Not Dead Yet? A Response to Critics




I WOULD LIKE TO BEGIN by thanking my five respondents. Thoughtful readings and sharp criticisms grant the occasion for pushing one’s own thinking deeper, even if, in a short reply like this, I cannot do justice to all the points they raise.

Let me start with Andrea Martinez and Alexander Duff, who seem closest to my views of the matter. Martinez is right that at stake is “the absolute value” of a figure such as Heidegger, and I agree with her that “[i]nstead of blacklisting” him, we should face the question openly of how a major thinker could have fallen for fascism. A main point of the initial review was that Heidegger’s Black Notebooks should serve precisely as such an occasion for addressing the questions that confront us most pressingly, not just in the tradition of philosophy, but at this juncture of history — questions about the limits of the West’s Enlightenment project of universal human liberation and the conquest of nature by science and technology. It is these questions that matter the most, not Heidegger the man (much as he might deserve condemnation). “Heidegger,” as the name for a body of work, gives us the occasion to confront these questions, and this can be all the more true to the extent that we can (and I do) disagree with him, because that disagreement helps us understand what is at stake in philosophy and at this historical moment. If not, then the Heidegger affair should not interest us at all, at least as a matter for philosophy.

And so Alexander Duff boldly asks, “What is the standard by which we condemn Heidegger’s anti-Semitism and his racism? Do we have good arguments?” Even to ask such questions may well strike us as dangerous and heretical, because asking them seems to imply that that the answers are not obvious, and that makes us very uncomfortable. But the true danger is when the foundational convictions of our liberal-democratic polities calcify into mere pieties, for then the life leeches out of them and they grow hollow, vulnerable to sudden blows. Only a very blind observer could deny that today the civilization launched by the Enlightenment is staggering, both socio-politically and as a steward of the earth. Heidegger at least has the virtue of exposing us to the tonic of facing up to the nihilism of our age and, in turn, to the task of rejuvenating our principles in response to this assault — if we still can. Again, “Heidegger” should serve as the occasion for addressing these problems. If being a good Heideggerian, as Duff sardonically writes, means never having to say you’re sorry, then to counter him we need to dig deeper into how our civilization can properly take responsibility for itself, both its past and its possible futures.

Gaëtan Pégny and Sidonie Kellerer present the most critical readings of my interpretation of the Notebooks. Pégny writes, “If [Heidegger’s] philosophy still speaks to us today, it must be in the full knowledge of the exact content of Heidegger’s thought.” This does leave open the possibility that there might be a philosophical content to Heidegger, but Pégny thinks I have not fully accounted for how radical a Nazi Heidegger was. While the standard of a “full” and “exact” understanding of Heidegger’s thought strikes me as overly ambitious (about what serious thinker is there universal agreement?), I would agree that we must attempt the best interpretation possible. But then the devil is in the details — and it truly is a devil, because one risks being branded as an apologist if one disagrees with an interpretation that puts Heidegger in a bad, or better yet, the worst possible light. Nevertheless, we must do the best we can to get Heidegger’s Nazism right.

So, I disagree with Pégny’s claim that Heidegger thought National Socialism “must submit to an ‘originary truth’ that is not philosophical”; the quote Pégny supplies as evidence says very explicitly that National Socialism “must always be placed underneath philosophy as a principle” and that Nazism “recognize its [own] limitations,” so Heidegger subordinates the Party to philosophy, his philosophy. Nor in the Notebooks does Heidegger call for “the total submission of knowledge to the service of a new state” (Pégny). There are numerous passages where Heidegger attacks the treatment of knowledge by the Nazi state. For example, he writes: “‘Politicized science’ [a Nazi expression for state-approved research] — one bridles the horse tail first,” and he continues: “If the sciences were truly sciences — they would in the genuine sense be ‘political’ and would have no need for this objective. Nowadays — one does this superficially — in a desperately völkisch-racist way” (GA 94, 191). [1] Pégny argues that Heidegger’s eventual “critique” (he puts it in scare quotes) of Nazism was limited to condemning it as not barbaric enough because it had not ignited a revolution beyond all revolution. While Pégny is correct that this failure to be truly radical was part of Heidegger’s critique, it was not the whole of it, and his evaluation evolved over the 1930s as his disappointment intensified. By the Notebook entries of the mid- to late-1930s, Heidegger berates the actual Nazi movement for becoming yet another manifestation of modernity’s machinating, subjectivist nihilism. [2]. In his more apocalyptic moods, he seems to think that the world will only pass through this nihilism if this failed Nazism will, in its brutality, bring that nihilism to its fullest expression and thereby extinguish both itself and the first inception of history altogether. [3]. This longing for a Götterdämmerung may be grotesquely irresponsible, but it is also not an identification with everything the Party came to represent.

If Pégny counsels extreme caution in treating Heidegger as a philosopher with whom we might safely do business, Sidonie Kellerer wants to put him out of business entirely. Kellerer’s reading is especially complex, so I regret that I cannot address her textual interpretations with as fine-grained an approach as they merit. Her title asks, “Shall we think with Heidegger against Heidegger?” Kellerer’s answer is an emphatic no, because, in part, his views are so repellent, and also because of her understanding of his methodology, one that she has argued employs “a conscious device of writing between the lines,” a deliberately devious and insidious “imposition” that “reduces free judgment” in students and readers. For Kellerer, Heidegger is a dangerous mesmerist, not a philosopher, and she argues that “his best-known texts [presumably Being and Time above all] need to be linked to those only recently published” in order to demonstrate that his entire thought is rotten to the core.

Kellerer believes that such a thinker cannot be a partner in genuine philosophical reflection. Every reader must judge this for themselves, but I would dispute Kellerer’s characterizations of my views as well as some of her readings of Heidegger. For one, Kellerer argues that the fact of “‘how early’ [Heidegger] came to believe in Hitler’s party […] does not come as a surprise in light of recent research” (Kellerer), citing the work of Emmanuel Faye, who has advocated dismissing Heidegger from the ranks of the philosophers and relegating him to Nazi-studies. [4]. Faye cites recollections of a few Heidegger associates that are neither precise nor definitive; the Notebooks now provide testimony from Heidegger himself that corroborates these and dates his option for the Party to 1930.

That date is important, because Kellerer, following the lead of Faye, seems to want to argue that Heidegger was a virulent Nazi avant la lettre, that virtually (and perhaps not just virtually!) everything in Heidegger’s thought is Nazi, root and branch, including the work of the 1920s for which Heidegger is perhaps most famous: Being and Time (1927). To take this line risks slipping into ideological credo, because it can lead to the extreme result that one must show that every argument, every question, even every term and concept that Heidegger deploys is infected with Nazism; otherwise one might have to admit that some fragment of it might be worth engaging philosophically. It seems to me that this is why Kellerer (and Faye, too) confuses Heidegger’s detailed characterizations and condemnations of metaphysical subjectivism, machination, and the will to power as somehow a perverse celebration of those things. [5].

Kellerer argues that I am wrong to assert that whatever his anti‑Semitism had been before he openly joined the Party in 1933, “he must have kept it quite private” (my words); she writes, “several well-documented accounts have established that Heidegger’s anti-Semitism was, from early on, more than mere cultural prejudice.” But this confuses two things: the secretiveness of Heidegger’s anti-Semitism before 1933 and the nature of that anti-Semitism. Even if Heidegger occasionally let his views slip in private, the fact remains that many of his students, including many Jews, were taken by surprise by his actions in 1933, and there is no evidence (granted: yet) that he identified with the Nazi Party before 1930. Neither Faye nor Kellerer have proven to my satisfaction that Being and Time of 1927 was an esoteric Nazi work avant la lettre, or that his students saw it as such at the time, even if they might have thought of him as a cultural conservative who harbored prejudices common throughout Europe at the time. Jews were used to living with such endemic, background noise prejudice, which is not to say that Heidegger’s anti-Semitism did not become virulent by the 1930s. [6]. Kellerer must decide: was Heidegger a master of masks and esoteric writing, biding his time until 1933, or was he an open anti‑Semite whose proto-Nazism was there for all to see? Is it really plausible that his many Jewish students, such as Hannah Arendt, Emmanuel Levinas, Karl Löwith, Herbert Marcuse, and Leo Strauss, none of whom was exactly stupid, were all so hypnotized that they never noticed their mentor was a raving Nazi as early as the 1920s? More to the point, there is no credible textual evidence of such blatant Nazism in Being and Time itself.

At the heart of the difference between Kellerer and myself is her statement that “Fried credits [Heidegger] with having attempted new answers” to the crises facing our age. While of course Heidegger’s answers are critical (after all, as I myself argue, he became a Nazi through his thinking), it is even more important to stress that, at least in my view, philosophy is not only or even primarily about the answers a thinker gives. This problem of the nature of philosophy came between Emmanuel Faye and myself in our exchange four years ago. [7]. Because of the way philosophy has been done for quite some time now, in the form of academic treatises arguing a thesis, we have come to think that such “answers” (a set of propositions put in logical form) are all there is to philosophy. But as Aristotle wrote, “philosophy begins in wonder” (Metaphysics, 982b12): before we can give answers, we must first have questions, and before we can even formulate a question, we must be struck by wonder about something worth articulating as a question. Philosophy is an ever-moving, dialectical triad of wonder-question-answer. To seek an end of questioning, a calming of wonder, in some final answer is to wish the end of philosophy.

As best I can make out, Kellerer, Pégny, and Faye stand on the same political side as I do: we all oppose fascism and defend some version of the hopes of the Enlightenment. The difference is this: while I decidedly reject Heidegger’s political “answers,” I definitely do think that the questions facing us, and what demands a philosophically creative wonder about the profound crises we face, are brought into sharper relief by confronting Heidegger, in his answers as well as in the questions and the wonder that were never his private property. I believe Duff is right: If Pégny, Kellerer and Faye stand for a philosophy that upholds the conception of rationality and the political values of the Enlightenment, they need to do more than assert these as articles of faith against a threat “Heidegger” only represents. Today, we need arguments that engage the crisis we face. [8]. Otherwise, all we have is an auto da fé about what is true and just and rational in the liberal Enlightenment; but such dogmatism will not be enough to save what is worth saving in our civilization. To paraphrase Heidegger, the faith that cannot endure questioning is no faith at all. [9].

Faith brings me to Jordan Hoffman’s provocative reflections. Some quick points first. Hoffman links Heidegger’s hopes for a grand new inception to his “politically and ethically problematic nationalism”; it is true that Heidegger starts out valorizing the German Volk, but the later Notebook entries, as I indicated in the review, show him lamenting a kitschy, völkisch­-racist nationalism that reduces historical belonging to brute biology. Again: this is not to defend Heidegger. The fact that he could envision a Nazism that was not biological-racist should give us great pause, because it points to the fact that fascism can take on many guises. “Fascism” did not begin and end with Mussolini and Hitler; it is a problem born of us, out of modernity and directed at modernity. To defend ourselves from fascism’s new guises, we cannot just spit at what offends us; we must meet it on the battlefield of thought, or we will eventually fall victim to ideological sclerosis.

Secondly, Hoffman cites the case of Wagner, who, like Heidegger, was an anti-Semite and obsessed with the Greeks. Hoffman writes that “Heidegger imagines an ideal [Greek] origin to thinking no more credible than Plato’s ideal realm”; but, while he thought the pre-Socratic Greek thinkers great, Heidegger also thought they had failed to secure the ground for thinking in the first inception and thereby left it to degenerate into metaphysics at the hand of Plato, which is what has led to the rise of nihilism and the necessity of an entirely other inception of history. [10]. As for Wagner, Heidegger despised him. In the Notebooks, Heidegger condemns Wagner and his effect on mass culture, excoriating his swoon-inducing compositions as part of the modern role of art as fulfilling the ever-hungrier cravings for excitement and raw feeling as a distraction from the ever-increasing emptiness of the age. [11]. 

What is really challenging in Hoffman’s comments is his discussion of the “signal event in Judaism” as “the revelation on Mount Sinai.” Hoffman observes, “When the Jews receive the Torah,” the Law, “they are literally rootless.” Even though they have a promised land where they will put down roots, Hoffman suggests (and he is not alone in this) that what has kept the Jews from falling victim to the fate of so many other peoples – to fade away in the churning flux of history – was that their true “homeland is Torah”; their nomadism is held together by God’s revealed Law, both before they founded ancient Israel and after their dispersion by Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem. [12]. Hoffman then asks, “What if, in fact, the ‘ontological Jew’ more accurately reflects reality, that there is no Being but only beings on the move?” 

That is a really good question, because it illuminates what is at stake in the ancient question of Being: is “reality” something eternal and stable or something temporal and in flux, and what does that mean for us? It must be said, though, that Heidegger does not think of Being as the ultimate, stable, “pure” reality enduring beyond historical change. That is the Platonic, metaphysical conception of Being for Heidegger; his Being is what bestows the unfolding meaning of “beings on the move” (Hoffman) in a historically situated but ultimately contingent and fleeting world. So when Hoffman says that “the wandering ontological ‘Jew’ seems a truer description of Dasein [Heidegger’s special term for human existence] than the immobile German,” he misses that precisely what Heidegger despised about Nazi race-thinking was the immobilization of what it means to be historically human into a bio-stuff category. Heidegger wanted the Germans to experience themselves above all as a question mark. If Hoffman is right, then maybe Heidegger was more of a Jew than he realized.

But that’s not right either, because the Jews, as Hoffman points out, have the Torah, the revelation of a God beyond the transient world. Torah is the immanent link to the transcendent divine; if Hoffman is right, it is this immanent-transcendent nexus that has prevented the “wandering Jew” from drifting out of history altogether. Heidegger rejects all such links to the transcendent, whether in Platonism, Judaism, Christianity, or the liberal Enlightenment’s universalism. That rejection, in favor of the radically finite, always questionable belonging of historical life, is what drives Heidegger’s politics, and it is one we cannot ward off with a disapproving wave of the hand, because it pertains to an affliction we face in modernity that is larger than just Heidegger’s expression of it. In anti‑Semitism, the Jews as “the chosen people” get it coming and going: either they are condemned as too immanently particularist, offending against cosmopolitan principles (consider Marx’s critique of Judaism in “On the Jewish Question”), or they are condemned (by Heidegger and many others) as too transcendentally universalist, the avant-garde of a deracinating liberalism.

At stake here is the fate of philosophy itself and the crisis of the West. Hoffman points to the revelation of Torah as the foundation of Judaism, but surely another contender for the origin of God’s choice of the Jews is the story of the Binding of Isaac, when the transcendent God demands the ultimate of Abraham: “Take your son, your only son, whom you love,” and make of him a burnt offering (Genesis 22:2). “Whom you love”: Abraham’s son, his bond to living flesh, to earth, to a rooted Here; that is what the transcendent God asks him to sacrifice. This order is like the Law: it commands with absolute authority. But how would one know that such a command comes from God? Would a God worth obeying ask such a violation of love?

In the Euthyphro, Socrates asks, “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved [by the gods].” [13] I gloss this for my students as follows: “Is what is righteous approved by whatever authority you accept [be it God, the gods, the state, the Party, the Supreme Leader, law, even your subjective self] because it is righteous, or is it righteous because the authority you accept approves it?” The nature of one’s whole civilization depends on the answer: If the first part of that question is your choice, then righteousness is independent of authority, and authority is only legitimate if it conforms with what is righteous, which human reason must find for itself; if the latter part, then the righteous is only discernable through revelation by the ultimate authority, not our autonomous reason: what is righteous could be anything, even the sacrifice of a beloved child. Yet the former answer carries a risk, too: a hubristic over-estimation of what human reason can accomplish. Many years after he had left Germany, one of Heidegger’s Jewish students, Leo Strauss, wrote that “it looks as if the Jewish people were the chosen people in the sense, at least, that the Jewish problem is the most manifest symbol of the human problem as a social or political problem,” and that “[f]inite, relative problems can be solved; infinite, absolute problems cannot be solved.” [14] At stake in the Jewish problem as symbol of the human problem is whether a merely human reason can reconcile the particularity of being rooted to a given tradition, especially one long held together by its connection to the revelation of a super-human divinity, with the aspirations of universal human justice without regard for contingent and exclusive loyalties.

Philosophy is dangerous because, as I have argued in my exchange with Emmanuel Faye, [15] it is the absolute freedom to question, to ask why about anything, including revelation, the “because-I-say-so” of a supposedly unquestionable authority, either divine or secular. Athens put Socrates to death for a reason — from the viewpoint of the city, which had no way to defend the gods and the norms it loved on their own terms as the simple givens of a tradition that would melt under the scrutiny of the Socratic method. Today our beloveds are the principles of liberal autonomy, universal human rights and equality, cosmopolitan good will, and a reason accessible to all and that will serve our dominion over earth and sky. But we are fooling ourselves if we think that these gods are as indisputably true as the rising of the sun in the east. Like any idols, they will rot from the inside if untested and untempered, and one day they will ring hollow and then shatter when our children bang them — as children inevitably do — with the hammer of questions that we have lost the faith to take seriously. That day is dawning soon, and we are not ready for it.

When I was a teacher with Boston University’s Core Curriculum, I heard Elie Wiesel lecture on the Binding of Isaac. The lesson I gathered from Wiesel was that the near-sacrifice of Isaac involved Abraham testing God as much as God testing Abraham: Is this a god that would demand such a thing? Is this then the God that deserves my worship? And in the end this God does not require that Abraham go through with the sacrifice. Wiesel argued that the most important thing about this story is the imperative to question, to be alive to the justice of God as a problem, not a command to be obeyed unthinkingly. Abraham’s God wants us to question, to test Him. That leaves room for philosophy in this transient world: While we live, we must always begin our wanderings rooted somewhere, with the seeming givens of the context we inhabit, but to capitulate to these givens is to abandon the human calling to transcend the given while still preserving and reconstituting it, for we have no other dwelling between earth and sky, between the Here of a beloved contingency and the There of a transcendent judgment. We are given over to the paradox of a situated transcendence, and this paradox is how we can mediate between Being as the eternal and Being as the time-bound specificity of our historical, emplaced belonging. Only by learning to live by negotiating this paradox ever anew may we face down the pathologies of fascism emerging in our time.

¤

Gregory Fried is Professor and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Suffolk University. He is the author of Heidegger’s Polemos: From Being to Politics, and co-translator, with Richard Polt, of several of Heidegger’s works. He is also author, with his father Charles Fried, of Because It Is Wrong: Torture, Privacy and Presidential Power in the Age of Terror, and he is director of the Mirror of Race Project, online at mirrorofrace.org.

[1] There are numerous other such passages; see GA 94: 183, 295, 302, 372, 395, 431, 506, GA 95: 101.

[2] For example, see GA 94: 472, GA 95: 381-2: GA 96, 56.

[3] See GA 95: 406.

[4] See Emmanuel Faye, Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy, trans. Michael B. Smith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), especially 223, 227, 251, 308, 314, 321.

[5] For some passages where Heidegger strikes me as clearly condemning rather than celebrating these, see GA 94: 364-5, 472, 521, GA 95: 148-9, 289, 293, 299-301, 323-4, 394-7, 412, GA 96: 52-7. For the debate on subjectivism between Faye and myself, see Fried, “A Letter to Emmanuel Faye,” 232-4, and Faye, “From Polemos to the Extermination of the Enemy,” 258-9, and “Subjectivity and Race in Heidegger’s Writings.”

[6] On Heidegger’s anti-Semitism, see Gregory Fried, “What Heidegger Was Hiding: Unearthing the Philosopher’s Anti-Semitism,” Foreign Affairs 93:6 (Nov./Dec. 2014), 159-166.

[7] See Gregory Fried, “A Letter to Emmanuel Faye,” and Emmanuel Faye, “From Polemos to the Extermination of the Enemy: Response to the Open Letter of Gregory Fried” and “Subjectivity and Race in Heidegger’s Writings,” Philosophy Today 55:3 (Fall 2011), 219-252, 253-267, and 268-281.

[8] For some of my own efforts along these lines, see Gregory Fried “Heidegger and Gandhi: A Dialogue on Conflict and Enmity,” In The Wake of Conflict: Justice, Responsibility and Reconciliation, Allen Speight and Alice MacLachan, eds. (New York: Springer, 2013); “Heidegger, politics and us: Towards a polemical ethics,” Philosophy and Social Criticism 39:9 (November 2013) 863-75; and “Retrieving phronêsis: Heidegger on the Essence of Politics,” Continental Philosophy Review 47:3 (September 2014): http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11007-014-9305-1.

[9] Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014; revised edition), 8: “[I]f such faith does not continually expose itself to the possibility of unfaith, it is not faith but a convenience.”

[10] See the essays collected in Martin Heidegger, Early Greek Thinking, trans. David Farrell Krell and Frank A. Capuzzi (San Francisco: Harper and Rowe, 1975).

[11] See GA 95: 108-9. 150, 256, 317, 323-4, 333, 383.

[12] For a critical evaluation of Jews and nomadism in Heidegger, see Peter E. Gordon, “Heidegger in purgatory,” in Martin Heidegger, Nature, History, State: 1933-1934, trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (London: Bloomsbury 2013).

[13] Plato, Euthyphro, in Four Texts on Socrates, trans. Thomas G. West and Grace Starry West (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998), 52 (10a).

[14] Leo Strauss, Spinoza’s Critique of Religion (New York: Schocken Books, 1982), 6.

[15] “A Letter to Emmanuel Faye,” 239.

 

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