The Question Concerning Heidegger

Here are two truths about Martin Heidegger:

1. He is one of the most revered figures in the 20th century philosophical canon

2. He was a committed Nazi.

At issue, then, is whether there is a connection between his political beliefs and activities under the Third Reich on the one hand, and his philosophical thought on the other. And further, whether he ought to be excommunicated from the philosophical ranks.

A confession: I did my undergraduate honours thesis on Heidegger’s later philosophy. I wasn’t terribly interested in the man or his work going in,  but I was lazily casting about for a topic, the semester was marching on, and a TA I liked gave me a copy of an article Charles Taylor had written about whether we could derive a “deep ecology” environmental ethic out of Heidegger. The article was interesting, and the TA suggested the question of Heidegger’s ethics, and if there even is one implicit in his writing, could be worthwhile.

And so I spent my senior year buried the essays in The Question Concerning Technology, Basic Writings, and Poetry, Language, Thought, along with a pile of secondary literature. It was fun enough, a useful exercise in reading deeply and widely, and the paper that came out of it was good enough to help get me into graduate school (for better and for worse).

My conclusion, as far as I can recall, was that there was an obviously normative cast to Heidegger’s account of technological thinking and of how language enframes and distorts being, but that there was little in the way of a “thick” moral program. Or as my advisor said, in what was his only comment on the paper: “Heidegger seems to have painted himself into a corner, where he can no longer speak. And what has he taught us that Kant hadn’t already?”

(If I’d actually read Kant at the time I might have been better positioned to answer that… but that’s for another confession.)

The one question I did not really trouble myself with was the question of Heidegger’s own politics. I knew he’d been a Nazi, and was vaguely aware that there were concerns with his actions upon being named rector of the university at Freiburg in 1933. But philosophers I respected didn’t seem to think it was relevant, and the profs I knew who were vulgar enough to point out Heidegger’s nazism struck me as reactionaries (an early but unheeded sign of how twisted the politics of academe can get).

Besides, it was a subject that my philosophical idols at the time – Charles Taylor and Richard Rorty – didn’t seem too fussed about, rarely mentioning it while treating Heidegger as a legitimate and challenging interlocutor. The only book that took Heidegger’s politics as seriously problematic  was Heidegger and Nazism by Victor Farias, and it was hard to find, and nobody really cited it anyway. Heidegger remains firmly part of the continental canon, a major thinker in the tradition stretching from Kant through the phenomenologists, an important hinge figure between the existentialists and the deconstructionists.

Should he be?

According to reviews, a new book by the French philosopher Emmanuel Faye called  Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism Into Philosophy, suggests that philosophy needs to treat Heidegger’s writings like hate speech, and libraries should file his work along with other Nazi writings, like Mein Kampf. This has led to a great deal of debate, even though the book is just appearing in English now.

Here’s Patricia Cohen writing in the NYT

Here’s Carlin Romano’s essay on the book

The thing about Heidegger is that while he obviously believed in many Nazi ideals, his philosophy is far from a theory of National Socialism. As Richard Evans points out in his first book on the Third Reich, Nazi officials themselves found his writing to be too airy to be of much use, and on closer inspection his ideas “did not really seem to be in tune with the party’s”.

The reason why Heidegger’s later philosophy has been so appealing to leftists is that what it boils down to is little more than neo-Rousseauian countermodernism wrapped in what Evans appropriately calls “rebarbatively abstract language.” To the extent that there’s an ethic buried in there, it is the usual anti-technological and anti-progress mumbo jumbo. To the extent that he has something to say about language, Wittgenstein is far better.

I’m probably going to read Faye’s book, if only to remind myself of how naive I was as an undergraduate. But my suspicion is that  Heidegger is a bad philosopher who also happened to have evil politics. Is there a connection between the two? Maybe, but again, maybe only because stupidity is hard to compartmentalize.

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