What to Do with Nazi Philosophers

A book calling to purge German philosopher Martin Heidegger from the canon gets intellectuals all fired up

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Barring the once-a-century iron poker fight, philosophy usually isn't much of a spectator sport. But a new book about German philosopher Martin Heidegger--Third Reich supporter occupied with problems of "being" and human existence--is proving to be an exception. The Wire already covered one rant on the subject. At the heart of the matter is author Emmanuel Faye's argument that "fascist and racist ideas are so woven into the fabric of Heidegger's theories that they no longer deserve to be called philosophy," as the The New York Times summarizes.

Heidegger's Nazi sympathies are well known, but Faye's book has fired up debate over a big question: if a thinker has distasteful views in one area, does that irrevocably taint his work as a whole? Here's the breakdown:

Toss Heidegger Out:

  • You Can't Separate Man and Philosophy in This Case  Ron Rosenbaum at Slate says that, while he's generally "in favor of separating the man (or woman) from the work ... it was Heidegger himself, his defenders don't seem to recognize, who claimed Nazism for his own. He didn't make the separation between man and philosophy that they conveniently claim to excuse his personal racism."
  • Call a Hack a Hack  "How many scholarly stakes in the heart," asks Carlin Romano, "will we need before Martin Heidegger ... still regard by some as Germany's greatest 20th-century philosopher, reaches his final resting place as a prolific, provincial Nazi hack?" Romano summarizes and appears to approve of Emmanuel Faye's new book on Heidegger: "Faye ... essentially calls on publishers to stop churning out Heidegger volumes as they would sensibly desist from hate speech. Similarly, he hopes librarians will not stock Heidegger's continuing Gesamtausgabe." Faye breaks with tradition, argues Romano, by suggesting not that "Heidegger's Nazism stemmed directly from his philosophy, bu t that his "philosophy grew out of his Nazism, forcing us to see it as a kind of philosophical propaganda for Nazism in a different key."

Keep Him

  • A Rather Shortsighted Argument  Steven Menashi at The American Scene doesn't buy Rosenbaum's argument that "Heidegger's thought led him to Nazism, and you can't separate the man from the work." Heidegger's proposal that "all thinking is done by a thinking human being, rooted in a particular time," remains an important one, argues Menashi, even though "it's no surprise" that such a view, accompanied by the thought that "an authentic person confronts his own mortality ... could lead Heidegger to throw himself mindlessly--without reference to a greater code of good or evil--into whatever around him seemed to promise vitality." Rosenbaum, explains Menashi, "thinks evil is evil. We can identify it in people and its root in ideas, and hold the former accountable and the latter in contempt." But that's too simplistic:
That an author consulted disreputable sources does not mean her argument is ipso facto invalid. That an idea led to disastrous political results does not mean it has been discredited. Because these arguments are so closely tied to the possibility of evil, it makes sense to engage them in a serious way.
  • Heidegger's System Was Flawed, Not Fascist  John Holbo, an assistant professor philosophy, argues that it is "flatly preposterous to say that Heideggerian philosophy is fascist." The problem is more subtle: "It’s just that the Heideggerian immune system, so to speak, is particularly bad at fighting off something like fascism. That’s not what it’s built to do. Which is a very bad thing."
  • An Evil Philosopher Is Still a Philosopher National Review's Jonah Goldberg thinks there's no question Heidegger was tied up with Nazism; in fact, he enjoys watching Heidegger specialists "who also believe in their bones that they are in some deep and fundamental sense in the vanguard in the fight against Nazism, explain the contradiction." But he questions Faye's and Romano's position that such a Nazi sympathizer "cannot be considered a philosopher."  This is "absurd," says Goldberg: "Can philosophers not be evil? Can they not have political allegiances and sympathies? ... I have no doubt there are a lot of dull and impenetrable books attempting to define what a philosopher is. But I'm hard pressed to imagine any definition that could plausibly exclude Heidegger from that job description."
  • Eviscerating the Anti-Heidegger Crusaders  Freddie at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen baldly accuses an array of journalists harping on fascism--including Ron Rosenbaum, Anne Applebaum, Christopher Hitchens, and Clive James--of intellectual laziness:
If you can't generate gravity through the usual methods of intellectual and moral responsibility, then you can just grab hold of some of the saddest and most terrible moments of human history ... and the only cost is that you are reducing human loss to fuel for careerism ... They are the Anti-Fascist Super Heroes. They are angry, they are vocal, they are insistent, and they are proud, proud, proud--proud of a fight in which they do no actual fighting, proud of a fight in which their safety was a given and in which their victory, as they argue against an ideology no one is defending, is assured ... [W]hat undergirds all of these narratives ... is ... the embittered jealousy of writers and thinkers who are vastly more accomplished and successful than they are ... [W]here I’'m from, we don't harp on opposition to fascism because we think such opposition is a given ... [W]e don't pretend that we can stake a claim to virtue by trodding on the reputations of long dead predecessors. The stand against Nazism and all fascism is our duty, but ... [t]he reduction of that duty to grist for the mill of professional ambition dulls its edge and trivializes one of our most important political responsibilities.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.