Today I was reading an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about Heidegger and his Nazi sympathies. Well, maybe sympathy is too weak a term. The author of the article, Carlin Romano, sides with scholars who say Heidegger’s philosophy is derived from his Nazism, and concludes that Heidegger is too deeply compromised to be taken seriously in academia.
At the end of the article, I was stunned to read this strongly worded assertion: [Heidegger] should be the butt of jokes, not the subject of dissertations.
Ahem. I am certain that my own opinion on how we should approach Heidegger–that the philosopher should not be condemned or ignored for his political views–has been formed by my teachers. My teachers’ views were probably formed by the literature on Heidegger, which, at this point in time, seems to concern itself with his philosophy and excludes most mentions of Nazi ties. I, for one, rarely heard the words “Nazi” and “Heidegger” uttered in the same breath, as those kinds of beliefs belonged to the book-burning zealots.
Right now, though, I am going to take the zealots seriously, and see if what they are proposing is possible.
Some of my smartest and best professors were invested in Heidegger. (I was a literature student, he is valued for theory.) I found myself reading him every few years, and once even had to read about 60 pages of Being and Time. That reading experience nearly killed me, what with all that Dasein, und Sein, und Zeit, chuckle chuckle. Therefore, I can see how this most absurdly obtuse philosopher is “bizarrely venerated by acolytes even now.” And yet Romano doesn’t offer a reason for why academics are so interested in him. One could argue that the ivory tower might show vested interest in something just because it’s difficult, but Romano doesn’t say that. He just calls for us to mock Heidegger’s work into irrelevance. He steers clear of any mention of censorship, but isn’t proposing the gradual elimination of a thinker from our canon proposing de facto censorship?!
It does not occur to Romano that Heidegger is valued because his philosophy is crucial. Romano offers no first-hand analysis of Heidegger’s ideas, or even appears to have a familiarity with his ideas outside of their correlation with Nazism. Instead, he notes that scholars have endowed H with “the revival of ontology,” and a “boost to phenomonology,” then proceeds to snarkily dismiss these claims, saying (in between the comforting shadow of parentheses, where timid ideas live), “Would we not think about things that exist without this ponderous, existentialist Teuton?”
Say I accept the idea that it is impossible to separate Heidegger’s antisemitism and Nazism from his philosophy. Then can not his ideas be reinterpreted? Can they not be separate from the context in which they were first conceived? Certainly, the reading of a text should have some objective grounds, but as a student of literature, I cannot possibly admit that a text has just one meaning, has just one correct reading, has just one context in which it is valuable and correct. The argument about whether or not Heidegger should be considered a legitimate thinker is as much concerned with politics as it is the concept of multiplicity. Clearly, multiple readings of Heidegger exist and are meaningful, as he is a Nazi partisan to some (Romano) and a brilliant ontologist to others.
Say I also accept the idea that Heidegger should be untimely ripped from the syllabi of philosophy and literature classes. Would a real thinker of any stripe declare another thinker–be they Nazi, Republican, Corsican nationalist, penguin’s rights activist, whatever– absolutely unworthy of our study? Regardless of how flimsy and partisan a thinker might appear (and I have already tried to say that Heidegger is anything but flimsy or partisan to many), will this thinker not teach us something about a movement, philosophy, or time?
So let us not authorize censorship! But let us not ignore Heidegger’s Nazi affiliations and ideas either. Let us integrate the two viewpoints: that he is one of the most important 20th century philosophers (if you’re into ontology and phenomenology) and that he was, most unfortunately, a Nazi. We have to figure out how much Nazism informs his philosophy and vice versa, and whether or not that should matter to us today. Even if Heidegger couldn’t manage to separate his philosophy from politics, as some assert, we have to rise above it and attempt that separation ourselves. That process is called thinking; any other approach is base and partisan.
For more information on this subject, you can get a good recent bibliography from the previous linked article, as well as Ron Rosenbaum’s recent article on the topic.