Chronicle of Higher Ed: Heil Heidegger!

The Chronicle of Higher Education last week had a popular, even sensationalist story entitled Heil Heidegger! by a guy called Carlin Romano, whose main aim seems to be to make fun of Heidegger as a strategy of undermining his influence. A flavor:

How many scholarly stakes in the heart will we need before Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), still regarded by some as Germany’s greatest 20th-century philosopher, reaches his final resting place as a prolific, provincial Nazi hack? Overrated in his prime, bizarrely venerated by acolytes even now, the pretentious old Black Forest babbler makes one wonder whether there’s a university-press equivalent of wolfsbane, guaranteed to keep philosophical frauds at a distance.

To be sure, every philosophy reference book credits Heidegger with one or another headscratcher achievement. One lauds him for his “revival of ontology.” (Would we not think about things that exist without this ponderous, existentialist Teuton?)

“Fraud,” “ponderous,” “hack” and later “oafish” etc etc. are all obvious signs of an over-excited sensibility, not to mention the classic reasoning error known as argumentum ad hominem, which readers will recognise as a frequent line of critique on Foucault (coupled with the fact that the attacker sees signs of his pernicious–to use a
Romano word–influence everywhere on young unformed minds). Just in case we missed it, Romano admits that he’s lobbing the insults rather than engaging with the issue as a deliberate strategy:

In the case of Heidegger, it may be that only ridicule—not further proof of his sordid 1930s acts—can save us.

He should be the butt of jokes, not the subject of dissertations.

The shame here is that by adopting a policy of non-engagement he is closing off what he seems to want: a focus on Heidegger’s Nazi involvement. It’s also not that clear that Romano grasps Heidegger’s work; how can anybody seriously commenting on Heidegger think that Heidegger’s ontology is what permits us to “think about things that exist” or that calling someone an existentialist is an insult? (Or a “Teuton”?)

I suspect that some readers here are uncomfortable with Heidegger’s life and its relationship to his thought, and that’s as it should be. But Romano’s attack is unfair and inaccurate. He comes off as an ignorant ideologue more interested in “handbags” as the Brits say. Slate adds:

Here is what you would not know if you encountered Heidegger only in Romano’s review. You would not know that, though no-name colleagues (typically not disinterested judges of peer reputation, as Romano no doubt knows) thought Heidegger was a quack, his philosophy was admired and studied by Edmund Husserl (his mentor), Hannah Arendt (his protégé and lover), and the philosophers Karl Jaspers and Hans-Georg Gadamer. You would not know that almost all of Sartre’s existentialism is based directly on Heidegger, that the American uber-liberal and Pragmatist Richard Rorty admired Heidegger deeply—as does the great Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor and as did the pioneering genius of quantum mechanics Werner Heisenberg. You would not know that the poet Paul Celan, whose Jewish parents were exterminated, and whose most powerful poetry commemorates the death camps, took a pilgrimage to visit Heidegger in his Black Forest hut in 1966. The two men shared a love of nature, and of the German romantic poetry of Holderlin and Trakl. (For a moving account of Celan’s visit, please read this.)

The Chronicle is the trade journal of higher education but it’s not covered itself in glory in publishing this piece. I’m not sure I want to draw any big anti-intellectualism conclusions; it could equally be that some portions of the web and especially TV talkshows are eroding the nature of debate. Luckily the article has attracted getting on for 100 comments that provide a more elevated and worthwhile conversation.

2 Responses

  1. Foucault could be very useful regarding the “Heidegger’s issue”. Indeed, we could say Heidegger as an author doesn’t exist ; his texts are only toolboxes that we could use for other purposes if we judge it useful − or not. That means, we should separate the men from his works. Not easy? It’s what philosophers do every time e.g. with Plato! No doubt that Plato was a crazy totalitarian (at least as crazy as Heidegger if we follow for instance Popper’s analyzes) but it doesn’t imped us to read his texts and to reuse his concepts. Why not consider Heidegger as we consider Plato?

  2. […] on Neil Smith on Foucault and…victoria on Halloween Terror Behind the Wa…Gnouros on Chronicle of Higher Ed: Heil…Chathan Vemuri on Extreme Prejudice: notes on […]

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