In defence of Heidegger

You do not have to admire a philosopher personally to admire his work

March 12, 2014
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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 kind of uncompromising intellectual scrupulousness that philosophy ought to aspire to, and as such it bears comparison with the finest works of, say, Spinoza, Kant, and Wittgenstein. For myself, I would say that if I have managed to think any fresh thoughts in a lifetime of philosophising, I owe it in large part to the time I have spent in the intellectual company of Heidegger. It’s hard to extract a take-away message from Being and Time, but if I had to, I might offer the following: (a) It is an exploration of the ways in which every human life is lived in the light of traditions passed down from earlier generations (especially traditions of language, poetry, and thinking). (b) It argues that a tradition is not something that we passively inherit, but something that we must actively adopt and interpret for ourselves. (c) It maintains that the biggest threat to our well-being is thoughtlessness, specifically the thoughtlessness associated with “modernity” and “metaphysics.” (d) One aspect of this thoughtlessness is that it makes us misunderstand our own historicity, and to underestimate the ways in which our lives are moulded by the traditions we adopt. 3. As for the hullaballoo over the Schwarzen Hefte. In the first place it seems to me a remarkable piece of publicity-seeking on the part of the publisher, who hints that we may at last find the black heart of anti-Semitism that beats in every sentence Heidegger wrote. That would of course be very gratifying to people who want an excuse for not taking Heidegger seriously, but it seems to me—from the few leaked passages I have seen, dating from 1938-9—that if Heidegger is on trial for vicious anti-Semitism, then the newly published notebooks make a case for the defence rather than the prosecution. One of the most striking things about them is that they show Heidegger explicitly treating Faschismus and Bolschewismus as two sides of the same coin: namely the imperious dehumanising movement of western modernity. Or as he puts it, echoing other writings of his from the 30s, it’s about the ravages wreaked by modernity in the form of Machenschaft (manipulative power, manipulative domination) – Machenschaft being Heidegger’s term for a peculiar form of power (cf Michel Foucault) that dominates not through outward violence but through cunning infiltration and incorporation of the powerless. Heidegger also offers some suggestions about where Judaism fits in amongst other traditions. These suggestions operate in a world quite at odds with the quantitative and genealogical notions that drove Nazi racial legislation, which of course from Heidegger’s point of view could only be seen as an expression of the impoverished culture of Machenschaft. One of his arguments is that Judaism, like Bolshevism and Fascism, participates in the corrosive calculative culture of modernity, even though it goes back thousands of years. But his main point is that Judaism is structurally different from the kind of nationalism that came into existence in the 19th century: the nationalism of the suffering motherland as you might call it—Russian or German nationalism, or for that matter Irish or Scots or English or French. That strikes me as a reasonable piece of conceptual analysis, and not intrinsically anti-Semitic. If the Heidegger-bashers were hoping that the Schwarzen Hefte would expose the old man in flagrante, indulging in some mindless Nazi rant, they are going to be disappointed. The notebooks remind us that he was anti-Semitic, but they also remind us that he was anti-everything-else, including fascism and every other facet of modernity. But above all they remind us that however nasty he may have been, he never stopped thinking—restlessly, subversively, fearlessly thinking. Like the best of what Heidegger wrote—indeed the best of philosophy in general – they are full of sharp observations: observations that we should respond to not as opinions we might like to fall in with, but as incentives to think again, and to think more thoughtfully.