Heidegger and World War One — Altman’s book

The “Heidegger Wars” are an academic battle about the significance of Martin Heidegger’s Nazism. I’ve started reading William H. F. Altman’s Martin Heidegger and the First World War: Being and Time as Funeral Oration, which opens with this question:

“Was Martin Heidegger an apolitical thinker whose decision to join the Nazis in 1933 constituted a shortsighted and strictly temporary aberration or is a genuine commitment to National Socialism basic to his thinking?”[1]

Altman’s approach, interestingly, is to focus on the younger Heidegger, the rising philosopher who lived through the traumas of the First World War. Heidegger’s major work, Being and Time, was published in 1927, when he was 38 years old. Heidegger was 25 when the Great War broke out, and Altman’s view is that it was “primordial” to Heidegger’s development. Heidegger did not fight in the war (due to a heart condition), but it was devastating for him, as for all Germans — not merely because so many were killed or damaged but because Germany lost:

young-heidegger“Every German was forced to respond to that crisis and the chasm it thereafter opened up between the post-War present and the past; the National Socialist revolution of 1933 would ultimately be Germany’s most terrible collective response to the lost War.” But for Martin Heidegger in particular, Germany’s losing was “a personal crisis in Heidegger’s life that continued to exercise long-lasting psychological effects on his thinking that extended to Being and Time and beyond.”[2]

My thoughts going into Altman’s book are that there are three main questions about Heidegger’s Nazism and that the answers to the first two are already known. Was Heidegger’s commitment to National Socialism:
(1) temporary or long lived?
(2) genuine or an expediency?
(3) integrated with his philosophy or separable?

Heidegger was strongly committed to Nazism and he never changed his mind. So the interesting question now heideggeris how tight are the connections between his general philosophy, his political philosophy, and his Nazism. Heidegger’s opponents argue that the connections are tight and that by modus tollens the destructiveness of Nazi politics implies that something is deeply wrong with Heidegger’s philosophy. Heidegger’s defenders believe there is much of value in Heidegger’s philosophy, so they argue that the connections to Nazi politics must be accidental.

My current view is that neither side in the debate so far is quite correct. There is a strong connection between Heidegger’s philosophy and the politics, but that the abstract principles of his philosophy, while compatible with Nazism in particular, are also compatible with other illiberal politics. That is to say, additional particularizing premises must be added to Heidegger’s general principles to tailor them to Nazism. So there are both important necessary and important contingent connections between his philosophy and his politics.

By analogy: A generally religious metaphysics doesn’t entail that one is a Christian or Muslim or Hindu. Or a generally Christian epistemology doesn’t entail that one is Catholic or Eastern Orthodox or Protestant. Or even a generally Protestant view of human nature doesn’t entail one will be an Arminian or Methodist or Lutheran.heidegger-grave At each stage, additional particular premises or particularizing versions of the general thesis must be added.

Drawing the analogy: Heidegger’s generalized collectivism of human nature and his anti-reason epistemology do entail an illiberal politics. But there is wiggle room about what particular brand of illiberalism will follow. Heidegger could have tweaked those abstract principles in a number of directions.

Evidence for this comes from the furious French debate over Heidegger’s legacy. After World War II, continental philosophy’s most vigorous activity centered in France with the rise of existentialism and then postmodernism. Both leading existentialists such as Sartre and leading postmodernists such as Foucault and Derrida draw heavily upon Heidegger. But Sartre, Foucault, and Derrida are men of the far left and Heidegger is a man of the far right. So, in Peter Gordon’s words, the Heidegger problem is a problem for the political left “by opening an ideological passage through history from the German right to the French left.”[3] Hence the outsized fury of the arguments: ep-front-coverIf there’s a problem with Heidegger’s basic philosophy and his philosophy is tightly connected to politics, then the left Heideggerians are in as much trouble as the right.

I argued in Chapters 4 and 5 of Explaining Postmodernism that the differences between the political/philosophical “left” and “right” in nineteenth century were matters of detail rather than principle. And as the collectivist left caused and suffered many disasters in the twentieth century, its strategists, especially the pomo ones, modified left thought by incorporating many collectivist right themes. Heidegger is an important bridge thinker in the transition.

[1] William H. F. Altman, Martin Heidegger and the First World War: Being and Time as Funeral Oration (Lexington Books, 2012), p. xiii.
[2] Altman, pp. xv, xvi.
[3] Peter E. Gordon, review of Emmanuel Faye’s Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy in Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933-1935, in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews (2010).

My post “Heidegger, anti-humanism, and the Left,” on Tim Black’s review of Emmanuel Faye’s Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy in Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933-1935 (Yale, 2009).
A quotation from Heidegger: “Heidegger on the Führer Principle.”
Gregory Fried, “A Letter to Emmanuel Faye”, Philosophy Today (2011).
Jeffrey van Davis’s “Only a God Can Save Us” documentary and my extended video interview with van Davis.

One thought on “Heidegger and World War One — Altman’s book

  • January 22, 2014 at 1:13 am

    A very important and worthwhile path of investigation.

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