Recently, Günther Figal, a German academic, stepped down from his position as Chair of the Martin Heidegger Society, in order (it seems) not to be associated with Heidegger’s anti-Semitism. The anti-Semitic strand in Heidegger’s thought had recently been documented with a new level of thoroughness by the publication of notebooks written in the years 1931-41, in which Heidegger offers opinions on “world judaism,” and the “machinations” of the Jews, with their “talent for calculation” which gives them “influence everywhere.”
One can certainly find even more vociferous outbursts of anti-Semitism among the writings of other famous and influential 20th century philosophers, notably Gottlob Frege, “the father of analytic philosophy.” But to dwell on that thought, or to attach any real significance to it, would be to set one’s bar far, far too low. Heidegger was an anti-Semite and a racist. There is no justification for trying to rehabilitate him as “less racist” than some of his peers and contemporaries. He should be condemned outright for it, without qualification or hesitation.
To that extent, Dr. Figal’s impulse had a rational basis: like everyone who aspires to function as an adversary to racists and anti-Semites, he wanted to underline his unwillingness to tolerate or to gloss over Heidegger’s egregious complicity and sinister solidarity with some of the most villainous political projects and social forces of recent centuries. It’s undoubtedly right to do so.
Nevertheless, there is something unsatisfying about his gesture.
Recall that Martin Heidegger was very, very public about being a Nazi as early as 1933, and remained a dues-paying member until the party was unceremoniously and involuntarily liquidated at the end of WW2, even if his “activist” phase lasted only for about a year. In light of this fact — known to anyone even semi-conversant with Heidegger’s life-history, and certainly well known to someone like Günther Figal — why on earth would anyone have imagined that Heidegger might have been opposed, in any substantial way, to anti-Semitism? Does the idea of a Nazi party activist who opposed anti-Semitism make *any* kind of sense? Isn’t that like being an anti-racist Ku Klux Klan activist? And would that not be, as Heidegger said of a Christian philosophy, “a round square and a misunderstanding”?
Figal’s manoeuvre seems calculated to convey a message that few can find even remotely plausible: ‘’Yes, I knew he was an activist in the Nazi Party,” he seems to be suggesting, “but I’m shocked and appalled to learn that he harboured negative opinions about Jews!”
Really, Dr. Figal?
Still, one can give Figal the benefit of the doubt, and suppose that he might have meant only to record his (longstanding) refusal to affiliate with Heidegger’s politics, at a moment when the anti-Semitic dimension of Heidegger’s hard-right political stance was at the centre of a public controversy. He may not have been attempting to pose (unconvincingly) as someone who knew nothing of these matters until recent months.
Regardless of Dr. Figal’s motives, the publicity surrounding his action offers the rest of us a helpful opportunity to ponder an important question, raised by the whole “affair.” What are we to think about the fact that so many of the most important philosophers of modern times were racists and/or sexists of the most horrible sort? Or rather, what are we to think about the standing of their books, in light of the political alignments of so many of these authors with horrifying political projects, such as white supremacy, extreme misogyny, anti-Semitism, and colonialism, to name only a few?
If the case of Heidegger’s anti-Semitism and fascism were an isolated incident, we could dismiss this one example as the singular “bad apple,” bearing no real relationship or affinity to the wider Western-philosophical tradition, and threatening it only with the risk of a flimsy and ultimately false form of “guilt by association.” That, indeed, would provide everyone with a motivation to disassociate themselves from Heidegger, in the Figal style, and perhaps even to stop reading Heidegger or taking his intellectual achievements seriously (which Figal himself was unwilling, he said, to do). Alas, however, Heidegger is not an “outlier” or an anomaly of this type. Instead, he represents yet another case of something very familiar, even normal, in the history of modern Western philosophy: the racist “Great Philosopher.”
Consider the company he keeps, in this regard:
(a) As an initial example, recall David Hume’s pioneering (in a double sense) declaration of white supremacy: “I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all other species of men to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was any civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent in action or speculation.”
(b) Another “Great Philosopher,” Immanuel Kant, attested to the influence of Hume’s sceptical view of inductive inference on his own project to develop a ‘transcendental idealism,’ immune to the problems posed by an empiricist view of knowledge. But it wasn’t only at the level of epistemology that Kant’s work followed in the footsteps of Hume. Kant took up Hume’s racism, too. According to Kant, who developed a plethora of early pseudo-scientific race-theories, the Indigenous people from the Americas are “incapable of any culture,” so that their “racial” position “stands far below even the Negro, who occupies the lowest of all other levels which we have mentioned as racial differences.”
(c) Then there is the famous egalitarian lover of liberty, John Stuart Mill. Like Hume and Kant, he thought of non-Europeans as fundamentally incompetent and lacking the capacity for autonomous self-determination. According to Mill, colonial domination was not only a good thing in general, but the very idea that colonizers could act “towards a barbarous people” in a way that might be deemed illegal or immoral was a grave error. On the contrary, he argued, “despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians,” as he says in On Liberty, since, like children, colonized peoples need to be “improved” by forcible obedience to “benevolent” overseers.
(d) More recently, as mentioned in passing above, there is the case of Gottlob Frege (who died in 1925). Widely held to be the founder of what has come to be known as “analytic philosophy,” Frege was quite clear about his intense anti-Semitism, his hostility to democracy, and his fondness for virulently anti-Semitic fascist politicians (especially Adolf Hitler and Erich Ludendorff, co-leaders of the “Beer Hall Putsch”). Frege was arguably more full-throated in his denunciation of the Jews and the Marxists even than Heidegger (although, again, this hardly amounts to a defence of Heidegger!). Frege was particularly worried that Jewish people had equal civil rights in the Weimar Republic, along with other “people of different races under us who claim to be considered as Germans.” He reflected nostalgically about how, when he was growing up, “Jews were generally not permitted to stay overnight in my native town of Wismar; only during the annual fairs were they allowed in, and they would then ring the bell for them to come in and ring the bell for them to leave.”
Thus, Heidegger is by no means an isolated case. The problem is quite general. We have, besides the cases of Hume, Kant, Mill and Frege, any number of other examples: Rousseau’s intense hostility to women; Hegel’s claim that Africans had no history; Locke’s defence of the enslavement of Africans and the forcible dispossession and displacement of Indigenous peoples; and so on.
But maybe there is something distinctive about Heidegger’s case. Maybe here, but not in the other cases, there is some uniquely inextricable interweaving, some implied or even explicit entwinement or unavoidable intellectual proximity of the political views we find so repulsive and the intellectual contributions to which we remain more or less attracted.
No. This, too, is a problem that extends well beyond Heidegger and implicates all the others.
Kant’s notions of rationality (treating as means) and reasonableness (treating as ends) are defined, in part, by contrast to notions of irrationality that have a racial subtext in Kant’s own thought. In particular, the “Enlightenment” itself, as (so he claims) the historical embodiment of “maturity” for human reason, is deemed by him to be a European achievement, thus entwining his notion of rationality and cognitive maturity with the contingencies of early-modern European culture and its emerging enterprise of colonial domination. Similar points could be made about Mill’s notion of “liberty” as a function of maturity, and “barbarians” as child-like: the distancing of “civilized” Europe from “barbarians” is integral to his understanding of the autonomy that enables white people to be free, and also to serve as “benevolent despots” in relation to the colonized.
I can’t stop to prove the point in detail for each case considered here. But Frege deserves special mention on just this point, since some of his defenders, if that’s what they are, insist that his intellectual achievement is thoroughly insulated from any substantial association with his racism and fascism, and in this way his case supposedly differs from that of Heidegger.
Frege himself insists, to the contrary, that the problem of “comprehending antisemitism” is intimately connected with foundational issues in the philosophy of mathematics, at the core of his philosophical research. “One can acknowledge that there are Jews of the highest respectability, and yet regard it as a misfortune that there are so many Jews in Germany, and that they have complete equality of political rights with citizens of Aryan descent,” Frege writes. “If one wanted laws passed to remedy these evils, the first question to be answered would be: How can one distinguish Jews from non-Jews for certain?” This, he says, “appears to be quite difficult.” Focusing in on the philosophical stakes of this line of thought, Frege writes: “If one wants to make laws against the Jews, one must be able to specify a distinguishing mark [Kennzeichen] by which one can recognize a Jew for certain.” He adds: “I have always seen this as a problem.” What did he just say? He has “always seen this as a problem”? Indeed, he has. He took up just this problem of the “distinguishing mark” in his work, Grundlagen der Arithmetik (1984), §62: “If we are to use the symbol a to signify an object, we must have a criterion for deciding in all cases whether b is the same as a, even if it is not always in our power to apply this criterion.” (Consider, too, Frege’s attempt to develop a rigorous account of “ancestry”: http://rgheck.frege.org/pdf/unpublished/Ancestral.pdf; in this context, one can skip directly to page 4, which makes the relevant point: that establishing ancestral continuity is linked, in Frege’s mind, with foundational questions about the philosophy of mathematics. Indeed, ancestry is at the very heart of his understanding of number.) Odd as it may seem to the rest of us, in Frege’s own thinking, the problem of establishing the Jewishness of a person “for certain” is intimately connected to the problem of the nature of natural numbers, via the problematic of “ancestry” and “the distinguishing mark.”
But what conclusion should we draw about people like Hume, Heidegger, Frege, Kant, and JS Mill? Should we regard their intellectual output as thoroughly tainted, or even (more strongly) as completely discredited, by the entwinement or interweaving of their philosophical conceptions with racist (and/or colonialist and/or sexist, etc.) ideas and assumptions? Should we, indeed, stop reading these people and studying them or trying to learn from an engagement with their ideas?
No doubt, this is a tempting posture, for some. But it seems not to be plausible, on reflection.
To see why, notice that the activity of disentangling defensible from indefensible thoughts and ideas, which are at first apparently integral and interconnected, is not a special undertaking on which we might propose to embark in the special case of racist (etc.) philosophers. No, it is fundamental to our very understanding of rational inquiry and intellectual life. To think is to perform precisely this operation of disentangling. “I agree with you on this point, and this other one, but not on this third point; there I insist you have gone astray, and I can tell you why….” Isn’t the compulsion to repeat this performance, to cycle through this disentangling action again and again, the ultimate source of philosophy’s drama and its enduring appeal? Isn’t it, too, an inescapable obligation that everyone is saddled with, unavoidably and perhaps involuntarily, as soon as one takes up the task of thinking?
Yes. Of course. To dislodge and debunk the tangle of error and confusion that weaves itself through even our best intellectual achievements is exactly what we mean by thinking. And so, why not respond to the interweaving of Locke’s “right of revolution” with his “defence of slavery” in the old-fashioned way: by thinking it through? No other response seems authentically available, in fact, since to respond by sweeping him under the rug only invites his spectral persistence, as a haunting presence that we quietly agree not to mention, much less to grapple with and to confront.
This, it seems, informs us about how to respond to Heidegger. Above all, we should resist the temptation to insist, as if in the grip of an unrelenting yet unacknowledged panic, that we can just forget him and all his fascist rantings. On the contrary, we really have to accept our responsibility to think our way through Heidegger. When he claims, for instance, that a chair or a work of art can only “be,” i.e., is only possible at all (as chair, as work), by virtue of unthematic but operative interpretive contexts that confer intelligibility by themselves retreating from intelligibility, like the language that only functions to illuminate a text so long as its own readability as a text is suspended or displaced, is this suggestion itself retrievable at all in the context of an anti-racist practice of inquiry and understanding? Or, by taking it seriously, by working with it intellectually, even in a critical or differentiated way, do we in effect bolster the forces of racial domination, or anti-Semitic demonization, etc.? There are those who presume this question to be settled in advance. I must admit (impolitely, I fear) that I regard such people as, well, a little bit unsophisticated, at least in this area. The idea that this question can be resolved without sorting through the particulars of Heidegger’s writings and the questions they raise is a crude and simplistic position: the sort of thing that one whispers to oneself, seeking comfort and reassurance, insulation from the unease of not-knowing and from the necessity to think things through. I’m reminded of Marx’s admonition: “There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.”
This brings us back to Dr. Figal. Does he dread the fatigue of the steep climb? Does he worry about the absence of guard-rails or padding to cushion his fall? I assume he does not. I am sure that he will continue to think about Heidegger, and also about Kant, Hume, Frege, and the others. But thinking about them is not a matter of agreeing with them, or depicting them as special or great: the Heidegger Society, if such a thing is necessary, should not have any “investment” in defending or upholding the supposed “greatness” of Heidegger (an investment made all too evident by Figal’s resignation). Perhaps these “great philosophers” are persistently, pervasively wrong about one thing after another. Perhaps we have to fight them, or parts of them, by any means necessary. Certainly, they are, in each case, wrong about a great deal, often but not always in obvious ways. So be it. We don’t owe them any personal or intellectual loyalty. Rather, we owe our loyalty to the difficulty and the pleasure of thinking, and that makes us enemies of simplistic, superficial, ill-informed and otherwise indefensible ideas, whether they come from people we admire (Marx?) or people we find repulsive (Heidegger, Frege, etc.), or people whose character we neither know about nor care about. If there is to be a Heidegger Society, that should be its function: to insist on the need to disentangle insights from idiocy, because there is plenty of both in Heidegger’s body of work, as there is in the work of anyone who is fantasized by misguided “disciples” into the ludicrous position of being labeled a “great philosopher.”