Heil Herr Heidegger?

the controversial philosopher Martin HeideggerIt’s not often that metaphysics makes the news. Metaphysics is about “being” – not “being there”, or “being here”, or “being John Malkovich”. Just being; pure being, no preservatives, no additives, no artificial colouring. Being. Boring.

So it was rather surprising to read in the New York Times that the artillery of political correctness is busy lobbing verbal cannonballs ("oafish", "vulgar", "vicious") upon one of the greatest metaphysicians of the 20th century. Critic Carlin Romano wrote this scathing attack in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

"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."

You have to have a deep and capacious brain to do metaphysics, and in the 20th century, few have been more influential than Martin Heidegger. The late American post-modernist philosopher Richard Rorty wrote that: “You cannot read most of the important philosophers of recent times without taking Heidegger’s thought into account.” Heidegger’s work is as dense as a Blackforest gateau and just as rich. His theories on world building, background coping and the timeliness of philosophy have helped shape post-modernist interpretations of today’s post-Plato, proto-Nietzschean society.

But the real question -- which the New York Times fears to ask -- is this: whose ideas should we fear nowadays? Which philosopher’s ideas justify destruction, violence and murder in our own society?

By no means am I a disciple of Heidegger. But you can learn a lot even from great minds. To me, a great mind asks fundamental questions, like, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ Nowadays philosophers get distracted by peripheral issues or obsessed with minutiae. Heidegger’s great achievement was to remind contemporary philosophers that their vocation is to remind the rest of us that the Big Questions are the ones that matter.

Whether they answer them properly is another matter. Metaphysicians are like musicians. Much as I like the Beatles for some of their piercingly beautiful songs, I have to acknowledge that they had pretty freaky ideas and lifestyles.

The freaky ideas and lifestyle of Martin Heidegger are upsetting the literati quoted by the New York Times. Heidegger had a great intellect but he was a very flawed man.

He grew up as a Catholic, but drifted away from the Church. After he became a well-known philosopher, he was elected Rector of the University of Freiburg in 1933. It was shortly after Hitler came to power and Heidegger quickly joined the Nazi Party. It is undeniable that he admired some elements in the Nazi philosophy, with its emphasis on the decadence of Western culture. It is said that he sometimes showed up at lectures in a brown shirt and saluted students with a "Heil Hitler!" He is often quoted as speaking of the "inner truth and greatness of this movement" -- referring to National Socialism.  Heidegger could be a mean-spirited and nasty man.

How thoroughgoing a Nazi he was, however, is the subject of fierce debate. One critic contends that Heidegger was not so much interested in Nazism as being führer to the Führer, a guide to the leader of the German people. But this was as naive and fated to fail as were Plato’s trips to Syracuse to educate the local tyrant. One point in his favour seems to be that Hannah Arendt, the Jewish philosopher who analysed “the banality of evil” in Nazism was his lover and later defended him as naïve in making a “personal error”.

But Victor Farias’s book Heidegger and Nazism (1991) has argued that Heidegger’s intellectual insights are thoroughly intertwined with National Socialism. Now a new work from France by Emmanuel Faye, Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism Into Philosophy, reaffirms Farias’s view by drawing on Heidegger’s vast unpublished writings.

In the light of this research, a New York Times feature by Patricia Cohen asks whether a Nazi really deserves a place among philosophers. Drawing on Faye’s soon-to-be translated work, Ms Cohen warns us that without an understanding of the soil in which Heidegger’s philosophy is rooted, people may not realize that his ideas can grow in troubling directions. “Heidegger’s dictum to be authentic and free oneself from conventional restraints, for example, can lead to a rejection of morality.” In fact, Faye concludes that:

"an author who has espoused the foundations of Nazism cannot be considered a philosopher… If his writings continue to proliferate without our being able to stop this intrusion of Nazism into human education, how can we not expect them to lead to yet another translation into facts and acts, from which this time humanity might not be able to recover?"
In other words, the long-dead Heidegger is not just an abominable Nazi, but a clear and present danger to youth, even to Western civilisation, whose books should be quarantined -- or perhaps burned. Cohen writes that in Faye’s view “teaching Heidegger’s ideas without disclosing his deep Nazi sympathies is like showing a child a brilliant fireworks display without warning that an ignited rocket can also blow up in someone’s face.” Romano has a better idea: treat him as a joke:
“His influence will end only when they, and the broader world of intellectuals, recognize that ... [he is] a buffoon produced by German philosophy's mystical tradition. He should be the butt of jokes, not the subject of dissertations.”
Steady on. Are these politically-correct writers serious? Do they really believe that German and English skinheads will stop tattooing their noggins with swastikas because they can’t read Heidegger? The likelihood of a youth who reads Heidegger joining a neo-Nazi outfit is near zero. If Heidegger was a Nazi, he is a defanged Nazi.

Ideas do have consequences, admittedly. But the real question -- which the New York Times fears to ask -- is this: whose ideas should we fear nowadays? Which philosopher’s ideas justify destruction, violence and murder in our own society?

Well, actually, there are lots of them. Where do you want me to start?

If we are going to burn books or purge libraries, why not begin with Peter Singer, who has a professorial chair at Princeton, one of America’s most prestigious universities, and writes in the New York Times occasionally. Youths who read his books on animal liberation have become murderous terrorists. Doctors who read them justify abortion and euthanasia.

How about Julian Savulescu, who holds a chair at Oxford, and advocates abortion and do-it-yourself eugenics? How about James Lovelock, who extols nature and calls for more plants and fewer people? These are all dangerous ideas  – and yet the New York Times is happy enough to lionise such people.

No matter how bad Heidegger was as a man, his metaphysics will always hold great value. To my mind Heidegger’s admiration of Nazism should serve as a warning that great intellects can go dangerously astray. Trashing Heidegger’s reputation won’t make us more moral. What will, is a return to a firm foundation for what is good, what is true, and what is beautiful. Heidegger rejected this and ended up in Nazism. Contemporary philosophers reject this and end up in the scariest kind of nihilism. That’s what we have to be afraid of.

Richard Umbers teaches philosophy in Sydney


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