Against Rorty: On Judging Heidegger
Published 11/12/13

Against Rorty: On Judging Heidegger

Abstract: In an essay arguing for an approach to Martin Heidegger and his works that views him in an alternative light via a consideration of what he may have done under differing conditions, and that sees his philosophy as containing tools that are of worth, Richard Rorty makes the case that certain chance events in Heidegger’s life contributed negatively to his moral character. Had circumstances been different, Rorty asserts, Heidegger would not have become a Nazi and therefore critics of his writings who condemn them by association are in error. However, fault is found with the importance Rorty places on the moral causality of chance events in the following, and it is suggested that critics are perhaps correct not to fully sever the thought from the man.

Keywords: chance events; legacy; Martin Heidegger; moral character; Nazism; Richard Rorty

I. Rorty’s alternative scenario
In an essay titled “On Heidegger’s Nazism”(1), Richard Rorty responds to critics who see Martin Heidegger’s infamous rectorial address as revealing of the man’s underlying thought, rather than as one low point among an intellectual life that included both the good and the bad, and makes the statement that “I take a person’s moral character — his or her selective sensitivity to the sufferings of others — to be shaped by chance events in his or her life.”(2) Rorty then goes on to imagine a scenario in which Heidegger not only does not join the Nazi Party but becomes famous as an anti-Nazi. In Rorty’s scenario Heidegger has a passionate affair with a brilliant and lovely Jewish student, leaves his wife and marries her (thus preventing himself from even being eligible for Party membership), is awoken through her to what is happening around him, persecuted socially and professionally because of his new wife, flees Germany for America where he is given a professorship at the University of Chicago by friendly exiles who had preceded him, and fulfils his need for public adoration through anti-Nazi speeches that are well received and grant him fame in his temporary home away from home. Rorty’s position is that when seen from this light, that of a different series of chance events from which different consequences followed, Heidegger is not so bad after all and he did have some things in his writings worth taking on board even though he also had a lot of junk thrown in as well. In the following I wish to take issue primarily with Rorty’s view that it was the historical accidents that made the man before finally considering what place to give Heidegger’s works.

II. The historical record
To begin with (although in fairness to Rorty he simply may not have been aware of this when he wrote his essay), Heidegger did have a passionate affair with a brilliant and lovely Jewish student of his in the person of Hannah Arendt, whom he met in 1924 and with whom he was romantically involved for nearly four years.(3) This does not seem to have had much effect on his thought, however, for in 1929 he was writing against the “Judaization” of German culture.(4) The historical record gets worse from there, of course, as Heidegger’s enthusiastic embrace of Nazism, his Party membership (which he never revoked), his promotion of the movement amongst his students and in written works, and his attempts to become “the philosopher of National Socialism” have all been well documented. The case of his short-lived rectorship is admittedly less clear, and during this time Heidegger did write appeals in defense of some Jewish professors and helped some Jewish colleagues and students to emigrate. Yet what does this assistance given to these people indicate if not that, contrary to what Rorty seems to think, Heidegger did in fact sufficiently “have his nose rubbed in the torment of the Jews” to really see what was going on?(5) We may never know the full reasons Heidegger had for resigning as rector in 1934, despite the postwar explanations he gave in his own defense, nor for his failure to revoke his Party membership. The latter may have been impossible, politically, professionally, or otherwise, and as to the former it was accompanied by Heidegger’s ceasing to attend Party meetings and so it could well be indicative of a disillusionment with Nazism. He was still wearing a swastika badge in 1936 when he gave a lecture in Rome on “Hölderlin and the essential nature of poetry”, however, and agreed to have the dedication to his mentor and early champion Edmund Husserl removed from Being and Time in 1941.(6) Then there is his postwar silence on the massacre of six million Jews, which Rorty, to his credit, rightly condemns as unforgiveable; a silence only broken by “occasional bits of high-flown evasiveness which sought to minimize his own role, to imply that there was still something good at the core of Nazism, and to suggest that the Nazi atrocities were not anything very special.”(7)

III. Unpacking Rorty’s “chance events”
What are we to make of this mixed bag? Did Heidegger simply succumb to the whims of fate that had him in the time and place that they did? Were his Nazism and anti-Semitism merely the products of the culture that he was surrounded by as Rorty seems to be arguing in his piece? Or can he be held accountable for the abhorrent views he embraced and espoused, for his part in further darkening one of humanity’s darkest chapters?

We are of course shaped by the environments we find ourselves living in, and especially so as children, and much research in both neuroscience and moral psychology has established that the vast majority of our decisions and behavior are rooted in nonconscious processes which guide our feelings and influence the interpretations we give to the events around us.(8) Yet even in surroundings as determined by outside forces as ours are, we are still personally responsible for our own actions; our reactions to the cultures, people, and occurrences that have gone into influencing our pasts. Moreover, it seems entirely reasonable to expect a professional philosopher to be reflective enough to consider his own place in the broader spectrum, what brought him to where he is, how he has responded to that, and how he ought to respond to that. To me, this failure to critically consider the wider scope of his time and place, and his position within it, is the core of why a defense of Heidegger as a thinker cannot be successfully mounted. This may be too charitable though, Heidegger may well have reflected on all these things and still made the choices that he did — but if that is the case then he is all the more to blame. It is not the chance events of our lives, whatever influence they may have on us at the time, that really act to shape our moral characters but how we respond to those chance events. On that Heidegger must be judged as harshly as possible. He preferred career over justice, ego over humanity, and personal promotion over denouncing the most sinister and efficient killing machine in history. What this reveals about the man’s moral character is terrifying.

IV. Works and legacy
In defending Heidegger against his critics Rorty wants to say that despite the man’s failures there is still much of value to be taken from his works, that to see nothing more in Heidegger’s corpus than a Nazi is to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Rather we should “read Heidegger’s books as he least wanted them read — as occasions for exploitation, recent additions to our Bestand an Waren. We shall stop yearning for depth, and stop trying either to worship heroes or to hunt down criminals. Instead, we shall settle for useful tools, and take them where we can find them.”(9)

Although I am personally inclined to agree with Jonathan Glover that Heidegger’s writings tend to conceal thoughts with little merit behind an obfuscating screen of abstract and complex verbosity (Glover calls his books “an embodiment of the idea that philosophy is an impenetrable fog, in which ideas not clearly understood have to be taken on trust.”(10)), many great minds — Hannah Arendt and Richard Rorty among them — have found greatness in Heidegger and I am not one to gainsay them. Rorty no doubt has a point here that some will find things worth taking from Heidegger’s works, and whatever is taken should then be judged by what is done with it and not purely based on its source.

The source does, however, matter. We approach the political works of Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong with caution and are right to do so because of what these men were willing to do to people in the name of The People. While Heidegger the man is in some ways distinct from Heidegger the philosopher, the former cannot be wholly separated from the latter; on the other hand, the case against the latter is much less straightforward. We may best be served then by placing Heidegger in a similar mental category as we do Lenin and Mao, neither of whom deserve rehabilitative what-if historical accounts.

1. Richard Rorty, “On Heidegger’s Nazism” (1990), in Philosophy and Social Hope (London: Penguin Books, 1999), pp. 190-197.
2. ibid., p. 193.
3. Elzbieta Ettinger, Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997).
4. Jonathan Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century, 2nd edn (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012). The case of Heidegger is discussed in Part Six (“The Will to Create Mankind Anew: The Nazi Experiment”), Chapter 39 (“Philosophers”), pp. 365-378.
5. See the discussion of this in Rorty, op. cit., p. 196.
6. Glover, op. cit.
7. Glover, ibid., p. 371.
8. For a popular and accessible neuroscientific summary and analysis see Michael S. Gazzaniga, Who’s In Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain (Ecco Press: New York, 2011); and for a similarly approachable moral psychological account see Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012).
9. Rorty, op. cit., p. 197.
10. Glover, op. cit., p. 375.

Author: Andrew Oberg
Andrew is a lecturer at Toyo University, Japan. His academic interests include definitions of the self and social morality, nonreligious ethics, language and its role in shaping thought. He is also a co-founder of the literary website and writers' collective Drugstore Books. For further research and publication information see here.
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