On Heidegger’s Anti-Semitism

A couple days ago, I posted a confused series of tweets on the revelation of Heidegger’s anti-Semitism in the recently published “black notebooks.” It was exceptionally unwise to attempt to address this issue in that format, and so I thought I would try to post some more coherent reflections here.

I’m not one who is inclined to explain away Heidegger’s reactionary views in general. Even some of his greatest works, like The Origin of the Work of Art, clearly include proto-fascist elements. I’ve never been convinced that he joined the Nazi party out of mere conformism — it’s clear that he had very firm ideas about how to reform the German university and jumped at the chance that (he thought) the Nazis offered him to carry out those reforms.

What makes me suspicious about the furor surrounding the notebooks is the notion that they are a decisive revelation of some kind. The remarks in his notebooks may be uglier and less guarded than we would anticipate, but it cannot possibly be a surprise that a provincial Roman Catholic with reactionary views (including a distrust of the rootlessness of modern society), views that made him very comfortable with Nazi affiliation and unwilling to unambiguously renounce it later in life, would also be personally anti-Semitic.

There are of course very serious questions to ask about Heidegger’s politics in relation to his thought, but the most creative and influential interpreters of Heidegger’s works have always been asking those questions. Aside from people who are pure expositors, there is literally no one in the post-Heideggerian tradition who has taken over Heidegger’s views wholesale — indeed, it would be more accurate to view the post-Heideggerian tradition as a tradition of critiques of Heidegger than as a mere continuation of Heidegger’s project. I don’t think anyone can claim that Derrida, for instance, accidentally imbibed fascist principles in the course of his deconstruction of Heidegger’s project.

And here we come to the contemporary political stakes. I understand that journalism by its very nature seeks out newness and exaggerates its importance when it finds it. Even taking that into account, however, I can’t help but see the coverage of these notebooks as part of a broader trend in the English-speaking world of trying to use Heidegger’s disastrous political commitments as a way to discredit continental philosophy and literary theory. In short, the ongoing journalistic “controversy” over Heidegger’s politics is part of the broader culture war polemic against “postmodernism.” And the irony is that the culture warriors who have such an eagle eye for the Nazi influences of their opponents invariably advocate for nihilistic militarism and simplistic nationalism every chance they get — without offering us anything close to the creativity and fruitfulness of Heidegger’s radical reworking of phenomenology and innovative rereading of the history of philosophy.

5 thoughts on “On Heidegger’s Anti-Semitism

  1. I agree. Without having read the new notebooks but only seeing the few quotes Guardian cited, so far it doesn’t look like there’s anything all that shocking here, at least not if you’re familiar with the “Why Do We Stay in the Provinces?” text from 1927, for example, or even if you’re only aware of things like Heidegger’s shameful treatment of Husserl.

    What’s really annoying, and a sign of profound anti-intellectualism — one by no means just confined to the journalistic profession, but common in academia too — is the implication that a morally compromised or unsavory figure for that reason cannot be an essential thinker, whose thought has to be taken into account regardless of whether one wishes to continue his project.

  2. “I don’t think anyone can claim that Derrida, for instance, accidentally imbibed fascist principles in the course of his deconstruction of Heidegger’s project.” Emmanuel Faye did much worst in his recent libelle against Derrida titled ‘Lettre sur Derrida: Combat au-dessus du vide’ (2013). He argued that fascist principles were purposefully introduced in France, via the Collège international de philosophie, through the use of the word “deconstruction”. The book’s simplistic argument was promptly condemned in France by more serious interpreters of Heidegger’s work.

  3. So has Carlin Romano written something embarrassingly sophomoric and smug about this yet? I just want to know what it’s called so I can be sure to unfriend whoever shares it on my soc. media feeds without having to accidentally click on it first.

  4. Well said. The presence of anti-Semitic and Nazi-sympathizing strains of thought in Heidegger is no surprise, and you are correct that it always seems to be a subterfuge to bash Continental philosophy.

Comments are closed.