Recent attempts to dismiss Heidegger as ‘a Nazi philosopher’ resemble the Nazis’ attempt to dismiss Einstein’s theory of relativity as ‘Jewish physics’. In both cases, we are urged to test a body of thought not against competing bodies of thought but against something more easily accessible – our moral intuitions. If you know that the very idea of relativity is a product of cultural decadence, you are spared the trouble of labouring through a lot of equations and then deciding whether the phenomena can be explained non-relativistically. If you know that the very idea of ‘authentic existence’ or of ‘harkening to the voice of Being’ is inherently fascistic, you are spared the trouble of comparing Heidegger’s account of the history of Western philosophical thought with, for example, Hegel’s, Dewey’s, Popper’s or Blumenberg’s. You need not labour through Heidegger’s fantastic etymologies and idiosyncratic neologisms. What is more, you can brush aside the books of the people influenced by Heidegger – Derrida, de Man, Foucault – as just more of the same discredited claptrap.
Heidegger himself specialised in this sort of quick dismissal. Like Nietzsche, who claimed that his sense of smell told him whether or not a book was worth thinking about, Heidegger claimed to be able to sniff out the ‘authentic’ or the ‘primordial’. Heidegger brushed aside all attempts at increasing human happiness or equality of opportunity as mere symptoms of ‘humanism’, further indications of our forgetfulness of Being. So when the Nazis came along he felt no obligation to compare their proposals with those of the Social Democrats or the Catholic parties – no need to ask what sort of future Germany might expect under Nazi rule, whether it might be better to live within the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, whether firing Jewish professors might damage German universities. The Nazis smelled right to him. There was something authentic about them.
Thanks to the book by Hugo Ott, reviewed here by J.P.Stern (20 April 1989), and to those by Victor Farias and others, we now know that Heidegger’s quest for authenticity was mixed in with a lot of vulgar ambition. We also know that when people tried to call him to account he lied himself blue in the face. But the mistaken political judgment, the ambition and the cowardly hypocrisy – and even, I think, the deep antipathy to democracy – would not bother us much were it not for the fact of Heidegger’s silence about the fate of the European Jews. Most of us are prepared to brush aside the vanity, spitefulness and shady dealings of original thinkers and writers (the kind of thing paraded in books like Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals), and ask: ‘But still, what can we learn from these people? What can they do for us? What can we get out of them?’ That would by now have become the standard attitude to Heidegger were it not for his postwar silence about the Holocaust – his refusal to acknowledge its existence in any way. That refusal was too much. It was as if we had learned belatedly that certain fabulously original and moving poems had been written by a torturer after finishing work for the day. From then on there would be a bad smell about those poems.
Nevertheless, I think that we should hold our noses, separate the life from the work, and adopt the same attitude to Heidegger’s books as we have to other people’s. We should test them not against our moral intuitions but against competing books. An original story about the history of Western philosophical thought is not all that easy to come by – no easier than an original story about the movement of the heavens or the structure of matter. Stories of the former sort try to explain why we use the words we do, and thus, among other things, why we have the moral intuitions we have. When a genuinely new story of this sort comes along, we cannot afford to dismiss it. We will do so only if we have the sort of egomaniacal faith in our own noses that Nietzsche and Heidegger had in theirs. Such faith may be a necessary condition for the production of works of genius, but we non-geniuses who think of ourselves as tolerant and open-minded had better try to lose this faith.
We will be willing to separate someone’s life from his or her work precisely insofar as we think of moral character – our own and that of others – as varying independently of the possession and deployment of talents. To help ourselves think in this way, we should remind ourselves of a lesson Freud helped us learn: a person’s moral character – his or her selective sensitivity to the pain suffered by others – is shaped by chance events in his or her life. Often, perhaps usually, this sensitivity varies independently of the projects of self-creation which the person undertakes in his or her work.
I can clarify what I mean by ‘chance events’ and by ‘independent variation’ by sketching a slightly different possible world – a world in which Heidegger joins his fellow anti-egalitarian, Thomas Mann, in preaching resistance to Hitler. To see how this possible world might have been actual, imagine that in the summer of 1930 Heidegger suddenly finds himself deeply in love with a beautiful, intense, adoring philosophy student named Sarah Mandelbaum. Sarah is Jewish, but Heidegger, dizzy with passion, barely notices. After a painful divorce from his first wife, Elfride – a process which costs him the friendship of, among other people, the Husserls – Heidegger marries Sarah in 1932. In January 1933 they have a son, Abraham.
Heidegger jokes that Sarah may think of Abraham as named after the patriarch, but that he will think of him as named after Abraham à Santa Clara, the only other Messkirch boy to make good. Sarah looks up Abraham à Santa Clara’s anti-semitic writings in the library stacks, and Heidegger’s little joke becomes the occasion of the first serious quarrel between husband and wife. But by the end of 1933, Heidegger is no longer making such jokes. For Sarah makes him notice that the Jewish Beamter, including his father-in-law, have been cashiered. Heidegger reads things about himself in the student newspaper which make him realise that his days in the sun may be over. Gradually it dawns on him that his love for Sarah has cost him much of his prestige, and will sooner or later cost him his job.
He still loves her, however, and eventually leaves his native mountains for her sake. In 1935 Heidegger is teaching in Berne, but only as a visitor. Switzerland has by now given away all its philosophy chairs. Suddenly a call comes from the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton. There Heidegger spends two years slowly and painfully learning English, aching for the chance once again to spellbind seminar rooms full of worshipfully attentive students. He gets a chance to do so in 1937 when some of his fellow émigrés arrange a permanent job for him at the University of Chicago.
There he meets Elizabeth Mann Borgese, who introduces him to her father. Heidegger manages to overcome his initial suspicion of the Hanseatic darling of fortune, and Mann his initial suspicion of the Schwarzwald Bauerkind. They find they agree with each other, and with Adorno and Horkheimer, that America is a reductio ad absurdum of Enlightenment hopes, a land without culture. But their contempt for America does not prevent them from seeing Hitler as having ruined Germany and being about to ruin Europe. Heidegger’s stirring anti-Nazi broadcasts enable him to gratify his need to strike a heroic attitude before large masses of people – the need which he might, under other circumstaneces, have gratified in a rectoral address.
By the end of World War Two, Heidegger’s marriage is on the rocks. Sarah Heidegger is a committed social democrat, loves America, and is a passionate Zionist. She has come to think of Heidegger as a great man with a cold and impervious heart, a heart which had once opened to her but which now remains closed to her social hopes. She has come to despise the egotist as much as she admires the philosopher and the anti-Nazi polemicist. In 1947 she separates from Heidegger and takes the 14-year-old Abraham with her to Palestine. She is wounded in the civil war but eventually, after the proclamation of independence, becomes a philosophy professor at Tel-Aviv University.
Heidegger himself returns to Freiburg in triumph in 1948. He helps his old friend Gadamer get a job, even though he is acidly contemptuous of Gadamer’s acquiescence in the Nazi takeover of the German universities. He eventually takes as his third wife a war widow, a woman who reminds all his old friends of Elfride. When he dies in 1976, his wife lays on his coffin the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the medal of the order Pour le Mérite, and the gold medal of the Nobel Prize for Literature. This last had been awarded him in the year after the publication of his brief but poignant elegy for Abraham, who had died on the Golan Heights in 1967.
What books did Heidegger write in this possible world? Almost exactly the same ones as he wrote in the actual one. He tells the same story about a gradual loss of a primordial awareness of Being as we move from Parmenides to Nietzsche. In this other world, however, Introduction to Metaphysics contains a contemptuous identification of the National Socialist Movement with the mindless nihilism of modern technology, as well as the remark that Hitler is dragging Germany down to the metaphysical level of Russia and America. The seminars on Nietzsche are much the same as those he gave in the actual world, except for a long digression on Nietzsche’s loathing for anti-semites, a digression which contains uncanny parallels with Sartre’s contemporaneous but independent ‘Portrait of the Anti-Semite’.
In this other world, Heidegger writes most of the same essays he wrote in our world, but also exegeses of passages in Thoreau and in Jefferson, composed for lectures at Harvard and at the University of Virginia respectively. These lectures transfer the pathos of Schwarzwald pastoral on to Mount Monadnock and the Blue Ridge of Virginia. His books in this world are, in short, documents of the same struggle as the one he carried on in the actual world – the struggle to move outside the philosophical tradition and there ‘sing a new song’. This private pursuit of purity and originality, this attempt to see the West from a new and utterly different perspective, was the core of his life. That pursuit was incapable of being deflected either by his love for any particular person or by the political events of his time.
In our world, Heidegger said nothing political after the war. In the possible world I am sketching he puts his prestige as an anti-Nazi to work in making the German political Right respectable. He is adored by Franz Joseph Strauss, who pays worshipful visits to Todtnauberg. Social democrats like Habermas regret Heidegger’s being consistently on the wrong side in post-war German politics. Sometimes, in private, they voice the suspicion that, in slightly different circumstances, Heidegger would have made a pretty good Nazi. But they never dream of saying such a thing in public about the greatest European thinker of our time.
In our actual world Heidegger was a Nazi, a cowardly hypocrite, and the greatest European thinker of our time. In the possible world I have sketched he happened to have his nose rubbed in the torment of the Jews until he finally noticed what was going on, until his sense of pity and his sense of shame were finally awakened. In that world he had the good luck not to have been able to become a Nazi, and so to have less occasion for cowardice and hypocrisy. In our actual world, he turned his face away, and eventually resorted to hysterical denial. This denial brought on his unforgivable silence. But that denial and that silence do not tell us much about the books he wrote, nor conversely. In both worlds, the only link between Heidegger’s politics and his books is the contempt for democracy he shared with, for example, Eliot, Waugh and Paul Claudel – people whom, as Auden predicted, we have long since pardoned for writing well. We could as easily have pardoned Heidegger his contempt for democracy, if that had been all. But in the world without Sarah, the world in which Heidegger had the bad luck to live, it was not all.
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