Heidegger and the Nazism Debate

An ongoing and contentious issue in the academic community

Heidegger and Sensationalism

Is Emmanuel Faye really au fait? The recent publication of his book, Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy, has courted notable controversy since reaching the shelves. It was praised by some as a welcome revaluation of a problematic twentieth-century philosopher, and derided by others as a sensationalist marketing gimmick. So what are we to make of it?

Pierre Joris observed that media responses 'wallow[ed] in re-retreaded Heidegger discussions' originally sparked by Victor Farias' Heidegger and Nazism in the late 1980s. And, tired of journalistic cliché, he takes a refreshing grass roots approach. Joris suggests that reactionary protests should not prompt a censorship of the shelves, but rather an urgent and critical re-reading of the work.

Max Dunbar's recent review of Faye's book for 3:AM Magazine is clear in its sympathies. But while Dunbar offers a generous appraisal of Faye's central arguments, he resists a close examination of their research credentials or validity. There is no questioning of Faye's legitimacy, nor is there a critical engagement with his arguments. A notable omission, not least considering the contentious position Faye holds in the wider academic community.

In an interesting article from Leiter Reports, Heidegger scholar Iain Thomson recounts Faye's struggle to find a publisher for the work:
It took Faye's supporters a long time to get this book published in English, because it was rejected by unbiased scholars as the irresponsible hatchet job that it is. (It has been almost universally panned in France.) Faye's book concludes by calling for the criminalization of the teaching of Heidegger -- not exactly a resounding defense of freedom of discussion! (Dare we say, closer to the fascism Faye confidently denounces?!) Faye's book begins, worse, by quoting from my book (Heidegger on Ontotheology: Technology and the Politics of Education), in a totally reductive and misleading way. I'm embarrassed to be mentioned in it. The whole thing is a tissue of mostly already well-known details plus tendentious guilt-by-association attacks.

Iain Thomson
quoted in Leiter Reports
Patricia Cohen of the New York Times finds a key contradiction in Faye's book, pointing out that while he insists on the
connection between Heidegger and current right-wing extremist politics, left-wing intellectuals have more frequently been inspired by his ideas. Existentialism and postmodernism as well as attendant attacks on colonialism, atomic weapons, ecological ruin and universal notions of morality are all based on his critique of the Western cultural tradition and reason.

The problem of Heidegger and Nazism

It's important to remember that no one is dismissing Heidegger's affiliation with National Socialism. In a series of articles on Heidegger's Being and Time for The Guardian website, Simon Critchley poses the question of Nazism as an irreducible element that persists in contemporary scholarship. In Critchley's words, the question 'hangs over the text' of Being and Time as an issue all serious readers must consider. But it is important to mark a distinction: the question can only be considered by readers of the work itself, and not those who speculate from a distance:
[Because] of his political commitment to National Socialism in 1933, when he assumed the position of Rector of Freiburg University in south-western Germany, Heidegger continues to arouse controversy, polemic and much heated misunderstanding.

The hugely important matter of the relation between Heidegger and politics is the topic for another series of blogs entries. Indeed, to my mind, the nature and extent of Heidegger's involvement in National Socialism only becomes philosophically pertinent once one has begun to understand and feel the persuasive power of what takes place in his written work, especially Being and Time.

The task I have set myself in this series of blogs is to provide a taste of the latter book and hopefully some motivation to read it further and study it more deeply. But once you have read Being and Time and hopefully been compelled by it, then the question that hangs over the text, like the sword of Damocles, is the following: how could arguably the greatest philosopher of the 20th century also have been a Nazi? What does his political commitment to National Socialism, however long or short it lasted, suggest about the nature of philosophy and its risks and dangers when stepping into the political realm? [Read the article]

Jewish philosopher Jacques Derrida addresses the problem of Heidegger's Nazism in his work, Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question. Auschwitz survivor and poet Paul Celan has also engaged with the troubling political perspectives held by Heidegger during the Second World War. Both philosopher and artist held deep reservations about Heidegger's political connections, but were keen to credit the insight of his work. In an interview, collected in Positions, Derrida admits that without Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger he would not have said a single word.

Heidegger's relevance to Western Philosophy

It is difficult to underestimate the value and importance of Heidegger's work to contemporary Western philosophy. The astute critic George Steiner offers a useful examination of the most common reactionary arguments, and is quick to admit the flaws of Heidegger and his critics alike:
Anti-Heideggerians have proclaimed flatly that the tenebrous, finally indecipherable ontology of Sein und Zeit [Being and Time] has been exposed once and for all by the root incapacity of Heidegger to 'think Auschwitz', to see in what ways the bestiality of Nazism can be situated in a rational understanding of social and political history. Heidegger's silence after 1945 would, in essence, deconstruct the claims of his philosophy to any serious insights into the human condition and into the relations between consciousness and action. A more qualified view is that which bears on Heidegger's Kehre, the arguable 'turn' from the ontology of Being and Time to the evacuation of man from thought, from speech, from art and the interplay of 'the earth and the gods' in his later works. In the pure. cold light of that reading of essence, political history, even of an apocalyptic tenor, would, strictly regarded, be immaterial, be extraneous to any rigorous 'thinking of Being'. More subtly, proponents of Heidegger have advanced the idea that the technology of the Nazi extermination-process, of the Soviet Gulag, of the nuclear armaments, emphatically fulfills Heidegger's prophetic analysis of the - nihilistic - technocratic decay of man's present-in-the-world. Heidegger had been too right. For him to say so in the post-war climate was sheerly impossible. Any validating self-citation would have been more scandalous than silence. Chillingly, Lyotard, in his Heidegger et les 'juifs' [Heidegger and the Jews] (1988), suggests that Auschwitz enacted, to a supreme degree, that 'forgetting of Being' which lies at the heart of Heidegger's analysis of Western history and consciousness. Within that dominant context, the 'forgetting of the Jews' (annihilation being a final tautology for non-remembrance) would have been the perfectly logical, foreseeable product. Heidegger did not need to articulate that terrible truth which, to the perceptive reader, was wholly latent in his phenomenology of the existential.

George Steiner, 'Heidegger: in 1992'
Steiner suggests there is a distinction to be made between the man and the work. He concludes that Heidegger's philosophical interests were invested in epistemology, phenomenology and ontology, but never make pretense towards ethics or moral conduct. For Steiner, Heideggerian philosophy is both rigorous and compelling, and while the absence of an ethical philosophy is not a failure of the work, it might be read as a failure of the man:
Heideggerian thought is prodigal of epistemological, phenomenological aesthetic insights. It invites a revaluation of certain aspects of Aristotelian and Scholastic logic and rhetoric. It is, self-professedly, the most comprehensive argument we have on ontology, on the factivity of the existential. But it neither contains nor implies any ethics. Heidegger was, himself, peremptory on this point. He wholly repudiated attempts, notably by the Marburg theologians and by certain humanist-existentialists in France, to derive any ethical principles or methodologies from his works. He defined ethics such, for example, as we find them in Kant and such as we can legitimately infer them from Hegelian historicism, as being altogether extrinsic to his own strictly ontological enterprise. The 'thinking of Being' is of an order totally other than the prescriptive, normative, or heuristic 'thinking of conduct'. In the massive, reiterative body of Heidegger's writings, the signal absence is very precisely that of the concept of evil (except in so far as we may construe the spoliation of the natural world to constitute a radical negativity). Far beyond Nietzsche, Heidegger thinks, feels in categories outside good and evil. Heidegger's precept and image whereby death is a 'shrine' n which Being is most nakedly, most epiphanically present, categorically sublates (the dialectical Aufhebung) the problem of good and evil as this problem attaches to metaphysics in traditional systems of thought. Had Heidegger sought the understanding of the evil of Nazism and of his role therein, had he striven to 'think Auschwitz' at anything near the requisite depth (and what philosopher has done so?), the domain of the ethical would have been indispensable. It is, I venture, this domain which he had, in his renunciation of theology, excluded, and that exclusion crippled his humanity.

George Steiner, 'Heidegger: in 1992'
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