What to do with Heidegger?

Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy (Book cover; Source: Amazon.com)

A New York Times book review of Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism Into Philosophy once again raises the old debate about Martin Heidegger’s Nazism. Can we distinguish the individual who gave intellectual defense to racial superiority, totalitarianism, and Hitler, from the philosophical contributions to existentialism and the mentorship of Marcuse, Arendt, and Gadamer?

Heidegger became a collaborator in the Nazi machine as rector of Freiburg University simultaneous with Hitler’s ascension to the chancellorship in 1933. His address that year titled, “Self-Affirmation of the German University,” aligned his school with the Nazi Party, and his brief tenure (ended a year later, in 1934) moved the University closer in line with Party functions. Despite the brevity of his tenure, its impact was significant; during this period Heidegger was the one who enlisted the academy as a willing accomplice to Hitler, and all of the brilliance in the world cannot wash that stain from Heidegger’s body of work.

But, the question remains as to whether, if at all, academic philosophy needs to respond to Heidegger’s philosophical works through the fact of is collaboration with the Nazi party. This is a tricky thicket. If Being and Time were a defense of totalitarianism, particularly if it gained form in Hitler’s regime, it would be a far easier task. However, Heidegger’s philosophical contributions are ontological cornerstones of phenomenology and existentialism.

The suggestion to move Heidegger to Nazi history in library classification strikes me as an emotional, but perhaps misguided, reaction. Heidegger does stand out as a notable abettor of totalitarianism. Ideas cease being just ideas when they take the form of a dictator, a pogrom, a jackboot. But, Heidegger’s contributions that endure aren’t defenses of authoritarianism. The Heidegger alive in contemporary philosophy spurred on Derrida, Foucault, Arendt, Sartre, and Merlau-Ponty. Although the impulse to hold Heidegger accountable is well-grounded, it will necessitate a clear distinction between the person and the philosophy.

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