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The Politics of Being: An Introduction to the Political Thought of Martin Heidegger (Richard Wolin)


The Politics of Being: An Introduction to the Political Thought of Martin Heidegger


Richard Wolin


“Every question specifies as a question the breadth and nature of the answer it is looking for. At the same time, it circumscribes the range of possibilities for answering.”
–Martin Heidegger, N4 206

In this book I examine Martin Heidegger’s political thinking. There can be little question of Heidegger’s importance in philosophy as well as in the wider intellectual life of the West in the late twentieth century. To trace his manifold influences on phenomenology, existentialism, theology, literary theory, psychoanalysis, feminism, aesthetics, and ecology would require a project of encyclopedic proportions. Postmodernism in virtually all of its expressions is unimaginable without him, for the central postmodern teachings that there can be no genuine foundational thinking or discourse and that Western philosophy has reached the end of its history, or its end simply, are understood as Heidegger’s teachings. The only political regime to which Heidegger committed himself in speeches and deeds was that of National Socialism, and the significance of that fact for his philosophy has been debated from the 1930s to the present day. It is “neither accident nor error,” in Lacoue-Labarthe’s felicitous phrase, that Heidegger’s “philosophy” and his “politics” are interwoven.

Interpretations of Heidegger’s political involvement with National Socialism have ranged from dismissals of it as an abberation, or a mere fact of biography, to attempts to determine whether or in what ways Heidegger’s thinking exhibits either a defect that makes it vulnerable to National Socialism or a quality that ensures its connection with it. Most discussions of this issue have depended until recently on what is now often called the “official” account – prepared and sustained by Heidegger and some of his students, ratified willingly or not by many of his interpreters – that his political activity was brief, limited to the period of his rectorate, and that he came to regard it as a mistake he soon corrected. In the early 1980s the German historian Hugo Ott began to publish the results of archival research which showed that the extent and duration of Heidegger’s political activity was far greater than had been generally known. The publication of Victor Farias’s Heidegger et le nazisme in France in 1987 elevated the question of Heidegger’s politics to a prominent place in contemporary French political life, contributing to a many-sided, ongoing debate that now transcends its origins, for the widening circle of issues raising in connection with Heidegger’s National Socialism reaches the question of the nature and legitimacy of modernity. It is now not unusual to find that students of philosophy issue warnings concerning Heidegger’s thinking. Debates among leading schools of philosophy, Stanley Rosen believes, have been “seriously distorted” by his influence, while Jacques Derrida writes of the “necessity of showing – without limit, if possible – the profund attachment of Heidegger’s texts (writings and deeds) to the possibility and reality of all nazisms.” The claim that Heidegger’s thinking is apolitical cannot be taken seriously. It tells us more about the limitations of those who make it than about Heidegger’s views. Certainly such themes as the crisis of the West, the significance of science, the impossibility of grounding practice in any first philosophy, the end of philosophy, nihilism, the significance of Greek antiquity in and for the present crisis, and the possibility of a new beginning are recognizably “political” on all but the narrowest understanding of politics. Heidegger is a political thinker if by “political” one means, in the manner of classical antiquity, the order of human things. Indeed, one assessment of his influence names Heidegger as the “weightiest critical authority since the death of Marxism.”

The findings of the new Heidegger scholarship show that all interpretations of Heidegger’s political activity that depend upon its supposed brevity and superficiality are no longer tenable. The facts now appear to be incontrovertible. Heidegger attempted to implement National Socialist aims during his rectorate, including efforts to reform the teaching of science to meet the needs of the revolution, complied with racial “cleansing” laws that excluded Jews and others from financial assistance, and promoted National Socialism to students and workers in public addresses. After his rectorate, he refused to accept Jewish doctoral students, engaged in political denunciations of colleagues and former students, and remained active in attempts to organize German academics to support the National Socialist regime. His defenses or explanations of his political activity are characterized by evasions and lies. Most damning of all, he remained silent, or very nearly so, about the Holocaust.

In this study I shall keep the “Heidegger case” on the periphery of my readings of Heidegger’s texts because I am convinced that his political thinking transcends his political engagement. Through close reading of a number of Heidegger’s texts, I show how politics is inscribed in his manifold lines of thinking concerning his chosen philosophical theme, the question of Being. The direction of his thinking was toward what he understood as ever-more fundamental conditions for this question. For Heidegger, thinking and acting are intimately linked, and the conditions that affect how or even whether the question of Being can be asked are constitutive of what he will come to call various “epochs” in the “history of Being.” Moreover, against the tradition of Western metaphysics, Heidegger will argue that genuine “thinking,” which surpasses “philosophy,” is not universalistic but is and must be rooted in the particular; a determinate historical location, a “people,” is the necessary soil from which thinking may grow. As a political thinker, Heidegger is concerned with the German people. While this people is, or has the possibility of being, exemplary for the West, I emphasize that for Heidegger this destiny can only be that of a people, specifically, one whose language is said to equal or surpass that of the Greeks as more powerful and more spiritual (IM 47; OWI, 178-80).

If we must locate Heidegger ideologically, he is clearly a thinker of the European Right. The principles of 1789, liberal democracy, the emergence of mass society, and industrialization are to be explained and opposed by a relentless and ever-deepening reflection on modernity. Heidegger is, however, neither a “reactionary modernist” seeking to harmonize romantic irrationality and modern technology nor a conservative seeking a restoration of the German state. He belongs rather, to the tradition of German völkische nationalism; a number of texts evoke the völkische vision of a homogeneous, rural, and pastoral people, deeply rooted in the soil of a place, suspicious of, if not simply hostile to, industrialization, capitalism, urbanization, and even national unification. “Rootedness”, necessary for all great things, is threatened by the “spirit of the age into which all of us were born” (DT 48-49).

Heidegger’s political thinking, however, is no more reducible to the simplicities of völkische nationalism than it is to official National Socialism, for ranges far beyond even the most generous intellectual boundries one might establish for these positions. What had been recognized by Heidegger’s best students from almost the beginnings of his philosophical activity has become impossible to ignore with the ongoing publication of his early writings and lectures: Heidegger is a revolutionary thinker, surely one of the most radical thinkers in the history of philosophy. His radicalism is comprehensive. In the words of one of his translators, David Farrel Krell, he “yearned for a ‘fundamental change,’ Aufbruch or risorgimento, that would totally recast the social, political, and academic order in Germany” (N4 267). It is as grevious a misreading of Heidegger to attempt to sever this aim from his philosophical enterprise as it is to interpret that enterprise solely or even primarily in terms of its apparent distance from or nearness to National Socialism. Like so many other Germans, he was convinced that the National Socialist revolution would bring about a renewal and reinspiriting of Germany, but unlike most of those who expected much from National Socialism, Heidegger wanted the radical questioning of genuine philosophy to energize the revolution and the German people. The question of Being has as its political correlate the most radical of revolutions. The political question, the crucial question for Heidegger’s political thinking, is:

What if it were possible that the human, that peoples [Völker] in their greatest practices [Umtrieben] and legacies [Gemachten], are linked to beings [Seienden] and yet had long fallen out of Being [Sein] without knowing it, and that this was the innermost and most powerful source [Grund] of their decline [Verfalls]? (IM 30)

My inquiry is an extended commentary of this question.

Even during his rectorate, Heidegger’s political teaching became known as a “private” or even “Freiburg” National Socialism. Certainly there is evident in many of his writings, as we shall see, a stance critical of the racism, manipulative propaganda, and mass mobolization of the German people integral to official National Socialism. What outrages us, once it is thought, is the notion that there is, or could be, an “ideal” National Socialism, an original, of which the reality of the Third Reich was the monstrous image. I do not think, however, that it is necessary to identify Heidegger’s political thinking as an “ideal” National Socialism. Rather, his political thinking, to generalize a point made by J.F. Lyotard in connection with BT, permits, but does not necessitate, his engagement with National Socialism. Put concisely, thinking in its radical and therefore decisive sense is for Heidegger correspondence with, standing exposed to, and enduring, Being. National Socialism, as he understood it initially, was the only political possibility radical enough to serve as the political correlate of his thinking because its basic movement appeared to him as an authentic retrieval of German rootedness.

Although I am not concerned thematically with postmodernity in this book, I cannot avoid noting the irony inherent in the thought that the philosophy, after Nietzsche, most crucial to postmodernity, whom many consider the greatest thinker of the twentieth century, is a thinker profoundly hostile to much that belongs in the twentieth century. In another and possibly more profound sense, Heidegger’s völkisch nationalism makes him an extraordinarily timely thinker, for it is impossible today to ignore nationalism, what John Lukacs has called the “most powerful political force in the world,” at the end of modernity. Precisely because it is not superficial, not an ideological rind easily separated from the core of his thinking, Heidegger’s teaching raises a crucial problem for much of the postmodern political thought indebted to him. A recitation of some familiar postmodern themes, often overlapping or interpenetrating, must suffice here to make my point: the impossibility of or incredulity toward metanarratives (including universalist ideologies); the rejection of any foundational or grounding principles (and thus of any political or ethical teaching grounded in first philosophy); the ending of metaphysics, the subject, modernity, Enlightenment, and the West; the stances of antihumanism, transgressive delegitimizing of power; oppositions to “Western rationality,” to technology, to any and all compounds of these (Europophallologocentrism); the irreducibility and defense of plurality and difference. If this inventory is folded into the last theme named, then the motto of postmodernity is René Schürmann: “demain le multiple.”

And yet, it may be questioned whether the “multiple” is truly thought by postmodernists if nationalism is ignored. The differences celebrated by postmodernists seldom appear to include the “nation,” however understood; politics – democratic-anarchic, agonistic, delegitimizing, “pagan,” and so on – is seldom nationalist politics. Postmodern understanding of politics have  challenged sufficiently the dismissive universalism, inherited from liberalism and the Left, for which nationalism is, in Stanley Hoffman’s words, “an atavistic anarchronism that was bound to disappear sooner or later in a rationally organized universe.” Is it conceivable that Heidegger’s thinking lies, not merely behind or at the roots of postmodernity, but also, as he claims truly essential thinking must do, ahead, returning back to postmodern political thought, deconstructing not only the obvious targets – what Derrida identifies as “those discourses which possess some authority today in our Western culture” – but eventually also the discourses that celebrate the “manifold,” which can look suspiciously like yet another universal (and any universalist discurse)?

If we remain, or attempt to remain, closer to Heidegger’s understanding of himself as found in his writings, however, we cannot simply identify him as a critic or opponent of modernity, for he insists that what he attempts to do is to follow the path and pursue the matter of thinking, that the decisive questions do not arise from an opinion or preference but rather belong to the movement of thinking (IM 30-31). I want to remain, that is, with Heidegger’s self-interpretation, according to which the movement of thinking traced in his work is itself inscribed in what he tries to think about, because my aim is to bring to light the political dimensions of that thinking. What appears as criticism and opposition is reached, according to Heidegger, in and by the unfolding of the question of Being, itself of necessity historically situated (36). It is this philosophical dimension that distinguishes Heidegger’s political thinking from that of crude völkisch nationalists, which is to say that his ideological location does not suffice to explain, or explain away, his thinking.


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