What’s the matter with Heidegger?

Martin Heidegger was a dick, because he was a loyal National Socialist until 1945.  By temperament not much of a flag waver or fist raiser, certainly, but an academic toady at the University of Freiburg, where he supervised the firing of all Jewish faculty.  He is also one of modernity’s most imposing thinkers (if you like Hannah Arendt, you can thank Heidegger, her teacher and longtime lover).  If you think environmentalism is good, you can thank Heidegger (among others, duh).*  In conjunction these two things make liberal academics a little uneasy.  Does Nazism infect his philosophy?  If so, to what extent?  Can we separate the man from the body of theory?  Is the theory itself even corrupt?  These are some of the questions Tim Black takes on in “Why they’re really scared of Heidegger,” a lame title for a pretty sharp essay on the great mid-century German philosopher.  (It’s published by the spiked review of books, a division of spiked, whose website, by the way, is really hard to navigate.)  Black comes down on Heidegger’s side of the case, finding his philosophy, if not his personal life, to be largely clear of fascist inclinations:

. . . Heidgger’s influence is such that any attempt to see the fascist thread loses itself in the weave and weft of an immense, largely leftish legacy. In Germany itself, such radical, or semi-radical, icons as Herbert Marcuse or Jurgen Habermas, or liberal paragons like Hannah Arendt, were all at one stage in thrall to the ‘secret king of thought’, as Arendt herself dubbed him. In France, his impact was even more spectacular. From the identikit Heideggerian existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre, to the post-subject, anti-humanist philosophising of Louis Althusser or Jacques Derrida, Heidegger provided the inspiration.

Heidegger is a fascinating thinker.  I’ve never tackled Being and Time, but certain essays, such as the two I talk about just below, along with “The Origin of the Wort of Art,” have been enormous influences on my own mind and taste.  His reputation for Derrida-level density is deserved, but unlike the Frenchman he isn’t a cruel sophist.  There is something essentially poetic about Heidegger’s ideas and apparent temperament, and I think this is why poets like Wallace Stevens and A.R. Ammons were interested in him.


* My own experience is that although Heidegger’s critique of industrial modernity aligns somewhat with the weird tribalist nature worship the Nazis went in for (their whole theory of the volk, the born holders of the German earth), the Nazis were in reality hypocrites: wartime Germany was a modern industrial machine and despoiled the earth as much as any other form of capitalism.  Further, and more importantly, his argument in “The Question Concerning Technology” and  “Building Dwelling Thinking”–that maybe we shouldn’t treat the entire planet like a stockpile of “natural resources”–is a sane one.


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