Heidegger: Uses and Abuse(s)

Following his post ‘‘Heidegger was a Nazi’ What now?’, Martin Lenz invited me to join the discussion.

There has been a lot written about whether we can separate out Heidegger’s philosophical work from his politics, in particular whether Being and Time – which is often seen as his most significant contribution – can be ‘saved’. There is a lot of excellent scholarship in this area (see for example the work of Mahon O’Brien), but this is not my particular field of expertise. Nevertheless, while I do not feel I can speak directly to the historical question, I would say that, personally, when I first encountered Being and Time as an undergraduate, I didn’t read it and think ‘this guy is definitely a Nazi’. However, once you have this knowledge it obviously makes you reflect on the writing, and there are certain points in the text (the issue of destiny etc), which can be read as problematic in light of his Nazism. Although I do wonder to what extent these things are read into the text in light of knowledge of his politics. I would also add that these more problematic aspects are, to my mind, not the key contributions of Being and Time and that what I take to be the more important concepts and ideas can be employed in other contexts without being ‘infected’ by his politics. In this vein, one must also note the influence of Heideggerean ideas, not only on the French tradition, but also for example on Arendt’s work. If Heidegger’s oeuvre is infected by his politics, does this mean that any work, or any thinker, that draws on his ideas is similarly infected? I think not.

Knowledge of Heideggerean ideas can help to enhance our understanding of other key thinkers, as I argue in my paper Beauvoir and Women’s Complicity in their own Unfreedom. Reading the notion of complicity in The Second Sex in light of the notions of falling and fleeing in Being and Time helps to bring about new ways of thinking about complicity that are not available if we just understand the notion of complicity with regard to the Sartrean idea of bad faith, or in light of the Republican tradition.

With regard to the broader debate about philosophers with, to put it mildly, ‘dodgy politics’, I think it is very striking that Frege, for example (who Martin does note in his original blog post), is so often not mentioned in this context and that these debates appear to be had almost exclusively in relation to Heidegger and not other thinkers who would also serve to make the same point. I would not in any way want to defend Heidegger’s politics, but I do think appeal to his politics is often used as a way to dismiss his work because people have other reasons for not wanting to engage with it, and this is an easy way to dismiss him. I’ve had people dismiss questions I’ve asked at conferences because (after a couple of follow up questions) it’s become apparent that I might be using Heideggerean ideas as a touch stone. In the formal discussion they’ve said ‘oh I don’t know anything about him’ and then shut down the discussion, even though knowledge of Heidegger wasn’t necessary to engage with the point. I don’t think if the same point was made using, for example, Kantian ideas or something inspired by Descartes anyone would dream of dismissing this in the same way. I’ve also had senior people tell me ‘you shouldn’t work on Heidegger, you’ll never get a job’. I think this attitude is unhelpful. Yes, his political views are abhorrent, but given his influence on other key thinkers and traditions I don’t think we can just dismiss his work.

I also think there seems to be an underlying assumption that anyone who works on Heidegger just uncritically accepts his ideas and worships him as a god, which is perhaps true of some (bad) Heidegger scholarship. But my own work, which draws on Heideggerean resources to make points in feminist philosophy, does not treat him in this way. One seems to encounter the attitude in a lot of people who are critical of Heidegger scholarship that anyone who works on him has been inducted into a kind of cult and completely lacks agency, that they can’t separate out the potentially fruitful ideas from those that may be politically compromised. Or that if a particular concept or idea does have some problematic elements, the scholar in question just wouldn’t be able to see it or critique it.

Aristotle, Hegel, Nietzsche all say some pretty problematic things about women, but this hasn’t stopped feminist philosophers from using their ideas and it doesn’t make the feminist scholarship that arises from this work somehow compromised, tainted, or anti-women. I think the point should be about how we engage with these thinkers and what we can do with them, rather than just dismissing them out of hand (often by people without a sufficient understanding of their work).

Charlotte Knowles, University of Groningen.


6 thoughts on “Heidegger: Uses and Abuse(s)

  1. In her Netflix special earlier this year, Hannah Gadsby denies the bracketing of subjectivity from subject matter, what Professor Knowles calls separat[ing] out the potentially fruitful ideas from those that may be politically compromised.” Gadsby’s example from her Netflix appearance is Picasso. She wants her audience to face up to the usual false separation invoked when things become uncomfortable with a famous person’s history. The art people make, the books they publish, all are part of a whole. Gadsby’s point is that Picasso’s abuse of women cannot be bracketed from his reputation as an artist.

    Moira Donegan in “The New Yorker” captures the key moment in the Netflix special (the next paragraph is the excerpt):

    Gadsby holds an art-history degree, and at one point in her show she shifts to discussing the lives of famous artists. “I hate Picasso,” she says, “but you’re not allowed to.” In his forties, the painter—married, famous, and at the height of his artistic career—carried on an affair with a teen-age girl named Marie-Thérèse Walter. “Does it matter?” Gadsby asks. “Yeah, it does matter.” Picasso later said of his affair with Walter, “It was perfect. I was in my prime, she was in her prime.” Gadsby goes on to explain the obvious, that no girl is in her prime in her teen years.

    Heidegger’s affair with his 18-year-old student, Hannah Arendt, is not considered part of “the trouble with Martin” among Heideggerians. Maybe now, in the light of Gadsby’s dismantling of the bracketing strategy, what happened between Heidegger and Arendt deserves revisiting.

    Elzbieta Ettinger started down that road in the 1990s in a book about Heidegger and Arendt. Ettinger writes, “It was natural [for Heidegger] to regard her labors [on his behalf] as a privilege he accorded her, for in so doing he proved that he trusted her.” Arendt was aware of how she was being treated, complaining in one letter that “[Heidegger] does not know how to conduct himself,” and in another that “he finds unbearable that my name appears in public, that I write books, etc.”

    In the “The Trouble with Martin” collection in “Philosophy Now” from earlier this calendar year, Babette Babich excuses Heidegger’s misogyny. She writes, “A good philosopher may be liable to political error, anti-Semitism, racism, misogyny.” What’s hard to stomach about scholars (from Caputo to Joanna Hodge to Jean-Luc Nancy to Stanley Cavell, and now to Professor Knowles) is their desire to persuade the world that we should take ethical guidance from Heidegger. The unembarrassed Heideggerians won’t abandon their hero, but now Gadsby has made it much harder for them by calling out *their* ethical failure.

    It’s not, as Professor Knowles insists, possible to keep herself and others “safe” from people like Nietzsche and Heidegger, practitioners of esotericism, whose works are programmed to lure in well-intentioned people to further an ideology to which the well-intentioned imagine themselves immune or superior. Something like saying: “the fascism and misogyny won’t rub off on me, have nothing to do with me.”

    If Gadsby hasn’t made the case forcefully enough, perhaps Geoff Waite’s words from his debate with Catherine Zuckert might bring home the point (the next paragraph is the excerpt from Waite’s article):

    The problem remains that *true* dialogue and moderation have long been co-opted not only by exo/esotericism but also by capitalism, in its various political modes, just as it has co-opted virtually everything else. Communism, or other alternative practices to capitalism, must thus be leery of prophets crying “dialogue, dialogue, dialogue!” (or “peace, peace, peace!”) [or in Professor Knowles’s case, “engage!”] when there precisely *is* no dialogue (or peace). And, what is more, there *should be none* – if and when the only dialogue (or peace) is the one controlled and manipulated by transnational capitalist hegemony (Gramsci’s “non-coercive coercion”), when the discrepancy between the hyperrich and hyperpoor grows by the nanosecond, and when all of us (meaning by “all of us,” *all of us*) run the risk of collaborating with it and of ignoring or concealing this simple fact.


  2. I saw Nannette when Gadsby performed it at the Soho theatre after her Edinburgh run, before she released the Netflix special, but as I recall her point differs from mine in that, in the case of Picasso, many people do not know about his biography (or at least downplay it). Whereas in the case of Heidegger this is often all they know.

    You misunderstand me if you take me to say that we should take ‘ethical guidance’ from Heidegger. Again, you fall into the trap of assuming that anyone who engages with his work must worship him like a god. My claim is simply that we shouldn’t say it is impermissible to engage with his work. I never use the use the word ‘safe’ in my post or try and tell other people they *should* engage. Again, this is not a cult and I am not trying to ‘induct’ anyone. My point is just that to dismiss out of hand the scholarship of all the people who do work on him or somehow use his work is unhelpful.

    Furthermore, if we say we should not engage with any philosophers who were misogynistic then that means we should pretty much bin the lot of them, (with a few notable exceptions). The same goes for a great deal of art and literature. Yes, we might not want to exalt them as ‘great men’, a sentiment I can get behind, but that’s a different claim from saying we should burn all the copies of Being and Time or put all of Picasso’s work in the shredder. I heard people talking on the radio about Roald Dahl this morning, discussing his racism and anti-semitism, but arguing for the ‘relative autonomy’ of his work. Why is this extended to some authors and not all? Again, I suggest it is often used as a technique when people have other reasons for wanting, or not wanting, to engage with the work of a particular writer. Not always, but often. I’m not saying we should ignore the objectionable bits of people’s biographies or character, but I do think that we should seriously consider Roland Barthes’ claims about the death of the author.

    Yes, one approach would be to write off all of those with objectionable views. But if we spent our whole lives not engaging with people who were sexist or misogynist, there probably wouldn’t be that many people left to talk to or engage with. Isn’t it better to engage and try and improve the situation, rather than just ignore it? Wouldn’t it be more fruitful to (re)examine these figures with a critical eye, and see if there is anything useful in their work? To open up conversations rather than shut them down?** With regard to issues of sex and gender, Heidegger appears distinctive among those from the history of philosophy in *not* saying anything objectionable about women, sex or gender in his philosophical work. Indeed, in the Metaphysical Foundations of Logic we find a claim about the the neutrality of Dasein: Dasein ‘is neither of the two sexes. But here sexlessness is not the indifference of an empty void’ but should be understood as ‘primordial positivity and potency’. This offers us a way to think about sex and gender, not as a duality or in binary terms, but as something more akin to what we find in Butler’s work and the idea of sex and gender as a multiplicity, an idea that has been hugely influential in freeing up the way we think about sex and gender and as such having positive social impacts. To this extent, it seems like it is more fruitful and productive to think critically about, and take seriously, this idea of sex and gender as a multiplicity (to take just this one example) and examine what we can do with it, or how it challenges existing notions, rather than consigning it to the rubbish bin of history because of the worry that it might be infected with some of the objectionable character or politics of the person who wrote it.

    **On this point see: https://schwitzsplinters.blogspot.com/2015/09/philosophical-conversations.html?fbclid=IwAR39HpzNl63T5Aklx9fa0xChPVOLH_YXx52SNE2ZG7Zz7wFqiCr3ez1kDvE (Thanks to Martin Lenz for drawing this piece to my attention).

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  3. The earlier posting does have you writing: “I think the point should be about how we *engage* with these thinkers and what we can do with them.” I may be faulted for describing that as an imperative, but it certainly had a hortative tone.

    Your questions: “Isn’t it better to engage and try and improve the situation, rather than just ignore it? Wouldn’t it be more fruitful to (re)examine these figures with a critical eye, and see if there is anything useful in their work? To open up conversations rather than shut them down?”

    My questions: The “critical eye” is looking *only* for what’s “useful”? What is “the situation” that “we” are trying to “improve”? Why is mere amelioration our goal, given “the situation”? We do not seem to be seeing together philosophy’s esoteric tradition of which Nietzsche and Heidegger are part — described in detail, but arguably without *engagement*, by Arthur Melzer in “Philosophy Between the Lines” (U of Chicago P, 2014).

    My sense is that part of that “situation,” based on your posting, is some form of identity politics (e.g., via the invocation of Butler), with which I wish to have no truck, but which I would like to suggest is symptomatic of the “situation” Heidegger sought to inflame via his allegiance to, and enthusiasm for, nationalism, and to a nationalism that sought the death of categories of certain kinds of human beings and of certain kinds of politics, i.e., communism, an ideology that eschews identity politics in favor of empowering forms of work that are maximally liberatory for humanity. To cite Marx, the goal for “the situation” is not amelioration, but “the *real* movement which abolishes the present state of things.”

    You have occupied the liberal high ground by wanting “to open up conversations rather than shut them down.” My response is a quotation from Kojin Karatani (from his “Architecture as Metaphor”): “What Plato (Socrates) proposed was not the idea that reason resides immanently in the world or self but the idea that only those propositions that pass through the dialogue can be acknowledged as rational. Those who reject the dialogue are considered irrational, no matter how profound or how vigorously argued their truth.”


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