Few discoveries are more irritating than those which expose the pedigree of ideas.
“Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar. . .”
-Monty Python’s Flying Circus
A couple of years ago, when I read Arthur Herman’s The Idea of Decline in Western History, I wrote:
One of the great untold stories of 20th-century intellectual history is how a set of beliefs and obsessions originating with radical right-wing intellectuals in the late nineteenth-century and culminating in the rise of the Nazi party in Germany, migrated en masse to radical left-wing intellectuals after World War Two. The list includes pessimism, extreme relativism and nihilism, race as an idée fixe, contempt for liberal bourgeois values, the championing of irrational vitalism over civilized manners, the redemptive and creative power of violence, even environmentalist and New Age ideas. But the overarching ideas, the key attitudes, of this worldview would have to be hatred of laissez-faire capitalism, obsession with race as a determining factor in history, and the conviction that western civilization is doomed. This transmission is signaled by Theodor Adorno, of so-called “Frankfurt School”, who said, “Not the least among the tasks now confronting thought is that of placing all the reactionary arguments against Western culture in the service of progressive enlightenment.” . . . Arthur Herman calls this belief-system “Cultural Pessimism”, and this book is the first attempt at systematically examining its genealogy and anatomy. . . . . Cultural pessimism on the right produced the National Socialists, World War II, and the Holocaust. What might cultural pessimism on the left produce?
A good starting point in tracing the intellectual history of cultural pessimism and its transmission from right to left would be to anlyze the ideas of Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger. Nazi philosopher? Yes, the point must be asserted. Heidegger was a Nazi. And a new book by Emmanuel Faye, reviewed here in The Chronicle of Higher Education, not only attacks the notion held by Heidegger’s (mostly left-wing) modern acolytes that his Nazi membership was unrelated to the philosophy, it also goes beyond the claim of Heidegger’s critics that his Nazism was the natural consequence of his philosophy,and asserts that
his philosophy grew out of his Nazism, forcing us to see it as a kind of philosophical propaganda for Nazism in a different key.
Now, having not read the book, I am in no position to concur with this thesis, but it’s really not hard to see how Nazism and Heideggerian philosophy are natural corollaries. And at this point no one can defend Heidegger’s actions as a Nazi, which came out of genuine conviction and were virulent.
The many indignant comments posted under Carlin Romano’s Chronicle article reveal that this is no irrelevant issue, no minor and arcane debate of philosophical history. One commenter writes:
Hmm. Wouldn’t disagree about Heidegger’s support for Nazism. However, getting rid of Heidegger in twentieth century intellectual life would not be easy. You would have to eliminate half of the courses one finds in college catalogue in the humanities and social sciences. I would say good riddance but very impractical. For example, Richard Rorty’s thought is based on Heidegger as well as Nietzsche and Dewey. Get rid of him as well as all postmodern thinkers? Good luck.
Many of the major left-wing figures of late-20th century philosophy- notably Jean-Paul Sartre and Jacques Derrida- are ardent Heideggerians. But his influence has not waned on a certain segment of the Right, either. Here is an interesting speech by British New Right figure Jonathan Bowden. Bowden also believes that Heidegger’s Nazi party membership was not particularly important, though as I mentioned earlier the historical record says otherwise.
Romano thinks that the correct attitude toward Heidegger is to regard him as silly.
It would seem that Heidegger, likewise, will continue to flourish until even “Continental” philosophers mock him to the hilt. His influence will end only when they, and the broader world of intellectuals, recognize that scholarly evidence fingers the scowling proprietor of Heidegger’s hut as a buffoon produced by German philosophy’s mystical tradition. He should be the butt of jokes, not the subject of dissertations.
I think this is correct. Humor is the proper antidote to pompous mysticism, and Heideggerians are some of the most humorless people in the world. What we need is a Voltaire. Unfortunately, in the 20th century we had only the morose Wittgenstein (or the cantankerous Karl Popper) to counteract Heidegger. But this does remind me of good quote from Wittgenstein that is relevant:
Humor is not a mood but a way of looking at the world. So if it is correct to say that humor was stamped out in Nazi Germany ,that does not mean that people were not in good spirits, or anything of that sort, but something much deeper and more important.