The first time I had any Heidegger assigned in a class, we read an essay out of his Pathmarks collection, “Phenomenology and Theology”. It was Fall of 2014, so the lecture came with the caveat that Heidegger was a Nazi, and there was some ongoing controversy over the recent publication of his private notebooks, although the professor felt things were being unfairly stacked to make him look guilty by publishing them under the title The Black Notebooks. In any case, it need not worry us in a class on the philosophy of religion, so we were encouraged to worry about possible problematic baggage on our own time, but in the space of the classroom we’d simply be focusing on the philosophical content in the assigned essays. This attitude prevailed even in lengthier seminars that focused on Heidegger’s thinking, and it’s an attitude that I picked up more or less wholeheartedly as I started to focus more of my attention on his thinking. Heidegger’s work seemed devoid of problematic content, too esoteric and even somewhat subversive to really fit well with the totalitarianism of the Nazi’s in any case, so the frequent remarks by scholars suggesting it was a blip on an otherwise solid record seemed to check out.
I was reminded of these early days of studying Heidegger ‘innocently’ as I worked through the latest book on Heidegger’s politics, Richard Wolin’s Heidegger in Ruins. The book didn’t force a 180-degree turn; I’d already been growing increasingly ambivalent about the usefulness and innocence of much of his thought for some time, but reading Wolin’s book did raise a number of personal philosophical questions for myself that I want to try to tease out, although first it may be worth discussing the book.
Wolin’s earlier The Politics of Being, first published in 1992, has remained one of the classic studies on Heidegger’s relationship to Nazism, and even received a second edition with the publication of Heidegger’s notebooks with a new preface that detailed some of the controversy around them. With his latest book, almost twice as long as it’s earlier iteration, Wolin treads a lot of similar territory, but with a lot more material to work with. The newest material will be the first and final chapters.
The first is likely to kick up the most intense firestorm of controversy, since it condemns not just Heidegger but many scholars around him. I have distinct memories of spending some time browsing volumes in the Heidegger section of my college library; various primary and secondary sources, monographs and anthologies, all shapes and sizes. Above them all though was a massive uniform collection of blue and red volumes, Heidegger’s complete works in German, the famous Gasemtausgabe. I never got around to learning German so it remains inaccessible to me, but I’m vaguely familiar with a lot of it’s contents and organization because of the way Heidegger is often cited in secondary sources, GA Vol, Pg being a familiar citation style to me. The visual image of the massive collection and the systematic exploration of it by various commentators who were able to read it gave me a distinct impression of completeness, even if inaccessible to me. Wolin’s book reveals this to be something between a half-truth and an outright farce. After the war, Heidegger spent a lot of personal effort tweaking and adjusting much of his writings and lectures he’d given during the 30’s and 40’s to tone down any political angles that might be too obvious and troubling in hindsight. That he acted in a cowardly and self-serving manner is disappointing, but ultimately not surprising. What was surprising to me was finding out how many people aided in his quest to cleanse himself of his political affiliations. Various editors had allowed certain slips to pass, and translators had also had a hand in taming the content for people like me, reading him in English. For example, if one encounters the word ‘leader’ in an English translation, a footnote might helpfully point out that the word in German is Fuhrer, although this doesn’t necessarily connote troubling political connotations. Technically true, although if one is translating a philosophical lecture originally presented in the mid 1930’s, and if one also neglects to mention the word Leiter was also available to the writer if they wanted a less political alternative, this would constitute academic malpractice. (47) This is just one of the many examples Wolin piles on of ways in which Heidegger has been abetted in trying to rework his image after the war as politically innocent. Perhaps most embarrassing though is the fact that Heidegger’s literary estate has been handed down through his family, left to interested parties to dole out editorial and translation duties to whom they see fit. Scholarly rigor has then been left behind in favor of personal ties. This was especially frustrating to read, as someone with a couple shelves full of works by and about Heidegger, to realize there’s a large question-mark now hanging over the veracity of many of these texts, and that it isn’t simply the maliciousness of one person but a whole host of people who have for various reasons decided to engage in this process of coverup. The chapter itself ends somewhat ambiguously because, as Wolin points out, there is much in Heidegger’s private writings we are still not being allowed to see. Wolin writes:
in keeping with family tradition, the new executor of Heidegger’s literary estate will be the philosopher’s granddaughter Almuth Heidegger...According to Heidegger’s new literary executor, the additional volumes would consist of materials from the philosopher’s estate that were currently barred from public viewing until 2046, when the existing copyright was due to elapse. She added, suggestively, that an initial glance at the texts in question revealed the existence of “politically tricky passages,” declining to specify what politically tricky” meant or entailed – an avowal that led to speculation that the so-called ‘supplementary volumes’ was meant to serve as a ‘depot’ or ‘bad bank’ for a subset of politically toxic materials. (56)
This is appalling and embarrassing, and really just the tip of a massive iceberg Wolin spends the first chapter outlining. That we are being taunted with possibilities but held up by family legacies and copyright issues speaks not only to the shame of the Heidegger-dilemma, but the sheer ridiculousness of it all, the fact that many people are being misled on a number of fronts.
In spite of this missing material, however, Wolin spends the rest of the book assembling a powerful case about Heidegger’s political thinking, that his thought was political throughout. Much of his effort is dedicated to discussing many of Heidegger’s peers, building a cultural and intellectual milieu, and showing that Heidegger was largely right at home with many of the most reactionary currents of his time. Readers of The Politics of Being will be familiar with the basic thrust of much of Wolin’s work here, although many of the arguments are heavily expanded and fleshed out. Heidegger’s antisemitism is no longer an implied conclusion a number of threads point towards but a concretely manifest idea he had. Given what the Black Notebooks reveal and what we know about the ambiguous veracity of his previously published other work of the period, one wonders what other sorts of remarks we are missing, but Wolin has more than enough to prove Heidegger was antisemitic throughout his life, that it was a feature rather than a bug of his thinking and that his antisemitism was largely in tune with that of the Nazi party. This last bit was something of a surprise to me, since I’d previously thought that his antisemitism, to the degree that it was there, was of a largely cultural-historical sort rather than the crude biologism he often criticized in the party (this is not to say it was better, just of a different stripe). His remarks throughout the Black Notebooks and his famous claim in a 1935 lecture on the superficiality of Nazi’s who forget the movements ‘inner greatness’ seemed to suggest his turn towards an ethereal political spirituality, as opposed to a politics rooted in biology. Wolin argues throughout that “Nazi race thinking shunned the evidentiary straitjacket of ‘bourgeois’ natural science. Instead, it was, first and foremost, the archetypal expression of modern ‘political myth.’” (73) He continues elsewhere;
Apologetic attempts to vindicate Heidegger on the grounds that he opposed National Socialist race doctrine founder, since they rest on a fundamental misunderstanding concerning the epistemology of race thinking. Nazi race discourse was consistently suffused with mystical and spiritual elements. As such, it was awash in pseudoscience. Hence, in all its variants, race thinking promoted an antiscientific ‘sacralization’ of Blut, Volk, and Boden. The idea of Deutschtum qua Herrenrasse, or ‘master race,’ was one such ‘element.’ Moreover, among the ‘master thinkers’ of Nazi race doctrine, there was broad agreement about the need to transcend the limitations of nineteenth-century ‘materialism’ and ‘scientism.’ (138)
Much more commentary follows these pages (some of which we’ll return to in a moment), but the final chapter is also worth noting as one of the most original the book has on offer, looking at the ways in which Heidegger has been picked up by a number of neoreactionary movements and thinkers, including Alexander Dugin. This line of argument has already been developed by Ronald Beiner (2018), but it is convincingly shown that reactionary readings of Heidegger are not missing the mark as much as Heidegger’s more progressive readers have often insisted.
To some, this book will read as something of a revelation. To me, it felt more like a culmination, a final marker on a path I’d already been stumbling upon for some time, away from the image of a politically innocent or neutral Heidegger and more towards one who was undeniably political (and politically reactionary, at that). The book stirred up a lot of thoughts partly because of it’s content, but also because I read it at a time when I’ve started to gain some critical distance not just towards Heidegger, but the younger version of myself who had been so captivated by his thinking. It prompted me to revisit the intellectual trajectory I’ve been on in the last decade, Heidegger’s role in it, and what it might say about me, and the more notes I took, the more they took the form of a matryoshka doll, with a sort of memoir buried in a review.
As I said at the beginning, I encountered Heidegger a decade ago, right around the same time the Black Notebooks were coming out, so while I was simply trying to get acquainted with some of the basic terminology, a debate was springing up in the background about the political nature of it all, little of which compelled me, partly because I was uninterested in politics at the time, but also because regardless of Heidegger’s personal politics, his esoteric thinking seemed to be a vibrant and new way of rethinking everything in a thorough, systematic fashion. I was halfway through my philosophy BA, and had become somewhat disillusioned with philosophy. Having gone in with a naive confidence in our ability to construct vast logical systems that explained everything, I’d run somewhat aground, unclear if such a thing was possible or even desirable. Initially intrigued by analytic philosophy, particularly epistemology, I’d come around to thinking there were certain limitations to what pure logic could do for us, and that even if you could prove something in the abstract, making it philosophically compelling was an entirely different problem. In retrospect, I think a lot of this came less from the content of analytic philosophy itself and more from some professors who generally fell flat in terms of delivering it in a compelling way, and have since grown more cautiously interested and optimistic about certain strands, but at the time it felt the world of ‘logic’ was impenetrable and unimportant.
On the other hand, I’d been absolutely compelled by earlier readings I’d done in the continental tradition; I’d dipped my toes into Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Beauvoir and Jaspers at various points, and they seemed to be pointing at something more compelling, even if often in more fragmentary ways. Joseph Campbell also knocked me completely sideways when I encountered him. I’d generally accepted a detached, logical approach to reality that had left me feeling unclearly suspicious towards religion and art, unclear what it might have to offer, so Campbell’s emphasis on the psychological significance rather than literal truth offered a newer, more promising way to think about religion, art and literature. None of this is to wholeheartedly endorse or embrace all these thinkers, or to say I embraced them at the time for the best of reasons, but just to backtrack and understand where I was when I encountered Heidegger, who seemed to be moving in parallel with a number of these thinkers, but grounding the ideas more deeply and systematically. Digging into his work felt like finally finding what philosophy had always promised; deeper understanding of myself and the world around me, a sense of what it was all about, a compelling reason to live a good life. Reading Being and Time, first in fragments as a student, and then in it’s entirety shortly after graduating, was a revelatory bombshell, and I can distinctly remember that period of my life, slowly tackling a couple sections every day after work, a few extras on weekends, my brain rewiring itself in response to this radical new framework.
It needs to be said that this was an intensely confusing time in my life for very unphilosophical reasons. I’d graduated with a philosophy degree, with little idea what I wanted to do with my life beyond continuing to do philosophy, although I hadn’t realized this until it was too late to go to grad school right out of undergrad; it would have to wait, if it happened at all. So I started poking around for work, something white-collar and respectable, determined to not be one of the stereotypical philosophy graduates who can’t get a real job and is instead stuck serving mocha’s and scrubbing toilets for the rest of their life, or becoming a bookseller at a local bookstore if they’re one of the elite. I also was in love, but she had a white-collar job, a real one, so I felt I needed one as well to ‘be on her level.’ This gave me a dual-reason to be concerned with getting a ‘real’ job, and the job-search slowly became more frantic and anxiety-inducing. Did I want any of these jobs? On the whole, no. In fact, I didn’t even know what a lot of them were. I went to a lot of interviews and spent portions of it trying to figure out what exactly the job was, usually to no avail (I still don’t understand what most white-collar workers do). So I was pursuing a life I didn’t want or understand for all the wrong reasons. We are not on a good path.
In the background of this was the rise of reactionary politics in the form of Donald Trump (I graduated in the Spring of 2016) and the Alt-Right, which made more appallingly apparent the way my life was intertwined with politics and economics. To some degree I’d been aware of some sociological basics and the fundamentals of social justice; privilege was a thing, and as a straight, cisgendered white male from fairly wealthy parents, I had it. This was at times a bitter pill, because I was anxious and unhappy to the point of being suicidal. I was working a dead-end factory job that paid little, forced to choose between living in a house shared with half a dozen others or going back to live with my parents (which I would eventually do).
Needless to say, I was not in a good place. However there was a glimmer of hope, namely that, if Being and Time was correct, this way of life was an interpretation of life’s possibilities, and other interpretations were possible. Heidegger’s move was to take the field of hermeneutics and apply it to existence more broadly simultaneously weakened our world, turning it from a capital-R Reality into a reality, one with a history of decisions that could be critically examined to try and reroute our course. What’s more, Heidegger’s existentialism, the critique of the average-everydayness of the crowd, was a lightning bolt to my Midwest-suburban existence. I think often of the scene in Mad Men, near the end, where Don is in a meeting at a large agency. The meeting starts off with a story about a generic man who lives both anywhere and nowhere, “Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio…” I grew up in the shadow of this place and this man. Not my dad specifically, but the image of the everyman who I thought I was supposed to aspire to be, but was secretly growing suspicious of. But this suspicion couldn’t help but give way to broader suspicions, since this man was invariably tied to various other contexts; a certain type of woman, job, home, politics and life story, all of which were under critical scrutiny both because of my personal tensions with them, as well as the broader political transformations happening around me. Trump, after all, supposedly was speaking on behalf of and loved by this ordinary everyman, was he not?
So a book criticizing the leveling character of modern existence, the way we are all made into on-demand resources, or implicitly encouraged to conform to certain social standards, felt like just the sort of book needed to point the way forward, out of all these predicaments. It seemed utterly bizarre that the man who wrote this book would later go on to endorse and support a totalitarian regime, so when certain scholars or commentators insisted it was a brief and philosophically inconsequential flirtation, I was inclined to believe them in large part because in my own personal experience spoke to that conclusion. I was becoming more progressive in a variety of beliefs on Heideggerian grounds.
I say all this for two reasons. One is to highlight the value of Wolin’s book, which does a lot of work not only explicating key philosophical ideas of Heidegger’s but putting them back into their own intellectual context. Authenticity, alienation, modernity, technology, art, subjectivity and experience are all rich philosophical categories that can be tied together in a variety of ways and in a variety of directions; Heidegger engaged with all of them in a very particular context, and for particular purposes. A particularly interesting chapter, tellingly titled “Arbeit Macht Frei”, Wolin looks at Heidegger and his peers views on work and labor. He describes alienation from work, the meaningless of it, in ways that resonated with me, caught between dead-end jobs that did little beyond tire me out and waste my time. The later writings on technology felt prescient to me, since they helped me see that I myself had been converted into standing-reserve material awaiting use. The alienation of Being and Time also felt relevant, since this was not a life I had chosen; it was simply something I was expected to do for the sake of profits. This is why Heidegger appears in the footnotes of a number of contemporary critical theorists, since he gives such compelling descriptions of life under late capitalism, and yet Wolin points out that he veers away from critical theory in his diagnoses and prescriptions. Rather, Heidegger’s remarks are part of a larger struggle that was occurring over the meaning of labor and alienation. On the one hand was a Marxist explanation, one too radical and subversive for me to embrace quite yet. Against this, “the German Right became obsessed with redirecting working-class loyalties away from ‘Marxist internationalism’ and toward the patriotic ends of German nationalism.” (176) In actual practice, this can at best emerge in the form of trivial cliches that redefine service and hierarchy as the highest form of freedom. Heidegger himself asked
On what basis does the Volk attain its true composition and unity? Only insofar as the actions and reactions of every individual, group, and social stratum is conceived as Arbeit. Thanks to the new spirit of Gemeinschaft, Arbeit, for the first time, attains its authentic meaning. ‘Der Arbeiter’ is not, as Marxism would have it, a simple object of exploitation...whose salvation lies in class struggle. Arbeit is neither a commodity, nor does it merely serve to produce goods for others. (178)
With passages like this it becomes clear that Heidegger is trying to pull our understanding politically as well as philosophically, that there’s an angle here, and it generally ends, at best, in trivialities about workers being kinder to each other and recognizing their place in a larger social system. I make things on an assembly line so somebody else somewhere can enjoy them. At some point, it failed to hold water for me, and I needed some other explanation for why work sucked so much. Unfortunately, if one stays with Heidegger in hopes of eventually finding this, you will be taken either into some hidden history of the forgottenness of being, or into conspiracy theories about Jewish puppet-masters pulling strings on capitalist-puppets. The latter was an obvious dead-end, while the former, perhaps philosophically interesting, was highly impractical. Yes, I could take his advice from the Contributions to wait and simply prepare the ground for the future ones who might someday be able to course-correct off our pathway to oblivion, but if this is the best we can do, then there is little reason to continue living.
Obviously I’m still here, so at some point I managed to jump ship, finding other thinkers to supplement Heidegger, although I want to bring up the second reason for writing up my own partial biography here. Aside from missing Heidegger’s initial context that he’d written in, I’d also encountered him in my own, and this tends to get missed quite often, and I think speaks to why I was so enamored with his thought for so long. I grew up as a ‘normal’ kid in a normal time and place. Obviously that’s not true, but it felt normal, and normal felt wrong, and Being and Time felt like a rigorous way to critically wrestle with normal. I read it largely uninterested in the world Heidegger wrote it in because he seemed to be speaking to directly to my own. I’d had a certain normative life ingrained in me so was unready to rock the boat and embrace anything too subversive, so Heidegger’s quiet hermeneutic destabilization felt like more solid ground, something that might produce more ‘acceptable’ results.
Reading Wolin’s book, I occasionally felt I was being called upon to apologize to any readers I might’ve led into Heidegger’s work. As I’d written my book several years ago, I’d grown slowly more suspicious of the political problems of Heidegger’s philosophy, but hadn’t quite known what to do with it at the time, so largely let it express itself as a couple quiet qualifications, limitations and ambivalences. It was not a full-blown critique of Heidegger (although perhaps it will serve as the prolegomena to one someday), it nonetheless kickstarted a process of critical reevaluation of both Heidegger and myself, although because the book was already out it made things a bit awkward. Here was this thing with my name on the cover and that I generally stood by the main ideas of, but that also had a lot of baggage on it’s margins and between it’s lines that I no longer wanted, so I’ve been stuck between the twin pillars of tweeting out a massive mea culpa-type thread and trying to attempt a massive promotional cycle of podcast appearances and other writings. For work-related reasons I never got to do the latter, but the former also feels wrong. I’m not so sure Wolin would even agree with such an approach. The epigraph to Heidegger in Ruins is a passage from Nietzsche’s Human, All Too Human:
Error of philosophers: The philosopher believes that the value of his philosophy lies in the whole, in the building. But posterity discovers it in the bricks that he used and which others will often make use of again for better building; in the fact, that is to say, that the building can be destroyed and nevertheless possess value as material.
I’m not sure what can still be built of Heidegger’s thinking, but it’s interesting that even as Wolin spent several hundred pages intimately tying Heidegger’s philosophy to reactionary politics, he still seems open to creative salvaging. What that looks like in the future I’m not sure, although I’ve found value not just in attempts to creatively reread Heidegger in a more progressive direction, but also in a self-critical mode as well, one attentive to my own needs, fears and desire. What did I want out of him? What did I get? What does that say about me? It’s in this way that I’d reverse Wolin’s contextualist approach to Heidegger and instead suggest that continuing to read Heidegger, at least for me, will be as much about reading myself as it will be about reading him. I am haunted, in a way, by how compelled I was by his thinking, but also see reading him much more critically as a potential sort of philosophical exorcism. And to say I’m haunted by parts of my past is not to say I want to take leave of it as soon as possible. After all, some specters make great conversational partners.