In the early months of 1988 rumblings began to be heard in the United States about a new controversy over the immensely influential German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) that was setting Paris afire. Some spoke of “scandal,” others of an “affair”; there were whispers that “it’s the Dreyfus case all over again.” The New York Times published an early article about the controversy, soon followed by the London Times Literary Supplement, then by the New York Review of Books, which ran an exhaustive account of the facts by Thomas Sheehan. Those facts seemed clear enough: a new book on Heidegger had just appeared, leaving little doubt about his intimate involvement with the Nazi party in the 1930’s.
Why these new revelations about a dead German thinker should have caused scandal among the French would have been less clear to American readers. But the translation of several books involved in the dispute should finally give English-speaking readers an opportunity to judge the matter for themselves. At the very least, such readers will have at their disposal a relatively complete dossier on Heidegger’s political activities, the first such treatment in English since the publication a decade ago of George Steiner’s helpful introduction to the philosopher’s works. But more important still, it will permit Americans to see that, as is so often the case in France, the “scandal” was not really where it pretended to be.
The book that originally set off the controversy, Victor Farias’s Heidegger and Nazism, has a history as complicated and questionable as the one it recounts. Farias is a Chilean Jew, currently teaching philosophy at the Free University of Berlin. It has been reported that he once worked with Heidegger, but ended his studies when the philosopher coolly rejected the idea of having his masterwork, Being and Time, translated into Spanish. This offhand snub is said to have disillusioned Farias about Heidegger’s philosophy and to have set him off on his biographical investigations.
The resulting book, which appears to have been first written around 1984-85, was drafted in Spanish and rejected by a number of publishers in Germany—whether because of resistance from Heideggerians or (more plausibly) because Farias’s charges and evidence were already well-known to the Germans. In any case, Farias finally turned to France, where the book was published (in French) in late 1987, and this is the version on which I have mainly relied for the present essay. Only after it had set off the French “affair” was the book finally brought out in Germany in 1989, in an expanded and corrected German-language version and with a long, sympathetic introduction by Jürgen Habermas. The English-language edition, which has just appeared, is a hybrid of the French and German versions.1
Heidegger and Nazism has been criticized by Heidegger’s devotees on predictable counts: that it is unoriginal; that what is original is untrue; and that what is true is insignificant. They have also attacked the book for slander by association, for reporting hearsay as evidence, and for a tendency toward cheap psychologizing. All these charges are to some extent true. Most of what we know about Heidegger’s Nazi involvement in the 1930’s comes from the original work, in the 1960’s, by the Swiss scholar Guido Schneeberger, and the more recent (and more accurate) work of German researchers, foremost among them Hugo Ott. Farias relies heavily on these, and his own limited contribution to the dossier seems attributable to the fact that, as a Chilean, he had access to East German archives currently closed to West Germans.
It is also true that Farias’s manner of proceeding is irresponsible and borders on the dishonest. The book is neither a complete biography, nor an exhaustive history of the period, nor a careful study of Heidegger’s philosophy—and to the extent that it attempts each, it fails. Farias’s narrative begins and ends with unconvincing accounts of Heidegger’s imagined devotion to the 17th-century German Catholic xenophobe, Abraham of Sancta Clara. He also raises questions about the psychosomatic roots of Heidegger’s youthful heart trouble, and examines suspiciously his choice of courses in school and university—all in order to paint the portrait of an unstable youth already given to anti-modern and anti-Semitic Catholic tendencies. Farias’s failure here is compounded by his distorted treatment of Heidegger’s philosophy and his cavalier manner of quotation and citation. One is seldom sure who is speaking, and the references are difficult to hunt down.
Nevertheless, precisely because Farias’s work is fundamentally unoriginal and relies on already well-established documentation, the most important facts of the case as he presents them cannot be challenged. If nothing else, a large public now has access to the details of Heidegger’s activities in the 1930’s—found in his speeches, letters, journalism—that were hitherto available only to scholars.
The portrait Farias offers is an ugly one. What makes it particularly unsavory is that it reveals just how consistently Heidegger covered his tracks after the war, and how cleverly orchestrated were the few public statements he made to minimize his personal culpability. Until quite recently we have had to rely heavily on Heidegger’s own account, which was given to the German magazine Der Spiegel in 1966 and published, by prior arrangement, in a highly edited form after his death in 1976. This account, more or less, has been the widely accepted explanation of Heidegger’s otherwise inexplicable descent into the Nazi tempest.
As Heidegger tells the story, it was as an apolitical professor that he returned to the University of Freiburg in 1928 to replace his philosophical mentor Edmund Husserl, a Jew, after having spent five years as a teacher in Marburg. While in Freiburg he devoted himself to further elaboration of the work begun in Being and Time (which had been published in 1927) and to selfless university labors; he even turned down a prestigious offer from Berlin in order to remain at his beloved Freiburg. His first encounter with the politics of his time would not come until April 1933, just at the moment when the Nazis were consolidating their grip on German institutions.
It then became evident (Heidegger’s account continues) that the rector of the university would no longer be tolerated by local and national party officials because of his social-democratic leanings. Worried that a party hack from outside would be appointed to replace the rector, Heidegger’s colleagues approached him about accepting the post in the hope that his growing fame would guarantee his independence from the Nazi party. After much hesitation Heidegger agreed, on the acknowledged condition that he join the Nazi party himself. It was at this point that Heidegger delivered the now-notorious Rector’s Address (Rektoratsrede), his inaugural lecture as rector, titled “The Self-Assertion [Selbstbehauptung] of the German University.”
Although in later years Heidegger confessed that he had once honestly believed in what he called in that address “the greatness, the nobility of this national awakening,” his real concern, he continued to insist, had been the reorganization of the university, which he saw divided into rival disciplines that lacked an overarching philosophical and social purpose. And this, according to him, was why he accepted the rectorship: to save the university from self-destruction from within due to purposelessness, and from without due to the Nazis’ “politicized science.” His ten-month tenure was, he later said, a constant attempt to do battle against these two threats: he prevented book-burnings in Freiburg, defended Jewish colleagues, and forbade the posting of the “Jew notice” drawn up at the insistence of the SA and posted in other German universities.
To no avail, Heidegger went on. He met resistance from within and without, from professors opposed to reorganization and from a party disturbed by his independence, and he finally resigned as rector in February 1934, to return to his philosophical labors and teaching. But his courses were monitored and he had trouble publishing his books. Finally, at the end of the war, he was judged “expendable” and was sent out of Freiburg to dig trenches. When the French occupying forces finally arrived, his house was requisitioned, his library nearly sold, and, one year later, he was banned from ever teaching again in a German university. The ban was lifted in 1951, but he remained an unfairly tarnished, mistreated man.
Thus far Heidegger’s own account. How, then, did he judge his ten-month involvement with the Nazis? He admitted that he had been mistaken in not seeing the Nazis immediately for what they were; he also admitted that he had made some compromises during his rectorate, such as praising Hitler in speeches or removing the dedication to Husserl from the second German edition of Being and Time. But who, he asked, did not make mistakes and compromises in those nightmarish years?
The Farias book, whatever its other failings, allows us to recognize this story for the self-justifying lie that it is. And it is a lie—a bald suppression of the most important facts of the case, and a sly distortion of those that were allowed to escape. To see this we must descend into the squalid file Farias has amassed.
The key document was and remains the Rector’s Address itself. Heidegger always sought to minimize the Nazistic allusions in this cleverly indirect speech and their echoes of his philosophical vocabulary, hoping that his proposed university reforms would be interpreted as a critique of the Nazis’ “politicized science,” and thus as a defense of scholarly independence. A recent retranslation of the address—along with Heidegger’s private explanation of it, prepared in 1945 for his denazification hearings and only now released by his son—offers us the chance to reexamine this interpretation.2
The university, Heidegger announced, should not be treated as an inherited institution; its “essence” must be “willed” and “asserted” by a German nation that submits itself to the power of its spiritual-historical “being.” (Heidegger uses the word Dasein, also a technical term in Being and Time.) Mere academic freedom, which is just a negative concept, gives rise to meaningless specialized research. Real freedom is achieved only in the discovery of an essence that lies in the German student body itself, which is “on the march.” Heidegger then, in the most scandalous part of the speech (but its most popular section at the time), formulates the three “bonds of service” that will guide German students toward this discovery. The first is “labor service” (Arbeitsdienst), which calls them to serve the community from within; the second is “armed service” (Wehrdienst), binding them to the nation’s external destiny with a readiness to “give all.” The service listed third—reflecting its rank as either the most or the least important—is “knowledge service” (Wissensdienst). Knowledge service is not a “dull and quick training” for a bourgeois profession, but rather the pursuit of the “highest and essential knowledge of the people concerning its entire being [Dasein].”
Heidegger’s attempts, in his 1945 private essay and his 1966 Der Spiegel interview, to make of this address a strategic defense of academic freedom are now fully exposed by Farias’s documentation. By placing the Rector’s Address in the context of Heidegger’s other speeches at the time and his official correspondence as rector, Farias allows us to see Heidegger for what he was: an active supporter of the Nazi party intimately involved in its university activities during, and for some time after, his rectorate. The Rector’s Address is just one example, and not the worst, of the enthusiastic abandon with which Heidegger threw himself into what he kept calling “the movement.”
These pages of the Farias book are bone-chilling. We read a speech given in Tübingen, November 1933, halfway through the rectorate:
This process is an inexorable movement, almost violent, one of the great necessities to which the human heart submits. . . . It is precisely because the new students are primitive that they are called to bring before us the new right to know. . . . It is not enough to greet the new order. It is rather a question of choosing one or the other, of deciding to put ourselves under the authority of the new reality or of disappearing together with a world now in decline. . . . The former type of coexistence, [university] “collegiality,” will disappear as something negative. By obedience, teachers and learning are integrated with the state. . . .
We read about his campaign to establish himself as Fuehrer-rector of the university, a position permitting him to answer only to Nazi ministers in Berlin, circumventing his faculty senate. We read his first letter to the Freiburg student newspaper, again in November 1933, asserting that “the Fuehrer, and he alone, is the sole German reality and law, today and in the future.” We read his speech that same month at the “Assembly of German Science” in Leipzig, where he solicits academic support for Germany’s withdrawal from the League of Nations, and we learn of his simultaneous private telegram of support to Hitler. We also read his letter to colleagues asking for signatures on a published version of this speech, adding, “Of course, it is clear that no non-Aryans should appear on the signature page.” We follow two cases of political denunciation for which Heidegger’s responsibility can no longer be denied: the first, of one of his colleagues, Hermann Staudinger, a future Nobel laureate in chemistry; the second, of a former student, Eduard Baumgarten. We learn that even after his resignation as rector he signed a petition of professors supporting Hitler, and that he paid his Nazi-party dues faithfully until the end of the war. Perhaps more striking still, we read all his official university correspondence of the period, unfailingly signed, “Heil Hitler! Yours, Heidegger.”
And so one comes away from the Farias book feeling somewhat soiled, and with a monstrous portrait of Heidegger’s behavior. Farias’s documentation leaves little doubt that Heidegger’s assumption of the Freiburg rectorate in 1933 unchained something within him, that he threw himself into the labors outlined in the Rector’s Address and the other speeches with uncommon passion. It is true that he resisted a good number of Nazi directives, many having to do with institutionalizing the new “politicized science” and chasing out the Jews. But it is also true that, during his tenure as rector, the following steps were taken: all Jewish teachers were eventually expelled and a racial-origin questionnaire was distributed; obligatory courses on racial purity were established; the Nazi salute was introduced at the end of lectures and at commencement; and a department of racial studies was founded under direction of the SS, with courses taught by specialists from Eugen Fischer’s infamous Racial Hygiene Institute in Berlin.
Can we consider all these to be merely the compromises of a man in difficult times? Despite his exaggerations, Farias succeeds in showing that Heidegger was a real party enthusiast. As Thomas Sheehan has put it, the question is not “what did Heidegger know, and when did he know it?”; the fact is that, what Heidegger knew, he generally liked. Hardly separating himself from the “blood-and-soil” rhetoric of his times, he employed it with numbing frequency in his speeches and articles. His contempt for “cosmopolitanism,” commerce, and the kind of people associated with them was bald. Throughout the rectorate year he encouraged the Nazi students’ primitivism, applauding their indifference to “negative” liberty and “mere” democratic form. Asked by a fellow philosopher, Karl Jaspers, in 1933 whether he thought an uncultured man like Hitler could govern Germany, Heidegger responded, “Culture doesn’t matter. Look at his marvelous hands!”
Since much of the evidence Farias presents had been known to scholars for some time, and was considered common public knowledge in Germany, it is not surprising that orthodox Heidegger loyalists in France were prepared to respond. The defense was carried out by François Fédier, who, since the death of Jean Beaufret, has served as unofficial leader of the school. Fédier’s Heidegger: anatomie d’un scandale corrects many of Farias’s errors of fact and does manage to cast doubt on his objectivity, but Fédier himself seems incapable of weighing the moral significance of the authentic documents that remain. In France, at least, he has been unable to lift the widely shared condemnation of Heidegger’s actions.
A second common line of defense has been to accept the evidence that Heidegger “the man” made moral mistakes during his rectorate, while denying their relevance to Heidegger’s philosophy. This is by now an old argument that was first publicized by the late Hannah Arendt in an article in homage to Heidegger on his eightieth birthday in 1971. Disdaining to mention his party involvement until the very end, she then criticized in a footnote those who would try to implicate Heidegger’s philosophy in his actions, hoping to “dress up the horrible gutter-born phenomenon with the language of the humanities and the history of ideas.” The origins of totalitarianism, Arendt insisted, were to be found in the street, not in an absent-minded professor’s study.
Setting aside whatever personal affection Arendt may have felt for Heidegger “the man,” there are good reasons why her insistence on separating philosophy from questions of personality should appeal to us; one can only wish hers was a more widely shared instinct today. Yet what makes the Heidegger rectorate a singular event is that it was not an “extracurricular” activity, and precisely because the line between the university and the “gutter-born phenomenon” had been effaced-to no small degree, by Heidegger himself. Heidegger, we now know, eagerly opened his university’s doors to its Nazi conquerors, although under the illusion that he would be able to “save, purify, and strengthen” what was positive in them. The fact is that Heidegger considered the reorganization of the university to be the culmination of his philosophical labors, a chance to undo all the damage that had been done since Socrates by the “forgetting of Being.” This is why we have to judge Heidegger’s “philosophical” act from the standpoint of his philosophy.
After the war, many of Heidegger’s students asked him to account for his actions, or, at the very least, to make sense of that epochal event in the “history of Being” the world had just witnessed: the Holocaust. Heidegger’s stony silence haunted even his most devoted followers, and more than one of them left his postwar retreat in the Black Forest in despair, never to return. But in a sense they did get their answer, even if it was not the one they were hoping to hear.
The answer first came in 1949 in one of Heidegger’s most influential lectures, a short gospel of anti-modernism that has been translated as “The Question Concerning Technology.” Here he puts matters in perspective: “Agriculture is now a motorized food-industry—in essence, the same as the manufacturing of corpses in gas chambers and extermination camps, the same as the blockading and starving of nations, the same as the manufacture of hydrogen bombs.” This obscene comparison was followed in 1953 by the publication of lectures dating from 1935, collected under the title An Introduction to Metaphysics. Here we read, in the context of a critique of the idea of “values,” a reference to “works that are being peddled about nowadays as the philosophy of National Socialism but have nothing whatever to do with the inner truth and greatness of this movement (namely, the encounter between global technology and modern man).”
Germans were scandalized when this sentence first appeared, and the newspapers were full of debate over it. But many of Heidegger’s followers have always commended him for retaining the sentence, as if he were admirably refusing to falsify the record in his own defense. Yet it now appears that both extracts are excellent examples of his tireless campaign to cloak the true nature of his early judgments. The first citation, comparing the Holocaust to mechanized agriculture, does not appear in the printed German text, or in any translation; it was removed by Heidegger at some point, and has only recently come to light in the original typescript. The second, referring to “inner truth and greatness,” was changed by Heidegger in 1953 on the advice of a friend-though, oddly enough, not completely; Heidegger had the opportunity to delete the whole reference to National Socialism and chose not to, deciding only to explain what he meant by it by adding the parenthetical reference to technology. It is an invitation, of sorts, to pose the question: what was the “inner truth and greatness” that Heidegger saw in Nazism?
This can only be answered by a study of Heidegger’s complete philosophical oeuvre; Farias’s psychological imaginings will get us nowhere. But here we run into a number of difficulties that render the task somewhat delicate, for Heidegger is no common philosophical writer. The first difficulty is that Being and Time, Heidegger’s prewar masterwork, whatever its political effect, is not a political book, in the sense that we cannot hope to find a clear political doctrine outlined in its pages. A second problem, to which I will return, is that during the 1930’s and 1940’s Heidegger began what he later called a philosophical “turning” (Kehre) that would eventually place him at some distance from the argument, and even the style, of Being and Time. This “turning” makes it all the harder to discern the political trajectory of his philosophy.
Still, the phrase “inner truth and greatness” invites us to try. And beginning in the 1940’s there has been an enduring attempt to reconcile the “early” and “later” Heidegger with the “middle” Heidegger, the Nazi. In the United States, for example, Karsten Harries of Yale has insisted that Heidegger’s political involvement has its roots in the kind of apolitical stance he took before and after the war. Two central concepts in Being and Time—authenticity and resolve—seem to sanction any kind of blind commitment that rises above the naive subjectivity of ordinary politics, as long as such commitment is authentic.
This sort of “decisionism,” however, would appear compatible with almost any extreme political alternative, so the question remains: why Hitler? The Rector’s Address and the later writings permit us to see that Heidegger had a particular kind of resolve in mind, the sort exhibited by any artist, poet, or statesman who brings a people closer to its own “essence” through violent creativity. Politics became a purely aesthetic phenomenon for Heidegger, with both the poet and the statesman serving as existential warrior-creators.
On this account, Heidegger’s political engagement was not an aberration, and neither was his later withdrawal into increasingly obscure examinations of Greek and German poetry. Hitler failed Heidegger just as Wagner had failed Nietzsche, both impostors pretending to overcome the corruptions they only embodied. Thus Heidegger came to view Nazism as yet another expression of the West’s ineradicable deafness to the voice of Being, a condition that had reached its culmination after the war in modern technology, Communism, and “Americanism.” From these developments he could only recoil, stating in the 1966 Der Spiegel interview, “Only a god can save us now.” A demiurge, that is, not a redeemer.
Whatever one makes of this sort of interpretation—I find it very persuasive—we at least know that it is on the right track, trying to put the three Heideggers together. There are no short-cuts to Heidegger, and no summary of his philosophy, or even of the main interpretations of his philosophy, will suffice. The one “philosophical” contribution Farias has made is to have assured us that Heidegger’s deeds and writings during his tenure as rector of Freiburg must take their place alongside his formal works. Had Heidegger’s political activities truly been “extracurricular,” had they simply been regrettable mistakes, we would be obliged to treat then as a parenthesis in the work of a great thinker. But they were not. We now know that Heidegger cannot be understood—philosophically—without them.
Yet if the stakes in the recent French “scandal” were limited to the proper interpretation of Heidegger’s philosophy, why the passionate confrontation that eventually took place? It is certainly true that the French are more given to public intellectual dispute than Americans are, and it is also true that their public education gives them an introduction, however superficial, to the history of philosophy. But this would hardly be enough to generate a debate that covered magazines and newspapers for nearly a year, and even spilled over onto several popular television shows.
The fascination with Heidegger’s Nazi experience is even more peculiar in that it had already been debated twice before in France. The first controversy began in January 1946 in one of the first issues of Jean-Paul Sartre’s magazine, Les Temps Modernes. There Sartre ran an interview with Heidegger in Freiburg while the city was still in ruins and the philosopher’s fate had not yet been decided by the occupying forces; Frederic de Towarnicki, an early disciple and one of the first to seek out Heidegger after the war, also contributed a glowing article. A much darker picture of Heidegger’s “existentialism” and his war record was offered in a subsequent number by Karl Loe with, and this article immediately set off a two-year-long debate between Heidegger’s partisans and his critics. Virtually all the questions raised recently about Heidegger’s rectorate were aired then, given the information available at that time.
The same is true of a second Heidegger debate, which erupted in 1966. That was when François Fédier decided to defend Heidegger’s record against a few recent German books. Fédier’s article triggered yet another two-year-long dispute, even though essentially the same historical ground was being covered.
So one wonders: why this twenty-year itch? What can possibly be at stake in the continuing French fascination with Heidegger?
The answer is that neither of these Heidegger debates, nor the present one, was really about Heidegger. They were about Heideggerianism, which is a different matter altogether. Heideggerianism is a home-grown French product only distantly related to the German original, the one constant presence in French intellectual life since the war, beginning with Sartre’s existentialism and culminating in the so-called post-structuralism of the 1960’s. Each rediscovery of Heidegger’s Nazi past coincides with what may be called a crisis in French Heideggerianism. And this is true of the “scandal” today. But to understand why Heideggerianism is in crisis today, and perhaps in its final one, we must go back to the 1940’s to see how it first departed from Heidegger’s philosophy and became a vulgate.
The word “vulgate” is precise. For the astonishing fact is that Heidegger’s masterwork, Being and Time, was not published in French until 1985! This means that Parisian intellectual discourse for the past forty years has been dominated by a book very few Frenchmen could read. Its ideas had to be inferred from translations of Heidegger’s later writings, which were quite different from those before the “turning,” or they had to be absorbed indirectly through thinkers such as Sartre and Jacques Derrida, who were influenced by Heidegger without becoming his loyal interpreters. These figures are the real fathers of the Heideggerian vulgate, and we must look to them if we hope to understand the recurring “scandals.” This will involve leaving Heidegger’s philosophy behind for the flatter plains of French intellectual dispute, and taking up a distinctly French preoccupation: the question of “humanism.”
The humanism question may be traced at least back to 1946, when it was first introduced by Sartre in a short published lecture on the nature of existentialism. After the war, Sartre’s success—his plays, his philosophical treatise Being and Nothingness, and now his magazine Les Temps Modernes—had made “existentialism” the closest thing to an intellectual household word. Its definition was less than clear to most people, though, and it had come under many contradictory attacks. Sartre chose to respond to those attacks in a short essay expressing the essentials of his doctrine, whose message is summarized in the title: “Existentialism Is a Humanism.”
This essay may be the only clear exposition of existentialism ever given. In it we find all the technical terms of Heidegger’s Being and Time—anxiety, authenticity, being-in-the-world, projection, existence, the absurd, action, alienation—but taken out of Heidegger’s ontology and fashioned into what Sartre called the “hard optimism” of French existentialism.
Against the Communists, to whom man is determined by the forces of history, and against the Catholics, who find man’s essence in God, existentialism (according to Sartre) sees man as free to make himself in history and to decide his own essence. Man is the irreducible subject of all existence, not its object. Existentialism, says Sartre, is nothing more than the purest, most consistent humanism ever imagined.
Sartre’s essay was enormously popular because, even though he never defined the word “humanism,” he did offer an easy entry into existentialism. It had an immediate effect in France, and even in the United States, among people wanting a tourist guide to the newest fashion in French intellectual life. (No doubt it inspired Delmore Schwartz’s quip that existentialism simply means “no one else can take a bath for you.”) But the orthodox French followers of Heidegger were less amused. Their then-leader, Jean Beaufret, immediately sent a letter to Heidegger asking, indirectly, whether Sartre’s “humanism” was what the master had in mind.
Heidegger chose to respond in a long letter he soon expanded and published as his “Letter on Humanism,” certainly one of the most important documents in modern philosophy. With regard to Heidegger, it reveals what the “turning” in his philosophy really entailed. With regard to Sartre, it shows how a truly profound thinker compares to his popularizers. And with regard to us, it uncovers the philosophical source of much that later took place in France, and then elsewhere, including the United States, in literary criticism, history, art and architectural theory, and psychology.
To the question, “How are we to restore meaning to the word humanism?,” Heidegger answers that it is precisely the notion of humanism, of “the human,” that must be challenged. Man, he writes, has been the center of Western philosophy since Socrates, and “humanism” arises through the decadence of this notion—first in Hellenistic thought, then among the Romans, and finally in Enlightenment figures such as Winckelmann, Goethe, and Schiller. But all such humanism is based on unexamined metaphysical assumptions regarding man’s essence, assumptions that cover over the fundamental questions Heidegger tried to unearth in Being and Time: Why is there something rather than nothing? What is the truth of Being?
Until these questions can be answered, Heidegger insists, man’s place in Being—and therefore his essence—cannot be determined. Sartre, and any facile existentialist who claims to find man’s value in his capacity for “action” or “commitment,” misses this point and thus merely repeats the metaphysical mistake embedded in all Western philosophy.
The history of the West, Heidegger now declares, is the history of a growing human subjectivity that makes man the master of nature instead of the “shepherd of Being,” a user and destroyer rather than one who knows to “let beings be.” Nationalism, internationalism, capitalism, Communism, modern science and technology—these are nothing but varied manifestations of our mistaken metaphysics, our “anthropologization” of Being. “Humanism,” “logic,” and “values” (all in quotation marks) fare no better; as Nietzsche saw, they are just expressions of a nihilism that must be overcome. And to overcome them, without making Nietzsche’s own metaphysical mistakes, the “thinking that is to come” will find itself far beyond the “mere cosmopolitanism” of a Goethe, and much closer to the primordial poetry of Hoelderlin and the Greek pre-Socratics.
Taken together, the elements of this short essay—the contempt for the merely human, “the end of philosophy,” the idolization of Greek and German poetry, the obsession with a historical “fall,” the indifference to distinctions between Communism and democracy, the demonization of modern science and technology, the apocalyptic tone—announce everything we associate with the later Heidegger. In Sartre’s defense, it must be said that no one reading Being and Time in the 1930’s could have predicted that this was where Heidegger was heading. The book as published was in fact only part of the first half of a much longer work Heidegger had planned, and later abandoned. Whether this critique of humanism would have appeared in that completed work is something we will never know; all we do know is that the postwar Heidegger was a convinced anti-humanist. Between the two Heideggers lie the rectorate, a decade-long study of Nietzsche, the war, and the occupation. Only after those events did he look back on his work in the 1930’s and discover there what he would call, with characteristic immodesty, “a turning [Kehre] in the history of Being.”
After the publication of “Letter on Humanism,” Heidegger seemed to many in France an increasingly unreadable and mystical figure, inexplicably absorbed in Greek and German etymologies, a quietistic prophet of “revealing” and “letting beings be” rather than “action” and “commitment.” To others, Heidegger’s “turning” went a long way toward explaining his behavior as rector at Freiburg, his adhesion to Nazism now appearing as a pitiful attempt to harness the movement in order to roll back the history of Western metaphysics and open a new epoch of Being.
Yet to a small but influential band of devotees, Heidegger remained an important refuge from the Marxism and structuralism of the postwar period. Increasingly marginalized in Germany, the new Heidegger found a receptive audience in France and began visiting regularly, often giving informal seminars in Provence. He continued to have an impact on thinkers like Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Emmanuel Lévinas, and also acquired able commentators and a small clique of filmmakers and poets including Alain Resnais and René Char. It was an important group, if cultish and private.
All this changed in the mid-1960’s when a new brand of French Heideggerianism was born. Its arrival was sudden, beginning in 1966 with the publication of a series of books by Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, and Jacques Derrida. These books sent a shock wave through the French intellectual establishment, which had grown rather accustomed to the war of attrition between Marxism and the school of structuralism that had grown up around Claude Lévi-Strauss’s anthropological writings.
That Heidegger and the question of humanism were at the bottom of this revolution everyone understood. Derrida himself made it explicit in a lecture on recent trends in France titled “The Ends of Man” and delivered in New York (with exquisite timing) in May 1968. The ambiguity of the title—“les fins” in French, like “the ends” in English, meaning both “termination” and “aim”—reflected the ambiguity of the message: does the idea of man indeed have a future?
It is an altogether extraordinary lecture, revealing as much about the times in which it was delivered as it does about how those times have affected ours. It begins—apropos of nothing, but predictably enough-with an attack on American actions in Vietnam. His conscience cleared, Derrida then asks, “Where is France today with respect to man?” His answer is that, whether Marxists by way of the party, Hegelians by way of Alexandre Kojève, or Husserlians by way of Sartre, postwar French intellectuals seem incapable of overcoming the “anthropological” assumptions of Western metaphysics. Worse still, in existentialism they have even tried to humanize Heidegger’s Being and Time, making a syncretic German humanism to replace their native one.
This is all very much in the line of Heidegger’s own “Letter on Humanism.” But then Derrida turns on Heidegger himself, claiming that he never fully overcame the humanism of Western metaphysics, even in his later writings. These later works, Derrida writes, came back to man “as if by magnetic attraction,” giving him the central role in history as (in Heidegger’s words) the “shepherd of Being.” By searching for man’s essence, even in a Being that is not just human, Heidegger stayed well within the humanistic tradition. For Derrida, this blindness on Heidegger’s part is a good example of how any philosophical discourse deconstructs itself: by trying to pronounce the “end” (termination) of man as traditionally understood, Heidegger only succeeded in giving him a new “end” (aim).
By 1968, then, the French had come a long way from Sartre’s easy-to-digest existential Heidegger, and were now even prepared to go beyond Heidegger’s own amateurish attempt to purge our language of its metaphysical assumptions. They were eager to practice Heidegger’s “destruction” of metaphysics, but without joining him in a search for Being, or for anything else. Theirs would be a decidedly leftish anti-humanist movement rejecting traditional Western “discourse,” contemning Western “anthropological” values, and refusing to engage in the reasoned argument that the West claimed to prize. It would be a new, more radical, Heideggerian vulgate, a Heideggerianism to end all Heideggerianisms. It is what the French now call la pensée 68 (“’68 thinking”).
We owe the label to two young French philosophy professors, Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut, whose book by that title is about to be published in English.3 Theirs is the best guide available to the latest wave of French Heideggerianism, and it also goes a long way toward explaining why the new vulgate should have been rocked by the recent “scandal.” Ferry and Renaut contend that what grew up in France in the 1960’s was a highly unstable mixture based on irreconcilable philosophical contradictions, but one whose message could be simply summarized: the end of philosophy has been reached; the idea of universal truth is a myth; all seemingly universal ideas must be historicized; and, consequently, if one can no longer speak of truth one can only give a genealogy of interpretations.
Difficult as it is to criticize a self-contradictory mélange like this, Ferry and Renaut manage to make sense of it by finding its roots in Heidegger’s anti-humanism. This emerges most clearly in their treatments of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. Particularly scathing is their chapter on Derrida, whom they consider an artful poser simply reworking a number of well-known Heideggerian ideas into his own, admittedly inimitable, style and his own special vocabulary.
Michel Foucault is a different case, and is treated with far more respect. Here the central question is again humanism. In his history of the human sciences, Les Mots et les choses (The Order of Things in English), Foucault seemed to be writing for a whole generation when he announced that man is “no more than a kind of rift in the order of things. . . .” For what Foucault claimed to have discovered in his “archeology” is that our idea of man is a product of our “discursive practices,” and not of a constant, transhistorical human subject. Man, as we know him, is a 19th-century invention who could be disinvented.
It is true that Foucault later seemed to switch course, announcing that “the subject is the general theme of my work”; but as Ferry and Renaut show, even so his “subject” was less an autonomous human being capable of universal judgments than a product and victim of social power. The history of the “subject” was, for Foucault, the history of its “subjugation.” And the only possible response to such subjugation today was an “aesthetic ethics of existence,” whose masters, Foucault imagined, were once the Greeks.
What unites these ideas is the rejection of any transhistorical standpoint from which man can understand himself as a subject. This is hardly a new development in Western philosophy, which is why la pensée 68 is lacking in any real novelty. But its difficulties and contradictions do take us back to the original problem of Heidegger and humanism. In a sense, Heidegger has been both the alpha and omega of la pensée 68, its original philosophical inspiration and now, perhaps, its undoing. Ferry and Renaut, at any rate, are convinced that we have reached a dead end in the Heideggerian flight from the human subject, and that it is time to raise the possibility of a modern “humanism” formulated along the lines of Kant and Fichte.
The book by Ferry and Renaut caused an enormous stir when it was first published in 1985, for the fact is that by the mid-1980’s the French themselves had already begun to tire of the “dancing” philosophes of ’68. Foucault and Lacan were dead, Derrida increasingly predictable and long-winded. The Heideggerian vulgate of la pensée 68 had lost its daring quality and had become institutionalized—which meant, in French terms, that it was ready for dethronement.
More important still, the political assumptions originally underlying the popularity of la pensée 68 had all but disappeared. A decided shift had taken place in French public opinion during the 1970’s and early 1980’s, following upon those world events—first among them the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag books, the revelations of the Cambodian horrors, and the military coup in Poland—that put the Left’s political program to rest and revived traditional republican instincts. It came to be accepted in France that there was a difference between capitalism and Communism, between Coca-Cola and Mao’s Little Red Book; that the Third World was not a tropical paradise before being contaminated by the West; that there was no comparing social “subjection” in the West to totalitarian political oppression. The French Communist party went into a steep and continuing decline, and with it all the unarticulated passions that had offered such fertile ground for la pensée 68 seemed to plunge. It once again became respectable to speak of “humanism” and “the rights of man” with a straight face.
Thus the Ferry-Renaut book ratified what was already becoming a new political and intellectual consensus against totalitarianism and in favor of humanism. Unfortunately, however, the penseurs 68, who still wield great power in the French social institutions they continue to attack, did not deign to respond to Ferry and Renaut’s philosophical argument, so their book, though a success, failed to trigger the necessary reexamination of Heidegger’s philosophy and his anti-humanism. It is altogether likely that the French never would have confronted the question again, had the Farias book not been published.
But it was published, and the “scandal” was immediate. Everything Ferry and Renaut had intimated about Heidegger’s anti-humanism and its influence on la pensée 68 was suddenly thrust into a harsh fluorescent glow. That few of the revelations were new was immaterial, for the real defendant in this trial was not Heidegger himself but the latest school of French Heideggerianism. This is why the debate was so bitter. The stakes were, in French intellectual terms, unusually high—probably too high. For to implicate Heidegger in the crimes of the century risked implicating, however indirectly, a whole generation of French thinkers as well. In the French popular imagination, ever touchy about charges of wartime collaboration with the Nazis, the question was whether the German philosopher they had been persuaded to adopt was, after all, just another Nazi.
Perhaps understanding this, most of the penseurs 68 immediately conceded the charges regarding Heidegger’s actions during his rectorate and his shameful silence (or semi-silence) after the war. Although they did attack Farias’s methods, and not without reason, they never followed the orthodox Heideggerians in trying to whitewash the master’s record. Instead, in a number of books and articles appearing during the “scandal,” some of which are now coming out in English, the strategy was to accept Heidegger’s guilt—and then to blame it on the very humanism la pensée 68 was trying to subvert.4 This was the predictably clever response of Jacques Derrida and some of his followers.
Derrida seems hard-pressed to decide of which sin Heidegger should be judged more culpable: of justifying Nazism as such, or of justifying it by invoking the “spiritual” language of Western metaphysics. It is a trap Derrida confesses to finding himself in as well, since it is very hard to criticize “biologism, racism, and naturalism” without invoking a “humanist teleology.” If not absolved, then, Heidegger is at least understood by Derrida as yet another victim of the Western tradition that ensnares us all, since “Nazism was not born in the desert” but rather popped up “like a mushroom” in the rich loam of European metaphysics.
Derrida’s breathtaking equation (in an interview with Le Nouvel Observateur) of Western “liberty of the spirit” with “all Nazisms” is made even more baldly by one of his eager young followers, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, who criticizes Heidegger for not going far enough: he never realized that “Nazism is a humanism.”
In their own book issued during the “scandal,” Heidegger et les modernes,5 Ferry and Renaut focus long and hard on this perverse phrase, and try to explain how a whole generation of French intellectuals could have come to equate humanism with Nazism. They are good guides to the recent history, and to the psychology of its present unraveling. They explain how the French Left took an anti-modern and anti-Western turn after the war, latching first onto Marxism, then onto structuralism during the break-up of French colonialism, and only finally falling upon Heidegger as its last philosophical refuge after the other alternatives had been abandoned. The Heidegger presented by la pensée 68 was not the Heidegger of the Rector’s Address or even of the untranslated Being and Time. Instead he was the Black Forest sage who condemned everything modern—technology, Americanism, philosophy, reason. It is this anti-modernism that Ferry and Renaut examine and criticize, using the furor over Farias’s book to try, once again, to reopen a French philosophical debate over the human subject. For them, a philosophical solution to the Heidegger problem must begin with some sort of return to Kant. But there is even a kind word to be found here for Sartre and his “Existentialism Is a Humanism,” the essay that started the “humanism” debate over forty years ago.
Perhaps a French reexamination of Sartre would not be such a bad thing. First snubbed by the German philosopher he tried to popularize, Sartre was later snubbed again, or ignored, as a retrograde humanist by the hip cynics behind la pensée 68. Yet whatever his manifest political failings, especially in his later years, Sartre did at least try to clear his philosophical accounts when he realized he had been misled—something most French Heideggerians today still refuse to do. After reading Heidegger’s response to his own lecture on humanism, after publishing the charges and counter-charges over Heidegger’s Nazism in Les Temps Modernes, and after realizing where Heidegger was heading after his “turning,” Sartre drew conclusions. Yes, indeed, he now acknowledged, Heideggerian existentialism was not a humanism; it was an anti-humanism that could be manipulated for the purposes of any radical political program, of Left or Right.
No one familiar with the American university needs reminding that the spirit of this new humanistic mood in France is hardly the prevailing temper on our own campuses, and that it is the American version of la pensée 68 which currently sets the tone. But it is hard to characterize that temper as “anti-humanist,” either, since Americans bathe even the most menacing ideas in a soft “humaneness.” Allan Bloom does better in describing it as “nihilism with a happy ending” (though I, for one, do not see much smiling in the quad). La pensée 68 was cynical, clever, urbane, somewhat dangerous—a distillation of Paris intellectual style. Transplanted to the United States, it has become earnest, moralizing, part of the college curriculum—in short, a creed.
In such a setting it is hard to imagine what effect the American publication of the French “scandal” books will have. One can only hope that they will distract attention from the French Heideggerian vulgate and force a direct and long overdue confrontation with Heidegger’s philosophy. Such a confrontation, though, is unlikely, to judge by the recent furor over the late Yale literary critic Paul de Man.
In 1987, just as Farias’s revelations about Heidegger’s past were being broadcast to the French public, it came to light in the United States that, as a young man, de Man had written anti-Semitic articles for a Belgian newspaper. The parallels were immediately drawn, since de Man’s own theories of deconstruction were very close to Derrida’s, and derived ultimately from Heidegger. But instead of serving to open a debate over de Man’s ideas and their relation to Heidegger’s, the affair quickly degenerated into triumphant attacks and incomprehensible defenses. Leo Strauss once characterized this style as the reductio ad Hitlerum, and the same fate probably awaits the Heidegger “scandal” in America as well.
But there is another dimension to the “scandal,” one relatively ignored by the French commentators, that also deserves American attention and will probably get it. This is the question of Heidegger’s actions as teacher and university administrator. Because the French university system is so highly centralized and state-controlled, the French themselves seem resigned to political intrusion into academic life, which may be why Heidegger’s trahison de clerc had no special resonance there. But the American university tradition, like the German one before the war, is founded on an ideal of academic independence we so take for granted that Heidegger’s speeches and his treatment of colleagues and students cannot but horrify us. To confront them, however, we must leave the French behind and return to Freiburg in 1933.
We are now able to transport ourselves back without moral anachronism thanks to the publication of Karl Loewith’s recently discovered private memoir, Mein Leben in Deutschland vor und nach 1933 (“My Life in Germany Before and After 1933”). Loewith is generally known to American readers as the author of a grand study of 19th-century German thought, From Hegel to Nietzsche, and an introduction to philosophies of history, The Meaning of History. But in the 1920’s at Marburg, Loewith was also a prized Heidegger student. Half-Jewish on his father’s side, raised as a Protestant, Loewith was a decorated war veteran whose career in the German academy seemed assured—until 1933. He then entered the labyrinth of the Nazi racial laws. As a veteran he was considered a “good Jew” until 1935, when the promulgation of the Nuremberg laws dashed any hopes he had of continuing his career in Germany. He then began a hapless flight from fascism that took him first to Italy, then to Japan, and finally to the United States, where he remained until 1953. It was in Japan in 1940 that Loewith wrote his memoir, only recently discovered in his papers.
It is a profoundly moving document, made all the more poignant by the conditions under which it was written. And it played an important, if limited, role in the French “scandal” because of the details it offers about Heidegger. Loewith describes him as a hypnotic teacher whose philosophical seriousness and monkish existence impressed his youthful followers immensely. Concerning Heidegger’s Nazism Loewith had no illusions, at least by 1940. On receiving a copy of his teacher’s Rector’s Address in 1933, he remembers wondering if it meant he was supposed to study the pre-Socratics or “march with the SA.”
Loewith was finally convinced of the political import of Heidegger’s philosophy in 1936, when he met his former teacher in Rome. Two years after resigning the rectorate Heidegger was lunching in the Alban hills with a Nazi-party insignia still affixed to his lapel. When told by Loewith that his philosophy had been unfairly tarnished by his party activities, Heidegger corrected’ him, explaining that the concept of “historicity” as outlined in Being and Time had been the real inspiration of his political engagement.
But it is Loewith’s portrait of the politicized German university that has the most to teach us today. What we witness is the quick slide into capitulation by professors convinced that they could still maintain their scholarly independence once the saluting began. “Nothing is easier for the Germans,” Loewith writes, “than to be radical about ideas and to remain indifferent before the facts.” Books were burned, courses in “politicized science” introduced, “bad” Jewish colleagues dismissed, then the “good” ones, and still the professors thought their work could go on. Mercifully, Loewith points no fingers. It is human nature, he knows, to deny the obvious when it arrives in small doses, and between 1933 and 1935 he himself was still under the illusion that things would somehow work themselves out. But it was an illusion. In 1933 the New Testament verse carved over the entrance to Freiburg University, “The truth will make you free”(John 8:33), was taken down, replaced by the motto “Dem deutschen Volke”—“To the German people.” The university ceased to exist from that moment.
Of course, the last thing the American university needs at the present moment is to be compared to the Germany of 1933. Passions, both political and intellectual, are running high enough without introducing another reductio ad Hitlerum. What ought to disturb in this memoir is rather the haunting sense that we are no more capable of articulating the purposes of the university than were Loewith’s colleagues. German professors were not so much physically defenseless against Hitler’s agents, who would have succeeded anyway; nor were they less courageous than other men and women in dark times. Theirs was not a “moral surrender.” They were simply intellectually defenseless against Heidegger’s bewitching Rector’s Address and its call to arms. The century-long effort to establish the political independence of the German university was overthrown in a moment, for at the first roll of the drums the doors were flung open and the professors went marching out. They saw no reason not to.
And so we return, once again, to Heidegger’s address and the question of humanism, both as a philosophical idea and as a university ideal. Heidegger’s great insight in that address was to have understood that the purposes of the university must be revealed, not assumed, and that its aim has something to do with the aim of philosophy itself. His conclusion was that both must serve something extra-human, perhaps even inhuman. If we in turn sense that he was wrong, we still face the task of discovering why. What is the human? What is philosophy? What does the university serve? If the recent French “scandal” fills us with a sense of foreboding, it is simply because we have so far failed to answer.
1 Heidegger and Nazism, edited, with a foreword, by Joseph Margolis and Tom Rockmore; French materials translated by Paul Burrell, with the advice of Dominic Di Bernardi; German materials translated by Gabriel R. Ricci. Temple University Press, 349 pp., $29.95.
2 Both texts were translated by Karsten Harries of Yale, and published in the Review of Metaphysics in March 1985.
3 French Philosophy of the Sixties: An Essay on Antihumanism. Translated from the French by Mary Schnackenberg Cattani. University of Massachusetts Press, 248 pp., $35.00.
4 The notable exception is Pierre Bourdieu, the anti-Heideggerian French sociologist whom Ferry and Renaut consider the most representative example of the Marxian strand in la pensée 68.
5 To be published in March by the University of Chicago Press under the title Heidegger and Modernity.