Reflections on the Career of Martin Heidegger, Shepherd of Being

Jeremiah Reedy

In the Being of beings, the negating of the Nothing (das Nichten des Nichts) comes to pass. -- Heidegger, Was ist Metaphysik?

In his Colloquy article of November, 1999 Professor Dye opined that Heidegger is "the 20th-century's most important philosopher." In this essay I challenge that claim on three grounds: his Nazism, his anti-Semitism, and the fact that from the mid-thirties on he did not want to be called a philosopher nor did he want what he was producing to be called philosophy, desires which I believe we should honor. Let me say first of all that I am aware that Heideggerians have a number of standard strategies which they use to defend their master against detractors, of which there has never been a shortage. Two of the most interesting are 1.) to argue that only those who are thoroughly acquainted with "the entire body of his thought" in the original German are qualified to criticize him, and even more interesting 2.) to claim with Derrida that only those who are "bound up with Heidegger in an essential way" can measure "the full significance" of his work (Farias x). I also expect to be accused of offering mere ad hominem arguments, but for reasons given below I believe the approach I am taking here is justified in the case of Heidegger.

I confess immediately that I have read very little of Heidegger and what I have read was in English translation, and I did not find it to my taste. On the other hand, I confess also to having been somewhat obsessed with Heidegger's life and career as described in a number of biographies and with the "Heidegger wars" as detailed in other works which are listed in the bibliography. How, in fact, could a Catholic classical philologist not be curious about someone who set out twice to become a priest, who began his career philosophizing in the scholastic mode and ended up a dedicated Nazi who paid dues to the party faithfully until l945 and never condemned the Holocaust? (Should a thinker be considered great or even "important" who was unable to recognize great evil, even the greatest of evils?) How could one interested in languages not be curious about a scholar who is reported to have said that only two languages are suitable for philosophizing, ancient Greek and German, who said that when the French begin to think seriously they must switch to German (Farias 7), who claimed that his "thought" could not be translated only paraphrased, who imagined "Being as language," who believed that Being revealed itself in the etymology of words, and who asserted that "I don't speak the language, the language speaks me."

The standard explanation of Heidegger's followers for his behavior during the Nazi period is this: Heidegger only agreed to serve as Fuehrer Rektor of the University of Freiburg to save the German university, he "severed links to the movement when he realized its true nature and criticized it in his later writings," and he was never an anti-Semite. "This largely due to Heidegger himself" [i.e. to what he said and wrote after l945]. There now seems, however, to be a consensus that revelations contained in Victor Farias' book, Heidegger and Nazism, have made this defense untenable, based as it was on Heidegger's own distortions and lies (Farias l37, 258). It now appears that his commitment to National Socialism was "deep and long-lasting" and philosophically based (Sheehan 30). We are also told that in retirement after l945 Heidegger was visited by a steady stream of former students and colleagues who begged him to repudiate Nazism and condemn the Holocaust, but he remained silent. Moreover, a list of sins, both of commission and omission, dating from his tenure as Fuehrer Rektor has come to light which is very long indeed. Farias gives the following account:

Among the measures brought in during his rectorship were: the expulsion of all Jews on the teaching staff; a questionnaire for each teacher showing racial origin; ... the obligatory oath for all teachers concerning the purity of their race; the obligation to use the Nazi salute at the beginning and end of each class; the organization of the University Department of Racial Matters, to be directed by the SS, who were responsible for organizing courses to be taught by a specialist from the Institute of Racial Purity in Berlin, directed by Professor Eugen Fischer; ...economic help for student members of the SA and the SS, or other military groups, and refusal of aid to Jewish and Marxist students; the obligation to attend classes on racial theory, military science, and German culture (119).

This list could be greatly expanded: for example, Heidegger condoned the burning of books "written by Jews" and other "intellectual delinquents" (Farias 122) (the full quote is too obscene to print here); Heidegger was responsible for two "political denunciations," one of a colleague Hermann Staudinger, "a future nobel laureate in chemistry," and the other a former student (Lilla 43); when a house that belonged to a Jewish student group was attacked (6/28/33), Heidegger declined to get involved because some of the attackers were non-students; he was a regular lecturer at the "Advanced School for German Politics" along with Alfred Rosenberg, Eugen Fischer, Goebbels, Goering, Rudolf Hess and Ernst Krieck (Farias 208-9); among his more notorious statements were the claim that "the Fuehrer, and he alone, is the sole German reality and law, today and in the future," (Lilla 43) that Hitler was "the dispensation of a new disclosure of truth and hence a fundamental transformation of Being," (Nolte quoted in Sheehan 34) and his reference to the "inner truth and greatness of National Socialism," a phrase which he declined to delete or alter although given the opportunity in 1953 by the publisher of a new edition of his Introduction to Metaphysics (Farias 227).

Anyone who still has doubts about Heidegger's anti-Semitism should read Thomas Sheehan's article "A Normal Nazi" (N.Y. Review of Books, 1/14/93) or "Is Heidegger Anti-Semitic?" (chapter 14 of Martin Heidegger, Between Good and Evil).

Heidegger did not lack detractors during his lifetime. Croce called Heidegger's Rektoratsrede "stupid and obsequious." He predicted that Heidegger's philosophy would be successful for a while because "the empty and general pronouncement is always successful." (Farias 111) After hearing one of Heidegger's speeches, Walter Jaensch, a professor of medicine at Berlin, stated that "the Heideggerian variant of existential philosophy was only schizophrenic babblings, banalities with an appearance of depth which could come only from a sickened mind." He observed that no one in the audience "had understood a thing." (Farias 204) (It was a commonplace that Heidegger was famous only because no one could understand what he was saying.)

Some of Heidegger's statements do indeed make one wonder about his sanity: Karl Jaspers reports that when he asked Heidegger, "How do you think a man as coarse as Hitler can govern Germany?" Heidegger answered, "Culture is of no importance. Look at his marvelous hands!" (Farias 118) And then there is his bizarre and obscene comparison of "the extermination technology of the concentration camps to various forms of agricultural technology." (Farias xi)

With reference to the nature of Heidegger's "thought", John Caputo in his brilliant book The Mystical Element in Heidegger, a work that has been praised extravagantly by reviewers as a model of scholarship, has called attention to Heidegger's indebtedness to Meister Eckhart (ca. 1260 1327/8), "the father of German mysticism" and has shown that the structure of Heidegger's thought is analogous to that of Eckhart. Caputo explains that according to Heidegger "His thinking is no longer philosophy but arises out of the end of philosophy, just as it is no longer metaphysics but results from overcoming metaphysics, and as it no longer has to do with what metaphysics calls Being, but with the 'It' which 'gives' Being...." Heidegger sought "a non-conceptual, non-discursive, non-representational kind of 'thinking' which is profoundly divided from any of the traditional varieties of 'philosophy.'" (4) Heidegger wanted to be a great thinker such as Heraclitus or Parmenides who antedated Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. He considered what he produced not philosophy but "thought" or "essential thought."

Some students of Heidegger have called his thought "mysticism for atheists." One of his colleagues said Heidegger had founded a private religion, a "theology without God," and he labeled the appeal of his work "religious". Karl Jaspers called Heidegger a "mystagogue-cum-sorcerer." Caputo said Heidegger "dwelt in the proximity of poetry and mysticism." He represents "neither rationalism nor irrationalism." An American philosopher, William Barrett, wrote that "a German friend of Heidegger told me that one day when he visited Heidegger he found him reading one of Suzuki's books [on Zen Buddhism]: 'If I understand this man correctly,' Heidegger remarked, 'this is what I have been trying to say in all my writings.'"

Perhaps we should call Heidegger's work prose poetry; alternatively we might try interpreting it as myth. (Exposed on a mountain side as an infant and suckled by a she-bear, Being is rescued and reared in concealment by shepherds, forgotten by nearly everyone, but upon reaching manhood, after negating nihilism and slaying the dragon of technology, he/it is recognized as authentic, wins the hand of the princess in marriage and ascends to the throne.) Whatever it is, most philosophers in the analytic tradition pay absolutely no attention to Heidegger and would not call his thought philosophy inasmuch as it lacks definitions, arguments, reasons and clarity. A friend reported to me that at a recent meeting of American philosophers a speaker said "Heidegger should be condemned and his works ignored," and the audience burst into applause.

I conclude with the report of an incident involving Karl Loewith, one of his colleagues and author of Heidegger: Thinker in a Time of Need, who encountered him in Italy in l936: "Two years after resigning the rectorate Heidegger was lunching in the Alban hills with Nazi-party insignia still affixed to his lapel. When told by Loewith that his philosophy had been unfairly tarnished by his party activities, Heidegger corrected him explaining that the concept of 'historicity' as outlined in Being and Time had been the real inspiration of his political engagement." Could there be a greater condemnation of a system of thought?

If Caputo is right, Heidegger thought he had left behind not only all metaphysics but ethics too, in the ordinary sense, (the "metaphysics of morals"). Heidegger was concerned not with behavior but with "the essence of Man." The result was a kind of passivity and mystical quietism, but it is one thing to throw oneself into the arms of a loving God as Meister Eckhart recommended (Gelassenheit); it is quite another thing to abandon oneself to the "inscrutable play of Being" especially when one of the players is National Socialism. A true philosopher must have wisdom, both theoretical and practical, and at least since the time of Socrates, there has been a connection between philosophy and virtue. Heidegger fails both the test for practical wisdom and the test for virtue.


Caputo, John D., The Mystical Element in Heidegger's Thought
Farias, Victor, Heidegger and Nazism
Lang, Berel, Heidegger's Silence
Lilla, Mark, "What Heidegger Wrought," Commentary, January, 1990
Neske, Gunther and Emil Kettering, edd., Martin Heidegger and National Socialism
Otto, Hugo, Martin Heidegger, A Political Life
Rockmore, Tom, On Heidegger's Nazism and Philosophy
Rockmore, Tom and Joseph Margolis, edd., The Heidegger Case
Safranski, Rudiger, Martin Heidegger: Between Good and Evil
Sheehan, Thomas, "A Normal Nazi," N.Y. Review of Books, Jan. l4, l993.
Steiner, George, Martin Heidegger
Wolin, Richard, The Heidegger Controversy