As every sentient human adult (and especially department secretaries) knows, intelligence doesn’t exclude stinkerhood. Many are the geniuses who are also stinkers.
I think these remarks are pertinent to the latest round in the Heidegger controversy. There is a suprisingly good essay about this in the current NYRB by Peter Gordon. With the publication of the black notebooks, we have even more evidence that Heidegger was a Nazi all through the Hitler years. Of course, Lowith back in 1935 proclaimed that Heidegger’s “lean” towards naziism was no temporary aberration, done for the sake of the university. To that kind of special pleading, I think we can all say: suck my cock! But of course in a genteel and philosophische way. The black notebooks apparently add more proof to the case that Heidegger was also a provincial anti-semite as well. Case closed.
Of course, the Heidegger controversy has its political coloring. The same people who use Heidegger’s Nazi-hood to hit deconstruction or France or continental philosophy on the head – usually american academics traveling between the New Criterion and the New York review of Books circuit – have little to say about, say, Werner von Braun, or the whole flotilla of Nazis that were calmly taken up by the Americans in Operation Paperclip. Say what one will about Heidegger, he was not an SS commander in a concentration camp, which is what von Braun was at Peenemunde. It was Braun, not Heidegger, who was photographed with American presidents. But you very rarely see American intellectuals slagged for Braun, whereas French intellectuals are supposedly crypto-collaborationists for using Heidegger.
However the outrage, if outrageously selective, is still justified. And it is a good question as to how much Naziism penetrated Heidegger’s philosophical writings.
However, here is where the history of philosophy, as it is usually told, misleads us. As it is usually told, the history of philosophy is a pageant of heads. Here’s Plato, then his “student” Aristotle, and so on. Each great man clutches a book, and “influences” or “refutes” other great men.
This is a pitifully sad way of doing intellectual history. Great heads are as mired in their contemporary circumstances as little heads. To talk about Heidegger’s philosophy and Naziism, one has to foreground that philosophy in the tendencies with which it was contemporary, and with which it had dozens of capillary relations. A materialist history of philosophy would do away with great heads and insert innumerable small ones, looking for intellectual patterns that interpenetrate economic, political and social ones. Sein und Zeit is properly placed with, for instance, Franz Rosenzweig’s Stern der Erloesung, and with Bloch’s Geist der Utopie, and with Mann’s Betrachtungen der Unpolitische, and with essays of Simmel’s and Lukacs’. It means putting it in relation to the anxieties concerning mechanization that were a commonplace of newspaper feuilletonists pre-1914 – notably Kraus’ notion of the “black magic” of the press. It means even looking at the severely marginalized, figures like Ludwig Klages. Etc. Heidegger didn’t come up with his texts in splendid isolation, after all.
In other words, it means pulling apart Heidegger’s philosophy like Roland Barthe pulled apart Balzac’s Sarrazine in S/Z. This isn’t to dispute that Heidegger’s philosophical texts were often full of genius, but that it was, so to speak, the genius of the clinamen – the genius of the swerve that is left after the combinatorial elements are mapped.
In a sense, one could say of Heidegger what Nietzsche said of the New Testament – that one should read his works wearing gloves. And I think that one should read them against the grain of the author’s stinko intent. Sometimes – as in the lectures on Nietzsche, which were so full of grandiose cliches that I have never been able to finish them – stinkerism overrides thought, here, for sure.
To return to the greater themes – definitely, in the world of philosphy, something was happening that all the figures I have named were responding to. On the one hand, there was the revolution in logic that seemed to allow philosophy to be dissolved in science, and on the other hand, there was the return to the transcendental thematic – shared by Husserl and the numerous graphomaniac neo-Kantians – which seemed to offer a discursive escape route from the positivist prison – which was a species of the iron cage of modernity that Weber was writing about. In Weberian terms, the philosophers and writers I’ve named were trying to carve out a region for charismatic legitimation, and in so doing often reified charisma as something that resisted and opposed the technostructure.
Retrospectively, it is easy to see that instead of opponents, these movements were often secret allies.
But this gets me far from where I wanted to go, which is simply: yes to Heidegger as a stinker, but also yes to Sein and Zeit, alas alas.