Matthew 7:15-16

A question people continue to ask, decades after his death: how can we take Heidegger seriously as a philosopher, given his outright embrace of Nazism? The instinct to ask the question is the one Jesus referenced in the passage whose citation is the title of the post: When judging prophets, you will know the tree by its fruit.

So if that is right, and it seems right instinctively, poison fruit means a bad tree. But many medicines are poisons if taken in the wrong proportion.

I've been reading Heidegger recently, and some commentaries on him. He is said to be a genius, and if he impressed Hannah Arendt he must have been something like one. On the other hand, I get the strong impression that many of his commentators don't understand what he wanted to say -- not, I mean, that I understand things they have failed to understand, but that I get the sense they are flailing a bit. It is fairly clear that we are still not sure exactly what he meant to say, or why he wanted to say it.

That makes it hard to say just where he went wrong. Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe says it was in being too tied to the organic: favoring the family and therefore the blood, and therefore 'the race,' against the cosmopolitan. But it is possible to err in the other direction too. We often see that from liberal pundits who want to suggest that the US military ought never to be deployed except when it isn't in our interest (for humanitarian reasons, that is, but never because the US has something to gain). It may be that there is a poison here, but it may also be a medicine if you can get it in the right place, and in the right proportion.

Somehow he failed to do that.


MikeD said...

I also am reminded of a saying, "A stopped clock is right twice a day." Just because someone is evil or believes in evil things does not make them always wrong, or make everything they say valueless. Only suspect. For example, Nietzsche believed some awful things, and some of his ideas lead to even more awful beliefs (for example, the Nazis were big fans of many of his ideas), but that does not mean that all of his thinking was therefore worthless.

I do not know Heidegger, nor can I say that I distrust any ideas that he brings to the table. I'd never even heard the name before this post. But I would say, I'd take his writings with a grain of salt just because you describe him as an ardent Nazi. Is that fair? Not necessarily, but the world and life is not fair.

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E Hines said...

Just because someone is evil or believes in evil things does not make them always wrong, or make everything they say valueless. Only suspect.

But it's that suspect part that makes his words, his ideas, valueless. How do I know which of his words have value, when I must suspect them all?

Even the stopped watch has no value--on what basis do I recognize either of the two times of a day that it's telling me the truth?

The value of a Nietzsche or a stopped watch depends entirely on independent corroboration.

Eric Hines

Tom said...

He thought it was Martin Hairdegger, a little-known salon philosopher of the late Enlightenment.

Anonymous said...

Some people are fake big shots. It really can be that simple.

I'm in the process of reading a book right now that I strongly suspect has something useful in it, but the first 80 pages are written in pseudo-intellectual argot. It is, in fact, gibberish. I am hoping that the description of what to do has something worthwhile in it, because the theory is nonsense.

This experience leads me to suggest that maybe nobody really should not take Heidegger seriously as a philosopher precisely because he embraced something so foul as Nazism. If his philosophy misled him that badly, then his philosophy was not useful.

The simpler and more likely interpretation of all his work, however, is that he was just some jerk who got by with fooling people into thinking he was smart, but who actually lacked either the ability or the willingness to actually think anything through for himself.

He probably supported Nazism for venal reasons, not philosophical ones.


Anonymous said...

I suppose I should add that I make an assumption that any coherent philosophy, in the hands of a capable person of good will, should yield good results. The test is not of just the philosophy, but also the philosopher.

Philosophy is like a sword: if it is wielded by an honorable man, it is more likely that an honorable result will be obtained.

MikeD said...

But it's that suspect part that makes his words, his ideas, valueless. How do I know which of his words have value, when I must suspect them all?

I would think you'd be able to trust your own judgement. How else do you determine when an idea has merit and when it does not? Judging something with a gimlet eye does not mean the same thing as discarding what they say out of hand. What his ideas tell us MAY indeed be tainted and worthless because of his Nazi sympathies. But to discard them out of hand, unevaluated at all is hardly critical thinking.

Grim said...

Philosophy is like a sword: if it is wielded by an honorable man....

Well, it's like a sword in two ways. As you rightly say, the man makes the sword do whatever it does.

On the other hand, the discipline of the sword in a very real sense makes the man. Philosophy is also a discipline, and a fighting discipline. Heidegger trained his mind in a particular way.

The question is whether the evil was in the bone (as seems most likely to me), or if it spread to the sword (as seems likely to some, including Lacoue-Labarthe). If you pick up his sword, and train in its use, will it make you tainted?

MikeD said...

Well, let me ask this then. Given a man who lives a life of good, but commits one great evil act. Are all his good works tainted? Or only those acts he performs after the evil act? Are all ideas held by such a man forever cursed?

What if a man lives a life of evil, but performs a great act of good. Are all his ideas forever after still cursed by his evil? What if his act for great good was an attempt at redress for his life of evil?

And what if, like most of the rest of us, a man lives a life. Neither characterized by acts of great good nor great evil. But in his youth he accepts an ideology that he later comes to regret. Are all his ideas after his change of heart still suspect? I'm not saying such is the case with Heidegger. But it is certainly true for me. If all my ideas are suspect because I once held quite liberal beliefs (ideas that I now reject), it's better I should know now rather than waste your time.

Anonymous said...

Heidegger had access to the same discipline as others who turned out better capable of distinguishing good from evil. It wasn't the discipline that led him into evil. Rather, he used the discipline for evil purposes. Apparently, he wasn't all that persuasive.

Whether a person will become tainted or not from exposure to his performance depends on whether that person buys into his heresy. People who like to flirt with evil for relaxation will pick up the taint easily. People on firmer moral footing may become confused, because they do not want to admit to the possibility that the genius had failed a test of decency.

It strikes me that, if people are "flailing" with his meaning, it could be because they sense, but have not yet identified, an unshared assumption between themselves and him. Perhaps that unshared assumption is that he assumed that only his life had value. People with a normal moral foundation don't identify that assumption very easily.

When I pick up an article to quote, I like to know what's in it, so I can signal assent to the part I want to use, and distinguish over whatever I don't want. Citing to work tainted by heresy complicates my job, requiring me to work harder to explain myself and eroding my credibility. It sounds to me like Heidegger is not the kind of person one can cite without causing confusion. If the purpose of philosophy is to provide moral clarity, then he failed.


Grim said...


But in his youth he accepts an ideology that he later comes to regret. Are all his ideas after his change of heart still suspect? I'm not saying such is the case with Heidegger. But it is certainly true for me. If all my ideas are suspect because I once held quite liberal beliefs (ideas that I now reject), it's better I should know now rather than waste your time.

Regret, and repentance, are obviously worthy things. The question that pertains to Heidegger is whether he did (not apparently), and more to the point, whether he could. The question, in other words, is whether his philosophy flowed so much from who he was that it wouldn't make sense for him to repent of it.

Now if that were the case for you, you'd not be asking me the question.

Grim said...


If the purpose of philosophy is to provide moral clarity, then he failed.

I can't quite agree that this is the purpose of philosophy: but it is certainly the purpose of moral philosophy. However, there are other branches of philosophy that aren't chiefly about morality and yet that have moral consequences.

Metaphysics, for example. If you believe in a metaphysics built around God, which includes a real moral law of which God is the author, that has sharp consequences for your moral philosophy. What Heidegger believed was that metaphysics itself was a kind of mistake. It represented an error that humans fell into sometimes -- he started with Descartes -- that ended up putting the theoretical over the practical.

Now that turns out to have consequences for moral philosophy. If there isn't a real metaphysics, then there aren't real moral laws either. They just don't exist. We can write moral laws, but they can say whatever we want them to say.

Now that is a project that the Nazis found very appealing, because Nazism was about an inversion of existing moral codes. That is, they still wanted a moral code -- 'a Good German helps raise up a state based on blood and iron, and makes sacrifices for the good of all Germans.' That's making claims about the importance of being good, the importance of self-sacrifice for the greater good, but also about what it means to be good.

You can't invert morality if "what it means to be good" is fixed. Heidegger had what he took to be good reasons to believe it wasn't fixed: that somehow the whole of the Western tradition had made the same mistake again and again, from Plato and Aristotle to his own generation.

Now I hear that kind of argument a lot, as it happens. Not always from Nazis. :)

E Hines said...

...I must suspect them all[.]

I would think you'd be able to trust your own judgement. How else do you determine when an idea has merit and when it does not?

Suspect, not rejection. Of course I have to evaluate before acceptance/rejection. But, as a practical matter, I shouldn't have to re-plow that field unless I have reason to. With a trustworthy man, I can elide much of that re-plowing and move on (of course risking that the trustworthy man turns out not to be, or is mistaken, at least this time. But the outcome of my own proceedings from that start will give information about that start, too).

Screwed up--even lied in the past? Certainly rehabilitation is possible and every man deserves that chance. But when trust has been broken, it takes a long body of evidence to demonstrate the man has changed, and isn't just putting on an act. As others have pointed out, this man had peers who did better from the same information. Was he an ideologue who was mistaken, or evil? As a practical matter, does it make a difference except to him and to God? Did he move to correct himself?

Eric Hines

Texan99 said...

From what I've read, he fell for the Nazis because he thought they were on the road to some kind of heroic mission of essential transformation from technological modernity to a new kind of poetic "Being," for which the German people were for some reason especially qualified. He didn't necessarily think this was a racial quality -- more of a cultural one -- so he was said to have become quite uncomfortable with Nazi demands that he expel Jews from the university. Nevertheless, he didn't make a public or especially courageous break with Nazis over it until it was rather too late.

It remains unclear to me what about his peculiar philosophy led him to such an error. I'm so allergic to that kind of sterile "it depends on what the meaning of 'is' is" approach to thinking that I tend to assume anyone who can get too caught up in it simply strips himself of the common sense that should show him when he's being led into a moral nightmare. But that's in part just my aversion to angels-on-pinheads thinking, which presumably has its place even though it happens to be perfectly useless to me.

Grim said...

Contemporary philosophy, both analytic and continental, does get wrapped around the axle about questions like that. Still, I find the pursuit of philosophy highly worthwhile.

In part it's because of that problem you brought up recently: the way that a culture contains more information than you can ever know, so you just imitate it as a way of getting the benefits of accumulated knowledge. Of course, then you don't know why you are doing what you are doing, or why it makes sense, and you will almost certainly fail if you try to reason it out.

The study of ancient and medieval philosophy is like having the hidden levers of the human universe revealed, in much the way that studying physics is like finding the levers of the physical universe. I often find the answers to questions I didn't even know to ask, so that whole sections of the culture become rational -- even especially the parts that seemed most arcane and outdated, like the Catholic Church.

Texan99 said...

It's not all philosophy that I find I can't make use of, just some styles.

Grim said...

Yeah, I'm not much inclined to Heidegger's approach either. I'm mostly interested in the question I asked here -- whether the man crafted bad ideas because he was a bad man, or whether bad ideas made him bad.

Texan99 said...

I've never understood what made people swallow the whole Nazi anti-Semitic craziness hook, line, and sinker, but it's not too hard to understand why Germans would have been hungry for some kind of heroic renewal. I'd guess that some in Heidegger's position just didn't understand until it was too late how crazy the Nazi leaders were and how dangerous their ethnic zeal could become.

The man obviously had his head in the clouds; for my taste he was way too abstract and therefore vulnerable to grand Utopian schemes. I'm not sure the minute specifics of his particular abstract Utopianism were the real problem. I give him credit for realizing that anti-Semitism was wrong once the Nazis got enough power to get systematic in their racial hatred. He didn't let his grand scheme entirely obscure the evidence of his senses.

MikeD said...

I've never understood what made people swallow the whole Nazi anti-Semitic craziness hook, line, and sinker
Anti-Semitism was very much a popular position to hold throughout Europe for hundreds of years. Still is, in fact. But that provided a fertile soil for Nazism's scapegoating of all of Germany's problems to be the fault of the Jews. It was transparent bunk of course, but plausible enough to satisfy many Germans.

Who was behind the Communists? Jews. Who was behind the Versailles Treaty? Jews. Who was behind the Kaiser surrendering right when Germany had the Allies on the ropes? Jews. Again... it was sheer nonsense. Yes, some Jews were Communists. But that hardly made them responsible for Communism. Jews responsible for the Versailles Treaty? Hardly. The most Jewish friendly nation amongst the Allies was the US, and even then in the 1910's United States, a Jew would be unwelcome in any "Gentleman's Club", much less the halls of government. Responsible for the Kaiser surrendering? That's obviously nonsense and wishful thinking ("we'd have gotten away with it, if it wasn't for those meddling kids!"), but the German people WANTED to believe that dark, mysterious forces were at the root of all their problems.

People believe stupid things to make them feel better about their lives all the time. To me, it's no great mystery at all why the Germans were so eager to swallow the Nazi's nonsense.

Texan99 said...

But the mystery is why people were so willing to believe all that about the Jews. I know it's not just the Jews, it's xenophobia generally, but anti-Semitism is such a virulent sort. And to go from some inter-tribal strife to the ovens in what seemed like a civilized country in such a short time. After knowing about it all my life, I still can't get it. In part, I suppose, because I have no real idea what it's like to live in a country as wrecked as Germany after WWI.

I've been thinking this morning about my theory of yesterday about a link between excessive abstraction and lack of defenses to atrocity, and I've decided it's silly. I happen not to be comfortable with a high level of abstraction. It's not as though empty, leaden pragmatic materialism didn't lead to atrocities, too. I guess it's just a good idea to be careful with grand ideas that salve ego wounds, and to check ourselves constantly about whether our grand schemes are leading to concrete individual wrongs. In short, I have nothing new (not surprisingly) to add to the enduring mystery of the Holocaust.

Grim said...

There's a history about why it was the Jews, which is also the history about why there were highly-placed Jews of great wealth (and the same family) in nearly every court in Europe in the 19th century. If this is a topic that interests you, the first part of Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism makes a good introduction.

Texan99 said...

Yes, there's a history going back a long, long time. And yet no matter how much I read about it, and I have read a great deal, it never makes fundamental sense to me. It's one of the reasons I feel so strongly about the need to approach people as individuals rather than as members of various teams: this wildly dangerous tendency for scapegoating to get horribly out of control, this inability to see people for what they are rather than as what we think they simply must be because of their membership in some alien group or other.

I do understand something about the human tendency to envy wealthy or powerful insular groups, and to find scapegoats, and so on. None of that will ever truly enable me to understand the gas chambers, or any of the precursor craziness in the form of the pogroms. And from people who managed to found their policies in Christianity, yet! There's no limit to our craziness.

Grim said...

...individuals rather than as members of various teams...

Arendt is very good on that issue, too, in a way that I think helpful. Her take is radically different from yours, in a way. It's in the same place. Look for her discussion of Disraeli and Proust, contrasted with how she deals with people who accepted being defined as "Jewish" or "inverts" (apparently the old word for homosexuals).

Texan99 said...

If you're referring to the passage I'm thinking of, she made a point very much like George H.W. Bush's "soft bigotry of low expectations" -- that a "perverted tolerance" was made possible only by a belief that a particular group was predestined toward some type of defect. Like C.S. Lewis, she thought that respect for human dignity required an acknowledgment of individual free will and therefore the possibility of guilt that couldn't be waved away by some expression like "what can you expect of a Jew" or "a girl." As she argued, it's not a great leap from that attitude toward one of racial predestination.

For her (as for Lewis), the great danger lay in a deterministic or medical view of crime, and I couldn't agree more that it's a view that promises tolerance while delivering a view of human error as a disease to be cured by totalitarian "doctors." But it's also important to me that, in practice, the evil of this kind of system always is worked out in a scheme of group identities rather than the evaluation of concrete individuals. In warning of racial predestination, she clearly found this aspect frightening as well.

Grim said...

What I'm thinking of is her argument about the role of the individual "Jewish" or "invert," not the passages you're thinking about. She makes a point that I think is really right, which is linked to her writings elsewhere that "courage is the political virtue par excellence." (She credits Machiavelli with that line, but endorses it.)

What she praises again and again are individuals who take their natural membership in whatever class (whether being born to Jewish parents, or homosexual) and turn it into something like a form of art. It is creative, and it is individual, because their courage in embracing it transforms them into someone who is undeniably an individual (and not someone who can be shoved into the comfortable popular conception of their category). The ones who internalize the popular definition of who they are ("I am Jewish," as defined by others) are failures, and she treats them with something much like scorn.

That's a little shocking to our contemporary American view, in which victims are the real heroes. In Arendt's view, the victims are partially at fault. She talks about their passive acceptance of victim categories in the first part, and then by the third part (when totalitarianism is in full swing, and these are in concentration camps) she points out how they formed factions that adopted their oppressors' definitions as if it was their real source of identity. The only thing left of who they were is the reason they were sent to the camp.

Now, that's an insight. Confer with your Gloria Steinem quote about not mating in captivity. But she wasn't captive, not really: all the things she did proves that she was in a real sense already free to do those things. It was only that people were telling her she wasn't free. Plainly, no one could really stop her.

Grim said...

Notice, though, how it is different from your view. It is not that they should reject membership in the biological class, and insist that they are to be treated only as individuals, without regard to group status. For Disraeli, nothing was more important to his particular art than being a Jew. For Proust, homosexuality. For Steinem, it was being a woman.

They each embraced being perceived as a member of the groups into which they were born, but then they did being a member of that group in their own unique way. That's what really breaks bonds. Arendt was right about that: it's a wonderful insight.

Texan99 said...

Have I ever written anything that sounded to you like suggesting that women should reject membership in their biological "class"?

Disraeli is a funny example, since he was a secularized and unbelieving Jew most of whose romanticized ideas of Judaism were sheer charlatan cockamamie, as Arendt astutely sums him up in her wonderful "Origins of Totalitarianism." Do you think Arendt argues that diving headfirst into an elaborate conceit of Judaism enabled Disraeli to break bonds? That's not how I read her. "Disraeli's racial convictions and theories about secret societies sprang, in the last analysis, from his desire to explain something apparently mysterious and in fact chimerical. He could not make a political reality out of the chimerical power of 'exception Jews'; but he could, and did, help transform chimeras into public fears and to entertain a bored society with highly dangerous fairy-tales."

I think you must sometimes interpret me as abhorring membership in groups. I don't at all; I only see error in perceiving individuals too much through a lens distorted by preconceptions about the groups to which they belong. I'm very far from supposing that individuals draw nothing from the groups to which they are loyal and from which they draw their traditions. At the same time, when we consider an individual, we'll get off track fast if we let his group membership overshadow much of what he is in himself. "In Christ there is no Greek or Jew . . . ."

It's quite possible to see an individual clearly without ignoring his group status. The former requires seeing what's in front of us instead of what we expected from theory. The latter involves noticing that the bonds between individuals and the groups of which they are members are important to both -- even if they do not play out in uniform or completely predictable ways for each individual.

Grim said...

Oh, I can't help but read her as loving Disraeli. That is not to say she is never critical -- but remember, she also loved (in a more literal sense) Heidegger. And she was a keen observer, as her separate treatment of Eichmann (whom she did not love) shows.

Since you obviously have a copy of the book handy, take a look at her remarks on how Disraeli cheerfully baited the anti-Semites: "how 'a Jewess is now the queen of heaven,' or that 'the flower of the Jewish race is even now sitting on the right hand of the Lord God of Saboath.'"

Or for that matter, her remarks on his relationship with his wife. "[His view of the world] may have been foolish and childish; but when a wife writes to her husband as Lady Beaconsfield wrote to hers, 'You know you married me for money, and I know that if you had to do it again you would do it for love,' one is silenced before a happiness that seemed to be against all the rules."

She says something similar about the 'dragonslayers,' later: especially Lawrence of Arabia, who was only half-one, but that half saved him.

Texan99 said...

Clearly she felt a great affection for him, including his outrageous and theatrical approach to playing a Jew in society. He charmed everyone even while twitting them with Jewish supremacism.

Still, I can't read her as recommending Disraeli's approach to the tricky question of how group identity, particularly in a work investigating the roots of totalitarianism and anti-semitism.

Grim said...

That's interesting, because I find it hard to read any other way. Especially in light of the other thematically similar sections throughout the work, and her later writings on action. (Have you read those? You might be interested, if you haven't, in her proposed distinction between "labor" and "work." I think I talked about that with Elise, once.)

She seems to have viewed Disraeli's ignorance and actual detachment from Jewish tradition as a kind of protection from being defined by others. He didn't know what he was really supposed to be, as it happens, so he had to make it all up since it was so important! And thus, he became an artist -- an actor, in both senses of the word.

Texan99 said...

So if I read the entire oeuvre, you feel I'd agree that she has refuted everything I believe about why it's dangerous to let group identities obscure our perception of the traits of individuals? :-) I'll have to get back to you.

I dare say Disraeli did avoid being pigeonholed as a typical Jew by the simple expedient of knowing almost nothing of Judaism and instead making up a colorful and romantic fantasy about it. I don't blame him for that; his version was both entertaining and attractive, and it can't have been easy to have been excluded from proper society because of his race. Perhaps he felt that to be perceived as an individual at all, he had to re-invent himself as something completely unlike any Jew anyone had previously encountered -- an "exception Jew," in Arendt's phrase.

Grim said...

So if I read the entire oeuvre, you feel I'd agree that she has refuted everything I believe about why it's dangerous to let group identities obscure our perception of the traits of individuals? :-) I'll have to get back to you.

No, I don't think you'll agree she has refuted anything you believe. I know you too well for that. :)

What I think you might come to agree is that I'm interpreting her correctly. But that's an outside chance too! I'm just suggesting further reasons for thinking my reading might be the right interpretation of Arendt (rather than the truth about the actual world).

But you still might not. I'm in disagreement (on different terms) with a very good Arendt scholar over interpreting her. She and I differ on Arendt's ideas about a concept Arendt calls "natality," which my good friend takes to mean something like 'the capacity of every human being to start something new, because of their nature of being born.' I interpret it in a way unified with the concept I've offered here: something like 'a gift of uniqueness each human being has resulting partially from the unbridgeable facts about their biology, combined with their individual decisions about how to develop and live out those beginnings.'

Grim said...

Both are rights of birth, you see: the reason you can't fall into the error Arendt with patent horror of the SS men being 'a thousand men, all of the same type' (here quoting Hitler) is partially the gift of being unbridgeably different. Those differences are gifts.

But if you use this gift rightly (I take it to be clear from her writings), you develop each of these unbridgeable differences in unique ways. Thus you start from a position of uniqueness, and use your 'faculty for creation of the new' to become all the more so.