Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The Preventable Demise of Mr. Heidegger

Jean-Luc Nancy recently asked,
why are Heidegger and Freud subjected to the return of operations of denunciation and demolition? (Le Monde, November 4, 2005)
With regard to Martin Heidegger, the problem is his association with Nazism. Becoming involved with the party, supporting its programs within the context of the university, and (purportedly) compromising his writings to the ideology of the party, Heidegger has become a poster child for the relationship of the intellectual to the authoritarian state. Nancy counters that Heidegger's concern for existence (l'être) is not anchored in ideology. The philosophy of Dasein belongs to the modern discourse on the human condition. Read more!

Heidegger could be seen like the “grays”: the intelligentsia of the Eastern Bloc who joined communist parties to practice their professions. They became defenders of democracy after the communist regimes fell. Pierre Bordieu wrote that a standard reading of Heidegger’s philosophical works reveals no footprints of Nazi ideology or politics.
Not even the most ruthless investigators into the author of Sein und Zeit's murky compromises with Nazism have looked into the texts themselves for indices, admissions, or hints liable to reveal or elucidate the political commitment of its author.
With the exception of a few compromises, Heidegger insulated his texts from politics. The obscurity of language, the inclination towards pure academia, the separation of philosophy from Fascist discourse -- taken at face value, his writings show no commitment to Nazism and no desire to spread it. Any evidence that he was a Nazi thinker must come from outside his philosophy. (Bourdieu characterizes this as avoidance, and Heidegger enclosed himself intellectually without realizing his own conservatism.)

Heidegger suffered from the disease that plagued German intellectuals of his era: the pretension to political disengagement under which lies a preference for nationalism (after Hegel: a state without parties is a state without conflict.) Claiming to be apolitical, they distrusted the chaotic partisanship of Weimar. Under the Third Reich they could pretend to be disengaged and after 1945, they could claim that they were not involved in the Nazi state. Even some who did resist did so because they felt that the Nazi revolution made apathy impossible.

Some intellectuals dressed their scholarship to address ideology, hoping to find favor with the party. Ethnologist Hans Naumann happily spoke the praises of Nazism as Jewish books burned in the middle of Berlin. But he fooled himself into thinking that he could become a leading scholar of the Third Reich: he tried to equate his cultural aristocracy with the Führerprinzip, but his assertion that the common people were not creative, but rather the consumers and perverters of culture produced by the elite, was out of step with Nazism's celebration the völkisch nation. The party, needless to say, ignored him.

I find Heidegger’s indifference to politics within his philosophy difficult to swallow. According to Rene Schickele’s diaries, Heidegger was deeply involved with Nazi groups at the university by mid-1932 ... before the seizure of power. Around the same time, he positioned himself in his lectures (represented in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics) as a critique of movements that like Nazism, interpreted personal malaise as historical conflict:
These world-historical diagnoses and prognoses of culture do not involve us, they do not attack us. On the contrary, they release us from ourselves and present us to ourselves in a world-historical situation and role ... at best [this philosophy of culture] sees what is contemporary, yet a contemporaneity which is entirely without us, which is nothing other than what belongs to the eternal yesterday ... it unties us from ourselves in imparting us a role in world history. Our flight and disorientation, the illusion and our lostness become more acute ...

We do not ultimately need any diagnoses or prognoses of culture in order to make sure of our situation, because they merely provide us with a role and untie us from ourselves, instead of helping us to want to find ourselves ... We may not, therefore, flee from ourselves in some convoluted idle talk about culture, nor pursue ourselves in a psychology motivated by curiosity.
Heidegger spoke specifically of the thought of Oswald Spengler, Ludwig Klages, Max Scheler, and Leopold Ziegler. His critique could be applied to so many systems of belief, but in context these were movements that dealt with degeneration (Entartung.) Nazism borrowed strongly from that discourse, explaining misfortune as international and racial hostility.

Heidegger’s thought may not be tainted, but it is enfeebled, by his early involvement with Nazism. He cautioned against involvement in similar movements, engaging them, but was also willing to join.


At 5:31 AM, Blogger Brandon said...

Good post, but I think you are too kind; we can only say that Heidegger's philosophy is untainted by Nazism if we classify the cases in which he advocated Nazism in philosophical terms (the inaugural address, the post-rectorship Logic lectures, etc.) as not part of his philosophy. It's right to say that his philosophy is not based on Nazism; but Heidegger's actual philosophy was at one point clearly Nazi. Even when he began distancing himself from the actual Nazi party, the reason he always gave for that was that Nationalist Socialist ideology became less disposed to philosophical interpretation, and claimed that he was fascinated by the ideology as an encounter between man and technology (which is a major philosophical issue for Heidegger). And although I'm not an expert on the subject, by any means, I think George Steiner is right that there are clear connections betwen Heidegger's philosophical language in Being and Time and the rhetoric of Nazism. And as Herbert Marcuse responded to Heidegger himself, "we cannot make the separation between Heidegger the philosopher and Heidegger the man, for it contradicts your own philosophy." Contrary to what Heidegger himself seems to thought, the fact that he was only philosophically in agreement with an idealized and less biological form of Nazism, and that the problem with Hitler is that he failed to follow through on his original promises properly, is not a real consolation.

I think Heidegger's philosophy is tainted. Even Heidegger's most plausible concepts cannot be accepted unless they are removed from Heidegger and placed in another, less objectionable, context. Effectively, I think any philosophical position, however similar to Heidegger's in its basic form, must be built over against Heidegger's own philosophy, one inconsistent with Nazism and actively opposed to it and to Heidegger's philosophy insofar as it was not inconsistent with and actively opposed to it. (Indeed, things would be different if Heidegger had taken the many opportunities he had to rework his system to that end. But Heidegger's path was to be a long one brimming with evasions of responsibility.)

At 10:40 AM, Blogger enowning said...

Looking for Nazism in Heidegger's philosophy indicates a basic misunderstanding of his philosophy, and is akin to looking for Nazism in Heisenberg's physics or Von Braun's rockets. Nazism is an ideology without a philosophy. In 1933 Heidegger joined the party and paid his dues (so he was a Nazi, by definition). He proposed that he and the university could provide the Nazis with some philosophy, but they weren't interested, so by 1934 he resigned from university administration and returned to lecturing. The Nazis remained free of philosophy, and his philosophy continued to concentrate on ontology. He never published anything on political philosophy.

At 5:06 PM, Blogger Brandon said...


I'm not convinced; in part because if we look at what Heidegger himself actually says about Nazism, there seems to be no such sharp division as you suggest, even from Heidegger's own point of view. Even in the much later Der Spiegel interview, where he plays down his involvement, he attributes his attraction to Nazism to his philosophical interests. Nor do I think the ideology/philosophy distinction useful; philosophy can tend ideological -- we have a great deal of the history of philosophy to prove it. Nor does the fact that other Nazis weren't Heideggerian tell us anything about whether Heidegger's philosophy itself is problematic.

It's possible to exaggerate the Nazism of Heidegger's philosophy, and many do, but to deny that there is any connection is, I think, to take an implausible attitude to the role that philosophy actually plays in someone's life; particularly when Heidegger himself for at least one period of his life explicitly linked his philosophy and Nazi ideology.

At 8:44 PM, Blogger shulamite said...

I agree with Brandon, but I'm open to being talked out of my position. The link I see between Heidegger and Nazism is that but set themselves in opposition to nature, and see human art (taken broadly as the things made by man) as the measure of reality. A careful read of Being and Time shows that man finds hiimself in the things he makes, in "being-at-hand", and there is never a revealing of nature through art, as there was for the ancients and the medievals. Heid. has nothing but scorn for nature, and he certainly has nothing but scorn for any ontology that invokes an authority beyond human reason- like God.

In a word, Heidegger recognizes no authority outside of man that is fit to be obeyed. Such a belief is compatible with any number of political ideologies, Nazism being one of the more consistent with such a belief.

At 8:46 PM, Blogger shulamite said...

oops "that but set themselves" should be "that they both set themselves"

At 1:20 AM, Blogger Fido the Yak said...

What is Bourdieu saying? He questions whether Heidegger's philosophy "might be only a sublimated philosophical version, imposed by the forms of censorship specific to the field of philosophical production, of the political or ethical principles which determined the philosopher's support for Nazism." Bourdieu presents a strong case, but it would be stronger if we can see it holding up in light of the work of other students of Husserl, and other existentialists who were contemporaries of Heidegger, part of "the space of philosophical possibilities at the moment when Heidegger passed his Abitur" (p.45). Bourdieu makes extensive use of Cassirer as a point of contrast, which is wholly appropriate, but not the whole story. By failing to account for the existential movement, and the interest in existentialism shown by many of Husserl's students, the great majority of whom were not Nazis, Bourdieu leaves open the possibility that some of the items he identifies as Heideggerean or Nazi actually belong to some other sphere of discourse. This undermines his argument, which depends upon an accurate reading of the field of philosophical production. "All of Heidegger's fundamental options," Bourdieu writes, "those whose source lies in the deepest dispositions of his habitus and their expression in the 'primordial' pairs of antagonistic concepts borrowed from the spirit of the age, are defined with reference to an already constructed philosphical space, that is, in relation to a field of philosophical stances which reproduces in its own logical terms the network of social positions extant in the philosophical field" (41-42). That's a respectable premise, and, as I said, Bourdieu makes a strong case. In the end, however, I feel that his account is inconclusive.

On Brandon's point, I think we might agree that Heidegger should be held responsible for his Nazism, and that existential phenomenologists who take up Heideggerian themes should not be allowed to leave the Nazi question unanswered. I wouldn't expect an answer to take an explicitly political form, but, yes, in some sense we existentialists are called upon to think against Heidegger, just as we are, I believe, because of the realities of our cohabitation, called upon to think against totalitarianism. The temptation to regard a response to the latter as sufficient should be resisted, though its sufficiency or lack thereof will depend on exactly what one is saying.

At 4:09 PM, Blogger Clark Goble said...

Can one have an ideology without a philosophy? Isn't that akin to the claims that one can do science without philosophical commitments?

I think the Nazism of Heidegger are vastly overstated. As I mentioned over at Brandon's blog, one need only look at the myriad of thinkers who, repelled by Nazism, thought through H's work (often as not starting with Husserl). Yet they typically end up in a place not that far removed from where H ended up.

That's not to deny disputes and differences. But I wonder if those differences are really stronger than what one could find within H's own works, especially before and after the Turn.

At 1:01 AM, Blogger Fido the Yak said...

Clark, you had mentioned Levinas. I would also like to mention Edith Stein. Is it really fair to say that Stein ended up in a place not far removed from where Heidegger ended up? Levinas, like Stein, took up the issue of empathy, seeking to understand the place of the other in the constitution of the transcendental ego. We might say that Heidegger too broke down the transcendental ego to show its worldiness, but did he really take up the problem of intersubjectivity that appeared so vexing to Husserl? Heidegger's account of mitsein (and miteinandersein) is a rather impoverished treatment of the problem, which becomes especially poignant in comparison to the work of other phenomenologists. And Levinas' phenomenology in particular stands out as presenting a direct contrast to Heidegger's ontology of relating to others, an alternative that can safely be called an ethics. The negligibility of Heideggerean ethics seems to me to hit the nail on the head.

If you read German, you may want to check out Eric Sean Neslon's Ansprechen und Auseinandersetzung: Heidegger und die Frage nach der Vereinzelung von Dasein. (Nelson has published works on Heidegger and Levinas in English as well). I'm not endorsing Nelson's reading of Heidegger, but simply pointing out that in at least one scholar's view a reconciliation is called for. To the extent that Heidegger's philosophy is worth rehabilitating, these are the sorts of questions that need to be addressed.

At 10:41 AM, Blogger Nathanael said...

Is "thinking through" somehow different from removing it from its original political, social, and intellectual context? Other may have come to similar conclusions, but they did so by a committed effort of engaging the ethical defficiencies of H's work. Even Levinas' reading was determined on the basis. Here is an exert from the original intro to Relfections on Hitlerism (quoted in Joanna Hodges' article, "Ethics and time" (Diacritics 2002):
This article stems from the conviction that the source of the bloody barbarism of National Socialism lies not in some contingent anomaly within human reasoning, nor in some accidental ideological misunderstanding. This article expresses the conviction that this source stems from the essential possibility of elemental evil into which we can be led by logic and against which Western philosophy had not sufficiently insured itself. This possibility is inscribed within the ontology of a being concerned with being—a being, to use the Heideggerian expression, "which in its own being is concerned with that being." Such a possibility still threatens the subject correlative with being as gathering together and as dominating, that famous subject of transcendental idealism that before all else wishes to be free and thinks itself free. We must ask ourselves if liberalism is all we need to achieve the authentic dignity for the human subject. Does the subject ever arrive at the human condition prior to assuming responsibility for the other in the act of election that raises him up to this height? This election comes from a god—or God—who beholds him in the face of the other, the neighbour, the original "site" of the Revelation.

At 1:39 PM, Blogger Clark Goble said...

I definitely think that within some topics Heidegger doesn't do a good job. Most are tied to ethics in various guises. For instance Heidegger famously discusses justice in terms of harmony but explicitly thinks through this in terms of presence-at-handedness.

I may well be wrong (and I'm hardly and expert here) but it seems to me that Heidegger's sense of transcendence and Levinas' sense of transcendence isn't that different. Yes they emphasize different things, just as say Merleu-Ponty's work on embodiment does. But in the basic project I just don't see huge differences. More differences of emphasis and perhaps corrections over small points. But as I said, I think that's true of comparing different phases in H's own thought. (Or other philosophers - consider Levinas before and after Derrida's "Violence and Metaphysics")

At 8:27 PM, Blogger enowning said...


If you think that Heidegger's philosophy is linked to Nazism, you should explicitly state how or what bits of his philosophy are Nazi. Otherwise, it's just your opinion or confusion about his work in philosophy.

If I say: Heisenberg was a Nazi, therefore his contributions to physics are problematic. I would expect the counter argument to be some variation of: prove it, or some statement to the effect that I misunderstand the nature of physics. And citing something that Heisenberg said in a newspaper interview wouldn't change that.

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