A Letter to Commentary,
"Of Time and Being a Nazi,"
Tod Lindberg, March 2010, p.62

Editorial Note:

The following letter was published by Commentary in the June 2010 issue [p.8], under the heading "Great Thinkers and Great Evil." The type in red was edited out by the publication. Phrases that were inserted are in blue and set off with brackets. A reply by Tod Lindberg was also published, which I have reproduced following, with comment.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

"Letters to the Editor"

re: "Of Time and Being a Nazi," Tod Lindberg, Commentary, March 2010, p.62

Dear Sirs:

The review of Emmanuel Faye's Heidegger The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy by Tod Lindberg['s review of Emmanuel Faye's Heidegger The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy [March]] is an illuminating evaluation both of Martin Heidegger and of Faye's book. Heidegger was beyond doubt both an enthusiastic Nazi and a significant philosopher. However, Mr. Lindberg spoils all this in his last paragraph by saying of [describing] Heidegger as, "the man who may have been the greatest thinker of the 20th century." But if Heidegger's thought possesses an affinity [affinity] with Nazism, how can he possibly be the "greatest thinker" of the 20th century? Why would not Karl Popper, F.A. Hayek, or, for that matter, Thomas Sowell, at Mr. Lindberg's own Hoover Institution, have been greater philosophers?

Mr. Lindberg does give us a clue to [indicate] what he sees as Heidegger's importance,[:]  the [philosopher's approach to the] "question of being." Popper, Hayek, and Sowell, to be sure, do not tackle the metaphysical questions that Heidegger does. That is a mark in favor of his significance, especially in a century so devoid of, and indeed hostile to, metaphysics. But if Heidegger's answer to the "question of being" -- "National Socialism as the solution to the philosophical problem he had identified" -- is something that logically and unavoidably legitimizes Nazism, as [writers such as] Tom Rockmore [and others] believes, I should think that this would disqualify Heidegger from the ranks of great philosophers, let alone the greatest of any period. I don't think that Mr. Lindberg's review addresses this aspect of the matter very well [satisfactorily]. How essential was Nazism to Heidegger's philosophy? Mr. Lindberg makes it sound essential indeed, until that last paragraph. We are owed a bit more clarity.

Yours truly,
Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D.
Retired Chair, Department of Philosophy, Economics, & Jewish Studies

Los Angeles Valley College

Commentary published the letter above, and Told Lindberg replied as follows [p.9]:

THANK Mr. Ross for pointing out the paradox that is the heart of the problem. If Heidegger was a great thinker, how could he become convinced of the "inner truth and greatness" of National Socialism? And if he was indeed so convinced, how can anyone rightly consider him a great thinker?

There are several ways to approach this paradox, some of which would entail a dissertation. Let me take one that may hold promise in shorter compass.

Though he does not present it in these terms, Heidegger's thought on the question of being has two elements. First is the attempt to get to the essence of being as such -- to know about being. Second is the question of what you should do once you know about being. The first element of his inquiry, by far the more extensively treated, is profound; the second is a disaster.

The first entails a searching critique of Western metaphysics based on as insightful an understanding of the subject as anyone has ever demonstrated and on a deeply original revisitation of ancient Greek thought.

He carries this "questioning of being" forward to culminate in a consideration of authentic versus inauthentic human being (Dasein). Clearly, it's good to be authentic and bad to be inauthentic. But how to be authentic, i.e., what to do now? Unfortunately, Heidegger attached his sense of authenticity to his underdeveloped reflections on the "destiny" of a "people." Caught up in his anti-modern, anti-liberal crotchets and in the resentments and enthusiasms of interwar Germany, he chose to throw in his lot with what he took to be the spirit of his times, namely, the march of German National Socialism.

This choice arises out of no element of necessity based on his inquiry into the essence of being. The illusion that it does comes from Heidegger's inability to understand or his unwillingness to accept that the inquiry he conducts transcends its time and place. Heidegger was in the "truth" business. He was also in Germany, locus of a crisis in modernity. He persuaded himself in the 1930s, erroneously, that the problem of authentic being, the problem of Germany, and the problem of modernity were one and the same. Yet there is no reason to think in terms of the authenticity for a particular people of the truth Heidegger sought, as opposed to its truth or error as such.

Heidegger's error had catastrophic moral consequences. His illumination of the structure of being stands as his legacy; no one else in the 20th century climbed as high. Yet his example also demonstrates that a great thinker can go horribly wrong.

This is a curious response. For the question of the "essence of being," Lindberg offers only one characteristic:  "authenticity" -- a familiar Existentialist ideal. He even seems oddly a little dismissive of its significance. Asking the question "how to be authentic," however, crosses the line that Lindberg draws between the theoretical inquiry and action. Heidegger's view is that to be authentic requires "resolute" action, so that what Heidegger did, despite Lindberg's isolation of the mysterious theoretical truth that Heidegger discovered, was an essential part of his analysis of Being.

Indeed, Lindberg must overlook several of the most important characteristics of Heidegger's view of the essence of Being -- its irrationality, its violence, and its particularity. Heidegger does not believe that Being is manifest through abstract universals. The theoretical timelessness that Lindberg wants to attribute to Heidegger's project would be furiously and indignantly rejected by the beneficiary of his apologetic -- as well as by many admirers of Heidegger. Heidegger's Being is thus not a place of Platonic, or even Aristotelian, Universals. It is "uncovered" in a deeply embodied, particular, eruptive, and "terrible" (deinos) fashion -- Being as "Being There," Da-sein.

Such a process is also something that happens through particular languages. I learned recently that the Professor at the University of Hawaii with whom I took a class on Heidegger in 1973, J.L. Mehta, who apparently knew Heidegger personally, had told a colleague, "about Heidegger’s flattering him by saying that only Sanskrit, Greek and German were real languages." This sounds like Heidegger indeed, both to be adding Sanskrit to Greek and German and to characterize them as the only "real languages." Now, admirers of Heidegger liked to scoop him up in the general enthusiasm for language in Analytic philosophy, and one could arbitrarily generalize Heidegger's view about language into a theory about all language; but it is a grave distortion of Heidegger to overlook the particularity of language that he had in mind. He goes back to a "revisitation" of Greek thought, as Lindberg notes, in part because the Greeks had the advantage of their particular language.

It may be possible to sanitize Heidegger (like Hegel and Nietzsche) by leaving out essential features of his thought, but one ends up wondering what might be the point, whether the result is something that would even be recognizable to its purported creator, and also if the apologist and sanitizer has really understood his source material. The very sense in which Kant understood reason to generate universal rules, especially moral rules, is what is rejected in the irrationalism and particularism of Heidegger's project. If we wish to restore a kind of Kantian rationality, and morality, there is no point in bothering with Heidegger, and there would be little remaining of his system anyway.

So I am still waiting for Tod Lindberg to identify the great ideas about Being of universal import that undercut the characteristics that quite logically led Heidegger to look out his window, see the Brown Shirts, and recognize the newest "uncovering" of Dasein.

On Heidegger's Nazism and Philosophy, by Tom Rockmore, University of California Press, 1992


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