the question of being, and, more broadly, human existence. So, as Dasein, Being-there, (Heidegger’s phrase for human being), we are always-already finding ourselves in a world. This world appears to us by virtue of our dealings with the entities that ‘concern’ us – in other words, the way in which we use things (the ready-to-hand, Heidegger calls them). One knows the hammer best, Sartre glossed, when one uses it to hammer. This concern with things in the world means that we come to understand the world in terms of the needs of our existence. ‘In roads, streets, bridges’, writes Heidegger, ‘our concern discovers nature as having some definite direction’.

But the world doesn’t just acquire its meaning in terms of our individual use of it. Our being in the world is also being in the world with others. That is, it’s a social existence, a being within society. This is the public world, a world of duties, of responsibilities, of values. And it’s here, according to Heidegger that individual human beings encounter ‘das Man’, ‘the they’, ‘the one’ – in short, the social agency manifest in the social world. This social agent, attributable to no one in particular, but encompassing everyone in general, mediates every aspect of an individual’s existence. ‘It prescribes that way of interpreting the world and Being-in-the-world that lies closest’ even to the extent that it ‘prescribes one’s state-of-mind, and determines how one “sees”’.

And here’s the thing. Heidegger’s virtuoso portrait of human being wasn’t just compelling, it was damning. It wasn’t just an unprecedented way of grasping the nature of being, indeed, of human being. It was a critique, too. And this is the nub of Heidegger’s appeal, his remarkable historical resonance. Subsumed by the received wisdom and social praxes of the public world, this mode of being in society, according to Heidegger, is ‘fallen’ – the theological residue is no accident. In other words, through social existence, our being-in-the-world-with-others, human being succumbs to the hopelessly rationalised, destructively instrumental mode of being that Heidegger holds responsible for the forgetting of the Seinsfrage, or as he would put it in 1946, the ‘homelessness of modern man’.

Modernity here is to be understood as the culmination of ontological forgetfulness. Human interests and needs, values and ideals, have become the sole measure of all things. This for Heidegger is a bad thing. To lead the life of the ‘they’, to read newspapers, to think of oneself as a citizen, is to suffer from this anthropological, humanising myopia. We identify human being with our social being, nature with our use of it, other people with the social role they perform, the ends they meet. Members of the modern demos, modern citizens, are dismissed, their existence ‘inauthentic’. Their self-consciousness amounts to no more than the ‘common sense of the “they”’. He knows ‘only the satisfying of manipulable rules and public norms and the failure to satisfy them’. In other words, fallen social man has no other criteria to judge his behaviour than by the criteria prescribed by society. The real might appear rational but only because the individual has given himself up to its anonymous instrumentality, allowing it to govern his unthinking existence, ‘as something that gets managed, reckoned up’. ‘“Life” is a business’, spits Heidegger, ‘whether or not it covers its costs’.

Heidegger’s solution to this in Being and Time is the authentic individual, the being who is true to himself, who, through Angst, comes to recognise both his own finitude, his ‘being-towards-death’, and alongside it the meaningless of the modern, social world with its routines of production and consumption, and liberates himself from it, ‘from possibilities which “count for nothing”, [letting] him become free for those which are authentic’. This was Heidegger’s existentialism, the same existentialism that informed Sartre’s Resistance-era masterpiece Being and Nothingness. But though this voluntarism, this sense of absolute individual freedom, gave way in Heidegger’s later work to what looks like quietism, what remained consistent throughout, from the Letter on Humanism to the Question Concerning Technology, was that veiled, abstracted, but nonetheless, resonant critique of modernity, and the human-centred rationality he discerned at its fallen heart.

Heidegger wasn’t alone in such criticisms. From Max Weber’s notion of the ‘iron cage of rationality’ to Georg Simmel’s ‘tragedy of culture’, the irrationally rational meaninglessness of modern society, its angst-inducing disenchantment, was a prevalent intellectual theme. After all, Heidegger wrote Being and Time in a country devastated by the First World War, with an economy ravaged by galloping inflation, and a ruling class rightly cowed by the Bolshevik revolution. This sense of crisis did have its pre-war origins in the growing defensiveness of a German ruling elite facing Germany’s powerful socialist movement, a sense of crisis grasped by Heidgger’s great forerunner Friedrich Nietzsche in terms of a rising nihilism, and a fear of the common herd. But by the 1920s things were acute. Little wonder Heidegger had little difficulty reframing the problems of a decadent capitalist society caught in its death throes in terms of the fall of modern man.

But from this period, from this man’s writings, writings in which an insurgent communism could be dismissed alongside a decaying capitalism as manifestations of human societies’ unthinking, Being-forgetting belief in their own rationality, too many disenchanted intellects have found succour – to the extent that Heidegger finds a home. His thought resonates not because he was a Nazi, but because his criticism of modernity echoes many of today’s anti-modern trends. Take this from a recent primer by Michael Watts:

‘Heidegger demonstrated remarkable ecological awareness for his time. He expressed strong concerns over, and was highly opposed to, many components of the modern industrial society, with its overemphasis on technology and mass culture, and he spoke strongly against the mistreatment of livestock and the abuse of the planet’s resources. With superb clairvoyance he prophetically warned of the coming destruction of the environment that would lead to planetary ecological crises.’

Heidegger’s Nazism is the least troubling part of his cultural legacy. Rather it’s his profound, philosophical anti-humanism that needs, not burning, but a vigorous, unceasing challenging.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy, by Emmanuel Faye, will be published in the UK by Yale University Press in January 2010. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)

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