Freiburg University's epitaph reads "The truth shall set you free"

Freiburg University’s epitaph reads “The truth shall set you free” (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Late last week, German philosophy professor Günter Figal resigned from his post as chair of the Martin Heidegger Society, citing his discomfort with the famed philosopher’s anti-Semitism. According to the German site PressePortal, Figal, who is currently a professor at Freiburg University in the German state of Baden-Württemberg, stated that “as chairman of a society named after a person, one is in some ways representing the person, and I don’t want to do that anymore.” Speaking to RegioTrends, he added: “Heidegger’s involvement in National Socialism is greater than I could have realized before.” Before, that is, Figal read Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, a series of philosophical and personal journals that Heidegger maintained assiduously for decades.

Figal’s resignation is the latest incident in a long line of controversies surrounding last spring’s publication of the Notebooks. Though Heidegger’s Nazism had long been a matter of public historical record — he joined the Nazi party in 1933 and enacted a host of anti-Semitic policies in his role as rector of Freiburg University — the Notebooks contained a smattering of explicitly bigoted passages, revealing the full extent to which the philosopher subscribed to the Nazis’ racist ideology.

Martin Heidegger (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Martin Heidegger (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

In light of the Notebooks, Heidegger apologists can no longer plausibly claim that social pressures compelled the philosopher to take actions he did not wholeheartedly endorse. Though Heidegger became disillusioned with Nazism in the mid-1930s, he did so on ethically shaky grounds. Nazism, he felt, embraced technocratic principles: it was National Socialism’s over-reliance on scientific methodology, not its anti-Semitic foundations, that presented the problem. It appears that Heidegger’s anti-Semitism was virulent — and, as it were, authentic.

The Notebooks implicate Heidegger as a person — but they are also taken by many, Figel apparently among them, to invalidate Heidegger’s thinking and writing more generally. Last March, the Guardian reported that a German critic described Heidegger’s philosophical views as “hard to defend in light of the Notebooks’ publication, and in the New York Review of Books Peter Gordon wrote that “the entanglement of Heidegger’s anti-Semitism with his philosophical critique of Western metaphysics should give us pause.” In the New Yorker, Joshua Rothman wrote that the passages “have alarmed and disgusted Heideggerians because they show that Heidegger himself had no trouble using his own philosophy for anti-Semitic ends. Philosophy has a math-like quality: it’s not just a vocabulary, but a system. A failure in one part of the system can suggest a failure everywhere.”

As Jewish as only someone with the byline “Becca Rothfeld” can be, I’m also a consummate Heidegger fangirl, and I find it difficult to believe that the revelations in the Notebooks indict the substance of Heidegger’s philosophy. (Full disclosure: my Twitter handle is Heidegrrrl, so the stakes are high for me.) Although I would need to read the Notebooks to provide a more comprehensive answer to the question of whether anti-Semitism is intrinsic to Heidegger’s philosophy (perhaps Heidegger provides an air-tight argument inextricably linking his metaphysical views to his anti-Semitic principles), most of Heidegger’s major insights don’t seem to have much to do with Judaism at all. He was indisputably anti-Semitic — but his anti-Semitism seems tangential to his core philosophical insights about the contextual nature of selfhood, technology, and art.

More generally, I’d like to suggest that the bar for throwing a philosopher or artist’s work out on the grounds of his or her anti-Semitism (or sexism, for that matter) should be considerably higher. Artists and philosophers throughout history have harbored unsavory views that we are generally quite comfortable divorcing from their art or philosophy: Hegel compared men to animals and women to plants; Pound produced fascist radio broadcasts during World War II; and Kant excluded women from his conception of citizenship. It seems clear enough that Kant and Hegel’s sexism and Pound’s fascism aren’t essential to the core of their philosophical positions. (It bears noting that Kant and Hegel didn’t even bother to isolate their chauvinism in their personal journals, preferring instead to work it explicitly into philosophical texts they published and defended during their lifetimes.)

The worry in the Heidegger case seems to be that Heidegger managed to integrate his bigotry especially seamlessly into his philosophical system. Accepting Heidegger’s philosophy does not require us to take up his anti-Semitism as well, but his ideas may not be explicitly hostile to anti-Semitism either. As long as it’s possible for us to retain Heidegger’s metaphysical and aesthetic views while jettisoning the anti-Semitic sentiments recorded in the Notebooks, we can probably feel kosher about enjoying Heidegger’s writings, or even chairing the Martin Heidegger Society.

The more interesting question is: at what point does a work of art or philosophy become  so tightly bound up with its unpalatable politics that disentanglement is no longer possible? What binds works like Birth of a Nation so tightly to their underlying ideologies, and at what point do less straightforwardly problematic artworks become intolerable? Why are we comfortable ignoring Aristotle’s sexism, but not Heidegger’s anti-Semitism? A more rigorous reconceptualization is in order.

Becca Rothfeld is assistant literary editor of The New Republic and a contributor to The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Daily News’ literary blog, The Baffler, and Slate, among other publications....

6 replies on “Heidegger’s Anti-Semitism Prompts Resignation and New Wave of Reservations”

  1. My recommendation as a native German speaker: Read Heidegger in the original German texts, not in English translations. To use a pop culture analogy, his German sounds like Laibach, but with no whatsoever irony intended. In Germany, a common description of fascist ideology is “blood & soil” (ethno-nationalism that glorifies the home soil and ties it to race). Concerning Heidegger, there could never be any doubt that his philosophy is “soil” thinking; in less burdened terms, onto-ecological thinking. As such, it remains significant because it anticipated most post-humanist schools of thought, including the green movement, media theories, philosophies of technology that acknowledge the agency of things, and finally the contemporary philosophical movements of Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology. Nevertheless, the Black Notebooks prove that Heidegger was not simply a “soil” philosopher whose conservative-revolutionary leanings made him flirt with National Socialism, but that he really was a “blood & soil” thinker with no strings attached.

  2. As was said before, this is a very compelling article. Though I have at best a piece meal understanding of Heidegger’s philosophy, I find it difficult to accept that his philosophy is inextricably connected to antisemitism. In what sense is this case? The release of the black journals seemed to have caused a huge ruckus with everyone linking antisemitism to Heidegger’s philosophy, but I still haven’t heard anyone speak on why this is actually the case.

  3. Is it not time for those attempting to stifle open debate by using such shut-up words as “antisemite”, “Holocaust denier”, “racist”, “Nazi” to now use the truth concept to see if Heidegger did indeed make a truthful statement when he stated:
    >>The Jews, with their marked gift for calculating, live, already for the longest time, according to the principle of race, which is why they are resisting its consistent application with utmost violence.<<

  4. this isn’t exactly a ‘lets not throw the baby out with the bath water’ kind of situation, because any, even cursory, familiarity with heidegger’s earlier, more apropos writings (i.e. 20s, 30s, …,) would allow one to trace the relation–and a conceptual one, nothing contingent or extrinsic–btwn what heidegger writes about the jews in the black notebooks and his writings, for example, about animality, animals, and their capacity for having-world, of being world-less, and so on. shrewder critics of heidegger (as early as the 80s) have already dealt with these issues as they arose, in his writing, vis a vis animality alone (which are indeed serious, and seriously endanger aspects of his earlier philosophical project, the one for which he had as big an impact on the philosophical community as he had; that is to say: in and around sein und zeit). that the black notebooks extend this discourse on animals and animality to human beings (jews, but also soviet russians and other peoples) makes these glaring problems in his philosophy all the more problematical. for the record i still read heidegger (albeit much less and not without a renewed vigilance), but i think claiming that his personal prejudices were just that, personal, extraneous, of little to no consequence for his thought and writing, in attempt to conveniently save this thought and writing, is in bad faith, and blind. and also, comparing the unsavory politics a 3rd century BC philosopher with those of a philosopher who made it to the seventh decade of the 20th century ………….

  5. I can’t help thinking of Celine, who was virulently anti-semitic and pro-Nazi, yet whose novel, Journey To The End Of The Night, contained none of this, and in fact had a much more anarchistic flavour. At what point does one say where someone’s philosophy ends and his/her politics begins and more to the point, which authorities should we trust to arbitrate in the matter? Surely, readers, having read the work for themselves, should be the ones to decide for themselves what to think.

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