Metalogic Against Heideggarian Naziism.

Heidegger was a Nazi. And, like, not just in a he had some edgy years as a teenager sort of way, nor in a maybe he was just naive and he didn't really think about it kind of way. No. Heidegger was somebody who thought hard about it and decided that in light of his philosophical perspective Naziism was an attractive political programme that he wished to see implemented to its fullest extent. Now, Heidegger wasn't the only Nazi philosopher out there -- Frege was an anti-Semite who had some sympathies for the emerging Nazi movement before he died, Gentzen was a Nazi, and I've heard mutterings to the effect that Gadamer may have collaborated. Nor are Nazis the only politically odious regime philosophers have supported -- Foucault infamously celebrated the Iranian theocracy, Mill wrote in defence of the British Raj, Du Bois wrote in defence of the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, Locke helped author the constitution of a slave state, and Sartre was, at the least, surprisingly at peace with Stalinist concentration camps in Siberia ... the list goes on. Philosophers, in general, do not seem to be reliably disposed to reject murderous and authoritarian regimes.

However, unlike in those other cases, with Heidegger we've seen a lot of angsting about the degree to which one can still make use of Heidegger's philosophical system without oneself endorsing principles that will take us down a very dark path. I'll reflect a bit on why this difference in the bracketed comments at the end. But, in any case, if it turns out that the consequences of this system approximate to Naziism I think a great many people would consider that about as decisive a refutation of a philosophical system as could be hoped for. Since Heidegger's work is foundational to many philosophers and theorists throughout the humanities, this is quite an urgent issue for many theorists. We very much do not want to be endorsing and propagating Nazi ideology. How much needs to be rethought!? How much can be salvaged!? What if none of it can!?

Ok so that's the Heidegger affair as it stands. Within the intellectual world this has been somewhat of a minor scandal, and I have followed it fairly closely. And, outsider that I am, I have been struck by what seems to me to be a fairly convincing argument in defence of building one's work on Heideggarian foundations that does not seem to have been quite explicitly aired in the public debate so far. I think that one can accept a very very great deal of Heidegger's system and not have to worry about being compelled to accept Nazi conclusions; I suspect there is very little more reason to think that Heidegger's philosophy entails Nazi conclusions than there is in Frege's case. Here, then, is is my little contribution.
Martin Heidegger -- ``Do you know what should maybe
stop being in itself? The Sudentenland! Am I right, eh?''

My first premise is to note that, while Heidegger did argue for certain ethical or existential conclusions based on his metaphysical and metaphilosophical premises, he did not produce deductively valid arguments.  In defence of this premise I might note that, well, if one reads Heideggarian arguments they certainly do not seem to be deductively valid. But that is a bit weak -- often the work of logical analysis is precisely in reconstructing arguments in such a way as to charitably flesh out enthymemes or do the work of proving lemmas that were felt too trivial by their author to be worth mentioning. Plus, in any case, it is simply not the case that one must take on a certain aesthetic of validity to in fact be valid. For an excellent case study in this I recommend Downs' Economic Theory of Democracy, as rigorous as one could want but since it is entirely informal free flowing prose one might be forgiven for thinking that one is not facing deductively valid arguments here. This would be a mistake. Perhaps the same could be said in the case of Heidegger?

Not so in this case. Heidegger's not offering deductively valid arguments is, I think, a feature rather than a bug, in his philosophy. He developed extensive arguments to the effect that various fundamental logical notions and principles presuppose metaphysical conclusions that he thinks should be rejected, or in any case should not be presupposed during his inquiry. To take deductive validity as a normative standard for argumentation would, in the context of Heidegger's philosophy, have been question begging, or involved commitment to falsehoods. I'm not here to defend this metaphilosophy or philosophy of logic -- one might fairly wonder, for instance, what standards ought be obeyed by the reasoning Heidegger used to reach such conclusions  -- but from what I can gather this is a plausible enough interpretation of Heidegger's relationship to logic. In this case it's not just lack of charity in reading his work, rather the reason his arguments do not look deductively valid is because he was self-consciously not producing deductively valid arguments. He did not produce logically valid arguments because he did not think that was an appropriate standard to hold his reasoning to, and he did not think it an appropriate standard on the basis of a worked out philosophical theory of the foundations of logic.

With that premise granted, the rest is easy enough. So, second, if an argument is not deductively valid then all of its premises can be true while its conclusions are false. And from the first and second with a bit of substituting in one gets that: one can consistently agree to the premises of Heidegger's arguments without accepting his conclusions. One can take on board his metaphysics and his metaphilosophy, as many in philosophy and the humanities have, without being logically compelled to accept his Nazi ethical, political, or existential conclusions. One can have one's Heideggerian cake and eat it too.

Of course there is work to be done! One has to find the interpretation of the metaphysical or metaphilosophical premises which make them true while refuting the Nazi conclusions. But this, I take it, is just the normal work of hermeneutics or scholarship, and probably implicitly what folk were up to in any case. Maybe people should make extra careful to ensure there is not a hidden Nazi implication of the manner in which they were interpreting Heidegger. But to be honest I doubt many people have accidentally endorsed Naziism in this manner.

So there it is. I think this is a pretty simple argument, and probably what a lot of people had in mind. But I have not seen it said explicitly in this debate, and I at least find it pretty convincing. It's not that I think we should be Heideggerians -- in fact I think quite independently of his Naziism Heidegger was pretty profoundly wrong about a lot of stuff -- but I do think that a lot of the soul searching and angsting is probably misplaced. Heideggerian philosophy doesn't entail Nazi conclusions, because Heidegger wasn't really in the business of entailing things.

(Why do people find Heidegger's Naziism especially troubling? Partly I think this is just because of the contingent fact that Heidegger has an unusually large number of people who are devoted to him as a person, who wish to see the best in him and to model their own lives as intellectuals on his. As the evidence of Heidegger's sins mounts they are thus felt as peculiarly personal betrayals. Partly I suspect it is because there is very widespread agreement that Naziism was a bad thing; whereas, unfortunately, even people who are committed liberals or at least within the political mainstream nowadays will insist that somehow the constitution of Carolina or the British Raj were not the obvious moral disasters they seem to be on the presupposition that non-Europeans lives matter. Partly my sense is that with many of these other cases people think that the philosopher was acting out of line with their own principles. Can anybody seriously believe that a slave state respects the natural rights of persons? That Stalinism is the mode of social life under which people enjoy authentically free lives? That the British Raj was just bringing the greatest happiness to the greatest number? That the Japanese regime in Manchuria was just so benign it escapes Du Bois' usual charges against Imperialism? Even if these thinkers erred, therefore, we do not think it reflects badly on their systems; it just reflects badly on them as individuals. And, finally, in other cases, people just don't much care about the thinker's politics -- Frege and Gentzen and Gadamer are not, in any case, people who we look to guidance about how to arrange society. (Note: it's really not obvious to me that Foucault's philosophy will admit of any similar escapes.) But with Heidegger -- his philosophy is to some extent explicitly political, at least ethical, and existential; and the Black Notebooks (and really the previously well known Freiburg address for that matter) suggest he really did think there was some connection between the principles he endorsed and Naziism as an ideology. And it's even a bit plausible! All his talk of authentic being-in-the-world can sound a bit ``blood and soil'' at times, if we're being honest with ourselves.)


  1. I’ve not read everything that Heidegger wrote, but based on my reading I can’t see any reason why his earlier phenomenology up to and including Being & Time should be problematic in light of his Nazism. I agree that the drive to authenticity can be seen as a ‘bit blood and soil’, and you can see the genetics of his subsequent Nazism here, but I don’t that there is any need to follow the logic of his position in this direction.

    I like H because I think that challenging the subject/object view of the structure of consciousness, etc, is a wonderfully grand, ambitious, and thought-provoking endeavour, and he gets a lot of important things right. I think that this remains true even though his own thought took him to places we mostly don’t want to follow.

    I also don’t think that it’s fair to philosophers of the past to equate H’s Nazism with, for example, eighteenth century philosophers thinking colonialism was a good thing. Whatever people nowadays may think about this, these people were consistent with much of the thought at their time and held views that were uncontroversial; this doesn’t mean that their beliefs were praiseworthy but I do think it tempers the blame that may be attached to them. H by contrast, in choosing to become a Nazi, deliberately supported a movement that was actively persecuting a number of his closest friends and which horrified many of his contemporary academics into emigrating from Germany.

    1. Thanks for the reply Rollo Burgess! As I guess is apparent, I certainly agree that we need not follow Heidegger along the path he took from his starting place to his Nazi conclusions.

      I also agree with you that there is probably something to be said about the sheer cultural normalcy of, say, Mill's beliefs about colonialism improving the lives of the colonised that might be in some sense morally exculpatory. The case of Heidegger and Naziism is interesting precisely because so many people of his day were able to see it for what it was, and yet still Heidegger did as he did. (That said, see the Eric Schwitzgebel post linked to under `Philosophers' in the first paragraph for some more discussion of this -- Heidegger was not so unusual as we may hope.) Of course that is not going to get, say, Du Bois on Manchuria off the hook, but I do agree that a full moral appraisal of these individuals would have to take such matters into account.

      In this post I just wanted to pre-empt a certain line of response that I think is fair but would not have been germane to my purposes. That is people respond to discussion of Heidegger's Naziism by saying that after all Heidegger is not the only philosopher to have engaged in political evil; why pick on him? Often accompanying this thought is that people allege that this is just a sort of proxy war on Continental philosophy. To some extent I think it is fair to ask why we just focus on Heidegger, so I wanted to acknowledge there is something to the accusatory rhetorical question. But it's not really what I wanted to be the focus, and given where the post ends up I definitely didn't want people to be put off by the idea that this was just another analytic looking to hate on Continental, so I wanted to head that thought off early.

      Thanks again for engaging, I really appreciate your thoughts!

  2. Posting to remind myself that if ever I want to write this up I should look into getting and responding to this book:


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