Life Lessons from Morally Compromised Philosophers

What are we to make of Heidegger? Was he a mere apologist for the Nazis, as Hegel was taken to be an apologist for Prussianism? Can the philosopher be salvaged from the ruin of the man, as one book recently put it?

What are we to make of Heidegger? Was he a mere apologist for the Nazis, as Hegel was taken to be an apologist for Prussianism? Can the philosopher be salvaged from the ruin of the man, as one book recently put it?

With particular attention to the Heidegger case

I began this blog with the idea that I would write about current events from a philosophical perspective and said in my initial post that I wanted to see history through the prism of ideas. This continues to be my project, however imperfectly conceived or unevenly executed. It is a project that necessitates engagement both with the world and with philosophy simultaneously. And so it is that my posts have ranged widely over warfare and the history of ideas, inter alia, and as a consequence of this dual mandate I have often found myself reading and citing sources that are not the common run of reading for philosophers. Some philosophers, however, are both influential and controversial, and Martin Heidegger has become one such philosopher. Heidegger’s influence in philosophy has only grown since his death (primarily in Continental thought), but the controversy about his involvement with Nazism has kept pace and grown along with Heidegger’s reputation.

It may help my readers in the US to understand the impact of the Heidegger controversy to compare it to the intersection of evil and ideals in an iconic American thinker, taking as our example a man more familiar than Heidegger, who was an iconic continental thinker. Take Thomas Jefferson, for example. Some years ago (in 1998, to be specific) I saw two television documentaries about the life of Thomas Jefferson. The first was a typical laudatory television documentary about one of the American founding fathers (I didn’t take notes at the time, so I don’t know which documentary this was, but it may well have been the 1997 Ken Burns film about Jefferson, which I recently re-watched to confirm my memory of its ambiguous treatment of Jefferson’s relationship to this slaves), which touched upon the possibility of Jefferson fathering children by his slave Sally Hemmings, while not taking the idea very seriously.

Then in 1998 the news came out of DNA tests that proved conclusively that Jefferson had fathered the children of his slave Sally Hemmings, and the scientific nature of the evidence rapidly inroads among Jefferson scholars, who had been slow to acknowledge Jefferson’s “shadow family” (as such families were once called in the Ante-Bellum south). The consensus of Jefferson scholars changed so rapidly that it makes one’s head spin — but only after two hundred years of denial. And there remain those today who continue to deny Jefferson’s paternity of Sally Hemmings’ children.

Not long after this news was made public, I saw another documentary about Jefferson in which the whole issue was treated very differently; the perspective of this documentary accepted as unproblematic Jefferson’s paternity of Sally Hemmings’ children, and examined Jefferson’s life and ideas in the light of this “shadow family.” I don’t think that Jefferson suffered at all from this latter documentary treatment; he definitely came across less as an icon and more as a fallible human being, which is not at all objectionable. It is, in fact, more human, and more believable.

Though Jefferson did not suffer in my estimation because he was revealed to be human, all-too-human, there is nevertheless something deeply disturbing about the image of Jefferson sitting down to dinner with his white family while being served at dinner by his mulatto children that he sired with with slaves, and it is deeply disturbing in a way that it not at all unlike the way that it is deeply disturbing to know that when Heidegger met Karl Löwith in 1936 near Rome (two years after Heidegger left his Rectorship in Freiburg) that Heidegger wore a Nazi swastika pin on his lapel the entire time, knowing that Löwith was a Jew who had been forced to flee Nazi Germany. One cannot but wonder, on a purely human level, apart from any ideology, how one person could be so utterly unconcerned with the well being of another.

It would be disingenuous to attempt to defend the indefensible by making the claim that all intellectuals of Jefferson’s time were conflicted over slavery; this simply was not the case. Schopenhauer, for example, consistently wrote against slavery and never showed the slightest sign of wavering on the issue, but, of course, Schopenhauer’s income did not depend on slaves, while Jefferson’s did.

We know that Jefferson struggled mightily with the question of slavery in his later years, as is the case with most conflicted men tying himself in knots trying to square the actual record of his life with his ideals. It is easy to dismiss individuals, even those who have struggled with the contradictions in their life, as mere hypocrites, but the charge of hypocrisy, while carrying great emotional weight, is the least interesting charge that can be made against a man’s ideas. As I wrote in my Variations on the Theme of Life, “The world is mendacious through and through; mendacity is the human condition. To renounce hypocrisy is to renounce the world and to institute an asceticism that cannot ever be realized in practice.” (section 169)

Heidegger does not seem to have been conflicted about his Nazism in the way that Jefferson was conflicted about slavery. Many years after the Second World War, when the record of Nazi death camps was known to all, Heidegger could still refer to the “inner truth greatness of this movement,” while in the meeting with Löwith mentioned above Heidegger was quite explicit that his political engagement with Nazism was a direct consequence of his philosophical views.

One obvious and well-trodden path for handling a philosopher’s political “indiscretions” is to hold that a philosopher’s theoretical works are a thing apart, elevated above the world like Plato’s Forms — one might even say sublated in the Hegelian sense: at once elevated, suspended, and canceled. This strategy allows one to read any philosopher and ignore any detail of life that one chooses. I don’t think that this constitutes a good contribution to intellectual honesty.

I myself was once among those who read philosophers for their philosophical ideas only, and while I was never a Heidegger enthusiast or a Heidegger defender, I thought of Heidegger’s political engagement with Nazism as mostly irrelevant to his philosophy. At some point I don’t clearly recall, I become intensely interested in Heidegger’s Nazism, and there was a flood of books telling the whole sorry story to feed my interest: Heidegger And Nazism by Victor Farias, which was the book the opened by Heidegger’s Nazi past to scrutiny, On Heidegger’s Nazism and Philosophy by Tom Rockmore, The Heidegger Controversy: A Critical Reader edited by Richard Wolin, Heidegger’s Crisis: Philosophy and Politics in Nazi Germany by Hans Sluga, Heidegger, philosophy, Nazism by Julian Young, The Shadow of that Thought by Dominique Janicaud, and most recent and perhaps the most devastating of them all, Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy in Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933-1935 by Emmanuel Faye.

Even with all this material now available on Heidegger’s Nazi past, Heidegger still has his apologists and defenders. Beyond the steadfast apologists for Heidegger — who are perhaps more compromised than Heidegger himself — there are a variety of strategies to excuse Heidegger from his involvement with the Nazis, as when Heidegger’s Nazism is called an “episode” or a “period,” or characterized as “compromise, opportunism, or cowardice” (as in Julian Young’s Heidegger, philosophy, Nazism, p. 4). Young also uses the terms conviction, commitment, and flirtation, though Young ultimately exculpates Heidegger, asserting that, “…neither the early philosophy of Being and Time, nor the later, post-war philosophy, nor even the philosophy of the mid-1930s — works such as the Introduction to Metaphysics with respect to which critics often feel themselves to have an open-and-shut case — stand in any essential connection to Nazism.” (Op. cit., p. 5)

Heidegger’s engagement with fascism represents the point at which Heidegger’s ideas demonstrate their relationship to the ordinary business of life, and this is a conjuncture of the first importance. This is, indeed, identical to the task I set myself in writing this blog: to demonstrate the relationship between life and ideas. And Heidegger, I came to realize, was a particularly clear and striking case of the intersection of life and thought, though not the kind of example that most philosophers would want to claim as their own. I can fully understand why a philosopher would simply prefer to distance themselves from Heidegger and, while not denying Heidegger’s Nazism, would choose not to talk about it either. But that Heidegger thereby becomes a problem for philosophy and philosophers is precisely what makes him interesting. We philosophers must claim Heidegger as one of our own, even if we are sickened by his Nazism, which was no mere “flirtation” or “episode,” but constituted a life-long commitment.

Heidegger was not merely a Nazi ideologue, but also briefly a Nazi official. The Nazification of the professions was central to the strategy of Nazi social revolution (with its own professional institution, the Ahnenerbe), and a willing collaborator such as Heidegger, prepared to Nazify a university, was a valuable asset to the Nazi party. Ultimately, however, Heidegger was embroiled in an internal conflict within the Nazi party, and when the SA was purged and many of its leaders killed on Night of the Long Knives, the Strasserist SA faction lost out decisively, and Heidegger with them. Thereafter Heidegger was watched by the Nazi party, and Heidegger defenders have used this party surveillance to argue that Heidegger was regarded as a subversive by the Nazi party. He was a subversive, in fact, but only because he represented a faction of Nazism that had been suppressed. Heidegger continued as a Nazi party member, and paid his party dues right up to the end of the war. We see, then, that the SA purge was not merely a brutal struggle for power within the Nazi party, but also an episode in the history of ideas. This is interesting and important, even if it is also horrific.

The more carefully we study Heidegger’s philosophy, and read it in relation to his life, the more we can understand the relation of even the most subtle and sophisticated philosophy to ideological commitment and to the ordinary business of life. And it wasn’t only Heidegger who compromised himself. There is Frege’s political diary, less well known than Heidegger’s political views, and the much more famous case of Sartre and Camus. There are at least two book-length studies of the public quarrel and falling-out between Sartre and Camus (Sartre and Camus: A Historic Confrontation and Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It by Ronald Aronson). Camus most definitely comes off looking better in this quarrel, with Sartre, the sophisticated technical philosopher, looking like a party-line communist while Camus, the writer, the literary man, showing true independence of spirit. The political lives of Camus and Sartre have been written about extensively, but even still Heidegger remains an interesting case because of the impenetrable complexity of his thought and the manifest horrors of the regime he served. There ought to be a disconnect here, but there isn’t, and this, again, is interesting and important even if it is horrific.

I have had to ask myself if my interest in Heidegger’s Nazism is prurient (in so far as there is a purely intellectual sense of “prurient”). There is something a little discomfiting about becoming fascinated by studying a great philosopher’s engagement with fascism. I am not innocent in this either. I, too, am a morally compromised philosopher. Perhaps the most I can hope for is to be aware of what I am involved in by making a careful study of philosophy’s involvement in politics. Naïvété strikes me as inexcusable in this context. I hope I have not been naïve.

I have not scrupled to read, to think about, and to quote individuals who were not only ideologically associated with crimes of unprecedented magnitude, but who have personally carried out capital crimes. In the case of Theodore “Ted” Kaczynski, who was personally responsible for several murders, I have carefully read his manifesto, Industrial Society and its Future (read it several times through, in fact), have thought about it, and have quoted it. Others who have been influenced by Kaczynski’s work and have publicly discussed it have felt the need to apologize for it, like scientists who consider using the research of Nazi doctors. But an apology feels like an excuse. I don’t want to make excuses.

Heidegger, like Nazism itself, is a lesson from history. We can benefit from studying Heidegger by learning how the most sophisticated philosophical justifications can be formulated for the most vulgar and the most reprehensible of purposes. But we cannot learn the lesson without studying the lesson. Studying the lessons of history may well corrupt us. That is a danger we must confront, and a risk we must take.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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An exercise in self-declaration

Since I started with Sartre yesterday (in Disappearing Act), it is appropriate, in a sense, that I continue with Sartre. In his influential essay, “What is Writing?” Sartre wrote:

If a writer has chosen to remain silent on any aspect whatever of the world, or, according to an expression which says just what it means, to pass over it in silence, one has the right to ask: “Why have you spoken of this rather than that, and — since you speak in order to bring about change — why do you want to change this rather than that?”

This is vintage Sartre: unforgiving, demanding, and totalizing. For the last reason — its totalizing pretensions — I cannot wholeheartedly agree. Nevertheless, even if my agreement falls short of totality, I recognize the imperative embodied in the words.

This little passage is quite pregnant with implicit references. Did Sartre ever read Wittgenstein? It is hard to imagine, but he may have been referring to Wittgenstein when he speaks of “passing over in silence”, as this is exactly what Wittgenstein recommends in the last sentence of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.” (“Wovon mann nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss mann schweigen.”) Wittgenstein, too, offers an imperative.

No writer can say everything, or address every question posed by his public pronouncements. Similarly, one does not always want to effect a change in choosing to write about anything. To imagine that one only speaks in order to effect a change is to already have placed oneself in the attitude of an institution, in virtue of the avoidance of which, as we mentioned yesterday, Sartre refused the Nobel Prize: “I, Sartre the Institution, have said it, therefore let it be done.” This is what Sartre took pains to avoid, but in fact could not avoid.

But now my reader (if I have any readers) have the right to ask me why I am going on about this anyway. For this reason: yesterday, in a caption of a picture of Heidegger, I asked the rhetorical question: “And what are we to make of Heidegger? Was he a mere apologist for the Nazis, as Hegel was taken to be an apologist for Prussianism? Can the philosopher be salvaged from the ruin of the man, as one book recently asked?”

I think that if we interpret Sartre sympathetically, and do not insist on attaining an impossible totality of expression regarding any aspect whatever of the world, that he meant leading, rhetorical questions such as I asked above constitute a form of bad faith (mauvaise foi)… words lying there like inert objects that pretend not to act even while in not acting they act.

The written word is a two way street. The writer writes, and the reader reads. If the reader’s reading leaves him dissatisfied, he certainly has the right, if not the duty, to interrogate the writer. Thus the writer responds, and writers again, and the reader reads again. This does not give us the totality of the world in prose, but it does give an account of the demands of the public sphere.

So let me declare myself on Heidegger: can Heidegger the philosopher be rescued from the ruin of the man? Yes. That is the short answer. The longer answer is that, while I despise Heidegger’s writing style, which strikes me as unforgivably obscurantist, there are some valuable ideas hidden among the verbiage, like sapphires in the mud. The long answer must also honestly acknowledge that the content of Heidegger’s thought is intimately related to what initially drew him to Nazism, or least to what he believed Nazism represented in the spring of 1933 when he joined the Nazi party to the spring of 1934 when he resigned his rectorship. Heidegger’s Nazism wasn’t a “mistake” on his part; he quite earnestly believed that the movement did not live up to its promise, and it was that promise to which Heidegger remained committed.

There is a considerable Heidegger industry that cranks out commentaries and publications in numbers apparently calculated to pad academic CVs, and because of the Heidegger controversy there is also a virtual sub-industry of books on Heidegger and Nazism. There are philosophers who think that Heidegger is the greatest thing since sliced bread, and others who won’t mention his name. This Heidegger industry has turned both Heidegger the man and Heidegger the philosopher into an institution of no mean order.

I guess there is a sense in which my attitude to philosophy is utilitarian, as I will use ideas from any source whatsoever, be it Heidegger or Sartre, Gobineau or Valery, Croce or Marx — all deeply compromised men, but all with something of value to say. Sartre himself is supposed to have said, “Valery is a fascist, but not all fascists are Valery.” I don’t think that Sartre would have argued that great poetry excuses fascism, but the least that can be said is that he clearly sees the dilemma.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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