Monday, March 2, 2015

Does Martin Heidegger's Antisemitism Invalidate his Phenomenology?

Writing in the current issue of the online journal, TripleC - Communication, Capitalism and Critique, Christian Fuchs claims that it does, but I remain skeptical. 

Heidegger's antisemitic and pro-Nazi views are well known though seldom mentioned by scholars who cite his important philosophical works on the phenomenology of dasein or being-in-the-world, including his critique of technology.  The recent publication of Heidegger's Black Notebooks, which contain blatantly antisemitic passages, has revived the debate on his status as a philosopher. Should someone who held such repulsive beliefs continue to be celebrated as one of the greatest 20th century philosophers?  Can the philosophy be separated from the man, or is the philosophy itself inextricably involved with the underpinnings of Nazi ideology?

These are good questions to which I don't pretend to know the answers. Being interested but no authority on the matter, I read Fuchs's article in search of insight. I found it highly informative as an introduction to the debate, although finally unconvincing on the main issue.

Fuchs concludes that scholars in the field of communication and media studies should stop citing Heidegger's writings on technology because his philosophy is essentially tainted by Nazi ideology. Fuchs, a leading exponent of Marxist critical theory, has other reasons for rejecting Heidegger's critique of technology. As he writes, "a major problem of Heidegger’s approach is that it is not a political economy, but merely a phenomenology of technology" (p. 70).  In other words, Heidegger sees modern technology as a distorted, inauthentic way of experiencing the world but ignores what Fuchs regards as the fundamental role of capitalist ideology in producing that distortion.  This is a valid critique as far as it goes. It shows that phenomenology is insufficient for the purposes of a critical social theory, but it does not invalidate Heidegger's phenomenology on its own ground.

Where does Nazi ideology enter the picture?  Here I find a striking lack of direct evidence that the philosophy is essentially tainted. Fuchs spends a lot of time quoting other scholars who agree with him without examining their evidence in detail. He also spends a lot of time quoting passages that betray Heidegger's offensive views but do not necessarily link them to basic premises of his philosophy. Fuchs does argue that the two are linked but the arguments are slippery. Heidegger's philosophical writing is abstract and poetic and he only quotes non-Jewish poets (which proves nothing). His philosophical writing never renounces Nazism (which is not same as positively implying or being implied by it). In Being and Time and The Question Concerning Technology, Heidegger critiqued aspects of modernity that passages in the Black Notebooks can be read as claiming are products of a Jewish world conspiracy, but the philosophical critiques themselves contain no reference to a Jewish conspiracy, so the imputed link is spurious or at best conjectural. Even if Heidegger somehow used his philosophy to rationalize his antisemitism and totalitarianism, that would not prove any necessary link between the two. No doubt, Germans in those days rationalized their antisemitism and Nazism in all sorts of ways. Even Christianity does not imply antisemitism, though it can be taken there, just as Marxism has been used to justify a totalitarian system that I am sure enlightened Marxists like Fuchs would deny that it implies. How does Heidegger's hermeneutic phenomenology imply antisemitism?  I don't get it.

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