Heidegger and the Americans

Earlier this year the great Stanley Fish created a bit of a fuss in the New York Times with a few comments on Terry Eagleton’s book which is critical of the Dawkins/Hitchins stance on religion (they’re against it). The response on both sides was unusually shrill and rapidly descended into a childish game of name calling rather than addressing the issues that Fish had tried to raise. At the time I put this down to the strange relationship Americans have with religion and thought little more about it.

Now it’s happened again in response to a piece by Carlin Romano in the Chronicle of Higher Education on a book by Emmanuel Faye which examines the nature of the relationship between Heidegger’s philosophy and Nazi ideology. The article is expressed in forthright terms, Heidegger is referred to as ‘a pretentious old Black Forest babbler’ and a buffoon, his philosophy is derided and Romano asserts that he should be the butt of jokes rather than dissertations.

The piece has elicited more responses than any other Chronicle article this year and the furore has now been reported in the New York Times. The comments range from those depicting Heidegger as a charlatan and a fake who ought to be ditched forthwith to Heidegger as the greatest and most influential thinker of the 20th century. There’s also a strand criticising Romano’s lack of intellectual rigour and a further strand criticising (in true academic fashion) the quality of the comments.

I can’t see this kind of thing happening in the UK- it’s not that we don’t care about this kind of stuff but we aren’t really prepared to enter into fist fights over it and I wonder what it is about the USA that encourages people to get so worked up. Could it be that this level of aggression  is a further symptom of the ultimate free market culture or is that too reductive? Or is it that Americans are more prepared to indulge in posture than to actually debate the issues?

There is a very serious debate to be had about philosophy, ideology and politics. In some cases ideologues have been known to appropriate philosophical ideas to give their political actions some additional credibility. It is well known that Heidegger was an arch-conservative with a strong authoritarian bent and that he was professionally ruthless. The Der Spiegel interview of 1967 shows this quite clearly. Hew also saw it as his mission to resurrect German culture from its fallen state.

I don’t entirely buy into the Goldhagen thesis that all of German society held an eliminationist position towards the Jews but I am prepared to accept that Germany between the wars was mired in the very worst kinds of antisemitism and that Martin Heidegger was a German who embraced those views. I’ve read the infamous Rectorship Address and bits of it make me wince- I don’t buy Heidegger’s much later assertion that he was simply trying to save the German university system. I think he was trying to feather his own nest by currying favour with the new regime. I also find it pathetic that he should spend so much time screwing many of his female students.

So, an odious character who we wouldn’t want to take out for a drink (the only criteria worth applying) but what about his work?  Heidegger had one great thought and many other lesser thoughts. He posed the question of Being which burst on the last century like a thunderbolt. This thought is great because it is blindingly simple and goes to the very heart of existence.  Undoing this thought is an impossible task, when you ask the question you let the genie out of the bottle and now it pervades almost every aspect of our cultural and social life. I’m happy to admit that the lesser thoughts are more prone to repudiation but we can’t (even if we really wanted to)  dispense with the question of Being.

The New York Times debate on Hitchins and Dawkins missed the point that Dawkins’ real target has always been relativists (like me) and that Hitchins is still a Trotskyist and his agenda will always be coloured by that fact. The correct atheist position, I would argue, is that people who believe in God are fundamentally but understandable mistaken and they should be left to get on with it.

As for Heidegger jokes, I’ve learned recently that the hut is more of a bungalow than a hut and that it isn’t actually in the trees but on the side of a valley. I’m also amused by the fact that he always wore an acorn in his lapel.

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