Thursday, September 15, 2011

Levinas on Heidegger and Nazism

Can we be assured, however, that there was never any echo of Evil in it? The diabolical is not limited to the wickedness popular wisdom ascribes to it and whose malice, based on guile, is familiar and predictable in an adult culture. The diabolical is endowed with intelligence and enters where it will. To reject it, it is first necessary to refute it. Intellectual effort is needed to recognize it. Who can boast of having done so? Say what you will, the diabolical gives food for thought.

Emmanuel Levinas, in his essay, "As If Consenting to Horror," which can be found in Critical Inquiry, Vol 15, No 2 (as translated by Paula Wissing). Prior to the Second World War, Levinas was one of the most important interpreters of Heidegger in France. Interested in phenomenology, he had gone to meet Husserl, and in so doing took a course by Heidegger, and was bowled over by him -- very impressed. Being and Time, which he considered an extraordinary philosophical work to the end of his life (but which he is speaking of in the quotation above), completely changed his view of the world. News of Heidegger's joining of the Nazi Party in 1933 left him thoroughly stunned, and it may well be this that led the Jewish philosopher to develop his own original work; some have argued that it did so be leading Levinas to regard Heidegger's work as in a fundamental way anti-anti-pagan -- and thus anti-Jewish in this indirect sense, Judaism being anti-paganism in its purest historical form. Levinas seems to have felt guilt at times, or at least embarrassment, for not recognizing, in his enthusiasm for Heidegger, even the possibility of Heidegger's commitment to a cause like the Nazi cause.

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