A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

How can a Nazi jerk like Martin Heidegger be considered the most influential philosopher of the 20th century?

September 27, 2002

Dear Cecil:

If the philosopher Martin Heidegger was a Nazi and an anti-Semite up until his death in 1976, why do we continue to revere the ground he walked on? The guy was a louse (he seduced Hannah Arendt of all people) and yet he is considered the major voice of postmodern thought! Why was this morally corrupt jerk elevated to 20th-century philosophical prominence? Wasn't he downright despicable? And why do so many care little for that?

Cecil replies:

Oh, come on. It's not like being a morally corrupt jerk has ever been a major career impediment. Intellectuals also tend to have a gift for after-the-fact rationalization that would make a U.S. president blush. To be fair, Heidegger's eminence also has something to do with the fact that, in the eyes of his admirers anyway, he was a genius. So we face the age-old question: If the work is brilliant, does it matter if the author is a jerk?

Martin Heidegger is widely considered the most influential philosopher of the 20th century. His work has had an impact on everybody from Jean-Paul Sartre to theologian Paul Tillich. You can get an idea of the nature of his thinking from the title of the book that established him as the leading intellectual light of his time, Being and Time (1927).

He was also an enthusiastic Nazi. In 1933, shortly after Hitler became chancellor of Germany, Heidegger was elected rector of the University of Freiburg. Within weeks he joined the Nazi party and began politicizing the university, instituting the "Heil Hitler" salute in his classes, secretly denouncing fellow academics, and imposing punitive measures on Marxists and Jews. Heidegger resigned as rector the next year, but he remained a dues-paying Nazi until 1945. In disgrace after the war, he seemed doomed to sink into obscurity — which brings us to the curious story of Heidegger and Hannah Arendt.

Arendt, who became famous in the 50s for her critique of totalitarianism (she coined the famous phrase "the banality of evil" to describe Nazi death-camp czar Adolf Eichmann), met Heidegger in 1924, when she was an 18-year-old university student and he was a 35-year-old married professor with two children. Despite the enormous differences between them — she was a left-leaning Jew, he a rightist ex-Catholic — they soon began an intense affair that lasted several years. After they parted, their lives followed radically different paths: he got in bed with the Nazis while she narrowly escaped the Holocaust, eventually settling in the United States.

After the war a denazification tribunal denied Heidegger permission to teach and Arendt called him a "potential murderer." But she was still in thrall to her old teacher, and following a reconciliation in 1950 she changed her tune: by one account Arendt became Heidegger's "devoted if unpaid agent in the United States," helping him find publishers and translators and minimizing his fascist past. In a 1969 tribute she described his embrace of Nazism as a brief "error" that he corrected "more quickly and more radically than many of those who later sat in judgment over him."

Arendt's efforts, coupled with her own prestige, helped restore Heidegger's reputation as a great thinker. He never apologized for his involvement with the Nazis, despite appeals from his peers, and his writings suggest he remained unrepentant till the end. Starting in the mid-80s, after both Heidegger and Arendt were dead, a damning collection of books and articles was published demonstrating the depth of his infatuation with Nazism and her complicity in making excuses for him. Controversy has raged between pro- and anti-Heidegger factions ever since.

So why is Heidegger considered a great philosopher? You expect me to say: Because students of philosophy are deluded chumps. I'm not saying that doesn't enter into it. This was a guy who could write sentences such as, "Authentic Being-one's-Self does not rest upon an essential condition of the subject, a condition that has been detached from the 'they'; it is rather an existentiell modification of the 'they' — of the 'they' as an essential existentiale." (No, it isn't any clearer in the original German.) But a fairer explanation is that he asked interesting questions. By this I don't mean the nominal subject of Being and Time — namely, "What is it, to be?" — which most nonphilosophers will find unintelligible. I mean the real subject: Why does modern life suck? Heidegger's answer had to do with death and technology and the distracting din of existence, and at least for a time he evidently felt the solution was to submerge oneself in the will of the precivilized German Volk, as embodied by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. OK, not the world's healthiest approach. But if you look at such recent philosophical works as, say, The Matrix ("You've felt it your entire life, that there's something wrong with the world"), you can see that the question, at least, is still being asked.

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