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

Themes in Research Ethics

Research ethics points it’s view at the ethical questions which regard the overall craft of research. Though the content of a research field may promote or make relevant specific ethical questions, research ethics rather focuses on the general ethical questions researchers are confronted with just by doing research. Though it may be hard to always draw a distinctive line, research ethics is thus concerned, not with the content of research, but with the action of research in itself (Hansson, p. 105). The Swedish Vetenskapsrådet lists following simplified ethical rules which any researcher ought to follow (Vetenskapsrådet, p. 10):

1) You shall tell the truth about your research.
2) You shall consciously review and report the basic premises of your studies.
3) You shall openly account for your methods and results.
4) You shall openly account for your commercial interests and other associations.
5) You shall not make unauthorised use of the research results of others.
6) You shall keep your research organised, for example through documentation and filing.
7) You shall strive to conduct your research without doing harm to people, animals or the environment.
8) You shall be fair in your judgement of others’ research.

As we shall see, these rules of thumb may sometimes be in conflict and they carry with them a load of complex issues which blur our assessing ethical view on research topics. In this short overview, we will discuss some of these most prevalent issues.

One issue that concerns any academic is plagiarism. Hansson lists two major forms of plagiarizing, illicit appropriation of words (word-snatching) and the illicit appropriation of contents (contents-snatching) (Hansson, p. 106). As Hansson notices, though there are many ways of advanced word-snatching, which tries to avoid detection, content-snatching is far more difficult to discover. This on one hand has to do with that, in the case of moral philosophy for instance, it is hard to draw a line between a new idea and a new version of an old idea (Hansson, p. 107). On the other hand, many philosophers also write in a style which Hansson calls “thinking from scratch”, thereby not referring to related ideas which already have been expressed by other thinkers (Hansson, p. 107). Furthermore, there are situations in which something is discovered independent of some results already written down, just as there can be an illusion of having thought of something unique (Hansson, p. 108). Thus, though researchers ought to stick to the ethics of how research is to be done, all cases of similarity of ideas are not cases of plagiarism and some authentically, faultless copying of some idea must not necessarily be deemed as such.

Conflicting interests
In many fields of research there are several stakeholders and conflicting interests among them. Cooperations have interests in profit, the researcher has an interest in obtaining knowledge, those affected by the research want their integrity and private lives protected, etc. Such interests will often be in conflict and have to be balanced by moral considerations, laws and regulations. However, it is no secret that morals and the law do not always coincide. How such varying interests are balanced also depends on the type of research and what result it promises (Vetenskapsrådet, p. 20). To what extent for instance, is animal testing to be allowed when trying to cure deadly deceases.
The most obvious cases of threats to the ethicist’s integrity concern paid work for industry and other vested interests (Hansson, p. 110). On one hand, cooperations, with advanced technological cooperations for instance, may create unique chances to have an influence on emerging technologies (Hansson, p. 111). At the same time, such chances come with responsibilities but also risks of biases, conflicts of interest, and losses in credibility. Thus, we are concerned with a balance act where on one hand research needs to be on the edge of what is going on in current development but at the same time consider their integrity (Hansson, p. 112).

Doing harm
Another issue that relates to integrity regards the ethical responsibility to not do harm. As Hansson notices, this not only regards the natural sciences, but also philosophers and ethicists have to consider that their work has impact on individuals and society (Hansson, p. 113; Vetenskapsrådet, p. 39). There may often be scientific cases in which some knowledge has to be obtained, but the means by which to collect such knowledge conflict with some good of those affected by the research (Vetenskapsrådet, p. 20). This is also problematic because the scientific approach will tell us that an appropriate answer to some question is to be achieved via some specific method. As listed, the researcher is supposed to do research according to several rules that safeguard high quality research and the desired result (Vetenskapsrådet, p. 25). There thus may be the case that the method that best ensures the quality of the research will be in conflict with some other good, as personal integrity for instance. So if there is no way to alter the method, we have two conflicting values which have to be brought into balance somehow (Vetenskapsrådet, p. 20).

An important part of research ethics thus considers those who are directly affected by research, as subjects or informants. They should for instance be protected from harms or wrongs in connection with their participation in research (Vetenskapsrådet, p. 12). Here again, the question remains if and when some individual harm is to hinder important research (Vetenskapsrådet, p. 12). Remember that research is important for both society and citizens due to possible improvements in areas such as health, environment and quality of life (Vetenskapsrådet, p. 13). It is also important to notice that much harm which is done is not under the control of the researches. For instance, the right to secrecy, anonymity and confidentiality cannot not be guaranteed by the researcher. Public access to research material may be guaranteed by the law, making it accessible to everybody. For research purposes, it is also possible that certain rules lay open the identity of persons or their tested properties to researchers, but they are not allowed to contact the subjects (Vetenskapsrådet, p. 40).

In our short excurse, we have merely touched upon some of the main points which are discussed in research ethics. The list is not close to complete, but what we have seen is that we are concerned with an utterly blurry vision when trying to evaluate elements of research. It is for instance not clear, when and if research can be seen as being dishonest, since the same loopholes which may be used by smart cheaters, are just those which honest researchers may fall into without any bad intention. Furthermore, in doing research we are faced with webs of conflicting interests and values. Not only do corporations, researchers, institutions, research subjects and those who benefit from it have different interests regarding the same research project, but as we have shown, do ethical rules themselves often stand in conflict with the law or with each other. Thus, in research ethics, we will be utterly involved arguing for and against propositions which would hold some norm over another.

– Sven Ove Hansson, The ethics of doing ethics, Science and Engineering Ethics 2017; 23: 105-120.
– Swedish Research Council, Good research practice, URL:

Biological kinship and the construction of positions

Through the times there have been many ideas regarding what constitutes the being of the human subject: religion, race, class, gender and culture are examples of human features, which have been viewed as essential to the individual’s self. To J. David Velleman, one such essential element consists of the biological ties shared with one’s family, which to him is a premise for any healthy identity[1]. If having such an identity then is something which is to be valued, so he argues, it follows that it is immoral to create human life where the offspring has no chance to get to know who she is with regards to her biological ancestry, as is the result of donor conception for instance[2].

In this essay, I aim at comparing Velleman’s arguments with theories of identity formation to see what such theories tell us about the value, which Velleman lends to biological kinship. I will also use culture as an example to view how such social features relate to identity. Since Velleman is concerned with the themes identity, self-image and self-knowledge, which overlap but all have a different meaning, I will for our purpose use the term position to describe a central standpoint the individual establishes for her to view the world as meaningful and having a coherent context.

Velleman on kinship and identity
According to Velleman, knowing our relatives and especially our parents provides a knowledge of ourselves, which is of irreplaceable value to personal identity[3]. This is reflected by the fact that most people rely on their acquaintance with biological relatives in constructing their identity[4]. Prominent in Velleman’s identity formation via kinship is the narrative concept, defining ourselves in the terms of a story which puts everything in context. To Velleman, thus knowing our biological family enables us to integrate authentic stories into our own identity[5]. In the case of adoptees, he holds that they may find meaningful positions from narratives about their adoptive families, but they lack the most important stories about themselves[6]. The biologically related narratives are what he calls family-resemblance, which qualifies individuals as belonging to the same family and are vital to the process of bonding and the social realm of the family[7]. To Velleman, this resemblance is deeply rooted in one’s self-concept, which includes information not only about how one looks, but also about personal traits and characteristics[8]. Many aspirations are directed at fulfilling family-resemblance concepts, trying to live up to certain criteria which reproduce the family-resemblance[9].

Heritage and Culture
As Norqvist and Smart note, Velleman’s theory rests on the idea that the individual’s constitution is linked to origin, a paradigm, which has manifested itself around many human features[10]. Genetic heritage shares this foundation with racial biology, which in our time has developed into the discourse of culture[11]. Just as kinship, culture too is often held as something essentially defining of the individual. Culture is also compelling as a source for positions, for it offers a predefined narrative and gives certainty about where one comes from and who one is[12]. Just as family-resemblance, cultures thus offer schematic stories, which help their members to bond and interact[13].

Having identified similarities between culture and kinship, we can now move forward to the critique of culture as establishing a dichotomy between socially constructed positions in the same way that biological racism does, claiming that the individual is inescapably determined by her origins[14]. According to Haslanger, such theories fail to explain individual development: even though a person should directly relate to some cultural group, her position often turns out to be unexpectedly different[15]. For instance, being an Afghan in Sweden cannot be the same as being an Afghan in Afghanistan since not only is the meaning of Afghan different, but one is also faced with many other circumstances in a specific time and place which influence one’s position, including the unique experiences of the individual[16]. The same thing should hold for family narratives, where Velleman seems to be taking for granted that knowing ones’ ancestors’ narrative automatically triggers some fixed self-knowledge, which can be incorporated into one’s position[17]. Instead, drawing on the same source of kinship relation, even siblings often have very different conclusions about their family history and how it affects their position[18].

Relative identity
Velleman holds that positions do not consist of loose facts of one’s past, but are processes of telling stories[19]. However, focusing merely on one specific narrative neglects the many other factors which shape the individual[20]. As our position is built up from an endless source of influences, Song and Haslanger argue that positions are not only complex but also vary; the individual possesses layers of positions that are negotiable and are used in different situations[21]. If I have access to both a German and Danish position, one of these will be more defining of me in certain situations, depending on social expectations and which position I myself may choose to apply[22]. It thus becomes utterly hard to pinpoint some essential position, if what I am positioning myself as is always relative to the specific situation.

A related observation regards the development of the individual’s position over time, which is steadily in progress, on her way to becoming or turning herself into something[23]. This seems intuitive to us when we reflect upon how we ourselves change and confirms the observation made by Song, showing how ethnic identities change over time[24]. Here too it becomes hard to extract some essential position, if positions are in steady flux.

What we have seen thus far, is that positions are relative and relational. They are also constructed in relation to other individuals, which includes the family, but potentially everybody else too[25]. A third consideration thus arises which holds that our position is formed by the dialectic of identity and difference[26]. A position is thus not only formed by the recognition of who I am like, such as my family, but also of who I am not like. With regards to the culture example, it has often been noted that a certain Swedishness could not have been constructed without an anti-thesis. Such experiences of sameness and difference occur at home, having a different gender than one’s siblings for instance, in the playground, at university, at work and so on, forming complex webs of meaning and interpretation of the self[27]. This is another problem for the idea of biological kinship being essential to the individual’s position, for what the individual meets in her surroundings also intrudes upon the manifestation of the kinship narrative.

Coercive structures
Even though positions are not fixed, control of one’s position is often a hard thing to attain, for what position one is expected to hold underlies coercive discourses. Culture can again be taken as an example, for it on one hand may structurally justify discrimination and stereotypes, on the other hand, the ones being discriminated may themselves believe in the idea that they in fact are different due to the cultural paradigm. In several studies, Foucault shows how based on certain social norms, the normative and the unnormal become separated, with those not fitting in, the docile bodies, being socially and institutionally coerced into certain living conditions[28]. Furthermore, when situating people in a certain situation and constructing their entire reality around the position they are being coerced into, the docile bodies often start believing in this construction and reproducing it[29].

In the same spirit, Norqvist and Smart show how the norm of being biologically related to one’s parents has been incorporated in society and how this plays into the treatment of individuals. As in Foucault, people who did not fit within the model of biological kinship were often seen as undesirable or as harming their children[30]. As they note, English family law works on the presumption that children born to a married woman were the legitimate offspring of her husband[31]. With new family structures developing, this relation became more and more complex with the result that the state abolished anonymous gamete donation in all UK licensed infertility clinics, so that all children conceived in this way are at least institutionally entitled to receive identifying information about their donors[32]. The most significant policy overlap between donor conception and adoption is to Norqvist and Smart precisely in this area of creating and/or sustaining links with genetic parents[33].

Haslanger holds that such norms regarding what constitutes a healthy position is culturally specific and located within social structures[34]. When Velleman thus states that most individuals form their position via biological kinship and it hence must have special value, this does not make it natural or essential but like culture remains part of a social reality[35]. One of the main observations which Norqvist and Smart are able to make, derives precisely from the constructed idea of the individual’s position, which is assumed to stem from correct knowledge about one’s genetic forebears[36]. This norm manifested itself socially and institutionally so that it had a profound impact when somebody did not fit into this norm. Not knowing one’s father thus brought with it many problems and much adversity in the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century, having few rights and a stigmatized status[37]. This was the reason why parents of adopted children were often advised not to mention to others that their children were adoptive, since this would discriminate the children and make life hard on them[38].

As Norqvist and Smart note and what the current emphasis on the right to know one’s genetic parents shows, is that the question regarding genetic connection cannot be fully ignored for it indeed does play a great role for individual’s position. However, this is not due to it’s intrinsic value or relation to the individual, but because of it’s rootedness in a culture and the awareness of it’s members what it means to fit or not fit into this norm[39]. As Haslanger notes, identity problems arise for adoptive children not simply because they have been told they are adopted, but because there are conflicting cultural values around them[40].

Whilst not refuting that biological kinship may have some special place in the production of a position, the text has established doubt which the theory as presented by Velleman needs to take into consideration. We have doubted that biological kinship has an intrinsic value to the construction of healthy or authentic positions. Using the analogy of culture, we questioned a determinism, which holds that a narrative manifests itself in a predictable way and showed that in fact people turn out in very different ways. We have also seen that positions are not only complex but relative and ever changing, being influenced by our surroundings and dialectic structures. All of this questions, if Velleman can argue for biological kinship as an essential or natural part of the individual’s position for it questions the idea of one essential position itself. However, another way to argue for Velleman would be that kinship has functional value, for it seems that most people construct their position in such a way. Here we have cast doubt on such claims by showing that what constitutes a normatively healthy position, such as culture or kinship, is socially constructed and reproduced by society. If identity problems occur, this must not necessarily be because the individual lacks some important narrative of herself, but because she is aware of the normative which disqualifies her.



De los Reyes, Paulina – Mångfald och Differentiering – Diskurs, olikhet och normbildning inom svensk forskning och samhällsdebatt – Arbetslivsinstitutet 2001

Foucault, Michel – Discipline and Punish– The Birth of the Prison –Penguin Books, London 1991

Gren, Martin, Hallin, P.O, Molina, Irene (red.) – Kulturens plats/maktens rum – Brutus Östlings bokförlag, Symposion 2000

Hall, Stuart – Representation – Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices – Sage, The Open University London 2003

Haslanger, Sally – Family, Ancestry and Self: What is the Moral Significance of Biological Ties? – Adoption & Culture (2009) 2.1., URL:

Nordqvist, Petra; Smart, Carol –  Relative Strangers – Family life, genes and donor
– Palgrave Macmillan Studies in Family and Intimate Life, 2014

Song, Miri – Choosing Ethnic Identity – Polity Press, Cornwall 2003

Velleman, J. David – Family History – Philosophical Papers Vol. 34, No. 3 p. 357-378, 2005;

[1] Velleman, p. 357

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid, p. 364

[5] Ibid, p. 363

[6] Ibid, p. 376

[7] Ibid, p. 365

[8] Ibid, p. 366

[9] Ibid, p. 368

[10] Norqvist, Smart, p. 24; Haslanger, p. 15

[11] Gren, Hallin, Molina, p. 142; Des los Reyes, p. 14; Song, p. 7

[12] Norqvist, Smart, p. 24

[13] Haslanger, p. 21.

[14] Gren, Hallin, Molina, p. 10; Des los Reyes, p. 57

[15] Haslanger, p. 15

[16] Song, p. 9

[17] Norqvist, Smart, p. 24

[18] Ibid, p. 118

[19] Velleman, p. 363

[20] Norqvist, Smart, p. 25

[21] Haslanger, p. 8, 25; Song. p. 17

[22] Song, p. 10

[23] Norqvist, Smart, p. 25; Des los Reyes, p. 59

[24] Song, p. 17; Haslanger, p. 8

[25] Norqvist, Smart, p. 26

[26] Des los Reyes, p. 13; Hall, p. 237

[27] Norqvist, Smart, p. 26

[28] Foucault, p. 138

[29] Ibid, p. 264, 266

[30] Norqvist, Smart, p. 11

[31] Ibid, p. 21

[32] Ibid, p. 22

[33] Ibid, Smart, p. 22

[34] Haslanger, p. 12

[35] Ibid, p. 26

[36] Norqvist, Smart, p. 23

[37] Ibid, p. 24

[38] Ibid, p. 20

[39] Ibid, p. 123

[40] Haslanger, p. 17

Let it go – An Argument for not defending cultural heritage

There has been a recent reawakening of the cultural debate, finding new relevance in the dawn of heightened immigration of refugees to the EU and the following public and political debates, which commonly occur once the question of national heritage and protection of other cultures is triggered. Though migration and the melting together of cultures has been an ever-ongoing process throughout human history, David Miller notes that it is first in the modern and postmodern age that it is regarded as a political problem, with the state being expected to protect an original national culture and at the same time guarantee it’s citizens the right to live according to their own specific culture (Miller, 2008). The obvious question is what the normative implications regarding different cultures are. On one hand, there are those who hold that immigrants are to assimilate to the cultural patterns of the host society (Miller, 2008). On the other hand, the widespread acceptance of multicultural rhetoric holds that ethnic minorities possess a right to their culture (Song, 2003). These two positions are known to collide and though this discussion is not a new one, we have yet to find a solution. How can on one hand integration into society be achieved in a way consistent with liberal principles of personal freedom. On the other hand, how far can natives be asked to modify their practices and public culture to accommodate the new arrivals? (Miller, 2008). Relating to this discussion are a vast number of issues whose answering exceed by far the format of this essay. Instead, I want to challenge the value of cultural heritage. I will engage this task by establishing an interpretation of the individual subject’s relation to identity, social groups and their usage of history. I will focus on the notion of heritage, not only since the subject of culture is too complex to be analyzed in this essay, but also because the call for preservation of cultures is commonly being legitimized by being rooted in a people’s history. This is also reflected by sociologist Miri Song whose research suggests that a shared ancestry and history becomes ever more important in situations where a group’s identity is threatened (Song, 2003). We can hence assume that a current state of a culture is related to a heritage, which provides values, signifying objects and a self-narrative.


What is the individual subject?

If we want to explore what role cultural heritage plays regarding the identity of a group of people, we ought to understand what constitutes its individual subjects. Martin Heidegger’s approach has been one of the most important narratives in the 20th century about how the individual subject constructs it’s self-narrative. Starting at birth, the individual subject finds itself thrown into an unknown world of which it must make sense (Heidegger, 2006). Whatever the individual’s self-image amounts to is thus a result of it existing in a certain world at a certain time. At this point, we have already denied that the individual has certain cultural feature that it is born with, rather it is but a product of it’s surroundings. Heidegger does however not endorse social constructivism or even determinism. He holds that the individual subject is primarily situated in time, being aware of it’s past, present and future. It’s actions are hence always aimed towards the future, since it is aware of that it is going to exist and will have to make something out of itself (Heidegger, 2006). This in turn means that the individual subject has the potential to transform herself from what it is now to something it wants to become. To Heidegger then, the individual subject is constituted by a process of production, rather than having a fixed essence. What may seem like a consistent self or identity is according to Heidegger merely a result of just this non-existent essence. To make sense of itself and to be able to consistently relate to the ontological world, the subject has to create a self-narrative which renders it’s history a meaningful story and acts as a safe outlook from which the world can be viewed.
Culture in flux
One of the premises a priori which the individual subject encounters in the ontological world, is that it shares it’s world with other people. Heidegger mentions that an authentic individual subject is a mixture of lone individual and social experience. For our purpose, we need not discuss this Heideggarian theme any further. It is only important to notice that the production of a self-narrative always incorporates a social dimension, which has to be carefully balanced with the subject’s individuality (Heidegger, 2006). Miri Song describes this dilemma with examples of the expectations, which are put on members of a certain group to adhere to cultural behavior and which may be at odds with individual authenticity (Song, 2003). It is in this connection between the individual and the social where culture comes into play. Concerning ethnic groups, Song states that they share:
[…] real or putative common ancestry, memories of a shared past, and a cultural focus in one or more symbolic elements which define the group’s identity, such as kinship, religion, language, shared territory, nationality or physical appearance (Song, 2003).

There are thus several instances, which together constitute what is called culture. For our purpose, we will focus on the cultural use of history. I believe, that this will not lead us into fallacy since culture has an intrinsic connection to heritage, influencing values and traditions.
As I have suggested, the individual is constituted by potentiality and is always in a progress of becoming something rather than being something consistent in the platonic sense. If this holds for the individual, mustn’t it also hold for the social groups that consist of individuals? Just as the individual subject, a culture too is subject to a complex and every changing world. Hence, a culture not only consists of many varying positions and is not homogeneous. There are men, women, different social classes and individual differences, many of whom would tell very varying narratives of a culture’s history. Neither is a culture static but always in flux since it must establish itself within ever changing premises (Song, 2003). To Song then, appealing to some authentic heritage is necessarily flawed, because such a notion relies on a static understanding of culture, when in fact cultures are in a continuous process of change (Song, 2003). For instance, even if Turkish immigrants brought parts of their heritage with them to Germany, the cultural identity which is constructed no longer relates to heritage the same way as it does in Turkey, the premises now lie in a different time in a different location. Furthermore, as Miller states, we are today faced with a global culture, which more than ever exposes cultures to outer influences and alternative narratives (Miller, 2008).

Is heritage valuable?
If culture then is something which is always in flux, what value can heritage still hold? Friedrich Nietzsche was throughout his lifetime very concerned with the moral values of cultures and how they change over time. To him, those cultures are to be regarded as healthy, which are able to distance themselves from the past and are thus able to use history for their own wellbeing (Nietzsche, 2005). These people are defined by Nietzsche a historic. The overhistoric people on the other hand have incorporated their history to such a degree that they have become passive and are no longer interested in the possibilities that the future may hold (Nietzsche, 2005).

These two types of people which Nietzsche observes throughout history are themselves products of several ways of applying history: the monumental, the antiquary and the critical (Nietzsche, 2005). The monumental views the past as a standard for what is achievable. These people get their inspiration from important people or happenings in history, which they try to impersonate. The positive trait is that they will often try to create something historically great for the world to come, it may however also be harmful since monumental history stands very close to myth and one-sided narratives (Nietzsche, 2005). What does not fit into it’s narrative is simply ignored. Nationalism for instance to Nietzsche is just this kind of monumental usage of history which has justified several wars and other terrible things (Nietzsche, 2005).
The antiquarian mode is quite and respectfully thankful towards those historical structures, which have led to current existence. These people try to conserve their heritage, identify themselves with the old and recognizable, which provides them with a sense of security and rootedness (Nietzsche, 2005). However, holding on to the past impairs upon the ability to differ between what actually is valuable and what is but junk (Nietzsche, 2005). It becomes degenerative once it no longer is inspired by current existence and merely conserves but does not create anything.
Both the monumental and the antiquary use of history risk compromising current existence and the possibilities of the future in favor of the past. The critical application of history does not share this respect for the past but is fundamentally always revolting against it, viewing heritage as a burden more than an asset. It also holds that the past is not fixed but always tries to change the way the past is viewed (Nietzsche, 2005).

Nietzsche’s three types of applying of history should not be viewed as only de- or constructive. They all have positive and negative traits and their value depend on how history is put to use in different situations. To Nietzsche, we should apply history with the aim to favor life and our future outlook, the mode which he calls historic. What is hence important is to keep reevaluating oneself and one’s culture. Nietzsche uses the phrase “to ruminate” to describe this ongoing process of steadily putting one’s own narrative on trial (Nietzsche, 2005).

New priorities
We have thus argued that no individual subject can be minimized to consisting of some sort of essential narrative. Rather, the individual subject is full of potential regarding what will become of it’s narrative and it is but it’s own motivation to conserve the illusion of consistency which may (re)produce some outward identity. Holding on to some fixed cultural essence would hence reduce the individual to but a fragment of it’s possibilities. It would also disable the ability to ruminate it’s heritage and use it for it’s own wellbeing. The same holds for those cultures, which consist of such individual subjects. Like the individual, they are not only complex, but also not determined and must seek to reestablish themselves in a world that is ever changing. As it changes, so do the cultures and their relation to heritage. This openness of culture and the possibility to use heritage to our advantage is reflected by Miri Song’s observation of how ethnic minorities may break up stereotypes by breaking with or redefining otherwise defining cultural traits (Song, 2003). In a different case, people who have access to several cultures may choose which cultural identity may be more or less salient in different situations, once again using their heritage as a tool (Song, 2003).

As suggested, we have not answered any of the large questions which regard the cultural debate. What I have tried to argue is that some national or ethnic culture cannot have any value that merely relies on the premise of essential truths found in a people’s heritage. Heritage is but a shadow of the past and has no determining effect on any current culture a priori. What is made out of history is always up for grabs. As we have argued, a culture’s history is valuable only in the sense that we can reevaluate and use it to come to terms with the current world. Hence, we ought to keep analyzing and thus remembering our heritage since it contains elements which we one day may rely on, but given that our goal is to make or lives better and to look ahead into the future, it is the critical and reevaluating attitude towards history and culture which is to be protected, not history in itself.

Heidegger, Martin – Sein und Zeit – Max Niemeyer Verlag, Tübingen 2006
Miller, David – Immigrants, Nations, and Citizenship – The Journal of Political Philosophy: Volume 16, Number 4, 2008, pp. 371–390
Nietzsche, Friedrich – Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben Reclam, Ditzingen 2005
Song, Miri – Choosing Ethnic Identity – Polity Press, Cornwall 2003