Brill’s Companion to German Platonism explores how Plato was interpreted and appropriated by some of the leading thinkers of the history of German philosophy, from Nicholas of Cusa to Hans Georg Gadamer. The book includes fifteen chapters, each of them devoted to one author or school, written by outstanding scholars. While most of the contributions deal with the reception of Plato’s epistemology and ontology, some others also—or only—address the long-disputed issue of how to interpret Plato’s philosophy. Since it is not possible to discuss all the topics in this almost four-hundred page volume, the review is limited to discussing how Plato’s most famous and controversial doctrine, the so-called theory of forms, was interpreted by German philosophers. More specifically, I will pay special attention to what we might call—to use the terminology suggested by the editor—the ‘transcendental interpretation’ of Plato’s theory of ideas. In the following lines, I focus on how this reading emerged and was developed by German philosophers in their various ways of endorsing, modifying, or rejecting Plato’s thought.
Alan Kim’s Introduction (chapter 1) provides an overview of the topics discussed by each of the contributors and identifies the two conflicting interpretative models already mentioned: the ‘transcendental’ or ‘functional’ reading of the ideas, on the one hand, and the ‘transcendent’ or ‘substantial’, on the other (2). According to the latter, which is the most common interpretation of Plato, ideas are separated substances that exist in a transcendent sphere of reality. Under this view, the forms are conceived as the true objects of knowledge and the soul is said to gain access to them through intellectual intuition. On the other hand, the former reading does not understand the forms as objects, but rather as ‘transcendental conditions of possible experience’ (3). The transcendental reading thus rejects the realism and dualism associated with the transcendent one and does not consider ideas as objects of intuition, but rather as functions of understanding. Among the figures examined in this volume that ascribe to Plato the substantialist view are Kant, Schleiermacher, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. On the other side, the functional interpretation was anticipated to some degree by Nicholas of Cusa, Leibniz, Mendelssohn and Hegel, and explicitly supported and developed by Cohen, Natorp and Husserl.
In the first chapter after the introduction (2), Claudia D’Amico presents a detailed study of the manifold connections between Nicholas of Cusa and Platonism. She also provides a valuable survey of German authors that in one way or another were influenced by Cusanus’ thought. As for the understanding of Platonic forms, Nicholas of Cusa criticizes Plato for conceiving ideas as separated forms, suggesting instead that while forms are real, they do not exist separated from things. Cusanus thinks that real forms are inaccessible to human reason, only capable of forming conjectures.
In chapter 3, Jack Davidson examines how Leibniz incorporates Plato and Platonism into his own philosophical system. Among the most remarkable points of agreement between both philosophers, Davidson points out Leibniz’s rejection of materialism and his conviction that reality ultimately consists of immaterial, intelligible substances, of which sensible things are appearances (53). After indicating other points in which both philosophers converge, the author devotes epigraph 5 to show how Leibniz’s epistemology reshapes some Platonic themes. More precisely, this section focuses on the agreements and disagreements regarding the role and nature of innate ideas. As it is well-known, Leibniz holds that some of the most fundamental concepts are known innately. At the same time, however, he rejects two positions he ascribes to Plato: the pre-existence of the soul and the presupposition that every truth one knows has been explicitly known by the soul before (63). Despite the emphasis that Leibniz puts on his differences with Plato at this point, both philosophers agree on a fundamental level, as Davidson suggests, that sensible experience does not suffice to account for our knowledge of necessary truths. Thus, the human soul must be equipped with a special potential to know them (ibidem).
The next chapter, written by Bruce Rosenstock, studies Moses Mendelssohn’s appropriation and reworking of Plato’s Phaedo within the framework of his ‘Leibnizian Platonism’ (79) in his own Phädon. Rosenstock focuses on the ‘infinitesimal calculus of the soul’ as Mendelssohn applies it in his own version of the dialogue. The application of Leibniz’s infinitesimal calculus leads Mendelssohn to endorse a functionalist view, since he believes that the soul’s process of knowledge works—like that type of calculus—by progressively ‘integrating’ the initially indistinct mass of representations’ (83). Thus, following Leibniz, Mendelssohn understands the soul as an active Platonic idea that brings unity into multiplicity (84). However, as Rosenstock indicates, this is only one side of the story. Under Mendelssohn’s view, the Platonic ideas do not only account for the integrative nature of human knowledge; they are not merely abstract objects of understanding, but also and at the same time ‘the object[s] of the soul’s authentic (philosophic) desire for happiness’ (92). In this sense, the soul’s capacity to unify the multiplicity of appearances through conceptual unities is the ‘expression’ of the soul’s desire for happiness (93). Hence, according to Mendelssohn, the search for knowledge is necessarily entangled with the quest for the good (92).
In chapter 5, Manfred Baum examines Kant’s appropriation of the theory of ideas in both the pre-Critical and the Critical period. It is worth noting, first, that Kant never attributes the two-world doctrine to Plato, even though his primary source, Brucker, does it. The Kantian pre-critical reading of the Platonic idea assimilates it with a ‘common standard of perfection’ for measuring all other less perfect realities (115). In the critical period, Kant’s well-known differentiation between understanding and reason leads him to reshape his reading. Under this new light, Plato’s ideas are interpreted as anticipating to some extent Kant’s concepts of reason, the regulative ideas, in contrast with the concepts of understanding, the categories (123-124). According to Baum, both Kant and Plato agree that ideas do not originate in the senses and that their object is not found in the empirical world (ibidem). However, Kant rejects the alleged hypostatized nature of Platonic forms, that he presumably takes from Bruker’s Neo-Platonic interpretation of Plato (126-127). The result of Kant’s appropriation of Plato’s theory of ideas, then, is twofold (as Kim also puts it in the introduction ): Kant attributes to Plato a substantial or transcendent view of ideas, while at the same time he sees Platonic ideas as the first attempt towards a transcendental consideration of human knowledge.
Hegel’s reading of Plato can be seen, as Jere Surber persuasively presents it in chapter 6, as the first modern philosophical interpretation of the Platonic corpus (133). The most distinctive features of the Hegelian approach to Plato are, first, Hegel’s direct and detailed engagement with the dialogues and, second, his distinctive appropriation of the Platonic ideas. According to Hegel, Plato’s ideas anticipate in a still unsystematic way his own systematic account of genuine Begriffe (concepts) as “concrete universals” (141). Relying on his interpretation of Parmenides, Timaeus, and Republic, Hegel rejects the dualistic, transcendent interpretations of the forms. He suggests instead that the Platonic idea should be understood as an ‘identity-in-difference’, and therefore as a genuine concept in Hegelian terms, that is, one that unifies in itself the formal and material aspect of reality (136). On the other hand, Hegel also dismisses the psychological transcendentalism according to which the ideas are mere constructs (or mere concepts, as opposed to genuine concepts) of the human mind since this view fails to account for the essential connection between the ideas and the sensible things (p.136). Therefore, as Surber points out, Hegel thought of his own philosophy as the articulation of Plato’s ‘in a modern systematic form’ (142).
The following two chapters (7 and 8) are devoted to Schleiermacher’s influential approach both to Plato’s philosophy and its interpretation. In chapter 7, André Laks provides an insightful discussion of Schleiermacher’s both philological and philosophical reading of the Platonic dialogues. Regarding the interpretation of Plato’s ideas, Schleiermacher rejects Aristotle’s criticisms and defends that the forms are real concepts that actually possess causal force and can directly affect both the physical and the moral world, given that they derive from God’s power (155). Chapter 8 is at odds with the rest of the contributions since it does not offer a reconstruction of Schleiermacher’s reading of Plato, but rather presents the author’s (Thomas Szlezák) main reasons for disagreeing with it. While the philological arguments provided by Szlezák are highly illuminating, and many of his objections to Schleiermacher are indeed very persuasive—see, for instance, his detailed analysis of Plato’s critique of writing in the Phaedrus (172-179)—, one cannot but wonder why Schleiermacher’s interpretation is the only one subject to such critical scrutiny. Besides, the main objections of the Tübingen School–to which Szlezák belongs– to Schleiermacher are again developed and argued for in chapter 14 by Vittorio Hösle. In his contribution, Hösle also provides a valuable survey of some of the most representative advocates of the abovementioned school and provides a summary of the main points of Krämer’s pioneering dissertation Arete bei Platon und Aristoteles, still only available in German (337-339).
Robert Wicks’ chapter on Schopenhauer (9) stresses the role of Plato’s account of time in the former’s metaphysical account of human consciousness and reality. More specifically, according to Wick, the Platonic conception of time as ‘the moving image of eternity’ in the Timaeus inspired Schopenhauer’s consideration of the spatio-temporal world as a prison of human consciousness (192 and 215). In his mature philosophy, Schopenhauer regards Plato’s ideas as essentially dependent on the Will, which constitutes the core of reality, the thing-in-itself, which lays beyond any form of representation and time (209). Under this view, ideas are said to play an intermediary role between the thing-in-itself as Will, on the one hand, and the objects of the spatio-temporal world, on the other (210). Therefore, as Wick suggests, Schopenhauer’s reading of ideas within this framework attributes them a twofold nature: as long as they are objects, they ultimately belong to the world of representation and, to this extent, they are high-ranking illusions; however, considered in their relationship to the thing-in-itself, ideas are ‘timeless acts of Will’ (213-214). In this last sense, Plato’s forms are placed behind the veil of the ordinary experience of the world, and thus they are only apprehended by a certain timeless intuition that Schopenhauer identifies with an intense awareness of the present moment (200-201). Philosophy is thus conceived as a form of asceticism whose aim is to reach such timeless, transcendent, and even mystical awareness (215). As Richard Bennett stresses at the beginning of chapter 11, Nietzsche regards this ascetic approach to reality—that he attributes to Plato—as anti-natural, coward, and decadent (249-252). In the second section of his contribution, Bennet proves that Nietzsche’s consideration of Plato goes far beyond this one-sided evaluation and is more multi-faceted and less consistent than usually acknowledged.
The transcendental reading of Plato’s ideas was explicitly defended for the first time by the two leading figures of the Marburg School of Neo-Kantianism: Herman Cohen and Paul Natorp. In chapter 10, Karl-Heinz Lembeck examines both authors’ attempts to mediate between Kant and Plato in their ambitious philosophical-historical interpretations (217). Cohen’s early reading of the forms as psychological categories radically evolved in the mid-1870s into a purely logical-transcendental interpretation of them. Under this new approach, and drawing on Kant’s Critique of Judgement, ideas are now viewed as ‘regulative concepts’ guiding knowledge. Within this picture, the form of the Good is not seen as a real entity, but rather as ‘the function of a unifying synthesis of appearances’ (223-224). Cohen extracts this interpretation from Plato’s alleged identification of ideas as hypothesis, that is, as ‘pre-sub-positions’ which thinking anticipates in order to be able to apprehend reality (228). In other words, ideas are said to be a priori conditions of knowledge.
Unlike Cohen’s, Natorp’s appropriation of Plato is grounded on a deep engagement with the texts. In Platons Ideenlehre (Plato’s Theory of Ideas), Natorp develops his reading of Plato’s theory of ideas as a theory of the constitution of experience (231-232). From this standpoint, Natorp downplays the ontological significance of the ideas, stressing their epistemological relevance as ‘laws’ that govern the dynamisms of knowledge (233). In his late systematic philosophy, Natorp modifies his reading of Plato’s ideas, as he seems to come under the influence of Neo-Platonism. Now, forms are understood as categories and, as such, as secondary functions unable to grasp the ultimate level of reality. Such level corresponds to Plato’s form of Good, which is radically transcendent and, therefore, inaccessible by means of articulated knowledge (237).
In the next chapter (12), Alan Kim explores Husserl’s ‘productive appropriation of Plato into phenomenology’ (273), relying on the fact that Husserl considered himself a phenomenological Platonist. By doing this, Kim provides an original, perceptive reading of the theory of ideas from a phenomenological perspective and, at the same time, a compelling presentation of the Husserlian account of eidetic intuition. In a way akin to Cohen and Natorp, Husserl endorses a transcendental interpretation of Platonic ideas, rejecting the ‘static’ Platonism of separated substantial forms along with its subsequent metaphysical dualism and mystical intuitionism (274). According to Kim, Husserl’s ideas or eidê refer to the object of the apprehension of the what-ness of a given thing. Such eidê, however, differ from the empirical universal concepts derived by abstraction from contingent facts. Eidê also relates to facts, but not because they derive from them, but rather because they constitute the rule of any possible apprehension of them. In order to illustrate the process by means of which consciousness moves from facts to eidê, Kim draws on Plato’s Divided Line and Allegory of the Cave. The first is meant to represent the different psychic states, while the second focuses on the soul’s progression from one to another. Here, eidê are presented as logical structures or essential meanings ‘that had always been co-intended in my aesthetic grasp of the phenomenon as actual thing, but which had been, as it were, eclipsed by the glare of ‘reality’’ (278). The ascension of the soul towards the realm of ideas is thus understood as a progressive detachment and liberation from the blinding glare of sensible appearances of things, so as to be able to perceive the essential features of them. This interpretation explains both the fact that the highest form of knowledge according to Plato, namely, dialectics, is said to deal only with ideas, and also that the knowledge of ideas allows the ex-prisoner in his return to the cave to recognize images as what they really are (280). In the following pages, Kim equates both Husserl’s and Plato’s account of the vision of eidê with the ‘understanding of the F-ness of many f’s’ (281). As the author points out in a footnote, the state of consciousness in which we grasp an eidê is not adequately described as a learning process, that is, as certain acquisition of knowledge, but instead as some sort of perceiving or, even more accurately, re-cognizing (erkennen) (281, n. 70). In this sense, the phenomenological method of purifying the mind from its factual intentions and redirecting it towards the essential turns out to be very similar to Plato’s account of dialectic as a process of remembering (anamnesis) what one already knows in his or her soul (281). Within this framework, Kim forcefully argues that Husserl’s basic idea of a ‘noematic form implicitly governing the coherence of sense experience’ can be paralleled with Plato’s account of the relationship between noêsis and aisthêsis in the passage on the summoners in Republic VII, as well as with the role attributed to sensibility in the recollection argument offered in the Phaedo. Finally, the author points out that the Husserlian reading was deeply influenced by Lotze’s thesis that ideas do not possess existence (Sein), but rather validity (Geltung) (294).
The two remaining chapters are devoted to Heidegger’s confrontation with Plato (chapter 13) and Gadamer’s productive reshaping of the Heideggerian reading (chapter 15). Francisco J. Gonalez begins his chapter on Heidegger’ reading of Plato by focusing on the 1924/25 course on Plato’s Sophist. In these lectures, it becomes apparent a tension that characterizes how Heidegger will read Plato the rest of his life. On the one hand, the Heideggerian approach reveals several points where Plato’s understanding of being comes very close to Heidegger’s fundamental ontology. On the other, the German philosopher insists that Plato interpreted being as presence, that is, as the object of logos, and therefore that Plato’s philosophy is to be seen as the first of a long series of reductions of truth to correspondence (306). As Gonzalez clearly shows in his contribution, this tension will persist until the late Heidegger, although the latter approach will become the ‘official’ reading. The author suggests that one of the most remarkable exceptions to the official reading can be found in the Parmenides seminar of 1930/31. Drawing on both Heidegger’s class notes and Herbert Marcuse’s transcript of this seminar, Gonzalez clearly shows that Heidegger saw Plato’s discussion of exaiphnês (instant) in the Parmenides as a genuinely ontological comprehension of the problem of ‘being and time’ (314-315). We find a similar exception in Heidegger’s interpretation of erôs in the Phaedrus seminar of 1932 (319 ff.). Gadamer’s appropriation of Platonic philosophy, discussed by François Renaud in the final chapter (15), reacts against Heidegger’s official reading. Gadamer claims that ‘Plato is not a Platonist’ and argues that the theory of forms and the method of dialectic are meant to make explicit the conditions of Socrates’ practice of dialogue in the early dialogues (356). According to Renaud, Gadamer seems to think that the forms are objects independent from representation, though he also speaks of them as if they only were transcendental principles (374).
This volume is worth reading for both historical and philosophical reasons. Each of the fifteen chapters provides the reader with valuable insights into the history of German philosophy in line with the most updated research and effectively supports the general thesis of the book that Plato exerted a decisive influence over the most relevant German philosophers (1). On the other hand, anyone interested in the interpretation of Plato’s works will surely find this book an exciting source of inspiration. In particular, as I hope to have shown, it will prove especially helpful for those intrigued by the possibilities of a transcendental reading of Plato’s theory of ideas. Last but not least, this collective work reminds us of both the risks and benefits of a philosophical reading of Plato, that is, one that attempts to identify and rethink the core issues of Platonic philosophy anew.
Gander’s declared aim in Self Understanding and Lifeworld is to build on the untapped potential of Heidegger’s hermeneutical phenomenology of the lifeworld and the self-forming experience of reality. The book is a long and closely argued exploration of how a human being develops an understanding of oneself as a self within a social lifeworld.
Gander spends perhaps a little too much time beating the dead horse of the Cartesian self but he does correctly emphasize the importance of the self not as a self-certainty but as a fluctuating play of unfolding human experiences in the historical world. The historicity of the individual is important to Gander, who focuses on the self-understanding as a to-and-fro between present experiences and progressive-anticipatory self-confirmation. To the contrary, Gaander says, the human self is historicized, meaning that the self cannot be identified as an ahistorical transcendent ago, but needs to be conceived as a historical self in the current of history. As human individuals, our task is to have to incessantly identify our self from within our self within the lifeworld.
Gander’s primary task in Self Understanding and Lifeworld is to set forth a phenomenology of the human self that describes what it means to be a unified human self in the current of life history. In response to the philosophical need to critically discuss self-understanding within the lifeworld, Gander argues that the Husserlian conception of the phenomenology of consciousness is inadequate for answering the problem of history in the hermeneutics of the self-understanding of human beings in the world. Each of us, Gander says, is what we are only through what we have become, and thus, the hermeneutical question of the self-understanding takes shape in Heidegger’s project of a hermeneutics of facticity.
In Part One, Gander interprets the human being’s facticity as similar to the writing and reading of a text. Gander’s analogy is to compare self-understanding with understanding a text. Our knowing is an interpretation, including our knowing of ourselves, allowing us, Gander argues, to compare the understanding of our self with the understanding of a text. The move Gander makes here is one with which the reader may or may not agree, and the reader may or may not find Gander’s defence of it—a blending of Dilthey, Foucault, and Gadamer—convincing. In short, if I understand Gander correctly, his argument is that in a text, there is a space in which the writing subject disappears and since a human being’s self understanding is a historical consciousness—a kind of text being written and read—we as a knowing subject of our self-understanding disappears. The textual analogy rests largely on seeing the historicity of the individual as a kind of reading of the individual’s cultural traditions. We enter into the text (the “book of the world”) of our tradition and in reading and interpreting that text, our individual self-persuasion forms itself. Gander says that “the human self- and world understanding underlies and forms itself from out of the force field of the particular historical-cultural tradition.” (55) That individuals develop their understandings of self and world from their cultural tradition is uncontroversial, but whether we gain philosophical understanding of this process by applying the textual analogy is open to question. Gander’s argument is certainly plausible, but it is not clear that it is an advance on other philosophical approaches.
Regardless of how we view the self-formation of the human self, we are left with the problem of the lifeworld. This is a philosophical problem because the constitution of the self and the possibility of self-experience are connected to the self’s history in the world. Gander turns to the problem of the lifeworld in Part Two. The field of reality, Gander says, opens itself to the philosopher in the language the philosopher speaks and the meaning of its concepts which are set out in historical context. The approach needed, therefore, is a hermeneutical interpretation of concepts that is related to human situatedness in everyday experience. (79-81) Gander then enters a lengthy exposition against Descartes’s philosophical method and the self-certainty of the self within Descartes’s method, little of which will be new to the reader.
When Gander returns to the problem of the lifeworld, he observes that life and thus the lifeworld can no longer be considered something over and against the subject as in Descartes. (116) He then turns to Husserl’s discussion of the lifeworld, interpreting Husserl’s task as a project of “lifeworldly ontology.” (140) Gander adopts Husserl’s task, but also finds Husserl’s approach wanting. The individual’s facticity in the world is carried out in the historical and cultural horizons of the lifeworld. The “concrete lifeworld” is a variable, changing historical-social-cultural world and the lifeworld is more than a mere preliminary to the transcendental sphere of reason. For this reason, Gander says we must take leave of Husserl’s narrow approach to a theory of perception and begin anew the task of an ontology of the lifeworld as outside the transcendental horizon. Gander criticizes Husserl as bypassing the factically concrete lifeworld in its historicity in favor of what Gander calls “an intended final sense by means of the transcendental epoché…[and] takes the sting out of his diagnosis.” (163) By claiming the singularity of the lifeworld, Husserl, Gander says, cuts himself off from existentiell factical contingent experience and the plurality of lifeworlds. At no point does there arise a central perspective from which the human relation to self and world, therefore, Gander rejects Husserl’s approach, adopting in opposition the approach that “the ground of the natural lifeworld, with the experiences of contingency encountered everywhere and at each moment, remains a significant, indeed a necessary corrective against intellectual flights of thinking.” (167)
Gander expands on his claim that Husserl has neglected the historical and factical life in Part Three. And it is here that he gets to the main point of his book:
I experience myself only in the midst of the world—and that means in the midst of time and history—so this relatedness always already implicates the self-constituting experience of difference in its ontological presupposition. The self-relation generates and determines itself accordingly through and as difference, yet does not spilt in the Cartesian sense, but rather in that I experience myself qua difference as essentially open to the world; the self always already transcends itself beyond me to the understanding possible for me as historical horizon. (184)
Our finite self-relation is constituted by both transcendence and difference, Gander argues, and though our phenomenological approach to the problem of the lifeworld benefits from Husserl’s epoché, it also benefits from the early Heidegger’s critique of Husserl—specifically the former’s view to the structure of care. Gander sides with Heidegger in rejecting Husserl’s empty certainty and in accepting instead the understanding that science should be posited as knowing comportments of human beings. Human knowing is a specific mode of being in the world and taking this into account allows our phenomenological approach to include the unexpressed effective background beliefs that form humans’ presuppositional horizon. The proper things of philosophy, Gander concludes, following Heidegger, are not experiences of consciousness taken through the transcendental and eidetic reduction but the phenomena of the human ontological condition of the care for life. Heidegger grasps facticity, Gander says, as the existentiell situation of the individual—one’s own concrete, particular context of life. (196) Self-understanding is therefore experienced in one’s particular facticity within an historical horizon constituted by both transcendence and difference regarding one’s orientation to oneself and to the world.
Having argued for the preference of Heidegger over Husserl, Gander turns back to the issue of a hermeneutics of the self-understanding of human beings in the world. He begins by approaching the pretheoretical life. The human is enmeshed in factical life in such a way that the self as activity constitutes itself in the lifeworld. What we call “life” is known through and in a hermeneutically interpreting active knowing of the having of life itself. (212) Life in itself is always my own life and what it means to be a self is to experience the self-world that is there for us in every situation. Our phenomenological approach must look at the factical experience of life that is always lived out in a lifeworld which is centered in the self-world of comportment to oneself. (214) Gander’s hermeneutical ontology of facticity considers the world-relation as self-relation and constructs an historical ontology of our ourselves based on the conception that experience fundamentally refers to self-relation that is always already situationally related or bound. We make experiences only in situational connections, and situations create in themselves possibilities of experience for me.
Self Understanding and Lifeworld is perhaps longer of a book than it needs to be. One could also argue that it covers well-worn paths of material. As a contribution to Heideggerian studies, Gander’s book has value in how he relates several concepts in Heidegger to other twentieth century philosophers. Any writings concerning this subject matter are, almost by necessity, opaque and complex, and Self Understanding and Lifeworld is definitely those things. Gander’s differentiation of everyday experience as an historical life is a difficult read but worthwhile for the reader who is interested in new applications of Heidegger for the study of the self.
On the evening of February 5, 1988, at the University of Heidelberg, three of the major and most influential figures of the 20th-century philosophy met in Heidelberg before a large audience. Fifty five years before, in the same lecture hall, Martin Heidegger, as Rector of the University of Freiburg, had given a speech that would be part of the firsts steps towards a running sore, “a wound in thought itself” [c’est une blessure de la pensée] in Maurice Blanchot’s words[i], a proper caesura, entitled “Das Universität im neue Reich” [The University in the New Reich]. Jacques Derrida, Hans-Georg-Gadamer, and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, three unquestionable distinguished Heidegger’s interpreters, came together that February of 1988 for over two days to discuss the philosophical and political implications of Martin Heidegger’s thought and legacy, under a Gadamer’s sign of hospitality: the encounter took place in the common linguistic territory of the French language. Heidegger, Philosophy, and Politics: The Heidelberg Conference, edited by Mireille Calle-Gruber, and translated into English by Jeff Effort, collects the fruitful dialogues between these three thinkers and their exchanges with the audience during this unforgettable debate officially entitled “Heidegger: Portée philosophique et politique de sa pensée” [Heidegger: Philosophical and Political Dimensions of his Thought].
Days after the conference, once the text of the public debate was ready, Derrida, Gadamer, Lacoue-Labarthe, but also, Calle-Gruber—who was in charge of the presentation—and Reiner Wiehl—president of the session—, all of them, agreed to defer the publication[ii]. Those were unquiet days: only a year before had been published the “spectacular” book by Víctor Farías, Heidegger et le nazisme[iii] (1987) and, by the time of the Heidelberg Conference—partially motivated by the whirlwind generated by the Farías’ book—the media focus was as never before concentrated on Heidegger’s documented Nazism (which was already known from the 1960s, provided by Guido Schneeberger[iv], as Gadamer remembers[v]). Both Lacoue-Labarthe[vi] and Gadamer[vii], as it is well known, had largely discussed Farías provocative book, and had considered that was written not without recourse to misrepresentations and malicious omissions. Farías also devoted himself to denounce not only Heidegger Nazism but the so-called “heideggerianism”, especially what he understood as its French decline: Jean Beaufret and Jacques Derrida, both unfairly associated to Robert Faurisson and his revisionist-negationist theories regarding the non existence of gas chambers in the nazi concentration camps. Thus, the gadamerian decision that the conference be delivered in French, besides representing an act of generosity, acquires a new meaning.
Derrida, Gadamer and Lacoue-Labarthe faced in this conference the complexities of the discussion on a shared ground, each resorting to their own considerations while attempting to set up a dialogue (despite the manifest intention, at least from Derrida and Lacoue-Labarthe, of not giving a full account of their own most well-known published texts). To begin, Lacoue-Labarthe invoked his thesis on the confrontation, “the inmense debate”, that Heidegger, after the rectorship at Freiburg, would have started with what National Socialism meant in the history of the West, through the calling of art into question and the deconstruction of Western aesthetics, that is to say, the understanding of the essence of tékhne [viii]. One of the central thesis of Lacoue-Labarthe, that is present in his participation in the conference, is that the question of art occupies a nodal place in Heidegger’s self-interpretation of the enigma of his own political commitment, since it would constitute his self-confrontation with National Socialism, his own Auseinandersetzung subsequent to the experience of the Rectorship. After 1934, Heidegger introduces poetry and the poet figure as the main references for the reflection on the German identity and, in this way, Nietzsche’s previous dominant influence begins its decline to give way to the new hero: Hölderlin. The terms in which the myth and the tragedy would be thus later understood will not be those of the great German mimetic dream of Greece proper to nazi Wagnero-Nietzscheanism, but those of Dichtung, Sprache and Sage, which, in turn, overflow the aesthetic determination of the poetic.
Gadamer, contributed to the conference with both his irreplaceable reflections and testimonies, but also reopening the interrupted conversation started in April 1981 at the Paris Goethe Institute with Jacques Derrida. Therefore, Gadamer’s intervention was focused, on one hand, in its testimony value, maybe because the questions of the audience had conducted him too much in this way. In this respect, “surprise” and “shock” are the recurrent adjectives he used for describing what was then in 1933 his reaction to Heidegger’s Rectorship chair acceptation, indissociable of the latter’s public nazi commitment, specially when he had seemed to Gadamer politically much closer to National-Bolshevikism[ix] (which, in the eyes of Gadamer, as political Movement, had not a biologicist discourse). The main hypothesis of Gadamer is that Heidegger really believed for a moment that the nazi revolution was the possibility of a true spiritual renovation, but once he understood Nazism had become not more than a “decadent revolution”, it was for him no more his revolution, he felt no responsible at all for anything. And that would explain his great ambiguities: first of all, his silence. But also the responsibility with respect to the great number of colleagues and students who followed him in his political decision together with the disturbing contradiction of writing contemporary on the “forgetting of being”, the predominance of technics and the devastating consequences of the industrial revolution.[x] On the other hand, Gadamer presented a critical point of view of Heidegger’s path to the “fragmentation of metaphysical conceptualization by means of this force he exerted against words”[xi], that involved a similar consideration regarding to Derrida, and that allowed Gadamer to understand himself closer to Paul Celan and his sense of fragmentation.
Derrida, for its part, during the conference superbly questioned Heidegger’s own questions and avoidances, as well as the meaning of legacy and responsibility. He asserted—by way of an improvised and risky hypothesis, later shared by Lacoue-Labarthe and Gadamer—that Martin Heidegger’s silence, his unforgivable silence in the face of the barbaric horror of Nazi extermination, is the legacy that has bequeathed us. In Derrida’s words:
What I am saying here is very risky, and I risk it as a hypothesis, while asking you to accompany me in this risk. […] with a phrase spoken in the direction of an easy consensus, Heidegger woul have closed the matter. […] I believe that if he had let himself go for a statement, let’s say, of immediate moral reaction, or of a declaration of horror, or of non- forgiveness—a declaration that would not itself be a work of thought at the level of all that he had already thought—, well, perhaps we would feel more easily spared the work that we have to do today: because we have to do this work. That is what we have inherited.[xii]
This hypothesis is, ultimately, the beginning of a response, an answer to the question of responsibility of thought. On the one hand, improvisation would be a kind of responsibility by means of risking a disarmed speech.[xiii] On the other hand, to be heir to a legacy supposes always a response, the act of responding for not only a call not chosen, but also one that comes before oneself[xiv]. This is the call that Farías book wanted to mute, the path this book tried to close by doing a “case closed” out of the Heidegger nazi commitment. For this commitment was not in 1988 nor now something someone can put into question. Heidegger’s Nazism is indisputable. But to be heir to a legacy in the sense Derrida expressed it means a response to the dogmatic question where Faría’s book seem to lead: “is it posible yet to read Heidegger?”.
Somehow, today the 1988 scenario recurs. The publication for the first time of the Heidelberg Conference in 2014, in its French first edition[xv], concurrent with the beginning of the publication of the Schwartze Hefte in Germany, revealed a “dislocation” [décalage], as Jean-Luc Nancy has said[xvi], which comes not only from the very root of the problem itself, the relationship between Martin Heidegger and his political commitment with Nazism, but also from the mediatic racket generated by the very publication of the Schwartze Hefte themselves.
The process, begun in 2014, of the gradual publication of the Schwartze Hefte, which are loaded with resounding anti-Semitic expressions (that occupy a new and important place in the philosophical work of Martin Heidegger, although are not the only elements of these books), challenges us today to think, demands pronouncements and explanations, in a climate of opportunism, confusion, obscurantism and controversy as it was that of the late eighties. Once again, the mass media (but not only the media) raise a false alternative that may be summarized as it follows: “If he was a great philosopher, then he was not a Nazi; if he was a Nazi, then he has not been a great philosopher”[xvii]. Thus, the task would be enormous for the heirs: none other than the terrifying and valuable mandate to think what Heidegger did not think, to say what he was not able to say[xviii], namely, the affinities and common roots among his thought, the essence of the West and Nazism; the subject of Nazism by itself; the basis for his National-Socialist engagement.
Nowadays, the publication of the Schwartze Hefte came to dispel the silence, but did not liquidate the task. In any case, today there is no way to avoid the inevitable. As Donatella Di Cesare said:
Even the stereotype of the philosopher lying in an impolitic conformity seems totally unmotivated. Heidegger was by no means a “conformist” and in the Black Notebooks—as in other works of the thirties—appears a politically radical philosopher. It will therefore be necessary to rewrite the chapter “Heidegger and politics” which promises to be much more complex than what has been assumed so far[xix].
That chapter today is beginning to be rewritten, little by little. To be sure, Donatella Di Cesare and Peter Trawny[xx]—editor of the Schwarze Hefte, published by Klostermann—provide today the most penetrating and accurate analysis on Heidegger’s anti-Semitism (although each one from a different point of view). In particular, in direct relation to one of the main reflections that the publication of the Heidelberg Conference brings up, Di Cesare dedicated half of his Heidegger & Sons. Eredità e futuro di un filosofo (2015) to face the problem of Heidegger’s legacy. Two paths seem to be shaped in the face of the intellectual inheritance of the German thinker. On the one hand, “orthodoxy”, which either denies or trivializes the status of Heidegger’s political statements, reacts with loyal impotence, marginalizing texts, problems, even people. On the other hand, a spectacular parade of pamphleteer whistleblowers sets out to hunt down the “Heideggerians”, suspected subscribers of any action or omission of Heidegger. Of course, these are false options that take us to just a single alternative: refusing to think. For, as Di Cesare affirms, “an inheritance is never something that can be either fully received or, on the contrary, totally refuted”[xxi]. We are heirs, whether we want it or not; that means having to learn to be both faithful and unfaithful[xxii]. Reading Heidegger, Philosophy, and Politics: the Heidelberg Conference will not dissipate the new questions that the publication of the Schwartze Hefte opened, but may give us both a vision of a path that must be understood as well as an understanding of some initial conclusions of three major philosophers that should be necessary overcome if we are really willing to confront once again to the challenges posed by Martin Heidegger’s thought.
Blanchot, Maurice. “Notre compagne clandestine”, in Textes pour Emmanuel Levinas (Paris: J.-M. Place, 1980).
Cohen, Richard A. Face to face with Lévinas (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1986).
Derrida, Jacques, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe. Heidegger, Philosophy, and Politics: the Heidelberg Conference (Fordham University Press, 2016).
Di Cesare, Donatella. Heidegger e gli ebrei. I «Quaderni neri» (Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 2014).
Di Cesare, Donatella. Heidegger & sons: eredità e futuro di un filosofo (Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 2015).
[i] Cohen, Richard A. Face to face with Lévinas (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1986), 43. Originally in Blanchot, Maurice, “Notre compagne clandestine”, in Textes pour Emmanuel Levinas (Paris: J.-M. Place, 1980), 81.
[ii] Derrida, Jacques, Gadamer, Hans-Georg, Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe. Heidegger, Philosophy, and Politics: the Heidelberg Conference (Fordham University Press, 2016), xiii.
[iii] Farías, Víctor. Heidegger et le nazisme (Paris: Verdier, 1987).
[iv] Schneeberger, Guido. Nachlese zu Heidegger (Bern: Suhr, 1962).
[v] Derrida, Jacques, Gadamer, Hans-Georg, Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe. Heidegger, Philosophy, and Politics: the Heidelberg Conference, 63.
[vi] “Sur le livre de Victor Farias, Heidegger et le nazisme”, in Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe. La fiction du politique: Heidegger, lart et la politique (París: Christian Bourgois,  1998), 173-188. The text resumes with some modifications an article appeared in the Journal Littéraire: “Le procès Heidegger”, Le Journal Littéraire, no. 2: 115-117, December 1987-January 1988.
[vii] Published originally as “Zurück von Syrakus?”, in Die Heidegger-Kontroverse, ed. Jürg Altwegg (Frankfurt am Main: Athenäum, 1988), 176-79; later was published in French in Le Nouvel Observateur, January 22-28, 1988, translated by Geneviève Carcopino. It was also translated into English as “Back from Syracuse?,” trans. John McCumber, Critical Inquiry 15, no. 2 (Winter 1989): 427-30. The English version of Gadamer’s text was included in the edition here reviewed.
[viii] Derrida, Jacques, Gadamer, Hans-Georg, Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe. Heidegger, Philosophy, and Politics: the Heidelberg Conference, 37-38.
[ix] Ibid., 64-75.
[x] Ibid., 11-12.
[xi] Ibid., 41.
[xii] Ibid., 35-36.
[xiii] Ibid., 16.
[xiv] Ibid., 65-68.
[xv] Derrida, Jacques, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, and Mireille Calle-Gruber. La conférence de Heidelberg, 1988: Heidegger, portée philosophique et politique de sa pensée (Paris: Lignes, 2014).
[xvi] Derrida, Jacques, Gadamer, Hans-Georg, Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe. Heidegger, Philosophy, and Politics: the Heidelberg Conference, vii.
[xvii] Di Cesare, Donatella. Heidegger e gli ebrei. I «Quaderni neri» (Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 2014), 3. All Di Cesare’s translations by Facundo Bey.
[xviii] Derrida, Jacques, Gadamer, Hans-Georg, Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe. Heidegger, Philosophy, and Politics: the Heidelberg Conference, 35.
[xix] Di Cesare, Donatella. Heidegger & sons: eredità e futuro di un filosofo (Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 2015), 79.
[xx] Trawny, Peter. Heidegger und der Mythos der jüdischen Weltverschwörung (Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann GmbH, 2015).
[xxi] Di Cesare, Heidegger & sons, 33.
[xxii] Di Cesare, Heidegger & sons, 33-34.