“Heidegger was a Nazi.” What now?

“B was a bigot” is a phrase that raises various questions. We can say it of various figures, both dead and alive. But this kind of phrase is used for various purposes. In what follows, I’d like consider some implications of this phrase and its cognates. – Let me begin with what might seem a bit of a detour. Growing up in Germany, I learned that we are still carrying responsibility for the atrocities committed under the Nazi regime. Although some prominent figures declared otherwise even in the Eighties, I think this is true. Of course, one might think that one cannot have done things before one was born, but that does not mean that one is cut off from one’s past. Thinking historically means, amongst other things, to think of yourself as determined by continuities that run right through you from the past into the options that make your future horizon. The upshot is: we don’t start from scratch. It is with such thoughts that I look at the debates revolving around Heidegger and other bigots. Is their thought tainted by their views? Should we study and teach them? These are important questions that will continue to be asked and answered. Adding to numerous discussions, I’d like to offer three and a half considerations.*

(1) The question whether someone’s philosophical thought is tainted or even pervaded by their political views should be treated as an open question. There is no a priori consideration in favour of one answer. That said, “someone’s thought” is ambiguous. If we ask whether Heidegger’s or Frege’s (yes, Frege’s!) thought was pervaded by their anti-semitism, the notion is ambiguous between “thought” taken as an item in psychological and logical relations. The psychological aspects that explain why I reason the way I do, often do not show up in the way a thought is presented or received. – Someone’s bigotry might motivate their thinking and yet remain hidden. But even if something remains hidden, it does not mean that it carries no systematic weight. There is an old idea, pervasive in the analytic tradition, that logical and political questions are distinct. But the idea that logic and politics are distinct realms is itself a political idea. All such issues have to be studied philosophically and historically for each individual thinker. How, for instance, can Spinoza say what he says about humans and then say what he says about women? This seems glaringly inconsistent and deserves study rather than brushing off. However, careful study should involve historically crucial ties beyond the question of someone’s thought. There are social, political and institutional continuities (and discontinuities) that stabilise certain views while disqualifying others.

(2) Should we study bigots? If the forgoing is acceptable, then it follows that we shouldn’t discourage the study of bigots. Quite the contrary! This doesn’t mean that I recommend the study of bigots in particular; there are enough understudied figures that you might turn to instead. It just means that their bigotry doesn’t disqualify them as topics of study and that if you’re wondering whether you should, that might in itself be a good reason to get started. This point is of course somewhat delicate, since history of philosophy is not only studied by disinterested antiquarians, but also for reasons of justifying why we endorse certain views or because we hope to find good or true accounts of phenomena. – Do we endorse someone’s political views by showing continuities between their thoughts and ours? Again, that depends and should be treated as an open question. But I don’t think that shunning the past is a helpful strategy. After all, the past provides the premises we work from, whether we like it or not. Rather we should look carefully at possible implications. But the fact that we appropriate certain ideas does not entail that we are committed to such implications. As I said in my last post, we can adopt thoughts, while changing and improving them. That fact that Heidegger was a Nazi does not turn his students or later exegetes into Nazis. However, once we know about the bigotry we should acknowledge as much in research and teaching.

(3) What about ourselves? Part of the reason for making the second remark was that I sometimes hear people say: “A was a bigot; so we shouldn’t teach A. Let’s rather teach B.” While I agree that there are huge numbers of understudied figures that might be taught instead of the same old classics, I don’t think that this line of argument helps. As I see it, it often comes out of the problematic idea that, ideally, we should study and teach only such figures that we consider morally pure. This is a doubtful demand not only because we might end up with very little material. It is also problematic because it suggests that we can change our past at will.** Therefore, attempts at diversifying our teaching should not be supported by arguments from supposedly different moral status; rather we should see that globalisation requires us to eventually acknowledge the impact of various histories and their entanglements. – We don’t teach Heidegger because we chose to ignore his moral status. We teach his and other works because our own thought is related to these works. This has an important consequence for our own moral status. Having the histories we do, our own moral status is tainted. In keeping with my introductory musings, I’d like to say that we are responsible for our past. The historical continuities that we like and wish to embrace are as much our responsibilities as those that we wish to disown. Structurally oppressive features of the past are not disrupted just because we change our teaching schedule.

I guess the general idea behind these considerations is this: The assumption that one can cut off oneself from one’s (philosophical) past is an illusion. As philosophers in institutional contexts we cannot deny that we might be both beneficiaries of dubious heritage as well as suffering from burdens passed down. In other words, some of the bigotry will carry over. Again, this doesn’t mean that we are helpless continuants of past determinants, but it means that it is better to study our past and our involvements with it carefully rather than deny them and pretend to be starting from scratch.


* See especially the pieces by Peter Adamson and Eric Schliesser.

** Additional comment (25 Nov 2018): However, there is a sense in which we can change our intellectual past, namely reassessing the canon and including neglected figures, on the one hand, while relativising the impact of others. – I have to admit that now doubt the conclusion that “attempts at diversifying our teaching should not be supported by arguments from supposedly different moral status”.

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