Friday, August 8, 2014

Martin Heidegger and the Nazis

Martin Heidegger's relationship to National Socialism has long been a matter of controversy.  It has lately again come to the fore with the publication in Germany of the "Black Notebooks," the concluding volumes of his complete works.

My acquaintance with Heidegger is long but hardly profound.  When I was an undergraduate philosophy major I wrote a senior "honors thesis" comparing the systems of Heidegger and Alfred North Whitehead.  At a hundred and fifty hand-typed pages it still holds the record for the longest piece I've ever written.  During the summer between my junior and senior years I worked as a surveyor's assistant for a local construction company, ten hour days, five days a week, with evenings free to make my way through Being and Time and Process and Reality.  I honestly, at that time, had no idea that there was any controversy about Heidegger's character or politics.

I have ever since that time retained an interest in his work, and have occasionally dipped into the German Sein und Zeit, which I bought in college (but little consulted, due to my poor German).  I also picked up, over the next few years, a couple of anthologies of Heidegger's shorter works, Holzwege and Wegmarken, which I have also occasionally perused.  This almost-lifelong acquaintance with Heidegger has left me with some small sense of "ownership." I bristle at the possibility of having wasted my time, and I'm therefore probably a little defensive of someone whom I've considered a member of (if I can put it this way) "my team."

I hasten to add that my appreciation of Heidegger never had anything to do with considerations of his life or character.  As best I can judge (and I am obviously an amateur), a case can be made that his books and shorter pieces are the most influential philosophical works of the twentieth century.  I say that as one who admittedly has never been much taken with the English analytic tradition, and who never really learned anything much about the French structuralists and deconstructionists.   Heidegger, apart from his own work, was a mighty impetus to the existentialist philosophers (and existentialist literary figures) of the forties, fifties and sixties.  In theology he had a decisive influence on Bultmann among the Protestants and Rahner among the Catholics.  Himself an atheist, Heidegger offered to an increasingly technical and material world a critique of technology and materialism that, in my view, is more needed now than when formulated.

Nevertheless, there is that Nazi thing.  And a Nazi thing is never a small thing.

Heidegger became the rector of the University of Freiburg shortly after Hitler's rise to power.  He resigned after a year or so, and lived relatively privately in the Black Forest to the end of the war.  During his tenure at Freiburg he made some speeches in enthusiastic support of the new regime.  He also acted against Jewish faculty members, including his old mentor Edmund Husserl.  These kinds of facts came trickling to my attention in the early 1980's.  They were disturbing, but not necessarily damning.  The murderous character of the new regime may not have been so evident in those early years.  Decent Germans arguably had a duty to continue to staff German institutions to prevent their utter subjugation to Nazi policy.  And anyone holding such a position would have to occasionally give a cheer-leading speech for the Führer or enforce increasingly anti-Semitic regulations.  In any case, might it not have been a small act of courage to resign when he did?

Time has not been kind to these rationales.  Heidegger resigned from the rectorship, but not from the party.  And now the publication of the Black Notebooks has, for the first time, revealed the man's thoughts and judgments during the remaining years of the Third Reich.  Some of those who have examined these notebooks have found them black indeed for Heidegger's reputation.

Now at this moment I think we have to say that a verdict has not yet been finally rendered.  The notebooks have not yet been put into English.  I looked on German Amazon and a number of them, volumes ninety-two to ninety-five of the complete works, are available now.  I have neither the time, nor the money, nor the inclination, really, to purchase these volumes and pursue the question.  There are allegations that Heidegger revives the old slanders about the "rootlessness" of the Jews, finding them irredeemably alienated from the authentic sense of Being that grounds the true German.  This chauvinism, allegedly, isn't confined to the Jews.  Similar things are said about the grasping English, the barbarian Russians, the vulgar Americans.  I'm not sure whether this helps him or hurts him.  But it's supposedly not pretty.

But what does one do with this?  These past few years I have run across articles and book reviews calling, essentially, for the shunning of Heidegger.  Isn't Nazi party membership alone enough to ban him from the high company of philosophy?  I've read arguments that the young ought not to be exposed to him, that his philosophy, if it co-existed with Nazism, must be tainted at its root.  I've never given these calls for expulsion much credence.  But now they are back, with new support.

My own view is that these late concerns about Heidegger's philosophy (as opposed to his own personal fault) suggest that the philosophical content of his work itself can't be fairly tagged as Nazi or anti-Semitic, at least the work that made his reputation and is at the heart of his influence.  It's one thing to read some of Heidegger's later disturbing comments and find suggestions of them in his earlier work.  In a body of writing so vast and impenetrable it wouldn't be difficult to make such a case.  But I don't think that anyone did or could imply Nazi or anti-Semitic propositions from Sein und Zeit when it was originally published in 1926.  Those intimations have by and large only been seen in retrospect.

Any body of teaching can be corrupted or appealed to for different ends.  Karl Popper famously saw Plato's philosophy as the germ of modern totalitarianism.  The use of religious doctrine to justify persecution and violent conflict is of course too well known.  Whatever the flaws in Marx's work, it's doubtful that he foresaw, or would recognize, the use to which Stalin or Mao Tze-Tung put it.  The development of ideas is rarely predictable.

Any proposed removal of Heidegger from the "canon"--even if that were actually possible--would obviously leave an enormous gap in the intellectual history of the twentieth century.  There will undoubtedly continue to be research and advocacy on the relationship between Heidegger's life, politics and philosophical work.  He will continue to have defenders and adversaries.  My attitude that is that these controversies, proper as they are to a certain sphere, do not essentially touch his work.  At most, if the worst allegations are proven, they will establish that the ideas alone were not sufficient to override any prevailing darker tendencies.  But this we really know already, from the distance between ourselves and whatever ideas and ideals which we profess.

Last year I started reading Sein and Zeit in German, and I got about fifty pages into it.  I put it aside for reasons I don't remember, and I may pick it up again later.  If some of my thoughts on it make their way here,  objections based on Heidegger's compromised character will probably not enter into it.  I'm aware of the problems, and I hope I've taken them seriously.  But, in this instance, I think the dance can actually be distinguished from the dancer.


Anonymous said...

Maybe you need to find a brilliant woman philosopher to read and follow -

rick allen said...

Maybe I not only followed one, but married one, "Anonymous." : )

[Note to self: possible blog post on not telling your family about your blog]