It is not often something happens in the field of philosophy that is conventionally “newsworthy.” The discipline tends to move forward in small, less dramatic ways, when it moves forward at all. As Nietzsche wrote, thoughts that come in on dove’s feet change the world.
There are, of course, exceptions. These include the recent revelations over the German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s long-secret “black notebooks,” detailing his personal thoughts on Jews and National Socialism, such as this gem from 1941: “World Jewry is ungraspable everywhere and doesn’t need to get involved in military action while continuing to unfurl its influence, whereas we are left to sacrifice the best blood of the best of our people.”
That Heidegger had a profoundly troubling relationship with Nazism is no secret to anyone who has spent any time looking into the question. This is a man who was known to have told his students, “Let not doctrines and ideas be the rules of your Being. The Fuehrer, himself and he alone, is today and for the future German actuality and its law.”
These revelations, though, are something different. Previously, one could argue that Hitler’s Nazi affiliations could previously be chalked up to ambition, moral cowardice or simple fear. Not attractive traits, certainly, but failings that many of us have been guilty of at some point in our lives.
What these diaries prove, beyond a doubt, is that a man who was arguably one of the best minds of the century also believed in his heart that Nazism was a solution to the problems of what he saw as decadent and corrupt modernity.
Heidegger’s numerous defenders have argued for years that it is possible to separate the philosophical from the political. It might be, but I don’t think we should be so eager to try to do so. What the Heidegger revelations should remind us is the danger that comes from separating the two.
Modern liberal democracy is full of problems, problems that we in academia often spend a great deal of time critiquing. That is an important social responsibility of academia and what it should be doing.
What Heidegger reminds us, though, is that these critiques can be taken too far. Criticizing liberal democracy is easy. Embracing alternatives is a highly dangerous task, and one at which Heidegger failed miserably. Dismissing “Americanism,” as he derisively called it, as no better than its competing systems left him morally unable to see why he should have defended Weimar democracy against the growing Nazi menace.
It serves as a reminder that there needs to be some moral code guiding academic study. If I may risk understatement here, if you have a philosophy that does not allow you to see the deportation of Jews to concentration camps as a bad thing, you need a new philosophy.
I don’t want to encourage anyone to draw parallels between modern America and Weimar Germany. People do all the time and it is generally unhelpful. But Martin Heidegger teaches us a lesson that transcends all historical eras: it does not matter how brilliant you are. You can still be incredibly wrong about the simplest things.