Andrew J. Mitchell, Peter Trawny (Eds.): Heidegger’s Black Notebooks: Responses to Anti-Semitism

Heidegger's Black Notebooks: Responses to Anti-Semitism Book Cover Heidegger's Black Notebooks: Responses to Anti-Semitism
Andrew J. Mitchell, Peter Trawny (Eds.)
Columbia University Press
2017
Paperback $30.00 / £24.95
280

Reviewed by: Joeri Schrijvers (Independent Scholar)

Heidegger’s Black Notebooks. Responses to Anti-Semitism is a collection of essays in which an impressive gathering of scholars interprets Heidegger’s statements in the now notorious Black Notebooks. The book contains the conference proceedings of a symposium at Emory University. The essays vary in length and most of them respond to Peter Trawny’s interpretation of Heidegger’s antisemitism in his Freedom to Fail. Heidegger’s Anarchy and Heidegger and the Myth of a Jewish World Conspiracy.

There is little doubt that the Notebooks show Heidegger at his worst. Most of the commentaries agree on the rather poor intellectual quality of the notebooks, packed with repetitive arguments and personal lamentations as they are. In this volume, complaints are made against the “philosophical kitsch” (40), against the “sour mood” (76) of the “man with a worldview” (92) and so on. What matters most, however, are those “unfortunately unforgettable” (134) passages in which Heidegger inserts Judaism into the grand scheme of the ‘history of being’. The ‘Responses to Anti-Semitism’ in this book vary from pointing to the extreme stereotyping with which Heidegger proceeds to trying to understand Heidegger’s argumentation and detecting their value, if any. Several of the contributors, Sander Gilman and Robert Bernasconi especially, emphasize that Heidegger was part of the long-standing tradition of antisemitism in European culture—and students of philosophy, today, should not forget that in Heidegger’s time, in Germany, it was harder not to be a Nazi than to actually be one as the majority of Germans followed Hitler and his regime.

As for antisemitism in German philosophy, one can find in the volume rather embarrassing statements of Kant, Hegel and Fichte. Philosophers, though, are seldom saints. In this regard, it is good to recall that Derrida has famously pointed to similar occurrences of denigrating Eurocentrism not only in Fichte’s work but also in Husserl’s: responding to Heidegger’s antisemitism, we will have to ponder what exactly the difference is between Husserl’s exclusion of “Eskimos, Indians, travelling zoos or gypsies” from ‘spiritual Europe’ and Heidegger’s awkward remarks about “semitic nomads” in the seminar Nature, History, State or the exclusion of the “Negros” from time and history proper in Logic as the Question Concerning the Essence of Language speaks.[i]

I will not do Heidegger the honor of repeating the passages of these Notebooks in full. Peter Gordon argues that “much of the antisemitic material found in the Schwarze Hefte”, are not “terribly surprising, since [they] largely confir[m], though [they] gave a certain added philosophical depth to, the evidence that was already available in disparate sources” (136). This philosophical depth, in a way, is what Peter Trawny calls ‘being-historical anti-Semitism’. Heidegger’s error, however, is not the insertion of a petite philosophical concept in the grander system of his history of being. Rather, it is that much of the language the Schwarze Hefte uses to describes Judaism can lend itself to the must vulgar of racisms. The Jews are said to be without world, without time, without history—everything, in short, that would make for a ‘proper’ human being. Judaism has contributed, Heidegger says, and perhaps even caused the ‘forgetting of being’ because they supposedly do nothing else than calculate and swindle. And so on. It is good to be clear, too, about how shocking Heidegger’s ontic comportment towards his fellow Jews was. These facts are known: his rectorship, addressing his audience under the aegis of the swastika, his involvement in the Gleichschaltung or nazification of Freiburg University… All these things should never stop shocking us, readers of Heidegger.

Prior to the Schwarze Hefte, it was all too common to separate the man from the thinker and his philosophy: the man Heidegger certainly has its flaws, it was said, but his philosophy by no means had a predilection toward Nazism. The reasoning was anything but flawless and the Schwarze Hefte make clear just how well Heidegger’s views of ‘world Jewry’ fit into his narrative of the history of being. Such a ‘being-historical anti-Semitism’ means that Judaism actively has contributed to the ‘forgetting of being’: its scheming supposedly makes for the fact that all we do now is reckon with beings; its conspiracy such that it is Jews only who benefit from this ‘destruction’ of the earth, the Verwüstung der Erde of which the later Heidegger speaks. Just as Christian antisemitism will blame the Jews for their Gottesverlassenheit, so Heidegger use the Jews as a scapegoat for our Seinsverlassenheit. This antisemitism would have offended almost no one in the 1920s and 1930s. What is noteworthy in Heidegger’s history of being, is that no one, apart from the Greeks and of course the Germans, could any longer ‘hear’ the ‘voice of being’ and that the Jews were forever excluded from this possibility to hear the signals, the Winke, ‘beyng’ was supposedly sending. The antisemitism lies in the fact that the ‘ontological make-up’ of the Jews is such that they are unable to come up with an ontology. For Heidegger, this was the worst indictment possible. It would mean that Jews were condemned to inauthenticity and that no voice of conscience would extricate them, even if only instantaneously, from the field of the ‘anyone’. Just as they would remain deaf to being, the ‘being-historical’ antisemitism denotes that being will remain forever deaf to them.

Trawny’s essay speaks in this regard of an “apocalyptic reduction” (5).[ii] This ‘apocalyptic reduction’ is a sort of superstructure to the ontic and ontological realm of which Being and Time spoke, although both realms are now assigned certain histories: certain ontic ‘people’ are attuned to ontology and to being more specifically. On the one hand, there’s the great Greeks who had an experience of being, phusis, that soon came to be forgotten and now, urgently, lest the earth be destructed, needs to be ‘repeated’. This repetition falls to the Germans: only the Germans can lead the other people into the sending and the spreading of being. Apart from these two people, no one and no other culture has anything proper to contribute to the question of being: not the Romans who degraded the experience of the Greeks, not the Christians who imitated and so weakened the experience of ‘Rome’, not the ontotheologically sedated Christians of the Middle Ages, not the narcissistic consciousness of the moderns, and certainly not the Americans, the English or the Russian who only contribute to the spreading (Austrag) of a very limited experience of being, namely the experience of Machenschaft and Gestell, one that can only reckon with beings and knows no longer of being.

Heidegger did sense that something was ending. Several papers in this volume seem to agree that this narrative, the narrative of a first beginning in Greece and a second, other beginning in Germany, now has to be abandoned. This, however, need not mean that Heidegger overstated the ‘end’ of metaphysics. What is needed, Peter Gordon argues, is a “critical appropriation” (149) of Heidegger’s insights concerning the “dismantling” of metaphysics (147) and the concomitant effort of “working out the ‘unthought’ in the thought of the canonical texts” (150). Bernasconi, likewise, states that the forms of oppression that slipped into the canon of philosophy should be addressed and that the impetus for this comes from Heidegger (184). Heidegger’s thought perhaps comes with its own “unthought”, or, as Michael Marder signals, with “the thoughtless […] in the midst of rigorous thought” (101).

We should be aware, as Peter Gordon argues, that “Heidegger himself chose to yoke together his complaints about the metaphysical tradition with crude and counterfactual generalizations about the Jews” (147). Just as we cannot separate the man from the thinker, so too Heidegger has ‘yoked together’ the ontic and the ontological. It is this that we must ponder (and I think this is one of the lessons of the Notebooks). We must be careful about this mix between the ontic and the ontological, for it easily leads to errors. Even if one wants to distance oneself from Heidegger or leave, like Levinas, the ‘climate of this philosophy’, this needs some “intellectual effort”.[iii] For instance, Eduardo Mendieta reads Heidegger’s antisemitic remarks about the supposed ‘worldlessness’ of the Jews into the ‘worldlessness’ of which Die Grundbegriffe der Metaphysik speaks (51). Yet what Heidegger denies to Judaism is not the same as what he denies to animals, for it would not be possible to attribute calculation and number to animals. There is no easy, immediate link between the antisemitic outbursts of the Notebooks and the other works. Bettina Bergo similarly seems to imply, in her suggestive but somewhat obscure essay, that Heidegger’s difference between ontological ‘dying’ and ontic ‘perishing’ might also be valid for those that came to ‘perish’ in the camps (73).

Yet we should not minimize Heidegger’s ontic failures. One must philosophize with care here, though, for the following line needs quite some elaboration: “To overcome this anti-Semitism, then, will require to overcome metaphysics” (xxv). The sentence rings well in a conference brochure, but, in print, needs some extra argument. One of the things to keep in mind, as the introduction also states, when it comes to Heidegger’s antisemitism is that we should not minimize these antisemitic passages as if these were mere ‘ontic’ slips. Even though there is but ten sentences or so amidst 1800 pages of Notebooks that are clearly antisemitic, one must state just as well that one cannot be a Nazi just a little bit. Others have argued that, even though the man Heidegger clearly had his flaws, his thinking in no way whatsoever has anything to do with Nazism (xx-xxi)—these responses maximize Heidegger’s ‘ontology’ as it were, which supposedly is devoid of anything ontic. I think the Notebooks clearly contradict the latter claim and agree with the claim that Heidegger went astray somewhere at the end of Being and Time when he started to speak of the ‘destiny’ of a people. There is in effect a bit of an army in Being and Time; Levinas was not wrong when he sensed that community in Heidegger isn’t more than marching together.[iv] If one should not exclusively focus on these ontic missteps nor, for that matter, on the ontological being-historical antisemitism, where to go then?

Trawny’s earlier book helps here: “what happens to philosophy when we attempt to exclude it in advance from the danger of anti-Semitism? […] Overcoming anti-Semitism can only succeed by drawing near to it […] The opinion that it is always others who are anti-Semites is a cop-out. It is ‘I’ who am the anti-Semite”.[v] What both of the above strategies share is in effect a sort of immunization: the ‘ontic’ approach states that these passages are so minimal that one can still read Heidegger as if nothing has happened; the other ‘ontological’ approach will state that this antisemitism was there from the start and is, in effect, everywhere, so that one does not have to read Heidegger (pretty much what they had ‘in advance’ decided). The first response to antisemitism, or to racism more generally, would therefore be not to exclude ourselves from these traditions and, second, to acknowledge that the lowest of vulgarities can mix with the highest of philosophy. This first point is present in some contributions in this volume. Bernasconi’s essay is clear that Heidegger’s “accusers feed their sense of self-righteousness” (169). There is a real (and thoroughly unphilosophical) danger of selective indignation here: why are we appalled by Heidegger’s endeavors, but not so much by Husserl’s? Why can we still read Kant even when his anti-Judaism is as offending as Heidegger’s?

Bernasconi admonishes that the ‘intellectual effort’ needed to understand Heidegger’s failings now includes “racism, sexism, and Islamophobia” so that “scrutinizing Heidegger is […] the start of a larger inquiry or whether it is being conducted merely to make us feel morally superior” (185). Richard Polt warns that the Notebooks should make us think about “Heidegger’s limitations and our own” (97). Instead of rejecting Heidegger, instead of an unjustified reverence for the grand thinker of being, I think the more sober response would be to state that no one is immune for the projection of prejudices of all kinds into one’s thinking.

The supposed history of being might have led Heidegger to tell a totalitarian tale himself. The ‘apocalyptic reduction’ was such that he felt surrounded by beings and abandoned by beyng. Polt elucidates the steps of this reduction: first, there is the description of the “catastrophe” happening to culture through forgetting being and the rule of beings, then the stress on the rescue through those few who are capable of addressing the voice of being, and finally the complete disillusionment when this narrative doesn’t sit well with what was really happening.       Though the first stage might be harmless (although one must be wary of ‘apocalyptical tones’), it is in the second stage of this reduction that Heidegger went astray, even ontically: for a while there he must have believed in Hitlerism and the ‘inner truth’ of this movement to lead European culture back onto the right track (whatever that might be). Jaspers once wrote that Heidegger wanted to ‘educate’ the Führer and there is in effect a long section in Nature, History, State on who would be capable to attend to the Führer intellectually.[vi] Martin Gessmann’s essay points out that Heidegger wanted to execute the politics of Being and Time and lead an entire people, as it were, into authenticity (123). It seems the case that Heidegger himself quickly became disillusioned with National Socialism and by 1935-36 the critique of the movement grows. As Polt writes: “Heidegger loses […] faith that the […] inception can be provoked by a nationalist revolution; it becomes [an] elusive possibility to be explored by poets and thinkers” (80).

Not everyone is authentic, and certainly not the ‘anyone’ (das Man) of which Being and Time speaks: it takes a certain resoluteness and courage to take up this authenticity—even though, this ‘authentic stance’ is never permanent and, most often, bound to fail.[vii] It becomes more problematic when authenticity is reserved for this people rather than the other and certain ethnos is excluded from finding ‘its’ destiny and Heidegger forgets his admonishments in Being and Time with regard to such authenticity: ‘Germany’ now can take up, without failing, and without limit (at least thousand years!) its destiny.

Politics did make its way into his writings during his—brief but real—Nazi period. In his commentary on Nature, History, State, Bernasconi shows that “the project [known as] ‘the overcoming of metaphysics’ was initially developed in [the] context of a questioning of the Volk” because, soon after Being and Time’s Destruktion of the metaphysical tradition, this thematic will be replaced by an Überwindung of metaphysics.[viii] Heidegger entertained briefly the very ontic belief that national socialism would liberate us once and for all from metaphysics and its forgetting of being. The essence of this movement is to attune us once again to being. Whereas the Destruktion of 1927 means that one needs to work through and with the tradition in order to move forward and press into the future, the Überwindung of 1933 means that the time is ripe to overturn this tradition, to violently struggle against it, and leave it behind entirely—like many other Nazis, Heidegger became increasingly hostile to Christianity. The theme of ‘overcoming metaphysics’ stuck with Heidegger precisely because of this ontic belief in its overcoming, and the ontic role Hitler’s Nazism and Heidegger himself could play in its overturning. This has the consequence that, soon after his disillusionment with National Socialism, the movement in a sense is ‘in’ and ‘out’ of metaphysics at the same time: during his Nazi period, Heidegger believed that the ‘moment’ had come to liberate ourselves (or Germany at least) from metaphysics and that Nazism would do just this. Only a few months later, Heidegger noticed that National Socialism had, frankly, no interest in the philosophical ‘upliftment’ of humanity whatsoever, and could not but conclude that the movement itself was part and parcel of the metaphysical tradition the thinker then sought to ‘overcome’. After the ontic belief in the supposed ‘saving power’ of Nazism, Heidegger believed that metaphysics persisted.

It is, however, still Heidegger who is deciding who is in and who is out. In Of Spirit, Derrida mentions the presence of two “vibrations at the same time”[ix] in Heidegger, namely one that believed that this movement could embody the ‘spirit’ needed to tune in to being and another, more vague and more truthful use of spirit, stating that the ‘spirit’ of being remains ungraspable and absent. But this is not yet what is going on in Heidegger’s thinking here. Heidegger, when criticizing the movement, did perhaps no longer believe that this totalitarian rule awoke us to being, but he was very clear in naming instances that certainly could not incarnate the ‘spirit’ of being. This act of ‘naming’ who is in and who is out, itself, might be the mistake that led Heidegger to the gravest of opinions ontically: it is in any case ‘the cop-out’ that Trawny mentions.

Such ontic belief that philosophy could act upon the events of world history should concern us. Many of the contributors here agree that this mix between ontic beliefs and ontological viewpoints led Heidegger into error. We should ponder how such a link is to be conceived. Even in 1927 Heidegger acknowledged the ‘ontic ideal’ underlying his ontology, even when insisting on separating ontology from all things ontic. One might conceive a phenomenology that disturbs Heidegger’s neat distinction between ‘ontic’ fear and ontological anxiety for death, by thinking of ontic figures that incarnate this anxiety concretely: a terminal sickness has both ontic and ontological aspects—my death can announce itself quite concretely by this or that cancer, this or that hospital room, etc.

Yet when Heidegger links his ontology to ontic politics something goes wrong and Heidegger himself forgets that he is not immune to the things that he was warning against, namely metaphysics and instrumental rationality. Just as the ontic figures of National Socialism crept into Heidegger’s story of new beginnings, just so these figures had to take the blame for the absence of the need for another beginning. Marder argues that here “‘world Jewry’ is metaphysically deployed and loaded with the dirty work of world destruction” (99) and an utter absence of questioning becomes clear. Gessmann gestures similarly: it simply “gets scary once […] the history of Being is transformed into a ‘world-event [Weltereignis]’” (122). Yet when nothing happens, Gessmann argues, Heidegger turns to Nietzsche: a militaristic metaphysics of the will sets in around 1932. This disillusion is what we need to understand, for this history of being is such that, in becoming totalitarian, it becomes utterly detached from the actual events around Heidegger. Jean-Luc Nancy senses this when saying that all this talk about the ‘Es gibt’ of being ends up by caring very little about what is actually being given and happening.[x] Nothing that is happening will ever be able to falsify Heidegger’s history of being: it becomes totalitarian in the very precise sense that everything will fit into its grander narrative—if anything happens, say the heeding of the call of being in Germany, it will find its place in this history; likewise, if the feeling even the affliction of the Seinsverlassenheit is absent, it will similarly fit into the grander narrative of being. Heidegger always wins, but at the expense of an indifference and alienation that still needs to be understood.

For such an apocalyptic reduction puts the philosopher in the position of overseeing the world and its state of the affairs and he or she becomes the cosmotheoros. The problem with such an overseeing of world is not the least that the philosopher thinks himself able to pinpoint solution to the world’s problems. Bernasconi notes this tendency toward total understanding: “[distinctive is] the totalizing way in which his thought comes to operate. For Heidegger, almost everything belonging to Western metaphysics amounts to the same” (181). Heidegger obviously is not the first philosopher who claimed to comprehend ‘being and beings in their entirety’: it is this claim that he first condemned as ontotheology and to which he too succumbs in the 1930s. To explain this, one might consult the awkward passage (GA 94: 523)—mentioned here by Hans Gumbrecht—where Heidegger enlists the decisive moments in the “abyssal” history of Germany starting from ‘1806’ when Hölderlin went mad […] right up to “(9/26/1889)”—Heidegger’s birthday no less.

Here we once again have the (ontotheological) phantasm that one being (from within) would be able to grasp the entirety of beings (from without). We agree with Jeff Malpas’ recent reading of the Notebooks, when writing that, when disillusioned with politics, “Heidegger turns […] to the absolute primacy of the philosophical, withdrawing into a form of philosophical […] isolation […] even of philosophical alienation (a standing apart from the superficial and the mundane), in which the concern with being is given priority over everything else, including the political”.[xi]

This totalitarian way of thinking also shows itself in what Žižek calls “the obscenely pseudo-Hegelian way” (189) of Heidegger’s thought and which Polt elucidates as Heidegger’s “trope of finding sameness in oppositions” (86). The ‘intellectual effort’ required from us will be to discern when such ‘sameness’ actually was found and when it was not. This means that we need to take our distances from Heidegger’s dialectic and admit, for instance, that his wordplay is not always and everywhere convincing and that the attempt to write a ‘grand narrative’ of being perhaps is not the best his philosophy has to offer.

Several contributors point to such obscenities in the Notebooks. Žižek (on page 189) mentions Heidegger’s awkward thoughts on the “self-annihilation” (GA 97: 19) of the Jews, which in the history of being supposedly function as “a principle of destruction” (GA 97: 20). Heidegger seems to be dead serious in his victim blaming: the ones who have destroyed being will be destroyed themselves. Such ontic metaphors incite Krell to speak of an “unforgiving” tragic collapse and a “failure of thinking” in Heidegger, who often repeated that if being had abandoned us, this oblivion lay on the side of being and all beings would equally share in this abandonment.[xii] In a way, this act of name-dropping thus collapses the ontological difference between being and beings. Whether it concerns naming the ones able to attune us to being or naming those that are to blame for its forgetting, the mode of procedure remains identical. For Žižek, the ontological difference is understood as a “materialis[m] without regressing to an ontic view”, a difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ beings (200). It is to acknowledge that “reality is partial, incomplete […] and the Supreme being is the illusion imagined in order to fill in (obfuscate) this lack” (194). It is to forget that there is no final overlap between the signifier and the signified. Yet this lack is obfuscated when one turns to the divine as the ultimate signifier as well as when stating that certain people embody the call of being uniquely. The difference, one might say, is then inhabited (by a certain name) but no longer ausgehalten (in the nothing as Heidegger would say).

This ‘naming’ shows itself precisely when Heidegger ‘finds sameness in oppositions’. Marder speaks of a “complexio oppositorum” (110) that refuses to do its dialectical work. Then “international Jewry” in Heidegger becomes a ‘name’, a rigid designator that contains what cannot be contained: Judaism is worldless nomadism and yet they are cosmopolites, both pacifists that won’t fight for their country yet use a “imperialistic-warlike way of thinking” (GA 96:133) conquering the world—not unlike contemporary racism where certain people are depicted simultaneously as ‘poor’ and as ‘stealing our jobs’.

Polt mentions another example of Heidegger’s dialectic, for in these years Heidegger sees no difference between Nazi eugenics and Jewish attention to who counts as part of the chosen people. Both “reflect a calculative management of genetic resources” (86). Still later, Heidegger infamously sees no difference between gas chambers and industrial production.

I have no quibble admitting that these thoughts can be totalitarian. This does not mean, however, that this thinking cannot make us think and does in effect sometimes find sameness in opposition where one would not expect this. I similarly have no need of separating the man from the thinker and agree with Tom Rockmore’s statement that one needs to “surpass” (158) this distinction, for this philosophy is as affected by totalitarian antisemitism as the man himself was. Yet Rockmore’s argument is hardly convincing: it is not because the man and the thinker are related that this man cannot have thought great thoughts (even though, admittedly, not all these thoughts were great). Rockmore’s examples (which surfaced already in this review) to prove that Heidegger’s “being-historical anti-Semitism belongs less to the narrative about the history of being than to what one can call familiar German philosophical anti-Semitism” (163) prove exactly that—but also just that: that Heidegger was a child of his time, that he entertained a philosophical nationalism and that he too was prejudiced (as much as the next guy, I’d add). It seems Rockmore himself operates in quite the totalitarian manner: “once one admits that [anti-Semitism] is present anywhere in Heidegger’s theories, it almost immediately becomes visible […] everywhere or almost everywhere” (154). Here too some differences, between philosophy and opinion for instance, eclipse.

Heidegger’s thoughts on the enemy, which fascinates Trawny (12-13), are not particularly striking: I know of no nationalism that does not need one or the other enemy: the craving for identity of one people is always at the expense of the identity of the other. What needs to be thought is that Heidegger’s identity-politics from the mid-thirties onward also turns against National Socialism and why this critique remains unconvincing. Certainly, from the beginning of Heidegger’s relations to Nazism, people were, as Bernasconi notes, attacking him for “not being sufficiently Nazi” (177). Polt makes a strong case for Heidegger’s critique of Nazism (also in these Notebooks): Heidegger never entertains either their sheer biological racism or endorse their anti-intellectualism, their hostility to their enemies and their violent brutality (88).

Even then, Heidegger’s one and only question remains who is in and who is out when it comes to the ‘being-historical’ event of the end of metaphysics. National Socialism is now ranked alongside Christian scholasticism, Americanism and so on: stages on the way to the West’s end. Žižek states: “Heidegger’s critique of Nazism is […] a critique of the actually existing Nazism on behalf of its […] metaphysical ‘inner greatness’” (188). The mode of procedure has not changed: whereas first Nazism was deemed worthy of entertaining the question of being, now they are relegated to the many ‘still thinking metaphysically’ and cause the forgetting of being to spread. Nothing has changed: there is but one more instance that is named as part of metaphysics. For the possibility to think non-metaphysically only one being remains…

It didn’t occur to Heidegger, at this stage, that the other of metaphysics is not a property of this or that being, nor of a Volk. To turn to Derrida: if it was certain being was accessed only through language, then in the 1930s it was never questioned that this access had to happen through the German language. It is this ‘non-questioning’ that upsets Derrida, for it reveals something of an “unthought” in Heidegger: the priority of the question was never questioned itself and so misses that ‘there is language’ before one is able to question (being) at all, that language in this sense is a given. Language thus encloses being. This makes it rather uncertain why only German would pose this question. Marder relates this openness to language, this receiving of its gift, to a Levinasian form of hospitality (99). However, in Totality and Infinity this Other that we cannot ask any questions is called a Master—one is returned quicker to some kind of anti-democratic hierarchy than one expects.

What Derrida (and Heidegger, when he’s at his best) imagines is a granting and an allowance that comes with being, and which comes to us, beings, through language: “the question itself answers […] to this pledge”[xiii] and so responds to this granting. For Derrida, this concerns a “responsibility” that “is not chosen”[xiv] nor can it be answered by one people rather than another. For Derrida, it is spectral, spiritual and has a certain je ne sais quoi about it. Heidegger’s mistake was to think to be able to name this ‘I know not what’ and name it once and for all.

Such philosophical naming led to the gravest of things ontically, for Heidegger knew all too well that no one was really granted to lift the veil of this riddle of being, just as no one definitively awakens from his slumber through (ontological) anxiety and we all equally share in a certain ‘benumbedness’ by our world. In the Notebooks, he sometimes reached this conclusion: would it in effect not be the philosopher’s responsibility to “chase man through the otherness and strangeness of the essence of being” (GA 94:43)? It is too much to say that Heidegger wants us all to become ‘strangers on the earth’ but it is possible that the goal of this chase was not to rid us of all strangeness and otherness.

Only clumsy readers of Heidegger would heap together these forms of worldlessness: the worldlessness of technology is not the worldlessness of a stone. Technology is a rationality that conquers the world, but is still for Heidegger poor in world. Animals have an ‘Umwelt’ and are open to world, but are not world-forming as humans are. Benevolent readers of Heidegger will note that in Sein und Zeit (GA 2: 344), Heidegger speaks of a Benommenheit that is proper to Dasein—‘most often’ we are ‘absorbed’ by the world (first benumbedness) only to be stupefied and benumbed just as well by experiencing anxiety—whereas this Benommenheit is used only to speak of the animals’ world poverty in Die Grundbegriffe der Metaphysik. Can we conclude from this that Dasein is, a bit like an animal, ‘benumbed’ as well? No, perhaps. Can we conclude that these lines that Heidegger drew between the ontic and the ontological are not always as rigid as Heidegger himself wanted? Can we conclude that us mortals, in a sense, ‘have’ and ‘do not have’ world and that we are all rather bad at world-forming? I think so.

Krell explores what this ‘benumbedness’ exactly is and how it operates: it is an openness to world but not a total one. Heidegger describes it once as “essentially exposed to Other” which “introduces an essential shattering into the essence of the animal” (GA 29/30: 396). In order to survive, the animal depends on otherness, it can be by no means self-sustaining. If it ever would be able to have something like a ‘self’, it would be able do so only by virtue of such otherness. Heidegger says too little of this shattering in being, of such being exposed to otherness.[xv]

An ontic observation might add a little: at one point Gumbrecht wonders from whence the “conspicuous difference in quality between the […] Notebooks and other texts […] by Heidegger around 1930” (135), noting that the lectures were always nicely prepared and focused. Remark that Heidegger has written only one book, his other tomes are mostly seminars, speeches and notes taken for lectures. One can infer from this that the journal-like style of the Notebooks was not Heidegger’s preferred style and that for Heidegger to be at his best he needed an audience and thus others and otherness.

All this might be farfetched, but we need to admit that a thinking also exceeds the thinker and that he or she has no ownership, in a way, over the consequences of a thought. In his Freedom to Fail, Trawny claims that Heidegger speaks of a place of “originary errancy”[xvi], a non-moral space from which the thinker speaks freely of the freedom of being. This site of freedom is an-archic, as the event of being itself: it surges forward and arises out of nothing and for nothing, without a particular ‘whence or whither’. Though this is true of certain of Heidegger’s writings (e.g. Was heiβt Denken?) it is not without problems. Gregory Fried, for example, asks some poignant questions about Trawny’s approach: though it is the case that if we no longer question, we submit to authority and so end thinking. And though it is the case that we are today asking questions that were not allowed to be posed say fifty years ago—Fried mentions transgenders—and though this questioning itself seems to have “some sense of justice as their polestar”, these questions seem to presuppose some limits themselves (it is, for instance, not self-evident that someone would defend an authoritarian worldview on the basis of this free thinking). This is, for Fried, what Trawny overlooks when stating that posing limits on thinking would therefore only “play into a normative morality”. Fried argues that Trawny gives too much credit to ‘anarchic freedom’, leaving little space to criticize Heidegger’s antisemitism. Fried has an intriguing proposal:

“If thinking is errant, why can it not be a road trip that goes out [and] returns home […] to replenish what Trawny [calls] ‘the [t]enacious fabric of the everyday’? [We] must have a faith that in confronting the norms by which we have lived hitherto, we will do those norms […] justice by thoughtfully reconstructing and transforming them in the face of our lived situation […] and by leaving ourselves ever open to the question of when those norms need to be refurbished, or even discarded”.[xvii]

To conjoin free thinking and morality, we need what Being and Time calls a ‘destruction’ of tradition and not its overturning: one would be free to pose questions, question certain practices against the background of the prevailing norms and not, like in an overturning, reject them entirely. There would be some reverence for the tradition as well as the acknowledgement that the truth of these traditions might lie outside of these traditions. Not an ‘errant thinking’ that boldly goes where no one has gone before, but a thinking that seeks what is possible from within the coordinates of the tradition in which the ‘event of being’ transpires. Heidegger’s dismantling of metaphysics is less a “repeating of the past” as Rockmore argues (166)— in his thinking Heidegger was no mere conservative—but rather a “reappropriation” of this tradition that does not imply an “unblinking acceptance”, as Gordon rightly states. Needed for this is obviously a familiarity with the metaphysical tradition, lest philosophy dissolves in opinion.

Having come to this book as one who knows little of these Notebooks, but having read a fair amount of Heidegger, I’d conclude that by no means these Notebooks justify rejecting Heidegger’s philosophy entirely nor are they the first thing one should read of him—as the publishing craze around these Notebooks today seems to imply. It would be bad philosophy not to read Heidegger: this would forget the sheer force of this thinking and the way, too, it can enforce itself on its readers. It is the latter especially that one needs to think through if one wants to understand why a good philosopher can be a good Nazi.

These Notebooks could be read, not as a confession—Heidegger was not one to confess—but as a concession. One must ponder, as Žižek says, their “frank openness” (187). They are a concession, first, in the sense that he ‘lost it for a while’ in the thirties and succumbed to an ontic and ontotheological belief that, through him, the history of being became transparent. They are a concession, too, in that there was no immediate link between philosophy and politics and that any attempt to intervene in politics as for philosophy’s sake is destined to fail. They concede, not in the least, the fact that he too had submitted to this reprehensible regime’s stereotyping of racial issues and antidemocratic standards. And if it is true, as Trawny argues, that it is we who are the antisemites then the thoughts we need to take home from these concessions, knowing fully well that it was not all that easy to resist this regime and that back then it was easier to be a Nazi than not to be one, might be: would we have resisted the regime or submitted to its principle? After all: can one be a Nazi a little bit?


[i] For Derrida, see On Spirit. Heidegger and the Question (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1989), p. 120n.1. For Heidegger, respectively Nature, History, State 1933-1934 (London: Bloomsbury, 2015) and Logic as the Question Concerning the Essence of Language (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2009), p. 71ff. Reference to the book under review are in the text between parentheses, to Heidegger’s Gesamtausgabe in the texts as well as GA.

[ii] Trawny’s essay echoes his Heidegger and the Myth of a Jewish World Conspiracy (Chicago: Chicago UP, 2016), p. 71. Trawny’s book is criticized quite heavily by Taylor Carman: “Trawny […]avoids direct assertion […] by falling back on locutions that merely suggest, hint, indicate a particular passage ‘does not preclude’ this (33), ‘we cannot rule out’ that (34), and so on”, see http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/heidegger-and-the-myth-of-a-jewish-world-conspiracy.

[iii] Reference is, first, to his Existence and Existents (Duquesne: Duquesne UP, 1978) p. 4 and then to “As if Consenting to Horror”, Critical Inquiry 15 (1989) 485-488, as mentioned by Bernasconi on 168 of the book under review.

[iv] Levinas, Time and the Other (Duquesne: Duquesne University Press, 2006), pp. 99-100.

[v] Trawny, Freedom to Fail (Cambridge: Polity, 2015), p. 16.

[vi] Heidegger, Nature, History, State, p. 45.

[vii] See my Between Faith and Belief. Toward A Contemporary Phenomenology of Religious Life (Albany: SUNY Press, 2016), p. 25ff.

[viii] See his “Who belongs? Heidegger’s Philosophy of the Volk,” in Nature, History, State, pp. 109-125, p. 118-119.

[ix] Derrida, Of Spirit, p. 68.

[x] Jean-Luc Nancy, Banalité de Heidegger (Paris: Galilée, 2015), p. 51.

[xi] Jeff Malpas, “Assessing the Significance of Heidegger’s Black Notebooks,” to appear in Geographica Helvetica (2018), forthcoming.

[xii] David F. Krell, Ecstasy, Catastrophe. Heidegger from Being and Time to the Black Notebooks (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2015), p. 170.

[xiii] Derrida, Of Spirit, p. 130n.5.

[xiv] Ibid., p. 130n.5.

[xv] For this, see David F. Krell, Derrida and Our Animal Others (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2013), pp. 114-116.

[xvi] Trawny, Freedom to Fail, p. 41.

[xvii] See for this Gregory Fried at http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/freedom-to-fail-heideggers-anarchy/.

Elad Lapidot, Micha Brumlik (Eds.): Heidegger and Jewish Thought: Difficult Others, Rowman & Littlefield, 2017

Heidegger and Jewish Thought: Difficult Others Book Cover Heidegger and Jewish Thought: Difficult Others
New Heidegger Research
Elad Lapidot, Micha Brumlik (Eds.)
Rowman & Littlefield International
2017
Paperback $44.95

Mahon O’Brien: Heidegger, History and the Holocaust

Heidegger, History and the Holocaust Book Cover Heidegger, History and the Holocaust
Bloomsbury Studies in Continental Philosophy
Mahon O'Brien
Bloomsbury
2017
Paperback £17.99
192

Reviewed by: Gregory Jackson (The National University of Ireland, Maynooth)

Martin Heidegger was one of the most influential figures in 20th century philosophy but also both a member of the National Socialist party and a committed antisemite. That such a controversy would generate a substantial amount of scholarship is not surprising, and yet Mahon O’Brien’s Heidegger, History and the Holocaust attempts to break the trends of the usual works that deal with this highly contentious issue. In O’Brien’s view, the controversy surrounding Heidegger’s philosophy is an emotionally charged debate that fails to truly get to grips with the content of Heidegger’s philosophy. This philosophy is one that he justifiably finds ‘profound’ (4), and yet he has no delusions regarding whether Heidegger was a Nazi or antisemitic. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of taking sides in the debate which in the process eclipses the critical engagement necessary to understand the nature of Heidegger’s commitments to National Socialism and his antisemitism, and the implication of this for his thinking. It is precisely this trap that Heidegger, History and the Holocaust sets out to avoid. In the discussion that follows, however, there are other traps that O’Brien leaves himself vulnerable to.

In the first chapter, ‘Re-assessing the “Affair”’, O’Brien reviews some of the scholarship surrounding Heidegger’s political affiliations in order to explore how the controversy has unfolded. He argues that those who want to dismiss Heidegger’s philosophy on account of his political affiliations (the assumption being that it is intrinsically fascist) betray a kind of ‘victor’s morality’ (12), where the everyday, banal evils and the more overt evils of both the allies and our contemporary world are ignored. O’Brien’s reminder to step back from our own historical world and draw attention to the evils we regularly participate in is not meant to condone the horrific and abysmal acts of the Holocaust. That is, the repugnancy of Nazism is beyond dispute, but O’Brien is pointing out that the people who fought against them were not ‘faultless paragons of virtue’ either (13). This position does risk diminishing the specific horror of the Holocaust, but it is utilized by O’Brien to take on scholars such as Zimmerman who argue that the Holocaust was a singular event belonging to the Germans. On the contrary, O’Brien claims that the Holocaust is a horrific but complex story that extends beyond the borders of Germany. Framing the debate in this way, he is given cause to defend one of the only statements by Heidegger on the Holocaust:

Agriculture is now a mechanized food industry, in essence the same as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and extermination camps, the same as the blockading and starving or countries. The same as the production of hydrogen bombs. (as quoted on p. 24)

Dubbed the ‘agriculture remark’, this statement has generated much controversy due to its suggestion that the horrors of the Holocaust are no different than the horrors of the mechanized food industry. This passage, written in context of Heidegger’s confrontation with the essence of technology, is the basis of O’Brien’s second chapter, ‘The Essence of Technology and the Holocaust’. On the surface, it appears as a highly insensitive claim that suggests a lack of remorse for the victims of the Holocaust. On the contrary, however, O’Brien believes that Heidegger’s work on technology should be ‘interpreted as a robust confrontation with the Holocaust’ (23). His strategy here hinges on drawing attention to Heidegger’s use of the word ‘essence’. For the claim that agriculture, the hydrogen bomb, and the Holocaust are the same ‘in essence’ is very different than saying they are identical, morally or otherwise. For Heidegger, the essence of something is ‘what holds sway within it such that it appears as what it is’ (39). This essence, for Heidegger is Gestell, or ‘enframing’, the technological deployment of the meaning of being into which we in the contemporary world are ‘thrown’. That is, Heidegger is trying to tell us something about the way in which things appear for us in our given historical epoch. Thrown into a world of Gestell, humanity succumbs to seeing things as ‘standing reserves’, that is, things (and people) are ‘revealed’ in relation to how efficient and optimized they are for our use. Hence, the specific way in which phenomena in our contemporary world is generally understood—or ‘revealed’ in Heidegger’s language—lends itself to the production of the atom bomb, the mechanized food industry, and, at its worst, atrocities such as the Holocaust.

O’Brien does not only draw from Heidegger, however, but also explores some of the memoirs of Nazi officials. In doing so, we witness the way in which the Jewish people were interpreted by the Nazis as pests to be exterminated. As O’Brien points out, the phrase the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Problem’ is particularly telling. This chilling phrasing expresses how ‘the inmates at the camp were revealed […] as practical, logistical problems that could be approached as one would approach an infestation of rodents or vermin within a factory’ (33) [1]. The Heideggerian warning is that in the age of the technological dispensation of being this way of seeing lends itself to the horrors that occurred in Auschwitz. It is O’Brien’s contention that by viewing the Holocaust as a singular event specific to the German people we miss this sinister occurrence of truth that Heidegger diagnoses as part and parcel of our historical world. He thus presents the case that far from being dismissive of the horrific treatment of the marginalized in Nazi Germany, Heidegger offers us an analysis that may not only aid us in preventing the reoccurrence of something so morally repugnant, but also give us the tools to properly resist alternate expressions of its essence in our own time.

For my own part, nonetheless, although O’Brien’s efforts to show the relevance of Heidegger’s diagnoses is thought provoking, the existential gap between a philosophical analysis of essence and the lived suffering of those who were subject to the atrocities of the Nazi regime seems problematic. As I discuss in a footnote above, even the language of ‘reveal’ [zeigen] could serve to further de-humanize the marginalized and eclipse the responsibility of those involved in the atrocities that occurred in the Nazi regime. This, of course, raises the issue of Heidegger’s silence, his refusal to offer a public apology for his support of the regime. O’Brien’s solution to this is to draw our attention to the ‘lose-lose’ (19) situation Heidegger was in. A public apology would be an admission of guilt, which in turn would eclipse the far greater danger Heidegger wanted to warn us of. Perhaps this is a moment where our commitments to an idea can cause one to lose sight of the concrete and particular suffering in the lived experience of an individual. O’Brien’s later discussion of Heidegger’s rather unfavourable character might testify to this lack of empathy (117-124).

Chapter three moves to examine the charge against Heidegger of being a dangerous ideologue, given that critical scholarship often dismisses him on the assumption that he is just another member of the German Conservative Revolutionary Movement. Here O’Brien concedes that Heidegger does borrow some of the ‘motifs’ and ‘symbolism’ (71) of his contemporaries, such as Spengler and Jünger, but he makes a convincing case that philosophically Heidegger is far removed from the reductive and simplistic, and often dangerously racist, views of these intellectual counterparts. Here, we are reminded that identity of terms is not the same as identity in concepts, that is, that just because both Jünger and Heidegger are concerned with the role of technology in our age this does not mean that philosophically their reasons and solutions to this concern are the same. At times, however, I am left wanting for greater critical engagement with why Heidegger chose to express his philosophy through the language of the ideologues of his time, and the significance of this for a thinking which differs philosophically.[2] O’Brien spends the first part of the chapter exploring the criticisms of the likes of Adorno, Bordieu and Zimmerman, showing in what way their issues with Heidegger’s conservatism fail to miss the content and significance of his philosophy. Having done so, O’Brien is free to move on to address some of the problems he sees in Heidegger’s conservatism, for he is aware that there are ‘genuine flaws’ in this ‘onslaught against modernity’ (48).

There is a great surprise lurking in this next part of the chapter. With its strong criticism of ‘will’, it is easy to assume that Heidegger’s concept of Gelassenheit is born out of his attempts to come to terms with what went wrong during the National Socialist regime in Germany. This concept is also born out of Heidegger attempts to confront the technological view of the meaning of being, and so offers us a potential way out of the force of its Gestell. O’Brien points out, however, that even as late as the 1950s this concept is entrenched in Heidegger’s idea of the ‘authentic rootedness of the people’ (72). Although the case might not be so evident by 1950, in the 30s it is clear that this idea of rootedness had ethnic ramifications, and given that the Black Notebooks show that Heidegger saw the Jewish people as the acme of a calculative thinking and this as a loss of the rootedness in the earth, the seemingly progressive notion of Gelassenheit becomes shrouded in doubt.

In the next chapter, ‘The Authentic Dasein of a People’, O’Brien returns to the roots of Heidegger’s notion of rootedness (Bodenständigkeit) through his analysis of the authentic community in Being and Time. Described as a ‘hornet’s nest’ (77), the author argues that the undeniably racist implications of Heidegger’s understanding of an authentic community rely on a number of arbitrary moves in his thinking. That is, O’Brien makes the case that Heidegger’s shameful prejudices are at odds with his own philosophy. Drawing our attention to Heidegger’s discussion of authentic community in Being and Time, O’Brien argues that in the notions of ‘leaping-in’ and ‘leaping-ahead’ (79) there is the potential for the development in Heidegger’s thought toward the recognition of the universal condition of finitude that is taken up in the particular historical situation one is thrown into. The inauthentic ‘leaping-in’ that Heidegger understands as the customary way we interact with others denies them the recognition of their finitude, whereas ‘leaping-ahead’ allows both individuals to be who they are (as finite beings toward death) in relation to the project at hand. Of course, my use of the word ‘individual’ here is problematic for this discussion rests on Heidegger’s conception of the human being as Dasein, a being which is primarily related to its self, world and others. As far as Heidegger is concerned Dasein is not an individual at all precisely because it is not indivisible from the historical situation it is thrown into and the others it shares this with, until, of course, it faces its finitude in the experience of anxiety-toward-its-own-death. Nonetheless, O’Brien exploits a strange ambiguity in Heidegger’s description of the social constitution of Dasein, where Heidegger rather bizarrely tries to argue that despite this primary social constitution Dasein is also ‘in the first instance’ unrelated to others (80). O’Brien contends that it is this ambiguity in Being and Time that allows Heidegger’s thought go awry in the 1930s. This is because in Being and Time Heidegger ends up, in some fashion at least, privileging the individual that he at the same time shows to be phenomenologically inappropriate. When his understanding of Dasein in the 30s becomes the Dasein of the nation, this privileging of the individual gets taken up as a privileging of a particular nation. Conveniently, this nation is the German one. Heidegger now thinks that Europe lies between the ‘pincers’ of Russia and America, and it is up to the Germans to save it, through a ‘repeat’ and ‘retrieve’ [Wiederholen] of the ‘historical-spiritual Dasein’, a task for the preserve of the Germans as the most metaphysical of people (85-87). Heidegger’s racism is thus not biological but spiritual, and one that O’Brien contends denies the implications in Heidegger’s thought of the shared history I have with others in my ‘cultural and intellectual milieu’ (88), a notion that an appropriate understanding of ‘leaping-ahead’ would have made apparent. Why are the Jewish people of the German nation denied their part in the historical-spiritual destiny of the German people?

O’Brien’s last chapter turns to Heidegger’s racism, and although the author’s use of the poetry of Kavanagh and Heaney gives rise to some of my favourite moments in this short work, it also seems to be the book’s most problematic chapter. It deals with a number of key seminars and works from the 1930s such as Nature, History, State and the Origin of the Work of Art. Major problems lurk in Nature, History, State, where Heidegger begins to conceive of historical Dasein as a Volk, thought of in terms of ‘mastery, rank, leadership and following’, where a Volk proper is only so in relation to the state (102/103). The ambiguity that O’Brien notices in Heidegger’s thought makes a return, however, for Heidegger also points out that wherever humans go we root ourselves in the soil. As such, the spiritual-ethnic chauvinism of Heidegger seems to briefly lift itself. Heidegger has always favoured the provincial, and through drawing on the poetry of Heaney and Kavanagh O’Brien offers a compelling case for why this provincialism is not necessarily problematic. He sees in Heaney, for example, an expression of the worlding of the world through a relationship with the earth that Heidegger explores in On the Origin of the Work of Art. These poets explore this tension between the universal and the particular, but give us the means of realizing that through our particular, historical and concrete struggles we are connected to all human beings as others who are thrown into the world and projected toward their end. This is of course the same latent possibility that O’Brien sees in Heidegger’s thought, but because of Heidegger’s insistence of the primacy of the particular over the universal O’Brien believes Heidegger’s thought went astray. People may indeed root themselves wherever they go, but in Heidegger’s account it is those rooted in German soil that are superior. The universal dimension that O’Brien finds in Heaney and Kavanagh is denied in Heidegger’s account of the artwork also, as the artwork is a purely regionally specific occurrence. Given that the work of art allows meaning and truth to emerge for Heidegger, O’Brien asks what the implications are ‘for a people [in this instance, the Jewish people] who are [according to Heidegger] worldless and without history?’ (112) O’Brien does not answer this question, but the implications are obvious and distressing.

Nonetheless, I am left wondering why the implications of this are not discussed in greater detail. Furthermore, there are some troubling moments where it is suggested that Heidegger’s friendship with other Jewish people at least somewhat obscures his commitments to his antisemitism (121, 132)[3]. Of course, dealing with antisemitism, particularly in such an important thinker, is a sensitive and difficult topic. O’Brien’s work is an important contribution to the growing debate around Heidegger’s political and ideological sympathies. However, perhaps O’Brien’s commitments to the resources in Heidegger’s thought that for O’Brien deny racism cause him to underplay at times the devastating role that Heidegger’s racism wreaks on this thinking. For, although Heidegger’s philosophy might on the one hand suggest that we should never deny someone their essence as a thrown projector, this is nonetheless precisely what he ends up denying the Jewish people. We may dismiss this as a personal prejudice that can be separated from his thinking, but this becomes increasingly difficult when, for example, passages of the Black Notebooks claim that ‘World Jewery’ is ‘grounded’ in the very calculative thinking and ensuing worldlessness that Heidegger’s notion of Gelassenheit attempts to resist.[4] Furthermore, given that O’Brien does a good job of unearthing Heidegger’s specific form of antisemitism, I am left unconvinced that this ‘spiritual’ racism is indicative of the ‘garden variety’ racism (132) that O’Brien charges him with at the end of this work precisely because such a version of racism would seem to be more deeply rooted than the version of biological racism that was more prevalent at the time.[5] That is, Heidegger does not dismiss the Jewish biology as defective as many who bought into the Nazi ideology of the time believed, but instead denies the Jewish person their Dasein. This problematizes one of the central tenets of O’Brien’s case—that Dasein is a universal condition of being human. For this is precisely what Heidegger denies in various works of the 1930’s, such as the Contributions to Philosophy. Here, Dasein is understood as a condition that we must ‘leap’ into, and we now know from the Black Notebooks that this is a possibility that for Heidegger is unavailable to the Jewish people. The troubling implications of this is not brought to the level of critical scrutiny that O’Brien shows himself capable of at other moments in this work. The sentiment that we are left with, however, is that through a proper and critical engagement with his thinking we are not de facto led to a racist ideology, although there is no doubt that Heidegger himself insists that his philosophy and politics are intertwined at some fundamental level. Thus, O’Brien’s study successfully makes the case that Heidegger’s attempt to reconcile the two is problematic.

We must not forget, however, that despite the problems in doing so Heidegger did try to reconcile the two. We can, if we wish, dismiss this aspect of Heidegger’s philosophy, but it is nonetheless a part of its legacy. I welcome O’Brien’s attempt toward a reconstruction of Heidegger’s philosophy. His project, one of critically engaging Heideggerian discourse through delicacy, warranted suspicion, but a certain amount of good will, is bound to bear fruit for Heideggerian scholarship. But I am left with the uncomfortable feeling that despite setting out to do otherwise there is an attempt in this work to find a sanitized Heidegger, as if his revolting prejudices can be weeded out of his philosophy. There is only one Heidegger, and his philosophy will (and should) continue to inspire, provoke, and propel thinking. But the man himself was an ethnic chauvinist and an antisemite, and his attempts to reconcile his philosophy with his prejudices have stained the possibilities of his thought.


[1]His emphasis. It is important to note that ‘revealed’ is not meant to invoke some sort of ‘true’ (in the usual sense of the term) reality coming to appearance, but simply the way in which the appearance is at a given time. In this view, the appearance gets its stability from a given historical movement of ‘truth’ (in Heidegger’s sense of the term), but this truth is not guaranteed or grounded by any transcendent source, such as a God, for example. As such, to say the Jewish people were ‘revealed’ as ‘pests to be exterminated’ is not meant to suggest that this revealing shows anything intrinsic (or truthful, in the usual sense of the term) about Jewishness. Instead, it is meant to suggest something highly problematic about the way in which the world reveals itself to us in our contemporary historical world, where things ‘show up’ as ‘standing reserves’ to be made efficient and optimized. Although phenomenologically justifiable, that the language used to express this (i.e. how the world ‘reveals’ itself) could be utilized to avoid responsibility is not brought under critical scrutiny in this work. That is, Heidegger, or O’Brien’s defence of his position here, has the potential to be used to justify the atrocities of the Nazi regime by arguing that it was simply the way the world was revealed to them at the time and, as such, one bears little responsibility for the horrors committed. Although this is certainly not what O’Brien intends it is a problematic worth drawing attention to.

[2]O’Brien’s discussion in a later chapter of Heidegger’s appropriation of the term Volk touches on this problem somewhat (98-105).

[3]In the first of these instances, O’Brien is quoting Hugo Ott. The second is his own, but afterwards he concedes ‘And yet […] he once insisted that there was indeed a dangerous international alliance of Jews, a belief which he expresses again in his notebooks from the 1930s.’ Although both these instances are not central to his argument, it is a dangerous and distasteful defence to bring into play.

[4]Cf., for example, GA 95: 97 (Überlegungen VIII, 5), trans. by Richard Polt in ‘References to Jews and Judaism in Martin Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, 1938-1948’, available at https://www.academia.edu/11943010/References_to_Jews_and_Judaism_in_Martin_Heidegger_s_Black_Notebooks_1938-1948 [last accessed 05/04/2017 at 15:39].

[5]One assumes that what O’Brien means by this is that Heidegger’s inability to reconcile his ‘garden-variety’ racism with his philosophy, one that could not so easily accept the prevalent ‘blood and soil’ ideology at the time, causes him to develop the ‘spiritual racism’ in his thinking that O’Brien does a decent job of unearthing. The problem is that this spiritual racism seems to me to be a far more profound and dangerous form of antisemitism than the more prevalent form of its time, and it is precisely the intellectuals of the era that gave credence to the horrific and base forms of prejudice (leading to the Holocaust) that were occurring, whether their versions of antisemitism or otherwise were aptly understood by the populace. As such, to dismiss Heidegger’s antisemitism as simply a ‘garden-variety’ gone astray comes too close to a Heideggerian apologetics for my taste. If we then accept that the version of antisemitism that Heidegger seems to have developed is deeply troubling, and perhaps more so than other variations of antisemitism, then an earlier defence O’Brien offers, that Heidegger criticized the philosophy of the German Conservative Revolutionary movement for its misappropriation of Nietzsche (66), becomes deeply troubling, for it is precisely this disagreement with their lack of philosophical insight and depth that leads him to develop a more profound form of antisemitism, one that he at least believed to be concurrent with his philosophical thought.