Wrestling with Heidegger

Heidegger is one of the most towering forces in 20th Century philosophy, but also one of the most controversial. A member of the Nazi party, he pushed out his teacher, and a Jewish man, Edmund Husserl. He also had a sexual relationship with his student and Jewish woman, Hannah Arendt. Yet. especially with the recent emergence of his so-called Black Notebooks (black for their color, not for their content), the question of Heidegger’s Nazism and anti-semitism has returned again, as it always does, in a way that the bigotries of other philosophers don’t bedevil them. To some extent, to not rake early 20th Century Anglo-American philosophy over the coals for its racism and eugenicist ideas or particularly Gottlob Frege, who in his diaries admired Hitler and was more vitriolic in his antisemitism than Heidegger. But Frege wasn’t a Nazi and reckoning with the history of racism in analytic philosophy is really besides the point to Heidegger’s legacy. As an actual Nazi, Heidegger immediately calls attention to himself as implicated in a deep complicity with monsters from which he never recanted despite the better efforts of Arendt and his other students who still championed his legacy.

What is Heideggerianism, though? Is it just a commentary on Nietzsche with notes he cribbed from Kierkegaard? Well, he plagiarized Kierkegaard for things like being-toward-death and much of the idea of Being he instates, but at the same time Heidegger does something particular throughout Being and Time and his later essays. The question becomes whether his antisemitism or Nazism are necessary to his philosophical legacy in such a way we should discount him. He is a fascist in his philosophy. I’m not going to obfuscate that fact. His work positions the Volk as fairly explicitly the German people, inheritors to the Greek legacy of Sein, or Being, which is their right. Heidegger’s philosophy, though, isn’t explicitly in itself not able to be decontextualized from the man who said “The African has no dasein.”

His philosophy, despite or because of the complexities and doublethink of Heidegger the man, remains rich and always will be rich. If only for his importance to the interpretation of Edmund Husserl and later 20th Century Continental thought, Heidegger is indispensable from the history of philosophy in a way that is uniquely his. His synthesis of Kantian, Nietzschean, Husserlian, and Kierkegaardian thought is a unique legacy. Phenomenology and ontology must go through Heidegger necessarily. Whether later concepts like the fourfold between earth, sky, divinities, and mortals, his conception of the language, and the idea of dwelling, or earlier ideas like the phenomenology of hammering, mitsein and being with others, or authenticity, Heidegger is loaded with philosophical provocation which has been responded to and influenced later thinkers in a way that’s fairly unique. Sartre won’t have Heidegger’s legacy, nor Camus or Merleau-Ponty. The only other Continental of that period I could see arguing will is Simone de Beauvoir with her legacies of existential ethics and the deconstruction of gender in feminism.

We cannot use his legacy to forgive Heidegger, though. He was an antisemite, a racist, and a fascist in ways that aren’t simply forgivable because of his importance. It would be a fool’s mistake to argue we should simply ignore Heidegger’s personal politics as it is with any thinker. Heidegger was hateful even for his time. We cannot and should not ever try to divorce from him how he treated the people around him. But it just means wrestling with complexity. Never settle for a simple understanding of philosophy. Heidegger is the example par excellence of someone we cannot, and should not, ever lose the horror and admiration of.

Heidegger cannot be dispensed with with any ease. He is foundational. We must only learn to navigate his fraught legacy to be properly respectful of how complicated it is. Only a coward runs from dealing with someone as bigoted as Heidegger as anything but the antisemite and racist he was. We cannot explain him away or ignore the person that he was.