The spiritual führer

French philosopher Emmanuel Faye uses a mixture of historical and philosophical sources to refute the apologists who dissociate Martin Heidegger’s politics from his philosophy.

Heidegger 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Heidegger 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
HeideggerBy Emmanuel Faye | Translated by Michael B. Smith | Yale University Press | 436 pages | $40
Few thinkers these days inspire the extremes of devotion and disgust associated with German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). The author of Being and Time has been accused of obscurantism and praised with having inventing a new path for philosophy. Most damningly, he was a member of the Nazi Party and is not known to have ever repented of it. This dark history has inspired a 60-year debate of more-than-philosophical intensity.
A scholarly but popular new work has reignited passions worldwide by calling for Heidegger’s work to be expunged from philosophy departments. Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy by French philosopher Emmanuel Faye uses a mixture of historical and philosophical sources to refute the apologists who dissociate Heidegger’s politics from his philosophy. Faye goes further than any previous critic by presenting a compelling argument that Nazism is the explicit or hidden motive of all Heidegger’s philosophizing. But in making this argument, Faye unfortunately fails to grasp that Heidegger’s motives do not explain his influence.
There is good reason to despise Heidegger as a Nazi, and many revile his philosophy as a monument to insanity. But removing him would be no simple task. Heidegger’s thought is by now deeply embedded in European culture, extending from architecture to art criticism. And Faye seems hardly to notice the single most important feature of this influence. Heidegger is most important among the left-wing and post-modern philosophical school of such thinkers as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. By ignoring exactly how and why Heidegger came to inspire a non-Nazi following, Faye misreads Heidegger’s success. And so rather than examining the neglected and highly disturbing connection between the Nazi and post-modern critiques of Western philosophy, he frets over an unlikely Heidegger-inspired resurgence of Nazism.
The book is nevertheless a work of dedicated scholarship, and displays it by definitively digesting hundreds of thousands of pages of documents, including some newly available. But while the new material indeed shows that for Heidegger politics and philosophy were never separate, the old evidence ought to have been sufficient. It was already known that even the Munich faculty of philosophy rejected Heidegger soon after Hitler’s rise to power on the grounds that “[he] might be politically too extreme... with such claptrap, no philosophy could be offered the students.”
Faye’s analysis of sources presents Heidegger as one of a handful of people who independently arrived at the ideals of National Socialism. He imagined himself as destined for the unique role of spiritual führer of the Nazi movement. He sent Hitler a telegram and even considered moving to Munich to facilitate easier contact. The plan didn’t work. Heidegger lectured on at Freiburg, telling the students, “It is often much harder and more exhausting to seek out the enemy as such... and to imitate the attack... with the goal of total extermination.”
Heidegger would imply laconically in a Der Spiegel interview published after his death that he had distanced himself from Nazism after resigning the Freiburg rectorate in 1934. Faye shows that for the duration of the war Heidegger in fact remained active within the Nazi movement, pondering how to ensure its long-term survival, and writing in 1940 that “the Western powers fight to save the past: We struggle for the formation of a future.”
Faye also shows how after the war Heidegger employed the strategies of silence and obfuscation to conceal his lack of repentance. But again this is old news: The so-called “philosopher of being” notoriously compared of the Holocaust’s gas chambers with the inauthenticity of motorized agriculture.
Heidegger’s philosophy, Faye argues, is “a void and radical abandonment of thought.” He warns that unless we resist it as we did Nazism, we are doomed to “be pervaded, possessed and dominated by it.” But with all the sympathy in the world, it is impossible not to see that Faye’s philosophical analyses are tragically unequal to the task of saving us from Heidegger. The book focuses largely on Heidegger’s devaluation of the individual, his so-called “philosophical anti-humanism.” It also devotes considerable attention to his association of the concept of truth with the German collective. But by failing to take stock of Heidegger’s convoluted connection to post-modernism, Faye effectively resigns us to Heidegger’s pervasive influence.
A better approach would have emphasized that Heidegger has inspired post-modernism in diverse ways. His early ideas regarding the subordination of truth to collective power, his declaration of “the end of metaphysics” and his poeticizing of philosophy – these are the bread and butter of the continental school of philosophy and its “deconstruction” of the West. On the other hand, Heidegger’s ideas about race and struggle, so important to his Nazism, are now the bogeymen of mainstream Western culture.
The notion that Nazi-inspired ideas continue to circulate and influence modern thought is both defensible and shocking. But while Faye may be credited with drawing attention to the Nazi origin of certain post-modern assumptions, he leaves the real work of confronting them unaccomplished.