Sunday, July 27, 2014

Heidegger and Nazism Again

Michael Marder throws yet another lob in the continual dispute over Heidegger's Nazism:

As a Jew, who suffered from anti-Semitic discrimination in the final years of the Soviet Union, I am weary of the contemporary manifestations of this hateful ideology. But I also find irksome the attempts to use the label “anti-Semitism” as a tool for silencing dissent. Both opposition to Zionism and the thinking inspired by Heidegger now incur this charge, which is leveled too lightly, thoughtlessly, and therefore without a minimum of respect for the actual victims of ethnic or religious oppression.

The obvious problem with this is that the attribution of anti-Semitism to Heidegger is not some smear thrown out. Heidegger was a member of the Nazi party. He became Rector under the auspices of the Nazi party and is known to have cooperated in removing Jews and blocking people discontented with Nazi views from university positions. He uses a vocabulary that can sometimes be traced to Volkische philosophy common among intellectuals attracted to the Nazi party. He himself on several points directly connected his philosophical views to his support of the Nazi party. There is no "too lightly, thoughlessly" here. Not explicitly recognizing the connections would be intellectual irresponsibility. Now, of course, one is entirely free to argue, as Marder wants to do, that in fact "his anti-Semitism contradicts both the spirit and the letter of his texts, regardless of the ontological or metaphysical mantle he bestows upon anti-Semitic discourse," but this must be established -- established, not presumed.

And one sees immediately the problem in how Marder himself characterizes the issue. Let's repeat that:

his anti-Semitism contradicts both the spirit and the letter of his texts, regardless of the ontological or metaphysical mantle he bestows upon anti-Semitic discourse.

So, in other words, his anti-Semitism contradicts the spirit and the letter of his texts regardless of the mantle he bestows upon anti-Semitic discourse -- in his texts. Perhaps Marder means 'texts' in a very narrow sense; he would have to mean it so, eliminating speeches, letters, and notebooks, for this not to be a self-contradictory claim. One must pick and choose texts to govern the interpretation, and this directly implies that one must already, at the beginning, work out a point-by-point, issue-by-issue disentangling of Heidegger's broader philosophy from Heidegger's Nazism and especially his explicitly philosophical understanding of the importance of Nazism.

Marder himself seems to think that saying an idea or argument or analysis can be tainted by association is, as he puts it, "an amateurish trick"; but this is obvious nonsense. Context matters to the interpretation of argument. Philosophical positions influence each other by analogy. Broader attitudes and positions can influence the mood of reasoning, and differences in mood can mean differences in valence, emphasis, connotation; a shift in assumed context can change precisely what question an answer is supposed to answer, and thus change what is essential to the answer. To be sure, these things might not be determinative on any given particular point. But serious interpretation requires that these things be taken into account. And that does mean taking into account the problem in the first place and not running from it.

We see this with many of Marder's analogues. It matters to the interpretation of Nietzsche that in works off the beaten path he showed contempt for anti-Semites. If we're interpreting Augustine on the treatment of heretics, it matters that he came to the position that heretic should be punished under law only after a long string of violent attacks and assassination attempts by Donatists, and that even then what he was arguing is just that Christians could appeal to the law for punishments already provided by law. If we're interpreting Aristotle on slavery, it matters that the kind of slavery Aristotle accepts in his written works is more restricted than slavery as typically practiced by the Greeks. It matters, if we are to understand what Plato is doing in his arguments that women should have the same education as men, that Greek society was highly, highly misogynistic. And with Heidegger, it matters both that he was a Nazi and what kind he was -- that he did not spring up suddenly but had volkish roots, and that even later he would admit that he saw Nazism as an answer to one of his most important philosophical questions (technology and humanity), and that he was not a rabid Hitlerite (most old-school Nazis were not, and some were actively, if quietly, anti-Hitler) but that he did see the rise of the Nazi regime as a way to oppose what he saw as serious philosophical errors. Sure, how this affects interpretation is a matter for further inquiry, but it is hardly an amateurish trick to insist that contextual associations not be ignored.

We see again the problem with Marder's mention of Levinas. Yes, Levinas was heavily influenced by Heidegger, whom he studied closely. But Levinas was not so certain that there was a "profound disconnect" between Heidegger's Nazism and his philosophy, and saw exactly the problem: Heidegger cannot be used with innocence. One must unwind his thought and shake it out and examine it closely. And, indeed, Levinas was not as sure as Marder that such a procedure could exonerate Heidegger's philosophy. There are ways and ways to approach Heidegger; what is at issue here is whether intellectual responsibility requires that one simply dismiss the worry that Heidegger's philosophy may not be a wholly innocent victim of Heidegger's political views, particularly given that Heidegger himself did not think the two were completely disconnected. Nothing Marder says actually addresses this concern. What we get instead is the equivalent of a politician wrapping himself in the flag: Marder is wrapping Heidegger in the importance of philosophical inquiry to discourage criticism. But the same problem arises: the flag is not really about the politician, and so is not harmed by criticism of the politician, and philosophical inquiry is not actually harmed by criticism, even sharp criticism, of Heidegger and those who draw from his philosophy. If the criticism is answerable, great; if not, then that was the whole point in the first place. Either way, philosophical inquiry is furthered.

But the problem, of course, is that Marder himself doesn't really think political actions are sharply distinguishable from philosophical discourse; otherwise he could never see political actions like banning a Nietzsche club in one university as contributing to a "freeze on thinking" or the Heidegger dispute as "a fight over the very meaning of philosophy". So your political commitments can have a direct relevance to the very meaning of philosophy -- unless, apparently, you are a particular Nazi of whom we've all heard.


  1. Having taken but one graduate course on Heidegger decades
    ago and having had no inclination to follow up on the experience since then, I am
    in no position to offer any straightforward statement on the connection or lack thereof between his philosophy and his anti-semitism. But I can observe that there is a difference between a statement that his philosophy includes or implies an anti-semitism and a statement that it is consistent with an anti-semitism, i.e., that it does not imply an anti-anti-semitism.

  2. branemrys6:03 PM

    It would depend on what else it was consistent with.


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