Against Anti-Heideggerianism

The NY Times has just published a short review of Emmanuel Faye’s book Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism Into Philosophy, written by Adam Kirsch. As we can recall, the publication of Faye’s book last year caused a mini-revival of the controversy surrounding Heidegger’s involvement with Nazi politics in the 1930s and 40s. While some of the commentary around Faye’s book (which I read and didn’t find particularly good) was interesting and thoughtful, a lot of it was also purely reactionary and borderline awful – for example, Carlin Romano’s piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Considering Kirsch’s position as an editor of the New Republic – a publication so politically misguided that it long ago stopped deserving its reputation as a voice of American liberalism – and his histrionic tendency for finding traces of anti-Semitism around every corner (as evidenced by his criticism of Zizek), I expected Kirsch to wholeheartedly endorse Faye’s thesis. That’s why I was somewhat surprised when I read his fairly objective take on the issue, including reprimanding Faye for his truly “dubious” methods and the conclusions he draws from his study – namely, that Heidegger has no worth as a philosopher and should be relegated to the ranks of cheap ideologists like Alfred Rosenberg.

There is little doubt now that Heidegger was sympathetic to the Nazi cause throughout its lifespan. But Faye’s quixotic attempt to rescue Western philosophy from Heidegger’s anti-humanism and anti-Cartesianism will likely only have success among those in the philosophical community who were never taken by Heidegger’s thought in the first place. Of course, this isn’t a small number – one has to only think about the near-universal dislike that analytic philosophers show toward Heidegger’s thought. But one has to stop and consider again just how thoroughly Heidegger’s influence permeated the Franco-German philosophical tradition in the past century.

It would be difficult to find a contemporary philosophical school of thought that has not drawn from Heidegger’s work in one way or another. Being and Time became a central text for phenomenology and was later appropriated as a keystone in the existentialist movement by figures like Jean-Paul Sartre. It was Heidegger that set Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss, the twentieth century’s most original readers of the Greek philosophical tradition, on the unique tracks of their thought. The anti-humanist stance of his later work influenced social theorists like Michel Foucault and Louis Althusser. Neo-Hegelians like Herbert Marcuse and Alexandre Kojeve drew from Heidegger to supplement their own takes on Marxism. Heidegger’s critique of technology has gone on to influence contemporary ecologist and eco-anarchist movements, while his destruktion of the Western philosophical tradition helped bring forth Derrida’s own deconstructionism and Gadamer’s hermeneutical approach.

Of course, we must continue to wrangle with the question of the relationship between Heidegger’s philosophy and his politics, which none of his critics nor his defenders have given a satisfying answer to (although not for lack of effort.) But our task should not be to defend a Platonic idea of true Philosophy, as Faye seems to think, from its contamination with disagreeable politics. Considering the breadth of its influence, policing and purging the philosophical tradition from any traces of Heideggerianism would not only be a disservice to the development of human ideas. It would also be a crime against the task of philosophy itself – to engage ideas seriously and critique them on their own merit.

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