The Heidegger Question

Note from the Editors: The following written exchange is part of our dialogues series, which aims to bring together the best minds to analyze and debate controversial issues in depth.

Daniel Miller and Michael Millerman discuss the recent attacks on Heidegger and the philosopher’s relationship with National Socialism

Daniel: Heidegger is today once again being denounced as a Nazi following the publication of a new book by Richard Wolin, Heidegger in Ruins, who has dedicated his career to advancing this claim. There’s no question that Heidegger’s personal behavior under Hitler’s regime was abysmal. But Wolin goes further and argues that Heidegger’s philosophy is inherently National Socialist and a vector for contemporary National Socialist contagion. You are a scholar of Heidegger, and also a scholar of the contemporary Heideggerean, Alexander Dugin, whom Wolin positions as National Socialist Heidegger’s Russian successor. How would you respond to the claim that Heidegger should be understood in these terms?

Michael: Heidegger was no friend of liberal democracy. Whether you regard that as a virtue or vice depends on where you stand at the outset. Leo Strauss once argued that, “It would be unworthy of us as thinking beings not to listen to the critics of democracy – even if they are enemies of democracy – provided they are thinking men (and especially great thinkers) and not blustering fools.” Heidegger is a great thinker; his anti-democratism cannot be the last word for us. Wolin is a defender of democracy, and his case against Heidegger reflects that. As he writes, “Ultimately, Heidegger was endemically blind to the virtues of what Claude Lefort has termed the ‘democratic invention’: the joys of public liberty, of associative solidarity, of people ‘acting in concert’ for the sake of realizing shared values.” But Heidegger speaks of another kind of joy” in Being and Time; he does have a notion of associative solidarity, as Wolin himself notes throughout, only it is not democratic but rather martial, valorizing the generation of the front; and though he doesn’t speak in a democratic register of people acting together to realize shared values, he does talk of the people (Volk) acting together to realize a shared destiny. Wolin treats those alternative formulations as inherently suspect, indeed as tainted and unforgivable. 

You see the decisiveness of Wolin’s democratic commitment for his whole undertaking when he writes the following: “Even if were to assume, for the sake of argument, that Heidegger’s Spenglerian Zeitdiagnose concerning the negative apocalypse of modern ‘technics’ were correct, the antidemocratic thrust of his standpoint ultimately disqualifies it.” Something correct but anti-democratic is disqualified, for Wolin. You could hardly find a better example of ideological thinking than that. So we have to calibrate our interpretation of his criticisms accordingly. They shouldn’t be ignored, though. Heidegger was not above reproach. Here is a simple example: Conservatives have lately been up in arms about politically correct rewrites of old books. Wolin documents how both Heidegger and his editors engaged in a politically correct rewrite of his own most egregious passages about Jews and Nazis. What’s interesting is not only the deliberate falsification of the record but the more general problem of the editorial accuracy and reliability of the Collected Works and certain English transitions. It should bother us if there was a covert whitewashing of damning passages whose removal deprives us of the opportunity to think Heidegger through for ourselves. 

There are other parts of Wolin’s argument that are contestable both in the details and in what he makes of them. For instance, Wolin reminds his reader constantly of Heidegger’s sympathies towards other conservative revolutionary thinkers, like Spengler. But he does not mention Heidegger’s criticisms of Spengler in the Parmenides lectures and Black Notebooks (some of which I discuss here). Wolin is a prosecutor. He is on the hunt for damning evidence. But if you are the judge, you need to consider all the evidence. And you can’t see all of the evidence only on the plane of “association,” and “family resemblance” between Heidegger and other thinkers of his time. It is necessary to see what is uniquely Heidegger’s, which we can only do by treating the philosophical dimension of his work, most of which Wolin reduces to proxies for Nazi or Nazi-like ideology. Even if there is a “contamination” of the philosophical by the ideological, Wolin is usually oblivious to the philosophical “remnant” or to the undecidability between the philosophical and the ideological interpretations. 

Suppose we are satisfied that Wolin has established Heidegger’s anti-democratic stance, as well as his anti-Semitism, spiritual racism, sympathy for conservative revolutionary thought, militarism, and so on. Unless we are already fully ideologically committed to democracy of a certain kind, we don’t yet know what to make of these features of his thought. For instance, although it is obnoxious when Heidegger writes about Jewish worldnessness, Jewish planetary criminality, and the like, still some of his best and most influential students were Jewish, and there is now a Jewish state, within which, incidentally, there are cataclysmic dividing lines even among Jews themselves. It is possible that parts of Heidegger’s thought that are anti-semitic from one perspective (e.g. all talk of Volk) are deeply relevant to understanding Jewish peoplehood and its relationship to statehood today. Unless we believe that all talk of ethnos, nation, and people is inherently unacceptable, and that to entertain thoughts within that broader vocabulary is to invite a new Holocaust or at least to sanction “authoritarianism” and political irrationalism, then in fact what we are left with after even the strongest case “against” Heidegger is a set of basic questions about the relationship between politics and philosophy, questions that are not adequately answered by an over-zealous liberal dogmatism.

Wolin leaves open the possibility of reading Heidegger in another, non-accusatory spirit. He credits his accomplishments in phenomenology and cites examples of “appreciative readings” of Heidegger that tend in a more ethical direction than did Heidegger’s own works. But when it comes to what he sees as the most Nazi-like aspects of Heidegger’s thought, Wolin no longer sees questions. Thus he does not ask whether there is in fact any relationship between philosophy, language, and volk, or whether in fact philosophers and poets are the hidden founders and rulers of the political community. Instead, he notes that these were Nazi tropes in certain circles and that in entertaining them or repeating them, Heidegger showed that he was in league with Nazism. That, however, is not enough. Whether or not there was this or that tradition of interpreting Plato or Homer or Holderlin in Germany in the 30s and 40s, the basic questions of the relationship of poetry and philosophy to each other and to the political community remain. As I argued in my book Beginning with Heidegger, the merit of Dugin’s Russian reception of Heidegger is that it was able to look at those parts of Heidegger’s thought that the better-known Western reception has always been on guard against because of the legacy of WWII. Unlike the pragmatic bent of the American reception, the leftism of the French reception, and the liberalism of the German reception (to simplify), Dugin was able to redirect our attention to suppressed conservative revolutionary Heidegger, while finding a non-Nazistic context for reinterpreting those aspects of the great thinker’s oeuvre.

Daniel: You’re opening formulation immediately recalled to my mind Aristotle’s great line about Plato in the Nicomachean Ethics, so great that it eventually became a maximum. Amicus Plato, sed magis amica veritas. I am a friend of Plato, but I am a greater friend of truth. I would say I was a friend of liberal democracy, but… it seems to me that Wolin is actually worse than an enemy, because of the way he defends it. 

There is a question of liberal democratic authority which is not ideological, for which philosophy is itself the eternal model and prototype. Philosophy on the one hand, represented by perhaps Hegel, and Heidegger on the other side who is not really a philosopher, but a thinker against philosophy, represent two poles of a philosophical argument, whose lamentable contemporary condition is symbolized by Wolin. 

Wolin represents the introduction of antifascism into philosophy just as Heidegger’s work in the 30s betrays the invasion of Nazism into philosophy. It is clear at this point that these formations are equivalent: antifascism is an ideological alibi for political criminality, same as Nazism and Bolshevism. The theoretical distinctions are imaginary, and the motivations indistinguishable. In each case, one encounters the same psychopathologies: malignant narcissism, cynicism, conformism, cowardice, and some misguided idealism. 

What Joachim Fest analyzes in The Faces of the Third Reich as “Professor NSDAP” is now Professor Antifa. Wolin isn’t the worse example, but he is an example. Because he fails to perceive what is really at stake in the contemporary situation – in this “criminal turn” which changes philosophical language into ideological and rhetorical language – “Denker und Dichter” into “Henker and Richter” – he recapitulates the intellectual formation he wishes to condemn. I note your observation especially regarding Wolin’s decisionism which was precisely the theme of the 30s, not only in Heidegger but also in Schmitt, and some others. Wolin decides against truth in the name of democracy, but in reality he is deciding for the name of democracy against reality, and for a police operation instead of systematic critique.

Heidegger’s Black Notebooks represent Exhibit A in the intellectual show trial that Wolin has produced for his audience. But these were private notebooks. They are not what Heidegger “really believed” but a record of unguarded thoughts. What they show is Heidegger attempting to work through, philosophically and psychologically, the utterly degraded language of the 1930s and 40s. The critical lesson to learn from this is about us, and not Heidegger. The official language of our own time – this “Lingua Wokii Imperii” – is comparably degraded. One can only imagine what the thought police of the future will say about contemporary intellectual efforts to dignify terms like “white supremacy,” “hate speech” and “disinformation.”

Heidegger’s character was described very sharply by his student Karl Löwith: “Like Fichte, only one-half of him was an academic. The other – and probably greater – half was a militant and preacher who knew how to interest people by antagonizing them, and whose discontent with the epoch and himself was driving him on. If we want to understand the character of this man and his philosophy, we have to remind ourselves of expressionist art which, even before the war, mirrored the disintegration of our old European educational world in loud colors and words.” Löwith also documents very well the ethical and intellectual disintegration of Heidegger under the Nazi dictatorship. Lecturing on Hölderlin in Rome in 1936, where Löwith was in exile, “Heidegger did not remove his Party insignia from his lapel. He wore it during his entire stay in Rome, and it had obviously not occurred to him that the swastika was out of place while he was spending the day with me.” 

Löwith puts it to Heidegger that “National Socialism lay in the essence of his philosophy. Heidegger agreed with me without reservation, and added that his concept of ‘historicity’ formed the basis of his politi­cal ‘engagement’. He also left no doubt about his belief in Hitler… He was convinced now, as before, that National Socialism was the right course for Germany; one had only to ‘hold out’ long enough. The only aspect that troubled him was the ceaseless ‘organization’ at the expense of ‘vital forces’. He failed to notice the destructive radicalism of the whole movement and the petty-bourgeois charac­ter of all its ‘strength-through-joy’ [Kraft-durch-Freude] institutions, because he was a radical petty bourgeois himself.” One can recognize two different arguments here, operating in parallel: a philosophical argument, anchored in historicity, and a psychological argument grounded in Heidegger’s character. Wolin and others conflate these dimensions, when the distance between them defines the whole question, not just in relation to Heidegger but equally in figures like Merleau-Ponty, this extraordinarily acute thinker who supported Bolshevik mass murder, or Sartre the humanist who advocated racist terrorist violence, or the legions of intellectuals who have supported tyrants of all kinds from the beginning of time. 

As you, myself, and Wolin all agree, Heidegger’s philosophy points away from liberal democracy conceived in the sense of abstract individualism and formal abstraction to emphasize substantial commitments. Heidegger’s “Dasein” is grounded – there is a “there” there – in a way the cogito is not. In the 1930s the NSDAP channeled the rhetoric of substantial commitments into a vortex of nihilistic destruction. Heidegger the petty bourgeois is bewitched by this rhetoric and fails to recognize the reality of what is really at work. But Wolin and other contemporary petty bourgeois academicians repeat this same misrecognition from the other direction, by arguing that Nazism is the inevitable form that the politics of substantial commitment must take. This designation legitimates contemporary “antifascist” political terrorism just as directly as National Socialism legitimated political terrorism in the 30s and 40s. The problem is to reconcile, peacefully, the opposition of the abstract ego and substantial being without criminalizing either by recognizing both have valid claims. This is how I understand the liberal democratic problem. From this perspective, as Jacob Taubes wrote to Schmitt of Erik Peterson, we may think that Heidegger is our enemy but he is really our best friend. The same goes for Dugin.

Michael: Heidegger’s Being and Time begins by quoting Plato’s Sophist: Heidegger’s question cannot be understood merely with reference to the political parties and ideologies of the 30s and 40s. The roots go back to the beginning of philosophy. The problem is that there is always the possibility of doubting whether a philosophical concern is actually a political one. This possibility seems to belong to the nature of political life. The book The Beginning of Politics: Power in the Biblical Book of Samuel by Halbertal and Holmes shows that even in political stories of the Hebrew Bible, you can never be quite sure whether a leader (like David, for instance) is acting from moral motives or invoking morality to cover other motives. 

Take Heidegger’s interpretation of the Heraclitean phrase that “war (Kampf) is the father of all things.” Hitler, too, wrote and spoke of Kampf. In Heidegger’s Ear: Philopolemology, Derrida comments that “Heideggerian hearing offers no guarantee, supposing such guarantees can ever exist, against the use that the regime at that time can make of this thinking hearing of Heraclitus. Not only then does Heidegger voice agreement with those that have only the Kampf in their mouth, but he can furnish them the most dignified and the most thoughtful justification, which can always deepen rather than dissipate the equivocation and the misunderstanding, the mishearing…” 

In other words, you can never guarantee that thoughtful reflection escapes less thoughtful political re-appropriation. Derrida notes that the problem is not at all limited to Nazism. When does liberal philosophy cross the lines into liberal ideology and justification of liberal atrocities? You get the impression from some zealous liberals that it’s philosophy when liberals do it and ideology when non-liberals do it. That isn’t good enough. A careful reading like Derrida’s, which teaches us how to listen to Heidegger not by comparing his words to those of contemporary Nazi ideologues but rather by thinking through and understanding him on his own terms, shows us what’s possible in a thoughtful encounter. 

Wolin does show that Heidegger has been an important resource for right-wing anti-liberal parties. The fact doesn’t need to be denied. Nor should we fail to see that the use of Heidegger isn’t necessarily based on an understanding of Heidegger in all cases. What is the task for us? It is after all possible to read Heidegger not for answers but for better formulated, or long unasked questions. In my book Beginning with Heidegger, I undertake a comparative study of receptions of Heidegger by political theorists across the political and geopolitical spectrum: Strauss, Rorty, Derrida, and Dugin. Rorty’s social democratic Heidegger, Derrida’s left Heideggerianism, Strauss’s return to Plato (made possible by Heidegger), and Dugin’s quite distinct inceptual Heideggerianism can be studied side by side to help us see more of the significance of the Heidegger Question than we would see if limited ourselves to a single perspective, as Wolin does. 

The two different approaches can perhaps be differentiated on the basis of their motivating intention. Wolin is concerned to show the extent to which there was a relationship between Heidegger and Nazism in the 30s and 40s, and the extent to which the contemporary interest in Heidegger on the Right masks a certain neo-Nazism or neo-Fascism. However, there are other things motivating the careful study of Heidegger, such as whether his analyses teach us something fundamental about being, truth, language, history, time, society, humanity, etc. 

Nobody who has the option to do otherwise should simply follow slavishly along with the least thoughtful, most obnoxious interpretation of Heidegger. For instance, Heidegger sees the beginning of the end of philosophy in Plato’s teaching of the ideas. Without going into the details, he sees Plato as someone to overcome. And yet Dugin, for whom Heidegger is so authoritative, believes that Plato is not someone to overcome. Dugin combines Heidegger and Plato. What permits him to do that with any degree of consistency? Well, Dugin argues that Heidegger’s criticisms of Plato are exactly right, but they only apply to “closed Platonism,” to a certain tradition of interpreting Plato, or to a certain tendency in Plato’s thought that does not exhaust the richness of Plato’s thought. Heidegger’s criticisms do not apply to “open Platonism”: moreover, there is a kinship between Heideggerianism and open Platonism that allows for fruitful explorations. What’s the point? It is to say that we cannot reduce the reading of Heidegger to either Heidegger’s ideology or even to Heidegger’s philosophy: every genuine encounter with his thinking — like Dugin’s and Derrida’s, for instance — opens up new possibilities for thinking, new realms of thinking. If you believe, as I do, that something important hinges on the prospects of genuine thoughtfulness, then you must be grateful for anyone who facilitates those prospects. It is hardly contestable that Heidegger does precisely that. By contrast, thoughtfulness is obstructed by the all-too-common reductio ad hitlerum. As Leo Strauss observed, “A view is not refuted by the fact that it happens to have been shared by Hitler.”

Daniel: Perhaps “the Heidegger question” remains unsolvable because it remained an unsolvable question for Heidegger himself. Heidegger is endlessly speaking of questions, but what was really his problem? Did he himself know? According to Lôwith part of the fascination Heidegger generated was that “nobody knew where they were with him.” His thought is a spiral of indeterminacy and ambivalence, simultaneously emphasizing thrownness and rootedness. Being and nothingness. He tries to perceive unconcealedness through a fog of neologisms. Finally, Heidegger jettisons even Being. Löwith speaks of his mesmerizing “intellectual intensity and his concentration” on “the one thing that mattered.” Only later did we understand that this “one thing” was essentially nothing more than a pure Resolve whose aim was undefined. One of the students invented the pertinent joke: “I am resolved, only towards what I don’t know.”

Thomas Bernhard captures Heidegger savagely: “I cannot visualize Heidegger other than sitting on the bench outside his Black Forest house, alongside his wife, who all her life totally dominated him and who knitted all his socks and crocheted all his caps and baked all his bread and wove all his bedlinen and who even cobbled up his sandals for him… Heidegger had a common face, not a spiritual one… he was through and through an unspiritual person, devoid of all fantasy, devoid of all sensibility, a genuine German philosophical ruminant, a ceaselessly gravid German philosophical cow… which grazed upon German philosophy and thereupon for decades let its smart little cow-pats drop on it.” His politics expressed a delusional urge for a desperate solution to the pettiness of his spirit which contemporary denunciations of Heidegger himself repeat.

Even supposing that Heidegger could be destroyed, ruined, canceled, his books burned, his memory damned, and reading him criminalized – almost now the situation for Dugin – the questions he faced would remain, because they are also our questions. Like Nietzche, whose claim to untimeliness is precisely what dates him, Heidegger was a man of his time, and the sigil of ours in our deadlock. Philosophy remains at the impasse of “the confrontation of planetary technology and modern humanity.” Heidegger himself infamously claimed he discovered an answer to this question in the “inner truth and greatness” of the Hitler movement. We can now see that this judgment was completely delusional. But what we cannot see is that this endless crusade against “fascism” is the same answer again. The fact that thought today has been scrambled by the cliche of the reductio ad hitlerum is inarguable. The thought of planetary humanity cannot be organized in opposition to the demonized symbol of a dead politician just as it could not be organized in opposition to a demonized symbol of Jews. Political evil, and the presence of evil in speech cannot be measured on an ideological index of relative Hitlerness and suppressed to the degree it resembles him. The war against evil is itself the source of evil. So long as Western political and intellectual energy continues to fixate on the ideological rhetoric of a sui generis regime which was destroyed eighty years ago after twelve years in power, what historian Stanley Payne calls “the real sources and contours of contemporary Western proto-authoritarianism” are systematically obscured and ignored.

The important lesson to learn from the NSDAP is not about ideology but psychology. As Joachim Fest points out, “there was scarcely any article in its creed” that the Nazis “would not have willingly abandoned or set aside at least temporarily for the sake of gaining or holding power.” At the core of this nihilistic, ruthless will to power was psychological polarization and projection, not a stable ethical and logical position. Strauss wrote: “The Nazi regime was the only regime of which I know which was based on no principle other than the negation of Jews.” This principle preceded the Jews, and found an object in them. Hitler’s enemy was his shadow and Hitler is ours. 

The answer to “the confrontation of planetary technology and modern humanity” is not antifascism, or anti-anything else. This is where I think Dugin also makes a crucial mistake, incidentally, insofar as he defines his political position as anti-liberalism when what he is really opposing is ideological antifascism, that is to say, terrorism. Antifascism means the liquidation of humanity, because the roots of what it understands as “fascism” is Man, just as the reality of what the Nazis understood as “Semitism” was Man. Dugin put this point well: “You are still allowed to be human; it is optional. Tomorrow, being human will mean the same as being Trumpist or fascist.” These terms already mean being human. They concentrate negative elements of the Antifascist’s own personality, which they are unable to integrate into an idealized self-conception and discharge them onto dehumanized abject others. Feelings and thoughts that do not make sense coming from “a person like me” (“It’s called being a good person!”) are attributed to “scum” who can be attacked, abused, and finally killed. The rhetoric of hate speech, which conjures the figure of “a subject supposed to hate” (and therefore whom one is allowed to hate) from the spectrum of human emotion also belongs to this paradigm. Wolin’s Heidegger in Ruins is a book about a shattered human personality being held together by delusions, but Heidegger is us. It is Man himself, not Heidegger or Hitler, who is now in the interrogation room in the cave beneath the cave, and it is going to be extremely difficult to get him out.

Michael: Here as elsewhere, we could do worse than to take Leo Strauss as our guide. Concerning Heidegger, he wrote that although “one is bound to misunderstand Heidegger’s thought radically” if one ignores the connection between his philosophy and his political engagements, nevertheless, that connection offers “too small a basis for the proper understanding of this thought.” We should therefore suspend our final judgment on Heidegger until we have discovered a sounder basis for understanding his thought than his Nazism. Ultimately, there can be no substitute for carefully thinking through his writings. As for Man, Heidegger argued that to raise the question of the truth or meaning of being is to expose ourselves to the possibility of an “essential transformation” in the understanding of being human. Is man the as-yet undetermined animal? The rational animal? A bridge to the overman? Body, soul, and spirit? An evolved ape? Will to power? The beast with red cheeks? In all definitions of man, something is taken for granted that is not fully understood. Heidegger would like us to consider that our openness to being has been taken for granted, and that understanding it is of decisive importance. He raises his “one question,” this “man of one book,” in many ways over countless courses, lectures, and sustained meditations. Why should we not take advantage of his great labor by seeing whether, beyond all issues of ideological mixture, it does not hold a key for us (there are doors we do not know are locked, we do not know are even there)?

To be sure, Heidegger is not the only thinker who deserves our attention. But he does deserve not only that we read about him, but that we read him. The Black Notebooks, which occupy such a prominent place in the case against him, begin, even before their first numbered paragraph, with these questions: “What should we do? Who are we? Why should we be? What are beings? Why does being happen?” Heidegger writes that “philosophizing proceeds out of these questions upward into unity.” It is not only the significance of planetary technology that is our question, but also these basic questions, which cannot be sidestepped forever. Philosophy ascends (it goes “upward.”) It seeks unity — not the chaos and crisis of disunity or some substitute pseudo-unity. Whether he lived up to these words or not, it is also radically distinct from “worldview.” A “worldview,” Heidegger writes in the Contributions to Philosophy (of the Event), “sets experience on a definite path and within a determined range, and this in such a broad way that it does not allow the worldview itself to come into question; the worldview thereby narrows and thwarts genuine experience.” By contrast, “philosophy opens experience.” Worldview totalizes and leads to “propaganda” and “apologetics.” Philosophy, through questioning, is concerned above all with truth; not only with the truth about these or those facts, but with the essence of truth itself, which perhaps might still set us free. Heidegger said of the Greeks that they are so far advanced over us that “there is accordingly no returning to them – only a catching up.” We must first catch up to Heidegger.

Daniel Miller is a writer, critic, and IM—1776’s literary editor.

Michael Millerman is a scholar of political philosophy. He’s the author of “Beginning with Heidegger: Strauss, Rorty, Derrida, Dugin and the Philosophical Constitution of the Political“. Join Millerman’s school here.

Related reading:
The Virtues of Right-Wing Anti-Liberalism, by Michael Millerman
Reclaiming Heidegger, by Michael Millerman
Enemies of The Regime, by Daniel Miller
Ur-Antifascism, by Daniel Miller

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