Adam Knowles: Heidegger’s Fascist Affinities: A Politics of Silence

Heidegger's Fascist Affinities: A Politics of Silence Book Cover Heidegger's Fascist Affinities: A Politics of Silence
Adam Knowles:
Stanford University Press
2019
Paperback $28.00
256

Reviewed by: Gabriel Popa (Independent Scholar)

One may approach Heidegger’s affinities with the National Socialism movement starting from the most evident/overtly expressions as in his rectoral address Self assertion of the German university and other so called political writings or discourses from 1933-1934, continuing with the now available Black Notebooks which offer some of Heidegger’s private insight regarding the intellectual foundation of his “spiritualized” Nazism (including the anti-Semitic dimension), and then start a thorough examination of Heidegger’s GA in order to find the proper philosophical justification for such abhorring political views. All of that has been done and will probably occupy or contaminate any future research even if it not conducted with a sole view on these specific topics. There are efforts trying to identify and to reconcile Heidegger’s more arid topics of being and historicity with his political views[i], while, on some part, Heidegger invites us to do so, by allowing and even imposing his ontology upon such things as the German state, soil, blood, Volk and its Führer.

The fact is that Heidegger tries not only to justify, but to ground National Socialism as the political-spiritual expression of his perpetual quest for authenticity, historicity, origin and other recurrent themes, within a world that blinds itself, forgetful of being. It is not clear what type of reflection would be able to clarify if Heidegger was a Nazi avant la lettre, or if he sought to take advantage of a position like the rector of Freiburg University in order to impose some of his views and try to reverse the German and the worldly spiritual decline. When he tries such a thing, he does it by an appeal which is always to be found within Heidegger’s seminars, namely an appeal to the root or the origin of Western thought, the Greek philosophy and its seminal connection with the German language and spirit.

What Adam Knowles does in his book, is to propose us a reflection about this rootedness of Heidegger’s affiliation with Nazi movement, which is to be found within the German-Greek exploitation of a phenomenon which does not allow a frontal confrontation if only because the object of research lies beneath and hides under any attempt at overtly expressing it, being it in writing, speaking, or artistic configurations.

The main constellations of terms and expressions configuring most themes within Heidegger’s Fascist Affinities are related to language (discourse or speech), rootedness and their counterparts, silence and uprootedness. There is a double play here between speech and silence exposed through the intervention of sigetics – a peculiar form of privation stemming from Aristotle and used here to suggest the absence of speech or the presence of absence of speech. When turning to Greek meaning of legein, Heidegger often relies on one of its originar meanings as gathering, while Knowles emphasizes this throughout his book in order to suggest that, progressively, Heidegger’s own use of language related expression come to determine more of an ontic placing of one’s attunement to being while, in opposition, the uprotedness brought by modern Machenshaft and Gestell (127) or even by the infamous “world Jewry” (7), is nothing but an attempt of a worldwide desewering making the ones caught in this turmoil a-topoi and a-logoi (147).

Against this background of an accelerated deterioration of an already fallen possibility of average language to express being, which is nonetheless a lack of a proper audience for him, Heidegger will employ a strategy of a disclosure which conceals what is most essential in order to preserve a space of authenticity which is not to be betrayed by complete silence (25). An entire “hermeneutics of reticence” (26) is thus deployed, underlying both public appearances and periods of complete silence, which is but “the core of Heidegger’s life, teaching, politics, and thinking” (26).

Arguably as it may seem, the above sentence turns the reader towards the ontic background and implication of Heidegger’s entire life’s interrogation addressing being and its various determinations, while it is mainly the politic dimension which may help us best understand this ontic exposure of both being and the one which is to be its keeper as Da-sein. As a politics of silence, which serves as a subtitle of this Knowles book, Heidegger seemed to see is as the possibility of a European spiritual renaissance appraised in terms of German-Greek congeniality, thus preserving a space of clearing for the historical disclosure of being, while we may count it as one of the most influential encounters, in terms of its impact and consequences for both parties, between philosophy and political regimes, wherefrom we may “draw larger conclusions about the response of the humanities to totalitarian regimes, and in particular about philosophy’s historical contribution to ethno-nationalist authoritarian regimes” (8).

Emphasizing sigetics in Heidegger’s work and speeches has no other ground than the fact that, in Knowles’ terms, it is “one of the branches of his philosophy most deeply saturated with anti-Semitic and völkisch affinities” (56). The latter are best depicted when reading Heidegger against a background of deeply anti-Semitic and nationalistic writings of some of Heidegger’s contemporaries, which, even if not so philosophically convincing, are more closely connected in both spirit and language, to a general trend in Weimar Germany.

Various instances of silence are also analyzed in terms of instituting a red wire connecting Greek Dasein and the Nordic-Germanic soul, while both are seen in their average comportment and even physiognomic features as being profoundly attuned to a space of silence and reticence. These are set against an enemy depicted as the rootles foreigner, being it the capitalist, the city dweller or even the world Jewry (40). The affinities between Heidegger and his more völkish contemporaries are found both their proximity of language visiting current themes and in Heidegger openly anti-Semitic and anti-modern passages of his writings, correspondence and speeches, of which the most notorious is his first speech as Rector of Freiburg University in 1933.

But sometimes Knowles falls prey to his own attempt of impregnating every instance of Heidegger’s silence with traces of National Socialism and anti-Semitism as when emphasizing one of the passages of SuZ within the existential analysis of Dasein as instantiating the above opposition between silence, reticence and rootless verbiage. In short, Knowles assimilates Heidegger’s famous discussion of one’s world’s intelligibility where the initial guidance is prompted by concern and circumspection and there is no need for sentential legein as things are firstly seen in their ready-to-hand dimension, with the peasantry understanding of handiwork which goes by without unnecessary verbiage such as to be found in one of Heidegger’s contemporaries (48). There is also no need for words between coworkers, in Heidegger’s passage, since they share the same understanding of their tools and of the work to be done (as being-in-the world and being-toward). But what Heidegger does within the lines emphasized by Knowles is to point out explicitation as a relative way of understanding and interpretation, while the latter usually go by in circumspective concern, that is without need of  explicit wording, and the former lays out the explicit features of a thing making it suitable for logical assertion. It would require a biased hermeneutical travail to find in Heidegger’s own “without wasting words” which are to be found in SuZ 157, some political commitment being it National Socialism or some other.

Third and fourth chapters are the most philosophically intriguing and original ones, dealing with the transition Heidegger makes between a preliminary idea of silence tied to the existential dimension of discourse (rede) as seen in SuZ, and, through the intervention of nothing and notness in his What is Metaphysics?, a more thorough analysis of silence in connection to his interpretation of Aristotle from 1931. The hermeneutical effort of Knowles is here as its best, searching for clues to support his main thesis, for which these two chapters offer the red wire connecting Heidegger’s phenomenology with his political views, while setting the ontological on the way to its ontical promiscuity by means of a silence which will find its way to both world and word.

Mainly based on an original reading of chapter 34 of SuZ, the reader will find the third chapter to develop some of Heidegger’s less explicit intention, while his own reticence in finding an expression for the unspeakable will be translated by Knowles as a struggle “to develop a language adequate to the task of bringing silence to language as silence” (75). Heidegger’s analysis in chapter 34 of SuZ employs discourse as another existentiale of Dasein, alongside understanding and attunement, while language is the mean that discourse finds for its expression within the world. As vocalization of discourse (60), language will be then its worldly being or dimension, thus both the possibility and the completion of expression (as utterance and statement) rendering discourse to public disclosure within the averageness of the “they”, in the proximity of chatting and idle talk.

 The nothing which silence brings through the call of conscience into the very meaning of discourse (73, 74) leaves the interrogation open since Heidegger does not yet render this nothingness to its ontological dimension (which will eventually happen in What is metaphysics?). SuZ works its way through the already established conceptual architecture of the Dasein‘s existential constitution as fully immersed in the everyday averageness, while Heidegger is not yet eager to employ the full scale ontological apparatus needed in order for Dasein to find its way back from the scattered world of das Man. Appraised in SuZ as a possibility belonging to discourse and rendered merely to an ontic opposition to fallen and scattered language, while reticence could only bring forth for Dasein the possibility of its withdrawal from the public sphere of chatting and idle talk (74), silence will finally insinuate within the existenzial-existenziell hiatus between discourse and language, merging them and contributing to the collapse of this difference.

As a clarification for the reader, the issue at stake here is to find a way to deliver the more authentic – existential dimension of discoursing to a language which is already fallen, but not only as silence and listening as these are the only possibilities belonging to “discoursing speech” (a transitional expression itself) listed in the 34th chapter of SuZ, but as and within a meaningful speech. “That is to say”, in Knowles’ words, “Heidegger cannot capture the possibility of speaking through silence until language becomes folded into silence to such a degree that it even requires silence.” (73) This would only happen few years later, when the analysis of silence will get a decisive clue from Aristotle’s idea of withdrawal within his opposition between dynamis and energeia.

The idea is to capture silence through and within legein, that is through a kind of “discoursive speech” which is no longer opposed to vocalization as a form of corrupted speech, but it makes way for steresis, understood as a type of privation that withdraws/robs (robbing) what essentially belongs to something or someone, as sickness is a privation of health or blindness is a privation of seeing. In the same vein, while in the SuZ the absence of overt utterance does not necessarily mean that interpretation or discourse are absent, here we may find that even in the presence of speaking there may be a form of silencing still active which does not mean the absence of words. The idea of steresis clears the path for the introduction of silence into the handicraft of writing (81), by means of altering, if not totally collapsing, the distinction between discourse and language. As a form of poiesis, it will guide one through the manifoldness of logos, according to a guiding meaning (96), working its way by means of separation and elimination of wrong paths, same way as the “sculptor hews away the marble to bring out a form” (99).

In his interpretations to Aristotle’s Metaphysics Θ2, Heidegger takes model and form to be confronted with material as to bound what is initially unbounded, and this is the meaning of the opposition enacted by what the Greeks understood by enantia and enantiotes: “a lying opposites each other and confronting each other face to face (GA33, 119)[ii]. Within production, such a confrontation is always guided by the model, eidos, which is foreseen or re-presented, and will act like a catalyzing force within the producer’s soul, “by bringing into bounds of what belongs to a model” and it does it by means of ” a selective gathering of what belongs together” (GA33, 121). The assimilation of model with logos is now two-folded, once through the meaning of logos as gathering and again through the its more current meaning as discourse and language, when what is to be produces is addressed during its production as what is to be present later. When visiting these themes, alongside some of Heidegger’s public speeches and notes within his Black Notebooks, Knowles will emphasize the selective nature of logos (99, 100), since it works by means of progressive exclusions as during the production guided by eidos, the initial unbounded material will finally give way to what is to be produced. Selection and exclusion are re-instantiated through recalling various statements of Heidegger during the same period when he lectures about Aristotle’s Metaphysics, thus connecting them to some popular thesis among völkish movement and even, questionably indeed, with the Nazi language of eugenics (100).

With some help from Heidegger’s Black Notebooks starting from the early 1930s, what Knowles wants the reader to acknowledge is another dimension of Heidegger’s famous Kehre, in terms of an in-famous turn towards a more political history of being which will become more and more appraisable in terms of a destinal community between the Greek people and German Völk. While this transition usually revolves around stressing the inception of new understanding of the place of being as Ereignis (event), in order to emphasize Heidegger’s immersion in the proxy facticity of a Nazi Germany, Knowles focuses on the “steretic” dimension of Heidegger activity during those times, bringing together his public appearances, writings, public notes and letters.

There are two chapters (5 and 6) dealing with different instances of exclusion which may be found in Greek philosophy and literature, supposedly revived by Heidegger through his fascination with the Greek rooted inception of the long standing quest for being and manifold possibility of expressing it more or less adequate. As we expect, Greek philosophy, literature and politics have a lot to offer in terms of exclusion grounded on various traits starting from human physiognomy, gender, citizenship and social status. Focusing on the possibility of acquiring the proper measure for speaking, Knowles analysis starts by tracing the crudest, earliest forms of exclusion, the Pythagorean physiognomic human traits and gestures rendering one as (im)proper for philosophical training, in order to complete the first chapter with an interpretation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, “especially in Aristotle’s concern with the proper amount of precision applicable to the analysis of the matter at hand”(104).

Regarding Aristotle, the whole of ethical inquiry involves the least of precision in terms of its status as a science, since it involves the least amount of generality, addressing one’s proper comportment within a particular situation. Aristotle’s analysis is carried on searching for proper means of acting within different situations, while the impossibility of an all encompassing cartography of the latter involves the impossibility of acquiring a standard set of resolutions which may grant us knowledge similar to that of logic, mathematics or physics. The one endowed with phronesis[iii], is said to be able to skillfully deliberate regarding the means for attaining the proper measure when facing a states of matter which could be ethically appraised. This time, having already in mind what is to be said about connecting Heidegger through his sigetics to Aristotle’s ethical inquiry, Knowles shortcuts a text which usually poses difficult problems for Aristotle’s scholars, in order to find that, since prudence is only acquirable through a certain length of time, it may also be a matter of disposition, making thereafter a peculiar transition to “one’s potential fitness or unfitness for philosophy” being “nonetheless a matter of one’s disposition, as indicated by the careful delineation of different types of character in the Nichomachean Ethics” (118, 119).

Not being in the position to deliver a lengthy discussion of Aristotle’s text, we must nevertheless remind the reader that the main question which drives Aristotle’s investigations in his Nicomachean Ethics is directed towards the chief good which may be obtained as a result of our actions, the own most possibility of the human being, his most desirable state or condition. Now, phronesis is that faculty of the soul through which it attains the truth in regard to things whose principles could be otherwise, namely the action which is ethically appraisable in terms of virtues and vices. Objects of prudence are matters of actions, therefore both universals and particulars, but mainly the latter (1141b 20). There is a difference between the acquiring of knowledge in mathematics or geometry and prudence, which reside in the fact that the former do not suppose an experience to be accumulated over the years (objects and principles come from abstraction in case of mathematics, 1142a 15), while these later fields are concerned with things like individuals or principles which mostly come from experience. Prudence is then a peculiar kind of a natural disposition of the soul, not of a kind to be born with, but a disposition which is acquired through experience, and which is said to be the prerequisite of skilful deliberation according to correct reasoning about issues the moral virtues are concerned with.

Wherefrom the moral virtues are usually attainable through experience and habit, and not through inner disposition, there is no philosophical formation required for Aristotle concerning the attaining of moral virtues, while it is sophia, the fifth and the highest capacity of the soul which will turn out to be the one that is best suited in terms of human happiness, being mostly connected to a such a intellectual formation. The reader may find Heidegger’s own interpretation of Aristotle’s phronesis in his Natorp Report[iv] and Sophist, in order to find out that his own emphasis of Aristotle’s term is more connected to Heidegger’s early analysis concerning the hermeneutics of facticity and temporality. Nevertheless, Knowles is perhaps too eager to provide us with his hermeneutical commitments when stating that “Heidegger’s lecture courses on Greek philosophy [thus] must be read as deeply political pedagogical acts intended to teach hearers how to better dwell within the proper place” (124). Place, which is a late theme in Heidegger’s thinking, is easier to connect with contemporary völkish themes and figures, following an already settled way of argumentation in Knowles which translates silence into sigetics and the latter into different form of exclusions, race or gender based.

Besides Aristotle’s general statement about the scientific deficit which essentially impacts the ethical inquiry, Knowles also emphasizes some of Aristotle’s worries about that type of discourse regarded by Heidegger in SuZ as chatter and idle talk, which may impeach virtuous reasoning and acting. An act of reticence and even silence is needed when feeling the danger of placing ourselves in situations that may be considered unworthy of a free man. We must remind the reader that what Aristotle does during his inquiry is to search for that middle ground between lack and excess and for the means of attaining it, while speaking and listening are actions both ethically appraisable in their selves but also deeds which may impact the means to achieve an ethical comportment. Instead, Knowles’ analysis revolves around the groundedness and groundlessness of legein which, stemming from its meaning as gathering, may facilitate the encounter and understanding of concerned matters, when properly used, or, contrary, it may sever the speaker from the things spoken about. This may be the case and there is here an undisputedly common ground between Aristotle and Heidegger, but the connection between prudence, silence, sigetics and what follows, namely the transition to Heidegger’s völkish themes fall short of being convincing.

What gathering means in terms of language is said to be a motif of Heidegger’s attunement to such gatherings as inward gathering and völkish gathering which may even be attained through serving in labor camps, militias and other para-military organizations (123, 124). Surely, Heidegger’s own scattered but nevertheless anti-modern and anti-Semitic nuances within his Black Notebooks during the 30s, invites us to such an interpretation, as Knowles remarks (124). If Heidegger seized the National Socialist revolution as a way to give political reality to his ideas[v], even if he later refutes the possibility of philosophy offering guidance for actual living[vi], the invitation to read Heidegger’s analysis of language in these terms would be similar to what Knowles has warned us against, namely to read Heidegger backwards.

Nevertheless, analyzing steresis in terms of different gestures of exclusion does right to Heidegger when inscribing him within a long standing philosophical tradition, while the privilege Heidegger contents to Greek philosophy maintains all of the latter’s forms of exclusion. The Black Notebooks translates these into various explicit ontic instances of denying access to authenticity, the history, event or the topology of being, as we traverse the development of Heidegger’s philosophy (125). As Jeff Malpas states when Assesing the significance of Heidegger’s Black Notebooks in 2016, those subsequent gestures of exclusion would culminate in Heidegger remaining the only one being able to grasp the call of being.

Knowles interprets Heidegger’s later assumptions regarding a possible topology of being, namely the emergence of an explicit concern with place which will also translate in Machenshaft giving way to Gestell, as an adaptation of Greek make self-mastery stemming from one’s habituation within a polis (126). The latter determines the being-there (das Da) of the historical being in terms of both temporality and place, thus allowing a fully fledged coming into being of its gods, temples, priests and all other essential figures which populates the various Greek expressions of being (147). Being a-polis or a-topos, out of place, does not mean here an exclusion in terms of physical interdiction, but it characterizes a complex and seemingly paradoxical situation, of being at the same time within and without polis, which is best illustrated by the “measureless measure” of the feminine figure in Greek lyrical and philosophical compositions. The duplicitous figure of woman is said to be a-topos by mean of her being a-logos, thus not being granted with free speech while, at the same time, her silence being treated as essentially deceptive. In Knowles’ words, “Women possess logos in a manner of not-having that is not a full privation, for their very having is a not-having—a relationship best described as steretic” (147). This type of steresis is more of a dramatization of Aristotle’s concept, thus describing a kind of a structural privation, which is not yet full, but nevertheless essential.

When used in depicting Heidegger’s own use and analysis of instances of silences, steresis suggests a more voluntary use of silence and reticence in order to be able to come to terms with a more proper use of language or to conceal what one would consider that it would not be yet suitable to openly express due to historical and/or average means of understanding.

Before one starts dwelling into the multifaceted meaning and relevance of such an encounter, between the most preeminent/notable figure of the XXth Century philosophy and a criminal organization such as the NSDAP political party, one has to inquiry its own motivation for approaching and assessing that fact. The fact, in Thomas Sheehan’s words, may be simply stated as there is no compromise in saying that Heidegger was a “blatant anti-Semite” and a supporter of the Nazi movement. As member of the NSDAP party and rector of the University of Freiburg, he delivers speeches which, beside his perpetual verbose about the history and destiny of being, may be easily counted as political guidelines for Nazi members, supporters or even for the yet unconvinced. As to his anti-Semite worldview, it is supported by explicit evidence in his infamous marginalia known as the Black Notebooks.

The author of Heidegger’s Fascist Affinities writes after the initial shockwave of Heidegger’s now explicit mentioning of anti-Semitism has passed, and when we may be able to take stock of what has been achieved through consulting his most intimate notes, as to the relevance they may bring for phenomenological inquiry and for Heidegger’s scholars. Even if they are usually disregarded as to their philosophical insights, there are some private mentions made by Heidegger which may prove useful in philosophical key, especially regarding Heidegger’s turning points of the transition from one dimension of being, temporality, to others like event, logos or place. Another key aspect of the publication of the Notebooks, targeting a larger audience, is the possibility of providing some insights of a never-ending story concerning the possibility of assessing one’s opera per se, regardless or even in spite of his or her personal life-options.

Turning towards Heidegger’s Fascist Affinities, we may say that this is one of the most philosophically engaging works related to Heidegger’s political views, which unrolls/unravels as a meta-investigation of the polivocality of logos and legein, while the main interrogation addresses Heidegger’s ontological motivation for keeping his most striking worldly notes private. We call it a meta-investigation since it appears to be an investigation of Heidegger’s own inquiry about the possibility of keeping silent pertaining to and within language itself.

As to the place of the Black Notebooks within Heidegger’s work, it must be said that firstly they offer Heidegger a place where he may come back every time he considers that overtly discoursing is in danger to lose its rootedness and grounding, in other words, a place which may be seen as a reservoir of authenticity, where he may somehow overtly speak through silence without any compromise that may be needed in order to get published and/or promoted or even for the care of average comprehensibility. This is the ontological meaning of placing the Black Notebooks, but here is its ontical counterpart: placing authenticity and sigetics in their rooted, inherited tradition and land, that is placing them within the völkish, rural dimension of German landscape, and this means away from the corruption of urban areas infected with modern technology and idle talk, which aggressively disrupt and aggravate/hasten the fallenness of a language already fallen. Away from fallenness, this happens by a double folded gesture of exclusion mirroring the ontological-ontical dimension of placing the Black Notebooks. Namely, there will be an ontological exclusion of anything that may accelerate the oblivion of being which already characterizes western civilization, but also the ontic exclusion of anything and anyone who may threaten even more the proper housing of being within language. While in SuZ the average dimension of discourse which is language is looked upon especially as a proper technique for the existential analysis of being-in-the-world, starting with the 1930s, and especially in the Black Notebooks, Heidegger builds its own sigetic way of interrogation for delivering, as much as possible, the proper tools for speaking through silence.

How and where do we place Heidegger? But, maybe more important, where do we place ourselves as readers of the history of western civilization and philosophy? Are we situated as objective, neutral observers of some historical facts and figures of which we may dispose, with the means offered by the possibility of an objective confrontation? Thrashing Heidegger out of the history of philosophy or absolving him of any philosophical commitment to national socialism would have us granted with the above high seat of objectivity and connoisseurs of “what would have been, if”. Presumably, we are not granted such a thing. As Rorty, Gadamer and even Heidegger, especially during his hermeneutical period, often observe, historical observation is never free of prejudices and biases, as long as the very interpretation is historically situated and conditioned.

Thus, as Adam Knowles warns us, we have to resist the temptation of reading Heidegger’s involvement with the National Socialism backwards, namely as being already in the position to confront the totality of Nazi regime, meaning its policy of political, ethical and racial annihilation of anything and anyone not willing or not being able to conform to its world-view. This implies, in Knowles’ view, that any consideration of Heidegger’s political involvement which may be tempted to diminish the relevance of Heidegger’s public or private defense of such a regime when measured against the large scale murder machinery of the same regime, should inquire into the motivation of an already tenured philosophy professor, nonetheless a notable international figure, willing to offer his support to an already dictatorial and authoritarian political movement. The gaze should be turned upon Heidegger’s fully appropriation/embrace of Nazi themes during his rectorate but also after this period, through a throughout investigation of his work, since this encounter wasn’t born out of nothing or by a misfortune.

On the other part, our abhorrence when reading some passages of the Black Notebooks, Heidegger’s discourse a rector at Freiburg, other related political discourses or writings, but also his scare phrases connecting him to the ”inner greatness” of the Nazi movement, is fully comprehensible since we see them against the background of the totality of its atrocities. Arguably, we will never be in the position of absolving him as naive and apolitical, since, as Besancon observes in his Century of Horrors, the fully fledged extermination policy of National Socialism strikes us as something extra-ordinay, beyond human comprehension, thus benefiting of a long lasting placing within our memory, especially when compared to its more easily forgettable dizygotic twin, communism.


[i] See the controversy between Thomas Sheehan and Emmanuel Faye.

[ii] Pagination indicates the samen English translation Knowles uses.

[iii] The English version Knowles uses translates it as “prudence”.

[iv] “Phenomenological Interpretations in Connection with Aristotle: An Indication of the Hermeneutical Situation”

[v] According to Jeff Malpas “assessment of Heidegger’s Black Notebooks“.

[vi] Heidegger’s interview in Der Spiegel. 

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