Politics and Philosophy

I want to talk about another aspect of the project I’m working on, one that makes it particularly difficult. Martin Heidegger was a schmuck. I use this term in a non-technical sense, but I hope it gives the appropriate impression. I am referring, of course, perhaps among other defects, to Heidegger’s commitment to Nazism. It is a natural question – one that has been pressed upon me a number of times recently by a number of people I respect – whether someone of such evidently poor judgment, or worse, can be relied upon to say anything worthwhile about the proper dignity of human being. Why write a book on that topic in particular, one might wonder, through the lens of Martin Heidegger’s work?

I don’t want to try to answer that question here. This is not a way of trying to avoid it, but rather a way of recognizing how powerful I take its force to be. I’m simply not ready to answer the question yet. What I want to do instead is to press on it a bit, to understand the question better, and to see what presuppositions give it the force it has. And to hear your comments.

To do this, I need to set the ground rules carefully. To begin with, I do not want to deny that Heidegger was a schmuck, or minimize the extent of his schmuckiness. I don’t want to try to justify the importance of his work, in other words, by downplaying how contemptible his personal and political views were. Some people have taken this route, and I don’t mean to be criticizing them. Hans Sluga, for instance, in his book Heidegger’s Crisis, argued that Heidegger’s political views were really just an expression of what was normal for his social milieu. I think Hans’ book is interesting, and maybe even accurate as an historical account. But for my purposes, his analysis is neither here nor there. That’s because I want to think about the general issue of how a person’s political views should affect the reception of their intellectual work. And to do this carefully we need to assume the political views are heinous.

It follows from this that we should begin by assuming that Heidegger the person was at least as awful as his harshest critics claim. I will take it as given, therefore, that he was – even more than most German academics of the day – an extreme advocate of German nationalism, a committed anti-semite, and a perpetual champion of Hitler and his policies. Furthermore, I’d like to assume that he remained committed to these positions for his entire life. Maybe some of these assumptions are false. Maybe the literature around the recently published Black Notebooks, for instance, over-exaggerates these defects in Heidegger’s personality and character. I’m not saying it does, but it’s possible. Still, to depend on that empirical fact in attempting to justify his work just muddies the waters. So, let’s assume Heidegger was a full-on schmuck.

All that said, there is a second ground rule also. Whatever the awfulness of Heidegger’s personal or political views, I do not want to assume without argument that the philosophical work either follows necessarily from or is a direct expression of those views. Maybe there is such a connection, and if so that will be an important desideratum. But to justify that claim would require work.

So let’s start thinking about the question at hand. How should our knowledge of Heidegger’s political views affect our reading of his philosophical work? How, more generally, should our knowledge of anyone’s political views affect the reception of their intellectual work?

Let’s start the discussion with a potentially relevant and interesting fact. Most people will agree that the question seems to have particular relevance for Heidegger because he was a philosopher. And not just a philosopher, but a philosopher attempting to say something about the proper dignity of human being. If someone like Gottlob Frege had despicable political views, as he may well have, it wouldn’t generate as much concern. Or at any rate it hasn’t generated as much concern. I don’t hear many people arguing that we shouldn’t read Frege’s work in philosophical logic because he held awful political views. Dummett did express some concern; but he also wrote thousands of pages on the man!

To take a more extreme case, I suppose that nobody would think twice about reading the work of a mathematician whose political views are anathema. This is true no matter which extreme the person is at. Cauchy, for instance, was a reactionary royalist; his contemporary Abel called him a “bigoted Catholic.” Other mathematicians disliked him strongly for his radically conservative political views. He himself felt he was treated unfairly because of them. But everyone agrees he was a profound mathematician. Similarly for Galois on the other end of the political spectrum. He was a revolutionary and a political firebrand who was imprisoned for his extreme left wing political views. He was impetuous and short-tempered, and died at the age of 21 in a duel the motivations for which are unclear. Perhaps his character and his political opinions were objectionable. But in any case he was, by all accounts, a great mathematician. (See John Derbyshire’s interesting article on The Politics of Mathematicians for some details about both men.) In sum, the political views of mathematicians are simply irrelevant to them, qua mathematicians.

Or another case, as if we needed more: consider Bobby Fischer, the chess player. He was (let us assume) a crazy, anti-semitic Jew, an American with extreme anti-American political views. Let us agree that his political views were objectionable along many dimensions. Still, nobody would deny that he was among the best chess players who ever lived. A dedicated chess player would be silly not to study his games.

These examples are illustrative. They suggest that we are less motivated to dismiss a thinker’s work if it is obvious that it bears no relation to his or her political views. What Cauchy or Galois thought about Charles X is simply irrelevant when it comes to the quality of their mathematical work. Somehow, it seems, the fact that Heidegger is a philosopher makes the possibility of such a connection more worrisome. But how, exactly, does the connection work?

Now, one of our ground rules is that we cannot just assume Heidegger’s political views necessitate or are directly expressed in his philosophical work. So if we are worried about such a connection, we shall have to think hard about what it is. But suppose there is one. What exactly is the worry about it? I’m not saying there isn’t a worry; I just want to know exactly what form it takes.

Obviously, if the philosophical views are just a manifestation of the objectionable political views, then the philosophical views are objectionable in just the same way. But what does that say about how we should treat the thinker? Take Aristotle, for example. It was easy for him, because of his social milieu, to believe that some people are natural slaves. They are, by their very nature, pieces of property that belong to others. We take this, obviously, to be an objectionable view. But this personal and political position worked its way directly into Aristotle’s political philosophy. In his Politics, for example, slaves are excluded from the political community. So presumably this is a reason not to credit Aristotle’s work. Still, there is, of course, a broad consensus that Aristotle was one of the great philosophers in history. So even this kind of direct expression of contemptible political opinions in a philosopher’s work is not by itself sufficient to discredit the philosopher’s views as a whole. Is it that the bit about slavery is somehow separable from the rest? But it seems to play a fundamental role in the discussion about what a political community is. Is it somehow because Aristotle lived a long time ago? Are we to imagine, then, that the concerns about Heidegger’s political views will dissipate with time? If so, is this a good thing or not?

Or suppose the case is different. Suppose that the political views are not expressed directly in the philosophical work, but they somehow necessitate the positions taken there. What kind of worry should this generate for us? Well, let’s look a bit closer. Suppose that Heidegger’s nationalism is the motivation for his claim that works of art can open new worlds. In “The Origin of the Work of Art,” an essay from 1935, as well as in Introduction to Metaphysics from the same year, Heidegger suggests that the statesman may play a role in opening up new worlds. Presumably the statesman he had in mind was Hitler. So, if it is his nationalistic admiration for Hitler that leads him to make this general claim, is the claim itself objectionable? Maybe. But if so, I don’t think it can be because of this connection. The argument for such a connection is somehow of the following form: If A necessitates B, and A is objectionable, then B is objectionable. But is this a good argument form? If a person’s love of violence guarantees his violent reaction in a certain circumstance, and the love of violence is objectionable, is the reaction objectionable? What if it saves someone from an attacker?

Another possibility is that it is precisely because of the thinker’s personal defects that he or she is so insightful on a particular issue. Philosophers sometimes become deeply interested in the very things that are difficult for them to understand or live. The ethicist has deeply developed ethical views because it is so counterintuitive to him how to operate in the ethical domain. The gullible man becomes an expert on the theory of good judgment. It can happen, I suppose, that the personal defect plays a role in the high quality of the work.

These are all possibilities.

In the end, however, it seems to me that this is all useless guesswork. One cannot have a view about the effect of the political views on the philosophy until one has a view about what the philosophy is. This can come, it seems to me, only through a careful confrontation with the work.

None of this, of course, is to excuse Heidegger’s abhorrent political views. But the fact of the matter is, I never met the man. If I had, maybe I wouldn’t have taken his work so seriously. Instead, however, I learned about him through someone else, a teacher whom I admired very much. And whatever else you say about my teacher, you cannot attribute to him the terrible political views of Heidegger. Maybe, in fact, you can’t even attribute the philosophical views I am interested in to Heidegger. Maybe they come only from him indirectly through my teacher, and eventually through my own experiences in confrontation with what Heidegger has written. Maybe, in the end, they are as much my own views as they are Heidegger’s himself. I suppose this is the way the interpretation of texts always works. But I cannot get free of the fact that, whatever the views are that I find most interesting and most compelling, I have come to them in part, at least, through my confrontation with some version of Heidegger’s work. This makes me want to continue that confrontation. But my desire to do so is countered by my dislike of the man. The question is how powerful this countering force should be.

About Sean D. Kelly

Sean Dorrance Kelly is the Teresa G. and Ferdinand F. Martignetti Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University. He is also Faculty Dean at Dunster House, one of the twelve undergraduate Houses at Harvard. He served for six years as chair of Harvard's Department of Philosophy. Kelly earned an Sc.B. in Mathematics and Computer Science and an M.S. in Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences from Brown University in 1989. After three years as a Ph.D. student in Logic and Methodology of Science, he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of California at Berkeley in 1998. Before arriving at Harvard in 2006, Kelly taught at Stanford and Princeton, and he was a Visiting Professor at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. Sean Kelly's work focuses on various aspects of the philosophical, phenomenological, and cognitive neuroscientific nature of human experience. He is a world authority on 20th century European Philosophy, specializing in the work of Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. He has also done influential work in philosophy of mind and philosophy of perception. Kelly has published articles in numerous journals and anthologies and he has received fellowships or awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEH, the NSF and the James S. McDonnell Foundation, among others. Fun fact: He appeared on The Colbert Show in 2011 to talk about All Things Shining. Sean Kelly lives at Dunster House with his wife, the Harvard Philosopher Cheryl Kelly Chen, and their two boys, Benjamin and Nathaniel.
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15 Responses to Politics and Philosophy

  1. Charlie says:

    The dislike of the man should be a contextual force – a factor in assessing what the philosophy is. Perhaps it makes the analysis more stringent. Indeed, the question is even more pronounced for a schmuck if the case for dignity is normative. But, to the extent it is a philosopher, deference is needed to evaluate the theory. Even to the point of dismissing abhorrent views if they are irrelevant/tertiary. Nietzsche makes a persuasive case for the autobiographical nature of the discipline, while comparing it to “winning a wench”. Moreover, is it not worse if we only adopt components of a philosophical system – rejecting, for instance, Nietzsche’s genealogy? Or subscribing to the beauty of Kierkegaard’s conception of faith, while rejecting it? Finally, to borrow again from the preface of Beyond Good and Evil, does the tension of the bow – the contemptibility itself (confrontation) – help reach greater heights/clarity?

  2. dmf says:

    my sense at least in this case is that one would have to show that there is some direct link between the politics of his life with the philosophy that he developed such that that the taking up of the philosophical work is the taking up of the politics and I don’t think this is the case with Heidegger but as with any thinker we can test their ideas and I’m also not convinced that works of art can open new worlds, what would that mean and how would we know if it had come about or not, and is there likely to be any singular or even common way to live a good life, to be a good person, can we ground such endeavors/claims? I look forward to see how you flesh this all out,
    The question of of true to Heidegger is the Dreydeggerian approach is an interesting matter within the field but not sure it matters much to what uses one might make of the texts outside of claims of authorial intentions.
    look forward to see how you flesh this all out,
    do you know Chris Long’s Aristotle on the Nature of Truth, from the publisher “This book reconsiders the traditional correspondence theory of truth, which takes truth to be a matter of correctly representing objects. Drawing Heideggerian phenomenology into dialogue with American pragmatic naturalism, Christopher P. Long undertakes a rigorous reading of Aristotle that articulates the meaning of truth as a cooperative activity between human beings and the natural world that is rooted in our endeavors to do justice to the nature of things. By following a path of Aristotle’s thinking that leads from our rudimentary encounters with things in perceiving through human communication to thinking, this book traces an itinerary that uncovers the nature of truth as ecological justice, and it finds the nature of justice in our attempts to articulate the truth of things.”

  3. dmf says:

    I can understand the need to defend using Heidegger given the current clime in academia and some aspects of the more public realm of critics (ah the socially mediated plat-form-ed public square) along these lines but more serious (because I don’t think Heidegger produced a Nazi philosophy) for me on the more relevant question/problem politics and philosophy of is the lack of serious attention to politics/economics in Heidegger’s thinking, some of this can be taken up in looking at the vital role of institutions in thinkers like Arendt, Foucault, Marx, and Rorty all recognizing the shaping powers of institutions on individuals and the severe limits of the powers of individuals in the face of worldly powers. I think to imagine an exit/salvation from such environmental circumstances is to invent a kind of deus ex machina, some sort of Grace, Revelation, Authenticity…
    I think we are left (as my Catholic/orthodox Heideggerian critics would characterize my,pragmatist bastardization of Heidegger/M-Ponty/etc [via folks like Bert and my old prof Don Ihde] when I still was active in academic circles) with doing mere anthropology.
    Rabinow’s related talk @ Stanford which they frame as “he asks: “How should one conduct inquiry—today—into problems of broad scope and historical depth? How should one give form to participant-observation into problem spaces in which the specific site must be understood to be connected with multiple other sites and formations? In sum, how should one conduct contemporary inquiry?”

  4. Pingback: GRATITUDE TO HEIDEGGER?: quarantining his politics | AGENT SWARM

    • Thanks for this, Terence. I suspect that you and I are thinking differently about what it is to interpret a text. I see the act of interpretation itself as already involved in the kind of “trajectory” you mention.

      • terenceblake says:

        This is in fact part of what I am saying, except that I include the possibility of bifurcations in the trajectories.

      • dmf says:

        “I see the act of interpretation itself as already involved in the kind of “trajectory” you mention” that’s interesting and might be worth making explicit in the coming text,
        the broader issue reminds me of the tensions (now largely absent in academia where structuralists carry on as if never challenged) that briefly came up at the heights of post-structuralism about the value of case-studies if they can’t be generalized from (aren’t examples of, results from, some underlying general principles/forces), if there are no unities/generalities/algorithms at work behind concepts what use are they, is there some non-cybernetic (writ large) use for waxing philosophical?

  5. terenceblake says:

    Hello Sean, after further thought it seems I was not clear. In my post I was linking what you say about your own trajectory in your first three posts (Rising from the Ashes?, Gratitude for what has been, How do you make a decision?) and what you say about trajectories in general in your last post (Ontological gratitude) to your current problem of your future possible trajectories and your interpretation of Heidegger. This resonated with me, as my conclusion suggests, as I explain elsewhere on my blog that I am undergoing a similar process of saying goodbye to Deleuze ( my biggest influence) in view of my projected trajectory changing. Cheers, and thanks for all you are saying, Terence.

  6. Bharath Vallabha says:

    Hi Sean – Thanks for an interesting post. The project of distinguishing the insights of Heidegger the philosopher from his Nazism and anti-semitism is super important. I would say this is not only the main philosophical question, but also the main political question of our time.

    The broader context I take it is this: How to reconcile (a) Heidegger’s insights into the limits of a rationalistic modernity with (b) the liberal political philosophy which arose from within that modernity? Indeed, can (a) and (b) be reconciled? One can deny the reconciliation from two sides. First, from the side of the far right, which says that Heidegger’s existential insights imply that liberal democracy is incompatible with Dasein – that Dasein is essentially local in the sense of racial, and so the goal of a democratic “melting pot” or “a global society” is as destructive of Dasein as being consumed by technology. Second, from the side of the social justice warrior left, which reduces Heidegger to a white, male philosopher simply erecting a philosophical edifice to protect his privileges.

    I understand your project as trying to navigate between these two options, in the spirit of liberals such as Mark Lilla. Does that gel with how you see things? I think this is important as we need such projects to move us beyond the rigidified political right/left dichotomy and pursue new paths. If this is roughly right, then I think the issue isn’t best seen as whether Heidegger is a schmuck or if we should dislike him.

    I actually like Heidegger – and that is the hard issue. This is not at all to deny his horrible views and actions – which go far beyond being a schmuck. Wittgenstein was a schmuck – he could be a belligerent asshole who was often mean to people he disagreed with (I still like Wittgenstein too as a person). Heidegger it seems wasn’t like that. He wasn’t rude or obnoxious or mean spirited in personal interactions. If anything, Heidegger is the ultimate counterexample to Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil. In comparison to Heidegger, Hitler was more banal in that his actions fell out of his rabid hatred. With Heidegger, his actions didn’t fall out – or mainly out – of seemingly hatred as much as by “philosophical vision”. To most people this might not make sense. But it should to philosophers. This is, to echo you, the limit of a view like Sluga’s. Heidegger’s evil wasn’t like most other people – good or bad, for him it was driven by his sense of philosophical insight. It’s not like when a mediocre player plays badly in the crucial game – mediocre players do that all the time. But if an amazing, elite, transcendent player – who waited his whole career to win the championship – messes up his game in the ultimate moment – that is something else.

    Here the analogy with Wittgenstein is apt. Wittgenstein and Heidegger were the two giants of 20th century European philosophy who struggled with the limits of modernity. Yet neither was able to translate the insight of their criticisms of contemporary society into a holistically flourishing, beautiful life of excellence – into a life of peace and inspiration for the masses. The contrast with the lives of Gandhi or MLK or Bonhoeffer is striking. Wittgenstein and Heidegger inspire, but not the way the Dalai Lama or Mother Teresa do. Why is that? If they were mathematicians, the answer would be easier. But they were _philosophers_ and great ones at that; and great for making philosophy personal and immediate and deep. So why did the peace and the grounding of Being of the saints elude them? And in Heidegger’s case, actually lead into evil? Seeing why can help us go further than him: to incorporate his insights but also orient towards Being in a way that he wasn’t able to.

    I would say no small part of the answer lies in how the constraints of academic philosophy twisted the psyches of WIttgenstein and Heidegger. This is not to excuse Heidegger by blaming what academic phil was becoming in the last century. Heidegger has to live with his choices – they are his. But if we see the context of the choices he was making, it was all about how he was trying to make academic phil into something other than what Russell, Carnap, et al (the politically good and inspiring guys) were making it. And he failed horribly. But perhaps something of what he was trying to do – a vision of a different academic phil – is worth thinking about.

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