Saturday, October 24, 2009

Heidegger controversy

Many years ago, I was talking to one of my mentors, the late, great Meyer Schapiro about my struggles to understand the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). Schapiro, who had met Heidegger in the 1920s, told me that there were many poetic insights in the German thinker’s 1927 magnum opus Sein und Zeit. Yet there was no need, Schapiro implied, to try to discern some overall system in his philosophy. Heidegger wrote a great deal--102 volumes (not all published) in the German Gesamtausgabe--some of it pretentious bloviating, other items little more than childish nonsense.

I retain the Schapiran caveat I have noted. All the same, adepts (many of them at least) have reached some sort of consensus about the basic concerns of Heidegger’s thinking. The litany goes something like this;

Heidegger's philosophy rests on the attempt to conjoin what he considers two fundamental insights.

The first of these resides in his observation that, in the course of over two thousand years of history, Western philosophy has addressed all the beings that can be found in the world (including the "world" itself), but has shied away from asking what "being" itself is. This issue constitutes Heidegger's "question of being," his most fundamental and abiding concern. Western philosophy has neglected "being" because it was considered obvious, rather than as worthy of inquiry for its own sake. Focusing on the history of the forgetting of being requires that philosophy retrace its footsteps through a productive "destruction" of the history of philosophy.

The second major preoccupation animating Heidegger's philosophy derives from the influence of the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, a thinker largely uninterested in the history of philosophy. Rather, Husserl argued that all that philosophy could and should be is a description of experience (hence the phenomenological precept, "to the things themselves"). But for Heidegger this meant understanding that experience is always already situated in a world and in ways of being. Hence Husserl's understanding that all consciousness is "intentional" (in the sense that it is always intended toward something, and is always "about" something) is transformed in Heidegger's philosophy, becoming the insight that all experience is grounded in "care" (Sorge). This is the basis of Heidegger's "existential analytic," as he develops it in Being and Time.

Heidegger argues that to be able to describe experience properly means finding the being for whom such a description might matter. Heidegger thus conducts his description of experience with reference to "Dasein.” Dasein is a key term that is hard to define in Englsh, though it may be termed “(ordinary) existence” or “presence.” The individual finds him or herself thrown into the world thronged with things and with others, a situation fraught with the possibility, and indeed inevitability of one's own death. The need to assume this burden, that is, the need to be responsible for one's own existence, is the basis of Heidegger's ideas of authenticity and resoluteness—that is, of those specific possibilities for Dasein which depend on escaping the "vulgar" temporality of calculation and of public life.

The marriage of these two observations depends on the fact that each of them is essentially concerned with time. The existential analytic of Being and Time was intended as only a first step in Heidegger's philosophy, to be followed by the "dismantling" (Destruktion) of the history of philosophy. This project would have entailed a transformation of its language and meaning, making the existential analytic only a kind of "limit case" (in the sense in which special relativity is a limit case of general relativity).

Regrettably, Heidegger did not write this second part of Being and Time, marginalizing the existential analytic in Heidegger's subsequent corpus.

For a general account of Heidegger’s thought I warmly recommend Rüdiger Safranski, Martin Heidegger: Between Good and Evil (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998). This book is outsanding for its lucidity--a notable achievement in this realm.

Heidegger’s reputation will always suffer from his adhesion to Nazism, which took place in the wake of Adolf Hitler's assumption of power on January 30, 1933. Heidegger was elected Rector of the University of Freiburg on April 21, 1933, and on May 1 he joined the Nazi Party. On May 27 he delivered his inaugural address entitled "The Self-Assertion of the German University," which became notorious for its praise of Nazism.

Despite this act of conformity, from the outset his tenure as Rector was fraught with difficulties. Some Nazi education bigwigs viewed him as a rival, while others saw his efforts as almost comical. Some of Heidegger's fellow Nazis also ridiculed his philosophical writings as gibberish. On April 23, 1934 he finally tendered his resignation from the Freiburg rectorate. Yet Heidegger remained a member of both the academic faculty and of the Nazi Party until the end of the war.

In 1945 Heidegger composed a kind of defense of his term as rector, which was published in 1983. In it Heidegger referred to his 1933–34 involvement in the following terms:

“The rectorate was an attempt to see something in the movement that had come to power, beyond all its failings and crudeness, that was much more far-reaching and that could perhaps one day bring a concentration on the Germans' Western historical essence. It will in no way be denied that at the time I believed in such possibilities and for that reason renounced the actual vocation of thinking in favor of being effective in an official capacity. In no way will what was caused by my own inadequacy in office be played down. But these points of view do not capture what is essential and what moved me to accept the rectorate.”

Clearly, Heidegger’s attempt to explain himself falls far short of the repentence that one might expect. However, it is probably a mistake to retroject the view of his Nazi period back into the earlier years in which he wrote Sein und Zeit. Consider the parallel case of Ezra Pound. Prior to moving to Italy in 1924 Pound showed no particular interest in Mussolini’s fascism. While he had been essentially apolitical, the earlier Pound had sometimess expressed his sympathy with left-wing and feminist views. It is possible, of course that the seeds of Pound’s later political aberrations lurk in his earlier writings. As far as I know, however, this claim has not been substantiated. Absent this demonstration, it is a mistake to project, as do some superficial critics, a fascist mentality onto his earlier work, which is at all events radically different from The Cantos, with their outright praise of Mussolini.

To be sure the Heidegger-Nazi controversy is hardly new. Not so long ago there was a stir about the book of the Chilean philosopher Victor Farias (Heidegger et le Nazisme, 1987), and that of the historian Hugo Ott (Martin Heidegger: Unterwegs zu einer Biographie, 1988).

Next month Yale University Press will issue an English-language translation of Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism Into Philosophy, by Emmanuel Faye, an associate professor at the University of Paris (Nanterre). In the French original, this big book has already attracted a good deal of attention. The author’s judgment is harsh: "We now know," Faye asserts, "that [Heidegger's] attempt at self-justification of 1945 is nothing but a string of falsehoods."

Faye’s work relies on a detailed analysis of writings from the crucial period of 1933, most of them neglected or unpublished. There is no doubt that these texts allow one to examine Heidegger’s thinking at that time--though the operative expression is "at that time."

The work of Fritz Stern and George Mosse has exposed a vein of German conservative thinking extolling the Volk that goes back to the end of the nineteenth century. While this body of “völkisch” writing influenced Hitler, it is not identical with his Nazism. Yet Faye makes a fatal mistake in asssuming that it was. In fact, Hitler and Heidegger were proceeding from some similar premises, but only in 1933 did their thinking converge--and even then not perfectly, as Heidegger’s difficulties with official Nazi circles show. Some earlier commentators, such as Karl Löwith and Maurice Blanchot, have argued that Heidegger's Nazism was the logical outcome of his philosophy. One can certainly make that case, though it is by no means an inevitable one.

Yet Faye, it seems, goes further, claiming that his philosophy grew out of his Nazism. He seems to believe that Heidegger was some kind of “eternal Nazi.” In my view there were affinities, allowing the philosopher to be first seduced, and then swept away. However, he could have followed the more cautious path of other conservatives, such as Stefan George and Oswald Spengler, and declined to offer his actual adhesion. They stepped back from the brink.

Faye does not allow this possibility. According to Faye, "we witness, in the courses and seminars that are ostensibly presented as 'philosophical,' a progressive dissolving of the human being, whose individual worth is expressly denied, into a community of people rooted in the land and united by blood." The unpublished seminar of 1933-34 identifies the people with a "community of biological stock and race. … Thus, through Heidegger's teaching, the racial conceptions of Nazism enter philosophy."

“Enter” is fair enough, but when did these extreme views first take shape?

The "reality of Nazism," asserts Faye, inspired Heidegger's works "in their entirety and nourished them at the root level." This notion of the basic invariability of Heidegger’s writings strikes me as naive. As with all of us, the German thinker’s ideas evolved. Faye does not seem to take this dynamic sufficiently into account.

Over against his view we have the eloquent testimony of Hannah Arendt, who had been his student in the 1920s. While deploring his later evolution, she was able to retain her respect for the insights of his “first philosophy,” just as Meyer Schapiro did.

In conclusion, Heidegger’s involvement with Naziism has engendered two opposite mistakes. First, it is not a minor excrescence, a kind of fungus parasitic on the work of a great thinker that can be easily scraped away. On the other hand, Nazism is not the sempiternal essence of his thinking. Significant philosophers cannot be characterized in this way.

As the career of the charlatan Richard Rorty shows, sustained devotion to the shibboleths of “political correctness” does not a great philosopher make. But neither does a tragic error remove one’s name from this roster of significant thinkers in the Western tradition. Despite the hideousness of some of his views and actions, Heidegger still belongs in that company.

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3 Comments:

Blogger The Gay Species said...

Two of my most influential professors, Paul Grice and Bernard Williams, were overt liberals, keenly smart, and widely-read. Both drew a distinction between doing philosophy and being an ideologue -- and in their minds, they had the Frankfurt School and the Left Bank Sorbonne in view.

Philosophy, like any intelligent discipline, requires commitment to the pursuits that enable humans to flourish, a commitment to truth and to beauty, a commitment to the virtuous and noble, but how we come to determine these attributes will keep us engaged for the duration of our human existence.

It is difficult for me, looking back at the 19th and 20th centuries, and beholding some of humanity's worst, cruel, and anihlistic moments -- nearly, all, due to some ideology. Whether it is German Idealism, American Fundamentalism, British Utilitarianism, Asiatic Collectivism, Franco Pseudo Intellectualism, Mediteranean Fascism, Zionism, etc., all intolerantly dogmatic political schemes have the same consequence -- the devaluation of the individual organism for the greater glory of the State and/or the Church and/or the Party. My tutors believed that the Individual and the State must have the SAME objective, viz., human flourishing, or else ideology will trump reason.

Thus, Heidegger does not speak to me, not simply because of his fascist tendencies -- however profound a particular utterance -- but because he lacked the philosophical method's most important tool: "Skepticism," what Karl Popper called "critical realism," what colleges call "critical thinking."

Embracing ideas, rather than espousing ideologies, seems to me, at least, to be the "philosophers stone," and those that espouse ideologies -- as opposed to embracing ideas -- have a milstone around their necks at the bottom of the lake in which we keep the ashheap of history.

Indeed, it was Karl Popper's writings that convinced me that all ideas, all knowledge, all inferences, are "provisional," and yet, such provisional states can still be "objective" (cf., subjective and Rorty). That seminal idea has guided me through thick and thin, and "provisionalism" demands variation, pluralism, tolerance, diversity, and yes, ultimately liberalism. Rigor of thought requires distance of perspective, and that minimal requirement seems lost in Heidegger. Taking a stance is embracing an idea, advocating national socialism and ethnic cleansing are an ideology.

Nice observations, Wayne.

11:24 AM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

Thanks, TGS. I still believe that Martin Heidegger provides insights of lasting value.

For example, it is not enough to plod along in the dull world of ordinary existemce or Dasein. Even those who seem to be limited by its horizons are prone to escape them by forming projects (Vorwuerfe) of a longitudinal character. Such project are necessarily formulated in the light of the ars moriendi, the awareness that all life inclines inexorably towards extinction.

Another avenue of transcendence is to attend to Sorge or compassion.

In my view, insights of this kind are generally lacking in the placid world of Anglo-American analytic philosophy. It is very thin gruel--OK if you have other things to give meaning to life. But then why does one need it? I don't.

If Martin Heidegger had died in 1930 no one would now be worrying about the Nazi connection. That is the context in which Sein und Zeit should be read.

1:24 PM  
Blogger The Gay Species said...

But Heidegger did NOT die in 1930, and his commitments leave a bad taste in our mouths, just as Pound's anti-Jewish rants do. I would argue that even George Wallace, racist and segregationist, like Pat Buchanan, has provocative utterances, but it is their lives of hate, superiority, ethnic cleansing, that leave their utterances as vacant echoes on the canyons of most minds (U.C. Berkeley's Hubert Dreyfus is oddly that school's resident Heideggerian.) Dreyfus is a genuinely interesting and liberal individual.

I agree with you, however, that possession of both a diachronic and synchronic perspective are axiomatic, but that insight has roots in Aristotle's Ethics, in which choices based on the diachronic, ALSO include the synchronic -- "the complete life lived well," -- establish The Mean of the best choice, and the sum of those choices lead to eudaimonia, and human flourishing.

The "fusion of horizons" that includes synchronicity and diachronicity endorsed by Hans Georg Gadamer can be found in Aristotle.

So, the question one has to ask, is, "What did Heidegger provide not already evident before?" That he remained in the Metaphysics of "Being" illustrates just how antediluvian his ideas are. The "priority" is that of existence, not essence, but that insight can be gained from any number of other writers -- that don't endorse National Socialism and Arianism -- and at least have the conscience to regret such endorsements. Heidegger has no conscience, no regrets, and that is why he is defective, even if he gets some ideas right.

1:31 PM  

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