Carlin Romano's Wrongheaded Heidegger Assessment

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Oct. 23 2009 5:19 PM

Carlin Romano's Wrongheaded Heidegger Assessment

Was Martin Heidegger Hitler's most willing executioner or the 20 th century's greatest philosopher? Is it possible he was both? Imagine what it takes to answer that question honestly. Heidegger's prose is notoriously difficult. To his critics, wresting clarity from Being and Time is like trying to inhale the proverbial smoke from the mirror. (His admirers reply: Heidegger's prose is difficult because his truth was difficult, as was Kant's, as was Hegel's.) Now add to that the morally repugnant details of Heidegger's biography. Heidegger joined the Nazi party in 1933, and he helped instill Nazism at the University of Freiburg, where he was (not coincidentally) made rector that same year. 

When is a reader free to dismiss a difficult writer as an obfuscatory charlatan? To what extent is a work of literature tainted by the total moral failing of its author? I don't pretend to know the answer to these questions.  Addressing them strikes me as the better part of a life's work. So I was surprised to discover a critic I admire treat them as not only settled but so settled that only an attitude of ridicule is necessary to dismiss them forever. 

Carlin Romano's review-essay on several new books on Heidegger was featured on Arts and Letters Daily late last week and was the most-e-mailed story on the The Chronicle of Higher Education Web site. He begins with what sounds to me like a conclusion:

Overrated in his prime, bizarrely venerated by acolytes even now, the pretentious old Black Forest babbler makes one wonder whether there's a university-press equivalent of wolfsbane, guaranteed to keep philosophical frauds at a distance.

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Romano recounts the details of Heidegger's Nazism while assuring the reader that his academic peers regarded him as a fraud and that, over time, he will be seen as nothing more than a punch line. Jokes, Romano believes, are what will eventually do Heidegger in. "His influence," Romano writes "will end only when ... the broader world of intellectuals, recognize that scholarly evidence fingers the scowling proprietor of Heidegger's hut as a buffoon produced by German philosophy's mystical tradition. He should be the butt of jokes, not the subject of dissertations."

One problem: I don't recognize the Heidegger I loved as undergraduate studying philosophy in Romano's jokes. I saw Heidegger then as one of many thinkers who believe humanity took a wrong turn of thought or action that distorted its true nature. Science takes space and time, the framework of all possible reality, and in studying them as formal entities, disenchants them, destroying them forever as home to belief. What if, Heidegger asked, another more primal way of knowing, one that accords with our status as humans that is, as the only creatures whose being (what am I? why am I here?) is a question—has been hidden by purely rational or instrumental modes of thinking?

Heidegger was born on the border of the Black Forest near the turn of the 20 th century, and almost everything about his lived reality was pre-capitalist. He did not live in a city; he was surrounded by woodlands and peasants and horse power in its original sense. He felt a deep affinity for nature and an instinctive revulsion toward cities. The university he taught at was a late-medieval institution, founded by the Hapsburgs. Social intercourse was uninteresting to him, but a dialogue across the millennia, with Aristotle and Epictetus, with Kant and Nietzsche, was his life's vocation. Heidegger believed only the intercession into history of something more powerful than technology could bring modernity to heel. He made a tragic and finally disgusting error in thinking Hitler was that intercession.

Here is what you would not know if you encountered Heidegger only in Romano's review. You would not know that, though no-name colleagues (typically not disinterested judges of peer reputation, as Romano no doubt knows) thought Heidegger was a quack, his philosophy was admired and studied by Edmund Husserl (his mentor), Hannah Arendt (his protégé and lover), and the philosophers Karl Jaspers and Hans-Georg Gadamer. You would not know that almost all of Sartre's existentialism is based directly on Heidegger, that the American uber-liberal and Pragmatist Richard Rorty admired Heidegger deeply—as does the great Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor and as did the pioneering genius of quantum mechanics Werner Heisenberg. You would not know that the poet Paul Celan, whose Jewish parents were exterminated, and whose most powerful poetry commemorates the death camps, took a pilgrimage to visit Heidegger in his Black Forest hut in 1966. The two men shared a love of nature, and of the German romantic poetry of Holderlin and Trakl. (For a moving account of Celan's visit, please read this .)

Here is what you would also not know if you only read Romano's essay: that Arendt a Jew, of course, who wrote the standard-bearing consideration of totalitarianism and gave us Eichmann in Jerusalem visited Heidegger after the war, then wrote a parable in her notebook about the encounter, which begins, "There was once a fox who was so utterly without cunning that he not only constantly fell into traps but could not even distinguish a trap from what was not a trap." Arendt, if I read that right, is saying Heidegger was a kind of innocent, a man who should never have never left his hut, his Epictetus and his Nietzsche, to trifle with a world he could not possibly fathom.

This may be letting a Nazi off with a tut-tut. But what are we to make of, not simply a campaign to educate readers as to Heidegger's infamies, but to make sure no one I mean "make sure" and "no one" even discusses his work? Karl Popper once said "I appeal to the philosophers of all countries to unite and never again mention Heidegger or talk to another philosopher who defends Heidegger"; and I am told that the volume Romano is reviewing (I haven't read it but plan to) ends with an appeal to criminalize the teaching of Heidegger in France.

A turn of thought was taken; man repudiated his own essence; and we have lived henceforth as fallen beings. Many thinkers, from Jesus to Blake to the free market utopians, have believed this. Man in his search for mastery is a kind of fool. Many writers, from Marcus Aurelius to Montaigne to Melville, have believed this. Is there something about Heidegger's formulation, with its longing for a return to a premodern way of being, that necessarily sets us on the road to Treblinka?

I don't know the answer. But I never thought the answer to illiberalism was more illiberalism. That the essence of philosophy was that, if a question is thorny or unpleasant, don't ask it, cutting off dissent at the pass with a code of silence, a legal injunction, or if all else fails, a volley of snotty jibes.   

Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.

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