One of the distinctive features of French intellectual life in the post-war period has been the influence of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). Heidegger’s standing among French philosophers, especially those working in the phenomenological tradition (who are more numerous in France than anywhere else in Europe, let alone the Anglophone world), contrasts dramatically with his reputation in the country of his birth, where his legacy is tainted irredeemably by his political compromises with National Socialism in the 1930s.
The precise nature and extent of those compromises remain a matter of controversy—not least in France, where the murky subject of Heidegger’s political affiliations convulses the intellectual class roughly once a decade. Last week, Nicolas Weill, a journalist at Le Monde, wrote on his blog that the latest volume of Heidegger’s complete works (the Gesamtausgabe), which will be published in Germany in March next year, promises a definitive answer to the question whether “Heidegger was an intellectual led astray by a temporary will to power or whether his political itinerary reflects a more profound tendency”.
Eric Aeschimann, writing in Le Nouvel Observateur, reports that Heidegger’s Schwarzen Hefte (“Black Notebooks”) will trouble even the most faithful of his acolytes in France. It appears that the German editor of the notebooks, Peter Trawny, has written an essay entitled “Heidegger: ‘The Black Notebooks’ and Historial Antisemitism” (“historial” being one of those neologisms of which Heidegger, and Heideggerians, were and are fond) in which he argues that these manuscripts, written between 1931 and 1946, contain ideas that are “clearly antisemitic, even if it is not a question of antisemitism of the kind promoted by Nazi ideology.” One of Heidegger’s French translators, Hadrien France-Lanord, has read Trawny’s essay and has pronounced himself dismayed by many of the extracts from the notebooks that it contains. We are, Aeschimann writes, on the verge of another “Heidegger affair”.
The last time the question of Heidegger’s politics became a matter of public debate in France was in June 2005, when a number of eminent philosophers and historians wrote an open letter to Le Monde expressing their support for Emmanuel Faye, whose book about Heidegger, Heidegger – L’introduction du nazisme dans la philosophie, had attracted a considerable amount of favourable press coverage. The signatories (including Jacques Bouveresse, Pierre Vidal-Naquet and Serge Klarsfeld) denounced the attempt by those they described…