Mickey Moosenhauer
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Mickey Moosenhauer

The incomprehensible philosophical indulgence towards Heidegger

Américo Schvartzman

July 2021

Forty-five years after his death, debates about Martin Heidegger’s contribution to thought are resurfacing. Beyond the controversies, one central fact in his life cannot be ignored: he was part of Nazism from the early days of the Third Reich. Why do his followers forgive him this ‘detail,’ and what might it have to do with his philosophy?

The 45th anniversary of Martin Heidegger’s death has just passed, and for that reason it seems appropriate to return to this German thinker of the last century. For some philosophical currents, Heidegger is the most important philosopher of the 20th century, even so tho this day. This is the line taken by adherents and disseminators such as José Pablo Feinmann and Darío Sztanjrazjber. For other currents Heidegger brought nothing but obscurity to philosophical activity. Bertrand Russell wrote, “Highly eccentric in its terminology, his philosophy is extremely obscure. One cannot help suspecting that language is here running riot.” For Mario Bunge, the renowned thinker who died last year, Heidegger was nothing more than “a charlatan.” On occasions he used harsher terms.

However, both statements — ‘the greatest of thinkers,’ and ‘his philosophy is irrelevant’ — are true: the great impact of Heidegger’s philosophy on certain contemporary currents, such as ‘continental philosophy,’ is undeniable. His influence is visible in Sartre (even though Heidegger himself rejected the relation between their philosophies), in Derrida, in Habermas, in Foucault, and in postmodern thought in general. The popular writer, Byung-Chul Han, author of The Burnout Society, for example, works within a Heideggerian framework.[1]

The opposing statement is true for those who reject postmodern philosophy or are dedicated to specific fields of current philosophy. For example, what influence did Heidegger have on the philosophy of science, or on the philosophy of mind, or on political philosophy, applied ethics, philosophical feminism, materialism or naturalistic philosophies? None. Disparate but relevant thinkers such as Bunge, Daniel Dennet, John Rawls, Gustavo Bueno, Peter Singer, John Searle, Judith Butler, Martha Nussbaum, Jesús Mosterín, Adela Cortina, to name but a few, do not register Heidegger’s work as relevant to their philosophy.

The forgetfulness of being. Why do Heidegger’s supporters stress his continuing importance? Firstly, there is a general consensus in support of his particular reflections on existence and in his critique of a technological [technificada] society, which, according to Heidegger, produces ‘a forgetfulness of Being’ in favor of a mechanistic or technical Knowledge that lacks profound value.

For José Pablo Feinmann, Heidegger is the most important philosopher of the 20th century, even to this day, “his philosophy breaks with philosophies based on a theory of knowledge. Being and Time is an existential book. What Heidegger calls the Dasein, the human being, the ‘being-there,’ is ‘thrown,’ ejected into the world. Heidegger, thereby, completely avoids the schema of the theory of knowledge, the separation between subject of knowledge and object of knowledge. The originality of Heidegger is that he returns philosophy to the question of Being. That is, to ask the question: why is there something and not nothing? […] His important contribution is that he forces the human being to again wonder about Being.”

Hence, according to Feinmann, Heidegger expresses not only a reaction to contemporary philosophy but an opposition to the knowledge produced by science, and prefers to go back to discussing Being… as if nothing had happened between Parmenides and the discovery of the atom. This conservative reaction is a little worrying because, for example, it is attractive to some ecologist tendencies, who believe they find in Heidegger a conceptual reference that perhaps links with the ‘deep ecology’ of thinkers such as Arne Naess. And those who recuperate Heidegger anchor within that [translators note: traditionalist] perspective their explanation (or part of it) for his adherence to Nazism: as humanity distances itself from the soil, from the peasant, from the land, from the ‘natural’ (as if agriculture were not artificial, a human creation and also, in its own way, a technology), there is an annulment of values, of the sense of the human.

Things happened [a recent Argentine phrase meaning something like, What can you do?]. Discussions around Heidegger have long tended to minimise or avoid his joining of the Nazi Party in the early days of Hitler’s government. Nicolas Mavrakis explains this in the context of the period, “the technification of existence was contested by two great powers that were ideologically antagonistic but identically modernising: communism and capitalism,” so it seemed inevitable that the “promises of regeneration of the values of the soil and tradition, of Adolf Hitler’s Nazism, seduced the philosopher as a superior option…”

Yet can there be a more profound absurdity than for someone, a philosopher, to lament the ‘forgetting of being,’ while at the same time discovering as a “superior option” a regime that denies being to other beings, beings of real flesh and blood, who, according to this ideology, do not deserve to be? It would be difficult to find a greater contradiction.

However, Heidegger’s defenders hold two responses to this issue:

1) Heidegger’s adherence to and participation in Nazism was no more than a mistake in the thinker’s life, a minor episode (some suggest it was not ‘out of conviction’ but an ‘opportunism’).

2) That this ‘mistake’ has little to do with his philosophical thought, i.e., that there is no necessary connection between his philosophy and Nazism.

Some, like Darío Sztajnszrajber, argue that Heidegger was beyond politics,[2] absorbed in his reflections on being and on the Greeks and — as Juan Carlos Faraone points out — “even refers to Heidegger’s Nazism by saying that biographically this happened to him, almost as if the biographers were to be castigated for dwelling upon it, and as if the act itself could be downgraded to the category of things that happen.”

But in philosophy one discusses everything, and one must give reasons for one’s assertions. That is why it is important to note that there are numerous studies that refute both responses from Heidegger’s apologists. For example, Tom Rockmore, who acknowledges Heidegger’s influential place in contemporary philosophy, claims that if the relation of his thought to Nazism has not been more widely noted, it is because of a kind of “damage control by his most ardent admirers” (Arendt, Sartre, Marcuse, etc.) which facilitates “a failure to perceive its philosophical significance.”

Rockmore is not alone, there are several authors who show how his Nazism, or his silence, is consistent with his philosophy: Hassan Givsan, Peter Trawny, Donatella di Cesare, Víctor Farías and Nicolás González Varela are some of them.

The indulgence toward Heidegger. It is difficult to understand the indulgence of a large part of the philosophical community towards Heidegger. Those who defend him say, “well, but he didn’t boot anyone out, and besides, he was only in charge of the university for a short time.” But he did not defend those who were persecuted, he did not say a single word against Nazism — on the contrary, in correspondence with some of his followers who asked him to speak out on the subject, he justified his silence with casuistry — and he remained in Germany, working, and a member of the Nazi party until the end of that atrocious experience.

One refutation of the claim that there is no connection between his philosophy and Nazi thought is the speech he gave when he became Rector of the University of Freiburg, three months after Adolf Hitler came to power. Heidegger was already a mature philosopher, almost 50 years old, when he took office, while scientists, philosophers and teachers at the same university were being persecuted.

In that speech, apart from the obscure or frankly incomprehensible expressions — the same ones that characterise the rest of his work, and which led Sartre to read no more than fifty pages in his first attempt to tackle Being and Time, in 1934 — what is clear are the duties (“the links with the essence of the German people”) that he sets for the students — after announcing to them that academic freedom is over — “false freedom that will be replaced by the essence of the German people, which is superior to all and is derived from the Greeks.” The duties are “the bond with the honour and destiny of the nation, which demands readiness for extreme sacrifice… under the service of arms, [and] the bond with the spiritual mission of the German people, which forges its destiny in the manifestation of a superior strength amongst all the world-forming powers [, found in] subjection and obedience to the Reich.”[3]

In other words: goodbye to academic freedom, and you, the young people, to arms and be at the disposal of the Nazi state. Those who argue that Heidegger’s philosophy has no deep connection to Nazism do not know, or do not want to read, this speech.

An irrationalist archetype. Among those who defend Heidegger are many Eurocentrics, and nationalists. And even indigenists, which is quite incomprehensible. Do they not detect that there is nothing more Eurocentric than the idea of ‘being’ as a force that crosses the ages to reach a place — the “being there” — which is nothing other than the German Being, directly connected to the Greek Being, which is superior to all other ‘races’ in its “world-forming powers”?

Heidegger’s aversion to modernity and technology — repeated today by various philosophers, fashionable or not so fashionable — was already seen in his time as an expression of the conservatism that characterised reactionary thinkers of all periods.

For example, Pablo Jacovkis tells us that the journal Minerva — founded and edited by Mario Bunge — published notes on the connection between Heidegger’s thought and Nazism as early as 1944. Isidoro Flaumbaum, in the first issue of that publication, defined him as the intellectual enemy that had to be fought, he was, she wrote, “the irrationalist archetype that symbolized the Nazi intellectual.”

Jacovkis adds: “After the Second World War there was a fairly effective cloak of silence about Heidegger’s past,” which Victor Farias’s 1987 book began to break. But it was only with the publication of Heidegger’s own Black Notebooks in 2015, with its abundant Nazi, racist and anti-Jewish passages, that any doubts were dispelled. Even so, it is not easy to understand the reasons Heidegger’s followers, starting with Hannah Arendt, his pupil and lover, covered up this facet of the German thinker.

Earlier, in 1935, Alejandro Korn denounced Heidegger’s Nazism and ‘cancelled’ him in his own ironic way: “Heidegger merely revives the visions of the mystics who equated being with nothingness… and insinuates time as an absolute and metaphysical principle… [But] this eternal time is difficult to grasp, so Mr Heidegger has decided to conform to the time he is living in and has joined the regime in Germany. And if this is the result of his metaphysical effort, we can declare that it is very poor,” (from his collection, Estudios de filosofía contemporánea).

What more to say? Heideggerians will argue that this short piece is not enough to dismiss a philosopher. To me, on the other hand, it seems to be enough to dismiss a Nazi. No matter how well he may have hidden behind his philosophy.

Américo Schvartzman

Graduate in philosophy and journalist. Member of the journalistic-cultural cooperative El Miércoles, in Entre Ríos, Argentina.

Originally published in Spanish in Perfil, 3rd July 2021.

Translated, with slight edit, by Contrahistorical, approved by Américo Schvartzman.

[1] [Translators note: As does the filmmaker, Terrence Malick.]

[2] [Translator’s note: in 2016/17 Giorgio Agamben responded to a question about the recurring issue of Heidegger’s Nazism with: “These controversies rest on a misunderstanding of the definition of ‘anti-Semitism’ and its use. The way it is used today, this word designates something that has to do with the persecution and the extermination of the Jews. One does not have to use this word in order to describe someone that, even if his opinions about Jews are erroneous, has opinions that have nothing to do with these phenomena.” A year after Heidegger’s death, Agamben dedicated his book Stanzas (1977) to Heidegger’s memory.]

[3] Benedetto Croce said, in 1933: “I have read in full Heidegger’s speech of assumption to the Rectorship, which is unwise and at the same time servile. I do not relish the success his philosophizing will have for a while: the empty and the general always triumphs; but produces nothing.” [Translators note: Croce died before the Heidegger industry properly embarked on its long march through the institutions.]

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