Gregory Fried (Ed.): Confronting Heidegger: A Critical Dialogue on Politics and Philosophy

Confronting Heidegger: A Critical Dialogue on Politics and Philosophy Book Cover Confronting Heidegger: A Critical Dialogue on Politics and Philosophy
New Heidegger Research
Gregory Fried (Ed.)
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
Paperback $44.95 • £35.00

Reviewed by: Andrei-Valentin Bacrău (former graduate researcher at the University of Zurich)

The book Confronting Heidegger: A Critical Dialogue in Politics and Philosophy does present the readers with the expected level of critical analysis needed to revise Heidegger’s literature in contemporary philosophical research. Given the discoveries that Heidegger himself was associated with German nationalism through the rise of the Third Reich and during the Second World War, the academic space has brought into question the extent to which Heidegger should be taken seriously. Additionally, Heidegger’s work has grown in popularity with the French scene in the mid-20th century, as well as with contemporary Americans. The notion of whether or not his works should be taught continues to be present in lecture halls and contemporary literature on German philosophy.  Despite the concern towards the researchers that have built their academic careers on unpacking and clarifying Heidegger’s views, we must also address the theme of how we, as an academic community, should proceed with integrating the works of Heidegger in the philosophical literature, particularly within the branch of phenomenology.

This book initially began as an exchange of correspondence between Gregory Fried and Emmanual Faye, which later on accepted commentaries from other scholars within the radar of Heidegger and phenomenological studies. The text contains a wide plethora of arguments both in favor and against allowing Heidegger to be read and discussed within academic circles, between researchers on one hand, as well as with students on the other. During my review and synthesis of the contributions to this text, I shall outline four primary areas of contextualizing Heidegger within the aforementioned theme: philosophical, historical, political, and academic. The philosophical portion shall outline the charges and defenses of Heidegger within the text itself, isolated by the commentaries of the contributors. The historical portion is going to elaborate on the historical scenarios in which Heidegger himself operated, and the extent to which such historical phenomena have shaped his thoughts and writing style. Thirdly, the political discussion is going to clarify how Heidegger’s affiliations with German nationalism influenced not only the nationalistic culture of Germany in the 20th century, but also how this has inevitably lead to the accusations of antisemitism. Lastly, the academic section is going to explore the extent to which the earlier three sections justify either allowing or rejecting Heidegger’s works in contemporary research. Surely, all four aspects of the review are interwoven with each other, in some cases with such convergence that it is perhaps difficult to delineate between them. Since understanding Heidegger’s place within the philosophical space is already a difficult task, this process of correctly delineating between the social contexts which are affected by him is also an obstacle towards maintaining ethical standards within contemporary research. As we shall see with the contributors of the texts, the priority of Heidegger scholars must be disambiguating his intentions and the contexts which were outside of his control, with events which Heidegger himself not only endorsed but supported one way or another.

I. Philosophical

Some of the early traces for understanding Heidegger’s intellectual developments can be found at the beginning of the book. In the section on abbreviations, Fried himself notes that Heidegger holds different denotations on the notion of “being”. Such distinctions are held between the concepts of Sein and Seiendes (xi). Whereas the former emphasizes a state or a particular entity, the latter denotes the state of affairs or a collective. This subtle distinction between sein and seiendes is going to become particularly helpful for understanding Heidegger’s reasons in favor of German nationalism, as well as his exclusion of Jews from the civic discourse. Thomä’s essay includes another significant distinction, although this one is more particularly concerned with the intellectual development and maturation of Heidegger’s thinking. The question is at what point did Heidegger abandon his view of collective subjectivity? Thomä holds that Heidegger clung to such philosophical notions in the late 1930s. The argument states that we can only overcome metaphysical analysis only in so far as we can abandon clinging to the notion of a self or subject (167). Although the book itself does present some chronological debates as to whether or not this shift in Heidegger’s paradigm should be ascribed to the pre-war or post-war period of his thinking, Thomä maintains that it should be ascribed to the pre-war era.

The second aspect of unpacking how Heidegger conceived of the social world, is less abstract and more grounded in our civic activities. Fried’s defense of Heidegger’s Nazism in contrast to the propaganda projected by the Reich, is that Heidegger supposedly was opposed to both biological racism as well as global imperialism (1). Fried continues by claiming that Heidegger’s view supported the platform of Nazism as a bridging mechanism between cultures. Fried’s defensive reading of Heidegger comes to rigorous criticism from Kellerer. Heidegger’s antisemitism became more obvious in his writings since the completion of his Black Book. As Kellerer phrases it, post-1938 Heidegger indeed takes his mask off and uses more direct language that discriminates against the Jewish people (192). Kellerer also recognizes that although Heidegger’s antisemitism is not grounded in biological justifications, it is nonetheless concealed in an obscure writing style. Once Heidegger’s writings are disambiguated, as Strauss also emphasizes, the objective of the writing also becomes clearer. Heidegger’s intentions weren’t simply to push for a discourse of alienating the Jews from civic life but to annihilate any sort of influence or voice they might have had (204).

The main difficulty with disambiguating Heidegger is that he wrote in a seductive style, which brings students in (224). This seductive appeal, explained by Thomä and extended via Fried’s piece, is that it does not appeal to reason or intuitions. Rather, the seduction occurs via insights and revelations which are inaccessible to most people and readers. Despite such hermeneutic obscurations, Fried does maintain that Heidegger should be taken seriously (232). The discussions encouraging the abandonment of Heidegger as a legitimate 20th-century thinker are primarily ideological, rather than philosophical. The ideological-philosophical distinction illustrated by Fried, as well as the implications of Heidegger’s potential anti-semitism and cryptic style of writing are going to be further analyzed in the following sections.

II. Historical

Thus far, I have emphasized two main overarching questions regarding the interaction between Heidegger and the far-right politics of Germany. Firstly, whether or not Heidegger himself was an active participant in such political discussions and secondly, whether or not such participation discharges him from the academic space of philosophical discussions? Fried’s contribution insists that we should delineate between conservative attitudes in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, as well as Heidegger’s import from such discussion in the maturation of his work. Fried’s analysis claims that we cannot trace such anti-semitic attitudes to his earlier works, such as Being and Time (34). Fried’s defense also continues by stating that it was inevitable for Heidegger to at least indirectly present conservative views, since the attitudes of most European states during the 1930s were anti-cosmopolitan, nationalistic as well as anti-modern. Although these attitudes were the building blocks of Nazism, later on, they are not an expression of Nazi ideology. Therefore, a charitable reading of at least early Heidegger should be a German nationalist. Even if we were to ascribe Heidegger Nazi affiliations, Fried claims that we must be wary of contrasting it with the political activities of Nazi Germany. Whereas the political movement during Heidegger’s time supported imperialism and biological superiority via a metaphysical framework, Heidegger himself criticized this reading of Nazism, in favor of some sort of aggressive yet universalist form of the view (16).

Polt’s article emphasizes less of these subtle distinctions of German nationalism and focuses more on how Heidegger used the dialectic method to combat metaphysics, subjectivity as well as machination. Heidegger advocated that the aforementioned notions are dangerous and that they can drive humanity towards the collapse of civilization. This “ontohistorical machination”, as Polt phrases it, leaves “no hint of sympathy here for the victims; instead, he seems to be coldly, distantly, and ironically observing the events of the time” (134).

Polt maintains the defense that we should not read Heidegger as a supporter of Nazism. One of the justifications rests with Heidegger’s condemnation of Hitler’s reckless military policies through the war (119). Such defense results in a reading of the Black Book as a critique of Nazi ideology, while maintaining some sort of position in favor of German nationalism. Polt himself would perhaps agree with this reading since he also mentions that Heidegger’s bitter attitude towards the post-war European state of affairs also contains mixed feelings towards notions of German guilt and their relationship with a perverse understanding of Christianity. Polt’s conclusive remarks leave the readers with an interesting alternative from Fried’s interpretation that Heidegger’s views were in favor of some sort of cosmopolitanism. Namely, Polt’s alternative claims that since Heidegger rejected all moral and political principles in favor of some metaphysical structure, Heidegger must default to some sort of view of totalitarianism to reason through actions and political movements that are not promoted by a mere socialist state (140). Heidegger’s political affiliations have been defended and disambiguated in multiple ways by the contributors to this book. The next section of my review attempts to clarify which reading is more plausible, given Heidegger’s attitudes towards nationalism and the Jewish people.

III. Political

A third significant theme debated through the book is concerned with whether or not Heidegger intends his students and readers to develop sympathy towards Nazism. Fried opens the discussion with two observations. Firstly, that Heidegger’s work has been taken seriously in France and now in the US, and secondly, reading Heidegger does not entail the reader to grow sympathy for German nationalism (7); Fried continues:

For Heidegger, this means resolutely belonging to a particular place, a particular time, and particular people with its particular destiny. It means embracing the radical finitude of being human and radical boundedness to the human community (12).

Although Fried seems to be convinced that we can assess and maintain Heidegger’s work within the academic corpus, there does seem to be the pressing question of what exactly does this maintenance of Heideggerian work mean? Heidegger was undoubtedly a passionate nationalist, even in instances where historians can indeed say that he criticized his contemporary political structures in Germany. Therefore, we must ask ourselves to what extent Heidegger’s metaphysical agenda necessitated a nationalistic paradigm in contradistinction with cosmopolitanism? The contributors also clashed on the questions of ideological limits, rather than only attempting to describe Heidegger’s views of metaphysics and politics.

Kellerer argues that Heidegger’s antisemitism is obvious since the publication of the Black Notebooks (191). There are also other arguments present. Some scholars would say that given Heidegger’s obscure usage of the German language, it is difficult to pin exactly which passages are meant to be taken as anti-semitic. Additionally, Kellerer also extends the discussion surrounding the distinction between German views of superiority based on some sort of biological claim, with Heidegger’s national socialism which does not argue for such physiological superiority. However, this subtle distinction does not entail that Heidegger himself is free from the charge of racial superiority in some form. Since the exposé of GA:96, Heidegger was pushing for “ontologizing” principles of “blood and soil”. In this way, the dialectic struggle embodied in machination has been amplified. While also pushing forth ambiguous notions of “struggle for the liberation of the essence”, Heidegger attempts to distance himself from the notion of biological purity, while also claiming that such reductionist criteria have consistently been found in Jewish literature (193). Kellerer’s piece continues to make it quite obvious to her audience that Heidegger’s antisemitism is not only intentional but also not as subtle as some defenders of Heidegger would like to make it seem. Claims such as the Jew as the parasite, and that all Jews are devoid of any self (Selbst), make Heidegger’s intentions and objectives clear (198).

What is at issue here is intentional philosophical deception for domination and taking power in the spiritual and political fight for Nazism (203).

Dasein is the constant urgency of defeat and the renewed resurgence of the act of violence against Being, in such a way that the almighty reign of Being violates Dasein (in the literal sense), makes Dasein into the site of its appearing, envelops and pervades Dasein in its reign, and thereby holds it within Being (30).

Although this review is not the place to offer a comprehensive overview of Heidegger’s notion of Dasein, I would like to point out particular denotations of this concept, concerning Kellerer’s discussion. Regardless of how ambiguous or seductive the readers of Heidegger might think his philosophy is, it is quite difficult to defend the thesis that Heidegger had no intention of constructing a metaphysical system that initially alienates and then annihilates the Jewish people. The more difficult question remaining, is how the academic space should react to a writer that has such a legacy behind him. The fourth section, addressing the academic reactions to Heidegger, is going to further explore the arguments in favor and against keeping Heidegger as a legitimate thinker in the pedagogical system.

IV. Academics

Regardless of whether the contributors of the book favored the view that Heidegger was promoting Nazi ideology or a less harmful version of nationalism, both sides remain with the burden of addressing the last theme I shall cover in this review. Namely, should Heidegger be taught at all? Should we, as researchers, offer the space for such ideas, and more importantly, what is the pedagogical value of literary works that are borderline disruptive to a minority group?

The beginning of the debates are traced in Fried’s introduction to the book. He argues that we should not merely see Heidegger as a historical byproduct of German propaganda and that we should take him seriously. In this way, we do not jeopardize the careers of researchers working on Heidegger, nor do we discourage students with a growing interest in Heidegger’s thought (xviii). Fried’s concern is that we are “ventriloquizing Heidegger”. To defend Heidegger against over-contextualizing the material conditions and historical scene in which he lived, Fried pushes the agenda that Heidegger’s Nazism was different because it supported a cosmopolitan platform for nations to communicate amongst each other (1). A reoccurring theme during these discussions is how to address the evolution of Heidegger’s ideas beyond his scope and intentions. There seems to be a collective consensus that as long as the Heidegger scholars recognize the delineation between Heidegger’s contributions and the inevitable evolution, then Heidegger enthusiasts can engage with the literature without necessarily being stained by Heidegger’s political ideology.

The attempt to de-legitimize Heidegger has been opposed by Fried in other ways as well. Not only does Fried defer to the interest of thinkers such as Sartre and Habermas in Heidegger’s work,  but also the case that Voltaire, Kant, and Locke also expressed racist views and some of them went as far as favoring slavery (35). Such deferment to other well-known thinkers through European thought surely does bring into question the overall philosophical project of European thinkers. The extent to which this concern is well-grounded is not only left to the readers but I too would like to encourage a growing discourse into investigating the discriminatory biases of European thinkers.

Altman’s piece attempts to find a reconciliation between the charges against Heidegger and the pedagogical value of keeping his work as live options during debates and discussions in phenomenology and metaphysics. The argument “education first” adds to the discourse of delineating between Heidegger as a byproduct of his time and the intellectual import researchers can obtain from him today. Altman continues with an analogy between Heidegger and Elvis. Similarly to the underdog rise to fame of Elvis so too Heidegger enjoyed the spotlight of American academia (117).

Kellerer attempts to pair her arguments with Faye’s methodology. They should not be perceived as attempting to discharge Heidegger from the academic circles. Rather, they attempt to survey the extent to which the Nazi culture of his contemporaries influenced his writings so that the readers of Heidegger have a better grasp of the ideologies at work in his philosophy. Faye also supports Kellerer’s pluralistic reading of Heidegger (190, 238). The rhetoric emanated from all positions in this debate is that we must be careful with the way the debate is being shaped. One of the horns of the dilemma is to completely discourage any discussion about Heidegger due to the tension in his literature and the ethics of human rights. The other horn would be over-celebrating Heidegger and denying the implications, however minimal, that he had with German nationalism. Such projects are particularly difficult because Heidegger himself was using the German language in unusual ways.

The terminology of the Black Notebooks is more explicit than his other works of the same period, probably because many of those works have been manipulated by Heidegger’s own self-censorship or the censorship of the publishers, as we know to be the case in The History of Being. That terminology clarifies and confirms the meaning and conclusion of the 1940 course on Nietzsche. (253)

Faye’s conclusive remarks of the debate correctly illustrate the political outcome of the mid-20th century Germany. Aside from the terrors and atrocities which millions of people have unjustly experienced, we, as a global community, have engaged in an active discourse of human rights. As academic researchers, we must contribute to a civic and academic ecosystem where these rights are not only protected but also encouraged to flourish.

Overall, the impressions of the book are positive. The writing is clear and accessible both to students with minimal exposure to Heidegger’s work, as well as to Heidegger scholars. I would gladly recommend this piece to anyone interested in Heidegger or phenomenology at large. The book offers a wide plethora of debates concerning how we see and read Heidegger in today’s academic space. The only way for researchers to further look into the details of Heidegger’s affinities and philosophy is by enabling a discourse where such discussions are possible and reasoned through.