What’s at stake in the Heidegger/Nazism debate?

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So I have been established, or established myself, as the Heidegger ‘guy’ on this blog/podcast.  Why?  I read a bunch of his stuff in grad school, studied with one of his students (at the time a professor) in Germany, and wrote my Master’s thesis on “Ereignis”.  Wes just sent me a link to this review at The Time Higher Education of a new book by Emmanuel Faye on Heidegger and Nazism:  http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=410395.   So the author claims to have access to unpublished letters & papers that prove Heidegger worked Nazism into his philosophy…oh, wait.  I don’t give a shit. 

Smarter, more well read, more articulate and generally better people than me have weighed in on the topic for 40+ years.  It mattered to them.  It might have mattered culturally at some point.  It did matter to me 20 years ago, but it doesn’t now. 

First, a distinction.  There’s Heidegger the man, and Heidegger’s ‘thought’, which is to say his texts and other writings.  Not in question are these facts:  he joined the National Socialist party, he did reprehensible things in their name and defended his actions, he was kind of a douche.  This isn’t about the man.  What’s at issue in Faye’s book and all the others is whether Heidegger’s thought is fascistic or national socialistic.  It’s all about interpretation of the texts, but interpretation with intent.

With regard to Nazism, you can make the attempt to ‘read’ it into his texts as an illuminating interpretative strategy, or you can do it to prove his philosophy was an underpinning for Nazi ideology.  The former I find uninteresting, the latter only matters if you are going to do something with the result.  The implication is that an answer in the negative means we are allowed to keep reading him, in the positive and his thought becomes ‘tainted’, ‘fascist’, ‘anti-semetic’, whatever and, presumably, his texts are consigned to the flame.   This isn’t about proving a thesis, it’s about establishing a disposition towards his philosophy that implies some kind of action.  Let’s say Faye (and others) prove the point – what are you going to do?

It’s a normative question about the interplay of ideas.  We’ve already granted that Heidegger the man acted consentually and didn’t repent.  If you take the position that morally objectionable actions by the person invalidate their work, the point is already moot.  And you can then throw Niezsche, Schopenhauer, Picasso and Tiger Woods into the hole with him.  If you move from the person to their ideas, the question is more complicated.  In the case of a straight-up apologist hack, where the ideas have no merit other than to justify an objectionable ideaology, it’s easy to say that because X supports Y, I’m not going to read any of X’s work.  What we’re saying in that case is:  X’s stuff is one-note, and that note is tedious and objectionable, so I’m invalidating X’s thought by ignoring it.   In the case of a body of work more prolific, nuanced, thought provoking and less clearly implicated like Heidegger’s, I don’t think that move works. 

I think something like this motivates the Heidegger/Nazism debate now.  People who argue one side or the other want you to do something about his thought and texts.  Keep reading him or don’t.  Censure him or don’t.  Villify him or don’t.  Include him in the canon or don’t.  Blame him for something or don’t.  Take a stand…

So here’s what I’m going to do:  keep reading him (or not) without regard to the outcome of the debate.  As you’ll hear in the Danto episode and as befits someone tied to the tradition of pluralistic hermeneutic reading, I respect authorial intent but it’s only a gateway into interpretation for me.  And I’m quite OK with multiple, contradictory and difficult readings of texts.  In fact, the more you can read into and get out of a text, the better.  And I think there’s a lot to be got from Heidegger – useful, interesting, stimulating, thoughtful, relevant, meaningful things that stand independent of a) less useful or even censurable things you can get out of his work and b) they way the useful stuff might be employed.  Hence, re: Heidegger’s thought and Nazism, mir ist egal.

I’m surprised this debate even has currency anymore.  It does appear to be dying a slow death and perhaps with the last of Faye’s generation of intellectuals it will finally be put to bed.  Immediately after the issue came to light, there was real Angst on the part of intellectuals who were influenced by and had strong personal ties Heidegger as they tried to come to grips with his participation in National Socialism.   Early work on the subject reflected painful moral and philosophical struggles by people for whom the events of the War and Holocaust were recent and personal.  His stature as leading European thinker needed to be questioned and legalities around his ability to participate in German academic life needed to be resolved. 

That’s 60 years in the past now.  If you want to make this something personal for you, go ahead.  If you want to talk about the normative question above, feel free.  But the debate itself lacks currency and relevance and I’m just not interested.  –seth

Comments

  1. Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer

    Mark Linsenmayer

    March 7, 2010

    I note that you refer to yourself as the Heidegger ‘guy,’ whereas I would refer to you as the “Heidegger guy.” Are you implying that it is not your Heidegger representation but your ‘guy’-hood that is in question? That you are in fact a Superman and we are not fit to stand in your presence? Have you confirmed our suspicion (elicited by your liking Heidegger) that YOU are a Nazi sympathizer?

    Hmmmm.

    Slightly less nonsensically, it’s interesting to me to compare this to the exchange on our Facebook page about Ayn Rand right now. Chris N. there posted an article link that’s worth putting here too: http://exiledonline.com/atlas-shrieked-why-ayn-rands-right-wing-followers-are-scarier-than-the-manson-family-and-the-gruesome-story-of-the-serial-killer-who-stole-ayn-rands-heart/, which led me to another article: http://www.slate.com/id/2233966, both of which are essentially biographical ad hominem attacks against Ayn Rand as being totally f’ing crazy, and in both cases pro-Rand respondents to the articles reply that this doesn’t give a sympathetic enough reading of Rand’s works.

    Hence, if you like her ideas, you should ignore the fact that she wrote admiring things about serial killers and apparently abusively dominated over her inner circle much like L. Ron Hubbard.

    So, the question then becomes, was Heidegger just a hack (like Rand) or not? Seth certainly thinks not. In my experience with him, I can’t say I found anything that I liked in there that wasn’t already in some of his contemporaries (e.g. Sartre), but who originated the idea? I don’t know and don’t much care. Reading it still illuminates some pretty interesting stuff, as much so at least as, say, John Locke or Bertrand Russell (who are criticized on the same grounds of non-originality but yet who are still widely read and generally reward the reading).

  2. Daniel Horne

    March 8, 2010

    Great thread, Seth, thanks for starting it. I’m assuming you do, in fact, kind of care about the debate, or you wouldn’t have spent 800+ words on the subject. I point this out only to excuse my attempt to continue this thread.

    I’d like to pose the following questions. This is more to understand where you’re coming from than to provoke a debate. I have no political axe to grind here. I find both Heidegger’s life and philosophy worthy of study, even though the man was an opportunist, an ingrate, a hypocrite and a coward. (The way he treated Husserl and Arendt, his postwar behavior, etc.)

    Anyway,

    1. Heidegger wrote (and don’t most professional and academic philosophers agree?) that philosophy should provide a weltanschauung (world-view). If we are to take those words at face value, Heidegger’s philosophical approach led him to (or failed to save him from?) a world-view that seems deeply problematic. Even assuming arguendo that Heidegger’s Nazism fails as a critique, doesn’t his postwar failure to own up to his Nazism contradict his preference for living “authentically”?) Does his personal behavior (pre- and post-war) say nothing about the utility of his arguments re: authenticity/inauthenticity? Obviously, there’s far more to Heidegger than authenticity/inauthenticity. But if a philosophy can’t help you form or fulfill personal agendas, then what is its value?

    2. Or am I missing the point? After all, neither the Principia nor classical gravitational theory saved Newton from becoming an alchemist and a mystic. But it would be silly to criticize the Principia or classical gravitational theory for those grounds. Newton was pursuing science and mathematics, and Heidegger’s importance is to ontology, not ethics.

    3. Sartre’s philosophical approach was very similar to Heidegger’s. And yet Sartre’s philosophy led to him to a very different world-view, no? Or is this again to misunderstand what phenomenology has to offer qua personal credo?

    In any event, if/when you guys cover Heidegger, I think it would be an interesting bullet point to discuss why (or why it should not be surprising that) two philosophers with such similar analytical approaches could reach radically different political agendas. (Or is it wrong to consider the political agendas of Nazi-era Heidegger and postwar Sartre so different? Both appear to have fallen under the spell of romanticism, for example.)

    To best ensure Mark feels engaged (;D), I’d love to hear a podcast devoted to contrasting Heidegger with Sartre. Not just B&T vs. B&N, but also the differences between how the two “walked the talk” of their respective philosophies.

  3. Profile photo of Seth Paskin

    Seth Paskin

    March 21, 2010

    Daniel–
    Thanks for the reply. I guess I care about this in the same way that I care that there are still Ox-bridge philosophers talking about ‘rigor’ in ‘technical’ philosophy against ‘deliberate’ obscurantism in European philosophical writing. It’s like attacking Derrida now – really?

    Your first question, however, is not the same. While people try and prove or disprove that Heidegger’s philosophy contains within it some kind of framework for National Socialism, what you are asking is different: does his personal life validate or invalidate certain aspects of his philosophy? In other words:
    * Does his work contain within it a justification for anti-semitism, National Socialism or genocide?
    is a different question from
    * Can one say that Heidegger failed to hear the ‘call’ of conscience as care and missed a chance at authenticity?

    In the first case, they are trying to justify or invalidate reading his works. In the second, you are assuming his framework in an attempt to determine if he lived in accordance with it. Your point I think is interesting, the former I do not.

    Another point you make is that perhaps we should take the lives of intellectuals as guides for how to interpret their thought – if he was a Nazi, there must be some Nazi in his philosophy. You then offer the suggestion that Newton’s mysticism didn’t taint his physics, so we might ‘excuse’ Heidegger by virtue of his work being ontology and not ethics.

    I could counter by saying that human psychology is complex enough to allow human beings to (consciously or unconsciously) dissociate their personal experience with more abstract pursuits. I could say that he was, simultaneously, a profound abstract thinker about the nature of Being expressed in the Western tradition and a completely naive, backwoods clown with respect to contemporary politics. I think the mere fact that he tried and failed to justify certain political realities and actions with his philosophical framework and then was too arrogant and embarrassed to admit his failings is support of this position.

    People are flawed. Event the smart ones that write philosophy. They do stupid, hurtful things. And a life is not a system to be tested for consistency. You can’t invalidate works of art, literature, theater, philosophy, sculpture, or science because of the biographies of those who create them. And never underestimate the individual’s power for self-preservation through forgetfulness and delusion.

    With respect to Satre, along with other French thinkers influenced by Heidegger, I see them as finding the Ethical aspect of Heidegger’s phenomenology (even as he actively disregarded it) and devloped their responses accordingly. Naturally, the different emphasis resulted in different outcomes and their lives, by virtue of being a party to the occupiers or the occupied, so to speak, varied widely.

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