Gregory Jones-Katz, review of Richard Wolin’s “Heidegger in Ruins: Between Philosophy and Ideology”

Richard Wolin. Heidegger in Ruins: Between Philosophy and Ideology. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022. 488 PP. Cloth $38.00. ISBN 9780300233186.

Wolin, Heidegger in Ruins

While introducing his 1924 lecture course on Aristotle, Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), one of the most fêted philosophers of the last century, rhetorically asked: “What was Aristotle’s life?” His own answer to that question could be summarized in a single sentence: “He was born, he thought, he died,’ and all the rest is pure anecdote.”[1] Heidegger’s pronouncement exerted a certain pull among pupils and became something like a statement of interpretive principle: no biography was required to understand Aristotle’s Rhetoric, only an ascetic attention to the text, all else was marginal. Hannah Arendt referred to the sentence in a 1969 Merkur essay.[2] Other philosophers similarly felt its aphoristic charm.[3] This, despite the fact that troubling aspects of Heidegger’s own life—above all, his links to National Socialism—were, since Karl Löwith’s 1946 article in Les temps modernes, widely acknowledged.[4] Nevertheless, as Richard Wolin observes in his new book, Heidegger in Ruins: Between Philosophy and Ideology, many Heidegger apologists remain committed to separating the inconvenient details of Heidegger’s biography from his philosophical effort to answer the question of the meaning of Being—that is, to determine what it is that makes beings comprehensible as beings.

Yet, as Shakespeare’s young rogue Launcelot Gobbo stated: “Truth will out.”[5] In the 1980s, the historian Victor Farias uncovered additional evidence that Heidegger harbored lifelong antisemitic beliefs in his book Heidegger and Nazism, prompting another international reckoning with the relationship (or lack thereof) between ideas and the personal lives of their creators. The most recent “outing” took place in 2014, with the revelation that Heidegger made pro-Nazi statements and used a number of antisemitic tropes in the first three volumes of his Black Notebooks, a set of 34 private notebooks, totaling nearly three thousand pages, written between October 1931 and 1970. For Heidegger apologists still clinging to the principle, as Flaubert once put it, that “the man is nothing, the work is everything,” the Notebooks have proven especially challenging to dismiss as “pure anecdote,” since they offer an exceptionally intimate, detailed, and prolonged window onto the famous philosopher’s private beliefs.

It is against this backdrop that Wolin mobilizes Ruins. An intellectual historian who has, for three decades, broadly written on not only twentieth-century European philosophy, but on Heidegger in particular—The Politics of Being (1990) and Heidegger’s Children (2001) are perhaps the most relevant here—his new book endeavors to make the complex nexus between Heidegger’s “‘philosophy’ and ‘worldview’ in his oeuvre” (2) more widely known. For those of us not well-travelled through the stars and signs of Heidegger’s intellectual cosmos, his hardnosed intervention into the now decade-long reconsideration of Heidegger’s philosophy is penetrating, persuasive, and powerful.

Wolin argues that the Notebooks “confirm that the cordon sanitaire that Heidegger’s supporters have sought to maintain…is hermeneutically flawed” (2). Building on new understandings of Heidegger’s political commitments, which the Notebooks provide a foundation for, Wolin reconstructs central stages of Heidegger’s Denkweg, or “way of thinking.” For Wolin, the once private notebooks “highlight the depth and extent of Heidegger’s Germanophilia: his conviction that Deutschtum possessed a salvific historical mission” and “reaffirm that Heidegger’s understanding of Seingeschichte (the history of Being) was inherently tied to his ‘metaphysical’ wager on the redemptive capacities of Deutschtum” (4). Heidegger’s elevation of Germanness, his adoption of a right-radical, conservative revolutionary dialect, his consistent refusal to challenge National Socialism ut totum, and his antisemitic utterances in once-private writings, all cast a highly suspect ethical and political light on Heidegger’s philosophical undertaking. Nonetheless, Wolin stresses, one should not, as some observers have argued, summarily dismiss or wholly abandon Heidegger’s philosophy, but rather “patiently and systematically” (12) reexamine it.

Still, Wolin’s own “reexamination” will elicit a painful reckoning for those invested in Heidegger’s Existenzphilosophie or its offshoots. After a note on sources (he notably mines Heidegger’s correspondence with almost two hundred interlocutors), a helpful introduction explains the significance of Wolin’s project vis-à-vis “Heideggerianism” (variants inspired by Heidegger’s philosophy) and Heidegger studies (scholarship devoted to the understanding of Heidegger’s thought). Chapter one, “The Heidegger Hoax,” reviews the suspicious “textual ‘cleansing’” (14) of Heidegger’s published versions of his works and their original manuscript versions, such as Heidegger’s insertion of a self-exculpatory parenthetical remark in the published version of a 1935 lecture where he notoriously praised the “inner truth and greatness of National Socialism.” Chapter two, “Heidegger in Ruins,” maps how Notebooks’ publication and the epistolary exchange between Heidegger and “his brother and confessor, Fritz” (14), transforms our understanding of Heidegger’s philosophical self-understanding. Intervening into a commonly expressed view in the secondary literature that suggests Heidegger, due to his critiques of modern science, could not have been committed to National Socialism and its “biological racism,” chapter three, “Heidegger and Race,” clarifies how and why Heidegger’s views on race thinking—his “spiritual racism”—were in fact aligned with National Socialist race ideology. Chapter four, “Arbeit macht frei: Heidegger and the German Ideology of Work,” reassesses Heidegger’s assessment of the metaphysical meaning of Arbeit. For Heidegger, Wolin argues, Arbeit was a manifestation of authenticity, an annex to his ontological project; Heidegger’s celebrated handling of “tools” and “equipment” as styles of Zuhandenheit (“ready-to-hand”) ought to be reconsidered as an extension of Heidegger’s sustained support for “National Socialist Education,” which found a public demonstration when he was rector of Freiburg University. Chapter five, “Earth and Soil: Heidegger and the National Socialist Politics of Space,” revisits “the systematic role that the notion of existential ‘rootedness’ played in Heidegger’s philosophy” (17). The creed of “rootedness,” Wolin shows, is significantly featured in Heidegger’s critique of “world Jewry,” and this critique, Wolin argues, is similar in style and content to contemporary right-radical scholar-advocates, shaping Heidegger’s intellectual endeavor. Chapter six, “From Beyond the Grave: Heidegger and the New Right,” reviews the influence that Heidegger’s work has exerted on the “New Right,” focusing on foremost representatives in France, Germany, Austria, Russia, and the United States. Finally, the postscript, “Heidegger and Heimat,” explores how Heidegger remade his public image into an advocate of Heimatliteratur, literature that describes local, usually idyllically rural, life.

Wolin’s historical monograph intersects with the ever-expanding number of secondary works, many written by philosophers, on Heidegger that followed the 2014 publication of the first three volumes of the Black Notebooks. Three illustrations: (A) German philosopher Peter Trawny, the Notebooks’ editor, sparked the controversy with newspaper articles that warned the public of Heidegger’s antisemitism[6]; (B) Italian philosopher Donatella Di Cesare made the dramatic decision to step down from her esteemed position at the Martin-Heidegger-Gesellschaft in response to the revelations in the Notebooks, and argued that the Notebooks, while not a gravestone for Heidegger’s philosophy, exploded the entire intellectual edifice of “continental philosophy”[7]; and (C) German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm von Herrmann embarked on a quest to shield Heidegger and refute Trawny’s and Di Cesare’s assertions.[8] Turning to publications found only in English, one could engage Reading Heidegger’s Black Notebooks 1931-1941 (2016), the first collection of responses by Heidegger scholars to the publication of the private writings; many scholars therein argued that Heidegger remains important because of his analysis of the technological essence of modernity.[9] Or one could absorb Heidegger’s Black Notebooks: Responses to Anti-Semitism (2017), where scholarship from professors of history, literature, philosophy, psychiatry, and African American studies reflect on how to approach the antisemitic passages in Heidegger’s Notebooks.[10] Readers acquainted with this latest avalanche of scholarship will appreciate Wolin’s contribution: his organized effort (though a tortured one that did not “write itself” [387]) adds nuance to both historical conversations and understandable moral judgements.

Accordingly, Wolin’s work also encourages broader historical reexaminations that stretch beyond the Black Notebooks controversy. His re-evaluation of Heidegger also speaks, for example, to Anson Rabinbach’s analysis in In the Shadow of Catastrophe: German Intellectuals between Apocalypse and Enlightenment (2001)[11] of German intellectuals’ attempts to come to terms with post-World War I apocalyptic thinking and, later, fascism, particularly through novel philosophical matrixes. Relatedly, Ruins will shake up our understanding of the famous 1929 debate between Neo-Kantian Ernst Cassirer and Heidegger, an event that the intellectual historian Peter Gordon has addressed, which occurred just a few years prior to Hitler’s rise to power and thus but a couple of years before Heidegger recorded his disturbing statements and positions in the Notebooks.[12]

But, those familiar with the history of Heidegger’s reception[13] and Wolin’s place within that story might detect in Ruins a curious absence: an engagement with perhaps Heidegger’s most famous reader, Algerian-born French philosopher Jacques Derrida.[14] Wolin and Derrida in fact had a spectacular dustup in the early 1990s. It all began because of arguments that Derrida made in a 1987 interview in Nouvel Observateur, titled “Heidegger, l’enfer des philosophes.”[15] There, Derrida applied his anti-essentialist deconstructive reading technique to Heidegger’s use of the word and concept of “spirit” (“Geist”) in the 1920s and then in the 1930s, well after Heidegger had committed himself to Hitler’s cause; throughout, Derrida found it difficult to pinpoint the essential difference between the “spirit” of Nazism and the “spirit” of non-Nazism.[16] Wolin upbraided Derrida’s deconstructive interpretation, arguing that Derrida’s “narrow and arbitrary” attention to the concept of “spirit” led to a “quasi-exoneration of Heidegger’s philosophically overdetermined commitment to National Socialism.”[17] “Discourse on spirit,” Wolin contended, was not part of Nazism’s legacy but “essentially and inalienably part of our tradition,” that is, our democracy, our human rights, and our freedom.[18] Yet Derrida’s deconstructive point—that Nazis and non-Nazis in the 1930s both sung “hymn[s] to the freedom of spirit”[19]—was that a metaphysical idea of “spirit” (say the French Revolutionary spirit as much as Herder’s idea of the “national spirit” of a people) informed Heidegger’s Nazi turn. For Derrida, the “spirit” that animates essentialist humanisms Wolin was eager to defend—our notion of what constitutes human-being—could thus result in dangerous exclusions and, potentially, eliminations of the other. Ironically, Derrida’s deconstruction of the hierarchical oppositions that structure humanism is similar to the historicist hermeneutic that Wolin advocates one should adopt to interpret Heidegger.

As Derrida, who was not the typical “Left Heideggerian”[20] Wolin criticizes in Ruins, might argue, the privileging of either Heidegger’s private writings or Heidegger’s public-facing project erects an unsound hierarchical opposition; both, like a substantive shadow, do not simply tug at and pull along their opposite: rather, they are the organizing element of the other. In other words, Heidegger’s privately recorded antisemitic statements and disposition were linked to concepts foundational to the Existenzphilosophie he lectured on and published about, and vice-versa. Attempts to sequester either side of this dichotomy from its other are not simply misguided, for both Wolin and Derrida, but, as Wolin would put it, “hermeneutically flawed” (2). If Wolin’s new book is interpreted within this frame, Heidegger in Ruins is thus but a waystation on Wolin’s own three-decade-long path to a (self-) deconstructive consideration of “the Heidegger text.” In fact, Wolin and Derrida, in the end, may have ended up on the same political-historical side after all—albeit with different interpretive accents.

Today, for us, Wolin’s Ruins practically compels us to continue to ask anti-Foucauldian search-for-origins type questions: did Heidegger’s Notebooks develop out of Heidegger’s core arguments, from his earlier work? A clear answer to which would make, for example, the 1929 Cassirer-Heidegger debate read quite differently (and more menacingly), to his work from after “the turn” (die Kehre), his later reorientation away from his anthropologically inflected language and conceptualization. What lurks behind Heidegger’s published sentences? Is there anything to salvage from his philosophical undertaking? Only with trepidation, in part due to the evidence that Wolin’s new book marshals and arguments that it makes, should our answers come. And, with Derrida, out of the ideological ruins that Heidegger left, the un-concealment of the meaning of Being still might one day emerge. Yet of course this meaning will always-already be deconstruction.

[1] As recorded in his published lecture notes, Heidegger stated: “Bei der Persönlichkeit eines Philosophen hat nur das Interesse: Er war dann und dann geboren, er arbeitete und starb.” See Martin Heidegger, Grundbegriffe der aristotelischen Philosophie (Sommersemester 1924) Gesamtausgabe 2 Vol. 18, ed. Mark Michalski, 5.
[2] Hannah Arendt, “Martin Heidegger ist 80 Jahre alt,” Merkur 258 (October 1969), 893-902.
[3] Jacob Klein, The Lectures and Essays of Jacob Klein, eds. Robert Williamson and Elliott Zuckerman (Annapolis, MD: St. John’s College Press, 1985).
[4] Karl Löwith, “Les implications politiques de la philosophie de l’existence chez Heidegger,” Les Temps Modernes 14 (novembre 1946), 343-360.
[5] William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act 2, Scene 2.
[6] Peter Trawny, Heidegger und der Mythos der jüdischen Weltverschwörung (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 2014).
[7] Donatella Di Cesare, Heidegger, die Juden, die Shoah (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 2015), 7.
[8] Friedrich-Wilhelm von Herrmann and Francesco Alfieri, Martin Heidegger. La Verità sui Quaderni neri (Morcelliana: Brescia, 2016).
[9] Ingo Farin and Jeff Malpas eds., Reading Heidegger’s Black Notebooks 1931-1941 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016).
[10] Andrew J. Mitchell and Peter Trawny eds., Heidegger’s Black Notebooks: Responses to Anti-Semitism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017).
[11] Anson Rabinbach, In the Shadow of Catastrophe: German Intellectuals between Apocalypse and Enlightenment (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), for example, 97-128, especially 112, which discusses Heidegger’s “turning point.”
[12] Peter Gordon, Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010).
[13] See, for example, Martin Woessner, Heidegger in America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011).
[14] Outside of references, the second parenthetical and made while discussing another scholar’s arguments, to a quasi-deconstructive position (as expressed by the editors of Heidegger’s Black Notebooks: Responses to Anti-Semitism) on page 10 and 321.
[15] Jacques Derrida, “Heidegger, l’enfer des philosophes,’ Entretien avec Didier Eribon,” Nouvel Observateur 1200, 6-12 Nov. 1987: 170-174.
[16] Jacques Derrida, “Heidegger, the Philosophers’ Hell,” in Points…Interviews, 19741994 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), ed. Elisabeth Weber, 181-190, 185-186.
[17] Wolin, “Preface to the MIT Press Edition,” in The Heidegger Controversy, Richard Wolin ed., The Heidegger Controversy: A Critical Reader (London: MIT Press, 1993), xiv, xii.
[18] Wolin, “Preface to the MIT Press Edition,” xvii.
[19] Derrida, “Heidegger, the Philosophers’ Hell,” 186.
[20] See note 14 above.

Gregory Jones-Katz is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Forschungskolleg Humanwissenschaften in Bad Homburg, Germany and a research associate at the Institute for Literary Theory and Comparative Literature at Goethe-Universität Frankfurt. He primarily works in the fields of American intellectual and cultural history, the history of capitalism, the history of higher education, and the global history of the humanities. Author of Deconstruction: An American Institution (2021), Greg’s academic work has appeared in Analyse & Kritik, History and Theory, Jewish Social Studies, and Modern Intellectual History; his public-facing scholarship has appeared in the Boston Review, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Los Angeles Review of Books, Merkur,Philosophie Magazin, Raritan, and Schweizer Monat.

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