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Book of the week: Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy

A fresh look at an old controversy is revealing, finds Martin Cohen

Heidegger is undoubtedly a genius. You can tell he's a genius because his philosophy is so hard to understand. A word of background first, before we tackle Emmanuel Faye's book.

Alasdair MacIntyre, the venerable 20th-century philosopher especially respected for his views on politics and morality, says of Heidegger's key text, Being and Time, that "The great difficulty with Sein und Zeit (which is a far better book than those who have not read it generally allow) is that the perhaps warranted apprehension of traditional philosophical terminology is too often used to permit the invention of a new word".

Naturally, not wishing to waste time on those who have not worked through Heidegger, he does not elaborate, but one example springs to mind as part of his discussion of "nothingness". Heidegger tells us that "the Nothing noths". "Noths" being a word Heidegger has made up, it is hard to know what it means.

Aside from which, it is hard to understand why he was an enthusiastic supporter of the Nazis in the 1930s, why he continued to support them during the Second World War, and why he even refused to condemn the ideology afterwards. Fortunately, many philosophers do understand all this.

MacIntyre himself has no trouble. He says: "We should not be surprised that Heidegger was for a short period a Nazi, not because anything in Sein und Zeit entails National Socialism but because nothing in Sein und Zeit could give one a standpoint from which to criticise it or any other irrationalism."

Equally, Michael Inwood, the Trinity College, Oxford expert in Heidegger's work, opines that the "controversies" over Heidegger's "initial support" for Nazism result from a failure to understand that his stance was rooted in "distaste for technology and industrialised mass society ... rather than with anti-Semitism".

As to why Heidegger "failed to speak out after the War in condemnation of the Nazi atrocities", David Farrell Krell, professor of philosophy at DePaul University, Chicago, adds that this had more to do with "a Kierkegaardian contempt for publicity and our media-dominated lives" than anything else.

So why step forward into this old controversy - now seemingly settled - Emmanuel Faye, professor at the University of Rouen? Particularly as within France, Heidegger is not only "understood" but much cherished, and the reading of his thoughts obligatory for all high school students as part of the baccalaureate. Over the decades that followed the war, if elsewhere Heidegger's critics kept nibbling away, in France the likes of Sartre, Foucault, Ricoeur, Levinas and so on kept admiring the philosophy. In a newspaper interview in 1987, Jacques Derrida threw down the gauntlet to Heidegger's critics, demanding that they either show substantial links between Heidegger's texts and "the reality of all the Nazisms" or shut up. It is this challenge, in effect, that Faye's book, first published in France in 2005, takes up.

Despite its provocative subtitle, Faye's work was probably destined to be one of those books filed on the second shelf up from the floor in the basement room stack. But now along comes this excellent translation to support a professor who wants to dispute the philosophical merit of Heidegger's oeuvre, and instead trace it back, phrase by phrase, idea by idea, to tawdry Nazi party politics: racial purity, lebensraum, the special role of the Fuhrer, the virtuous necessity of war - the lot!

For Faye is a man with a mission. Not here will we find a search for two sides to every question. He intends to throw light on unpublished Heidegger texts that are "every bit as racist and virulently National Socialist as those of the official 'philosophers' of Nazism". Faye believes that "the diffusion of Heidegger's works after the war slowly descends like ashes after the explosion - a grey cloud slowly suffocating and extinguishing minds", and that the vast literature on Heidegger continues to spread "the fundamental tenets of Nazism on a worldwide scale".

And so he offers extensive quotation from unpublished material in the spirit of "what legal scholars have called our right to history", to show that the philosophical task to which Heidegger dedicated himself was the introduction of the ideas of the Fuhrer into philosophy.

Where philosophers have been content to note that Heidegger was "inspired" by Aristotle to attack Edmund Husserl's neo-Kantian thesis, Faye works patiently and carefully through the documents to show the connections. For example, Heidegger writes that to be neo-Kantian is to go "hand in hand with liberalism" and betray "man in his historical enrootedness and his tradition derived from the people and from blood and soil". That was in a letter warning against a Jewish colleague. In 1942, the year of the Final Solution, Heidegger is to be found working on an idea in a poem by Friedrich Holderlin. Faye notes that philosophers are ignorant of the significance of Holderlin - but that the answer is very easily obtained by perusal of Nazi texts.

Heidegger uses Holderlin as part of a theory explaining how the historic mission of Ancient Greece was passed to the German volk. Heidegger thinks that the Germans and the Greeks sprang from a shared root somewhere in the East. "The name Heraclitus is not the title of a philosophy of the Greeks long run dry, no more than it is the formula for universal humanity as such. In truth, it is the name of an original power of Occidental-Germanic historical existence."

Heidegger's development of Holderlin is to add a kind of swastika symbol, as he outlines a new philosophical justification for racial purity based on passing via distress to light.

Or take Heidegger's seminar "On the Essence and Concepts of Nature, History, and State". This explicitly locates "being" as developing within the state, which in fact "can truly be called the mode of being of a people". Similarly, people are "the being of the state, its substance, the basis that sustains it". And it is but a short step from there to consider the "health of the people". This depends on the "unity of blood and common stock".

Heidegger concludes by talking of "creating the granite foundation upon which someday a state will rest that represents not a mechanism alien to our people ... but a volkisch organism: a Germanic state of the German nation".

"If the expression is less crude, the extremism of the intent rivals that of the theses of Mein Kampf", says Faye.

But let Heidegger speak for himself on his philosophy and politics: "Only where leader and led together bind each other in one destiny, and fight for the realisation of one idea, does true order grow. Then spiritual superiority and freedom respond in the form of deep dedication of all powers to the people, to the state, in the form of the most rigid training, as commitment, resistance, solitude, and love. The existence and the superiority of the Fuhrer sink down into being, into the soul of the people and thus bind it authentically and passionately to the task."

By highlighting the links between Heidegger's politics and his philosophy, and going where other experts have so manifestly been unprepared to go, Faye has done both history and philosophy a valuable service.

THE AUTHOR

Emmanuel Faye is professor of modern and contemporary philosophy at the University of Rouen.

Following in the footsteps of his father, the writer and philosopher Jean-Pierre Faye, Faye has written many books on philosophy, one of his main interests being French philosophy of the Renaissance and Classical eras.

An authority on the works of Charles de Bovelles, Michel de Montaigne and Rene Descartes, his most recent work looks at philosophical thought in relation to the question of man.

Before joining Rouen, Faye was lecturer at the University of Paris Ouest-Nanterre La Defense, where he was based for 14 years.

He is also an associate member of the Institute for Philosophical Research of Paris Ouest, a member of the editorial board of the journal Noesis, and member of the scientific council for the online journal theologie.geschichte.

Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy

By Emmanuel Faye, translated by Michael B. Smith

Yale University Press, 448pp, £30.00

ISBN 9780300120868

Published 29 January 2010

Readers' comments (2)

  • It's sad that you put an end to the discussion (although it is increasingly veering off the original review). If you have a comment system on your site I'd be honoured to criticize you ?

    Just a few remarks: Your original point as I perceived it was that it is not necessary (or even counterproductive) to gain an understanding of ideas one opposes.

    I gave an example which in my opinion showed that it can in fact be beneficial to have such understanding. I could come up with several other examples, defensive ones as above or constructive ones like the ideas that led to the founding of this great nation.

    As to the Farmer John example - yes and no. Of course it should be possible to describe an idea succinctly, but brevity doesn’t equal correctness. 200 years ago Farmer John would have been in favour of slavery. He would also have been vehemently against the idea of women studying or voting. Getting back to the Nazi thing my own grandparents would have been certain of the inferiority of Jews.

    So I am unsure about the ‘usefulness’ (to use your term) of the Farmer John analogy. And I vehemently disagree with the idea that a study of philosophers results in ineffective moral relativism. On the contrary I think knowing about your fundamental convictions and how they came about strengthens them.

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  • @Barry Cooper You find your answer to life's problems in a Disney movie?

    I am not arguing against Disney as I do like some of their movies but I would indeed argue that your time would have been better spent reading 'Mein Kampf' or 'Gramsci'. It would perhaps give you an idea where the ideas you oppose are coming from, how they developed, what their premises are and so on. I don't see how getting pre-packaged ideas from an 'inspirational' movie is superior or in fact more 'useful'.

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