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?