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 So the author claims to have access to unpublished letters & papers that prove Heidegger worked Nazism into his philosophy…oh, wait.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