The publication of excerpts from Martin Heidegger’s “black notebooks” aroused very different reactions within the world of philosophy.
Some claimed that the excerpts, exposing the full extent of Heidegger’s antisemitism and its affinity with his philosophy, have unhinged the entire tradition of modern Continental philosophy, whose foundation is, to a large extent, Heidegger’s thought.
Others dismissed the excerpts as the failings of an individual who, like many others in his era, held unpalatable views but was a great philosopher.
We sat together, a German and a Jew, colleagues in the philosophy department at the University of Bristol, to discuss what these excerpts mean for us.
Heidegger’s membership of the Nazi party, which he joined in 1933 and never left (it was disbanded in 1945), his notorious actions as Rector of Freiburg University, and his support for Hitler and National Socialism, are well documented. But the seamless blending of the familiar Heideggerian rhetoric with antisemitic comments, the most striking feature of the excerpts, was both new and disturbing to us. Heidegger’s actions, often interpreted or even excused as self-serving opportunism common in 1930s Germany, can now be seen in a new light.
So how should one respond to these excerpts? Our views differed. Dagmar argued that we should not forget Heidegger; indeed we should remember him — as a Nazi. But we should forget his philosophy, which is contaminated. The greatest punishment for Heidegger, she said, is for his philosophy to be forgotten.
I want to question the commonly made distinction between Heidegger’s conduct as an individual and his contribution as a philosopher; a distinction whose neatness has been shattered by these excerpts. We need to “problematise” (as Continental philosophers might say) this distinction and ask whether one can be a great philosopher and small person — or in Heidegger’s case, a racist and antisemite. I believe that the two are incompatible. Heidegger’s shocking and cowardly behaviour and words must bleed into his philosophy, especially his kind of philosophy, which celebrates the destiny of the “Volk” and requires “authentic resoluteness” from those who aspire to live fully. In my view, the idea that one can write great, all-encompassing and very personal philosophy, and yet act as Heidegger did, is inconsistent.
Benedetto Croce said that Heidegger “dishonours philosophy”. We agree. The uncritical, unreflective adoption of antisemitic ideas combined with his shameful actions, which he never apologised for or explained, devalue his philosophy. Moreover, it tarnishes a discipline dedicated to critical and reflective thought. Heidegger failed completely in his thinking and, more importantly, as a human being.
Havi Carel and Dagmar Wilhelm teach philosophy at the University of Bristol