Friday, February 23, 2018

Modernity and its Critique

As mentioned before, I have been following the Heidegger scandal from afar. In short, it's apparent that Heidegger's Naziism runs deep. As far as I can tell, the scholarly discussion after the publication of the Black Notebooks has largely resulted in acceptance of the claim that his Naziism is not so easily divorced from aspects of his thinking that people have wanted to take up and incorporate into their own work. The hard task of seeing what can be disentangled and how thus begins in earnest!

Well, recently, a tweet, a book review, and a blog post, have all got me thinking more about this. In the below I am going to outline a thought I have discussed in conversation with a few people but never run past people who I think know enough about Heidegger or the present scholarly debate on his work to really have it tested. Like my first blog post on this (first link!) it's very much an outsider's perspective, which means it runs a high risk of being either so obviously false that it's barely worth discussing, or so obviously true to the same effect. But I have a job now so don't need to worry about looking silly on the internet, woohoo! Without further, ado, then, my own attempt a contribution to thinking through what Heidegger's anti-semitism means for us today.

Martin Heidegger - ``Ready to hand? More like ready
to heil! Eh? Eh? You feeling me? I know you get me.''

Ok so to recap my first blog post's take on this, I was there pretty optimistic about disentangling Heidegger's general thinking from his bigotry. My thought was that the various aspects of Heidegger's philosophy was by very conscious design not logically intertwined too tightly, so it would be quite possible to adopt take from one area without risking any unfortunate entailments.

Now I am not so sure.

What caught my attention was the following from the review linked above:
As part of this approach, Sander Gilman's essay provides a helpful account of broadly defined anti-Semitic themes within German culture focusing on topics such as the Jews' nomadism, homelessness, and rootless cosmopolitanism. Against this background, Gilman then attempts to situate Heidegger's anti-Semitism within both the history of German philosophy and within European culture at large. Eduardo Mendieta follows upon this theme by underscoring Heidegger's critique of the Jews in terms of the mathematical-economic rationalism that, as "the embodiment of the domination of calculation and machination" (43), marks them as "worldless."
So here is a thing I often found myself thinking when reading Heidegger - what's so bad about using maths or thinking of things abstractly, labour saving technologies, and cosmopolitanism? Heidegger is in the business of making normative or existential claims, but some of his base judgements just strike me as unmotivated, or at least I do not know how to enter into them and do not feel inclined to share them. Where they are argued for, the argument often seems to circle back to something in this cluster - it's been some years (again, I'm an outsider, making no claims to authority, all this is just me throwing ideas I am not confident in out there for general consideration and critique), but I recall getting the impression that for Heidegger the problem with thinking of things in too abstract a fashion was that it cuts us off from our authentic connection to place, which I think I am meant to agree is bad because I agree that cosmopolitanism is bad. (Or maybe cosmopolitanism is bad because without rootedness I will grow to see the world in a abstract formal kinda way.)

What if the only reason Heidegger has for thinking these are bad is that he associated them with Jewish people?

I think that a tempting route for those looking to rehabilitate Heidegger is to attribute to him a set of false empirical beliefs which, having abandoned them, free the rest of his philosophy from the Nazi contamination. So Heidegger in his new notebooks says that the problems with Jews are metaphysical problems - the thought then might be that he was wrong to think that the real actual people, flesh and blood Jews, instantiate or are bound to bring about or are essentially tied to (or whatever) these metaphysically problematic things, and having freed ourselves of that bit of anti-Semitic folklore we're safe to try and extract the critique of modernity's problematic metaphysic.

This route won't work unless we have some reason to think that the existential situation of moderns, cut off from Being as we are, is actually problematic, if not just for being too Jewish for Heidegger's case.  But what exactly is the problem here? Do people really find it just self evident that cosmopolitanism is objectionable? That washing machines make the world worse? (Of course there are some technologies that have made the world worse - but I think it's obvious that Heidegger isn't and can't be just noting that trivial fact,  or making a consequentialist argument that on net new technologies tend to decrease quality of life. Technical thinking itself has to be the problem) That using mathematical abstraction to think about hammers is in itself evil or distressingly alienating? After reading the quoted passage from the review, I can't help but suspect that the order of normative judgement was not, for Heidegger, that these things are bad, so the Jews who do these things must be bad too. I think it might be that he thinks the Jews do these things, and since the Jews are bad these things must be bad. Well, I hope we all agree that this gives no reason at all to see in those things something problematic - what then are we left with?

(Maybe there's an interesting version of Heidegger which is just cut off from any critique of the existential and metaphysical situation of moderns? I don't see how that would go, but I'll just note that possibility as another route to realising my original idea, consistent with all I say here, that the logical looseness means that one can still do Heidegger without taking on board the Naziism.)

Undeniably many people do in fact seem to find something resonant in Heidegger's critique of our modern situation, and take themselves to be justified in doing so on grounds that are not tacitly anti-Semitic. All I am saying here is that I think that our greater understanding of Heidegger's anti-Semitism should give us pause in the following ways. First, perhaps Heidegger was just unusually clear sighted and explicit in realising the connection between the anti-Semitic tropes of his broader culture and his own philosophical inclinations, but that while we don't realise it our own beliefs are caused by a similar chain of associations.  After all, it's not as if anti-Semitism has been a small scale affair in the history of Europe and its thought! Can we rule out its subtle influence in our own case?

Second, I suspect that in left wing land a kind of loose association with critical theory has given Heidegger's normative appraisals a bit more cred than they would otherwise deserve. The railing against instrumental reasoning can sound a bit similar, after all. This, though, I think involves a quite deep misunderstanding of the critical theorists. (Here I am, again, not expert, but at least drawing on more recent readings, as well as the scholarship of Ruth Groff.) The critical theorists' critique of subjective rationality, the kind of means end reasoning they associated with capitalist societies, was not per se that it involved abstraction and calculation. Rather, the critique is that it is limited in its domain of application -- if we only use reason to discern how we should go about achieving our ends, we can end up with the awful situation of utterly unreasonable, deeply cruel, socio-political ends being pursued with the utmost efficiency. Like, they would have said, in the holocaust. So they tried to uncover aspects of modern society - its ideology, its culture industry, its undemocratic institutional arrangements and social mores - which they thought got in the way of reason being given full sway to bring to bear a comprehensive critique and set the task of making a better world. (Turns out that jazz is a huge part of the problem?) Think what one may of this, but it's not the claim that technology, abstraction, and calculation are in themselves evil. In some sense the problem is rather that the rational thought that might underlie some of these things isn't being pressed far enough. More enlightenment, not less! So I do not think that Heidegger's critique of modernity will be so easily merged with the critical theorists as some folk in left land might think.

Ok so that's all I got. As I said, maybe in Heidegger scholarship everyone views this as just obvious. Or maybe, conversely, there is some wonderful argument for the evils of algebra and dishwashers that does not rely on either anti-Semitic association or a confusion with the critical theorists' project, that my ignorance has caused me to miss, and which invalidates the above. I am being quite sincere when I say that I do not confidently rule either of those out. But for now, at least, I suspect that some of the fundamental normative judgements of Heideggerian philosophy may be inextricably bound to his anti-Semitism. What is more, I shall end by noting, I think that Heideggerianism is in this regard just a case study, wherein the scholarly community dedicated to his work has been unusually conscientious in taking problems of disentanglement seriously. This is the point made in the Drabinski essay linked to before the cut. The full decolonisation of philosophy may require a complex reckoning indeed.


  1. MH is not arguing that algebra or dishwashers are evil. They both useful. MH is pointing out that if you only see the world as numbers to be calculated, or you only consider a person as a resource for washing dishes, or loading dishwashers, then you are blind to other aspects of the world. You've limited yourself to one peculiar understanding of being.

    1. Interesting; I always got the impression there was meant to be something a bit more intrinsically bad about technical or abstract thinking. It's a bit banal to note, after all, that if you place great constraints on your self-conception then it limits you and your ability to understand the world. I thought the worry wasn't just the kind of contingent claim that if you limit yourself to just those modes of thought then that's not nice, but rather that something about those ways of thinking (technical or calculative) drives out, causes us to forget, other ways of being or relating to the world - as ways of thinking they are somehow intrinsically destructive.