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The Trouble with Martin

Even his best friends thought he was a Nazi, so why should we pay any further attention to Heidegger’s philosophical writings? We asked a selection of Heidegger scholars this question: “Does Martin Heidegger’s involvement in the Nazi Party and his anti-Semitism, as evident in the recently published Black Notebooks, make a difference to how we should regard him as a philosopher and engage with his work?”

Heidegger’s Nazism and anti-Semitism were known about before the appearance of the Black Notebooks. But the extent of his anti-Semitism is made much clearer by the Notebooks, where he connects some of his key ideas to racist ideas in the Nazi period. For example, he links the difference between ‘being’ (things being intelligible at all) and ‘entities’ (the specific ways in which things are framed by a practice or a discipline) to “World Jewry, which, absolutely unattached, can undertake the deracination of all entities from being as a world-historical ‘task’.” He is referring to the transnational role of Jewish financiers in commodity exchange (which can in some respects be seen as turning everything into an exchangeable ‘entity’). However, his claims are vacuous: instead of analysing the economic roots of the crises of his times, he tries to give deep philosophical significance to often trivial cultural phenomena. So we should now be more suspicious of his work. However, many of his influential ideas are close to those of philosophers not tainted by Nazism, like Adorno or Dewey. We need, therefore, to separate the discredited man from what we can still use some of his philosophy for, such as asking how modernity has led humankind to the brink of ecological and economic catastrophe.

Prof. Andrew Bowie

This situation is so bad – and it keeps getting worse as scholars continue to root through his unpublished manuscripts – that the political values of many people of good will lead them to refuse to read his work. Some even suggest relocating his books from the philosophy section of the library to the history of National Socialism. I understand the anger but that is a mistake. Here’s the hermeneutical lesson: scrutinizing the author’s biography for clues to understanding what was in his or her books is a useful place to start, even where it uncovers an inconvenient truth. But if it is a place to start, it is not a place to finish. Ultimately what matters is to understand not the authorial subjectivity but the author’s subject matter. You ignore him at your peril. His influence reaches into nearly every corner of contemporary arts and culture. As maddening as this is to many, Heidegger remains the dominant figure of twentieth century continental philosophy – and there is no way around him.

Prof. John Caputo

Heidegger’s Black Notebooks are complex documents that have sometimes been characterized simplistically. On the one hand, they extensively critique Nazi ideology, especially its racism, as a form of “machination” (e.g. Gesamtausgabe 96: 56). After the war, Heidegger refers to “Hitler’s criminal madness” (GA 97: 444) and denies he is anti-Semitic (GA 97: 159). On the other hand, several passages do express an ontologized version of conspiracy theories about “world Jewry,” and in the late’30s Heidegger writes that Nazism must be “affirmed” even though it is not a new beginning (GA 95: 408); he may view it as the catastrophe that is required before a rebirth (GA 94: 277). He sees all political alternatives as bankrupt (e.g. GA 95: 406 on democracy), rejects postwar calls for justice (e.g. GA 97: 64), and shows no sympathy for the victims of dictatorship. The Notebooks require us to ask what Heidegger misunderstood about politics and ethics, but also whether there is any truth in his analyses of the metaphysics of political ideologies. It is irresponsible either to become a “Heideggerian” or to reject all his thought in advance. But this has always been the case – as it is for any philosopher.

Prof. Richard Polt

My suspicion is that, fundamentally, the same character flaw that made Heidegger appallingly indifferent to the concerns of his Jewish colleagues and friends – and naive and reckless in publicly associating himself with the Nazis – is also the reason why his core philosophy is not systematically compromised by anti-Semitism. That flaw is that Heidegger did not care about the Jews or their fate. This same indifference underpins, I believe, his readiness to make causal though highfalutin philosophical remarks attacking Jews, as we see in the Black Notebooks. But I say ‘casual’ because of how few and far between these remarks are, for example in the Notebooks’ 1,000-odd pages. If Heidegger had a serious concern about the Jews that he wished to express through his broader philosophical outlook, then it seems to me that he would have devoted much more attention to them than he did, especially in these private reflections in which, according to his brother Fritz at least, “Heidegger is completely himself.” Marcuse wrote to Heidegger in 1947 that, though he “admired [him] as a philosopher”, “we cannot make the separation between Heidegger the philosopher and Heidegger the man.” My suspicion is – of Heidegger the philosopher – that his interest in Judaism and the Jews was marginal compared with his other preoccupations, and that – tragically for him and so many of those around him – the same was true of Heidegger the man.

Prof. Denis McManus

‘Obviously,’ to quote Alan Rickman’s trademark retort as Severus Snape. It’s old news for scholars that Heidegger was a Nazi (if rather swiftly discarded by the Nazis) and it matters that Heidegger was an anti-Semite, as Peter Trawny shows and not less that he was racist, and misogynist, too – in the fashion of professorial womanizers. Condemnation, righteous or not and despite being deeply seductive, takes so much energy that philosophy welters. And we’re compelled to condemn. But to whom are we condemning Heidegger? Snape had Dolores Umbridge – but who disagrees concerning Heidegger? We’ve no patience for hermeneutics or context or really reading the notebooks themselves and the few bits we read are damning. What remains of the thinker? If Heidegger’s philosophy is extraordinary, bashing Heidegger is a hobby horse that drives whole careers. The most durable consequence could echo an older dismissal: “A bad man,” Gilbert Ryle once observed, “can’t be a good philosopher.” Yet from a logical point of view, Ryle’s equation fails: a good philosopher may be liable to political error, anti-Semitism, racism, misogyny. These are things we need to think about.

Prof. Babette Babich

In my view, Heidegger’s ontological critiques of modern subjectivism and late-modern enframing helped establish his work as an uncircumventable critical touchstone of twentieth century ‘continental’ philosophy. And I say this while fully acknowledging that Heidegger deliberately and directly involved himself and his thinking with history’s greatest horror (greatest thus far, at least), thereby rendering his work even more controversial than it would have been anyway. All of us would-be post-Heideggerians need to work through the significance of Heidegger’s deeply troubling Nazism for ourselves, as I have long argued. Indeed, that critical task is new only to those who are new to Heidegger (or who have somehow managed to avoid it by bunkering down in untenable and so increasingly desperate forms of denial). Working through and beyond Heidegger’s politics remains difficult nonetheless because, as I showed in my first book, the most insightful and troubling aspects of Heidegger’s thinking are often closely intertwined. Disentangling them requires both care and understanding, and so a capacity to tolerate ethical as well as philosophical ambiguity (traditional scholarly skills that seem to be growing rare in these days of one-sided outrage and indignation).

Prof. Iain Thomson

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