“Professor Shocked, Shocked To Find Out Prominent Nazi Was An Anti-Semite”

I apologize for the snarky headline, but sometimes it can’t be helped. The chair of Germany’s Martin Heidegger Society resigned in genuine horror after some of Heidegger’s private papers were released and showed that, surprise, surprise, he was an anti-semite.

The immense awkwardness that is Heidegger’s Nazi affiliation is always quite a thing to behold. The simple fact of the matter is that, in terms of influence and also perhaps quality, Heidegger is a giant of 20th century philosophy, and one whose influence was felt primarily on the “Left.” The fact that a man who exercised such a tremendous influence on postmodern and progressive philosophy was also a Hitler supporter obviously raises eyebrows.

Many people say that one ought to be able to separate a man’s ideas from his actions and evaluate them independently of his actions. This has a prima facie fairness to it. And it’s an old debate: when we read Rousseau on education, how should we feel about the fact that he abandoned his own children? Fascinating. But, I think, for most rational people, even those who want to give its fair due to the ideas-author distinction, there does eventually come a point at which discussing Heidegger without using (so to speak) the N word depends on a suspension of disbelief and critical faculty, one that eventually strains past the breaking point.

First, people discovered that Heidegger had been a member of the Nazi Party. This was explained away by saying that Nazi Party membership was required of university professors; this pro forma action might have betrayed personal cowardice, we were told, but did not mean Heidegger was a believing Nazi. Then it came out that Heidegger had made public statements of support of Nazism that went well beyond the bare minimum then-required to keep your job. The squirming and explaining intensified, but still, we were assured, Heidegger could not have been a sincere Nazi. Then it came out that Heidegger had defended Hitler in private letters. And now this.


The reason why this is all so painfully awkward is that it all fits in a well-preexisting narrative, which is this: Heidegger was the godfather of the school of historicism, sometimes known as relativism, which holds that all truth is socially constructed and historically determined, and that therefore we have no access to capital-T Truth. Obviously, this idea has had a tremendous impact, both on 20th century academic philosophy, and in more debased form in the broader culture. And obviously, a critique of this idea as long as it has existed has been that if relativism is true, then morality is false, and if morality is false then all manner of evil is permitted. Indeed, all manner of evil might be inevitable, since in the absence of a recognition of transcendent truth, the only remaining way to resolve disputes is violence, and the only criterion of decision power. Which makes it really really tempting to point to Heidegger’s very life as exhibit A for the prosecution of relativism. And which makes things, again, quite awkward for all those who would use relativism as the thin end of the wedge of a happy-peppy progressivism.

Is it really so silly to posit a link between relativism and totalitarianism? Take it away, Benito:

If relativism signifies contempt for fixed categories and those who claim to be the bearers of objective immortal truth, then there is nothing more relativistic than Fascist attitudes and activity. From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value, we Fascists conclude that we have the right to create our own ideology and to enforce it with all the energy of which we are capable.

As I said, awkward.

One perhaps interesting point of comparison with Martin Heidegger is another German philosopher of the same time, Dietrich von Hildebrand. Hildebrand was a philosophical antagonist of Heidegger. Hildebrand had the admitted bad taste of being a Roman Catholic, so he believed in objective truth and defended it philosophically. He was one of the key architects of the philosophical movement of personalism, which proclaimed the intrinsic and transcendent dignity of all human persons.

How did his life turn out? He was a virulent critic of Hitler, so much so that Hitler called him his “number one enemy.” When Hitler came to power, Hildebrand had to flee to Vienna; when Hitler united Germany and Austria, he gave orders to the Gestapo to bring back Hildebrand as their first priority, and it was only through luck that Hildebrand escaped to the United States.

If you want to make an argument for the dangers of relativism and the virtues of philosophical realism, it really writes itself, doesn’t it?




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  • Gail Finke

    I’ve never read that Mussolini quote before. Interesting to hear it said so openly! Did Heidegger make a pragmatic choice for Nazism as the best ideology around (it was the biggest, the strongest, the most attractive to him, etc.) or did he think it was in some way “true” (vs. every other possibility)?

    • Hello, relativism?

    • There’s a lot of debate around that. The in-vogue answer currently is that he turned to Nazism as the least-bad alternative vs (as he saw it) Marxism and technological hypercapitalism. Or perhaps he was just a rabid anti-semite and Nietzschean power-worshipper and everything else is just rationalization/window-dressing. I’m not enough of a Heidegger scholar to have a strong view. Excellent question, though.

  • captcrisis

    Hitler believed he had absolute truth. Whenever people believe they have “the knowledge of the gods”, the results are not pretty. I refer you to the remarkable “Knowledge or Certainty” episode (available on youtube) of Bronowski’s “The Ascent of Man”.

    I also refer you to another anti-relativist, Pius IX, who opposed freedom of speech and worship. As he put it, “Error has no rights”.

    • Hitler and Pius IX are the same. Pretty sure you just wrote a reductio ad absurdum of your own argument.

      • captcrisis

        I didn’t mean to mention it, but both were horrid anti-Semites. Pius called Jews “dogs” and, to the extent he could do it within the confines of his tiny temporal state, put them through a kind of Kristellnacht (that is where we get the word “ghetto”).

    • richard40

      The problem with moral relativism though is you cant say that people like Hitler and Stalin are evil, because who is to say their morality is any worse than ours. There are absolute moral truths, the problem is we have to be really careful to make sure to pick the right ones.

      • captcrisis

        Hitler and Stalin, being anti-relativists, had no problem calling other people evil.

        • richard40

          Most of the leftists who claim to be moral relativists have no problem calling conservatives and libertarians evil either. Their moral relativism is just a smokescreen to try and stop others from calling them evil, after all they always act from good intentions, no matter what evil results they produce.

      • Of course you can say, as a relativist, that people like Hitler and Stalin are evil. “You can’t say that, because you don’t espouse objective morality,” is question-begging.

        As it turns out, objective morality is schematically incoherent (since it depends on “objective value,” which is incoherent). That doesn’t mean that we can’t call people and actions evil when we find them incredibly horrifying, offensive, unacceptable, deleterious, reckless, negligent, destructive, etc.

        As a Christian, I can even invoke my God — the Supreme, Sovereign Subject — and his pleasure and interests. But that doesn’t make “Divine Command Theory” a coherent meta-ethic.

        • richard40

          When you say something is “incredibly horrifying, offensive, unacceptable, deleterious, reckless, negligent, destructive, etc” you are making an absolute moral judgement, and thus proving any pretense that there is no such thing as an absolute moral judgement for you is nonsense. After all, who says you have the right to judge people. For example, somebody from ISIS would not find beheadings horrifying at all, at least not the beheadings they do, but most people would find it to be morally repugnant. I judge people all the time, but I try to make my judgements as objective as possible, based on standards that would be widely shared.

          • I am not making an absolute moral judgment there. There must be a subject to be horrified, offended, unaccepting, or with interests being threatened by the carelessness or destruction. You yourself recognized this subjective referent when you appealed to ‘widely shared’ consensus (which fails to achieve lift-off from subjective grounding no matter how many subjects you add to the crowd, and no matter if one of them is the Creator of the universe in whom I believe).

          • richard40

            I said widely shared because people do differ on moral judgement. But on most subjects there typically is very widespread consensus on things that are right and wrong, and that consensus can become a good objective standard. The nonsense of moral relativism is that we cant make moral judgements at all. A moral relativist would spout some nonsense that the ISIS beheaders and rapists cant really be judged by us unless we understand their culture and motivations.
            I am not with the religious types, that say a moral standard can only come from a creator, since I have a libertarian objectivist bent. My yardstick would also not include things that the leftist SJW types may demand. But that does not mean a common moral yardstick can never be determined. It just means that yardstick may be a bit more restricted in thou shalt nots that the religious people, or the SJW types, might want, with the main criteria being does the conduct harm others.

          • Richard, I think you and I are probably more in agreement on this issue than not, we just have different details we’re trying to emphasize.

            I need to be pedantic twice (so please forgive me twice):

            * A consensus, even a 100% consensus, can be TREATED like an “objective” standard, even though we know that it has a subjective grounding. An analogy would be the dictionary, which compiles the collective subjective semantic interests of innumerable people — as well as the objective facts of language inheritance and whatever other mechanisms — across time, into a touchstone object. But the existence of the dictionary does not mean that the “true” meaning of a word is a completely objective fact. Making such a claim would be a schematic error.

            * Only dingbats take the subjective root of morality (a meta-ethical stance) and convert it into deontic reluctance or inaction (a normative ethical stance, and a goofy one). I don’t need any absolutism or objectivism to “enable” me to lock hands with my interest-sharing brethren and subdue the serial killer.

          • richard40

            It sounds like you are saying there is such a thing as objective morality, but in order for us humans to actually know what that is, we have to look for a consensus. I can buy that. Of course on occasion the consensus can be wrong, like when the USA still supported slavery, but eventually we figure it out. The only thing I can stand, and it sounds like something you cant stand either, is saying that all moral stances are completely subjective, purely socially constructed, and thus completely equal. There is such a thing as objective evil.

          • Think of it, again, like the dictionary. If someone said, “The contents of the Dictionary are purely objective,” you’d say, “Nonsense! The Dictionary is a product of innumerable human opinions and inheritance from other humans, tracing back to primordial human grunting in an attempt to communicate thoughts.” If someone said, “The contents of the Dictionary are purely subjective,” you’d say, “Nonsense! It’s not as if Webster’s just makes things up willy-nilly.”

            The answer is that the Dictionary is neither purely subjective nor purely objective.

            Similarly, morality is not purely objective, because it always makes a reference to subjects with interests. There is no “horrifying” without somebody being horrified. But it also isn’t purely subjective, because you can talk about the degree to which a decision is objectively optimal, suboptimal, deleterious, etc. IN TERMS of some subjective interest set.

            In short, morality works like this:


            The rounded box is a “moral fact.” It has two necessary referents: The circle on the left (which is defined subjectively) and the square on the right (which is defined objectively).

            As I said before, you can have a consensus, but that does not yield purely objective morality. It’s still has a necessary subjective (“circle”) referent.

            You can call values universal, common, ubiquitous, etc., but cannot call them objective without committing a schematic error.

            R. M. Hare explored this exhaustively in the mid-20th century. To root out this error in common language, it’s super-useful to consider “goodness” synonymous with “commendability” and “good” synonymous with “commendable.”

          • richard40

            I can buy most of that. Even something as objective as science operates by concensus to some extent, because different scientists have different interpretations of the data, or differing data they beleive is more important. Although in the end the ideal is to determine the truth by evidence and logic, after plenty of debate and argument, not just by opinion. I see no reason why similar processes cannot be applied to moral codes, like seeing which ones produce positive results when they are applied, and are consistent within themselves. I still believe that there is a moral code that is better than others, thus coming as close as we can to an objective truth. The only thing I cant buy at all, and which it sounds like you oppose as well, is that all moral codes are equal, and therefore we have no right to argue that one is better than another. Some are definitely better than others, just as some interpretations of scientific data are better than others.

  • mhjhnsn

    And don’t get me started on Carl Schmitt…

  • Terenc Blakely

    ‘Scratch a lefty find a facsist’ Who knew there were so many historical precedents for that saying?

    • Sophia Sadek

      The Left is always on the lookout for infiltrators.

  • Colorado Wellington

    “The fact that a man who exercised such a tremendous influence on postmodern and progressive philosophy was also a Hitler supporter obviously raises eyebrows.”

    But of course. One doesn’t speak about such things in sophisticated Progressive circles. It is impolite and coarse. Raised eyebrows are the most typical reaction to such talk in the People’s Republic of Boulder, on and off campus.

    • Sophia Sadek

      I have never met a progressive who was unwilling to discuss Heidegger’s relations with the Nazis. There might be more discomfort in conservative circles discussing his Catholic connections.

      • CanofSand

        You’re delusional. Who do you think you’re fooling other than yourself?

        • Sophia Sadek

          Delusions are inexhaustible. I vow to end them.

      • Colorado Wellington

        ”I have never met a progressive who was unwilling to discuss Heidegger’s relations with the Nazis. There might be more discomfort in conservative circles discussing his Catholic connections.”

        Now, that’s just peachy, Ms. Sophia. You’ve just demonstrated the other major plank of the contemporary progressive method.

        Step 1: Make a personal but absolute statement about your experience that can’t be challenged—who knows what people you meet.

        Step 2: Smear your opponents with a speculative statement that is too vague to be challenged on its merits.
        You’ve added as much value to the discussion here as if somebody said:

        ”Who knows how close Sophia Sadek’s relationship with the Nazis might be.”

        You see, it’s not hard to play this stupid game.

        • Sophia Sadek

          Your comments are too kind. I appreciate your warmth and candor.

          Everyone knows that there has never been any anti-Semitic tendencies in Catholicism. Catholic crusaders never attacked Jews. Jews have always been treated with the utmost courtesy and respect in the history of Catholic countries. None of the Nazis were Catholic. These and other myths could conceal a whole host of vicious brutality.

          • Colorado Wellington

            Thank you for reinforcing my point about the progressive method, Ma’am.

          • Where did, “Raised eyebrows are the most typical reaction,” come from, if not anecdote? Did you perform a study?

            Stop making broad strokes in tribalistic displays.

          • Colorado Wellington

            ”Stop making broad strokes in tribalistic displays.”

            You’ve just condemned progressivism.

          • It’s a “symptom” of tribalism which is displayed by many progressives and many conservatives. To pretend like one culture or the other is more wantonly guilty is, ironically enough, an exemplification of that symptom.

          • Colorado Wellington

            Agent Patton:

            I declare that I am not and have never been a member of any tribe. I demand to know to which tribe you have assigned me, for what purposes and under what authority.

            While I reserve a right to pretend, I also declare that I didn’t pretend anything in the thread above, that any assertions to the contrary are false, as is your claim that my remarks imply tribal affiliations.

          • I think it’s interesting that the kind of post you just made is only possible when you expect several people to be watching, when upvotes/downvotes are on the line, etc. I have to think if it were just you and me having a talk in private, you wouldn’t make such bizarre proclamations.

          • Colorado Wellington

            Reread your own comments, Stan. You did not talk to me in private. You made these bizarre claims of tribalism in public *) **).

            How do I get through to you? With what “tribe” do you associate me?

            *) I sure hope that if we were talking over a pint of beer or a cup of tea you wouldn’t say asinine things like:

            “Stop making broad strokes in tribalistic displays.”

            “It’s a “symptom” of tribalism …

            To pretend like one culture or the other is more wantonly guilty is, ironically enough, an exemplification of that symptom …”

            **) BTW, hardly anybody’s watching anymore. Four days is eternity for online posts. Most people have moved on and nobody will be “voting” here. It’s just you and me.

          • I think you know precisely what I was saying earlier and perhaps feel a combination of inner shame and public indignation. This would explain why you’re disingenuously seeking vindication now; I’m not sure how to engage that kind of behavior and would rather we part ways, to be frank.

          • Colorado Wellington

            Look, Stan, I don’t know you. I read some of your other comments and I think you are a smart and serious guy.

            I don’t “know precisely” what you were saying and your psychologizing about “inner shame” and “public indignation” is bunk.

            What “vindication” are you talking about? I don’t belong to tribes and I don’t have a need to prove it. What I do have is a lifetime of experience. I grew up in a world you highly likely know only from books. Commies were not a faculty problem for me but a real life threat. I know them well. I know their methods well.

            That’s what my comment was about—not some theorizing. What I said about them has no relation to what I think of others. I didn’t say anything about others and I didn’t make comparisons. That’s all in your head. Who knows—you may have some valid line of reasoning but you’d better explain it then and keep your snarking about tribalism under control.

            You don’t “engage behavior”. You can engage me if you tell me why you reacted to my comment the way you did. I found it unjustified but this is internet and I am too old to make much of it. Who knows, maybe you have some good reason.

            And it’s fine with me if you don’t want to say anything about it. Your choice.

          • Colorado Wellington

            Oh, and to prove myself wrong, I upvoted all your comments. I hope I didn’t miss any.

          • Colorado Wellington

            Where did, “Raised eyebrows are the most typical reaction,” come from, if not anecdote? Did you perform a study?

            You have a valid point—It bothered me that I haven’t acknowledged that in my initial response below.

            I did not perform any rigorous study on Progressives; frankly, until your reprimand I never thought of it. I’m not even sure I could pull it off—I think they wouldn’t let me.

            My inference is well comparable to what I can say about dogs sniffing each other’s butt. I’ve seen it repeatedly but I don’t know if they always do it. I don’t know what they do when I’m not present as an observer. I’ve witnessed a complete one-on-one sniffout in a group of five dogs but I don’t know if they still do it when there are so many of them they could fill a public square for a rally.

            There are more things I don’t know than those I do know about this behavior. It’s just the most typical reaction based on my anecdotal observations.

      • Unhiddenness

        Heidegger was on the road to becoming a Catholic theologian before ditching it for “garden variety” philosophy.

        • Sophia Sadek

          A wise move.

  • Glen Wishard

    I had a leftist teacher who was big on Heidegger. I recall that he did mention Heidegger’s Nazi past, but he generally dismissed its importance. He did note that Heidegger did nothing to help his own teacher Edmund Husserl, a Christianized Jew who was booted from his university position by the Nazi racial laws.

    • One of my philosophy profs was a big Arendtian and so obviously the Heidegger-Nazi thing bore heavily on him.

  • Theophile

    All of reality is awkward for the Left because it simply won’t conform to their beliefs and fantasies.

    • Reality is haram with progressives. Just look at the disconnect from reality exhibited by President Hissy Fit: In the 2014 midterms where King Putz stated the midterms were a referendum on him and his policies. Ignoring the reality of the complete and utter rejection of his socialist @ss and his country-destroying policies by those who voted, he listened to the millions who did not vote.

      Being a proggie is so easy: No morals and no principles, with the added benefit of never being wrong.

      • Unhiddenness

        Wow. Didn’t expect to see too many Freepers at a “serious” blogsite, but you live and learn.

  • doubting_rich

    Others might say that this is an ad hominem fallacy, and in any other field than philosophy this might be true. Of course socialism is itself a philosophical concept, as is racism and exclusive nationalism (not sure what term to use, so I have added “exclusive” to distinguish from moderate nationalism the fundamentally different nationalism of Nazis). If these ideas are encompassed by Heidegger’s own philosophy then it is shown to be deeply flawed.

  • Alarms & Discursions

    You’re saying that a movement called National SOCIALISM was the home for Heidegger, who subsequently influenced later socialists? Wow. Amazing.

    • Sophia Sadek

      National Socialism arose as in opposition to international socialism, which predates it. The more strident “socialist” members of the party were purged during the Night of Long Knives. The first people to be incarcerated in what became death camps were socialists and communists.

    • It appears that you need to study history rather than settling with a word-matching exercise.

  • Winston

    I generally try to separate the person’s work from their moral failures but a champion of relativism that was also an ardent Nazi is very hard to disregard. Did his relativism lead to his Nazism or did his Nazism motivate his relativism? Here the moral failure and the intellectual failure are completely intertwined.

  • Fat_Man

    It won’t do to try to absolve Heidegger, or any other European “philosopher” who has written since the French revolution. They have been on a toboggan ride to hell. They have whored after murderous thugs like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Fidel. They have strewn rose petals in the paths of tyrants.

    Distinctions such as communist, fascist, left, and right are all meaningless. They have all denigrated human dignity, rationality, the fatherhood of God, and the brotherhood of Man. Heidegger, Nietzsche, Sartre, Arendt, are all guilty, they all deserve the obscurity of forgetfulness.

    Don’t say one of them is less bad than another. They were all complicit. They are all guilty. They all must be condemned.

    For all of you people trying to defend various intellectual miscreants like Heidegger, give up. We are on to you and to them. Don’t try to justify them or yourselves. They will always be what they were, and you make yourselves look delusional.

  • I studied Heidegger, Husserl and company more than 30 years ago. You had to be blind not to see this.

  • This is a dangerous area, taking a philosopher’s personal behavior as the explanation and condemnation of his express philosophy. To see why, let’s do it the other way around: Hegel was a decent enough fellow, a good Lutheran. Does that mean the horror that is his philosophy is any less destructive? Same goes for Kant – nice guy, right? Yet he laid the groundwork for all those German guys we are deploring here. Or Fichte, who died after caring heroically for his sick wife – good guy? Even though he proposed all children be removed from their families shortly after being weaned to be raised by the state away from the corrupting influence of family and friends?

    So, it’s a little like how defending free speech demands we tolerating people saying outrageous, horrible things – we need to defend the express explication of a philosopher’s work from dismissal because he was a creep. Of course, *after* we understand their philosophy, it’s completely fair to see if and how they lived it out. But that doesn’t mean we’re free to condemn their philosophy a priori based on their behavior. In other words, we should attack Heidegger’s philosophy because it is terrible, not because he was a Nazi.

    (I’m sore pressed to make an exception for John Dewey, who defended the murders of Russian revolution using relativistic/pragmatic arguments all while telling us how we should educate our children. Sheesh.)

    • You’re right. It was wrong of me to make a blanket statement to the effect that a philosopher’s personal life is “the” explanation. I should instead have written a much more moderate statement, saying that we should give due concern to ideas apart from the person’s life except in extreme circumstances. Oh, I reread my post and it looks like that’s exactly what I did.

      • Sooo – you are the sole arbiter of what constitutes ‘extreme circumstances’? Because if not, if everybody gets to decide for themselves what constitutes extreme circumstances, then all you’ve done in practice is set up tacit Bulverism as some sort of intellectual filter. The internet may agree with you that Hitler is the baddest bad guy ever, so bad that if Hitler can be associated with a person, that person’s ideas and arguments can be presumptively ignored. But how do you propose putting that genie back in the lamp when somebody proposes dismissing your favorite philosopher because he was sexist or anti-Semitic or islamophobic or whatever outrage they’re into today? It should be clear that isn’t a far-fetched question at all – all across academia, exactly this is done daily.

        Heidegger sucks. He a relativist in love with power, who writes, in the German tradition, so as to prevent rather than encourage understanding. That much one can get by reading him (or trying to, in my case). That he was a Nazi fits in perfectly with this. So? What do you propose to do with this fact? Make it sort of taboo to read him? What is the next step after concluding he’s a Nazi? I’ve reread your essay, and truly have no idea what you are getting at.

        • CanofSand

          He’s not the sole arbiter. But he is right on this one. Face it: Your guy’s an evil scumbag and his philosophy is bad, whether the two are related or not — but they ARE quite undeniably related. Arguable which came first, but it’s not a coincidence.

          “I’ve reread your essay, and truly have no idea what you are getting at.”

          It was rather obvious, so that sounds like a personal problem.

          • Why did you say “Your guy?” He said “Heidegger sucks.”

  • Sophia Sadek

    His anti-Semitism did not prevent him from sticking up for Jewish academics after the Nazi takeover. He lost his administrative position as a result of his stand in opposing the requirement that Jewish professors be barred from teaching in the German language. There were much worse anti-Semites at that time, including Father Coughlin.

    • Fat_Man

      Not so.

      • Sophia Sadek

        So, you don’t think Father Coughlin’s anti-Semitism was all that bad?

        • Fat_Man

          At which universities are Coughlin’s works studied. Further, Heidegger was a Nazi and an anti-Semite, so was Adolph Hitler. But, Hitler was the autocrat, and Heidegger was just a clown. But, that does not absolve Heidegger, who was clearly smart enough to have known better. The problem is that Heidegger still has a following. Btw, the not so was directed to your claim that Heidegger helped individual Jews.

          • Sophia Sadek

            Heidegger did not help individual Jews. He refused to execute a government edict to interfere in the affairs of his university to the detriment of Jewish teachers as a class, not as individuals. Heidegger also turned down a Nazi sponsored project to edit the works of Nietzsche in order to eliminate his criticism of anti-Semitism.

            Heidegger’s anit-Semitism was pretty tame compared to people like Father Coughlin and Henry Ford. Coughlin’s work is studied at the university level as part of the sociology of anti-Semitism in the US.

            Catholics would better serve themselves by looking at the anti-Semitic aspects of Catholic academia in the centuries leading up to Hitler. Self-criticism is more charitable than finger pointing. Most of the Germans who favored Jewish emancipation had transcended both Catholicism and Lutheranism.

          • Fat_Man

            “Coughlin’s work is studied at the university level as part of the sociology of anti-Semitism in the US.”

            You can’t argue with people like this. If Heidegger were only studied in courses on the sociology of Nazism, that would be a step forward.

            Heidegger was a vile human being who preached a vile philosophy for an evil regime. His laxity in enforcing their evil decrees will not temper my judgment.

          • Sophia Sadek

            I did not study Heidegger at a university. The only reason I paid any attention to him was that he was being attacked by religious bigots.

          • Fat_Man

            Ah, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

            Advanced thinking.

          • Sophia Sadek

            Not quite. When religious bigots get their knickers in a twist about someone or something, it usually means there is value to be found in it.

  • dookieboot2

    I think this article is a little harsh on Martin Heidegger vis-a-vis Christianity. Heidegger was also a vehement anti-materialist and his philosophy assisted the crumbling of logical positivism.

  • I’m going to try to refrain from giving this the sort of dismissal it deserves, because I hope people who might generally disagree with me might take some of it to heart. Even for someone defending their religion against the evils of modern philosophy, this kind of cartoon narrative (Relativism! Nazism!) surely has to produce an unnecessarily impoverished, Manichean view of the world.

    First, the notion that Heidegger’s Nazism was a secret that was only gradually revealed against attempts to explain it away is a myth, even though it has been perpetuated by people with large platforms (i.e., primarily journalists who know nothing about academic philosophy, and always invent controversy and novelty). Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Maurice de Gandillac, and others were examining what they knew about Heidegger’s Nazi involvement in Les Temps Modernes the 1950s. Every “new” revelation that comes out in some sensationalist book (Farias, Faye, etc) are things people have known and taken into account for decades. The Black Notebooks are something of an exception in that regard. Even though they are disappointing, they are hardly a game-changer; at this point anyone who studies or admires Heidegger already does so from a critical distance. For more on that, see: https://ndpr.nd.edu/news/24316-heidegger-the-introduction-of-nazism-into-philosophy-in-light-of-the-unpublished-seminars-of-1933-1935/

    Second, Heidegger’s supposed influence on the “left.” There is no “left”; there are many lefts, and many lefts even within each country. There were so many “lefts” in France from 1950-80 it takes dozens of books to cover them all. In general, the “left” as in actual Marxists, socialists, and communists, has never had anything to do with Heidegger; they have always insisted on the same things you do here (fixed, rational principles, for example). Because of Heidegger’s influence on Derrida, however, he did influence a certain strain of the academic left. But this is overwhelmingly secondhand influence, and far more Derridean than Heideggerian, because Derrida rejected many of the central elements of Heidegger’s thought (his understandings of Being and truth, for example) to avoid their conservative implications. See, for example: http://scholar.harvard.edu/pgordon/publications/hammer-without-master-french-phenomenology-and-origins-deconstruction-or-how. But again, the left was always divided, and it is hard to overstate how marginal the great bogeyman of academic “postmodernism” really was. This is a classic move of what I call “conservative idealism”: blaming a marginal academic movement for phenomena that are endemic to capitalist-consumerist culture.

    Third, in preparation for the charge that it’s a quick jump from “relativism” to Nazism, let’s talk about Heidegger’s philosophy itself. Your summary sounds like a paragraph about postmodernism you found in a Glenn Beck book. Heidegger did not believe that truth was “socially constructed” or that we have “no access to capital-T truth”; in fact, his entire project was to explain why the Cartesian correspondence theory of truth was incorrect, and prevented us from grasping Truth in a richer, more “spiritual” sense. Heidegger’s argument was that that view of truth—which let’s point out, was itself an assault on the Catholic theological understanding of truth—was what produced the breakdown of meaning in modern society, because it reduced everything to end-oriented calculation with no sense of its deeper grounding. This is only “relativism” relative to Cartesianism, and as far as I know theologians have always had a richer view of truth than Descartes.

    Fourth, as for the relativism-Nazism linkage, this is just historically indefensible. As in, literally makes no sense. Plenty of people who believed in fixed absolutes were anti-Semites, including Kant and Gottlob Frege. Participation in Nazism happened across the board of German academic philosophy, regardless of its content; neo-Kantians with their fixed absolutes joined up just as fast as Heidegger did. This isn’t to say plenty of people haven’t tried to establish a link between “relativist” philosophy and Nazism, but it is a historical canard. They do it because Nazism (and to a lesser extent “fascism” and “Stalinism”) has powerfully impacted the imagination of people in the past half-century, and is thus a powerful way to end arguments. It really is not much more complicated than Godwin’s law.

    Finally, I can tell this is illiterate of Heidegger’s actual philosophy and its reception, because otherwise you would be aware of the strong affinities Catholic philosophers and theologians have found in it. In fact, in France in particular, Catholics have been Heidegger’s primary devotees and guardians; in fact, when Derrida was a student, it made things awkward for him at the ENS because he studied Heidegger and everyone else who did was a Christian. Countless famous French Christians have been Heideggerians, including Ricoeur, Nancy, and Marion. So have some American ones, most notably David Bentley Hart.
    You can tell me all those people are Nazi relativists if you like, but you’d
    be a moron.

    • Thanks.

      So, a few points:

      1. Some things that are not secret are nonetheless not discussed. Since you’re such a keen student of post-War French history, you’ll know that the 1950s were largely a time when everybody wanted to move on and preferred not to mention a bunch of things everyone knew. In this sense, there was a time when a lot of people preferred not to mention some facts about Heidegger.

      2. There’s more than one “left”? Really? You think I don’t know that. Come on.

      3. I really don’t think it’s controversial at all to say that Heidegger was an extremely influential proponent of a strong historicism (though how strong is debated). Even the DBH piece you linked points out that Heidegger’s grand project of elucidating “being” required historicizing all of Western metaphysics. For the record, I haven’t read a Glenn Beck book. My point wasn’t that Heidegger “was a relativist” in that straightforward way, but rather that his philosophical historicism made relativism plausible, even compelling.

      4. Well, this is obviously something on which we’re going to strongly disagree, and which won’t be settled in blog comments. Suffice it to say that it’s quite beside the point to say that people of all stripes have been Nazis (this is sadly true). Ideas also have genealogies, and inner logics, and consequences. It is actually perfectly legitimate to believe that nihilism (of which relativism is indissociable) might inexorably lead to a situation where the only criterion for action, and even the only “god”, left, is the human will to power, and that the sudden 20th century totalitarian convulsion might have something to do with that. Again, big debate. But if you write it off as “indefensible” you’re really only embarrassing yourself.

      5. Obviously, it all depends on what you mean by “Heideggerian.”

      But thanks for your comment.

      • 1. I think some people act as if things not being discussed in the press (at which point has to have already become a sensationalist flame-war) means they weren’t discussed it all; my point was that Sartre and other Heideggerians went against the grain of that period and did talk about it, even if no one noticed much. There just weren’t enough Heideggerians for there to be some large-scale refusal to talk about the facts; though that description certainly applies to a couple of people, notably Jean Beaufret.

        2. You can pretend I’m just stating the obvious, but what I pointed out significantly affects the truth of what you’re implying to your readers. The whole gist of this post is that Heidegger is the looming menace behind our contemporary relativism, which of course is the fault of “the left.” At the very most, Heidegger indirectly influenced a marginal strain of American academics, who faced vicious resistance from the left, from liberals, and from conservatives. So that kind of insinuation needs to be called out, because it perpetuates (unfortunately common) misunderstandings about the impact of ideas and promotes the scapegoating of academics.

        3. It’s true that Heidegger had a hermeneutical philosophy, but so had a long line of German philosophers and historians for nearly two centuries by that point. And yes, maybe this “makes relativism plausible,” but the German historicists and Heidegger alike, in typical German fashion, were always trying to balance the complexity of history (relativism) with some sort of transcendental truth.

        4. What you’re describing here is actually a version of Nietzche, who Heidegger strongly denounced. (Incidentally during his Nazi period, because he associated the “will to power” aspect of Nazism, which he was quickly turning against, with Nietzsche). Heidegger was strongly opposed to philosophies of human willing, because he thought the Promethean idea of the human was the inevitable outgrowth of Cartesian metaphysics. Which is what is so comical about the portrayal of Heidegger as this menacing, value-less philosopher of will, because nearly everything he writes after Being and Time is about finitude and limitation, openness and receptivity to the truth of being through nature, art, etc.

        • 1. Ok, fair enough. I do think my description of the narrative–which is what it is, a description of a narrative–around Heidegger, as a general matter, is not too far off the mark.

          3. I think that for Heidegger, and certainly for later Heidegger-influenced (or “Heidegger”-influenced, if you prefer), that attempt to balance, as you put it, is forgotten.

          4. Right. I’m not saying this is what Heidegger thought, I’m saying that this is a plausible explanation of what happened. How Heidegger’s historicism and his actions fit into that do make for an interesting riddle.

          For what it’s worth–which, I’ll grant you, isn’t much–my own take is that Heidegger was basically a melancholy nihilist, who wanted to believe in transcendental truth but couldn’t bring himself to it, saw nihilism as tragic but inevitable, and saw Nazism for the nihilism it was but also the least-bad option in a menu that only also included Marxism and technological hypercapitalism.

  • T. J. Francis

    Heidegger’s affiliation with the right, the Nazi party, had been well known since the end of world war two. He was bared from teaching until the beginning of the 1950s principally because of the actions he took during his rectorship in Freiburg. A number of his contemporaries, who had been affiliated with him, wrote papers
    condemning that affiliation. They also described how ideas within his published work were aligned with the fascism as well as racism of his day. Those ideas, however, did not involve the notions stated in this article. Heidegger was neither ‘relativist’ or easy ‘historicist.’ Both terms, as well as ‘post-modernity’ are codewords frequently used by the American fundamentalists to cast dispersions on the ‘left.’ They are easy weapons to use on a distant enemy. Which is only to say that that the writer of this article, because he has not seriously read Heidegger has fallen into the same dark hole that Heidegger could not see when he wrote about ‘the calculating Jew.’ I would challenge this writer to read Heidegger. I will not count the influential theologians who found it a fitting life’s effort to parse the work of Heidegger. They are many.

    • – While some facts about Heidegger’s Nazism were always known, they did unfold in the public eye in a number of ways.

      – I stand by my assertion of Heidegger’s philosophical historicism, and its historical connection with philosophical relativism (whatever Heidegger himself may have thought of that). His entire philosophical project required the historicization of all of Western metaphysics, since his contention was that Western metaphysics had been blind to the study of being as such, rather than beings.

      – But, hey, what do I know, I’m just an ignorant American fundamentalist, right? And that’s basically the same as being an anti-Semite. Gimme a break.

    • harriet

      The Nazi party was not ‘far right’. It was far left, National Socialism.
      What is your agenda, that you so mischaracterize Nazism?