Paul Mendes-Flohr: Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent

Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent Couverture du livre Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent
Jewish Lives
Paul Mendes-Flohr
Yale University Press
Hardback $26.00

Reviewed by: Guilel Treiber (Institute of Philosophy, KU Leuven)

It was a destabilizing experience reading about Martin Buber’s pessimistic predictions of the future of Jewish nationalism while Israel was bombing Gaza (yet again) in the spring of 2021. Mendes-Flohr’s Martin Buber, A Life of Faith and Dissent highlights Buber’s prophetic criticism of what has now become an intractable conflict and a violent domination of the lives of at least 3 million Palestinians. However, Mendes-Flohr’s much anticipated biography falls short of recognizing that Buber’s unique position in the history of Zionism can make him a beacon for contemporary Israelis or even Jews worldwide critical of Israel’s policies and desirous of a just solution in Israel-Palestine. There is something domesticated about his Buber, something almost naïve. I will go back to these points later in this review. For the moment, it is enough to state that Mendes-Flohr’s biography of Martin Buber, a synthetic work that sums up 40 years of research dedicated to Buber’s work, is impressive as it is enjoyable. In about 350 pages, Mendes-Flohr draws lines of continuity and change through the life and thought of one of the most emblematic Jewish intellectuals of the 20th century. If it has any failings, these are centred around the disappointment of making of Buber nothing more than a historical figure. To use Buber’s terms, it is a biography of I-It, one of historical and scholarly acumen, yet one that does not lead to any possible encounter with what Buber was all about, the lived experience of dialogue.

Many of the details of Buber’s life are well known by now. He has left behind many letters exchanged with the leading luminaries of the 20th century, from Einstein to Gandhi, spanning the 60 years of his career. His work has been translated and read in many languages, cultures, and religious contexts. Maurice Friedman, his student and later collaborator, published during the eighties a three-volume biography that meticulously traced every event in Buber’s life. However, no full biography has been published since then. There was an unavoidable necessity to publish a new, more concise biography that deals with the main issues in Buber’s life. Mendes-Flohr has done that with bravado. His biography will become the entry point for every student and lay-reader interested in Buber’s life and work. It traces his contributions to Judaism, philosophy, inter-religious dialogue, politics, his changing relation with Zionism, his critique of nationalism in the aftermath of WWI, and his consistent work towards an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. Indeed, between « faith » and « dissent », Mendes-Flohr shows how Buber was continuously understood as an outsider, as a truth-speaker in the public square (213), as a civil disobedient committed to a life of dialogue and meetings, an « anomalous Jew » (232). Read with the eye of a contemporary reader, Mendes-Flohr succeeds in making Buber attractive and (to some extent) relevant again. He constructs a narrative of an individual who always grasped himself as a representative of the Jewish people (all the while remaining on its margins) and who struggled to live up to the highest demands of that burden.

The book is divided into 11 chapters in addition to an introduction. There is no conclusion. The eleventh chapter ends with the passing of Buber on June 13, 1965, at 87. One can divide the book into three sections: the first four chapters detail Buber’s early life and career, his early interaction with Zionism and Jewish collective existence in Europe; chapters five to eight are structured around the dramatic events in Europe between the two world wars and Buber’s transformation following his friendships with Gustav Landauer and Franz Rosenzweig; chapters nine to eleven begin with the Bubers leaving Europe to Palestine in mid-1938, five years after the Nazis took control of Germany. The last three chapters focus mainly on Buber’s passage to writing and teaching in Hebrew and his interaction with the radical transformation in Jewish collective life that the double events of the destruction of European Jewry (1939-1945) and the establishment of the State of Israel (1948) brought about.

The biography is an intellectual biography; hence, specific life events are sometimes passed over rather quickly: Buber’s absent mother, tense relationship with his father and grandfather, and the fact that he and his wife raised his son’s two daughters. On the other hand, marginal intellectual meetings are somewhat overplayed and not always in a very satisfactory fashion. Two of these were addressed by Mendes-Flohr in independent contributions. However, the main thrust of the biography is not interrupted to allow for a long detour into these issues. I refer here to Buber’s engagement and contributions to early German sociology (44-51) and his ongoing critical reading of Heidegger, which led to a meeting after the war (278-286). It is often time forgotten that Buber was heavily influenced by Dilthey and had a long-standing friendship with Simmel (Mendes-Flohr’s doctoral dissertation focused on the way Buber’s dialogical philosophy was shaped by German sociology). Buber was even part of Simmel’s inner circle (47). However, not much more is given as details in this biography.

In fact, one cannot help but wonder whether the biography is more destined to the lay-reader or early student of Buber or Jewish and Continental Philosophy than to the academic philosopher. From the perspective of a philosopher, I would have liked to read more details concerning Buber’s philosophical thought, about his later formulations of philosophical anthropology, about his Nieztscheanism and critique of Heidegger. All these are present, yet always too quickly and too little, giving the biography an introductory character. To be sure, the biography may certainly contribute to renewing interest in Buber’s work and perhaps even research into his philosophical contributions beyond the disciplinary tag of Jewish Philosophy. However, the reader will not find these fully explored here.

Mendes-Flohr structures the biography around two elements in his subject’s life and thought: the tension between the « supernatural Jew » and the « natural Jew » (xiv). The supernatural Jew is in some respect the Weberian ideal-type Jew « beholden to the timeless religious vocation of the Jewish people as defined by the (divinely revealed) Torah and rabbinic tradition. » The natural Jew is the concrete, individual and collective existence of Jews in a specific historical moment. However, although Mendes-Flohr contends that Buber’s « overarching concern » was to reintegrate the natural and the supernatural Jew, this significant claim is not defended systematically. In fact, after getting mentioned in the introduction it is not brought up again until page 241. Moreover, there are some conceptual issues with this definition since it assumes, indeed as Buber did, that there is some essential core to Judaism that is constantly the same, i.e., the direct, unmediated relationship to God. One may argue that perhaps the structure of a relation to God is a-historical, while the content constantly changes throughout history. Nevertheless, this would be an un-Buberian position, and Mendes-Flohr does not adopt such a critical stance.  It is only when treating Buber’s critique of Gandhi – who suggested to the Jews of Europe that it is better to suffer and die under Nazi rule than engage in a colonialist enterprise in the Middle East even if their lives depended on it – that Mendes-Flohr suddenly brings back the issue. According to Mendes-Flohr, Buber argues against Gandhi that doing what he suggests will amount to a preference for the supernatural Jew over the concrete lives and experiences of millions. Mendes-Flohr’s return to the issue at this moment in Buber’s life is crucial. With the rise of the threat of Nazi persecution from the mid-thirties, Jews found themselves torn between the immediate demands of their empirical existence and the « unremitting calling » of the supernatural Jew (243). Moreover, from this moment onward, Buber would be acutely aware of the tension between these two. In contradistinction to Gandhi, who preferred the supernatural Jew over the natural one, the Zionist movement according to Mendes-Flohr reading of Buber, prefers the natural Jew (259) thus neglecting the moral calling of God for Tikkun Olam, the repairing of the world according to the social vision of the prophets (114). One can understand Buber’s critique of Gandhi and Zionism only when one replaces our commonplace definition of Zionism as a national movement with Buber’s claim that it is more about cultural renewal than national sovereignty, more about social justice than military prowess. For Buber, a bi-national state was completely coherent with his vision of Zionism, far removed from the nationalistic hegemony that many Zionists promulgate today.

Buber was understood by many of his critics and friends alike to be a utopian thinker, undisturbed by the concrete realities of the Jewish people. Indeed, a striking example of this is a series of conferences he gave in Poland on the eve of WWII. Jews had gathered by the thousands to listen to his every word. But instead of giving them hope or encouraging them to resist, Buber choose to talk about Jewish education. He regretted it later (218). It is clear that Buber was not a political realist, but nor was he detached from the political demands of his day. Mendes-Flohr partly recognizes the critical potential of Buber’s thought showing his ability to detect latent threats and problems years before they are actualized (e.g., concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). Nevertheless, the narrative Mendes-Flohr constructs falls into the trapping of telling the story of a dreamer, endowed with a « prophetic realism » (227) exacerbated by WWII. This may have been true of the Buber of his own time, but it is very far from true concerning a Buber for our own.

It is in our own time that Buber’s critical positions concerning Judaism, Zionism, nationalism, and legalistic religion are most relevant. As stated earlier, Mendes-Flohr renders Buber to be some naïve prophet shouting inertly at the entrance of the city. This is a sad mistake. Focusing more on the contrasting views of David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister and a crucial figure in the establishment of the Hebrew state, and Buber would have shown that it is not Ben Gurion’s political realism but rather Buber’s visionary warnings concerning the dangers of Jewish nationalism that seem to have been correct. As some Israeli Jews engaged in mob violence against Palestinians during May 2021, Buber’s warning that « there can be no peace between Jews and Arabs that is merely a cessation of war; there can only be a peace of genuine cooperation » (255) is timely. Indeed, Buber was among the only Hebrew intellectuals calling for a bi-national state—a vision that avoids what still plagues any effort for peace in the region, the nationalistic logic of majority-minority relations. As Mendes-Flohr writes, Buber found the idea of a binational state in Palestine to be « sounder » than any other solution. It was not an « infallible formula, » but it enabled « thinking beyond the conceptual boxes of ‘majority’ and ‘minority’, political configurations that would inevitably lead to violent conflict between the Jews and the Arabs. » (246)

Two crucial, highly intellectual, and emotional friendships have shaped Buber’s life. The first, his friendship with Gustav Landauer, the Jewish anarchist who was murdered by German militias in the aftermath of the fall of the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic. While Buber brought Landauer closer to Judaism, Landauer convinced Buber that his early understanding of Jews as a community of blood is erroneous. To some extent, Landauer shaped Buber’s spiritual anarchism which will inform his thought throughout his life and that made him a prescient critic of nationalism and its dangers. Indeed, one of the most significant contributions of this biography is that it highlights the relationship as a formative one for Buber. It attaches, correctly in my view, more importance to Landauer’s influence and the impact of his tragic death on the morrow of WWI in moving Buber definitively to the anarchist, socialist left than to the experience of the harrowing cost of lives due to the war. Mendes-Flohr thus goes against the somewhat simplistic explanation of Buber himself and supported by Friedman that it was a missed meeting with a young man on his way to the front that made Buber realize the dangers of his mystic understanding of the union between community and God (see the story « Conversion » in Buber’s Meetings and Friedman’s introduction to the text). The second relationship, with Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, ended just as tragically as the first. Rosenzweig died from muscular degeneration (ALS) on December 10, 1929, three days after Buber visited him to work on their translation of the Hebrew Bible to German. His last words were uttered as he was struggling to dictate a letter to Buber. This relation pushed Buber deeper into Jewish philosophy. Rosenzweig was one of the first readers of I and Thou, and their joint translation of the Bible is a landmark work of translation. Yet, each remained relatively firm in their respective beliefs. Buber emphasized Judaism as a lived faith, while for Rosenzweig, it was its legalistic aspects that made it a unique religion. For Rosenzweig, the Law (halakha) and the commandments (mitzvot) were at the basis of a spiritual renewal of Judaism (149). Buber stated in response that revelation is never a direct formulation of the Law, thus rejecting a basic tenet of Judaism. For Buber, it was the meeting between humans and God, i.e., revelation, that led to the formulation of the Law by humans themselves through their « self-contradiction » (153).

Reading Buber’s biography is more than reading about the life of a particular individual, or even a particular Jew (or Jewish individual). Indeed, as the editors of the series in which the book was published, « Jewish Lives, » state, the series aims « to explore the many facets of Jewish identity. » I think of no other Jewish thinker of the 20th century who can give such an englobing and engrossing image of the many facets of this identity. I see no other writer than Paul Mendes-Flohr, who could have done justice to such a complex subject in less than 350 pages of text. As stated, this is a synthetic work, concise as is expected from such a series of books. As such, none of my critical points could have been addressed in the space given to an intellectual life stretching for over 60 years during one of the more tumultuous times in Jewish history. Mendes-Flohr does a wonderful work of introducing Buber to the reader with love and respect, to the great benefit of the general interest in Buber’s life and works. The work may strike scholars who are familiar with Buber’s life and works or with 20th-century Jewish history and thought as somewhat too simple, too introductory. Notwithstanding, it is an enormously enjoyable read that addresses important aspects and raises central issues concerning Buber. I believe it will become the entry point for many future students of Buber and Judaism, and as such, Mendes-Flohr has done an excellent service to both.

Ron Margolin: Inner Religion in Jewish Sources: A Phenomenology of Inner Religious Life and Its Manifestation from the Bible to Hasidic Texts, Academic Studies Press, 2021

Inner Religion in Jewish Sources: A Phenomenology of Inner Religious Life and Its Manifestation from the Bible to Hasidic Texts Couverture du livre Inner Religion in Jewish Sources: A Phenomenology of Inner Religious Life and Its Manifestation from the Bible to Hasidic Texts
Emunot: Jewish Philosophy and Kabbalah
Ron Margolin. Translated by Edward Levin
Academic Studies Press
Hardback $159.00

Elad Lapidot: Jews Out of the Question: A Critique of Anti-Anti-Semitism, SUNY Press, 2020

Jews Out of the Question: A Critique of Anti-Anti-Semitism Couverture du livre Jews Out of the Question: A Critique of Anti-Anti-Semitism
SUNY series, Philosophy and Race
Elad Lapidot
SUNY Press
Hardback $95.00

Elliot R. Wolfson: Heidegger and Kabbalah: Hidden Gnosis and the Path of Poiēsis

Heidegger and Kabbalah: Hidden Gnosis and the Path of Poiēsis Couverture du livre Heidegger and Kabbalah: Hidden Gnosis and the Path of Poiēsis
Elliot R. Wolfson
Indiana University Press
Paperback $60.00

Reviewed by: Alexandre Couture-Mingheras (Université de Bonn – Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne)

Dans son nouvel ouvrage, de très haute facture, Elliot R. Wolfson met sa connaissance précise des textes de la tradition kabbalistique et plus largement son érudition dans le domaine des études juives, dont il figure aujourd’hui l’un des plus grands spécialistes, au service de l’étude, aussi précise qu’ambitieuse, de la phénoménologie de Heidegger, ressaisie essentiellement à partir de Sein und Zeit en 1927 jusqu’aux textes de maturité, dont Beiträge zur Philosophie (vom Ereignis) paru à titre posthume en 1989 en Allemagne. Cette comparaison, étonnante au regard du contexte houleux qui entoure la publication des Schwarze Hefte – je parle bien sûr de l’attitude de Heidegger à l’égard du National-Socialisme et de la question de l’antisémitisme, que certains thuriféraires s’efforcent, en vain, de gommer -, n’a évidemment rien d’arbitraire.

Le rapport de Heidegger au judaïsme fait l’objet, depuis quelques années, de plusieurs études, dont celle, remarquable, de Marlène Zarader, La dette impensée : Heidegger et l’héritage hébraïque : si Heidegger affirme l’opposition principielle entre la pensée, d’origine hellénique, et la foi, d’héritage biblique, en réalité les choses sont loin d’être simples, comme l’atteste la similarité entre ses propres écrits et certains tropes de la tradition hébraïque. Le judaïsme, exclu thématiquement de la pensée heideggérienne, pourrait bien en constituer « l’impensé » opératoire, non au sens de ce qui n’a pas été pris pour objet de pensée, mais ce qui sous-tendant et irriguant la pensée, terre d’accueil, en constitue l’arrière-plan, nécessairement voilé. S’amorce ainsi, après les propos dirimants de Derrida et de G. Steiner par exemple, une excursion hors du commentarisme crypto-phénoménologique qui fonctionne souvent en vase-clos. Ce tournant dans la recherche, qui suppose que l’on rompe avec une propension exégétique à rapporter sa phénoménologie au nazisme (au fond, question d’apparence provocatrice : quid du judaïsme de la philosophie de Heidegger ?) se trouve ici approfondi par un travail comparatiste prenant pour base la mystique juive, à savoir la Kabbale. De même que le Vedanta constitue la dimension « ésotérique » de l’hindouisme, sous l’angle de la theoria à titre de Métaphysique (l’Absolu même, le Sans-Nom), sous l’angle de la praxis à titre de mystique d’ordre sotériologique de l’Unio mystica avec ce qu’il y a de plus Haut en soi, de même la Kabbale est-elle la partie « occulte » du judaïsme.

Pourquoi cette étude comparatiste, qu’est-ce qui le justifie, et, surtout, que gagne-t-on à lire Heidegger au prisme de la Kabbale ? La Kabbale n’est évidemment pas un « thème » pour Heidegger, raison pour laquelle, dès l’introduction, l’auteur, au terme d’un état des lieux de la recherche mais aussi d’une justification philologique, déclare ouvertement son projet : non l’analyse « positive » (au sens du positivisme, de ce qui se fonde sur les faits) du rapport d’un auteur à la mystique juive du point de vue des textes car s’il est bien un jeu d’influence, avec notamment la mystique rhénane et l’idéalisme allemand, surtout schellingien, son importance tient à « l’arrière-plan » théorique, à une forme de Stimmung épocale ; une telle analyse est menée, bien sûr, mais là n’est pas l’essentiel : le rapprochement tire sa justification de ce que l’auteur appelle la corrélation de la mêmeté (Sameness) par la différence, à distance aussi bien de la recherche à tout prix de ce qui est commun (au prix d’une perte de la singularité – identité – de chacun des deux termes), que de l’exhibition stérile de la différence : en ce cross-over monographique, inédit et le premier à sérieusement établir une telle comparaison sur la base de critères philologico-textuels, c’est en effet tout aussi bien Heidegger qui se trouve éclairé par la Kabbale que la Kabbale qui se trouve introduite pour la première fois par le biais de l’outillage conceptuel heideggérien. Cet éclairage conjoint de la Kabbale et de Heidegger, en une méthode de variation thématique et perspectivale, ainsi que l’absence de présentation liminaire de la Kabbale, expliqueront sans doute qu’un tel ouvrage, dense et massif, ne soit pas d’un abord aisé pour qui est totalement étranger à la mystique juive. Cette absence se justifie néanmoins tout d’abord par le statut particulier de la Kabbale et la façon dont elle se rapporte à elle-même, se concevant en termes de différenciation diachronique d’une même vérité pour ainsi dire synchronique, à l’image de sa conception du monde comme manifestation en de multiples formes d’un seul et même être – le Seul qui soit; ensuite par la façon même dont Heidegger conçoit la tradition, non comme l’objet passé de la conscience historique, mais comme son avenir et, pour tout dire, son destin, parallèle à la rupture avec la conception linéaire et causaliste du temps. Mais, on le sait, tout ce qui est beau est aussi difficile que rare, et c’est là, par l’originalité de ses thèses et la manière dont Heidegger s’en trouve éclairé, un très beau livre.

Venons-en directement à la Chose même, aussi bien pour la Kabbale que pour Heidegger : l’Être. L’ouvrage se compose de huit chapitres, que je n’ai nullement l’ambition de restituer de façon thétique, comme si chacun d’entre eux constituait une Thesis que l’on eût pu dès lors résumer en quelques lignes, pour des raisons qui tiennent à la méthode dialéthéique (littéralement la « double vérité ») mise en œuvre. Cette méthode s’impose, c’est certain, du fait de l’inobjectivabilité de son sujet de recherche : le Seyn ou l’absolu kabbalistique nécessite un mode d’exposition qui chaque fois permette de l’éclairer ponctuellement sans le trahir, c’est-à-dire sans le travestissement qu’entraîne un mode d’exposition étranger à son objet ; la logique classique qui procède par identification (quand l’être est Ereignis) et par opposition (l’absolu sera transcendant ou immanent) ne saurait fonctionner ici. Si bien que l’ouvrage, fait rare et beau, fait ce qu’il dit et à mesure qu’il le dit, opérant une réduction, ou neutralisation, de la logique dualiste (l’être ne sera ni immanent ni transcendant), à la mesure donc de l’Être, Neutre, qui est par-delà toute opposition, et sans qu’il puisse faire l’objet d’une relève en un troisième terme synthétique : dire que l’être ou le divin n’est ni immanent au monde comme chez Spinoza ni transcendant (comme, en dépit de ressemblances, chez Plotin, avec le système d’émanation à partir de l’Un, Principe dont tout découle mais qui est lui-même absolument transcendant), c’est non pas indiquer un troisième terme, mais montrer la non-vérité même de l’opposition, autrement dit l’inexistence même de l’immanence et de la transcendance depuis la perspective de l’infini. Autrement dit, si le but est le chemin, en l’occurrence ici la méthode est la thèse elle-même, qu’on ne saurait dissocier de son récit, avec tout ce qui, en lui, donne l’impression de constituer un excursus.

Les divers thèmes abordés au gré des huit chapitres de l’ouvrage (la question de la circularité herméneutique qui ouvre l’ouvrage, la pensée du commencement, le rapport à l’altérité et au néant, l’auto-érotisme de l’être, du divin qui, par désir de Soi, caprice originel, se « manifeste » par le monde) s’articulent ainsi autour de l’Ain Soph (le « correspondant » kabbalistique du Seyn heideggérien) ainsi que de son exposition, de la façon dont on s’y rapporte par la parole, tant il est vrai que la réflexion « sur » le réel emporte avec elle, ou idéalement doit intégrer, le sujet réfléchissant : il y va pour le Sein d’être Da, comme pour le Dasein d’être ce qu’il est du fait de son ouverture à la question du Sein. Cette corrélation entre les deux pôles, qui en constitue la trame théorique, donne son titre à l’ouvrage : entre la « Gnose cachée » et la « Voie de la Poiesis », entre d’une part ce qui, comme lumière, illumine en restant soi-même voilé, ce qui manifeste sans être manifeste, l’Aimé Sans-Visage derrière tous les visages, bref, l’être en tant qu’être, et, d’autre part, la promotion d’un discours qui déjoue le partage même entre apophantique et apophatique, déjouant celui-là même entre néant et être, entre présence et absence, dont l’ouvrage constitue la patience méditation : tout se jouera donc dans cette atmosphère crépusculaire d’entre-deux, il est vrai au prix parfois de la clarté du propos (l’auteur est parfois prisonnier du style heideggérien), mais on comprend que se joue là l’Essentiel et que l’Être ne saurait être abordé si ce n’est par les voies indirectes du langage : méta-ontologique la « présence n’est pas l’absence de l’absence » pas plus que l’absence « l’absence de la présence » mais « la mise en présence (presencing) est plutôt l’absentement (absencing) de l’absentement de la mise en présence » (7).

Mais pourquoi rapprocher l’Être, le Seyn, ce qui, comme le dit Heidegger, l’emportant sur tous les êtres (tout être participe de l’Être, mais l’Être ne saurait être trouvé en aucune forme), est ce qui est le plus digne de penser, et l’Ain Soph kabbalistique, littéralement « l’infini » ? Cette question n’a rien d’anodin car elle engage bien la philosophie de Heidegger et, sans nul doute, de toute philosophie véritable. Or on le sait, la philosophie, chez Heidegger, présente des limites qui sont celles-là même de son histoire et du régime objectivant du langage. C’est pourquoi, afin d’éclairer la question de l’Être, il s’agit de procéder à la déconstruction des catégories sédimentées et dualistes du langage : l’oubli de l’être, rabattu sur un étant éminent, est corrélé à l’impropriété du langage à nommer ce qui échappe à toute dé-finition et ce qui partant ne saurait être pensé en termes de « transcendance » ou « d’immanence », à savoir ce qui n’obéit pas aux lois de la pensée, de non-contradiction et de tiers-exclu. Autrement dit, Heidegger quitte le palais de cristal du logos pour une parole qui, voulant dire l’origine, installée dans le silence du muthos, dit moins que, pareil au dieu dont parle Héraclite, elle ne « montre », se situant résolument dans la nuit compacte du mystère de l’être (de l’être comme mystère). Camper au niveau de l’aporie ontologique, sans la vouloir lever, telle qu’elle a été formulée par Aristote (l’être n’est ni un genre ni ne s’identifie à l’une de ses catégories, i.e. modes d’être : il n’est ni immanent à ses modes ni transcendant, « à part », en un autre lieu, ce qui reviendrait à en faire une « chose », à confondre, dans le lexique de Heidegger, l’être avec l’étant), c’est ainsi même se mettre à l’écoute de ce qui, à être dévoilé, échappe : l’être se médite, au crépuscule de la raison, à l’ombre des objets, parce qu’il y va de sa propre « essence » que de ne pouvoir souffrir la lumière objectivante du concept.

Sous cet angle, l’apport de la mystique juive pour l’exégèse heideggérienne tient à la manière dont elle pense l’Être, loin de toutes les figures qui instancient, selon Heidegger, la métaphysique comme onto-théo-logie, à savoir comme oubli de l’être par pensée de l’étant (le summum ens, ou Dieu comme super-héros de l’ontologie, porte le poids de l’ens commune). Le philosophique se trouve éclairé par ce qui en est devenu l’ombre : le « philosophal ». C’est là du moins un apport passionnant à la lecture de Heidegger, décentré par ce qui s’avère lui être le plus « propre », un ailleurs qui en détient la vérité. Je donnerai deux exemples, qui sont les deux axes qui structurent l’ouvrage (la Gnose cachée et la Poiesis). Le premier concerne le Seyn, ressaisi à partir du Ain Soph, à savoir l’essence infinie qui ne saurait elle-même avoir d’essence : la différence ontico-ontologique se trouve ressaisie à partir de la différence entre le Ain Soph et ses émanations séphirotiques. De même que Dieu est le lieu du monde sans que le monde soit le lieu où trouver Dieu, de même, dans le lexique du phénoménologue, l’être est-il au principe de l’étant sans pour autant que l’étant puisse le figurer ; et pourtant, l’étant n’est pas l’Autre de l’être. L’être chez Heidegger, est l’absolument Autre (être et étant) dans la Mêmeté (l’être est : seul l’être est, telle est la voie lumineuse qu’ouvre la déesse chez Parménide) ; la mystique juive nous fait mieux saisir, par contraste aussi avec le néo-platonisme, la nature de l’absolu ou de l’être : n’étant essentiellement présent que dans le retrait, se dissimulant soi-même dans les étants qui le manifestent, il est la Présence (le « il y a »)  absente, qui se dévoile sur le mode du voilement. L’aletheia, qui dit la vérité comme mise en présence, se trouve ainsi éclairée à l’aune de la gnose. Si la gnose est secrète, c’est bien parce qu’il y va de la vérité de l’être que d’être secret, non-manifesté, soustrait à toute parole qui le voudrait circonscrire. Mais cette différence se fait sur fond d’un monisme singulier, qui a neutralisé l’opposition entre l’un et le multiple, celui pour lequel le Monos, l’Être, Seul est (court-circuitant le partage entre être et non-être) : de même que la vague et la mer sont de la même substance, que l’ornement n’est que la mise en forme de l’or informe, de même l’Ain Soph éclaire-il le jeu interne à l’Être de l’être et des étants, jeu avec Soi-même qui, pour la finitude, est celui d’une perte et d’une errance (l’oubli comme destin occidental), mais qui, en dernière instance, est le Jeu différentiel de Cela qui a toujours été. De même que l’absolu, ou le divin, se révèle comme secret, car n’étant rien il n’a rien à révéler ni qui devrait être démasqué, de même l’être chez Heidegger apparaît-il ressaisi en son obscurité native par rapport à un Dasein dont la vérité est, à titre de sujet séparé, de n’être pas. A Bikkhu Maha Mani, moine bouddhiste de Thaïlande qui lui explique que la méditation consiste à se concentrer et, se rassemblant en soi, à déloger la racine du « Je », renvoyé à son caractère ontologiquement illusoire, par la réalisation de sa nature véritable, de Soi, qui est un Rien qui est tout (fullness), Heidegger répond : c’est ce que j’ai essayé de dire toute ma vie. Il y a dans, dans cette riche comparaison, une thèse implicite : que la mystique juive ne fait pas qu’éclairer la philosophie de Heidegger ; point culminant d’une pensée qui œuvre pour l’Impensé qu’elle ne peut approcher qu’en se dessaisissant d’elle-même, la mystique dit et fait ce que la philosophie, renvoyée à son propre mode discursif, ne peut que sourdement faire deviner, sauf à elle aussi mourir à elle-même, jetant l’échelle au terme de son ascension, en un dernier grand saut, de la pensée à l’impensé. C’est dans ce silence, cet « espace » de présence pure en lequel seul peut naître une parole authentique (non celle du « on »), qu’on atteint la « Gnose cachée » de l’être : il n’y a jamais eu de voile à lever, car le voile est celui de l’ignorance ontologique première : l’épreuve du fleuve du Léthé n’est pas celle de l’oubli de son être (de soi) mais de l’Être (de Soi). Caché, l’être l’est à qui le cherche ; mais à qui, dans le silence de la Présence, s’oubliant ne s’excepte pas de ce qui est, il Est, de l’ordre du That inqualifiable et non du What, selon la formule qu’utilise William James pour désigner l’expérience pure (à laquelle l’auteur fait référence du reste en de beaux passages sur Nishida Kitaro).

L’élucidation du statut de cette Gnose cachée appelle, comme je l’indiquais, une réflexion sur le langage lui-même qui l’articule, qui, à l’image de l’être, se trouve sous-tendu par la dialectique de la présence et de l’absence. Qu’est-ce que la connaissance véritable en effet (celle de l’être), comment opère-t-elle ? Il ne s’agit pas d’agrandir le stock de connaissance en y introduisant de nouvelles représentations, car ces dernières concernent uniquement les étants, mais bien d’une assignation du sujet à la vérité de son être, d’une connaissance de l’être qui est à la fois connaissance de soi (l’ontologie fondamentale ou analytique existentiale du Dasein) : la spiritualité n’est pas l’autre de la philosophie, mais son essence, comme le silence l’est du son (le son se détache sur le fond silencieux, toujours présent, tout comme l’être qui se manifeste quand les étants disparaissent dans la nuit du monde dans l’expérience de l’angoisse), ce qui explique l’aspect méditatif des Wege de Heidegger, chemins sinueux qui tournent autour d’un même centre qui illustrent le type de parole, poétique, tendu vers l’être comme non-manifeste, au bord du silence : car de même que la plus belle du bouquet est la fleur absente, celle qu’évoque la parole du Poète, de même l’être, inobjectivable, trouve en la Poiesis son abri. La parole véritable, en parlant, conduit au silence dont elle n’est que l’ornement. Le langage a pour sujet véritable, chez Heidegger, l’être même : le poète véritable ne dit pas l’être : son être est comme une conque dans laquelle faire résonner l’Ereignis, l’évènement de l’être, de l’ordre du es gibt. On ne saurait donc reprocher à Heidegger d’abandonner la logique au profit d’un irrationalisme non-scientifique, dans la mesure où il remonte à sa racine et que, par fidélité à son principe, il pense la vérité de l’être de façon plus fidèle et précise : car, loin d’être une technique formelle, la logique est le biais par lequel on s’exerce à dévoiler la vérité. A condition que le logos, loin de la parole codifiée et structurée par l’opposition, regarde en arrière de soi et, inventif, se situe au bord de ce qui, en en étant la vérité, en signe la disparition. Le langage, poétique, montre dans une parole qui déjà se laisse envahir par le silence, hors du régime objectivant du langage à valeur communicationnelle (qui dit le « what », l’objet). Cette thèse « gnostique » sur le langage et la vérité comme dévoilement du voilement du voilement (le passage, chez Platon, de la double ignorance – je ne sais pas que je ne sais pas – à la simple ignorance), gagne ainsi en clarté à la lumière de la compréhension mé-ontologique dans la Kabbale du Ain Soph et du statut du texte, à la fois spéculatif et dévotionnel, qui est autant commentaire de commentaire que Voie de Dévoilement (au sens d’aletheia) de l’Absolu. Le langage, sous cet angle, se laisse ainsi ressaisir à partir de la conception kabbalistique de la nature, comme abri de la signature secrète que Dieu a placée sur les choses.

 C’est, globalement, à l’aune de la mystique juive que la philosophie de Heidegger apparaît pour ce qu’elle est : comme une Poiesis, vaste méditation, essai d’une pensée sans lieu, utopique, ni suffisamment « logique », trop conceptuelle pour être poétique, trop philosophique pour être mystique. Certes, dans ce dépassement de la métaphysique, qui n’est autre qu’un saut hors de soi de la pensée, on y verra désormais bien des éléments de Kabbale, et il sera difficile au lecteur d’aborder de nouveau le Seyn, sans toute la richesse de compréhension qu’elle apporte. Mais, à tout le moins, c’est me semble-t-il la Kabbale elle-même qui fait l’objet des plus belles pages de l’ouvrage, et dans l’enthousiasme de l’auteur, mais aussi la profondeur de vue, fruit d’années de recherche, c’est le Feu sacré du Savoir véritable qui se révèle, contaminant jusqu’au lecteur lui-même. Quant à savoir si le destin historial de la philosophie ne serait pas du côté de la mystique, c’est là une question que nous maintenons ouverte. Comme si l’aridité et l’exigence conceptuelle de la philosophie servaient de tremplin à la simplicité du Verbe, que le philosophe n’était pas celui qui dit la vérité sur l’être (le totalisant, comme s’il le surplombait), mais celui qui, ouvrant à la vérité de l’être, doit désormais dans le silence se faire Myste. La Poiesis chez Heidegger est sans commune mesure avec la Poiesis véritable dans la mystique, avec le passage de l’Homme à l’Homme-Dieu, de l’existence éparpillée dans les étants à la réalisation de son essence. Mais cela, la phénoménologie de la finitude de Heidegger ne le pouvait penser.

Michael Chighel: Kabale: Das Geheimnis des Hebräischen Humanismus im Lichte von Heideggers Denken, Klostermann, 2020

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Michael Chighel. Translated by Peter Trawny
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Robert L. Wicks (Ed.): The Oxford Handbook of Schopenhauer, Oxford University Press, 2020

The Oxford Handbook of Schopenhauer Couverture du livre The Oxford Handbook of Schopenhauer
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Robert L. Wicks (Ed.)
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Marie Luise Knott (Ed.): The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem

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Marie Luise Knott (Ed.). Translated by Anthony David
University of Chicago Press
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Reviewed by: Michael Maidan

Those familiar with the names of Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem are likely aware that they were on opposite sides of the polemics around Arendt’s book on the Eichmann trial. But they may be less acquainted with the extent of the intellectual and deep personal relationship between them.  As it is explained in Marie Luise Knott’s useful ‘Introduction’ to this volume, only when we take into consideration the whole series of letters that they had exchanged over the years, ‘does a fuller portrait of their friendship emerge’ (vii). The value of this exchange is not merely biographical. Both Arendt and Scholem witnessed, at times participated in, and overall reflected on some of the more dramatic events of the first half of the 20th century. Their reflections at time intersected, and at time influenced each other, sometimes in imperceptible ways.

In 1963, Gershom Scholem wrote to Hannah Arendt a letter harshly condemning Arendt’s positions in her recently published Eichmann in Jerusalem. The controversy created by her book and its influence on the life and work of Arendt was recently dramatized in Margarethe von Trotta’s film Hannah Arendt (2012).

Scholem points out that Eichmann’ in Jerusalem really deals with two subjects: (1) Jews and their behavior during the Holocaust (Scholem writes: the ‘Catastrophe’); (2) Eichmann and his responsibilities (Letter 132, p. 201). Regarding the question of the behavior of the Jews, Scholem mentions the many years which he devoted to this question, and not just in the context of the Holocaust, but the course of Jewish history in general, and its prior catastrophes. On this question, his position is that:

There are aspects of Jewish history (and this is what I have occupied myself with for the past fifty years) which are hardly free of abysses: a demonic decay in the midst of life; insecurity in the face of this world (in contrast to the security of the pious, whom your book, bafflingly, does not mention); and a weakness that is perpetually confounded and mingled with trickery and lust for power. These have always existed, and it would be odd indeed if they didn’t come to the fore in some form at times of catastrophe (201).

Scholem intimates that this is indeed an important and grave subject, much more important thanthe question why the Jews did not defend themselves against the Naziaggressor. But, we lack the required historical perspectiveto address this subject. He finds that Arendt in her book ‘addresses only the weakness of Jewish existence’, and that to the extent that weakness there was, her emphasis was ‘completely one sided’ (201). Furthermore, her account obscures the problem. The form of the narrative substitutes itself for the content. It is Arendt’s language, more than the content itself that makes people angry with the book. Scholem points out to the ‘lighthearted style, by which I mean the English word “flippancy,” that you employ all too often in your book. It’s inappropriate for your topic, and in the most unimaginable way.’ But, if Scholem finds parts of the book frivolous, it is, first and foremost, because of a ‘lack of love of Israel’, a lack of empathy for her own people, which Scholem claims is quite common among Jews which had been members of the Left.

Arendt replied with a letter that curtly dismisses Scholem’s criticism. She rejects as uninformed the idea that she had ever been a member of the Left (Letter 133, p. 205). And regarding the more general claim that she lacks ‘Ahavat Israel’, Arendt responds unambiguously that she never hides the fact that she is Jewish: ‘That I am a Jew is one of the unquestioned facts of my life’ (206). But, for Arendt this fact belongs to the realm of the pre-political. She cannot refrain herself from antagonizing Scholem and asking about the history and meaning of ‘Ahavat Israel’ (love of Israel), a question that certainly would not contribute to mend fences with Scholem. She goes on and rejects the notion of love to a collective or to an abstract idea. She finds the idea of ‘loving of Israel’ baffling, as if loving herself, something that she claims to find impossible.

This exchange of letters and their publication by Scholem ended thirty years of mostly epistolary relationship between the political thinker and philosopher and the leading scholar of Jewish mysticism and kabbalah. Between 1939 and 1964, Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem exchanged close to 140 letters, ranging in content from the mundane to dealing with the tragic events of the thirties and forties, and to their early efforts for the salvaging and reconstruction of the remains of Jewish communities of Western and Eastern Europe after the Holocaust.

Walter Benjamin first brought them together. And Benjamin’s tragic death, the fate of his unpublished work, and the pious will to eventually publish his work and rescue it from oblivion cemented their relationship and is an invisible thread stitching the letters together.

In the immediate postwar period, both Arendt and Scholem were personally involved in a complex process to reclaim the Jewish cultural heritage from the ruins of Europe. Many letters in this volume reflect their travails in this period, ranging from official memorandums to more personal letters in which they exchange information about the progress in their joint work.

Arendt and Benjamin became friends during their exile in Paris. Arendt fled to Paris in 1933, after having been briefly detained by the German police. The same year Benjamin left Germany, first for Paris and then for Ibiza, returning finally to Paris. Some of the earliest letters in this book refer to Benjamin. Letter 1 makes this shared connection clear:

I’m really worried about Benji. I tried to line up something for him here but failed miserably. At the same time, I’m more than ever convinced how vital it is to put him on secure footing, so he can continue his work. As I see it, his work has changed, down to his style. Everything strikes me as far more emphatic, less hesitant. It often seems to me as if he is only now making progress on the questions most decisive for him. It would be awful if he were to be prevented from continuing. (3)

Letter 4 shows the confusion and hopelessness of the refugees, trying to make sense of the defeat of the French army and the capitulationof the Third Republic. Writing from New York, Arendt shares with Scholem the information she has about Benjamin’s suicide, and the events preceding the tragic outcome. The letter ends with a reference to a question that will surface again and again in the correspondence: the fate of Benjamin’s literary estate, who has it, and to whom it belongs. To ponder on those questions at that time may seem totally irrelevant as Benjamin was virtually unknown outside of Germany. The undercurrent to this preoccupation is, at that point, Arendt and Scholem antipathy for Adorno (referred in this letter by his real last name: Wiesengrund), and their suspicions that the Institute for Social Research will try to bury Benjamin’s legacy deep into their archives.

In letter five, Scholem complains to Arendt of the lack of response from Horkheimer and Adorno to his questions regarding Benjamin’s estate.  In letter seven, Arendt tells Scholem of the small mimeographed homage to Benjamin prepared by the Institutein 1942. She notes that the only part of the estate that it contains is the Theses, a copy of which was given to Arendt by Benjamin. Scholem in the following letter complains of not having received anything from anybody. Arendt replies promising to send Scholem her only copy of the Theses and refers to her conversation with Adorno and with Horkheimer.  The latter confirmed to her that the Institute has a crate with Benjamin papers, that they are kept in a safe, and that the Institute does not know what is inside, something that Arendt does not believe to be true. The same complaints return time and again throughout the correspondence. Their misgivings are not only consequence of misinformation (Benjamin entrusted several of his manuscripts to friends in Paris, and some were only recovered in recent years, while other papers were apparently lost or destroyed) but also ideological suspicion.  Scholem makes it clear to Arendt that he believes that Horkheimer’s analysis of antisemitism—probably a reference to Horkheimer’s 1939 The Jews and Europe —is ‘an impudent, arrogant, and repulsive load of nonsense without a shred of intelligence or substance’ (20). In another letter, Arendt mentions to Scholem that ‘meanwhile, the [American Jewish] Committee has charged Mr. Horkheimer with the task of battling anti-Semitism. Putting the fox in charge of the henhouse is only one of the many amusing aspects of the story. Incidentally, aside from his repulsiveness, Horkheimer is even more half-witted than even I had thought possible.’ (Letter 13, p. 25). This is a reference to the project which resulted in the publication by Adorno and others of The Authoritarian Personality (1950), and of several monographies on the nature of antisemitism and authoritarian tendencies in general and in America in particular.

Several letters in the late 1940’s deal with a failed attempt to bring an edition of Benjamin collected writings in English. While Arendt agreed to put together the volume, she declined to write an introduction and requested one from Scholem. After invoking different excuses, she gets to the real issue: ‘I still haven’t been able to come to terms with Benjamin’s death, and therefore over the subsequent years I’ve never managed to have the necessary distance one needs to write “about” him’ (72). Indeed, she will only write about Benjamin in the short introduction to her edition of his collected works in English, published in 1968.  Benjamin collected works were finally published in 1955 in Germany, edited and introduced by Adorno (Letter 112, p. 183), followed by an edition of his letters, edited by both Scholem and Adorno.

 Many of the letters document Arendt’s and Scholem’s involvement with efforts to rescue Jewish cultural and religious objects that were looted by the Nazis and stored in different locations, particularly in what become the American military occupation zone. Arendt participated in this effort as Executive and Field director of CJR, Inc., a not for profit organization which acted as cultural affairs executor for the Jewish Restitution Successor Organization (JRSO), an organization established by the leading Jewish organizations in the US, Mandatory Palestine, Britain and France to assist in the restitution of ownerless Jewish property in Germany and the occupied countries of central Europe. The ‘Introduction’ presents a detailed reconstruction of this period in Arendt’s life that is not well documented in her standard biography by Young-Bruehl.Arendt involvement started with a study about the Nazi’s policies to pillage and destroy Jewish culture commissioned by historian Salo Baron 1942. In her study she documented not only the pillaging in Germany and Austria, but also in occupied Poland and France. She later worked between 1944-1946 as a researcher in the European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction (CEJCR), an organization created by Baron. Her task was to gather information and prepare a list of Jewish cultural organizations existing in axis-occupied Europe, which included also information on the properties owned by these institutions. Three years later, Baron hired Arendt as executive secretary of a successor organization, the JCR.

If Arendt’s role in the work of the JCR was at the organizational level, Scholem participated as a scholar of Judaism, as an individual personally familiar with the holding of the major Judaic libraries in Europe before the war, and as a representative for the Hebrew University in the just recently established State of Israel. Benjamin wrote in his Theses on the Philosophy of History (a copy of which he entrusted with Arendt before his failed attempt to cross the French-Spanish border) that ‘even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious’.  Scholem’s and Arendt’s efforts, as well as the efforts of their many partners in this mission, were directed to prove Benjamin wrong on this count, by rescuing whatever could still be rescued, and by making sure that the intellectual and cultural treasures recovered did not become mere archaeological remnants but played a renewed role in a living history.

This section of the letters alternates between the businesslike to the personal. Accordingly, someof the lettersare formal, others relaxed and friendly. Some, combine both aspects. In letter 5, Arendt reports on different matters related to their common work in JCR, but then the letter ends with a copy of an early poem by Benjamin.  While a detailed study of these letters will only be of real interest for an historian of the post-war Jewish communities in Europe, even a superficial reading conveys both the gloom and the determination of those involved in this project to do whatever possible to salvage the material remains of European Jewish culture. The book includes also four extant field reports (Number 12 through 18) and a final report to the JCR Commission.

In a letter from 1942, Scholem informs Arendt that his book Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism has been recentlypublished, and copies sent to United States. He asks Arendt to read the book and invites her comments, not as an expert in the subject matter, but as a ‘reflective reader’. Two years later Arendt mentions having sent a review to the journal Menorah (276, note 4), which she claims she wrote for Scholem’s eyes, but decided to publish because, even if she felt inadequate to the task, other readers would have been even less adequate (22).   The review was never published, and the manuscript apparently did not survive. Arendt will have the opportunity to discuss the revised second edition (1946), in her Jewish History, Revised (1946). Arendt reads Scholem’s metahistorical conclusions drawn from the history of Jewish Mysticism in the light of her own hypothesis about the failed nature of Jewish emancipation and assimilation to the majority cultures of Eastern and Central Europe which she elaborated in her biography of the Berlin Jewish salonnière, Rahel Varnhagen and in her essay ‘The Jew as Pariah: A Hidden Tradition’ (1944).

Arendt’s critical assessment of Jewish emancipation brings into play three ideal types of modern Jews: the pariah, the parvenu, and the conscious pariah. She adopts from Max Weber the notion of pariah peoples, i.e., ethnic minorities characterized by a specific social and economic role and kept separated from mainstream society. But she does notconduct her analysis on sociological, economical or historical terms, but through the mediation of literary characters which incarnate these ideal types. Hence her reliance on Heine and Kafka, which represent—according to her interpretation—forms of rebellion against the pariah status and of rejection of the ways of the individualistic parvenu. These thinkers and artists reject assimilation, including assimilation by identification with revolutionary struggles, as many Jews did in the early 20th century. Arendt concludes her essay with the following reflection, which exposes the tensions within her view of politics:

only within the framework of a people can a man live as a man among men, without exhausting himself. And only when a people lives and functions in consort with other peoples can it contribute to the establishment upon earth of a commonly conditioned and commonly controlled humanity (Arendt, The Jew as Pariah: The Hidden Tradition, Jewish Writings, 2007, 297).

Scholem is skeptical. He rejects Arendt’s interpretation: ‘I’d really like to lead off with a discussion of your thesis of the pariah’ he writes to her and adds: ‘to my inner “Rashi”—a reference to one of the most important medieval rabbinical interpreters of both the Bible and the Talmud—the texts speak a different language’.  He adds that ‘in order to squeeze them into the concepts you employ you end up leaving many things out that don’t fit.’ (24). He rejects Arendt’s interpretation of Heine and Kafka, two authors and are central to Arendt’s thesis. But Scholem excuses himself of any detailed discussion, adducing exhaustion and lack of energy at that time to engage in any serious intellectual dispute.

The intellectual, political and emotional differences between Arendt and Scholem emerge clearly in their disagreements about the nature of Zionism. Arendt seems to believe that Scholem is close to her position or at least understands sympathetically her point of view. On close reading, nothing seems to be farther from the truth.

Arendt’s criticism of Zionism is twofold. She criticizes the transformation of the Zionist idea into an ethno-political nationalism. On this point, she feels close to Scholem’s ideas of a cultural Zionism. Her other criticism relates to the strategy of the Zionist movement vis a visthe Palestinian Arab population. Also, in this matter she felt that she could expect a warm interlocutor in Scholem, who was one of the founders of the short-lived Brit Shalom (Peace Alliance) movement, who advocated for Jewish and Arab peaceful coexistence in Palestine.  Her main essay on this matter was published in 1944, under the title ‘Zionism reconsidered’. In her article, she criticizes the positions adopted in by ‘the largest and more influential section of the World Zionist Organization’in 1944, advocating the establishment of an independent Jewish national state in Palestine. Scholem’s reply comes in a letter from early 1946, several months later.  He thanks her for the paper, but expresses his concerns about her essay, which he dismisses outright.  ‘In vain I asked myself what sort of credo you had in mind when you wrote it’ he,writes. ‘Your article has nothing to do with Zionism but is instead a patently anti-Zionist, warmed-over version of hard line Communist criticism, spiced with a vague Diaspora nationalism’ (42). He continues refuting each of Arendt’s central claims in a detailed way, concluding in a stern although amicable way.

Arendt replied a few months later. She first alludes to an attempt to publish some of Benjamin writings in English. After concluding the business that ‘the two of us can agree on’, she moves to their disagreements about Zionism. She first attempts to establish a ground level for their discussion, explaining her two main concerns. On the one hand, a rejection of any ideology or worldview, which she opposes to a ‘political standpoint’. She rejects ‘Zionism’ as an ideology but approves of Scholem’s decision to emigrate to Palestine (which is the practical content of the Zionist idea!). And while she rejects Zionism, she claims that her rejection is grounded in her concern with the Jewish settlement in British mandatory Palestine and not because of any ideology. Having established that, she proceeds to restate her arguments in Zionism Reconsidered, the main being her rejection of the concept of an ethnically based nation-state (49-50), the idea of the identity between state, people and territory. She even states that her opposition to the idea of a Jewish state is not limited to the issue of the Arab population and their opposition to such a Jewish state, but because a multinational state ‘is the most rational political organization’ (50). She also re-states her position regarding the failure of the Jewish organizations to stand behind the call for a Jewish supranational army combatting Germany alongside the allies, somewhat along the lines of the free armies of the German occupied countries that combated under their own uniforms within the allied forces.

Eichmann in Jerusalem: An essay on the banality of Evil markthe final break between Arendt and Scholem. To the letter we discussed earlier, Arendt replied with a strong rebuttal in Letter 133.  Arendt rejects Scholem’s characterization of her as being a former leftist. She claims not be interested in her youth on history or politics, but only in philosophy. And that only recently she had the opportunity to study Marx. Furthermore, she claims to have never negated her Jewishness, which she interprets as a ‘brute fact’.  Nevertheless, this does not translate, as Scholem’s seems to imply, into a form of generic solidarity with other Jews, what Scholem described as ‘Ahavat Israel’ (love or concern for the fate of other Jews).  Arendt claims that she has never experienced such abstract love for any‘collective’. Furthermore, such ‘love’ would have been suspect to her, as a sort of self-love. She illustrates her point with an anecdote from a conversation she had with Golda Meir. Arendt expressed to Meir her concern about the lack of separation between the State and religion in Israel, whereas Meir answered that while she herself does not believe in God, she believes in the Jewish people. And Arendt adds:

This is a horrible comment, in my view, and I was too shocked to offer a response. But I could have replied that the magnificence of this people once lay in its belief in God—that is, in the way its trust and love of God far outweighed its fear of God. And now this people believes only in itself! What’s going to become of this? (207)

The underlying question is, as Arendt puts it clearly, one of patriotism.  And for Arendt patriotism is not possible without criticism, i.e., without considering that ‘that injustice committed by my own people naturally provokes me more than injustice done by other’ (207). The letter addresses then a number of claims  made against the book which she considers to be invalid: that she turned Eichmanninto a Zionist, that she asked why Jews in axis occupied countries did not defend themselves, that instead she really addressed the question of the collaboration of the Jewish appointed authorities during the period of the ‘final solution”, that if Jews had no material possibility to defend themselves in an active way, they should have embraced a policy of complete refusal to collaborate.  The only point in which Arendt claims to agree with Scholem is Eichmann’s sentence. She agrees that it should have been carried out, even if she disagrees with most other issues.  In fact, Scholem disagreed with the carrying out of the sentence (213).

The letter concludes with a discussion of the idea of ‘banality of evil’.  Arendt explains her idea: evil is not radical, it is shallow, even if some sorts of evil can be extreme (209). She promises to develop later this idea, which she does, at least in part, in her study of Kant.

Scholem responds to Arendt’s option of non-collaboration in a long paragraph in Letter 135.  Scholem observes that, first, such a notion is used by Arendt to create a moral and political yardstick that is totally unfounded: ‘By presenting as a feasible humane and political strategy, and not for individual Jews but for millions of them, you end up elevating into a kind of postfestum measuring stick of judgment’ (212).  But he leaves open the door to a discussion of evil, which he interprets in terms of bureaucratization of behavior, although he makes clear that he believes that this idea is an unrealistic description of the actual events: “The gentlemen enjoyed their evil, so long as there was something to enjoy. One behaves differently after the party’s over, of course (214).

The next exchange of letters is cordial but more reserved. Finally, the exchange ends with a letter from Scholem announcing a trip to New York to speak on Benjamin at the Leo Baeck Institute. Did they meet? In any event, no further letter is extant.

Susanne Möbuß: Sternschatten: Martin Heideggers Adaption der Philosophie Franz Rosenzweigs, Karl Alber, 2018

Sternschatten: Martin Heideggers Adaption der Philosophie Franz Rosenzweigs Couverture du livre Sternschatten: Martin Heideggers Adaption der Philosophie Franz Rosenzweigs
Susanne Möbuß
Karl Alber
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Klaus Held: Der biblische Glaube: Phänomenologie seiner Herkunft und Zukunft, Klostermann, 2018

Der biblische Glaube: Phänomenologie seiner Herkunft und Zukunft Couverture du livre Der biblische Glaube: Phänomenologie seiner Herkunft und Zukunft
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Klaus Held
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Jean-Luc Nancy: The Banality of Heidegger

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

Reviewed by:  Zühtücan Soysal (Middle East Technical University)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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