Monday, May 10, 2010

Martin Heidegger: Nazi Philosopher?

(Image from New York Times)

In a recent article for The New York Times (April 29, 2010), "The Jewish Question: Martin Heidegger" (perhaps better titled "The Nazi Question"), senior editor for The New Republic, Adam Kirsch, reviews two recent books on this tarnished German philosopher, who joined the Nazi Party, served as rector of Freiburg University from 1933-34, and told the student body, in a November 1933 speech, that "the Führer and he alone is the present and future German reality and its law."

The more interesting of the two books would appear to be the one originally in French by Emmanuel Faye, The Introduction of Nazism Into Philosophy in Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933-1935 (translated by Michael B. Smith), for Kirsch writes that Faye argues not just that that Heidegger was a philosopher who happened to join the Nazi Party, nor that Heidegger was a Nazi who just happened to be a philosopher, but that Heidegger was, crucially, a "Nazi philosopher":
Faye, an authority on Descartes, is driven to this pitch of accusation by his study of the seminars, till now untranslated or unpublished, that Heidegger taught during 1933-35, in the first flush of his Nazi enthusiasm. In these classes, Faye proves beyond doubt, we do witness "the introduction of Nazism into philosophy," the outright transformation of Heidegger's thought into a tool of Nazi indoctrination. The more familiar a reader is with Heideg­ger's work, the more shocking it will be to see him employ his key terms -- being, existence, decision -- as euphemisms for nationalism and Führer-worship. Thus we find him, in the winter of 1933-34, declaring that "the question of the awareness of the will of the community is a problem that is posed in all democracies, but one that of course can become fruitful only when the will of the Führer and the will of the people are identified in their essence." At the same time, Heidegger tells his students -- "many of whom," Faye points out, "were to become combatants at the beginning of the following decade on the Eastern front" -- that "to a Semitic nomad," the "nature of our German space" is inherently foreign.
This is complex material, for a proper critique demands that one deal not merely with nationalist ideas, ideologies of blood, and the concept of the leader, but that one engage in philosophical thinking and its distortion, not an easy labor. At the conclusion of his article, Kirsch suggests a similar task:
[W]hat makes Heidegger's Nazism a challenge -- as opposed to merely a scandal -- is the fact that he did not drift into evil, but thought his way into it. And once we acknowledge the powerful attraction of his work, we are morally and intellectually bound to explore what part of that attraction is owed to ideas with a potential for evil . . . . [T]hat more difficult questioning . . . asks us to confront not just Heideg­ger but ourselves.
I'd be interested to know what my philosopher friend Bill Vallicella thinks about this matter, for I can mostly just direct attention to a matter outside my expertise. Heidegger's personal culpability is beyond question, but the question concerning the culpability of his philosophy remains, and I think it an important one, intellectually, for Heidegger the philosopher is considered a major thinker of the 20th century, and his ideas have influenced the intellectual left, continental philosophy, literary criticism, theology, and many other fields.

As noted, I can mostly just call attention to this matter of culpability, but I'm still willing to hazard a guess. In a statement quoted above, Kirsch observes:
The more familiar a reader is with Heideg­ger's work, the more shocking it will be to see him employ his key terms -- being, existence, decision -- as euphemisms for nationalism and Führer-worship.
Kirsch isn't being very precise here in reporting on Faye's evidence, for he offers three different Heideggerian terms used for two different fascist characteristics, but none of the former seems to correspond with either of the latter. Perhaps Kirsch means "euphemisms associated with nationalism and Führer-worship"? But even if "being, existence, decision" are used by Heidegger in his seminars from 1933 to 1935 as euphemisms for Nazi concepts, Kirsch's term "euphemism" suggests that Heidegger is employing some intellectual sleight of hand, using more innocuous terms to hide something less reputable, a form of equivocation. If Heidegger is equivocating in his use of key terms from his philosophy, then his core concepts might not be essentially evil but merely corruptible.

But I haven't read Faye's book, and I would be in deep waters even if I had, so I leave this intellectual sea for better, more experienced sailors to navigate and chart . . .

UPDATE: My friend Bill Vallicella has offered his view of the matter.

Labels: , , , ,


At 11:07 AM, Blogger Charles Montgomery said...

As far as I can tell, at least a strong plurality of "great" philosophers were somewhat insane. Rousseau was a flasher, Nietzsche a syphilitic madman, Kant an agoraphobic/paranoid, Spinoza and Hobbes both godless heathen (at at time that just wan't done).

I think old Marty might just have been trying to fit in...

Thoreau, who I loathe, might have been the sanest of the lot.


At 11:11 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

He certainly fit in with his times . . . if that's germane to the argument.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 2:04 PM, Blogger Charles Montgomery said...


Now I know you did that on purpose!


At 2:29 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I admit it, my comment was not germane.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 3:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I admit it, my comment was not germane."
--Jeffery Hodges

I apologize for adding yet another comment not germane to what could be an interesting discussion on Heidegger. But HJH, I was wondering whether I could engage in an email correspondence with you regarding a small project/hobby I happen to be undertaking.


At 4:00 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sure. I don't give my email address on this blog, but if you Google my name and "Milton-L," you'll locate me readily enough.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 4:42 PM, Anonymous Christian said...

Jeffery, you make a good point about the word "euphemism". Now I am hooked:)

Personally, I decided to wantonly ignore the whole philosophy of Heidegger, which is not a solution, but I don't have the knowledge to salvage what may be untainted in his philosophy. I think that biography (including correspondances) ought to be a companion to any philosopher's philosophy. Look how the letters of Freud finally accessible destroyed his pseudo-science (except in France and Argentine). Nietzche wrote something in these lines, which brings me to strongly protest against Charles' first comment. When Nietzche lost his mind, he already had written all of his books. And don't even get me started on his Nazi sister... (Nietzsche wrote in favour of the Jews at a time when antisemitism was already rife.)

The charge against Heiddeger has nothing to do with being a flasher etc. We are talking about pure-mass-murdering evil here, not common-law vices.

Spinoza was not godless: he found God as Nature and Nature as God. (Anyway, what is wrong with being godless or atheist?) Hobbes was not an atheist neither, people at that time were, at "worst" (from the point of view of organised religion), what we would call deists or fideists.

In sum, this is not about the sanity of Heiddeger, but whether his philosophy supports national-socialism. The charge is more serious than say, against Gobineau, because of the tremendous influence Heiddeger has nowadays (at least, in Europe).

If I wanted to be provocative, I would ask the same question about many other philosophies and their support in favour of Christianity (Kant, Descartes and even Hegel etc.).

At 5:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hope I have sent to the correct address...


At 6:03 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Christian, thanks for the extended comment. You might want to click over to Bill Vallicella's blog and read what he has to say about this issue.

I do think the term "euphemism" undermines Kirsch's implication that Heidegger's philosophy was essentially fascist.

As for Charles, take his remarks with a grain of salt, for he's being ironic . . . I think.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 6:05 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Lollabrats, I just got back online and have an email that I presume is from you -- I've simply not opened it yet since I elected to respond to comments first.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 6:20 PM, Blogger Charles Montgomery said...


thank god someone's irony-meter hasn't asploded!

At 6:24 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, I also at times have trouble detecting irony, given the extremism of so many bloggers' views.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 8:58 PM, Blogger The Red Witch said...

"we should examine all ideas in order to arrive as closely as we can to the truth"

I think, if I am reading Aeropagitica properly, Milton would have approved your friend's statement. :-)

At 9:02 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Milton, yes, but what of Dostoevsky?

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 9:32 PM, Blogger The Red Witch said...

"Milton, yes, but what of Dostoevsky?"

I would be afraid to speak of him with any authority. It has been a long while since I have read his books but anti-Semitism was common in his time. He is not the only great writer to be tarnished with its stain. What should we make of the things he wrote in Writer's Diary or of the pawn broker in Crime and Punishment? So many geniuses were really less than stellar human beings, we can't burn all their books. We would have very little left to read.
Even someone like Thoreau had ideas that might be considered dangerous to the ruling classes of today. Would he even survive the burning?

At 9:51 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Actually, I was referring to Dostoevsky's remark about Christ and the truth . . .

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 8:08 PM, Blogger The Red Witch said...

I thought about it but I would have to reread his work with that question in mind and my head is stuck in the sands around Antioch with Bohemond of Taranto at the moment. :-) I would also bet that, as interesting as Dostoevsky is, Bohemond would be a lot more fun to invite to a party. :-D
I always felt that Dostoevsky was not all that religious but perhaps I was misreading him. Politics can be a kind of faith as well.

At 8:13 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Given Dostoevsky's statement about Christ and truth, one has to wonder if he were sincerely religious. That said, I think that he had profound insight into the core of Christianity.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 6:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re: the quote about Fuhrer and people uniting innone will or essence, is Heidegger pursuing here an essentially Hegelian point? It sounds Hegelian, and Heidegger was a philosopher. Hegel certainly wouldn't have meant the imposition of the leader's will onto the people's, but the dialectical achievement of that alignment, which is something different altogether. In fact, in this light, although I am not directly suggesting Heidegger was doing this, because I don't know enough about the context of the quote in question, he could have been engaging in subtle critique : is the Fuhrer in alignment with the will of the people?

At 6:13 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Interesting suggestion, but do Heidegger's actions suggest this reading?

Jeffery Hodges

* * *


Post a Comment

<< Home