What could we possibly learn from a zealous, unrepentant Nazi? Academic philosophy seems to think “quite a lot,” since one of the twentieth century’s most influential philosophers was such a person. But in an age of “cancel culture,” “decolonializing the syllabus,” and writing problematic historical figures off as “dead white men,” should philosophers still be engaging with the ideas of such a person?
Martin Heidegger revolutionized phenomenology, played an important role in the development of existentialism and hermeneutics, and influenced postmodern thought. Even analytic philosophers are now familiar with and write regularly about him, which would previously have been unthinkable. Heidegger’s influence is felt even beyond philosophy. His essay Building, Dwelling, Thinking has been discussed in architectural research. His writings on technology are taken seriously by environmental theorists. Entire approaches to psychoanalysis have been developed based on Heidegger, and his work has inspired the films of Terrence Malick.
The impact that Heidegger had on philosophy means that he cannot be ignored by philosophers. But equally, we cannot ignore his antisemitism, avowed support of Nazism, his disgusting political machinations during the Second World War, his lack of remorse or any convincing apology after it, and, most importantly, his lifelong public silence about the systematic extermination of Jews in Nazi gas chambers. Can an engagement with Heidegger’s philosophy lead anywhere beyond contributing to an understanding of the psychology of antisemitism?
Heidegger has justifiably been criticized for his Nazism, with some suggesting that philosophers should abandon their reverence toward his work, despite the effect it had on Western thought. Without Heidegger, the work of Hannah Arendt, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Derrida, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Karl Jaspers, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Luc Nancy, Richard Rorty, Herbert Marcuse and many others would arguably have been very different. Phenomenology and existentialism would certainly have been very different.
We cannot just airbrush Heidegger out. Perhaps we should just keep reading him as normal, separate the work from the man, and comfort ourselves with the knowledge that sometimes bad people write good books. But this is hardly convincing—the matter is much more complicated.
The debate about the depth of Heidegger’s Nazism and the relationship between his politics and his philosophy has been unfolding in academia for decades. It was inflamed again recently by the publication of the notorious, explicitly antisemitic content of the Black Notebooks. Heidegger remains a serious dilemma for philosophers: we cannot ignore him but we cannot pretend his Nazism bears no consequence for how we approach studying him. It is a fact that should inform how we read him. The question is how to do so.
The Czech philosopher Jan Patočka’s reception of Heidegger is instructive. Patočka studied under Edmund Husserl and Heidegger, and the influences of both are clearly felt in his philosophy. Patočka discussed Heidegger often, demonstrating an intimate familiarity with and respect for his phenomenology, especially what he calls “the masterly analysis” of Being and Time. But Patočka was no uncritical disciple, nor did he shy away from discussing politics, as Heidegger deliberately does in Being and Time.
Patočka was incisively critical of Heidegger’s philosophy and built on it in ways the latter never would have attempted. In Being and Time, Heidegger sought after the “existential structures” of Dasein, defined as the entity that we are, which can raise the question of what “being” means. Existential structures are things that no instance of Dasein is without, like mortality, affectivity, and meaning, which also function as conditions for the possibility of our type of existence.
Heidegger argued that his analysis of Dasein operated at such a fundamental level that he was effectively precluded from making claims about humanity specifically. He was dealing with “being,” not “human being,” interested only in Dasein (which is not necessarily limited to human beings), and solely concerned with the question of the meaning of “being.” Anything else was an unwarranted, unjustified distraction. Heidegger often broke off lines of inquiry at points when they would become more illuminating for human life or encroach on ethical questions because it would have distracted from the object of the investigation. This is why he deliberately avoided discussing politics in Being and Time, even though it contains an analysis of Dasein’s being-social and descriptions of how Dasein interacts with fellow Daseins. Heidegger viewed his work as the ground of future theorizing of any kind, including ethical or political theory. His philosophy could not be part of what it was supposed to ground.
Patočka saw a lot of promise in Heidegger’s phenomenology but did not agree that it lacked political relevance or did not concern human existence as such. In the form of his “three movements of human life,” Patočka’s phenomenology also attempts to specify “existential structures” of human existence, yet his theorizing of these structures was a far cry from Heidegger’s austere ontological language, instead referring to explicitly political ideas.
The movement of “acceptance” occurs upon first entering the world. In it, we become accepting of our situation and are accepted into a social community. Without this two-way movement of acceptance, we would not be able to live—acceptance is a condition for the possibility of being the kind of entity we are, something that structures every case of human existence. Though Heidegger discussed social being, such a notion of “acceptance” would be completely foreign to his early phenomenological analysis. The movement of “self-surrender” (also called “work and struggle”) shows how the pragmatic world of tools and equipment that Heidegger discussed is also the world of work, and it is the collective human participation in work that sustains our shared world, so labor is also a condition for the possibility and continued sustenance of our being. This is also somewhere Heidegger would not have gone.
Patočka showed that the very things Heidegger sought to avoid in his analysis, or thought were not fundamental enough to be part of it, can be discovered by examining humanity’s existential structures and deserve to be acknowledged as fundamental to our shared existence. Patočka’s engagement with Heidegger was simultaneously positive and negative: he built on Heidegger’s system but refused to be contained by its author’s estimation of its significance and ideas about how it should be used. Patočka’s attitude toward reading Heidegger, and the need for this attitude, was captured well by Derrida: “Without Heidegger’s terrible silence, we would not feel the imperative addressed to our responsibility, the need to read Heidegger as he did not read himself.”
To this end, Patočka critically dismantled and reassembled Heidegger’s work, paying as much attention to what Heidegger did not say as what he did say, using his phenomenological tools to move beyond the confines of his original project and to reveal their latent, unintended potential.
Ironically, this is how Heidegger recommended we read the history of philosophy, in a manner he called a “destruction” or “destructive retrieval,” something akin to what Derrida called “deconstruction.” Accusing the history of philosophy of neglecting or “forgetting” the question of being, Heidegger suggested we take a hammer to tradition, “destroying” the mistakes and elements that would hinder our current pursuits while “retrieving” anything that would help us, even and especially when this contradicts the original intentions of their authors. When it comes to someone as important yet problematic as Heidegger, we should follow Patočka’s example and “destructively retrieve” him.
James Cartlidge is a postdoctoral researcher in philosophy, working primarily on phenomenology, existentialism, and post-structuralism. He was a CEU Visiting Fellow at the IWM (December 2022–April 2023).