“Heidegger is dead”, Gregory Fried writes in his contribution to this volume. What Fried means of course, is death in the afterlife, namely a decisive end in the reception of Heidegger’s work. The event signaling this end is the 2014 publication of Heidegger’s first Black Notebooks, which has started an intense controversy about pro-Nazi and anti-Semite statements found in these texts. This controversy has in fact generated the hope of some and the concern of others, that these last texts of the Gesamtausgabe will also end the study of Heidegger and perhaps of continental philosophy altogether. In the life after life, however, death is a new beginning. Heidegger died as “the object of endless reverential exegesis”, Fried says, so that the “philosophical questions” could live (54). It is a striking phenomenon, how the Black Notebook controversy inspires new life in the Heidegger research, which is manifested in numerous lectures, conferences and publications. It is even more striking that this revival is actually not characterized by replacing textual exegesis, the ‘dead letter’, with the living question, but, on the contrary, by intensifying the exegetical and scholarly rigor – Heidegger reincarnated in Husserl’s “rigorous science”.
Reading Heidegger’s Black Notebooks 1931-1941 is an important document or rather a site of this current event. Ingo Farin and Jeff Malpas have edited an impressive collection of 19 texts by leading Heidegger scholars, with some of the central voices who have so far shaped the recent debate. These include Peter Trawny, the editor of the Black Notebooks in the Gesamtausgabe, who triggered the controversy by raising the alarm of antisemitism in newspaper articles and a widely-circulated essay[i], Donatella Di Cesare, former Vice President of the Martin-Heidegger-Gesellschaft, who resigned in light of these new discoveries and wrote an influential book on “Heidegger, the Jews, the Shoa”[ii], and Friedrich Wilhelm von Herrmann, Heidegger’s last assistant and key figure in the Gesamtausgabe, who set out to defend Heidegger and refute Trawny’s and Di Cesare’s claims, among others in his newly published book “The Truth about the Black Notebooks” (in Italian).[iii]
This distinguished symposium of scholars is anything but an obituary to Heidegger exegesis. As its title announces, it perceives, approaches and questions the current Heidegger debate as an exegetical event – as an event of “reading”. It is to the great merit of the editors that the hermeneutical question of how to read the Black Notebooks in fact guides all the contributions. The question of reading is understood by the editors as a “direct response to the controversy”. In other words, it constitutes a self-reflective act of the Black Notebooks reception: it puts in question, and thereby suspends, critiques and resists an already effected, factually established way of reading the Black Notebook. There is something deeply Heideggerian in this gesture of questioning the incipient reading that has brought this text to public light and by the very same act potentially concealed it. The editors, on the first page of their introduction, thus suspend the very name “the Black Notebooks”, by which “[i]t has become customary to refer to these notebooks in general”. For the 1931-1941 notebooks, they prefer Heidegger’s own designation, Überlegungen (translated “Considerations”), a terminological revision not adopted by most other authors in the volume.
The reading that brought the Black Notebooks all the publicity and is put here in question is the reading centered around the antisemitic passages. The resistance to this exegetic pattern is manifest in the structure of the volume, consisting in four parts, of which only one includes in its title, inter alia, the word “anti-Semitism” (Part III: “Metaphysics, Anti-Semitism, and Christianity”). The alternative reading promoted instead is a different kind of reading, as Malpas writes, a “philosophical reading”. Consequently, this volume translates the controversy on Heidegger’s antisemitism into a conversation on the essence and limits of philosophy, what lies outside of philosophy, and most importantly: the hermeneutical significance of this distinction. The “Jewish” question, so to speak, is translated into the question of the philosophical text. What is a philosophical reading of the Black Notebooks?
The volume suggests several basic traits. Various contributions emphasize the complexities of the texts and the need to contextualize them both historically and in the larger context of Heidegger’s oeuvre. “The idea that there is one unchanging core message in the Black Notebooks is pure fantasy”, Ingo Farin writes (296), and Nancy A. Weston reminds of Heidegger’s motto for the Gesamtausgabe: “ways, not works” (279). Others call for reading with “compassion” (Malpas) and urge us “to do justice” (von Herrmann) with the texts, preaching for “a hermeneutics not of hate and prejudice, but of turning towards the texts themselves” (Zaborowski). The philosophical reading is further described as constant “questioning” (Malpas, Fred Dallmayr, Steven Crowell), which would in principle avoid strong assertions. This contemplative hermeneutics generates in the volume illuminating and instructive discussions on the textual nature of the Black Notebooks (e.g. compared to Nietzsche’s Will to Power; see Crowell, Babich, Strong), and their position in Heidegger’s work.
One obvious question that comes to mind is the relation between this idea of philosophical reading and Heidegger’s own idea of it. Malpas points out that philosophical hermeneutics is “inextricably associated with Heidegger’s name” (5). But this is less clearly the case with the distinctly scholarly exegetic conversation in this volume, which reminds less of Heidegger’s own readings, and more of what Heidegger referred to in the Black Notebooks, quite disparagingly, as “Philosophiegelehrsamkeit”, “philosophy scholarship”. Any hermeneutically cultivated mind will no doubt appreciate Jean Grondin’s insightful observation in his contribution that “[t]he reading of the Black Notebooks has just begun, and at the same time perhaps that of Being and Time as well” (105). In response, however, we hear Heidegger’s admonishment in the Black Notebooks, as Ingo Farin somewhat self-ironically quotes: “All the World Interprets, Nobody Thinks” (GA 96, 276).
The Heidegger-inspired devotion to “reading” in fact raises a fundamental Heideggerian question, which in this volume is most elegantly formulated by Babette Babich, when she notes: “So much Heidegger hermeneutic, so little time” (72). So much Heidegger hermeneutics, so little time. Yes, reading takes time, takes lives. The question of reading “philosophically”, seriously, rigorously, the so far approx. 2,000 published pages of the series of fragments that make out half of the entire Black Notebooks, in the context and as the last 7 of the 102 volumes of Heidegger’s Collected Writings – is a real life question, existential question: is Heidegger worth our limited time? There is here what Heidegger called a decision, which requires “decision-oriented thinking in contrast to all philosophy scholarship” [“das entscheidungshafte Denken im Gegensatz zu aller Philosophiegelehrsamkeit”] (GA 94, 399). The decision is not just whether or not to ban Heidegger from the philosophical archive, as Emmanuel Faye called for, but whether to dedicate ourselves to reading, interpreting and teaching his work, writing about it and guiding others to do so. What is so important in Heidegger?
The basic answer articulated by many authors in this volume points at Heidegger’s powerful critique of the technological essence of modernity. This is the reason why the “philosophical” reading should look beyond Nazism and antisemitism in his work. Jeff Malpas, drawing on his earlier works on Heidegger, suggests that Heidegger’s thinking on “place, truth, presence and human being” may actually lead “in a direction exactly contrary to that of Nazism and anti-Semitism…towards a much more human and humane conception” (20). Laurence Paul Hemming’s contribution attests to the difficulty of contrasting, from Heidegger’s perspective, Nazism and humanism. Nonetheless, Heidegger has indeed been one of the most prolific sources for self-critique of Western thought since WWII. Malpas therefore makes a strong point in what reads as the basic credo of this collection: “Heidegger’s Nazi sympathies and anti-Semitic attitudes…become the focus for the attempt to remove Heidegger from academic discourse, not merely because of his sometime failure as a human being or as a thinker, but more importantly perhaps, because of the way his work offends against the belief in modernity, in ‘reason’, in technology, in capitalism, in ‘the West’ – because it offends, perhaps, against our belief in ourselves” (17).
And yet, it is antisemitism that aroused the current interest in reading Heidegger. Much of what has been published on this matter, especially in the popular media, may well be described with the Heideggerian term Gerede, “idle talk”: a discourse that by the very act of making public, of exposing the Black Notebooks, in fact conceals their philosophical content. As Jean Grondin aptly notes, it is the “reading” of those who don’t read, a semblance of reading. However, as Heidegger taught: “Wieviel Schein, soviel »Sein«” – “so much semblance, so much ‚being‘” (Being and Time, 36). Isn’t there a way of understanding, of “reading”, not the Black Notebooks, not sola scriptura, but the public Black Notebooks controversy as manifesting a very real and fundamental question as to the “being” of Heidegger’s thought and of philosophy in general? Hasn’t the question of “anti-Semitism” been provoking so much thought and text precisely because it places the most powerful critical analysis of modernity in the immediate proximity to one of the most traumatic events of modernity? Because it brings to light the danger of philosophy and thus philosophy’s actual, existential significance?
What strongly attests to this, is that, notwithstanding the book’s structure as conceived by its editors, the question of the relation between antisemitism or Nazism and philosophy in the Black Notebooks can be easily taken as a hermeneutic key for articulating this collection. Thus, against Richard Wolin’s claim of Heidegger’s supposed “obsession with World Jewry” (quoted by Karsten Harries, 208), various contributions, without denying Heidegger’s antisemitism, justly point at its limited role in the text: only very scant, unsystematic and undeveloped remarks, outside of the context of Heidegger’s Nazi engagement in the early 1930s, showing no real interest in actual Jewish thought, rather reproducing quite banal prejudices. The textual scarcity and doctrinal banality lead some of the authors to exclude the philosophical significance of antisemitism in Heidegger’s thought: “While Heidegger certainly makes room for anti-Semitic content in his Considerations, it is not a systematic, essential, or inevitable component of his philosophizing in these writings or his other philosophical work” (Farin, 311; see also von Herrmann, Vallega-Neu, Harries). In response, other authors attempt to broaden the semantic presence of antisemitism in the text beyond the sole explicit mention of the word “Jews” (Di Cesare) or point at the hermeneutic significance of silence (Trawny). As for banality, the philosophical significance of the banal in the context of the Holocaust was already indicated by Hannah Arendt, who inspired Jean-Luc Nancy’s recent essay on the Black Notebooks titled “Banalité de Heidegger“.[iv]
Some contributors go further to suggest that the issues related to antisemitism and anti-Judaism not just factually carry no special meaning for Heidegger’s philosophy, but in principle cannot, and perhaps should not, carry such philosophical meaning. How then to read Heidegger’s famous attribution of the metaphysical, world-historical role of “uprooting all beings from being” to “World Jewry” (GA 96, 243)? Andrew Bowie denounces the “pernicious nonsense” of bringing together “ontological difference” and “politico-historical issues” (258). Thomas Rohrkrämer similarly classifies such statements as “crude belief in ethnic stereotypes” and “sweeping associations between nations and metaphysical positions” (248). For Peter Trawny, who develops in his contribution an idea already formulated in his book, statements ascribing to Jews or other historical collectives any ontological role contradict Heidegger’s own “ontological difference”, because “being” (Sein) “elude[s] manifestation in ‘beings’ [Seiendem]”. The anti-Jewish statements would thus constitute “an ideological interpretation”, in which “Heidegger has betrayed a central idea of his philosophy” (172). Daniela Vallega-Neu excludes from Heidegger’s Seinsgeschichte, i.e. philosophical history “in the beyng-historical sense”, any “representable historical events or ‘incidents'”, and concludes that “Heidegger’s pronouncements on Americanism, Bolshevism, socialism, and World Jewry (as condemnable as these remain for us today) should not be taken as instances of originary thinking” (136).
This sharp separation between philosophy and historico-political reality, so it seems to me, risks interpreting the ontological difference as absolutely disconnecting Being from beings. The danger of such interpretation is the reproduction of what Heidegger criticized as the metaphysical separation between transcendent, non-temporal, eternal realm of truth, and worldly, temporal existence, i.e. history and politics, which would be thus surrendered to utter calculation. As Tracy Strong writes: “Heidegger’s thought had and must have political or practical implications” (225). The philosopher’s engagement on the political events of his time, on National-Socialism, he claims, is accordingly not a perversion but the application of the idea that philosophy and thought should be realized in history, affect the world. That this realization should be effected historico-politically, i.e. through a collective project, a people, Strong reminds us, is nothing particularly Nazi, but an idea that we also find, for instance, in Plato, Marx and The Federalist papers (228-229).
One could suggest another example: Judaism. Of course, to even consider this proposition, it would be first required to perceive “Jewish” as a category that is at all relevant to philosophy. Precisely this is however precluded by denying Heidegger’s anti-Jewish statements in principle any philosophical significance. Banning the anti-Jewish from philosophy is eo ipso banning the Jewish. Donatella Di Cesare challenges this ban by calling for “philosophical” thinking “not only about the Third Reich, nor only about Auschwitz, but also about the place of the ‘Jewish Question’ in the history of the West” (182). Her reading of the Black Notebooks accordingly tries to think together the Judenfrage and the Seinsfrage. Even if her claim that “[n]ever before has the Jew had more importance” (191) seems overstated, Di Cesare opens a horizon for philosophical reflection on antisemitism. In her contribution she reiterates in enhanced clarity her book’s famous analysis of Heidegger’s “metaphysical anti-Semitism” (181). According to this analysis, Heidegger’s attitude towards Jews was antisemite because it “fell back” into metaphysics, namely, for Di Cesare, consisted in searching for the “essence” of the Jews, thereby reducing “flesh-and-blood” Jews to an “abstract figure” (189). This analysis may require further differentiation, since it risks stamping as metaphysical and antisemite any conceptualization of Jewishness, beyond “flesh-and-blood” (including Di Cesare’s own description of the Jews as “those who, by definition, trespass and exceed the boundaries”, 192), and thus reproducing the exclusion of Judaism from the realm of thought and philosophy.
Michael Fagenblat counters this exclusion by applying to Heidegger’s antisemitism Hölderlin’s verse, which was quoted by Heidegger himself with respect to technology: “Where the danger is, grows / the saving power also”. It is in Heidegger’s anti-Judaism that Fagenblat provocatively discerns a potential new Jewish inception of “Greco-German” philosophy. He points at “a meaningful confluence between Heidegger’s philosophy and some of the ‘existence structures’ of Jewish thought” (157), namely in the importance given to the historico-political figures of people, land and language. According to his analysis, Heidegger’s critique of Jewish “uprootedness” correctly diagnosed the problem of the Jew’s historical condition of “exile” and in fact echoed, even influenced inner Jewish, Zionist self-critique of the Jewish people’s lack of proper land and language. What Heidegger, in contrast to the Zionist thinkers, failed to recognize, is that exile was only negating the original solid linguistic and territorial roots of the Jews. If the critique of Jewish uprootedness was for Heidegger thus without appeal, Fagenblat sees the “becoming Heideggerian” of modern Jewish “theologies of Zionism” as a source of renewal. I’m not sure what we gain analytically by adding Heidegger to earlier and more obvious inspiration sources of Zionism in European nationalism, and what in Heidegger may constructively “save” Zionism from its woes. One lesson to read in the Black Notebooks of 1931-1941 is that Heidegger sought salvation from his own involvement in the National-Socialist state rather by zurücktreten, i.e. resigning, retreating, and going to intellectual exile.
To conclude, Malpas and Farin edited a rich collection of stimulating texts, which constitutes a significant contribution to the still on-going and future debates. This volume is a central reference for anyone, scholars and laymen, interested in the various questions raised by Heidegger’s Black Notebooks.
[i] Peter Trawny, Heidegger und der Mythos der jüdischen Weltverschwörung, Klostermann, Frankfurt am Main, 2014; Peter Trawny, Heidegger and the Myth of a Jewish World Conspiracy, Andrew J. Mitchell (tr.), University of Chicago Press, 2015.
[ii] Donatella Di Cesare, Heidegger, die Juden, die Shoah, Klostermann, Frankfurt am Main, 2015.
[iii] F.-W. von Herrmann & F. Alfieri, Martin Heidegger. La Verità sui Quaderni neri, Morcelliana, Brescia, 2016.
[iv] Jean-Luc Nancy, Banalité de Heidegger, Editions Galilée, Paris, 2015.