You do not have to admire a philosopher personally to admire his workby Jonathan Rée / March 12, 2014 / Leave a comment
Martin Heidegger on March 14th 1959 © Flicker René Spitz
The German philosopher Martin Heidegger died nearly 40 years ago, but his work has never stopped making the headlines: not because of his ideas, but because of his association with Nazism. The latest stage of the controversy (well covered here and here by Jonathan Derbyshire) has been occasioned by prepublication hype for an edition of the Schwarzen Hefte, a 1000 page transcript of the little notebooks bound in black covers, in which he jotted down observations for most of his life. According to the pre-publicity, these notebooks show that Heidegger was a deep-dyed anti-Semite, and suggest that no self-respecting thinker should touch him with a bargepole. I can’t say that I agree.
1. In the first place, it’s common knowledge that, as well as being a member of the Nazi party for many years, Heidegger was an anti-Semite. Not a violent one, but the sort of cultural anti-Semite (DH Lawrence, TS Eliot, Ezra Pound) often found in the 1920s and 30s, not only in Germany but throughout Europe and America. For good measure, I guess he was also a womaniser and a male chauvinist pig. The question is whether these facts are a reason for avoiding his works, or whether we can in fact read him without putting our political purity in danger.
I think that those who say that because he was anti-Semitic we should not read his philosophy show a deep ignorance about the whole tradition of writing and reading philosophy. The point about philosophy is not that it offers an anthology of opinions congenial to us, which we can dip into to find illustrations of what you might call greeting card sentiments. Philosophy is about learning to be aware of problems in your own thinking where you might not have suspected them. It offers its readers an intellectual boot camp, where every sentence is a challenge, to be negotiated with care. The greatest philosophers may well be wrong: the point of recognising them as great is not to subordinate yourself to them, but to challenge yourself to work out exactly where they go wrong.
2. In my opinion, Heidegger’s Being and Time, which was first published in 1927, deserves to be read closely, openly, argumentatively, and often. It is a remarkable testimony to the…