In Defense of Heidegger

Of the so-called Heidegger Schwarzen Hefte (aka ‘Black Notebooks‘) recently published, Jonathan Rée writes:

[I]t seems to me a remarkable piece of publicity-seeking on the part of the publisher, who hints that we may at last find the black heart of anti-Semitism that beats in every sentence Heidegger wrote. That would of course be very gratifying to people who want an excuse for not taking Heidegger seriously, but it seems to me—from the few leaked passages I have seen, dating from 1938-9—that if Heidegger is on trial for vicious anti-Semitism, then the newly published notebooks make a case for the defence rather than the prosecution.

One of the most striking things about them is that they show Heidegger explicitly treating Faschismus and Bolschewismus as two sides of the same coin: namely the imperious dehumanising movement of western modernity. Or as he puts it, echoing other writings of his from the 30s, it’s about the ravages wreaked by modernity in the form of Machenschaft  (manipulative power, manipulative domination) – Machenschaft being Heidegger’s term for a peculiar form of power (cf Michel Foucault) that dominates not through outward violence but through cunning infiltration and incorporation of the powerless.

Heidegger also offers some suggestions about where Judaism fits in amongst other traditions. These suggestions operate in a world quite at odds with the quantitative and genealogical notions that drove Nazi racial legislation, which of course from Heidegger’s point of view could only be seen as an expression of the impoverished culture of Machenschaft. One of his arguments is that Judaism, like Bolshevism and Fascism, participates in the corrosive calculative culture of modernity, even though it goes back thousands of years. But his main point is that Judaism is structurally different from the kind of nationalism that came into existence in the 19th century: the nationalism of the suffering motherland as you might call it—Russian or German nationalism, or for that matter Irish or Scots or English or French. That strikes me as a reasonable piece of conceptual analysis, and not intrinsically anti-Semitic.

If the Heidegger-bashers were hoping that the Schwarzen Hefte would expose the old man in flagrante, indulging in some mindless Nazi rant, they are going to be disappointed. The notebooks remind us that he was anti-Semitic, but they also remind us that he was anti-everything-else, including fascism and every other facet of modernity. But above all they remind us that however nasty he may have been, he never stopped thinking—restlessly, subversively, fearlessly thinking. Like the best of what Heidegger wrote—indeed the best of philosophy in general – they are full of sharp observations: observations that we should respond to not as opinions we might like to fall in with, but as incentives to think again, and to think more thoughtfully.

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