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

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

Reviewed by: Joeri Schrijvers (Independent Scholar)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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