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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.
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.