It is difficult to underestimate the influence of German philosopher Martin Heidegger on American universities. His ideas may be unintelligible to all but the most seasoned acolyte, but his influence is ubiquitous. Martin Woessner explains it in a the Los Angeles Review of Books:
Once you start looking for them, Heideggerians are everywhere. But identifying what they had in common with each other wasn’t easy. It was hard to tell who even counted as a Heideggerian, anyway, especially in the United States — a nation for which Heidegger himself had little positive to say throughout his life (among other things, we had too much technology and too little history, he thought).
Existentialists claimed him as one of their own, despite his protests, but deconstructionists did the same, and by then he was no longer around to protest. Pragmatists sometimes made their peace with him, and occasionally poets and novelists played around with his wordplay-filled writings. I found that those last ones generally had the most fun, partly because they didn’t take it all so terribly seriously. Critical Theory, Hermeneutics, and Phenomenology — theoretical paradigms predicated on seriousness — each genuflected in Heidegger’s direction at one point or another, sometimes skeptically, sometimes not. There was hardly a corner of the American academy that hadn’t been infiltrated by some kind of at least latent Heideggerianism —except, of course, actual philosophy departments, where Heidegger often remained simply too foreign and too suspicious. One had better luck finding him in anthropology, literature, or theology.
For nearly thirty years now, the academics who gloried in Heideggerian thought have had to face the fact that their great hero, their great guru had been a Nazi. Living in Germany during the Third Reich the great philosopher joined the Nazi party and militated on its behalf. Once the war was over and it was impossible to deny what Hitler had wrought, Heidegger remained obdurate in refusing to accept responsibility for his Nazism. He never recanted.
No one should be surprised that an America academy where professors are teaching their students to think like Nazis—without, of course, knowing what they are doing—should end up producing young Brown Shirts who enforce political correctness by shouting down the opposition and by shaming anyone who disagrees with them. Their professors mark down any student who dares propose a politically incorrect idea.
As you know, Heidegger himself was a great fan of Ernst Rohm’s Brown Shirted Storm Troopers and was deeply offended when Hitler liquidated them in the Night of the Long Knives. He loved the street theatre put on by the Brown Shirts and disapproved the work of Himmler’s SS because it was too organized and too industrialized. Heidegger objected to the Holocaust for being insufficiently dramatic, for not being a sufficiently entertaining spectacle.
While Heidegger himself believed that the only true philosophical question was the question of being—God knows what that is— his followers have been tormented by the question of his having been a Nazi.
Of course, we knew it all along. By now, for seven decades. After World War II, Heidegger was banned from teaching philosophy. Occupying, forces wanted to protect gullible students from his Siren Song. After a few years, French philosophers convinced the authorities that his philosophy was so important and that he himself such a great genius that he had to be allowed to teach.
This instituted a split, something like a Cartesian mind/body problem. Heidegger’s thought was so important that we needed to overlook his actions, especially his political actions. Even if his philosophy was teaching students to perform pogroms, it was immaterial. The man was a genius. So what if he had made a few mistakes in his life.
It is no small irony that, at a time of political correctness, when student Brown Shirts will shout you down for using the wrong pronoun, their professors will be spending their time trying to exculpate Heidegger from being a real Nazi.
After the ban on Heidegger’s teaching was lifted, the question of his Nazism was put to sleep for nearly four decades. Then a Venezuelan scholar named Victor Farias published a 1987 book called: Heidegger and Nazism.
It was a damning indictment. So damning, in fact, that many proud practitioners of deconstruction instantly recognized that they had been teaching their students how to think like Nazis. They decamped for the less corrupt waters of neo-colonial studies.
Many others dug in their heels and became staunch defenders of the faith. They were willing to recognize that Heidegger himself had certain Nazi leanings and that he had attempted to put them into action when he was appointed Rector of the University of Freiberg, but they insisted that his philosophy was pure, that it had nothing to do with the Third Reich.
Now for the past couple of years we have seen the beginning of the publication of Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, a multivolume set of the musings of the great genius. We see that they contain a number of anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi ramblings. To which Woessner sagely points out: if Heidegger did not believe these things and if he did not think that they illuminated his philosophy, why did he leave them to be published?
In Woessner’s words:
By the time of his death in 1976, Heidegger surely knew that the notebooks in which he scribbled his philosophical and political reflections were riddled with dubious, even incriminating remarks. So why, then, did he decide not just to include them in the edition of his collected works that would ensure his fame, but also, and more importantly, to dictate that they appear as the culminating volumes of the decades-long project? What could he have been thinking?
Heidegger may have thought that Hitler betrayed what he (Heidegger) once called the inner truth and greatness of National Socialism, but surely he held fast to the ideal and wanted his work to contribute to its advent.
Since Heidegger had launched a massive pogrom against elements that had contaminated Western philosophy and Western civilization, and since he believed that it had all begun with Socrates, it is hardly surprising that his call for a cultural pogrom against certain elements in the culture should have been directed against attitudes associated with Judaism, among other religions and philosophies.
One notes that a man like Alfred Rosenberg, a member of the Nazi high command, someone who was tried and convicted and executed for war crimes at Nuremberg, blamed Socrates for introducing the contaminant that had ruined Western thought… because, he explained, Socrates had been influenced by Judaic thinking.
Among the aspects that hold the most seductive appeal for graduate students is the Heideggerian notion that you should not hold the genius accountable for the positions he took, the ideas he entertained and the political actions he engaged. (I have discussed this in my book The Last Psychoanalyst.)
As I argued in my book, Heidegger railed against technology and the Industrial Revolution, products of the corrupt Anglo-Saxon culture. He hated capitalism for the same reason and strongly opposed Zionist Communism. He largely preferred drama to ethics.
How are we to understand it all? In a new book Peter Trawny, the man who edited some of the Black Notebooks, argued that Heidegger’s errors belonged to a grand historical drama in which failure is a condition for success, and where you never have to say you are sorry:
How tolerant you are of this kind of thinking will determine how persuasive you find Trawny’s defense of Heidegger’s errancy, which entails accepting at least three interrelated things: first, that Heidegger’s errancy was a necessary component of his thinking; second, that his thinking was destined by the history of being going back to Ancient Greece; and third, that this tragic narrative exists not just beyond good and evil, but also beyond guilt and responsibility, in an “abyss of freedom.” In other words, true thinking means never having to say you’re sorry (see critics’ responses to Gregory Fried’s “The King Is Dead”).
At times, Trawny’s meditation on Heidegger’s errancy reads almost like a kind of secularized theodicy. He dwells as much on the inescapability of evil as he does on the inevitability of failure. “For Heidegger,” Trawny writes, “evil belongs to thinking. Insofar as it elucidates being, it elucidates evil. For even evil belongs to the world-narrative.” But does this mean that, insofar as I recognize the role I play in the “onto-tragic” narrative of western history, I do not have to take responsibility for my actions? Is it all being’s fault?