The Heideggerianization of the Right, Part I
In his surprising 1987 bestseller The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom identified a phenomenon he called the “Nietzscheanization of the Left.” Bloom observed the strange fact that Nietzsche, though of the Right, had been appropriated by leftist academics, who took him into their service and repressed the incompatibilities between his philosophy and their leftist aims. The context was the post-war consensus that the Right had become totally discredited and could be ignored. Political practice had reconfigured the terrain of political life to exclude the Right from polite society.
The election of Donald Trump changed that. Among supporters who propelled him into office were some who had had enough of the post-WWII consensus. Dissatisfied by neo-conservative Republicanism, libertarianism, and other movements that no longer fit the situation after the end of the Cold War, these individuals and groups began to turn anew to ideas, arguments, images, sensibilities, authors, and other resources that past political events had allegedly rendered irrelevant. In Trump’s shadow, Nietzsche was rehabilitated – this time, on the Right.
Nietzsche was not alone. The Italian traditionalist Julius Evola and the Russian neo-Eurasianist Alexander Dugin began to crop up in the speeches of figures associated with or supportive of Trump. Carl Schmitt, the incisive Nazi jurist, also appropriated by the left for his criticisms of liberalism, could be wrested back from his erstwhile usurpers and made a matter of thought for newly empowered deplorable minds. Even classical thinkers, politically neutered as harbingers of fascism and lambasted as unprogressive and outdated, were drawn upon for inspiration.
But of the figures liberated for thought as a result of the reconfiguration of political forces, one stands out conspicuously – Martin Heidegger. The German philosopher is conspicuous not because his importance is easiest to spot, like a giant among dwarves, but almost for the opposite reason: though the impact of his liberation can be immeasurable, it is hard to see why, while what is visible can be misleading. Moreover, if some figures were taken back from the left and returned to the Right, he cannot be placed there simply without further ado: the reconfiguration of political forces that carried with it the potential to release him from an almost century-long captivity can deliver him over into a new confusion, no less distorting and prohibitive of understanding. What is Heidegger for the Right?
Heidegger was by all accounts the most eminent philosopher of the 20th century – or at least, very near the top of the list, depending on who compiles it. It is customary to follow sentences like the previous one with some variant of the following: “but he was also a Nazi.” His reputation in the West has been shaped by works like Victor Farias’s Heidegger and Nazism and Emmanuel Faye’s Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy. These readings see direct connections between his philosophy and his activities in support of the Nazi regime. They argue that we must not allow Heidegger to influence naïve students of philosophy, who are liable to become tainted by his Nazistic philosophemes and the folkish language of authenticity and belonging. His reputation has also been shaped by his French reception: many in the West know what Heidegger they know indirectly through the influence of Derrida and other primarily French-speaking leftist philosophers and theorists.
A revival of Heidegger must therefore overcome not only his appropriation by the left but, more so than in the case of Nietzsche, his political reputation. Today that can be done more easily than ever before. The reconfiguration of political life that has made it possible to return Nietzsche to the Right also allows us to wonder whether there is more to Heidegger than what the French made of him, while the fact that everyone on the Right is now called a Nazi even for voicing absolutely sensible, moderate, and sound positions removes the sting from accusations of Heidegger’s Nazism, rendering them suspect. When a person of the Right hears that he and those he supports are Nazis, though he knows that that is not correct, he can doubt whether the people who accuse Heidegger of being a Nazi do so in good faith, opening the question of how to characterize the philosophical-political constellation of Heidegger’s thought more truly.
But was not Heidegger actually a member of the Nazi party? Did he not praise Hitler? Are there not qualitative differences between ill-fitting and bad-intentioned accusations of Nazism against today’s Right, on one hand, and the actual historical fact of Heidegger’s Nazism, on the other? Did not the publication of his Black Notebooks put the question to rest for good, the notebooks that, according to the warning on the dustcover of the English publication, “will cast a dark shadow over Heidegger’s legacy?” Why can’t we call a spade a spade, admit what Heidegger was, and exclude him from consideration?
As a function of the configuration of the political landscape since the end of the Second World War, the accusations are better known than the exculpations. And yet might it not surprise some to read Heidegger’s statement that, “National Socialism is a barbaric principle,” one that rejects the sole issue of importance in Heidegger’s life: philosophy?1 Or to learn that the German’s a-philosophical Nazism is criticized more blisteringly in the Black Notebooks and other writings than are the shortcomings of liberals, communists, and Jews?
A consideration of the evidence lends itself to the counter-intuitive conclusion that Heidegger is perhaps the most profound philosophical critic of Nazism, because his criticism is not premised on a philosophically suspect liberal or left of liberal ideological axiomatic. Zizek, to use a random example, is critical of Nazism, as are many thoughtful and intelligent French theorists, to say nothing of American ones; but at issue is what the criticism of Nazism requires on the level of fundamental inquiry into the question of the truth of being, with detractors claiming that such inquiry is generative of a Nazistic mentality, or reflective of it, rather than critical of it.
The question of the truth of being is Heidegger’s question. Heidegger showed that Western philosophy had focused from the beginning and throughout its history on the question, “what are beings?” and had only come to think being as that which is most common to beings and which explains what they are, their beingness. In other words, philosophy had always thought being on the basis of beings, and that fact was decisive for it and determined its destiny. Heidegger meticulously traced how that interpretation of being played itself out in conceptual transformations effected by great philosophers, from the pre-Socratics, to Plato and Aristotle, through the Middle Ages to Descartes, Kant, and Hegel, and ultimately to Nietzsche, whom Heidegger regarded as the End of the First Beginning. But something had remained unquestioned at the first inception of Western philosophy, which, as unquestioned, determined its trajectory and configuration. Heidegger’s life’s work was directed to understanding and questioning what had remained unquestioned. He sought to discover why it had not been questioned, to grasp how failure to question it determined Western history, and to comprehend what it means about being and about human being that our history had been determined as it had been.
Questioning into what remained unquestioned in the first beginning could, Heidegger thought, lead the way to another beginning, another inception, a new history of philosophy – and (therefore) of humanity. The other inception would not be grounded in thinking about beings and beingness, thinking that Heidegger summed up by the word metaphysics. As “post-metaphysical,” it would stand outside everything determined by philosophy as we have known it, though it would still be related to the first beginning as part of the secret inner history of being itself. It would be neither Platonism nor anti-Platonism, positivism nor idealism, subjectivism nor objectivism. Heidegger left his indications of what another inception might entail in writings like Contributions to Philosophy (of the Event), The Event, and The History of Beyng (he used the spelling “beyng,” das Seyn, to help distinguish what he was inquiring into from the traditional metaphysical meaning of “being” as that which is most common to beings).
Many of Heidegger’s French readers embraced the idea of a post-metaphysical era, when past philosophical concepts (like reason, truth, nature, and man, for instance) could be deconstructed and divested of their traditional authority. But instead of working toward another beginning of philosophy, they chose to remain at the end. They embraced the loss of foundations, preferring shifting sands and constant displacement to steadfast sheltering of the truth of being. Heidegger had sought to ground another beginning by preparing the human being to withstand what was originally unquestioned, the truth of being (beyng). Heidegger’s critics blasted that project as fascistic and undermined (mined under) every attempt to establish grounds, foundations, and other philosophemes they saw as reactionary. Since Heidegger, there has been a post-metaphysical left (end without beginning). But what about the post-metaphysical Right? Are there good reasons to hope for what we can provisionally call a Heideggerianization of the Right? Should we concern ourselves at all with Heidegger’s question of the truth of being and with his intimations concerning another beginning?
Research into the theme of the Heideggerianization of the Right, into the possibility of establishing a post-metaphysical Right, should be a priority for us today. It has already been observed that Heidegger is regarded as the most eminent philosopher of the 20th century. But access to his philosophy has been impeded by the post-war political configuration, such that we have had to deal mainly with liberal or leftist appropriations or critiques. Yet does that not suggest that there may be something in Heidegger for the Right, something not reducible to Nazism? And should not our desire to discover what that something is be heightened by the recognition of Heidegger’s philosophical stature? If it was a welcome development to anyone that Nietzsche could be proudly won back as part of the intellectual heritage of the Right, a similar motivation can underlie explorations into what Heidegger is for the Right.
To be open to the task means at first not more than to start to read Heidegger. It means to follow along with his examination of the great philosophies that preceded him. Even if we never took the extra step, after lengthy preparation, of leaping into another beginning and preparing the ground for a post-metaphysical Right, just this phase of reading Heidegger on the history of philosophy can introduce us more fully to the intellectual splendors of the West than anything else. Heidegger after all does not seek to diminish or refute metaphysics. He does not criticize his predecessors and reduce them to rubble. In each case, from Heraclitus to Nietzsche, he endeavors, with unmatched skill, patience, and insight, to show how a great philosopher’s thoughts are configured with the respect to being’s own self-revelation and self-concealment. You get a sense for his approach toward his predecessors in passages such as this:
The great philosophies are towering mountains, unconquered and unconquerable. Yet they bestow on the land its highest, and they point into its rocky depths. As they stand, they focus the gaze, and in each case they form a sphere of vision; they endure visibility and concealment. When are such mountains that which they are? Certainly not when we have supposedly conquered them by climbing their peaks, but only when they truly stand there for us and for the land. Yet how few of us are capable of letting the most alive height rise up in the stillness of the mountain range and of standing in the sphere of this over-towering. The genuinely thoughtful confrontation must strive only for this accomplishment.2
That is what genuine reverence for the Western philosophical tradition looks like: not conquering its peaks, but letting them configure the heights and the depths. Those who read Heidegger’s books and lectures on other philosophers can share in this experience. They can enter into the secret soul of our philosophical tradition, its inner sanctum, with the aim not only of paying homage, but also of being touched by its graces. This act would not be unworthy of a defender of the West.
But it may happen that time spent diligently in the sanctum leads to a transformation of the sort Heidegger wrote about and sought to help bring about, a transformation of the human being and a transposition into a new history, into another beginning of philosophy. In this case, those who will venture beyond our metaphysical history, past its end, toward the new beginning can be called the coming ones of the post-metaphysical Right. It does not seem appropriate for the Right to reject them or their task. On the contrary, a new beginning for the West might depend above all on the Heideggerianization of the Right.
We are faced with the possibility that the defense of the West can no longer be grounded on the reactionary reassertion of the Western metaphysical traditional against the detractions of the post-metaphysical left. As we stand on the threshold of a decision between the End and Another Beginning, we stand before the question of the truth of being.
References1 Fred Dallmayr, “Heidegger’s Notebooks: A Smoking Gun?” in Reading Heidegger’s Black Notebooks 1931-1941, ed. Ingo Farin and Jeff Malpas. Cambridge: MIT University Press, 2016. 2 Heidegger, Contributions to Philosophy (of the Event) (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012) p. 147.