Thinking outstrips the thinker An argument to keep on reading Heidegger

Heidegger’s case

Ever since renowned German philosopher Martin Heidegger joined the National Socialist Party in 1933 there has been a lively debate surrounding both his work and persona[1]. What’s more, after the Second World War Heidegger never confronted his own philosophical-historical conceptions behind his actions and remained silent on the role he had plaid under the regime[2]. Recently, this debate has gained a new spark due to the publication of the first volumes of Heidegger’s so-called Black Notebooks, thirty-four black-covered booklets containing Heidegger’s philosophical reflections and annotations about events of the time in the years between 1931 and 1976[3]. The controversial contents of the publications have reignited accusations concerning the authoritarianism and anti-Semitism of the person and the thought[4].

Some have called for removing Heidegger from the shelves of philosophy departments and to rehouse him under the history of Nazism[5]. These commentators usually refer to a contamination of Heidegger’s philosophy or hold that a bad man cannot be a good Philosopher[6]. In this essay, I follow the position of commentators such as Eric Nelson, who holds that the more pressing issue regards the internal structure of Heidegger’s thinking[7]. I argue that we ought to keep on concerning ourselves with Heidegger and keep on reading his works as he remains one of the most influential Philosophers in the 20th century, which is precisely why we ought to think about how his works are to be interpreted both as philosophical works and as works that are bound up with the historical life of a person[8]. One of my tasks will be to hint at the ambivalence of Heidegger, which makes it hard to penetrate him and begs the question if a final answer to the Heidegger problem is at all achievable. It follows that I in no way aim at answering the question if National Socialism and anti-Semitism contaminate Heidegger and his work. Rather, in forwarding philosophical perspectives on his work, this essay aims at promoting further investigation and reflection.

Analyzing the Philosopher

In addressing the Heidegger case, it is seems almost natural to ask how the person relates to his intellectual work. I will here give some implications towards why the analysis of Heidegger’s Philosophy is an end in it’s own right, regardless of the person. Historian Holger Zaborowski’s analysis of Heidegger’s life and work paints a picture of great paradoxes and arbitrariness[9]. There are many clear cases of personal fault regarding Heidegger’s actions, which are not ambivalent and place great guilt on him. However, it is hard to make such a clear judgment in many other cases[10]. It may for instance be argued that Heidegger himself made efforts to overcome his problematic actions Rector and party member and tried to criticize National Socialism, but he did so philosophically rather than taking action[11]. Another point Zaborowski makes is that Heidegger lived a very eventful life, which makes it impossible to put all pieces of the puzzle together[12]. To this complexity, Arendt adds that Heidegger lacked the common sense necessary for political life and action because of his withdrawnness from the world in thought[13]. The complex and ambivalent character is also reflected in his reception, in which he has been read as both an opponent and proponent of oppression for instance[14]. Zaborowski thus suggests that the only way to come to terms with Heidegger is to confront him philosophically and recognizing that he after all is an influential and inspiring thinker[15].

Besides the complexity of Heidegger’s work and character, ad hominem arguments appear toothless if we accept that throughout history there have been very evil people who have written interesting books and said things that are true. As Zaborowski puts it, there are many examples that show that intellectual greatness does not protect one from error and bad actions[16]. Bernasconi notes that there is much racism in the thought and actions of Kant, Locke and Hegel, but, even though they are regularly criticized, this is not held as a reason to expel them from our canon of thought. In the same way, we cannot ignore Heidegger’s influence up to this day. Foucault himself said that his thought directly derived from Heidegger[17]. The same holds for Sartre. The Phenomenology of Derrida and Ponty is fundamentally based on readings of Heidegger. Responding to claims like a bad man must be a bad philosopher, it hence seems arbitrary that so much value is created from something which supposedly is valueless.

In this excursion, I have put forth arguments showing that a focus on analyzing Heidegger’s philosophic work without regarding his actions as a person surely does not exhaust the Heidegger case, indeed we may rightly ask how his Philosophy and persona interact. Focusing exclusively on his Philosophy however makes our task scalable and most importantly engages Heidegger on the level on which he is intellectually still influencing our world.

The Kant example

With regards to the racism of canonical philosophers, Robert Bernasconi agrees with Nelson and myself that given their unquestioned importance, such that we cannot afford not to read them, we should make their racism a further reason to interrogate them[18]. He provides us with the example of Kant and his controversial essays on race[19]. Canonical philosophers are according to Bernasconi often communicated as refined versions that differ from the actual person and his philosophy as a whole. In Kant’s case, many distinguish his empirical claims about races from his philosophical theses, thus separating racist beliefs from his main philosophical doctrines, enabling one to read Kant without the racism[20]. Another suboptimal way of analyzing Kant’s racism would be to analyze only the obvious and easily targeted racism[21]. To Bernasconi, if we want a better understanding of how racism operates in Kant we need a more inclusive approach which would for instance investigate Kant’s racism in it’s coexistence with his famous conception of cosmopolitanism, the search for a purpose in human history[22]. This approach suggests that Kantʼs cosmopolitanism actually made his racism even more pronounced because the racial inferiority that he had already recognized in some groups now becomes an offence against humanity itself, as certain races are unable to lead a life of purpose in his sense[23]. This approach thus rewards us with a greater understanding of how racism operates within philosophical frameworks and how it may have been inherited via Kant’s doctrines up until this very day.

Heidegger and National Socialism

Following Bernasconi’s learnings from Kant, we ask how National Socialism and anti-Semitism may be active in Heidegger’s work, thereby also including the specific historic surroundings[24]. With regards to National Socialism, Escudero notes that it did not start out as anything monolithic, but was a movement which in its initial stages sought a political and social revolution that was later dramatically transformed into a regime of human devastation[25]. This not only raises the necessity of situating Heidegger’s texts within the context of the Weimar Republic, but also within the crisis of modernity that made many intellectuals call for cultural revolutions[26]. To Ecsudero, we must thus enter our analysis with the premise that Heidegger’s thought contains a specific kind of National Socialism situated in this very point of time, in contrast to a simplified version related to the later ruling party in Germany[27].
This difference within the interpretation of National Socialism is also reflected in the fact that Heidegger from 1933 on was being separated from the party and it’s ideology. According to Nelson Heidegger did not speak in the same way as the National Socialist party philosophers and ideologues, but also the movement was not embracing his own philosophy. National Socialism was in Heidegger’s estimation an initially promising response to the nihilism of modernity, something he himself had called for, but it lost it’s initial promise and revealed itself as yet another version of modernism[28]. In the Black Notebooks, it is obvious that Heidegger has distaste for numerous elements of the National Socialist movement, which he sees as symptoms of the crisis of modernity, like its vulgar populism, biological racism and worship of technology[29].

To Nelson, these points however remain insufficient as to count as a real critique of National Socialism. Furthermore, Heidegger’s stance toward National Socialism is critical only in a broadly right-wing and elitist manner, which in Heidegger is fundamentally anti-modern and negative towards liberalism and democracy[30]. Nelson points out that when Heidegger develops concepts such as homeland, community and people, this wording does not justify an involvement with Nazism, these words were of common use at this time. But neither can it be denied that it echoes conservative and nationalist sentiment and eases the road towards a positive interpretation of the National Socialist movement[31]. The question of Nazi = yes / no is in other words not applicable, rather we need to depart from the point that Heidegger’s terminology is not accidental and his thought is bound up with the time in which he lived[32].

Heidegger’s Anti-Semitism

It is known that Heidegger made occasional anti-Semitic remarks and engaged in anti-Semitic actions when he was active on behalf of the political movement in 1933/34[33]. The Black Notebooks are testimonials to his anti-Semitism and provide further evidence and context. To Escudero, there on one hand is no doubt that Heidegger’s relationship with Judaism is highly problematic and ambiguous, but his stance is not unilaterally anti-Semitic, if understood as the racial persecution and systematic annihilation of the Jews[34]. What according to Escudero instead can be detected in Heidegger are strong traces of a spiritual and cultural anti-Judaism, particularly present in the university and academic spheres[35]. As already mentioned, Heidegger early developed a technophobic conservative opposition against modern technology. To him, with the modernization of society the use of technologies was no longer limited to the household economy, but extended to the creation of a public infrastructure, which furthers impersonal society and distances man from his individual being and original setting[36]. Some of Heidegger’s most controversial formulations emerge at the point where he connects this modernization with Jewry. However, these problematic remarks are ambiguous for they may for instance also be motivated by his anti-Christian polemic, which Nelson reads as a much more central thread throughout the Black Notebooks[37]. In the Black Notebooks and in other writings there are also passages in which Heidegger appears extremely critical of the type of anti-Semitism the party invoked[38]. It hence seems difficult to speak of a racist or biological anti-Semitism in Heidegger.

What is hard to deny is that Heidegger’s wording reflects part of Hitler’s discourse, like the stereotypes associating calculability with the Jewish world-view. Like Kant’s racism evolves when paired with his cosmopolitanism, we now know something about Heidegger’s anti-Semitism as the criticism of modernity is united with and extended to Judaism[39]. To Nelson, his anti-Semitism is thus not accidental or superficial, however, given the role of Jewry as one symptom of the history of metaphysics and modernity, his anti-Semitism is inconsistent with more radical anti-Semitic visions[40]. Commentators as Christian Fuchs hold a more critical interpretation, for instance clearly relating Heidegger to Adorno’s elements of anti-Semitism[41]. We have already noted the calculability, but Heidegger can also be said to define Jews as a powerful homogenous group, which echoes the myth of a Jewish world conspiracy. He even uses the term world Jewry (Weltjudentum). It would thus not be a biological, but a social and political feature of Jews that they are an opposition to what Heidegger sees as the German’s rootedness in soil, nation, and nature, while Jews are viewed as cosmopolitan and international, which are destructive features of modernity[42].

Where does this leave us

Finding a scalable and defendable approach to Heidegger is a great challenge for any philosopher or historian. As Nelson notes, apologetic and polemic accounts of the Heidegger controversy often remain closed to the unavoidable and necessary questions that must continue to be posed and reposed anew[43]. I have tried to focus on the need to address the implications we may find in Heidegger’s thought once we set his character and actions aside, in pursuit of showing that we should continue to concern ourselves with Heidegger: on one hand because evidently there is much to be gained from his thought, as his influence on important thinkers of our time proves. On the other hand, so that we can come to terms with what is hidden in thought and understand how this may influence us today. I agree with Nelson that the philosophy and the person cannot be cleanly separated and demarcated and indeed Heideggr’s thought ought to be put in context with his personal actions and beliefs. But at the same time, in analyzing the Philosopher we are necessarily looking at something which is beyond the person, the thinking necessarily outstrips the thinker and the philosophy calls for being encountered in its own terms[44].


Bernasconi, RobertWill the real Kant please stand up – The challenge of Enlightenment racism to the study of the history of philosophyRadical Philosophy 117:13-22, 2003 – URL:

Carlisle, E. J. – How did she Forgive Heidegger? Hannah Arendt and the Politics of Forgiveness – In, West, B. ed. TASA Conference 2014. Adelaide, SA: Challenging Identities, Institutions, and Communities. Melbourne, VIC. Nov, 2014 – URL:

Elden, Stuart – Mapping the Present – Heidegger, Foucault and the Project of Spatial History – Continuum, Cornwall 2001

Escudero, Jesús AdriánHeidegger’s Black Notebooks and the Question of Anti-Semitism – 2015 URL:

Fuchs, Christian – Martin Heidegger’s Anti-Semitism: Philosophy of Technology and the Media in the Light of the Black Notebooks. Implications for the Reception of Heidegger in Media and Communication Studies – tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique. Open Access Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society Vol 13 No 1, 2015 – URL:

Nelson, Eric S. Heidegger’s Black Noteboooks: National Socialism. Antisemitism, and the History of BeingHeidegger-Jahrbuch. 11 Zur Hermeneutik der „Schwarzen Hefte“ :77-88, Verlag Karl Albert 2017 –  URL:

Zaborowski, Robert – Eine Frage von Irre und Schuld?: Martin Heidegger und der Nationalsozialismus – FISCHER Taschenbuch, 2010

[1] Nelson, p. 77

[2] Ibid, p. 86

[3] Nelson, p. 78; Escudero, p. 24

[4] Nelson, p. 78



[7] Nelson, p. 79

[8] Ibid

[9] Zaborowski, p. 747-755

[10] Ibid, p. 750, 752

[11] Ibid, p. 753

[12] Ibid, p. 751

[13] Carlisle, p. 11

[14] Nelson, p. 78, 80

[15] Zaborowski, p. 754

[16] Ibid, p. 750

[17] Elden, S.1,2,94

[18] Bernasconi, p. 13

[19] Ibid, p. 14

[20] Ibid, p. 16

[21] Ibid

[22] Ibid, p. 18

[23] Ibid

[24] Escudero, p. 22; Bernasconi, p. 14-15

[25] Escudero, p. 32

[26] Zaborowski, p. 749

[27] Escudero, p. 32

[28] Nelson, p. 80

[29] Nelson, p. 80-81, 86

[30] Nelson, p. 82; Zaborowski, p. 753

[31] Nelson, p. 80

[32] Nelson, p. 80; Zaborowski, p. 750

[33] Nelson, p. 83

[34] Escudero, p. 37

[35] Ibid, p. 37, 38

[36] Fuchs, p. 66

[37] Nelson, p. 82

[38] Escudero, p. 27-29, 38

[39] Escudero, p. 26; Nelson, p. 83

[40] Nelson, p. 85

[41] Fuchs, p. 63

[42] Ibid, p. 65, 74

[43] Nelson, p. 87

[44] Ibid

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