This volume seeks to provide a critical analysis of pragmatic themes within the phenomenological tradition. Although the volume is overwhelmingly geared towards presenting critiques of some of the most authoritative pragmatic readings of Martin Heidegger – readings by Hubert Dreyfus, John Haugeland, Mark Okrent and Richard Rorty – a handful of the fourteen chapters expand the discussion of the pragmatic dimension of the history of phenomenology by engaging with the work of Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Max Scheler and Jan Patočka. Although the contributors do well to explain their ideas, useful appropriation of the volume will require a working knowledge of the developments in twentieth-century pragmatism and phenomenology, their basic features as philosophical enterprises and, most importantly, the central tenets of Heidegger (in particular), Merleau-Ponty and Husserl.
I will now outline what I see to be the primary claims of some of the collected papers (unfortunately, there are too many to be discussed with the level of detail required), linking those claims to the aims of the volume as a whole and providing some modest comments of my own.
For the editors, there are several characteristics of pragmatism:
- According to pragmatists, ‘intentionality is, in the first and fundamental sense, a practical coping with our surrounding world’;
- According to pragmatists, ‘language structures derive their meaning from their embeddedness in shared, practical activities’;
- According to pragmatists, ‘truth is to be understood in relation to social and historically contingent practices’;
- Pragmatism maintains ‘the primacy of practical over theoretical understanding’;
- Pragmatism criticises ‘the representationalist account of perception’;
- According to pragmatists, ‘the social dimension of human existence’ is prior to an individualised conception and manifestation of agency.
Although the editors and contributors do not explain whether these are necessary and sufficient conditions for a pragmatist reading of the phenomenological tradition (after all, the notion of necessary and sufficient conditions cannot be easily reconciled (if at all) with pragmatist and phenomenological approaches to philosophical method), whether by adhering to just one of these conditions makes one a pragmatist or whether these conditions are fundamentally interrelated, we may claim (in no particular order) that pragmatists tend to subscribe to one or more of the following (indeed, individual contributors touch upon some of these themes):
- ‘Subject naturalism’ (whereby naturalism should be understood as ‘naturalism without representationalism’) is either prior to or a rejection of ‘object naturalism’ (Price 2013);
- The representationalist order of explanation, which, broadly speaking, presupposes the non-deflationary structure of identification between representations and states of affairs, is a misleading explanatory model from ontological, linguistic, experiential and epistemological points of view;
- The notion that something is ‘given’ in experience, that is, that there is something existing ‘out there’ – in reality but independent of our minds – to which our claims, beliefs, justifications, theories and meanings should correspond, is a myth;
- Semantics does not come before pragmatics – notions such as reference and truth are not explanatorily basic and cannot account for inference;
- Metaphysics tends to be deflationary in the sense that the contents of our concepts lay claim to how the world is;
- In addition to the fact that the sense of a word, term, proposition, sentence, belief, fact, value or theory is how it is used in actual practices, semantic notions of truth, reference and meaning are to be understood in terms of social norms;
- Judgments that concern normative statuses, fact-stating talk and objectivity-claims are to be understood in, and gain validity from, the realm of giving and asking for reasons.
The revival of pragmatism during the latter half of the twentieth century and a renewed focus on exploring the nature and origins of normativity in other areas of philosophy has coincided with an increasing body of literature dedicated to exploring some of these pragmatic themes in various canonical texts in the history of Western philosophy, particularly those of Kant, Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. That said, the majority of today’s most prominent pragmatists draw inspiration from their immediate predecessors. In terms of Anglo-American pragmatism, for example, references are almost always made to Ludwig Wittgenstein, Wilfrid Sellars (who, in turn, engaged extensively with the work of Kant), W. V. O. Quine, Donald Davidson, Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam. Indeed, when pragmatists engage more broadly with the history of philosophy (as is the case with Robert Brandom, for example), the focus tends to be on the work of Kant and Hegel. Consequently, in the context of twentieth-century pragmatism, Rorty and Hubert Dreyfus were peculiarities in the sense that they were two of the first self-professed pragmatists (in English-speaking academic circles) to explore the pragmatic dimension of phenomenological traditions of Western philosophy. Through their correspondence, the pragmatic interpretation of the history of phenomenology, and of Heidegger in particular, began in earnest. It is not altogether surprising, therefore, that Rorty and Dreyfus’ respective interpretations are, perhaps, the paradigmatic pragmatist readings of Heidegger and a driving force behind pragmatic appropriations of other well-known phenomenologists, specifically, Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. In terms of Heidegger exegesis, not only have they inspired equally famous readings by Haugeland and Okrent, the interpretations of Rorty and Dreyfus, as this volume testifies, continue to demand critical engagement from Heidegger scholars.
It is apt, therefore, that the book begins with an essay by Okrent – an implicit focal point for the majority of the discussions and criticisms that follow in the other chapters. Along with Okrent’s introduction to some of the most important features of a normalised pragmatic reading of Heidegger, part one of the volume is made up of chapters dedicated to elaborating the pragmatic dimension of the history of phenomenology. Part two critically engages with extant pragmatic readings of the phenomenological tradition and addresses some of the issues that emerge through pragmatic engagements with texts by non-canonical authors such as Scheler and Patočka. The final section contains four contributions that attempt to advance the debates in the history of phenomenology through new perspectives.
After the editors’ introduction, Okrent begins by outlining two features of normative pragmatism – a position he attributes to Heidegger and one that is also affirmed by certain figures in the current Anglo-American pragmatist movement, specifically, Robert Brandom. For Okrent, normative pragmatism is, firstly, committed to the idea that an object’s nonnormative, factual properties are ‘possible only if there is some respect in which it is appropriate to respond to certain situations or to certain entities in certain ways’ (p. 23). Secondly, après Wittgenstein, normative pragmatism is committed to the claim that it is correct to respond to certain situations or to certain entities in certain ways primarily due to ‘the norms implicit in behaviour rather than with following explicit rules’ (ibid.). To speak about appropriate responses to objects, whereby appropriateness is measured according to the norms of social practices, is to think of objects as tools or equipment. According to pragmatist readings of Heidegger, tools are not primarily conceived in terms of their hermetically-sealed physical make-up in space-time. Rather, tools are understood, initially, in terms of what they are used for – the practical contexts and instrumental ends that will be fulfilled through their use. Furthermore, whether tools are used ‘correctly’ comes down to whether they are appropriated according to the norms of tool-use derived from social practices. The key point is that both Okrent and Heidegger view linguistic phenomena as tools. In accordance with the two theses attributed to normative pragmatism, Okrent states that ‘to grasp an entity as merely present, then, an agent must grasp it as essentially a possible object of an assertion. But to grasp something as an object of an assertion is to use the appropriate group of assertions as they are to be used within one’s community’ (p. 26). It follows that an object’s nonnormative properties are ‘simply invisible to an agent if she can’t use assertions to make claims about that entity’ (ibid.).
Okrent’s chapter is a response to criticisms that Brandom has levelled against Dreyfus, Haugeland and Okrent and their respective interpretations of Heidegger. In laying out the central tenets of normative pragmatism, Okrent highlights the similarities between Brandom’s reading of Heidegger and his own. However, disagreements emerge over their respective conceptions of intentionality. According to Brandom, Okrent, Dreyfus and Haugeland adopt a ‘layer-cake’ model, according to which our meaningful, norm-governed, practical responses to certain objects in certain ways is, in a sense, pre-predicative and nonconceptual and, therefore, distinct from (but also the basis of) the propositional articulations we make concerning such objects and our engagements with their nonnormative properties. In other words, the view that Okrent supports, and that Brandom believes is based on a misinterpretation of Heidegger, claims that ‘there are two layers to Dasein’s intentionality, the nonlinguistic skilful coping involved in the utilisation of equipment as tools that are essential to Dasein as Dasein and the linguistic, assertoric intentionality that intends substances as substances and is not essential for Dasein as Dasein’ (p. 29). Okrent goes on to defend the layer-cake model of intentionality on the basis that, for Heidegger, not all interpretations of entities as what they are involves assertion.
In terms of defending his interpretation of Heidegger as a layer-cake theorist in the face of Brandom’s reading, Okrent is convincing. That said, in terms of defending the layer-cake model of intentionality against Brandom’s claim that intentionality does not contain a nonconceptual component – that all experience can be understood in terms of the space of reasons – he is less successful. The other contributions in this volume do far better justice at demonstrating some of the problems with Okrent’s account than I can here. However, what I will say (paraphrasing the main issue in the Dreyfus-McDowell debates) is that although one can claim that propositions, assertions, sentences and theories are embodied, and even originate in our practical activities, that does not mean that our absorbed involvements that grasp the world as what it is are fundamentally and distinctly nonconceptual. Indeed, Brandom’s starting point is to conceive the world ‘as a collection of facts, not of things; there is nothing that exists outside of the realm of the conceptual’ (Brandom 2000: 357). On that basis, he has presented a whole system of normative pragmatics and inferential semantics to support his non-representationalist metaphysical project. Whether we agree with him or not, it follows that Brandom has the means to defend the view that even those interpretations, repairs and improvements of tools and equipment that seemingly operate outside of the bounds of general acceptability, and that Okrent takes to be nonlinguistic, are predicated upon a (at least implicitly) conceptual understanding of intentionality. In other words, our perceptions and skilful copings are permeated with the as-structure of interpretation that fundamentally understands seeing something as something in discursive terms (regardless of whether those concepts are made explicit in discursive practices).
The theme of layer-cake interpretations of both pragmatism and intentionality and the question of the dependency of skilful coping on conceptual meaning are taken up again in Carl Sachs’ contribution. The starting point for Sachs is the debate between Dreyfus and John McDowell regarding the relationship between rationality and absorbed coping and the consequences of this relationship for understanding intelligibility and intentionality. Like Brandom and McDowell, Sachs recognises the problems inherent in the layer-cake model of nonconceptual skilful coping – a distinct kind of intelligibility with its own internal logic. He also acknowledges McDowell’s claim that layer-cake pragmatists make the mistake ‘in thinking both that rationality consists of detached reflection and that rationality is the enemy of absorbed coping’ (p. 96). Unlike Dreyfus, Okrent and Haugeland, both Brandom and McDowell argue that rationality should not be construed as detached contemplation. Furthermore, intentionality is fundamentally conceptual. However, as Sachs observes, the problem with claiming that conceptuality permeates all of our skilful copings is that intentionality tends to be treated as only ‘“thinly” embodied’ (p.94). Through the work of Joseph Rouse, and by confronting the question of how absorbed, embodied coping can fit within the space of giving and asking for reasons, Sachs provides a convincing and highly innovative critique not only of layer-cake interpretations of the phenomenological tradition, but of approaches to contemporary pragmatism that do not pay sufficient phenomenological attention to the embodied dimension of intelligibility. Undermining Dreyfus’ distinction between the ‘space of reasons’ and the ‘space of motivations’, Rouse follows McDowell (and Brandom) in, firstly, rejecting the view that rationality is found in detached contemplation and, secondly, claiming that discursive practices are embodied. Where Sachs sees McDowell as paying only lip service to an embodied conception of rationality, Rouse uses developments in evolutionary theory to naturalise the space of reasons and, by implication, our norm-governed engagements with the world. Having arrived at the claim that discursive practices are conceived as ‘highly modified and specialised forms of embodied coping’ (p. 96), Sachs builds on Rouse’s account by defending a distinction between sapient intentionality and sentient intentionality in order to demonstrate that ‘McDowell is (mostly) right about sapience and that Dreyfus is (mostly) right about sentience’ (p. 88).
Whereas Okrent and Sachs’ respective contributions tackle the Dreyfusian tradition of Heidegger scholarship, Andreas Beinsteiner provides a critical assessment of Rorty’s engagement with the pragmatic dimension of Heidegger’s thought. The focus is on Rorty’s purely language-oriented interpretation of the ‘history of Being’. According to Beinsteiner, even though Rorty agrees with Heidegger’s claim that our vocabularies and practices are contingent, Rorty’s criticism of Heidegger’s ‘narrative of decline’, which is characterised by a lack of recognition regarding the contingent nature of both meaning and language, is problematic. For Beinsteiner, the issue Rorty has with the idea that contemporary Western society, when compared with previous epochs, is less able to grasp the contingency of language rests upon Rorty’s two conflicting versions of pragmatism – instrumental pragmatism and poetic pragmatism. According to Beinsteiner, when Rorty argues for social hope as opposed to decline, he has seemingly failed to acknowledge the contingency of his own language and has, as a result, fallen into the trap that instrumental and poetic pragmatism disclose in different ways. Ultimately, Rorty is trapped within his linguistic conception of intelligibility, one that, he believes his instrumental conception of language has some sovereignty over, when, in fact, according to Beinsteiner, our conception of meaningfulness not only precedes the purposes of our language, it grants Rorty’s language with the purpose of instrumentality in the first place. In the remainder of the chapter, and in the face of what he sees as Rorty’s linguistic treatment of meaningfulness, Beinsteiner offers a challenge to Rorty’s critique of the narrative of decline by demonstrating technology’s ability to guide our understanding of intelligibility.
One of the problems with Beinsteiner’s critique is that Rorty is clearly aware of the dangers of becoming trapped in non-contingent conceptions of one’s language and understanding of meaningfulness. Rorty acknowledges that we can and, indeed, must aim for as much intersubjective agreement as possible by opening ourselves up to other cultures and their associated languages. As he explains, ‘alternative cultures are not to be thought of on the model of alternative geometries’; ‘alternative geometries are irreconcilable because they have axiomatic structures, and contradictory axioms. They are designed to be irreconcilable. Cultures are not so designed, and do not have axiomatic structures’ (Rorty 1991, 30). Consequently, by engaging with different cultures, it is at least a possibility that our language and conception of intelligibility can be destabilised and transcended. However, Heidegger claims that exposure to other cultures through media technology will fail to transform our conceptions of language and meaningfulness. As is evident from Beinsteiner’s contribution, Heidegger’s claim rests upon a one-sided interpretation of technology, one that is justified by criteria located in his own ‘final vocabulary’. This raises a problem, one that is emphasised when Beinsteiner makes claims regarding the pragmatic dimension of technology that coincide with Heidegger’s narrative of decline (even though Beinsteiner states that his point ‘is not to defend a supposed Heideggerian pessimism against Rorty’s optimism’ (p. 64)). A critic would likely argue that if Beinsteiner wishes to argue for the contingency of language and meaning and, thereby, avoid falling prey to the criticisms he levels at Rorty, he needs some criteria for judging the ‘primordiality due to new media and communication technologies’ (p. 64). Indeed, in order to avoid the charge that he is trapped within Heidegger’s vocabulary, such criteria would need to come from elsewhere. Unfortunately, a comprehensive and justified account of such criteria is noticeably absent in both the work of Heidegger and Beinsteiner’s contribution.
Returning to the Dreyfusian tradition of Heidegger scholarship, Tucker McKinney’s contribution addresses a long-standing problem with layer-cake approaches to pragmatism; specifically, the issue of whether and how (what Okrent calls) ‘the nonlinguistic skilful coping involved in the utilisation of equipment as tools that are essential to Dasein as Dasein’ (p. 29) can be reconciled with self-conscious inquiry and the resulting ‘first-personal knowledge of one’s activity’ (p. 71). In the face of traditional approaches to philosophy of mind that interpret self-consciousness in terms of self-representing contemplation, which he acknowledges is a form of self-consciousness that Heidegger criticises, McKinney sees Heidegger as advancing a conception of positional self-awareness ‘as an action-guiding practical knowledge of what to do to sustain one’s being in the world, realised in our affective lives’ (ibid.). Whereas typical pragmatist readings of Heidegger claim that our nonconceptual and non-representational ability to skilfully and habitually cope with the world means that the capacity to represent (the world and our representations of the world) through concepts is both merely derivative and something we can identify or attribute to ourselves only after our unselfconscious practical activities, McKinney defends the view that, according to Heidegger, ‘our engagements with entities are permeated with a sense of our own agency, our own active and participatory engagement with objects’ (p. 78).
In the face of problematic normalised and normalising pragmatic readings of Heidegger, many will welcome McKinney’s contribution. Whether it provides ‘a new ontology of self-possessed activity’ is questionable. Indeed, the approach shares some affinities with Hegel’s account of self-consciousness, Wittgenstein’s conception of private language and (more obviously) Habermas’ work on the relationship between self-awareness, affectivity and intersubjective communicative action. The basis for divergence stems from McKinney’s focus on ‘attunement’ [Befindlichkeit], which he translates as ‘findingess’ but can also be interpreted as ‘affectivity’ (Crowell 2013) and ‘state-of-mind’ (Braver 2014), and its concrete manifestation as ‘mood’ or, more literally, ‘tuning’ [Stimmung] (such as when the sound of a musical instrument changes depending on how it is tuned). At a very basic level, Heidegger describes moods as ‘fleeting experiences that “colour” one’s whole “psychical condition”’ (GA 2, p. 450). From a phenomenological point of view that McKinney adopts in his discussion of the concept of fear, moods influence how things are meaningfully encountered in the ways they are during my practical engagements. On the basis of moods, my activities express an understanding of my own agency (p. 83). Furthermore, and this is matter that McKinney does not discuss (but Heidegger does), it is an existential-ontological condition of my capacity to interpret the world that I, myself, must be affectively attuned. Without attunement, any act of skilful coping would not present itself to me as intelligible. Consequently, in terms of a phenomenological reading of the concept of mood and ontological considerations of attunement, there is, as McKinney recognises, scope to innovatively extend non-Cartesian debates regarding the nature of self-consciousness.
Turning to part two of volume, in which the contributors focus specifically on the phenomenological dimension of the work of Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Scheler and Patočka, Jakub Čapek’s contribution exemplifies some of exegetical challenges that face traditional pragmatist readings of the phenomenological canon. On the basis of Merleau-Ponty’s concept of ‘perceptual faith’, which describes ‘how our involvement in the world precedes and sustains all perceptions, the true and the false’ (p. 141), Čapek argues that although Dreyfus and Charles Taylor’s pragmatic readings do not address ‘perceptual faith’ directly, their understanding of objects as mere correlates of our practical involvements, which Čapek sees as a consequence of the ‘primacy of the practical’ in pragmatism, generates a restricted interpretation of Merleau-Ponty’s account of perceptual experience. Čapek acknowledges that Merleau-Ponty does in fact claim that perception is an engaged, interested and skilful activity that allows us to cope with the world (in contrast with the interpretation of perception as an intermediary in a two-step, realist epistemological model, whereby passive receptions of something like sense data are synthesised as representations of external objects). However, that does not mean that the objects we perceive can be completely reduced to the meanings we accord them in our practical dealings. Even though Merleau-Ponty claims that our ontological commitments are embodied to the degree that an object is, as Čapek says, ‘a correlate of the body’, it is a feature of phenomenologically-oriented ontology that an object transcends ‘action-relevant predicates’ such that it is irreducible ‘to all that makes it a familiar part of our surroundings and of our activities’ (p. 152). In the sense that the ontology of things is dependent upon embodied perception to the degree that ‘in perception, we are directed to the things themselves, not through their appearances but to things themselves as they appear’ (p. 147), Čapek draws upon Merleau-Ponty’s conception of the transcendent dimension of ontology to argue that the latter’s account of ‘perceptual faith’ leaves room for an ‘interrogative, non-practical or disinterested’ dimension to perception (p. 143).
The only downsides to Čapek’s chapter are that he provides neither an in-depth account of the meaning of ‘the interrogative mode’ of perception (minimal references are made to perception as ‘transcend[ing] things’ and affirming ‘more things than are grasped in it’ (p. 154)) nor a discussion of how specifically pragmatic interpretations of the history of phenomenology could be revised in light of such a phenomenologically-oriented conception of disinterested perception. This is indicative of the limitations of the volume in general. Specifically, because the majority of the contributions employ interpretations of texts in the history of phenomenology to either elaborate upon or challenge more paradigmatic readings, there is little room for exploring the implications of such scholarship for debates at the forefront of contemporary phenomenology and pragmatism.
Bearing in mind the limitations imposed on the volume due to the purely hermeneutical approach taken by the majority of the authors, it should be said that James Mensch does offer interpretations of Aristotle, William James, Heidegger, Patočka, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty and Emmanuel Levinas in his contribution. But these readings are for illustrative purposes only, employed to elaborate upon the respective natures of pragmatic and theoretical attitudes in philosophy and their relationships to broader concepts of objective truth and freedom. For Mensch, what defines the pragmatic attitude is not only (as Čapek highlights in his contribution) the treatment of objects and their properties as mere correlates of practical involvements, but, more specifically, the reduction of an object’s essence to instrumentality – ‘its function as a means for the accomplishment of my projects’ (p. 191). The pragmatic attitude is seen as particularly problematic for the philosopher ‘who seeks simply to understand’ (p. 194) as it results in a performative contradiction. Conversely, the theoretical attitude deals with the ‘objectivity’ of phenomena ‘in terms of the evidence we have for what we believe about them’ (p. 195), evidence that can transcend our means-ends understanding of objects. Mensch goes on to explain the relationships between the respective ontological commitments that arise from the pragmatic attitude and the theoretical attitude in terms of the concept of freedom. Following Heidegger, Mensch recognises that there are many possibilities for the intelligibility of objects and their properties, and it is up to the philosopher to choose which possibility to actualise. In short, for Mensch, freedom is an ontological condition on the basis of which philosophers choose to adopt a theoretical attitude that suspends their pragmatic concerns in order to inquire into the ‘intrinsic sense’ of objects qua their objectivity. Furthermore, whereas the pragmatic attitude does not allow the object to ‘transcend the [pragmatic] conventions that govern our speaking’ (p. 199), the ‘intrinsic sense’ of an object does make room for such transcendence because (due to the fact that it is conceptually constituted and predicated upon intersubjective agreement) we can recognise the alterity of other objectivity claims that call my claims into question. Indeed, Mensch states that it is the alterity of the ‘Other’ that makes both philosophical freedom and a theoretical inquiry into the ‘intrinsic sense’ of things possible.
Critics would likely argue that Mensch’s distinction between pragmatic attitudes and theoretical attitudes is altogether too simplistic, resulting in an argument that is explanatorily weak. Indeed, due to the reification of pragmatic and theoretical attitudes, it would be difficult to abstract any genuine pragmatic (let alone broader metaphilosophical) concerns without being charged of straw-man-building. For example, contemporary Anglo-American pragmatists would challenge the claim that the pragmatic attitude purely apprehends the essence of objects in terms of its instrumentality. For example, as Beinsteiner observes earlier in the volume, Rorty advocated both instrumental and world-disclosing dimensions of pragmatism. In addition, as already mentioned, Brandom is a pragmatist, one that, simultaneously, adopts a theoretical attitude in order to inquire into Mensch’s conception of the ‘intrinsic sense’ of objects. Brandom is clear that not only do the contents of our concepts lay claim to how the world is, the meaning of our concepts is derived from the reasoning practices and inferential processes of discursive practitioners in the space of giving and asking for reasons. Furthermore, Brandom is also aware that freedom plays a pivotal role in the realm of contestable objectivity-claims. He argues that judgment, in terms of committing oneself to deploying concepts and, simultaneously, taking responsibility for the integration of the objectivity-claims and their associated conceptual contents with others that serve as reasons for or against them, is a ‘positive freedom’ (Brandom 2009, 59). I do not have the space to expand further. Suffice it to say, however, that Brandom’s inferential semantics and normative pragmatics articulates a number (if not all) of the themes that Mensch attributes to the theoretical attitude.
If Mensch’s characterisation of the pragmatic attitude is representative of a concrete approach in pragmatism, then perhaps one could claim that it only holds for layer-cake readings of Heidegger. Even then, however, the likes of Dreyfus and Okrent are careful to explain the fact that what Mensch apprehends as the theoretical attitude is dependent upon, and, ultimately, derives from, our shared, practical involvements in a world that is constituted by the activities of others, rather than something we can ‘choose’ to adopt completely outside of our practical copings and activities (a choice, based on Mensch’s account, without any causal repercussions and considerations and no rational constraint or motivation). Furthermore, whereas Mensch claims that the ontological condition of the ‘Other’ allows us to disclose a theoretical alternative to the pragmatically-apprehended world, the Dreyfusian tradition is well aware that we, as a skilful and absorbed copers, are ‘being-with’ [Mitsein], in the sense that when we encounter something as both meaningful and as what it is, it discloses to us those ‘others’ that also find the same thing meaningful in the same ways. To stress the importance of the ‘Other’ for the conditions of the theoretical attitude in particular, as Mensch does, is to severely misinterpret or (worse still) ignore the concept of the ‘Other’ in layer-cake pragmatism. This begs the question that if what Mensch defines as the pragmatic attitude does not successfully capture the complexities that surround layer-cake approaches to pragmatism, let alone contemporary pragmatism in general, then why should pragmatically-oriented philosophers take Mensch seriously? Furthermore, why should they care? Perhaps one could argue that Mensch’s chapter is a lesson in what can happen when not enough attention is paid by phenomenologists to developments in pragmatism, just as this volume as a whole discloses the problems that arise from pragmatic interpretations of the history of phenomenology.
Does the volume as a whole succeed in meeting its aims? If the aim of the volume is to offer a ‘complex analysis of the pragmatic theses that are present in the works of leading phenomenological authors’, then (despite the proclivity for Heidegger at the expense of other central figures from phenomenological tradition, including those that are still alive and still researching), I would say ‘yes’. However, as the volume is oriented towards the relationship between pragmatism and phenomenology through interpretations of canonical works in the history of Western philosophy, there is very little meaningful discussion of the theoretical implications of the dialogue for either current phenomenologically-oriented philosophical research or the pragmatic dimensions of contemporary metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of science and ethics. In this sense, the title of the volume is misleading and perhaps should be taken as ‘pragmatic perspectives in the history of phenomenology’. Nevertheless, there are some excellent papers here that not only articulate the pragmatic turn in the history of phenomenology, but offer much-needed insight into the problems associated with long-standing pragmatic interpretations of the works of Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Husserl.
Brandom, R. (2000) ‘Facts, Norms and Normative Facts: A Reply to Habermas’, European Journal of Philosophy 8 (3): 356-74.
Brandom, R. (2009) Reason in Philosophy: Animating Ideas, Cambridge, MA and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
Braver, L. (2014) Heidegger, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Crowell, S. (2013) Normativity and Phenomenology in Husserl and Heidegger, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Heidegger, M. (1977) Gesamtausgabe, GA 2: Sein und Zeit, ed. F. von Herrmann, Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann.
Price, H. (2013) Expressivism, Pragmatism and Representationalism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rorty, R. (1991) Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth: Philosophical Papers, Volume 1, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
 Sachs also addresses the concept of attunement when he argues that affordances and solicitations (traditionally distinctive of embodied coping) should also be contextualised within the space of reasons.
Ernst Jünger (1895-1998), was a problematic polymath whose life and work continue to discreetly haunt both German and European intellectual life. He was first a soldier, highly decorated and often wounded in the First World War. The Second War he spent as a staff officer occupying Paris where he mingled with the likes of Picasso. Both experiences were transmuted into literature, most famously in his 1920 memoir of the trenches, Storm of Steel, which made his literary name. He went on to excel in many literary genres, such as those of memoir, diary, novel, essay, science fiction, allegory, theoretical tract and in the forms of literary expression usually associated with the name of Friedrich Nietzsche. He stands alone, amongst German writers, with Goethe, Klopstock and Wieland in having had two editions of his collected works published in his lifetime. As if this were insufficient for a life well lived, he was also an entomologist of some distinction. So far, so wiki – he appears a figure of some note; but is he, or was he, of philosophical note?
There is a paucity of English-language secondary literature on Jünger, and little of that literature is of direct philosophical interest. Does this matter? Was Jünger more than a warrior littérateur entranced by beetles – if being philosophical would make more of that? In this book Vincent Blok sets out to provide an affirmative answer to this question. He proceeds in two keys: in that of the history of philosophy and in that of philosophical argument.
With regard to history, Blok’s strategy is to entwine Jünger with Martin Heidegger. This is no facile ‘x & y’ project. They corresponded, and Heidegger was a careful reader of Jünger, and more than a careful critic. Volume 90 of his Gesamtausgabe carries the title Zu Ernst Jünger ‘Der Arbeiter’. And in his celebrated essay collection Pathmarks the essay ‘On the Question of Being’ is a direct response to Jünger’s essay ‘Across the Line’. But even more than this Heidegger saw Jünger as the figure that stood between himself and Nietzsche. This in itself would seem to suffice to establish Jünger’s place, howsoever minor, in the history of thinking in the twentieth century. However, Blok desires even more than this. More than showing the influence of Jünger on Heidegger, and exploring Heidegger’s critical response to Jünger, Blok ventures to assert that Jünger goes beyond Heidegger. To ground this startling proposition a change of key is required, to that of philosophical argument.
With regard to philosophical argument, Blok initially uses the entwining with Heidegger to make an intervention in the philosophical questions of, not only, as the title suggests, technology, but also those of nihilism and language. And Blok entwines these questions as he entwines his leading men. And it is with regard to the question of language that Blok argues that Jünger goes beyond Heidegger.
The book consists of an argument in three interlinked movements. First, Jünger’s concept of the worker is explored as it is presented in his text with the most direct philosophical import: The Worker of 1932. Then Heidegger’s engagement with this concept takes the stage. Finally, Blok suggests how Jünger’s work might be understood to elude the critique that issues from Heidegger’s engagement, and thus be of continuing philosophical import. This book is an argument first. Readers after an introduction to Jünger’s life and work need to look elsewhere. In addition, at least a basic appreciation of the full range of Heidegger’s mature thought is probably a prerequisite for a fruitful engagement with Blok’s argument. The three movements will be tracked in turn.
Part One ‘The Age of Technicity and the Gestalt of the Worker’: The Worker: Dominion and Form, to give its full title, is a work written in the twilight of the Weimar Republic that seeks to explore how one can reorientate oneself in the wake of the shattering of the brittle maps of nineteenth century bourgeois liberalism by the brutal hammer of the First World War. Without much need for the gifts of prophecy, the implication is that the Weimar Republic sought to carry on as if nothing had happened and that is the secret of its coming disaster. Jünger with the form, or gestalt, of the worker seeks to articulate a more robust response to a world whose contours are formed by the ice and fire of technology and not by the ethereal legal fictions, then practically dispelled, of contracts and rights. Central to The Worker is a slippery conception of gestalt, and it is here that Blok’s focus falls. As Blok argues, for Jünger gestalt indicates that power that gives fundamental ontological form, and thus unity, to a particular epoch of human existence. Blok describes gestalt as “a summarising unity or measure within which the world appears as ordered.” (13) Gestalts can differ, so the world can appear as ordered in different ways. It seemed clear that the appearance of the order of the world changed in Germany, and in Europe, between the springs of 1914 and 1919. Reflecting on his experience of the trenches Jünger intuits a shift in fundamental measure from that of the Enlightenment to that of the worker. Evidence of this is that the War makes no sense in a world as ordered by the Enlightenment. It makes no sense, yet it is, thus something must have changed. But the shift is hard to discern, so for those without the eyes to see it is experienced as the nihilistic dissolution of bourgeois values and meaning-giving. It is hard to discern because, for Jünger, a gestalt cannot be perceived directly, but only through its effect on its world. The gestalt is not a product of history as even ‘the characteristic of time changes through the influence of the gestalt.’ (16). Blok argues that Jünger sees his task first to draw out the contours of the forms of life as work imposed by the new gestalt of the Worker, and then strive to find ways of being that might productively respond to this new fundamental ordering. In the gestalt of the worker, the world appears ordered as work, to the extent that even leisure is understood as a form of work. And the world is waiting for the task. Blok quotes Jünger to the effect that “The working world expects, hopes to be given meaning.” (12).
Blok understands this meaning-giving in Nietzschean terms, specifically those of the will to power as art. And before proceeding Blok offers an intermezzo on Nietzsche’s conception of nihilism. The Nietzsche presented is a Nietzsche of the will to power. While this Nietzsche is currently interpretatively unfashionable, this is the Nietzsche that Heidegger sees Jünger as embodying, so it is contextually apposite. More problematic is Blok’s rather narrow understanding of nihilism which he takes to consist in the erasure of the “Platonic horizon of the transcendental idea.” (21).
Returning to Jünger, Blok now explores how the gestalt of the worker leads to the type of the worker, where the type is the way of life that fits best with the gestalt. One is already in the gestalt of the worker so, “Our transition to the type of the worker thus consists of a becoming who you are.” (32). Blok’s reading here is informed by Jünger’s 1930 essay ‘Total Mobilisation’. Being a worker-type is not a matter of personal industriousness or wage-slavery. It is an attunement to the situation that the new gestalt of work leaves one in. “In the epoch of the worker, ‘work’ would form the metaphysical measure of the world and men, in whose light the technological world appears as technological order and man finds his destination as the type of worker.” (35). Again, it is not a matter of a traditional work-ethic, or a class based analysis calling the workers of the world to unite. It is a recognition of the metaphysical ordering that currently dominates. It is a strange metaphysics which appears necessary while it dominates, but which can dissolve, and with it its necessity, in the blink of an eye. This shift to the worker means that what appears as nihilism is not the collapse of all value, or the highest values devaluing themselves, but the misrecognition of a shift in the metaphysical order of the values that themselves give order to the appearance of our world – a shift here from Enlightenment to Work. And to consciously create oneself as a worker is to most fittingly respond to the manner in which the world appears to be ordered when it is ordered by the gestalt of the worker. The analysis of the gestalt of the worker thus does not aspire to the utopian or normatively prescriptive but tries to be realistic and phenomenological. It is a response to the world, and one’s most fitting place in it, as they appear given. The ‘heroic realist recognises himself as the type of the worker’ (36). One may not like this world of work, but it is the world that appears.
How does the worker work? This work is, somewhat surprisingly, a poetic task guided by the gestalt: “The will to power is led as though by a magnet by the gestalt, which is not and only is in the will to power as art.” (36). It is a poetic task, bringing forth a language that allows the dominion of its gestalt ‘to emerge from its anonymous character’ (35). What then is the worker to work at? “The worker’s task is to transform the work-world of total mobilisation into a world in which the gestalt guarantees a new security and order of life.” (39). The task of the worker is to be bring to light how the world appears to be ordered in the epoch of the worker, where this bringing to light is guided by the source of that ordering, and results in the practical ordering of life. There is a suspicion that here Blok’s Jünger is too close to Nietzsche, but then that is where Heidegger also finds him so he is in good company.
Part Two: Heidegger’s Reception of Jünger – Work, Gestalt and Poetry: Blok identifies Heidegger’s key problem with Jünger as his apparent claim that nihilism can be overcome. Where Jünger sees two gestalt: Enlightenment and then Work, Heidegger only sees one nihilism. The gestalt of the worker is yet another occasion of the forgetting of the question of being. Furthermore the gestalt itself is platonic, still concerned with the search for certainty and security. And from this symptom Heidegger diagnoses that Jünger remains within the orbit of Nietzsche’s metaphysics. But Jünger is not minor satellite, but ‘the only real follower of Nietzsche’ (54). As ever there is the question of the trustworthiness of Heidegger’s interpretation, whatever its stimulating novelty. Blok notes that the likes of Günter Figal and Michael Zimmermann argue that it is Jünger that first provokes Heidegger to find his own response to the question of technology and to the modern world in general. A response that would lead to Heidegger grasping for both National Socialism and then Hölderlin.
Blok begins his defence of Jünger by examining the development of Heidegger’s ontology of work in Being and Time and beyond. He argues that this development is provoked by his reception of Jünger’s work, but that, between 1930 and 1934, Heidegger was following Jünger rather than reacting against him, so that, for example, ‘following Jünger, Heidegger rejects economic conceptualizations of work and worker’ (70). For Blok it is only in 1934 that Heidegger develops his own response, and it only then that he turns his guns on Jünger. Only then does Jünger become captive to the unquestioning of Being, and becomes one who indicates but does not question. Where Blok sees Jünger as engaged in a poetic task, Heidegger sees him all ‘bound up with the will to power of representation’ (80). Jünger fails to enact the ‘new’ languaging of Being that is required. For his own part Heidegger begins to move away from the trope of work towards those of exposure and Gelassenheit. As Blok notes “According to Heidegger, our questioning is only really philosophical when this questioning recoils back from what is asked, back upon itself.” (88). One might speculate that Gelassenheit et al, the whole post-conceptual rhetorical apparatus of the mature Heidegger, with its negative and mystic overtones, be a recoiling back from not only Jünger’s world of work, but also from the world of the trenches (and perhaps even from their successors as the locus of extreme horror – the camps, though that is certainly too charitable to Heidegger) that was the midlife to the expression of this world? Blok examines Heidegger’s use of a conception of gestalt in his essay ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’ (1935-6) with an eye on Heidegger’s emerging idea of the poetic tasks of language. Blok’s response is, by now, as expected. Whatever Heidegger’s idea of the poetic task, Blok argues that Jünger is up to it. Jünger’s is not the old language of will to representation or of the bad old subject. Blok quotes Jünger “It has far more to do with a new language that is suddenly spoken and man answers, or he remains silent – and this decides his reality… The clatter of looms from Manchester, the rattle of machine guns from Langemarck – they are signs, words and sentences of a prose that wants to be interpreted and mastered by us.” (104). Whence then this new language? From Engels’ Manchester or Jünger’s trenches, or indeed from their contemporary equivalents, or from sojourns at Todtnauberg? Jünger may lack Heidegger’s philosophical sophistication but perhaps he is not without judgement here. And howsoever Blok may overstate Jünger’s case, it is perhaps, against Heidegger of all thinkers, a case worth overstating. For Heidegger, the man of the university-machine, we are exposed off the beaten tracks of the Black Forest. For Jünger, the stormtrooper insect-fancier, we are exposed on the battlefield or the factory floor (it is all too easy to think of contemporary equivalents here). Wherever they both are, Blok asserts that Jünger is “on his way to an understanding of the essence of language that is no longer metaphysical.” (106). And that, all over the place, is the philosophical goal.
Part Three: The Essence of Language and the Poetics of the Anthropocene: In this final act Blok makes a case for Jünger as a properly post-Heideggerian poetic language-worker and thus not a pre-Heideggerian epigone of Nietzsche. It is the weakest part of the book, but that might be no bad thing. Why? Because of the structure of his argument and book, Blok has to connect this act to the preceding two, in particular the first act on the worker. In order to achieve this he examines texts such as Jünger’s 1963 essay ‘Type, Name, Gestalt’ where the link, via gestalt, is obvious. However, much as Heidegger did, in his later years Jünger moved far from some of his earlier work, and especially from anything that reeked of political engagement. This retreat might be seen, in print, as early as On the Marble Cliffs (1939), a thinly but artfully veiled allegory of the Germany of the time and its horror. By 1951’s The Forest Passage, Jünger is a ‘forest fleer’ or rebel, alone in the same German forests where Heidegger sought a different sort of solace. Jünger seeks a quiet but firm freedom, not the main event. And by his 1977 allegorical novel Eumeswil, there is the figure of the Anarch, not to be mistaken for the anarchist, who survives the world dominated by work not by embracing the fate of the worker but by cultivating a resolute scepticism and a careful if still quiet freedom. “The difference is that the forest fleer has been expelled from society, while the anarch has expelled society from himself.” (Jünger 1995, 147). This seems far from the trope of work, and Blok is aware of all this, he notes that ‘the poet must stand in opposition and not engage in the workshop landscape.” (113). But he also appears constrained by the logic of the argument he has already made. But when, at the close of a chapter that touches on The Forest Passage, Blok asserts that “In general, we can conclude therefore that Jünger’s later essays are in line with his early work on the gestalt of the worker.” (116) the effect is not altogether convincing as to whether Blok himself believes his own case. That said, there is much of interest in the case that he does make. And even if he is constrained by his earlier positions, this reader senses that, ultimately, fidelity to Jünger’s text wins out, hence the weakness of his argument might not be a weakness when it comes to exposing Jünger’s work.
There is also the problem, for Blok, of trying to demonstrate how Jünger manages to squeeze past Heidegger on their tight forest path to post-metaphysical language, in only 33 pages including notes. His case simply does not have room to breathe. For example, Blok asserts that the inaccessibility of gestalt necessitates poetic naming, but does not explore how this echoes the withdrawal of Being that Heidegger associates with clearing and event. And while Blok asserts that the “Geheimnis [secret] of the gestalt makes clear that the new epoch of the worker is not a matter of observation but of poetry.” (141) it is not always clear quite how we got from work, and the trenches, to poetry. While Jünger clearly was an skilful, experimental and promiscuous stylist, the suspicion remains that this is inadequate to merit the mantle of a new post-metaphysical language fit for the time of the worker. All in all the third act reads as a draft of an argument to come, and when it comes it will be welcome.
A complicating of the actual relationship between Heidegger and Jünger would also be welcomed, as would, though it is clearly outwith the task Blok set for himself, a questioning of the relationship of each, personal and intellectual, with another German master of the dark arts, Carl Schmitt. In an interview on the occasion of his 90th birthday Jünger reflected on what he saw as Heidegger’s political stupidity: “He thought something new was coming [in 1933], but he was terribly mistaken. He did not have as clear a vision as I did.” (Hervier 55) How might Heidegger have responded? In the same interview Jünger relates one of his brother’s Heidegger anecdotes: “One day, Heidegger was stung on the back of the neck by a bee, and my brother told him that that was excellent for rheumatism. Heidegger didn’t know what to answer.” (Hervier 55). In his final letter found in the collection of their correspondence Heidegger, on the occasion of Jünger’s 80th birthday, wrote: “My particular wish for you on this day is brief: Remain with the proven, illuminating decision on your singular path of saying. That such saying is itself already an act that needs no supplement by a praxis, only few still (or yet?) understand today.” (Heidegger & Jünger 61). Blok does aid in that task of understanding.
A few scattered comments: as is not uncommonplace the index is lamentable; the book’s connection, as promised in its title, with the workplace concept of the Anthropocene is slight, gratuitous and unnecessary to the argument (138-9); the style is repetitive but repetition of one’s place in the argument can keep one on track, and it ameliorates the effect of the inevitable typos and occasional infelicities in sentence construction.
In conclusion: Blok benefits from the lack of a substantial body of existing English-language secondary literature, in that it is easier for a novel perspective to stand out when the field is not crowded. Though he might soon have company with the publication in late 2017 of an English translation of The Worker (Jünger 2017). Although details and arguments might be disputed, he clearly establishes Jünger as a significant interlocutor with Heidegger and thus as someone who cannot be philosophically ignored by readers of Heidegger. Likewise, much as Heidegger cannot be ignored by those engaged with the philosophical questions of technology, nihilism or language, neither now can Jünger. In short and to repeat: Blok succeeds in making sure that his Jünger can no longer be ignored by philosophers, especially by those who care about the same philosophical questions that propelled Martin Heidegger’s mature work.
Heidegger, Martin & Jünger, Ernst. Correspondence 1949-1975, translated by Timothy Sean Quinn (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).
Hervier, Julien. The Details of Time: Conversation with Jünger, translated by Joachim Neugroschel (New York: Marsilo Publishers, 1995).
Jünger, Ernst. Eumeswil, translated by Joachim Neugroschel (London: Quartet Books, 1995).
Jünger, Ernst. The Worker: Dominion and Form, translated by Bogdan Costea & Laurence Paul Hemming (Northwestern University Press, 2017).
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.
In this valuable, timely and in many respects, enlightening volume, Mireille Calle-Gruber gathers together a number of important documents: the transcripts of a discussion between Gadamer, Derrida and Lacoue-Labarthe at a seminar in Heidelberg on Heidegger: Philosophical and Political Dimensions of his Thought; a series of questions to Gadamer, Derrida and Lacoue-Labarthe, and their answers concerning Heidegger’s thinking, political affiliations and commitments; and a thought-provoking and altogether memorable appendix by Gadamer.
Gadamer’s response is, in some ways, not surprising, and striking. First of all, he chooses to speak in French (since the other two speakers, Lacoue-Labarthe and Derrida, are French, and visitors to Germany); he asserts that there is “no authentic conversation without dialogism, that is, without the basis of a common language” (6) – one might add: also without authentic hospitality. He brings no text; he sees the invitation to speak as “license permitted to an improvisation” (6). He insists on a familiar note: “there is no point in speaking about Heidegger if one is not familiar with the origins of Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysics” (6-7). Indeed, he reminds us that this was the main reason why he had begun to read the works of Derrida. He explains that his interest lies not just in a “set of problems touching on Heidegger” but also in the question of “how, to some extent, it also determined us” (7).
He then turns to Derrida’s “concept” of deconstruction: “the term ‘deconstruction’ then, taught me immediately to recognize this connotation [destruktion as a ‘return to living speech’] that had never come to mind for us when we were listening to the young Heidegger speak of Destruktion. ‘Deconstruction’ wants, it seems to me, to underscore that it is a question not simply of destroying, but also of constructing something” (7). He hastens to add, however, quite unsurprisingly, that he is not “inhabited” (as Derrida “is”) “by the conviction that there is a total rupture of communication among men today” (8). He reminds the audience also that the hermeneutics at the basis of his reflection on communication is not as interested in “the hidden meanings of words and discourse” (8).
He argues that Derrida sees in Heidegger‘s interpretation of Nietzsche a “form of continuation, unintended and involuntary, of the tradition of metaphysics and even of logocentrism” – a “true provocation”, he calls it (8). In Gadamer’s view, Heidegger’s greatness lay in this: that he had taught Gadamer “that logocentrism was in a way the destiny of the West. That it was at the foundation of metaphysics…. That this logocentrism had constituted, for Heidegger himself, the true invitation to philosophy” (8). In a sense. Heidegger had begun to “comprehend” something “not comprehensible by means of the conceptuality or the metaphysics of the Greeks and of medieval or even modern thinkers” (8-9).
Gadamer then turns to the question of Heidegger’s “engagement in the National-Socialist movement” (9). He introduces a deeply personal, and troubling, note:
we were troubled by it from the moment when we began working with him, when we were his students. I was at Marburg and was a young colleague of Heidegger’s when he began to get involved in the Nazi movement in Freiburg. It is true and must be confessed, that for many of us this came as a surprise. Perhaps one will say: you were blind! Young people are blind, in a way, when they are guided by a master with great energy and force; so they give their attention only to what corresponds to their own interests and their own questions (9-10).
This insight brings him to the “crucial and absolutely inevitable problem,… the problem of German Nazism” (10). And he is insistent on this point: “it is clear that one cannot dissociate Heidegger’s philosophy from the fact of the extermination that took place” (10) – presumably because they had been troubled by Heidegger’s direct “involvement” in “the Nazi movement in Freiburg”. He does not note that the involvement was uncritical, of course, but his alarm could perhaps be explained by the very nature of that “involvement”. He insists also on the context: a period of liberalism, a bourgeois culture in decline, an age of artistic visions of the destruction of German culture, and so on. The young Heidegger had been “determined” by this kind of background, which extended to the critique of transcendental idealism, neo-Kantianism, “the critique on the part of Jewish thinkers and Catholic thinkers” during World War 1, and so on (11).
Nonetheless, he emphasises two problems
that have remained very troubling… throughout my life. The first has to do with the responsibility assumed by a man as excellent and paradigmatic as the thinker that Heidegger was in 1933… but also… there is the other fact, contradictory and disturbing: to wit, the same thinker, at the same moment—at a time when he supported, certainly not everything, not the anti-Semitism, not the racism, not the biologism of Nazism, but all the same some of its fundamental decisions—this thinker was writing texts that we still today can read as an anticipation of the coming reality. I am thinking in particular of “Die Zeit des Weltbildes,” of the description of the “forgetting of being,” as he called it, of the predominance of technics and of the consequences of the industrial revolution; in short, of everything that, as we know, began long ago but became evident only more recently, and is evident for young people to such a degree that this is perhaps today, in the eyes of the old man I am now, the most troubling fact there is: I mean, the pessimism of young people with regard to the possible future of humanity (11).
The question of responsibility is a profound one, given the context that Gadamer highlights; the question of Heidegger’s support for some of the “fundamental decisions” of Nazism is also a profound and troubling one, as are its connections with his writings concerning the “predominance of technics and of the consequences of the industrial revolution” (11), and the emerging pessimism “of young people with regard to the possible future of humanity” (11).
So the first “great ambiguity” in the case of Heidegger is the question of responsibility; the second one concerns the “ambiguity of his silence” (11). (“Heidegger never spoke of his error”, though Gadamer adds that “he did say once that it was ‘the greatest error of my life’”, in relation to his “engagement” with the Nazi Party). He intensifies the analysis considerably, in searing terms:
But that is superficial with regard to the serious affinities that exist between Heidegger’s philosophical position and certain tendencies of that movement. It is this question that has always preoccupied the Jewish friends I have met in America during my travels. They all say: the error of Heidegger, his participation in the movement, these are things that could be forgiven. But why did he never evoke that? Why did he refuse to speak of it? (11-12).
He explains how his attempt to explain “why Heidegger did not recognize any responsibility” in an article in Le Nouvel Observateur had been “very mutilated” (“but what can one expect, when a German writer engages in a Parisian debate”, 12). He critiques Farias’ book except “on one point”:
I am referring to the date of June 30, 1934, the Night of the Long Knives. It was there that my difference with Heidegger, I believe, revealed itself as fundamental. For both of us, this was a date with fatal consequences, but we did not understand this fatality in the same way. For Heidegger, it was the end of the revolution as he understood it: that is to say, a spiritual and philosophical revolution that ought to have brought with it a renewal of humanity in all of Europe. Whereas for me this stabilization of the Nazi revolution through the support of the army brought the irrevocable certainty that it would never be possible to be liberated from this regime without a catastrophe. This was, in my eyes, the prospect we were facing. And for me it is clear that it is mere hypocrisy to ask, why did you not rebel against it? When faced with weapons one does not counter them with preaching (12).
The bifurcation of their two paths is striking: for Heidegger, according to Gadamer, the Night of the Long Knives signalled the end of a revolution, in a “spiritual and philosophical sense”, that promised to bring in its wake, a renewal of all Europe; for Gadamer, it signalled a national “stabilization” which brought him the certainty that it would not be possible to be liberated from the “revolution”, except in catastrophic terms. It may be, as he argues, “that it is mere hypocrisy to ask, why did you not rebel against it?” But the question cannot be disengaged quite so readily: when one is faced with weapons, admittedly preaching may be futile, but it could be argued that critical thinking and questioning need not be abandoned entirely (notwithstanding the “determining” elements that Gadamer identifies incisively).
So, Gadamer concludes with some observations on that article in French, on a hermeneutical note that is long familiar from his writings, in which optimism and the possibility of authentic and meaningful communicative relations are affirmed, in the knowledge that the next speaker will be Derrida: he reaffirms his conviction that “communication can always take place, and that in my work there is not at all this insistence on the rupture that formed the destiny of human culture today” (13).
Derrida’s response is significantly longer than Gadamer’s, perhaps not surprisingly, though interestingly, he does not respond directly to Gadamer’s forceful claims about Heidegger. He begins with a startling claim: he professes to be happy, afraid, “very impressed” and “very intimidated” by “what is developing here”! (13) Derrida imagines Heidegger’s specter, or “something of his specter, predicting that this evening there will be no thinking [ça ne pensera pas]! And that is indeed what may happen” (13).
Perhaps. But it is evident that some thinking has already taken place, deep thinking or pondering, as Heidegger would have it, on the part of Gadamer. Derrida seems to mean that thinking may not take place in this challenging and less than ideal context: a short meeting, speaking briefly rather than reading (or writing) in detail, and so on. He clarifies his meaning:
an agreement in favour of improvisation: we are improvising, and we will continue to improvise. Why improvise in this case? Whereas everything, on the contrary—the gravity of the matter, the complexity of the problems, of the texts, of the political and historical situations, of the traps awaiting us at every moment—all this, precisely, would push us to weigh our words, to leave nothing to chance, to never improvise…. And I must say that personally, each time that I have attempted to speak of these questions—as I have done again recently—, I avoided improvisation as much as I possibly could. Not in order simply to defend or protect myself, but because the consequences of every phrase and sentence are so grave that all this deserves, precisely, to be removed from the element of improvisation (14).
He reasons that they are “improvising”, yet the complexity of the issues, the gravity of the situation, and so on, demand that they do not improvise. But it is not obvious that Gadamer had merely improvised; on the contrary, his talk seemed to come out of some deliberation, and over a sustained period of time, on the complexities and gravity of the situation – hardly without preparation. Yet Derrida insists on the point about improvisation. So, Derrida turns to Gadamer’s talk and to “a philosophical question… in what terms responsibility will be defined. Which category of responsibility ought to guide us, not only in the definition but in the taking of responsibilities?” (14)
On the one hand, Derrida insists on the improvisatory aspect, and on the other hand, speaks of Gadamer’s abundant attention to some of these things. Yet he raises an important question about the meaning of responsibility and the responsibilities that one has, for example, in relation to reading Heidegger carefully: since the publication of Farias’ text among others, “many of those who were not professional philosophers, or experts on Heidegger, if you will… have accused those who have been interested in Heidegger either of being uninformed regarding Heidegger’s Nazi engagement or, if they were informed… of not having transformed into a common problem, what they were aware of as professional philosophers” (14-15). The point about non-professional philosophers is fair enough. The “accusations” ought to be examined carefully and not merely in a purely improvisatory way which is after all, in a sense, an unphilosophical way of inquiry, as Derrida would have it.
Farias’ book has provoked emotions, Derrida claims; a provocation that compels “professional philosophers” to explain their own work on Heidegger, and in less than ideal circumstances, namely in terms of improvisation. Now, if Derrida is correct on this question, then the point is a strong one. Such issues, such “provocations”, largely on the part of non-professional philosophers, in a philosophical sense, demand not improvisation but pondering, deliberation, systematic and careful reflection, in short, all the things that improvisation makes impossible. He therefore introduces a complication, an aporia concerning improvisation, or in other words, the very mode of discourse and format of the exchange, as he sees it, that day, which makes him fearful: “improvising runs the risk of preventing us… from maintaining a certain refinement, a certain rhythm in the discussion that we are used to. In short, a certain style of discussion that is ours” (15). He seems to believe that such a mode, or format, runs a grave risk: it prevents the philosophers, who are also teachers, from maintaining a “certain style of discussion” which is inherently philosophical (though he does not name it here), which belongs to philosophy (and by implication, it seems, not to the style or mode which belongs presumably to those who are not professional philosophers).
A grave risk and a formidable but necessary one, then, according to Derrida, since philosopher-teachers in their philosophical mode (whatever that may be, but certainly involving complications and qualifications) are disarmed by the demands of the operative mode of discourse: disarmed in at least two senses, that is, deprived of a kind of power and disabled or weakened considerably. But he insists, “that no one here is in any way favorable, or wishes to be favorable, to what we always very cursorily call Nazism, totalitarianism, fascism” (16), or is to be suspected of wishing to defend them; no one wishes, he claims, to disculpate him [Heidegger] or render him innocent of every kind of fault in that respect (16).
So, though he feels disarmed, and though he fears the risks, he nonetheless feels that it is necessary to speak, and requests a “protocol of discussion”: that no one is to be suspected of defending the theses of Nazism, totalitarianism, fascism; that no one “claims to absolve Heidegger, to disculpate him or render him innocent” of fault in these respects. The point he makes here is an important one: he is characteristically going, not just to improvise, but to introduce a number of complications, and he wishes to maintain a distinction between complication as a philosophical (aporetic) mode and justification or evasion. He wishes to affirm the possibility of being vigilant “with regard to the discussions that develop on this subject… with regard to our discourse and our improvisations, in such a way that they would not contain or reproduce the gestures, the aggressions, the implications, the elements of scenography that recall the very thing against which we are allied” (16). He warns against modes that improvisation may valorise and promote: “every gesture that proceeds by conflation, precipitous totalization, short-circuited argumentation, simplification of statements, etc., is politically a very grave gesture that recalls…the very thing against which we are supposed to be working” (17).
He also warns, characteristically, against gestures which seem to attack totalitarianism yet unwittingly reproduce the very thing they attack; against attacks upon him for not denouncing “Heidegger’s Nazism”, even as he denounces this in his writings (“I speak of nothing else”, 18). He returns to the question of the significance “of the encounter this evening” (18). He asks why the “intense phase” of the debate took place in France, and reflects again on the sufficiency of the analyses in relation to the complexity of the “phenomenon” (18-19), on the over-determination, and points to a number of threads, even as he admits that they are insufficient. And he attacks the unreflective linking of France and Heideggerianism with good reason: he points out that such a linkage is both reductive and simplistic, for there is “not one single French Heideggerianism”, just as he insists on this point in order to detotalize the matter and insist on the differences and the ruptures that have marked the legacy of Heidegger (19).
He rightly insists on the amount of work that “remains to be done” (20), in relation to such complications, and complexities. He insists also on bringing the discussion back to
the political situation in France and in Europe. At a moment when the destiny of Europe, as one says, is taking a certain path, when a certain political discourse dominates the discourse on politics in Europe, in France, in Germany, and in many other Western democracies, we see a confrontation between, on the one hand, a resurgence of ideologies and comportments that are not unrelated to what one identifies very quickly as Nazism, fascism, totalitarianism; and, on the other hand, a social-democratic discourse whose values of reference are those of the rights of man, of democracy, of the liberty of the subject (21).
This is a “confrontation” between two discourses, one “not unrelated” to what may be identified, “very quickly” (again), with “Nazism, fascism, totalitarianism”, on the one hand, and a discourse that revolves around rights, democracy, liberty and the subject, on the other hand. One of the symptoms of this clash is anxiety or fear or distrust, not always informed, he argues, by a careful and reflective approach to reading the complex texts, but also “the compulsion to accuse very quickly, to judge, to simplify” – an “extremely grave” symptom (22) of an age in which nothing less, as he would have it, than the destiny of Europe and its path, are at stake. He also finds the accusations in Germany “unjust”: “so compulsive, so precipitous and globalizing” (22). Accordingly, he presents two “hypotheses”: first, “that for well-known historical reasons, the relation to Heidegger became so intolerable that, aside from a few exceptions, naturally, Heidegger has been little read in Germany since the war” (22). In France, he believes Heidegger was read with less of a bad conscience, for one bypassed a certain reading of Heidegger. He argues that “the reading of Heidegger in Germany was rather repressed since the war” (22).
The second hypothesis is that this “repression was bound to produce, in the form of a projection-expulsion, a desire to accuse, from the other side of the border, those who for their part had anything to do with Heidegger” (23). So, what the encounter “this evening” symbolizes “is the possibility, today, thanks to these provocations, of lifting the inhibitions on every side, and of not only reading Heidegger with the political vigilance required, but of reading him” (22-23).
Now, the first hypothesis is not supported by strong evidence, it has to be said, by Derrida. Of course, one can grant it as a hypothesis, but hypotheses without supporting evidence remain tenuous; they remain suppositions. The second hypothesis is that the “repression” of the reading of Heidegger’s works “since the war” in Germany, which has lead, amongst other things, to the “encounter” between the three thinkers at the conference nonetheless symbolically offers a possibility, namely that of lifting prohibitions (just how is not explained by Derrida) and that of actually reading Heidegger “with the political vigilance required”. It has to be said though, notwithstanding Derrida’s justifiable insistence of reading Heidegger carefully, vigilantly, responsibly and within a political context of human rights, liberties and the subject very much to the fore, the second hypothesis concerning a “projection-expulsion” is no less tenuous than the first. Of course, it may be true, but it is impossible to tell for sure from this contribution.
He closes on three important points at least: first, he reminds the audience of what interests him, in particular, about Heidegger’s thinking, namely “what, in Heidegger, on the one hand, made it possible to question the traditional categories of responsibility, of the subject, for example, of right [du droit], and what let itself nonetheless, up to a certain point, be limited by this questioning—and even, perhaps, by the form of the question” (23). Second, he argues that “deconstruction” is not an “abdication of responsibility”, even when it “places in question this axiomatic of subjectivity or of responsibility, or when it places in question certain axioms of Heidegger’s discourse” – he insists that it is, at least in his view, the “most difficult responsibility that I can take. And to trust in traditional categories of responsibility seems to me today to be, precisely, irresponsible” (24). Finally, he points, characteristically, to an aporia, and therefore to the importance of vigilance: “complicities between a discourse that is, let’s say, humanist and democratic but that has not reelaborated in a critical fashion its own categories, and that which it is meant to oppose” (24-25).
Lacoue-Labarthe speaks briefly (perhaps because Derrida spoke for too long!), but he makes a number of critical points, clearly, forcefully and concisely: he notes, firstly, that he belongs, unlike Derrida, to “the generation of 1940”, and so, sees the question differently:
This is still a family affair because, in the discourse, the language, the statements that suffused my childhood and my adolescence, in high school and in my surroundings, I heard pass a countless number of anti-Semitic phrases pronounced by schoolmates and friends, by adults, who were not particularly extreme right wing, but for whom this language was more or less natural (26).
In an important sense, he tackles the question of French antisemitism directly, and without protestation or equivocation: the “language” and “discourse” of antisemitism and the extent to which it had become “natural” for a whole generation. Or more. He reminds the audience of the importance of such questions: “when one touches on these problems, this is a question that one should never forget to ask oneself. What would I have done, given that it was only afterward that I gradually discovered all this?” (27). It is notable that he wishes to note the importance of this question without aporiai, without hesitation, just as it is notable that he emphasised the practical response, not the merely theoretical one: there is something that needed to be done, or that should have been done. He warns, with remarkable and clear insight, against an attack that is “emerging”, that Farias’ book, or its conclusions, “will help to authorize, to legitimize” (28): he refers to a “kind of liberal philosophy, social-democratic, if you like, founded on what one of the two journalists I mentioned a moment ago calls a ‘juridical humanism’” (28), and notes the role played by Stalinists and ultra-Stalinists: “it is the same people who, in order to construct that humanism, are in the process of finding authorization in Farias’s denunciation” (28). He insists on this point: there is in this an undeniably political scene being played out. And I believe that this must not be passed over in silence (28).
It is a remarkable and striking contribution, and all the more so because it follows, and marks a stark contrast to, Derrida’s speech: it is spare, measured, stark and direct, and it does not shy away from the central question, the ethical, responsible, vigilant and unflinching critical analysis of Nazism and Heidegger’s complicity with aspects of the ideology, not just in his complex philosophical works, which demand extended attention, to be sure, but in his writing and thinking more generally in that context (his letters, notebooks, lectures, and his opinions expressed to friends and colleagues, and so on and so forth): it is, he notes, “perhaps only today that we are capable of beginning an attempt at an analysis of Nazism, of the fascisms; because it is in effect the first time that, on the one hand, we are at bottom rid of the communist . . . obstacle, let’s call it” (29).
He insists like Derrida on the importance of reading Heidegger thoughtfully and responsibly, but does not shy away from the context for such a reading, as many have noted, in particular Jaspers, Gadamer and Habermas, among many others, namely, the reality of Nazism in Heidegger’s thinking, even if one grants that Heidegger’s Nazism was not pure and unquestioning:
it is the reading of Heidegger that, I believe—provided that one carry it out in a certain way, of course—can give access to a certain reality of Nazism. An access that the univocal moral and political accusation—which of course I share; but in fact when one tries to carry out philosophical work one cannot after all limit oneself to that—has continued to mask (29).
He anchors his analysis not in aporetic complications, or extended problematizations, but in an attitude, which needless to say, attaches quite readily to the practical, namely, distrust of certain ideologies:
From the moment when one began to distrust the use of the word “fascist,” from the moment when there was a questioning of what is called leftist totalitarianism, from that moment, perhaps, it is possible for real work to begin. And that is the reason why—this is one of my grievances against Farias’s book—the simplification that consists in presenting Heidegger as entirely Nazi seems to me extremely unfortunate in this story: because perhaps it will be necessary, for a certain time still, to fight about this presentation, in order to try to make it understood that, in Heidegger, one of the secrets of Nazism has remained unperceived up to now (29).
It is not self-evident, or demonstrative, it has to be said, that this moment, and only this moment, signals the possibility of the commencement of “real [philosophico-critical] work”. The moment, so to speak, when Heidegger’s commitment to the spirit, if not the letter, of Nazism becomes apparent, is an important moment in relation to the commencement of this critical project; those moments, so to speak, when there was an understanding, a dawning awareness, on which “questioning of what is called leftist totalitarianism” could be based, also make it possible for real work to begin.
What follows however in the volume is a (valuable) series of questions to the speakers, with their answers, and questions from the audience, also with answers, along with an appendix by Gadamer. He notes the crucial differences between the reception of Farias’ book in France and in Germany. He expresses surprise over the “uproar” that Farias’ book has generated in France, since “almost all” of what Farias reveals “has long been known” in “German speaking countries” – and wonders, “could it be that so little is known there about the Third Reich? Heidegger’s followers, believing they were defending him, no doubt contributed to the affair by continually repeating the refrain of his ‘rupture’ with Nazism at the end of a year of disappointing experiences as the rector of Freiburg” (79).
He notes that in Germany, “no one is able to feign surprise in discovering that Heidegger did not leave the Nazi Party” (79); and he highlights the reaction of the younger generation in Germany, and their questioning: they find it “difficult to imagine the reality of that time: the conformism, the pressure, the ideological indoctrination, the sanctions. . . . Many of them ask, ‘Why did none of you cry out?’” (79). He answers, by affirming the underestimation of “the natural human inclination toward conformism, which is always ready to be taken in by any type of deception”, typified in particular, by the question, “Does the Führer know about this?” (79).
The historical context is critical, and Gadamer underscores it, in a way that, in a sense, seems intended to carry the reader well beyond aporetic questions and beyond astonishment or perplexity. He insists that the strategy of explaining (away) Heidegger’s political errors by claiming that they “have nothing to do with his philosophy” is insulting; for after fifty years of reflection on “the reasons that disturbed us and separated us from Heidegger for many years” “we” cannot be astonished to hear that Heidegger had “‘believed’ in Hitler” (80).
It is important to note the register here, to note that Gadamer chose to write like this, in the appendix, which is in an important sense the last word in the volume. It is quite breathtaking- there is no obfuscation, confusion, equivocation, hesitation or evasion:
Heidegger was not a mere opportunist. His political engagement clearly did not have much to do with political reality. The dream of a “people’s religion” encompassed, in fact, his profound disillusionment at the course of events. But he secretly safeguarded this dream. This is the dream he believed he was pursuing during the years 1933–34, convinced that he was rigorously fulfilling his philosophical mission by attempting to revolutionize the university. It was to this end that he did everything that outraged us. For him it was a question of breaking the political influence of the church and the inertia of the academic mandarins. He even gave Ernst Jünger’s vision of “The Worker” a place alongside his own ideas on overcoming the tradition of metaphysics on the basis of being. Later, as is well known, he went so far as to speak of the end of philosophy. That was his revolution (80-81).
He then tackles, without obfuscation, confusion, equivocation, hesitation or evasion, the question of Heidegger’s responsibility:
Did he then feel no responsibility for the terrible consequences of Hitler’s seizure of power, the new barbarism, the Nuremberg laws, the terror, the blood spilled—and, finally, the indelible shame of the extermination camps? [The answer is a rigorous “no.” For that was the perverted revolution and not the great renewal arising from the spiritual and moral [sittlich] strength of the people, which he dreamed of and longed for as the preparation of a new religion of humanity.] (81)
Such writing demands thinking and reflection, and deliberation, of course, but to put it bluntly, after some fairly long-winded exchanges in the volume, it is bold and striking, like his pronouncements on Farias’ book (“very superficial”, “grotesque” in some senses, “overflows with ignorance”, and so on):
What was considered the world over as a radical step forward in thought, his confrontation [Auseinandersetzung] with the Greeks, with Hegel, and finally with Nietzsche, had all this suddenly become false? Or have we long since finished with all that? Or perhaps what we are being asked to do is definitively to renounce thinking. Watching anxiously from afar as Heidegger thus strayed into the cultural politics of the Reich, we sometimes thought of what happened to Plato at Syracuse. One of his Freiburg friends, seeing him in the tram after his departure from the rectorship, asked him, “Back from Syracuse?” (81)
He ends with a reminder, like Derrida and Lacoue-Labarthe, perhaps intentionally, about the “requirements of thinking”, but in a different key:
The requirements of thinking are not so easily eluded. Even those who were disturbed at the time by Heidegger’s political adventure and distanced themselves from him for many years would never have dared to deny the philosophical impetus with which he had not ceased to inspire them from the beginning. [Just as Heidegger in the 1920s did not create blind followers for himself, likewise one must find one’s own paths of thought, now more than ever.]
[Whoever believes that today one need no longer be concerned with Martin Heidegger has not taken the measure of how difficult it will always be for us to debate with him, instead of making oneself ridiculous by looking down on him with an air of superiority.] (82)
So, he reminds us, pointedly, in the closing paragraphs in the volume, of the (above all, philosophical) importance of finding not so much an aporia, but a euporia (a way for thinking, which is not mere questioning – that is, a “path” of one’s own), “now more than ever”; he reminds us of the, above all, philosophical importance of engaging critically without evading responsibility (for example, for naming the thing by its true name, “the reality of Nazism” in Heidegger’s thinking, without obfuscation, confusion, equivocation, hesitation and/or evasion).
If Derrida presents hypotheses which remain unjustified, tenuous or questionable, if he (somewhat ironically, it has to be said!) spends a considerable amount of time given to him improvising on improvisation, as well as on the short amount of time given to them (though his speech is the longest, by far!) and on aporetic considerations and performative problematizations, which are not always convincing, and if Lacoue-Labarthe is not entirely convincing on the question of just which “moment”, if any, is entirely suitable for the genesis of “real work” on this problem, Gadamer closes with a sobering, largely lucid and startlingly concise meditation on conformism, ideological indoctrination and resistance, complicity and “rupture”, and the authentic and difficult, but always necessary task of thinking.