Elliot R. Wolfson: The Duplicity of Philosophy’s Shadow

The Duplicity of Philosophy's Shadow: Heidegger, Nazism, and the Jewish Other Book Cover The Duplicity of Philosophy's Shadow: Heidegger, Nazism, and the Jewish Other
Elliot R. Wolfson
Columbia University Press
Paperback $30.00 / £24.00

Reviewed by: Peter Pangarov (Independent Scholar, Canada)

The Duplicity of Philosophy’s Shadow

The spectre of Nazism hangs over the work of Martin Heidegger. That spectre has ebbed and flowed. The publication of the Schwarze Hefte brought back that ghost once more. The Schwarze Hefte laid bare aspects of Heidegger’s antisemitism that had not previously been seen. In The Duplicity of Philosophy’s Shadow, Elliot Wolfson, a scholar of Jewish mysticism and philosophy who—by his own admission—was influenced profoundly by Heidegger, sets out to see the absences in Heidegger’s writing. Wolfson uses Heidegger’s approach to analyse the relationship of truth and untruth, silence, the limits of speech, and what can or cannot be said. From the outset, it is essential to acknowledge that The Duplicity of Philosophy’s Shadow is not in response to the Schwarze Hefte, but a much broader and nuanced conversation Wolfson engages in with himself, Heideggerian scholars, and Heidegger.


The intention here is to sketch out how Wolfson conceptualises and breaks down Heidegger’s personal, political and philosophical miscalculations, and the parallels between Heideggerian thought and that of Jewish Mysticism. It is not to necessarily delve into the depths of the commonality of Heidegger’s thought and that of Jewish mysticism; this is something that Wolfson accomplishes too thoroughly to be summarised in a brief review without resorting to an approach that loses a lot of that nuance. Instead, this review focuses on the analysis of the unthought, Heidegger’s reforming and rejecting the Philosophy of National Socialism, and Heidegger’s silence and refusal to denounce the horrors of National Socialism.

Understanding Miscalculation

Wolfson approaches his analysis of Heidegger as an outsider, one influenced by Heidegger, but an outsider nonetheless. Wolfson’s approach is shaped by Jacques Derrida’s reflection that “no thinker is above criticism, certainly not one as controversial as Heidegger, but even he, nay especially he, deserves to be read before he is castigated as an outcast and his lifework deemed irredeemable” (xii). By embracing this, Wolfson seeks to neither excuse nor dismiss Heidegger. Instead, to wrestle with that middle ground. Wolfson acknowledges that it is a middle ground that “I am afraid to say, one that can be borne only by those willing to invest an inordinate amount of time and energy in reading through this vastly arduous corpus.” An analysis of Heidegger’s miscalculation is,

The space we must inhabit, as uncomfortable as it might be, is one in which we acknowledge that Heidegger was both a Nazi given to anti- Semitic jargon and an incisive philosopher whose thinking not only was responding to the urgencies of his epoch but also contains the potential to unravel the thorny knot of politics and philosophy relevant for the present as much as for the past. (xv).

The task Wolfson gives himself, is to read Heidegger in a way unlike how Heidegger sought to interpret himself. This task involves and necessitates walking up to his politics, and not immediately reaching to condemn Heidegger’s silence on Auschwitz but thinking about what that silence says and means. In The Duplicity of Philosophy’s Shadow, Wolfson accomplishes that task without ever losing sight of the reality of the tragedy that occurred. This approach provides a testament to how to engage holistically with Heidegger without losing the historical fact of the tragedy of what happened in Auschwitz.

Politics as Thought and Unthought

Wolfson begins by highlighting that moral condemnation does not run counter to analysing National Socialism philosophically in the background of Heidegger’s work. For Wolfson, in actuality, suspending condemnation would be wrong as it would remove the historicity of the relationship between Heidegger’s thought and that of National Socialism. Herein, Wolfson needs to be applauded for stepping into a potentially uncomfortable position, but a necessary one. It is not possible to not condemn what occurred, but it is possible to remain objective in studying the relationship between Heidegger and National Socialism and seeing where that leads.

As Wolfson puts it,

the Heideggerian presumption that questioning is the means to reveal the matter of thought is not forfeited by adopting a critical stance regarding the monstrosity of Nazism nor is there justification to argue that objectivity can be achieved only by abandoning oneself to a thinking that would preclude the ability to discriminate between right and wrong (1).

Wolfson does not believe Heidegger relinquishes ‘the sanction of good and evil.” Rather, Heidegger sees good and evil as interpreted through historical destiny, and their interaction of going towards and away from a transcendent metaphysical grounding. Wolfson acknowledges herein that this view is not one that would be adopted by certain Heideggerian scholars. Of course, it’s challenging itself to say, beyond a basic framework, what would be and would not be acceptable to a majority in this particular context. Wolfson’s discussion of a transcendent metaphysical grounding does point to a broader criticism that maybe slightly unfairly levelled against the book as a whole: the book places the reader in the midst of an extraordinarily complex and necessary analysis that requires a nuanced knowledge of Heidegger’s corpus. So, the book is not the best starting point for those unfamiliar with the subject matter.

For Heidegger, philosophical enlightenment ‘consists of unmasking the shadow as shadow, that is, discerning the shadow as a form of luminescence and not as a privation of light, (5). Wolfson examines Heidegger’s attempt to purify the philosophy of National Socialism. From 1933 onwards, in his writings, and lectures, Heidegger sought to both critique and support the present manifestation of National Socialism. The purification that Heidegger sought was to remove the racism and anti-Semitism from the core of National Socialism. Heidegger saw Germany, and Germans as philosophical a people, and nation. By having National Socialism embrace this, Germany would accomplish its national destiny. This, as highlighted by Wolfson, is an alternative form of nationalist chauvinism.

Counter-posed here is a sense that Heidegger did express remorse in what he had engaged with, and that remorse impacted his ability to visit former friends, for instance, Carl Jaspers, not—in his words—“because a Jewish woman lived there, but because I simply felt ashamed,” (31). That sense of shame is a real and powerful factor that cannot be dismissed.

In this discussion, there is one aspect that perhaps speaks loudest: that of silence. More specifically, Heidegger’s silence. That of how,

Heidegger fell short of outwardly and forthrightly rejecting the movement or admitting that his own decision was a symptom of a philosophical catastrophe and not merely a political blunder, but this moral failing provides the opening through which the concealed of the unconcealed of his thinking may be revealed as the entanglement of truth and untruth, an entanglement that sheds light on the shadow so that the substance of the shadow is unveiled as the shadow of the substance (32).

Wolfson returns to this regularly from the outset. Analysing the unthought is most illuminating because something being unthought or absent is as such silent.


Heidegger’s silence on what happened to the Jews, and the ills of National Socialism, remains one of the most challenging parts of his legacy. Heidegger died in 1976, far removed from the era of National Socialism, but he never publicly denounced the horrors that occurred. This failure poses a challenge that Wolfson, taking inspiration from Derrida, seeks to answer.

Derrida embarks on what he labels a “risky hypothesis” that it was by not speaking that Heidegger offered the possibility for others to think the unthought connection between his thought and National Socialism. Had Heidegger explicitly offered an apology for his blunders, he would have likely been absolved, and there would have been closure and less of an impetus for subsequent philosophers and intellectual historians to contemplate the affinities, synchronisms of thinking, and common roots that he might have shared with Nazism. However, the legacy of Heidegger’s “terrifying, perhaps unforgivable, silence” bequeaths to us the duty of doing the work and the “injunction to think what he did not think,” (111).

This deserves to be unpacked because it is the line of thought that Wolfson develops and connects with traditions in Jewish Mysticism. By not apologising, Heidegger placed himself in a space he need not have occupied, and had he apologised he would have lessened the impact of his miscalculation. Choosing to fail to do that forces those within the Heideggerian tradition to engage with that silence and see what that speaks about his legacy. Before proceeding, it is worth noting that there is a truth in Derrida’s hypothesis, but it is challenging to imagine that the Schwarze Hefte would not have led to an alternative if not potentially worse crisis even if Heidegger had publicly apologised.

The framing of the “risky hypothesis,” and how it borders on a notion of silence used in the Kabbalistic tradition, highlights Wolfson’s ability to think the unthought. Silence is appealing because it is the only way left to react to what came before and the absence that creates. Heidegger’s silence can be seen as a form of language used as a reaction to something so unspeakable that the only language left for it is the absence of language. This silence is a product of a belief that it is only possible sometimes to understand what a thinker thought if we can first be aware of what they did not think, or at least did not verbalise in language—leaving it unsaid. This way the failure to speak is in a sense the action of speaking. It provokes the others to respond in a manner typically befitting language, not its absence. Heidegger interpreted silence as an “essential possibility of discourse” (115). For Dasein to be authentic, it has to be able to be reticent and confront the intelligibility of certain actualities and how they can and cannot be expressed. An inability to show something can be indicative of something in the same way that an ability to communicate something can be.

This silence takes on a further meaning that of representing the internal solitude of the philosopher, and the withdrawing into oneself, especially in response to an event as powerful as the Holocaust. Part of the challenge is the philosopher’s awareness of how they will be misinterpreted, and how that leaves certain things as unsaid. There is a truth here but a failure to condemn what occurred at Auschwitz exists in a different category than an inability to articulate an ontology. There is the matter that the misinterpretation of a philosopher is inevitable. There is a need to be aware of the historicity and content surrounding the philosophy that is misinterpreted. As Wolfson proceeds in analysing what has been said, there is a mandate, or need to address that which has not been said. Mainly, why that was not said, and what that absence means. Wolfson builds on Heidegger’s emphasis on the linguistic ability of human beings, and how that capacity to not just speak but not speak as a choice. By not speaking, Heidegger may be engaged in an act representative as well of his historicity in that particular time, and how certain truths may not yet be or were not yet able to be spoken.

Wolfson asks if Heidegger’s silence were not twofold. Firstly, could he only speak by not speaking? Secondly, was it just by heeding and understanding the importance of the said and unsaid that Heidegger could respond to what happened? This point is furthered by Heidegger’s notion that the bloodshed of the war was an example of the excess of evil and wilfulness that was a product of a “non-essence of beying,” (35). This break that is a product of the war and the annihilation that took place is that to which Heidegger speaks by not speaking to it. This speaking by not speaking and indirectness is compared to the Kabbalistic idea of the Other Side. The Other Side is the tool used to explain the existence of evil, the counter to grace. Wolfson explains this in Heideggerian terms as

the evil of the Other Side is the wilful manifestation of the nonessence that belongs to the essence of being, the event of appropriation, which comprises the inexpressible that is expressive of the essentially tragic nature of being (123).

The Other Side is the opposite of essence. It can be grasped as the potentiality of Dasein to undo itself or come apart. This awareness is one that is limited, and not available to all of those that seek to unravel that piece of knowledge.

The knowledge of being, consequently, is limited to the individuals who remain faithful to the truth of the cataclysmic beginning and can make peace with it. Such individuals are neither recognized by the calculative nature of historiographical knowledge nor by the meditative nature of historical contemplation. Their mission is not to be sought in the ability to confront the other, but to accept the essential misrecognition that ensues from living and thinking within the ring of solitude (126).

In rounding off the discussion of silence, Wolfson notes how this conception can be used to explain but not justify. That distinction is critical because it illustrates Heidegger’s thought and what may have remained unthought but influential to Heidegger. An understanding of that does not mean that those actions were justified but merely explainable.

This account of Heidegger’s silence breaks apart what silence meant to Heidegger and the similarities with other traditions. This analysis does develop and ground Derrida’s “risky hypothesis” as something that makes sense and can be understood as the actions that Heidegger took due to his own philosophical framework. Silence is in a sense a performative act or the awareness that it is the only way Heidegger thought he could respond. Whether, as Wolfson notes, that is justified is a separate matter, but it does develop an interpretation based on engaging with Heidegger’s work and methodology.

Duplicity/Thinking the Unthinkable

Let me conclude this investigation by stating once more that I offer no apology for Heidegger. Indubitably, there will be readers who will accuse me of doing what I emphatically announce I am not doing. No matter how insistent and clear-cut my denial, the passion surrounding Heidegger will prevent some individuals from being able to read my work without a predisposition that, oddly enough, smacks of the very absolutism, despotism and homogenization they find so offensive about the fascist ideology Heidegger unwisely embraced at a crucial moment in his own development as a thinker (169).

Wolfson begins his Afterword with this paragraph. In concluding, it is important to bear that in mind as is the following.

The truth, as is often the case, lies some- where in the middle too often excluded by our logic of the excluded middle, a middle where something can be both true and not true, where the propositions that Heidegger was a defender of Nazism and that Heidegger was an opponent of Nazism are not mutually exclusive (170).

The reason for including these is because these paragraphs speak to what Wolfson sets out to do and accomplishes, of wadding into an unpleasant murky water that others are reluctant to do so. He notes that Heidegger was a sublime thinker, but nonetheless he made serious lapses and brought into his philosophy ideas and associations that were and are repugnant. The challenge is to understand both, where they cross over, and learn from that. As Wolfson highlights, the inability to do that is its own dogmatism. As with his silence there are things about Heidegger that we can understand but not justify. Being able to sit in that tension is perhaps the most powerful thing we can embrace from the Heideggerian tradition, whilst acknowledging the horrors. That is a monumental task, but one that Wolfson accomplishes, which by itself makes this book essential in offering a fresh perspective that injects a nuance made possible by an outsider influenced by the material.

Jorella Andrews: The Question of Painting: Re-thinking Thought with Merleau-Ponty

The Question of Painting: Rethinking Thought with Merleau-Ponty Book Cover The Question of Painting: Rethinking Thought with Merleau-Ponty
Jorella Andrews
Hardback £76.50

Reviewed by: Nikoleta Zampaki (National and Kapodistrian University of Athens,

The Question of Painting. Re-thinking Thought with Merleau-Ponty offers a unique and refreshing perspective on fields including visual studies, phenomenology, ecophenomenology, inter-artistic relations, and studies of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy. By developing an inter-artistic approach, Jorella Andrews demonstrates how phenomenology is relevant for painting. The title indicates the central thesis: perception and experience are aesthetic, so that there is an art of painting and an art of perception. Perceptual experience is open to interpretation in a way that is analogous to works of art.

The book is organized around a chronological account of Merleau-Ponty’s works and thought and its connections with art, highlighting how painting, as a way of exploration and artistic expression, articulates its contents and discourses on many aspects of daily life. Indeed, in the Visible and the Invisible, Merleau-Ponty points us in this direction: “Essence and existence, the imaginary and the real, the visible and the invisible, painting blurs all our categories in unfolding its oneiric universe of carnal essences, of efficient resemblances, and of silent significations”. (1) The instauration of appearing as such in painting is interpreted extensively through Andrews’ book. Painting represents but at the same time paints the invisible visibility of the visible. The focus here is on Merleau-Ponty’s later works, especially The Visible and the Invisible, Eye and Mind, and the Notes de cours 1959-1961. Andrews’ aim is to illuminate and trace a new ontological perspective as it emerges in these works.

Andrews reads works of art, particularly paintings, as disclosing a certain mutation of man and being. Moreover, Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology examines the embodied and interactive perception as well as the matter of experience. Phenomenological and artistic reflection are closely connected and this book clarifies how artistic standpoints ought to be examined in parallel with phenomenological investigation. In Merleau- Ponty’s thought aesthesis and aesthetics are intertwined. Embodiment has its own vitality and the feedback between artist and artwork represent the relation between body and world. Thus, Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of art centers on bodily presence, representation and feelings in the context of experience. The book also describes Merleau-Ponty’s aesthetic world as an opening contraction of the human world. Sensory experience is implicated in aesthetics and both are grounded in the body. The painter both experiences the world through the body and draws the world’s Totality. It is insofar as he or she is in contact with the realm of the visible that she or he is able to experience this Totality. This cosmic model of representation can be described as a Gestalt.

Andrews analyzes nature, rationalism, empiricism, dualism and behaviorism through the cognitive field that remarks the significance of Gestalt. In place of empiricism and intellectualism, Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology offers a vision on the matter of subjectivity and world as an accommodation of thought. Merleau-Ponty’s critique of Cartesian representationalism and its consequences has been taken up within cognitive philosophy and the philosophy of mind. Cartesian rationalism was unable to overcome the central artistic dimensions of depth. Andrews describes all these fields deeply and thoroughly, and she frames and places Merleau-Ponty’s thought within an artistic context.

Drawing on the concept of aesthetics, the book focuses on the presentation of the cooperative relationship between being and environment, as well as the structure of being and its presence in phenomenological and artistic context. Indeed, in the act of reading this book, all of our senses are participating to realize Merleau-Ponty’s aesthetic experience. We can perceive its uniqueness, which can be described by Merleau-Ponty’s terms and experience. This books draws the visible invisibility to the visual field of phenomenology and aesthetics. Our nature is collaborating with the Gestalt to touch Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts on art, a goal to which Andrews contributes with her magisterial writing.

The first part of the book reinserts phenomenology and its eco-spirit into the critical and theoretical framework of phenomenology and painting. Every being has its own consciousness and exhibits the structure of itself. The matter of embodiment and embodied perception are central axis of Merleau-Ponty’s thought throughout his works. Paul Cézanne was the painter who remains the basic example in in Merleau-Ponty’s works, thought he also draws on other painters, including Paul Klee and Henri Matisse. The formal philosophical thought of Merleau-Ponty intersects with the works of Cézanne and other painters as if they express what in transcendental phenomenology remains a mystery. The analysis of flesh follows from Merleau-Ponty’s recuperation of Cézanne, Klee and Matisse in their effort to capture the primodial and perpetual a priori opening to the open and the power of sense making. Flesh is the primordial instituting linguistic power that opens the world sensibly and instituting the human being as independent into the experience of the world.

Andrews refers to the theoretical framework of the art 20th and 21st centuries and engages a wider and better vision of the artistic discipline in order to introduce Merleau-Ponty’s thought on painting. Her reading of Merleau-Ponty’s notion of flesh is relative to painting. There is a carnal ground binding into a style of particular differentiation between brushwork, coloration, and technical processes, for instance that of impressionism or expressionism. Many philosophical and artistic concepts cover and at the same time unfold the question of painting and its impact on Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy. Three basic phenomenological ideas are embodied perception, lived body, and visible matters. Perception relies on lived experience and requires the contribution of our body, making the embodied nature of cognition form our perception.

The second part of the book considers extended thought and draws an illuminating connection among the body, embodiment, and the matter of art. Andrews shows that embodiment plays a major role within art, enabling the artist to integrate the spatiotemporal features of the body’s environment. Perception amounts to the body’s engagement with the world and picture our reality, a co-constitution of the lifeworld and the brain. The subjective body (Leib) and the objective body (Körper) forms a dialectical unity. Andrews recalls that the subjective body is the background of all the forms of experiences and especially the artistic. Inter-corporeity is the basis of our experience and artistic dimension whereas objectification is secondary aspect.

In the third part of the book Andrews focuses on linguistic concepts and on the theme of representation both in Merleau-Ponty’s work and in art. The phenomenon of resonance between linguistic tool and art is investigated extensively. Discourse plays the major role in the expression’s tools and mechanisms of artistic references. For example, Merleau-Ponty’s metaphors, as Andrews makes clear, are used as expressions of the lived experience of the subject and show how his thought is formed around the aesthetic experience of the phenomenological process. His metaphors hide an experimental and experiential spirit. The author exposes Merleau-Ponty’s immanent expressivity and creation of meanings. Underlying Merleau-Ponty’s conviction that personal expression (speech) is more meaningful than the impersonal (sedimented language) is a fundamental naturalism.

The fourth part of the book focuses on Merleau-Ponty’s terms such as flesh, visible, invisible, and chiasm as the main points of reinserting painting and artistic discourse into phenomenology through an ontological perspective. The field of vision and its depth through being’s embodiment is given in a vivid spirit, through memorable examples. Merleau-Ponty holds that the perceiver is embedded in the aesthetic space and interacts with it through experiences and senses. Flesh is the bridge between Leib and nature. Andrews notices the linguistic frameworks that aim to take our lived experience and inter-corporeity into an account of art. Linguistic resonance is strongly at play in inter-affectivity and artistic responses and leads that involved the entire subject’s body.

The book demonstrates how deeply the phenomenological and artistic traditions are connected and draws a perspective through a prismatic discipline in the phenomenological context. Andrews presents and re-presents the matter of intra-corporeality in the sense that subjectivity and objectivity are in dialogue. The microscopic world of living is in dialogue with the macroscopic world of painting through the linguistic resonance of inter-artistic relations. Moroever, the picture of embodiment and embodied cognition that is developed here impacts debates concerning the dignity of the person and life. The accounts of perception and of art are organic, interdependent, and dynamic.

The whole book provides an overview of Merleau-Ponty’s thought. But it also offers new points of view on the fields described above and never loses sight of the phenomenological field of Merleau-Ponty’s eco-artistic perspective. Andrews reinserts the reader to Merleau-Ponty’s thought and way of thinking as living communication with the world. The book contributes significantly to the intense debate concerning oculocentrism in the 1980s and guided by phenomenology at every critical juncture. In conclusion, it addresses major topics and motivates readers to explore an interesting field of research, which is still open to new interventions. The book is a welcome affirmation of the fluidity and versatility of Merleau-Ponty’s thinking, and promises to open the door to new intellectual and phenomenological creativity.


Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1964. Le visible et l’invisible, C. Lefort (ed.), Paris: Gallimard.