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Heidegger without Tears
by Dr. Lawrence Nannery
2012-01-21 10:46:03
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Review of Martin Heidegger.  Between Good and Evil
by Rudiger Safranski (translated by Ewald Osers)
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998

This book is an attempt to come to terms with Heidegger.  This could not have been done until recently, because several elements had to be in place before such a full encounter could occur.  First, there had to exist a chronological rendering of all of Heidegger's writings, lectures and speeches, something impossible before the publication of the Collected Works.  Second, a biography of the great thinker was heider01possible only after his death and the release of certain personal materials, as well as the discovery of documents that had remained buried or suppressed.  Third, it is necessary to give a lot of background material in order to understand the intellectual milieu of the great man and therefore the full effect he had upon his contemporaries.  Of course this last is an impossible task, and necessarily sketchy in a one-volume work.  Safranski will be criticized, I am sure, for trying to give a thumbnail sketch of scores of Heidegger's contemporaries, such as Kojeve and Scheler, whose thought is so complex that even book-length treatments might not be truly adequate.  But, what can one do?  One must try to do something even if it is not possible to do everything.  Again, the author may well be criticized for not giving a technical exposition of Heidegger's thought.  But, haven't we had enough of such treatments?  The author could never successfully manage all the tasks he has set himself, and, just as well, a reviewer could never say all that needs to be said, about the book or about its subject.  Even so, this book is astonishingly good  --  extremely capacious, judicious, and clear.  But, altogether the most important thing to say is that the author, in attempting to come to terms with Heidegger, forces the reader to do the same.  That is what I will endeavor to do in what follows.

Safranski's long narrative is given in the conventional form of a time-line biography.  It traces the long, very long career, a career devoted to a single thought, constantly reinvented and reexpressed in ever new idioms, and marked by the most glaring shipwreck in the career of any major philosopher on record.   For by now it is crystal clear that Heidegger is the only great philosopher of the twentieth century, and perhaps this scandal is one of the most important things we can learn about this century.  Equal with the greatest thinkers of all time in originality and penetration, Heidegger also consorted with the greatest criminals who ever lived, and, later, never felt any guilt about it, and lied and covered up the true state of affairs wherever he could.  Safranski, relying heavily on the recent contributions of Farias, Ott and Ettinger, shows Heidegger to have been sycophantic, narrow-minded, totally self-centered and unsympathetic to others, and given to self-pitying falsifications when questioned about his execrable fall from grace.  Of all the well-known cultural figures from the decade of the twenties (think of Mann, Gentile, Ortega, Berdayev, Tillich), Heidegger most disgraced himself, marching and strutting and bellowing like a barbaric tin soldier during his stint as rector at the University of Freiburg in 1933 and 1934.  This oracle of danger and ultimacy always himself followed the safest course (see the author's description on p. 262, for example).  The fact that Heidegger was so overthrown by his banishment from teaching after the war reminds one of Nietzsche's remark about Schopenhauer the great pessimist playing on the flute.

Withal, family, most friends and most students stayed by him.  It seems that they instinctively felt that he must be held harmless in view of the charisma of his creative genius.  Such an idea will not seem so strange to those who know the similar fate of Ezra Pound.  For "the little magician of Messkirch" was an oracle who bewitched his hearers, and the greatest mystic, artist, Romantic, anarchist and man on the edge that philosophy has ever seen.  He was on to something; he was trying to transform the world; he believed he could, like Homer, forge a new cultural identity for his people. 
Safranski gives an elaborate exposition of the thesis that Heidegger was ripe for Hitler on account of the element of pure decisionism in Sein und Zeit, where the element of Entschlossenheit dominates the sphere that would be the ethical if there were any room for norms in that work.  Heidegger was a good disciple of himself, just burning to decide on some transforming thing, having decided to decide.  The author quotes Karl Lowith, perhaps Heidegger's greatest pupil, who declared to the great thinker in Rome in 1936 that he "'believed that Heidegger's partisanship for National Socialism lay in the essence of his philosophy.'  Heidegger agreed 'without reservations' and pointed out that his concept of  'historicity' was the basis of his political engagement."  (pp. 320 - 21)  This is a common view, first enunciated by Hans Jonas in 1964, and it is not altogether incorrect, but I think the matter goes a step deeper.  The decisionism thesis can not account for the fact that Heidegger never repudiated anything he did in the early days of the Nazi time, speaking of his engagement as a "great stupidity," felt betrayed by Hitler for not going far enough, and even in 1953 spoke of the "inner truth and greatness of the movement."  Under Safranski's thesis these facts would have to be ascribed to personal failings.  There were plenty of personal failings, but I think there also was a deeper level in which Heidegger's philosophy has an affinity for Fascism in general, and it lies in the Nihilism that characterizes both.  Let me explain.

It is important to put Heidegger's actions and beliefs in the context of European Fascism, and not in the light of Naziism, (1) so as to not waste our time congratulating Heidegger for not being an idiotic racist and advocate of mass murder, (2) to get to the motive springs of his ecstatic embrace of the "movement," and also the reason for his later disenchantment, and (3) his refusal to say that his original reaction was evil.

The phenomenon of twentieth-century European Fascism has not been well understood in English-speaking countries.  At the sociological level it was a successful counterrevolution by superannuated, rural aristocracies against all forms of modernism, understood as the social trends stemming from the French Revolution.  The Russian Revolution drove the business classes into alliance with these monarchist aristocracies. In addition, in Germany, the rentier class resented the Weimar Republic on account of their ruination in the hyper-inflation of 1923.

But, what was their principle of legitimacy for these aristocrats and monarchists?  In every case aristocracy is based upon the belief in blood.  At its very roots it is of necessity anti-Semitic and anti-humanist.  This insistence on the principle of inherited spiritual qualities, shored up by the current interpretations of Darwinism, gave them intellectual respectability.  With perfect cynical willfulness these elites managed to come to power in Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Hungary in alliance with movements of young people who believed in pure process.  Recourse was had to the most brutal forms of violence and the cult of the strongman.  In all the other countries they had allies who shared their resentment against modernity.  The Roman Catholic Church, which was resentful of everything stemming from the Reformation, generally played a supporting role.  So we can say that the philosophical principles of Fascism were resentment and nihilism, even where, as in Italy and Germany, the regimes played a modernizing role.  In every case they produced a constitutionless state where the will of the strongman was everything.  In short there was no politics, only cynical propaganda.  The rule of the barbarian hordes had the same basis.  Carl Schmitt, the theorist of the horde, would be their theorist, and Eugenio Pacelli, aristocrat, would be their Pope.

Heidegger was much more radical.  His historicism entailed pretty remarkable things.  Surveying the course of Western history, those who lament modern trends variously find the break with noble classicism in the rise of Christianity (as does, for example, Lowith) or the rise of "modernity."  If these things are considered to be lamentable, then a kind of wistful Classicism or Mediaevalism will result.  We have just mentioned several cases of resentment on the part of aristocrats and others.  Political Romanticism can be defined as the attitude that some set of facts such as the Protestant Reformation or the French Revolution must be overthrown and the status quo ante restored.  The totalitarian form of political romanticism, both Fascist and Communist, entails also the desire to refound human nature itself.  Heidegger was a political romantic in both senses.

Heidegger was so radical that for decades very few could understand him.  He found the original sin to be Plato's doctrine of truth, which, in his opinion, ushers in the reign of rationality, ousting the superior reign of poetic revelation that supposedly preceded it.  So Heidegger finds the lamentable step to be the first step in classical philosophy.  So classicism, medievalism, and modernism are equally bad for Heidegger.  Only philosophy in the tragic age of the Greeks had any feeling for the mystic, beautiful and ecstatic union of man with Being that is the only thing that makes human life human.

It was not Heidegger's personal politics that was the problem.  His personal politics were uninformed, banal, narrow-minded and in fact quite unintelligent, his opinions exhausted by simplistic one-word characterizations of "national characters."  But his going down the wrong path was a consequence of his philosophy, and therefore constitutes a partial refutation of it.  Safranski makes this eminently clear (pp. 234 - 244).  Heidegger had already thrown in his lot with the Nazi's violent and ecstatic resentment before 1933.  We have seen that his agenda was much more radical than that of the Fascists.  When the great thinker fooled himself into thinking that he had a mission, not just for individuals, but for a whole people, for a whole century, indeed for a reversal of all Western history and culture, then he started to believe that a philosopher could have a direct role in politics, and that thought could take control of its time (p. 264).  Hegel had said the opposite, that the role of philosophy is to comprehend the age in thought, that philosophy cannot give personal satisfaction or personal salvation, however defined.  But for Heidegger, philosophy must begin in wonder, but even more important, it must end in deeper wonder.  He once publicly declared, accurately, that he was not interested "in explaining, but in clearing." (p.393)  Though he had a different, more radical agenda than his political allies of the moment, he felt he could not only ride the tiger but eventually steer the thing too.  But he overestimated his chances and wound up only making a ridiculous spectacle of himself.   So when the Nazi regime had to come to terms with the modern world he felt that they had betrayed his hopes of 1933.  And, since political glory was not what he had ever been after, and since he did not share any of the regime's racist ideology, he felt that he had nothing to apologize for after the disaster of 1945. 

However, there is still more.  It was not this little matter of Platonic epistemology that was really the issue between himself and Plato, which is perhaps why when it was proved conclusively that his reading of the word aletheia (which he said meant something like "transformative awakening" before the evil influence of Plato) could not be correct, by Friedlander and others, he said that such a consideration was not to the main point.  What, then, is the main point?  The main point is the war against onto-theology, carried out over a period of decades with willful misreadings, fanciful etymologies and difficult, rebarbative neologisms.  Oddly, it was never really stated clearly, as it would have been if Heidegger had chosen a central text such as Book Ten of the Laws or Book Lambda of the Metaphysics. 

What then is onto-theology?  Onto-theology is the identification of Being with a being, originating with Plato, later called special metaphysics in the Aristotelian tradition, which it would be   better to call Philosophical Theology.  Plato was the most important theologian in the history of the West, who ennobled the nature of the divine and who founded monotheism on cosmological principles.  Such an emergent monotheism, aligning ethics with religion, was the cause of the loss of wonder, in Heidegger's opinion.  Nothing could be more radical than this.  It entails the destruction of the entire Western tradition.  Not for no reason is Heidegger considered the father of Deconstructionism and the uncle, perhaps, of sanctimonious environmentalism.  His whole position is already implicitly there in the "ontological difference" in Sein und Zeit, which disallows the identification of Being with a being, making philosophical theology and its object, monotheism, impossible.  His fight is a fight for the restoration of wonder, the restoration of possibility and the destruction of the principle of sufficient reason.  For the main point is that there is no good reason for anything at all, and the hearers of this oracular magician were shocked to realize suddenly (perforce suddenly) that freedom is absolute.  This is what I mean when I say that he was a philosophical anarchist.  The numinous is captured in this world, as it is in poetry, or in erotic awakenings, momentarily, and is that which redeems the world.  There is no room for transcendence.  The preternatural replaces the supernatural, and Gemeinschaft Gesellschaft.   Safranski quotes Heidegger: "Only when there is the perilousness of being seized by terror do we find the bliss of astonishment  --  being torn away in that wakeful manner that is the breath of all philosophizing." (p.201)

Heidegger is pure process. It is for that reason that some American interpreters believe (absurdly) that he was a Pragmatist.  His hatred of institutions (including the institution called the university) is only a part of his basic attitude, which is anarchist in the most metaphysical sense that term can carry.  His idealization of the S.A. is a true prefigurement of Sartre's view of Mao Tse-Tung.  His lack of an ethics is part of this anarchy, which is nothing else than a refusal of a principle (i.e., a starting point, an arche).  This is reflected in the fact that in aesthetics there is no organ of apprehension of the aletheia revealed in the work of art (a la Schlegel, for instance) and that in ontology there is no nunc stans.  This was his game; this is why he felt there was no need for recantation.  He had thrown in his lot with the transformative elements within "the movement."  Hitler and his henchmen had passed beyond that during the Night of the Long Knives.

No one not dead to the world can help but be deeply moved by his ability to make the uncanny come to life.  There can be no doubt that he has found a great truth here, and each person must decide for himself what portion of the truth it is.  Against the spirit of rationality, of trying to explain what is already known to be true, Heidegger picks up the other end of the stick, the mystical moment when the world is transformed when it is looked at in wonder (i.e., in the light of the ontological difference).  The Romantic claim is that such a moment redeems all the other moments, and is what distinguishes man from animals.  Only through nihilism can authenticity be made possible.  And authenticity is all that counts.  Truth is freedom and the ground is the abyss; there is no content.  As Safranski puts it: "Authenticity is intensity, nothing else." (p. 170)  Most of the content in Heidegger's writings is negative, when he is deconstructing the thought of another philosopher.  The famous turning, or Kehre, that Heidegger enunciated in 1947 came about because Heidegger gave up his activist attitude, primarily because he saw that one cannot force this experience (think about it, can one force someone to love one?), and also because he could see that the French took his thought to be a philosophical anthropology, which was never the main point.  But the Kehre was only a change in attitude, and all the categories of Heidegger's later thought have some analogue in his earlier thought.

Surely Heidegger ignores much more than he cares to notice.  Every child is a natural metaphysician, setting up norms, wondering about the objective truth of things, and positing a second, spiritual, world that is purer than this mortal one.  There is in the child the desire to escape from terror as well as to experience it.  It is too bad that Heidegger was as resolute as he was, since there is a necessity for oscillation here, even to understand what Heidegger is trying to get across.  Or perhaps there could be a reconciliation of the two positions?  Such a text exists: Plato tried to incorporate eros into the quest for perfection.  It is too bad that Heidegger did not devote a book to this work, and I feel he would not, for fear of having to give in to it.  It is no accident that in his Plato essay Heidegger never confronted the main point, the Idea of the Good.  In fact, a book should be written on this relationship between the beginning and the end of Western philosophy.  For, did not Plato claim that the mystical vision of the Idea of the Good would do what Heidegger claims comes as a result of realizing the ontological difference?  Could it be that both are correct?  There are many connections as well as contrasts.  Has anyone noticed that Heidegger's Gevierte is a direct quotation from Plato's Gorgias?  Is it not the case that the language used in The Origin of the Work of Art about the role of the political leader (does he mean here Hitler or himself?) comes straight from  Plato's Statesman?  Compare also their public activities.  Plato traveled three times to Syracuse to see if he could start the rule of virtue and goodness; Heidegger threw in his lot with Hitler in order to establish the reign of das Nichts.  In Book Nine of The Republic Plato gives us an image of intellectual life that is inherently cosmopolitan; Heidegger, probably wearing Lederhosen as he wrote it, claimed that philosophy speaks in German.

Heidegger tried to think finitely, completely and radically.   But this refusal of transcendence probably cannot be done.  Nietzsche pointed out that we speak of the in-finite negatively and by analogy.  But the reverse seems to be even more true: when we try to think finitude through to the end, we find that all we do is speak the language of the infinite negatively.  Possibly this is why so many took Heidegger to be a Christian of some sort, but his is a theology without a theos.  The Platonic insight that only the pure intelligibles are what can be known and said invades even the language of those who would deny Plato's thesis.  Perhaps this proves that Heidegger cannot have the major share of the truth about the nature of reality and the human condition. 

In the very end, one can only have contempt for Heidegger for being such a damned optimist and naif.  The nub of his thinking is Nihilism, but there are many possible responses to Nihilism.  One can respond with humor and a love of the world, as Ortega did.  One can respond with horror, as did Kafka.  Heidegger responded as a disciple of Ernst Jünger  --  abstract, mobilized, resolute and doomed.  He never ceased speaking of terror, danger, the uncanny  --  and yet he never seemed to notice the true horror even when it hit him in the face.  With the removal of transcendence, instinct must rule.  Nietzsche saw this, and Heidegger did not.   Safranski is correct to doubt that Heidegger surpassed Nietzsche in any important respect.  I wager that Nietzsche would not have committed Heidegger's great stupidity, because he understood resentment and the reality of evil..

The destruction of the god of the philosophers does not imply atheism.  There is still room for the lesser gods, who can never die.  Without the governance of the one and good god of the philosophers, the lesser gods, that is to say the demons, are released.  Religion is always demon management.  Heidegger didn't want to manage them, he wanted to consort with them, to dance in front of them.  And so he played the fool to an evil regime.  The vast majority of demons are ugly and evil.  Kafka knew that pure finitude is eo ipso evil itself, but Heidegger never figured it out, even after he'd seen it up close.  With his posturing,  his inappropriate "healthy-mindedness," his total lack of humor, and his brilliant oracular powers, Heidegger fooled himself even more than he fooled all those around him.  Now, with the benefit of hindsight, and the details provided in this book,  to some extent we can understand why.

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Emanuel Paparella2012-01-21 16:09:23
This is one of the best reviews on Heidegger that I have read in a long while. There is much to ponder here. It deals straightforwardly with the issues of transcendence in Heidegger’s philosophy and how Heidegger deceived himself when it came to the assessment of human nature leading to his joining of the Nazi party, something which is usually misinterpreted or sidestepped in reviews on Heidegger. Well done Larry and welcome as a contributor to Ovi magazine.

Alan2012-01-21 16:15:36
A very good review.

James Woodbury2012-01-21 22:00:03
Dear Larry.
On the whole, this is a good, interesting, and quite well-written review which reveals your mastery of modern Continental philosophic thought. But there are too many errors in English grammar and style. Also, your statement that the seedbed of Fascism was the discontent of outmoded rural aristocracies is only partially true at best. Many aristocrats did support Fascism but many did not and even opposed it with their lives. And the "klein-
buergische" element supporting Fascism was immense.
James W.

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