Jean-Luc Nancy: The Banality of Heidegger

The Banality of Heidegger Couverture du livre The Banality of Heidegger
Jean-Luc Nancy. Translated by Jeff Fort
Fordham University Press
Paperback $25.00

Reviewed by:  Zühtücan Soysal (Middle East Technical University)


A recent wave of Heidegger scholarship has been developing with the ongoing publication and translation of the Black Notebooks. The notebooks created an immediate controversy, so much so that Heidegger’s thought was a subject of discussion in popular Anglophone media even before the appearance of the English publication of the first volume. Planned to be published as the concluding volumes of Heidegger’s Collected Works, the notebooks are found particularly interesting in relation to their antisemitic content. The prevalent issue for many commentators and critics revolves around whether Heidegger’s apparent antisemitism is a personal engagement which would keep his philosophy sterile or whether there is an inherent antisemitism at the core of his thought, indispensable to the very notion of the truth of being. Nancy’s The Banality of Heidegger departs from this context and overreaches that basic either/or predicament by undertaking a rather post-Heideggerian reading of the notebooks. Holding on to what he thinks to be the essential resource of the Heideggerian enterprise of “reduction of naive ontology” (5),[1] Nancy puts into question what remained unthought by Heidegger and reveals the play of deconstructive and antisemitic motifs within his thought.

The Banality of Heidegger consists of 12 numbered chapters, a coda and a supplementary chapter on a passage from Anmerkungen I-V, the fourth volume of the Black Notebooks, which was published after Nancy’s book. The merits of the Heidegger-Levinas-Derrida lineage are visible throughout the book with carefully situated ambivalences and rigorously structured interpretations at the limits of the possibility of a discourse. Nancy focuses primarily on the notebooks and operates within their discourse by assuming an earlier acquaintance with Heidegger’s fundamental ontology. The first two chapters introduce the framework and lay out a few preliminary remarks.

The book does not have the author’s preface or introduction; thus, the first chapter bears the responsibility to justify the title, “the banality of Heidegger.” Nancy repeatedly notes that the fact that antisemitism is “banal” is not to be taken as something that would result in a relative indifference to the horrific moments in empirical history. It means, rather, that Heidegger’s corpus inherited some values of the dominant antisemitic discourse of its time. In fact, Heidegger’s identification of Jewishness with calculative reasoning, manipulation, historylessness, internationalism, and the will to domination is drawn from the “most banal, vulgar, trivial, and nasty discourse . . . propped up for some thirty years by the miserable publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” (23).

Yet Nancy seeks the philosophical significance of what Heidegger has to say with this notorious jargon, which will go beyond the crude fact of its notoriety. To this end, before any close reading, Nancy eliminates a certain untenable—yet still widespread—interpretation in which Heidegger’s antisemitism is identified as or at least associated with a form of racism. Notwithstanding, Heidegger explicitly renounces the racial principle in the notebooks, and also in Contributions to Philosophy, because it “proceeds from a biological, naturalist, and therefore ‘metaphysical’ conception” (4). This is not to say that Heidegger did not argue about the Jews as the embodiment of a greedy vulgarization of the world (24), but to say that “Jews” in that context does not signify a racial determination. What does it signify, then? This is a question Nancy resolves by first outlining a few cardinal concepts from the broader context of the Heideggerian thought in the second chapter.

The first of those concepts is “the reduction of naive ontology” (5), a term Nancy uses with reference to Derrida’s Speech and Phenomena and equates with both Heideggerian Destruktion and Derridean deconstruction (6), which here designates the general critical stance of Heidegger and of the thinkers following the pathway opened by him—including Nancy—on traditional Western metaphysics from Ancient Greece to Hegel and beyond. Secondly, the reduction of naive ontology requires an essentially novel way of grasping metaphysics, a “second beginning” of metaphysics (6). This new beginning or the “other beginning” [Anfang] would be driven by the thoughtful scrutiny and radical questioning directed at the conceptualization of the human essence as something shared equally by the entire homogeneous bulk of humankind irrespective of how Dasein constitutively understands itself with regard to its being. Such a conception of human essence, which lies at the heart of the Western metaphysics and in particular of the Enlightenment, amounts to the uprooting of Dasein from its ecstatico-horizontal temporality (Being and Time, H. 388; pagination of the later German editions). Thirdly, the constitutive understanding of being which belongs to a “people” [Gemeinschaft], whose shared understanding implicates a shared history [Geschichte] as their shared ground. As Nancy summarizes Heidegger’s point concisely, “a people—which is not a race—can be considered as a . . . force of historial [geschichtlich] beginning” (7-8). The reciprocity among a people, history, and being has thus been established.

It has already been said that a people is not a race but a historial determination, and Nancy touches upon the purport and significance of a particular people at the beginning of the third chapter, the Jewish people, in the context of the Black Notebooks. The opening passage has this remarkable quote from Heidegger: “The question concerning the role of world Jewry is not a racial question but the metaphysical question that bears on the type of human modality which, being absolutely unbound, can undertake as a historial ‘task’ the uprooting of all beings from being” (10). Such is called “historial anti-Semitism” by Peter Trawny. Accordingly, being Jew is being in a certain human modality, which does not stipulate consanguinity or any other biological or natural circumstance. From all these, an affinity between the Jews and the “they” [das Man] as evinced in Being and Time is visible (H. 129). To be sure, Heidegger presumes that he has the right to use the word “Jews” to designate a people who are eo ipso dispersed into the “they,” that is, entrapped in their everyday, inauthentic existence in which they see the world through a scientific-historiological objectification. Yet it would be untenable to claim that “they” is just a euphemism for “Jews,” because, as the above quote shows, for Heidegger, the Jews are not only characterized by being “absolutely unbound” and thus “groundless” but also specified as those whose historial task is “the uprooting of every being” by way of calculative reasoning and machination (11), which have only been aggravated since the “first beginning” of Western metaphysics in Ancient Greek thought. In other words, Heidegger takes Jewishness to be more than an inauthentic human modality; it also indicates the task with whose accomplishment such an inauthenticity would dominate the world.

In the fourth chapter, this line of thought is furthered and one of the major questions of The Banality of Heidegger, namely, the question of how Heidegger locates the Jews with respect to the history [Geschichte] of being, or, in other words, to the destiny [Geschick] of the West, is introduced. Nancy here draws a striking parallel between the Marxist narrative and Heidegger’s account of the Jews. To begin with, Marx’s interpretation of the homogenization of labor in the form of a “general equivalent” as alienation from the proper value of the human productivity calls for a specific understanding of, and a political-spiritual stance against, a certain type of nondifferentiation (cf. Capital, 46-55). It is under the light of this portrayal that Nancy reads the Jews’ claiming for themselves the principle of “‘domination of life by machination’ . . . in the direction of a complete ‘deracialization’ (Entrassung) of a humanity reduced to the undifferentiated equality of all, and in general of all beings” (15). In a mixed discourse of Marx and Heidegger, then, the Jews would be the commodity fetishists par excellence. Moreover, a different as yet even more striking parallelism suggests that both the Jews of the Black Notebooks and the proletariat suggests “a certain eschatological and figural regime of thought: an end is approaching—an end, and therefore a beginning—and this advent requires a figure, the identification of the annihilating force” (15). This time, the Jews are the proletariat par excellence as the bearers of the task of annulling the multiplicity of peoples’ being. Therefore, with their incapability of acknowledging Dasein’s essential belongingness to a people, the Jews in the discourse of the Black Notebooks constitute the historial force which drives the West to its devastating self-alienation [Selbst-entfremdung].

In the following few chapters, Nancy expands the scope of his investigation into the designation of the Jews in the context of Geschick/Geschichte. It has been said that the Jews, with regard to their historial determination, embody the decline of the West, and Nancy shows that the historico-destinal possibility of the devastation of Western civilization is put to be the ultimate condition of its salvation, viz., of the second beginning. Indeed, Heidegger had already maintained in “Overcoming Metaphysics” that overcoming metaphysics necessitates a stage of decline, and the notebooks confirm that the Heideggerian depiction of the West resembles a phoenix; the “other beginning” is possible only after the destruction of the predecessor (19). This does not mean, nonetheless, that the historial force that has been characterized by Jewishness is to achieve complete annihilation of the West or its turning into nothingness, but means that the Western-destinal schema must harbor the epitome of “a failure to identify itself, to recognize itself, and to accept itself” (20) and thus must employ the Jewishness as a part of its ownmost destining (25).

Once the task of “destruction of the spirit of beginning” is set to belong to the West itself, the task becomes at once self-affirmation and self-destruction. By destroying itself, the West fulfills “a necessity of its destining, and it requires the destruction of its destructiveness, so as to liberate another beginning” (25). Thus, there are multiple tasks and intertwined historialities, which constitute the unique history of being. Nancy examines these interweaving historialities. This does not only put forward a framework to read Heidegger’s historial understanding of the people of the West, but it also provides Nancy with a textual margin within which a manoeuvre of radicalization would render Heidegger’s narrative to be the subject of its own questioning. While doing so, Nancy proceeds from a play of equivocalities to a relatively clear interpretation of how Heidegger positions the Jews with respect to the history of being. There are four particularly important nodes that set the ground for a deconstructive discourse within the margins of the Black Notebooks.

The first of those nodes is the “first beginning,” i.e., the Ancient Greek thinking. “The West bears within itself a fatality [Verhängnis]” (19), which is inscribed by the destining of being in the “first beginning” (30). That is to say, the self-detestation of the West was not alien to Ancient Greek thought, as if imposed by the Jews as an external force, but to the contrary was inaugurated by it. “[The] erosion began with Plato . . . [who] is not Jewish” (33), and it is not by accident but as a necessity that the initial unveiling (ἀ-λήθεια) stipulates the subsequent decline. Nancy states that investigating this necessity falls outside the scope of the book, except just once he gives a hint: “Thus have we learnt that the unveiling is always initial, but also that it was necessary that the veiling come along to show this to us” (53-4). Then, given that “Jewishness” is inscribed within Ancient Greek thought, one questions Heidegger’s choice of the “Jews” as the leading agent of modern devastation. The answer will be given in the second nodal point of the discourse, which is Christianity.

Heidegger’s account of Christianity displays a double character. On the one hand, he reduces Christendom to the Jews and sees the former as an extension or as the twin of the latter. It is not so seldom that Heidegger arrives at Christianity as the roots of an idea by way of a rigorous and elaborate investigation, then jumps to Judaism by simply stating that Christianity is issued from Judaism (cf. 69). Bringing Christianity and Judaism together results in nothing but the calcification of the status of the Jews as the principal agent of the devastation of the West in Heidegger’s discourse, because Christianity in this way is seen as the Roman appropriation of the Jewish groundlessness and nothing more. By insistently avoiding any interest in questioning this “self-evident” caricature and by submitting to a violent and hateful depiction of the Jews, Heidegger joins the banality and vulgarity of the antisemitism of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion without a question, which is also why he feels no discomfort at labeling the entire tradition of the forgetting of being as “Jewish.” On the other hand, Heidegger’s narrative is shown by Nancy to exhibit an affinity with Christianity insofar as Christianity itself is antisemitic. From this perspective, Christendom is the first to renounce the groundlessness in Judaism by claiming for itself an identity which is detached from the Jews. However that identity is rooted in the Jewish convictions, its historial legacy fosters antisemitism, which Heidegger eagerly adopted (34-5). On the whole, Christianity as a historico-destinal human modality stands in contradistinction to itself, and thus becomes the true heir of the West’s self-rejection.

Thirdly, there is Jewishness, whose portrayal by Heidegger is already the main thematic of The Banality of Heidegger. To sum up, there are three aspects to Jewishness in Heidegger’s understanding. First, the Jews are inherently bound with technics and machination, and thereby epitomize the primary historial force that leads to the devastation of the West. In this respect, the Jews are thoroughly repudiated by the destining of being. However, for this exact reason, secondly, they appear as an indispensable part of the history of the West and hence of its second beginning. In this respect, the Jews are included as a cardinal part of the Western destiny. And thirdly, by being a people whose historial task is the dissolution of all peoples into a non-differentiated array of calculable atoms, that is, by being self-destructors per se, they represent the grounding possibility of the Western beginning in general. As Nancy confirms, “the Jew is the oldest figure of a self-destruction of the West” (30), and in this respect, the Jews’ historico-destinal standing is elevated, although in the form of a “detestable exception . . . of a foreign intrusion” (28). Thus, repudiation, inclusion and elevation frame the constitutive aporia of Jewishness.

Finally, Nazism. In the notebooks, Heidegger states that “[o]nly someone who is German can in an originarily new way poetize being and say being—he alone will conquer anew the essence of θεωρία and finally create logic” (Ponderings II-VI, 21). Here and in many other places, for example, in Being and Truth and in “Europe and German Philosophy”, the Germans appear as the “spiritual nucleus” of the West. Accordingly, the Germans are the rightful bearers of the task to undertake the second beginning. Notwithstanding, by the very fact that they are the nucleus of the West, they carry within themselves the self-annihilating force, which led to the self-betrayal of Germans with the thoughtlessness of the Nazi regime (8, 71), so much so that through the end of 1941 Heidegger even considered the possibility of a non-German “new beginning” that might arise out of Russian authenticity as opposed to communism (7-8). It is important here to clarify that for Heidegger, the horror of Nazism is not related to a moral, political, or sociological account of the extermination camps but has always been “the extreme destinal point of technics” and machination (40). For this matter, the Nazi regime, for Heidegger, indulged in the ultimate German hypocrisy, as it were, by taking as its principle the domination of the masses despite the Greek legacy of authentic thought. It is ontically the closest to the possibility of the second beginning, that is, by being German, yet ontologically maybe the farthest.

Nancy’s investigation into the historial-political discourse of the Heidegger of the Black Notebooks does not employ the schematic description outlined here. The four textual nodes of tension, namely, the first beginning, Christianity, Jewishness, and Nazism, are rather to be taken as the outcome of an effort to structurize the unsystematic unfolding of The Banality of Heidegger. Furthermore, they are neither the consecutive stages in a continual history nor the moments of a dialectic movement. They rather designate a set of non-sequential yet in a way interrelated encounters of the peoples with the historial possibility they open.

World War II is seen from this perspective as the Jews’ “simultaneous combat against its counterpart (the Nazi racial principal) and against itself [Bolshevism]” (50). Thus, Nazi thoughtlessness is seen to be the counterpart of the Jewish groundlessness. While Jewishness dictates metacultural neutrality, Nazism dictates its extreme opposite: the racial principle. “This struggle—at once Jewish/Nazi and Bolshevik/American—determines ‘the high point of self-annihilation [Selbstvernichtung] in history’” (69). Yet “at the height of devastation ‘there continues to shine [and is therefore undestroyed] the light of a history capable of decision’” (21; Nancy’s insertion). In other words, neither the Nazi betrayal nor the overarching ravage of the war, which, in the eyes of Heidegger, is nothing but the domination of the technical calculating machination, then, does eliminate the possibility of the second beginning. Accordingly, there remains an untouched authenticity within the West, not in the sense of a self-subsistent spirit but as a necessity of the overflowing of being, which ultimately grounds the possibility of all forgetting and concealment, and thus of all machination and also the war itself (cf. 30). Apparently, Heidegger locates his own discourse within this authentic Germanness, whose victory over the historyless can only arrive through the self-destruction of the agent of the Western destruction. Depending on this, Nancy concludes that “Heidegger was not only anti-Semitic: he attempted to think to its final extremity a deep historico-destinal necessity of anti-Semitism” (51-2).

The historial, non-racial antisemitism of Heidegger stems from the banality of Heidegger, which puts the Heideggerian discourse on the Jews in contradistinction to itself, and this is where Nancy extends his reading towards questioning the unthought of Heidegger. The demonstration is spread throughout the book, but is condensed in the final chapters. One facet of the banality of Heidegger has already been mentioned, in that, Heidegger’s antisemitism “carts around the vulgarity spread by an incessant discourse crystallized as hateful, racist denunciation” (71). In other words, Heidegger adopts the antisemitic vocabulary of his time, a time which is shaped by the mass propaganda of the antisemitic discourse. If one prefers the rhetoric of Being and Time, the vocabulary that Heidegger so blatantly adopts is the “public” [Öffentlich] vocabulary of the “they” (cf. H. 126-7). Therefore, to the extent that Heidegger remains reluctant to question what is ordinarily self-evident, i.e., a deep-rooted antisemitism, his narrative rivets the “long error and/or wandering of the West” (30). And yet if one prefers rewording this finding in the rhetoric of the Black Notebooks, it would be Heidegger’s own “thoughtlessness” to assume the antisemitism of the tradition.

There is another facet of Heidegger’s banality, and that is more deeply entangled with the core of the Heideggerian enterprise. Nancy quotes Elisabeth Rigal to summarize the issue: “Heidegger’s error is to have believed in a unique destining” (42). To explain, despite its difference from the traditional understanding of history as the succession of happenings [Historie], Heidegger’s understanding of history as destining of being inherits the idea of “origin” from the tradition. Thus, having a proper, authentic, delineable and determinable origin, viz., Ancient Greek thought, which is also free from the “darkening of the world” (69), the entire history is perceived with reference to that origin and to everything inscribed within it, that is, decline, second beginning, etc. Hence, the multiplicity of peoples is—not melted into or sublated by but—conglomerated into one single heterogeneous play of forces revolving around the first beginning towards the second beginning upon the unique destining of being (41-2). Having related the concept “origin” to the “uniqueness of destining,” Nancy claims that this obsession with the origin is the “metaphysical” obsession par excellence, which led Heidegger into his own way of self-hatred (47), which is in general the peculiarity of Western metaphysics. Therefore, what is obstructed [verstellt] in the discourse of Heidegger is the possibility of a wholly other destining, which would entail the acknowledgement of, if not respect for, the Jews as a people towards an other destiny than what Heidegger thinks to be the singular one.

However, these do not mean that the Destruktion of ontology, as an attempt to destabilize that which is ordinarily self-evident, has to operate within a self-annihilating banality. As for the first facet of the banality of Heidegger, Nancy points out that the Heideggerian impetus has resulted in the flourishing of many philosophical pathways, such as that of Levinas, Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, which did not “pick up anything remotely resembling anti-Semitism from the always murmuring gutters of banality” (47). As for the second facet, Nancy considers Heidegger’s thought not as a static doctrine but as a way of questioning which is open to transformation. Thus, he still has the hope that the currently unpublished volumes of the Black Notebooks may harbor a transformation in Heidegger’s understanding of “beginning” (38). Furthermore, Nancy also thinks that Heidegger’s thought already implies the Destruktion of the “rage for the initial or for the archi-” even though that rage is one of the main tenets that shape how Heidegger considers historiality; accordingly, it would still be “thinking” [Denken] even if the uniqueness of destining is questioned (43).

On the whole, by way of deconstructive plays with the intertwined textual tensions in Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, Nancy’s reading demonstrates that Heidegger’s unthought partakes in the antisemitism which has been a constitutive element of the discourse of Western thought since the early days of Christianity. Identification of the Jewish people with the “thoughtless will to domination” is the persistent characterization on which the entire antagonism is built in the Black Notebooks. Nevertheless, it must also be noted that Heidegger’s antisemitism does not stem from the racial principle of Nazism; it rather takes its departure from the concept of the destining of being, according to which, as Nancy’s reading shows, Nazism is the German counterpart of “Jewishness,” both serving to the spiritual decline of the West. While Nancy examines the antisemitic character of the Black Notebooks, he in no way disregards the fact that Heidegger is one of the leading figures—and indeed he states Heidegger’s “operation was the most frontal” (12)—of contemporary thought. All in all, Nancy does not only think that the Destruktion of ontology can operate without the antisemitic elements in Heidegger’s thought, but also demonstrates that the Heideggerian legacy paves the way for the deconstruction of those very elements.


Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. Harper & Row, 1962.

———. Ponderings II-VI: Black Notebooks 1931-1938. Trans. Richard Rojcewicz. Indiana UP, 2016.

Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production. Vol. 1. Trans. Samuel Moore. Wordsworth, 2013.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Banality of Heidegger. Trans. Jeff Fort. Fordham UP, 2017.

[1] All page references are to The Banality of Heidegger unless stated otherwise.

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