By Christian Madsbjerg and Gregory Fried, January 1, 2015
WHAT WE KNOW
The German philosopher Martin Heidegger has always been a deeply problematic character. Scholars have long known that Heidegger was an active and unapologetic Nazi. But for the most part, they managed to separate the man from his work. Until now, that is: after examining several of Heidegger’s private notebooks, released just last year, Gregory Fried (“What Heidegger Was Hiding,” November/December 2014) argues that such a separation is no longer possible.
Fried is one of a growing number of academics who claim that Heidegger’s anti-Semitism infected his core philosophical ideas and who have delivered, in essence, an intellectual death sentence. “The notebooks will almost certainly spell the end of Heidegger as an intellectual cult figure, and that is a welcome development,” Fried writes. But he has things backward: philosophers achieve immortality not by escaping the eye of critics but by being subjected to critics, who chisel away at the uninteresting and inconsistent to reveal a bedrock of truth.
All the notebooks provide is further evidence that Heidegger was a flawed person with dangerous political views. His work, like that of other philosophers with problematic biographies, will continue to stand on its own. Marx’s ideas have survived despite his xenophobia; Nietzsche’s, despite his madness. Students still read these thinkers at seminar tables around the world, just as they should Heidegger. However abhorrent Heidegger’s politics, his ideas are more relevant than ever. They tackle today’s most important philosophical question: How can humans find meaning in modern lives?
Heidegger believed that previous philosophers had answered this question incorrectly, assuming that meaning came from external forces. For Plato, truth derived from ideal forms; for Christians, from God; for Nietzsche, from the so-called will to power. Heidegger feared that such worldviews, by directing people’s focus outward, estranged them from their fundamental “being,” turning them into mere resources available to be optimized. Something can be said for that prediction: many businesses now refer to their employees as “full-time resources,” or “FTRs.” They manage them through human resources departments, track them on spreadsheets, and dispose of those they deem unneeded.
Heidegger believed that such logic led to a nihilistic culture that alienated people from where meaning actually lay: in deep involvement with the world they inhabited. People were at their best, he contended, when they collectively engaged with their history, as the French do in what they call “the culture of the table,” a tradition of cooking and conversation now under siege from TV dinners and other processed food. When people got in touch with their roots, they couldn’t be reduced to profit engines for others.
It is true that Heidegger used such concepts to indict Jews in his notebooks, writing that they were “uprooting” German society and promoting a culture of “empty rationality” and “calculative skill.” But just because Heidegger’s hatred made its way into the notebooks doesn’t invalidate his use of similar concepts elsewhere, such as in “Building Dwelling Thinking,” his noteworthy 1951 lecture, in which he never referenced the Jews but still made a stirring case for a more rooted existence.
Further evidence for Heidegger’s theories can be found by looking at the state of the world today. Time and again, the culture Heidegger warned against has sowed misunderstanding in virtually every area of human affairs. As crises of governance have gripped countries around the world, politicians have fed the paralysis by reading their constituents through abstract poll numbers. And because banks calculated risk according to a reductive conception of human nature—as rational and profit maximizing—they led the entire financial system astray in 2008, setting the stage for a crash. If flawed ideas are holding modern society back, then, Heidegger’s offer a way forward. The philosopher’s anti-Semitism, however abominable, shouldn’t stand in the way.
CHRISTIAN MADSBJERG is a founding partner of the innovation consultancy ReD Associates.
Christian Madsbjerg calls me “one of a growing number of academics who claim that Heidegger’s anti-Semitism infected his core philosophical ideas and who have delivered, in essence, an intellectual death sentence.” But that description misunderstands my reaction to what I termed “the end of Heidegger as an intellectual cult figure.” I argued that Heidegger wanted his readers to embrace genuine philosophical questions rather than his own ossified answers—a goal best served by Heidegger’s death as an object of intellectual hagiography.
Taking up Heidegger’s call requires walking a fine line between rejecting the philosopher outright and ignoring his political choices. To do so, one must closely examine Heidegger’s anti-Semitism and his Nazism, assessing how the questions Heidegger formulated and the answers he arrived at led him where they did. Only then can Heidegger’s work retain its value. After all, one doesn’t study philosophy merely to find confirmation in the views of others. Quite the opposite: readers learn the most about themselves by confronting those with whom they deeply disagree.
The question Heidegger took up—of what it meant to be human—is as ancient as philosophy itself and never belonged solely to him. Heidegger rejected any answer that located meaning in the metaphysical, in terms of a supreme being, entity, or system. He argued that meaning instead came from an existence rooted in one’s own time and place. That is why Heidegger hoped Hitler’s movement would occasion a radical, even apocalyptic new beginning to history: the overthrow of liberal universalism and the return to a society grounded in historical tradition. It is also why he saw the Jews—in his mind, one of the prime proponents of the Western metaphysical tradition—as standing in the way.
Madsbjerg is right that Heidegger’s thinking still has much to offer outside the walls of the academy. The conflict between universalism and particularism remains the defining test of today, as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, destroys cities to forward its fundamentalist vision and nativist groups in Europe attack immigrants to serve their nationalist ones. Humanity can confront this continuing challenge only by treating it seriously and philosophically. And Heidegger can still help make sense of it; important thinkers almost always have some ideas that can be broken off from their work as a whole, and one can engage with the questions they take up without accepting their specific answers. In Heidegger’s case, however, one must tread especially carefully, armed with a full recognition of what that whole entails.
This article originally appeared in Foreign Affairs.