The Heidegger in All of Us

Whether we like it or not...


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Martin Heidegger was one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century. Heidegger was also a Nazi. He was obsessed with Hitler’s hands (his hands!). I suppose they seemed like the hands of a serious man to Heidegger, the hands of a peasant intellectual. Heidegger liked to dress up in his little Schwarzwald outfit and parade around his university campus as if he were head of the academic SS. He proclaimed the essential greatness of the German people and kicked the Jews out of Freiburg University. He looked out, in 1933, at the triumph of National Socialism and decided that it was good. He wasn’t ambiguous about it either, saying, “The Führer, and he alone, is the present and future of German reality, and its law.” Even in 1943, after the devastating German defeat at Stalingrad, Heidegger could write (in a now infamous lecture on the Ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides) that the defeat tested whether “the Germans are in agreement with the truth of being, if they are strong enough in their readiness for death against the small-mindedness of the modern world in order to rescue the originary in its unpretentiousness.”

After World War II, Heidegger retreated to his hut in the woods. His thinking likewise retreated, becoming an esoteric and poetic musing on the history of Being. He said that only a God can save us now, meaning that the course of contemporary civilization was headed directly for the shitter. He died in that same hut, an exile from the modern world. He never apologized, he never explained. If he had one lament, it was that Nazism never lived up to his hopes.

Every 10 years or so, Heidegger’s Nazism bursts into public consciousness again. Often, this happens with the publication of a book. The most cataclysmic of these bursts was probably the publication of Victor Farías’ Heidegger and Nazism, in 1987. Farías’ book took the Nazi accusations to a new level. Previously, it had been possible to discuss Heidegger’s Nazism as a political misstep, the naïve blunderings of a philosopher trying to deal with the real world. Farías showed that the relationship was far deeper, that Heidegger’s thinking was infected with Nazi thinking and that Heidegger was well aware of that fact. Admirers of Heidegger accused Farías of oversimplifying and conducting a witch hunt. Fancy persons in France wrote elegant essays explaining the importance of Heidegger’s thought and the infinite complexity of the relation between thought and politics.

A boring war raged on for decades. But let us be honest, friends — Farías was more or less correct. Over time, the fact of Heidegger’s Nazism and its integral relationship to his thinking has sunk in. This brings us to the present, and to the English-language publication of Emmanuel Faye’s Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy. If Farías provided the nails to Heidegger’s coffin, Faye has come along in the role of Big Hammer. Carl Romano, in his essay “Heil Heidegger!” in The Chronicle Review, sums up the situation following the publication of Faye’s book with the following:

How many scholarly stakes in the heart will we need before Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), still regarded by some as Germany’s greatest 20th-century philosopher, reaches his final resting place as a prolific, provincial Nazi hack? Overrated in his prime, bizarrely venerated by acolytes even now, the pretentious old Black Forest babbler makes one wonder whether there’s a university-press equivalent of wolfsbane, guaranteed to keep philosophical frauds at a distance.

The coffin is sealed.

Faye’s book throws down the gauntlet, calling for the cancellation of Heidegger’s claim to the status of philosopher and for a moratorium on the proliferation of his works. The cries get louder: Get this Nazi garbage out of the curriculum.

All this makes a person wonder how the dwarfish Hitlerite made it into the curriculum in the first place. Well, it has to do with the history of a movement called Neo-Kantianism and another one called Phenomenology. We’re in Europe now at the end of the 19th century. Modern scientific method is making a good showing for itself and philosophers are trying to match its rigor. Philosophers are trying to be more precise in explaining how human beings perceive the world and, more important, have knowledge about that world. The Neo-Kantians are pretty sure that we have a structure of understanding already in our heads, ready to organize whatever raw data comes at us from “out there.” The world comes to us in sights and sounds and tastes and smells, but we’re able to make sense of it because our minds are hardwired for interpreting what would otherwise be chaos.

This makes basic sense to a young philosopher by the name of Edmund Husserl, but it seems insufficient to him. He doesn’t want to get tripped up thinking about what is “out there.” Once you concentrate on the “out there,” you get tied into all kinds of knots trying to figure out how much our minds are creating that reality and how much they are simply receiving it. Do we see the world as it really is, or only as we make it? Better to bracket the whole question, thought Husserl. Try to examine your consciousness as it perceives an object in the ideal. That got him all excited, because it meant that we could explore consciousness as such in the direct act of contemplating objects as such.

For instance, if we are examining a chair, we put aside much of the contingent information about the chair: that it is considered ugly by our cousin, that it was purchased 15 years ago by Grandma, that it is in a style favored by Louis XV, etc. Instead, we concentrate on its universal properties, the shapes that make it up, its material, the way it stands up. In this bracketed mental exercise, we’ll figure out exactly what is happening when Subjects apprehend Objects without getting all mussed up in the details of specific individuals perceiving specific objects.

If this seems confusing and obscure, you are not alone. Phenomenology never managed to deliver on its promises, which doesn’t seem particularly surprising in hindsight. But it wasn’t crazy to see it as a breakthrough at the time and to be excited by the potential of the new method. The Phenomenologist wanted to give an exhaustive and persuasive explanation as to why we look at one pile of wood and call it a pile and another pile of wood and call it a chair. They wanted to figure out why we understand the world around us without trying. A moment’s reflection will show both that we are easily able to make sense of the world and that it is extremely difficult to explain how and why.

Heidegger, as a young proto-Nazi, was a student of Husserl and an enthusiast about Phenomenology. He liked the way that Phenomenology focused on the specific act of consciousness on the one hand, while trying to get at the essence of the relationship between us and the stuff “out there” on the other. But instead of carrying Husserl’s work forward, Heidegger ended up challenging many of the root assumptions of Phenomenology as Husserl understood it. So, he sallied forth to create a major work using his own version of his teacher’s grand method. This became his most famous book, Being and Time.

Being and Time proposed to tell a grand tale about what it is like to be a human being in the world, over time. It argued that the specific way in which a person encounters the world around them, at a particular moment in history, plays a role in the structure of that person’s understanding. Heidegger was implying that the details Husserl wanted to bracket out were, in fact, essential. The student had betrayed the master, which is only appropriate. Heidegger, being a Nazi sleazeball, added insult to injury by removing the dedication to Husserl from the title page of Being and Time at the behest of his friends in the Party (Husserl was Jewish by family background, though baptized a Lutheran).

Heidegger’s implied critique of Husserl was compelling. In short, Heidegger didn’t have much time for the abstract universalized subject, or the ideal object of Husserl’s analysis. He wanted to take the “time” in Being and Time seriously. This meant dealing with individual human consciousness (Dasein as Heidegger called it) and the fact that it exists in a historical framework. A cathedral is the cathedral it is to a person in the 12th century because of how that person views God, heaven and earth, human sin, etc. The cathedral simply isn’t the same object to, say, an atheist brought up as a Buddhist in 20th-century Burma. The way subjects and objects relate is far more contingent for Heidegger than for Husserl. When you examine human beings as they actually exist in the world, you are able to find out what kind of creatures they are, what makes them what they are. In short, Heidegger came to believe that Husserl’s phenomenological method was abstracting away all the juicy stuff that makes up the world we actually perceive. The world is something we live in. And living in it, thought Heidegger, is as essential a part of our understanding as the formal properties of perception. So, he thought he could do a kind of phenomenology of living in the world.

And here is where the dangerous stuff creeps in. Once you’ve established that human beings understand the world in different ways depending on all kinds of circumstances, you have also opened up the possibility that there are better and worse ways to relate to the world. In Being and Time, for instance, Heidegger argues that since human beings are the sort of creatures that wonder about themselves, that ask the question “What is it to be a human being?” it is more authentic for such human beings to live in a culture that encourages people to think about that question in the deepest way. Heidegger noted that there were two such notable societies, the ancient Greeks and the Germans. And here we can further understand Heidegger’s rather enigmatic attraction to the Nazis. He found the Nazis exciting because he thought that they were encouraging the Germans to think really hard about what it means to be Germans. This encouraged thinking Germans to be human beings at the highest level of being a human being: creatures who constantly question what it means for a human being really to be a human being. His ultimate disappointment with the Nazis was, thus, a disappointment with their ability to pull this off, to make Germany into the great cosmic center of thinking about the Question of Being. In the end, the way Heidegger saw it, the Nazis failed him.

Write Heidegger’s philosophy off all you like, expunge it from the records. But the problem isn’t going to go away. At its heart, the debate between Husserl and Heidegger touches at root issues of how we understand the world and whether that understanding is stable and timeless. Heidegger was not a “relativist” (as the accusation sometimes goes), but he was deeply convinced that human beings are what they are, in the deepest ways, because of the cultures, traditions, and modes of life from which they spring. For those who are convinced that there is deep truth in that insight (and this includes most of us, if we stop and think about it for a moment), Heidegger is our contemporary. His particular take on Phenomenology opened up huge new philosophical possibilities that directly influenced schools of thought like Existentialism, Deconstruction, and Pragmatism. More important, the tentacles of Heidegger’s thinking are part of what set the stage for many of our most trenchant debates about history, culture, and human nature. Heidegger (cue ominous music here) is everywhere. That means the ugliness is everywhere, too. Once you connect “being human” to a certain set of traditions, to a nation or an ethnicity or anything else, the little fascist inside begins to grow. Heidegger’s little fascist was nastier and more virulent than most. Screw him then, throw him to the dogs. I suspect, though, that the little fascist is alive and well in many of us. Heidegger walked down a road that all of us have taken to some degree. The monstrous detour down which Heidegger got lost is not as difficult to stumble upon as we like to pretend. Every time we try to suppress Heidegger, we end up reminding ourselves that he hasn’t gone away. • 2 December 2009