Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Arendt and a “Special Jewish Destiny”


“It is obvious: if you do not accept something that assumes the form of ‘destiny,’ you not only change its ‘natural laws’ but also the laws of the enemy playing the role of fate.”

--Hannah Arendt, The Jewish Writings (223)

In 1944, as the Allied armies liberated areas under Nazi control, news about the horrors of the extermination camps inevitably wound its way to the United States. In her interview with Günter Gaus many years later, Hannah Arendt would recount these months as full of devastating shocks that unveiled the fullest extent of what was transpiring in Europe. It was in the midst of the delivery of the news of this carnage, this knowledge of the “fabrication of corpses,” that Arendt continued to perform her role as “something between a historian and political journalist.” This delicate terrain – somewhere “between silence and speechlessness” – is what Arendt had to traverse as she informed and provoked her audience into action.


Heidegger, Being Human, and Antisemitism


This week in The New Yorker, Joshua Rothman writes about the recent scandal over Heidegger’s antisemitism and reports on the recent discussion at the Goethe Institute between myself; Babette Babich, Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University; and Peter Trawny, director of the Martin Heidegger Institute at the University of Wuppertal. Trawny has just edited three volumes of Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, philosophical notebooks Heidegger kept from 1931-1941. In these notebooks Heidegger works out his ideas of what he calls a “spiritual National Socialism” which he distinguishes from a “vulgar National Socialism.” He also, in the years from 1936-1941 discusses the Jews on about 10 pages (out of 1,200) and unquestionably trades in antisemitic stereotypes, referring to the Jews as worldless and homeless; in one entry, Heidegger writes of a Jewish world conspiracy. Alongside these edited volumes, Trawny has published a slim companion volume, Heidegger and the Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy. In it, Trawny seeks to evaluate Heidegger’s antisemitism and to ask to what extent that antisemitism contaminates Heidegger’s philosophy.

In the New Yorker, Rothman begins by recounting his own magical encounter with Heidegger’s texts.

If I had to rate the best intellectual experiences of my life, choosing the two or three most profound—a tendentious task, but there you are—one of them would be reading Heidegger. I was in my late twenties, and struggling with a dissertation on the nature of consciousness (what it is, where it comes from, how it fits into the material world). This had turned out to be an impossible subject. Everything I read succeeded only by narrowing the world, imagining it to be either a material or a spiritual place—never both.

Then, in the course of a year, I read Heidegger’s 1927 masterwork, “Being and Time,” along with “The Essence of Truth,” a book based on a series of lectures that Heidegger gave in 1932. It was as if, having been trapped on the ground floor of a building, I had found an express elevator to the roof, from which I could see the stars. Heidegger had developed his own way of describing the nature of human existence. It wasn’t religious, and it wasn’t scientific; it got its arms around everything, from rocks to the soul. Instead of subjects and objects, Heidegger wanted to talk about “beings.” The world, he argued, is full of beings—numbers, oceans, mountains, animals—but human beings are the only ones who care about what it means to be themselves. (A human being, he writes, is the “entity which in its Being has this very Being as an issue.”) This gives us depth. Mountains might outlast us, but they can’t out-be us. For Heidegger, human being was an activity, with its own unique qualities, for which he had invented names: thrownness, fallenness, projection. These words, for him, captured the way that we try, amidst the flow of time, to “take a stand” on what it means to exist. (Thus the title: “Being and Time.”)

In “The Essence of Truth,” meanwhile, Heidegger proposed a different and, to my mind, a more realistic idea of truth than any I’d encountered before. He believed that, before you could know the truth about things, you had to care about them. Caring comes first, because it’s caring about things that “unconceals” them in your day-to-day life, so that they can be known about. If you don’t care about things, they stay “hidden”—and, because there are limits to our care, to be alive is “to be surrounded by the hidden.” (A century’s worth of intellectual history has flowed from this insight: that caring and not caring about things has a history, and that this history shapes our thinking.) This is a humble way to think about truth. It acknowledges that, while we claim to “know” about a lot of things intellectually, we usually seek and know the deeper truth about only a few. Put another way: truth is as much about what we allow ourselves to experience as it is about what we know.

Rothman’s account of Heidegger as well as his report of the way Heidegger’s thinking can captivate and enthrall, will be familiar to many readers (and admittedly quite foreign to others who’ve given up on Heidegger’s challenging texts). It is worth noting how welcome and even strange Rothman’s sympathetic account is amongst the onslaught of holier-than-thou condemnation by columnists and opinion writers who have never read Heidegger. Even as Rothman will go on to give an account of the conversation that is, at the very least, quixotic and certainly one-sided, his testament to the worthiness of reading Heidegger is genuine.

Joshua Rothman

Joshua Rothman

Heidegger’s thinking explores the sense of what it means to be human. “The being of beings is not itself a being,” writes in the basic statement of what he calls the ontological Heidegger difference. That may sound strange, but the thought is simple: the answer to what a cat is not some other being. ‘Catness’ is the indefinable way that cats are in the world, what they mean, that cannot be reduced to other worldly things.

So, too, for human beings. Heidegger insists that the way of being human can not be understood as some-being (humans are rational animals or humans are beings made in the image of God or humans are social animals). Humans matter in ways different from the being and significance of other things. Specifically, human beings are those beings that in thinking transcend their individual existence and stand out in a thoughtful world. Humans are only human insofar as they act in world in which they express their human ability to think and ask after their humanity. Being human has no end, it is a way of being along the path of thinking.

Heidegger worried that humans too often forget this meaningful difference and treat humans as mere things, as simply means to greater ends. While this has always been so, it is especially true in the modern age, the age in which all beings, including human beings, are increasingly viewed and valued only for their usefulness.

Consider, for example, the Mississippi River. You probably have never had the opportunity to walk along the Mississippi or another river whose ebb and flow, whose meanderings and curves, and whose depths and eddies recall the mysteries of our own lives, the winding and unpredictable course by which we make our way. But what is the Mississippi River? It is today, a waterway of commerce. Or it is a garbage dump for PCB’s. We can make it part of the tourist industry by cleaning it up and making it safe for fish and people to swim in. We talk of diverting it, damming it, or getting rid of it entirely. Can we even experience the Mississippi as a river, a powerful, living, natural body of water? Can we simply ask: What is the river?

Mississippi River

Mississippi River

Heidegger answers that increasingly the answer is No. The Mississippi is today a human creation, even to the extent we decide to let it be or restore it to its “natural” condition. To look at the river today is to look at something that we create. The river has lost its ability to stand on its own; it stands only at our service, at our disposal, and for our pleasure. It has lost its ability to awe us and overwhelm us. When it bursts its banks or overwhelms our barriers, our response is anger and resolve to better control it. The river is nothing in itself, and exists only to serve our myriad ends.

Heidegger’s analysis of the Mississippi applies to human beings as well. What are human beings today? We are human resources, to be maximized and organized. We educate human beings so that they can be productive. We care for them so that they live comfortably and cost less to care for later. Human capital is only one form of capital amongst others, but it requires intense management and care to be efficiently managed. Of course, when a dam is needed, humans may need to be uprooted and moved. Certain dangerous humans need to be medicated. And other violent humans can be tempered by implants in their brains. In times of disorder, humans must be restrained; in times of sickness they may need to be culled; and in times of war they may need to be eliminated. In short, humans are increasingly treated and acted upon as resources just as things. Which is one reason we have such difficulty thinking about the study of the humanities outside of questions of utility. In another vein, Heidegger’s philosophy offers one of truly meaningful defenses of the dignity of humanity that might provide a ground for human rights.

It is thus all the more surprising and shocking that Heidegger was an unapologetic Nazi and an antisemite. He never abandoned his belief in what he called a spiritual National Socialism, something he distinguished from vulgar National Socialism, even as he worked for and supported the actual Nazi Party in 1933. Heidegger abandoned many of his Jewish friends and employed antisemitic stereotypes and prejudices; he did this even as he helped to defend and even save other Jews. The question has long hung over his thinking however: To what extent, if at all, do his racist views impact his larger thinking?

The Black Notebooks and Trawny’s monograph have made waves in the press because he has argued, or at least suggested, that Heidegger’s antisemitism “contaminates” his larger philosophical project. On the one hand, Trawny argues that Heidegger’s antisemitism is neither racial nor biological, and that it was far different from Nazi antisemitism:

He [Heidegger] had concealed his antisemitism from the Nazi’s themselves. Why? Because he was of the opinion, that his antisemitism was different from that of the Nazis. That is certainly right. Nevertheless—care is recommended here.

—Peter Trawny, Heidegger und der Mythos der Jüdischen Weltverschworung (Heidegger and the Myth of Jewish World Conspiracy), 15-16

Along these lines, Trawny writes that Heidegger’s antisemtism was developed and articulated in connection with his philosophical project of a historical development of being:

All that binds Heidegger with National Socialism is rooted in the narrative of the “first beginning” with the Greeks and the “other beginning” with the Germans. This story forms the ground on which Heidegger welcomes the “national Revolution” and puts himself in its service. With this story he bound himself to an “intellectual and spiritual National Socialism,” which he early on distinguished from a “vulgar National Socialism.”

—Peter Trawny, Heidegger und der Mythos der Jüdischen Weltverschworung (Heidegger and the Myth of Jewish World Conspiracy), 28

And yet, Trawny concludes that it is likely that Heidegger’s philosophy is implicated in his antisemitic views. It is, ironically, the fact that Heidegger’s antisemtism was intellectual rather than racial that, for Trawny, suggests it may in fact contaminate his philosophy:

In other words we must ask: How should we proceed with Heidegger’s being-historical antisemitism in relation to the Shoa? It is no longer open to debate whether Heidegger’s “political error” ought to be defended (if that is possible) against a “politically correct” and thus intentionally or unintentionally distorting public debate. There is antisemtism in Heidegger’s thinking that—as corresponds to a thinker—receives a (impossible) philosophic ground. But this antisemitism of Heidegger’s does not go beyond two or three stereotypes. The being-historical construction makes it however worse. The being-historical construction can lead to a contamination of Heidegger’s thinking.

—Peter Trawny, Heidegger und der Mythos der Jüdischen Weltverschworung (Heidegger and the Myth of Jewish World Conspiracy), 93.

The problem with Trawny’s argument is that there is no evidence whatsoever that Heidegger’s philosophical discussion of worldlessness and homelessness in his history of being has its roots in his antisemitism. On the contrary, Heidegger traces the emergence of worldlessness and homelessness to the birth of modern science in the work of René Descartes and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. At times, Heidegger even traces this development back to Plato and the beginning of Western philosophy. In the modern era, Heidegger points to Americans, the English, Bolsheviks, and Nazis as examples of such worldlessness and homelessness. All of these groups receive more attention in the Black Notebooks than do the Jews. The argument that because antisemitism often sees Jews as worldless and homeless then they must be the source of Heidegger’s philosophical interest in homlessness and worldlessness simply makes no sense. And Trawny came close to taking back his statement about contamination in the discussion. He even admitted that he may have to revise that claim in the second edition of his book.

Pages from one of Martin Heidegger's “black notebooks” from 1931 to 1941

Pages from one of Martin Heidegger's “black notebooks” from 1931 to 1941.  The New York Times

The packed audience at the Goethe Institute and the parade of essays online and in the New Yorker shows that the Heidegger question is not a mere academic debate. It is, in the end, about our willingness to read and engage with important ideas. Heidegger was a Nazi and he was an antisemite. That doesn’t discredit his thinking.

Watch the conversation between Peter Trawny and Roger Berkowitz here. Watch the panel discussion between Peter Trawny and Babette Babich, moderated by Roger Berkowitz, here. They are well worth your time. These videos are your weekend read.


During the discussion, we projected slides with quotations from Heidegger’s Black Notebooks on a screen, so people in the audience would have access to the words themselves. I provide below translations to four quotations from Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, officially titled Überlegungen, or Reflections. It will be helpful to have them before your while viewing the talks.

Jewry’s temporary increase in power is, however, grounded in the fact that Western metaphysics, especially in its modern development, creates the starting point for the diffusion of a generally empty rationality and calculating capacity, which in this way provides a refuge in “Geist,” without being able grasp from out of itself the hidden regions-of-decision [Entscheidungsbezirke]. The more original and captured-in-their beginning anfänglicher the prospective decisions and questions, the more they remain inaccessible to this “race.”

—Martin Heidegger, Überlegungen XII, 67. GA 96, 46.

The Jews, with their marked gift for calculating, “live” already for the longest time according to the principle of race, which is why they are resisting its consistent application with utmost violence. The establishment [Einrichtung] of racial breeding does not stem from “life” itself, but from the overpowering of life through Machenschaft [Technik]. What [Machenschaft and racial breeding] pushes forward with such a plan is the complete deracialization of all peoples by constricting of them into a uniformly constructed and tailored institution [Einrichtung] of all beings. At one with de-racialization is the self-alienation of peoples – the loss of history – i.e., the decision-regions of being.

—Martin Heidegger, Überlegungen XII, 84-85, v. 96, p. 56.

Also the idea of an understanding with England in terms of a distribution of imperialist “prerogatives” misses the essence of the historical process, which is lead by England within the framework of Americanism and Bolshevism and at the same time world Jewry to its final conclusion. The question of the role of world Jewry is not racial, but the metaphysical question of the type of humanity that can accept the world-historical “task” of uprooting all beings from Being.

—Martin Heidegger, Überlegungen, XIV, 121, v. 96, 243.

World Jewry, incited by emigrants allowed to leave Germany, is pervasive and impalpable, and even though its power is widely spread, it doesn’t need to participate in military actions, whereas all that remains to us is to sacrifice the best blood of our own people.

—Martin Heidegger, Überlegungen XV, 17, v. 96, 262.


Hannah Arendt and Feminist Politics


Mary Dietz, "Hannah Arendt and Feminist Politics"
In: Hannah Arendt: Critical Essays (Albany: SUNY Press, 1994) 231-260.


Dietz begins by recalling that in the 1970s and 80s, feminist critics Adrienne Rich and Mary O'Brien attacked Arendt as a great political thinker who, as female, was all the more culpable for strengthening traditional gender differences in her writing. These critics primary challenged Arendt's hard line between labor and action. Dietz agrees with these critics that since the duties of body and household that characterize labor traditionally fall to women, Arendt's conceptual distinction has the potential to reinforce gender roles that have excluded women from the public realm. Action, in contrast to labor, occurs in an explicitly political sphere modeled on ancient Athens, where men debated the future of the city.

In Dietz's account, much of broader feminist thought celebrates the very spheres of life that have traditionally been relegated to the household and family. She, in contrast, sees Arendt as offering a way to not to look inward, but to value all voices in the public realm. In "Arendt's existential analysis [...] there is nothing intrinsically or essentially masculine about the public realm, just as there is nothing essentially feminine about laboring in the realm of necessity" (248). In other words, she removes the inner anchors of the public realm in some see in gender difference and replaces it with and alternative spatial conception. In terms of a critique of "essence," and thinking of recent work on Heidegger's influence on Arendt, this insight might be understood as expanding what Heidegger terms "existential spatiality" in Being and Time into the political realm.

A second advantage of Arendt's though that Dietz sees as relevant for feminist thought is the emphasis on speech. While Arendt does not go into the specifics of how speech should work in the political realm, Dietz asks if women potentially bring a different voice to plural deliberations.


Perhaps most compellingly, Dietz concludes by arguing that Arendt actually brings the body into the political realm: "In fact, Arendt's account of politics in the public realm brings courage, the spontaneity of passion, and "appearance" to the foreground" (250). Here she emphasized Arendt's specific definition of "reason" in the political realm, which is not just instrumental but includes an expansive representational thinking.

Reflecting on Dietz's argument suggests a parallel between scholarship on Hegel and Arendt. In the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel at times says that spirit moves from a lower to a higher level, implying a hierarchy of meaning. In recent years though, commentators have emphasized that "absolute knowledge" does not simply cancel out the earlier stages but brings them together in a new way. In other words, they work to redefine the key term "sublation" (Aufhebung). Similarly, Arendt does clearly value action over work and labor from the point of view of the threatened political realm. However, the impression that Arendt leaves labor behind may be a matter of tone more than logic. A close reading of the Human Condition shows that all three spheres of labor, work, and action are important and interconnected. A rereading of Arendt that takes into account earlier conceptual clarifications but looks for new links can work out exactly how these connections operate.

-Jeff Champlin


Guided Into the World

"Heidegger is wrong: man is not “thrown” “in the world;” if we are thrown, then – no differently from animals – onto the earth. Man is precisely guided, not thrown, precisely for that reason his continuity arises and the way he belongs appears. Poor us, if we are thrown into the world!"

"Heidegger hat unrecht: “in die Welt” ist der Mensch nicht “geworfen;” wenn wir geworfen sind, so – nicht anders als die Tiere – auf die Erde. In die Welt gerade wird der Mensch geleitet, nicht geworfen, da gerade stellt sich seine Kontinuität her und offenbart seine Zugehörigkeit. Wehe uns, wenn wir in die Welt geworfen werden!"

-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, Notebook 21, Section 68, August, 1955

Hannah Arendt follows her teacher Martin Heidegger in casting the classical philosophical question of the relation of the one and the many as the relationship between the individual and the world. Like the early Heidegger, she emphasizes the future, but she more frequently combines conceptual and narrative explication. For Arendt, freedom is at stake, the freedom of plural humanity that can call on, but cannot be reduced to, guiding ideas of tradition or authority. Yet while she consistently defends freedom through action that cannot be tied to the logic of the past or an assumed goal in the future, her thinking has both a moment of freedom and concern with connection to the past.

In Being and Time, Heidegger’s idea of “thrownness” (Geworfenheit) offers a conceptual hinge between a limitation and expansion of freedom. On the one hand, the thrown “Dasein” cannot choose to come into the world, much less into a particular world. On the other hand, once situated in a field of relations, possibilities open that allow Dasein to fashion a sense of the future and self-knowledge.

Arendt can be seen to ask how exactly we are to recognize the original condition of being thrown in such a way that new possibilities open up. Her objection to Heidegger in the passage above takes a subtle linguistic path that shows how her method of reading inflects her philosophical ideas. Rather than holding exclusively to the conceptual development of  “thrownness,” she offers a terminological challenge. She says that man is only thrown into the natural “earth,” not the humanly-made “world.” In inserting this distinction between the earth and the world, she reads “geworfen” not abstractly as “thrown,” but concretely, implying that she has in mind a second use of the German verb "werfen:" to refer to animals giving birth.

Arendt wants to leave the merely animal behind. The German verb “leiten” that I have translated here as “guided” could also mean to direct, to conduct, to lead, to govern. Thinking ahead to Arendt’s writing on education, I hear a connection to “begleiten,” which means to accompany. The guiding that one receives gives a sense of continuing and belonging to a greater world. Heidegger insists that Dasein does not choose to be thrown into a specific world, we are born without our choice or input. For Arendt, this is our earthliness and she emphasizes the difference between the human world and the given earth. With respect to the world, she highlights the connection to others from the start. Since others exist before the entrance of the newcomer, we also assume responsibility for their entry to the world. One must be educated into the world, which is not simply the earth, but the humanly constructed edifice that includes history and memory and the polis.

Dana Villa and Peg Birmingham suggest that Arendt replaces Heidegger’s “geworfen” with “geboren” (“thrown” with “born”). The passage from the Thought Diary above shows the complexity of this substitution and that it only works by changing the context to the world rather than earth. However,  while the quote shows that Arendt relegates Heidegger’s thrownness to the realm of the earth and body, her own idea of “natality”  brings the body back to her thinking of freedom. Being born is very important for Arendt, but not in Heidegger’s sense. If "werfen" can refer to animals giving birth, Arendt works out a specific way in which humans are born, one that emphasizes a liberating break from the earth. Humans, as Arendt will say in The Human Condition, are born with the ability to start something completely new.

I think Arendt would say that we are always guided in a certain way. This leads us to ask if today we are making a choice as a society to abdicate explicit reflection and responsibility regarding the terms of guidance, either by “outsourcing” these decisions to experts or assuming that individuals can still make rational choices in the face of corporations and institutions that carefully take advantage of cognitive limitations.  In other words: In what ways are people guided into the world that we do not think about, and how could reflection help us here?

On the other hand, the note ends with an existential lament that reminds us of the Romantic poet Friedrich Holderlin’s “weh mir” (“poor me”). After noting how she thinks Heidegger is wrong to see us thrown into the world, Arendt returns us to his despair; but the despair she imagines arises insofar as we are thrown into the world—which would mean that we lose the world as a humanly built home.

-Jeffrey Champlin


The Meaning of Life

Three weeks into my seminar on Martin Heidegger's "Letter on Humanism," I am once again at that moment when the students are simultaneously exasperated and thrilled by the audacity of Heidegger's thinking. There is the confusion caused by Heidegger's re-fashioning of words and his insistence that basic concepts like "person" and "essence" are the products of a stale metaphysical language that hide more than they conceal. One senses as well, the joyful anticipation in the first glimpses of the power of sentences like: Being "is" not, and the being (Sein) of beings (Seiendes) is not itself a being (Seiende.).

Heidegger focuses relentlessly on human being, the being who can ask the question: "Who am I?"  At our most vigorous, we human beings are characterized by our ability to think about ourselves in relation to the meaningfulness of our truth, to the truth understood not as one particular truth, but as that which gathers and calls us to be whom we most properly are. He does not tell us what we most properly are. Rather, he shows us that we are the beings who can live meaningfully in the world. We can give our existence and our world meaning.

Nietzsche had said that all human suffering is bearable if we can believe it has meaning. Religion gives suffering meaning by claiming that suffering faithfully in this world will bring us to heaven. Science gives suffering meaning, in its insistence that there is nothing that happens without a reason—so that all things, even the most awful—are part of the reason of the cosmos (secularly speaking). Mankind can endure all sufferings, so long as he believes it has meaning. The great danger of nihilism—the loss of belief in the highest values—is that we lose faith in either religion or science as guarantors of the meaningfulness of human suffering.  

The political danger of nihilism is that human life loses its meaning. All sorts of killings, suicide bombings, and genocides are thereby justifiable in the service of any political project. Without a living sense of meaning, life is cheap, and human destruction can be sought in the name of any and every political or economic goal.

As the dominant contemporary response to the dangers of nihilism, human rights holds that human beings have dignity as living beings. Above all, we must be kept alive. But what is more, we must be treated with a certain basic dignity. Just like chickens, we should neither be killed nor penned up and force-fed. Like dogs we deserve basic health and love. And like dolphins and whales, we should not be indiscriminately killed.

Heidegger, like his student Hannah Arendt, insists that the response to nihilism that insists on the rights of human beings to live well with a certain basic dignity makes the tragic mistake of blurring the difference between humans and animals. The human rights community focuses on the right to life and the right to be fed and be clothed. It sometimes even insists on the right to housing and the right to a job. But all of these human rights are directed at our animality, the fact that the human being is a kind of living animal. This is of course true. And yet, human rights are the rights of man as animals. These rights do not name or protect human beings. The fight for human rights can, therefore, turn our attention towards preserving humans in their animality even as it covers over what is most meaningful about human being itself.

So what is the meaningfulness of human life? Heidegger develops his answer over his writing life, but his first effort to do so is in Being and Time, the most influential and important book of philosophy written during the 20th century. Being and Time is a difficult book. It is also unfinished. And Heidegger abandoned its ultimate project shortly after it was published. And yet, it remains one of the greatest works in the history of thinking.

Many commentaries have sought to help students through Being and Time. But Simon Critchley has done something no one else even thought possible. He has given a clear and simple account of the impact of Being and Time in five short columns for the British newspaper, The Guardian. While these columns are necessarily pithy, they are in my mind the best introduction to Being and Time.

In his first column, Critchley writes:

That said, the basic idea of Being and Time is extremely simple: being is time. That is, what it means for a human being to be is to exist temporally in the stretch between birth and death. Being is time and time is finite, it comes to an end with our death. Therefore, if we want to understand what it means to be an authentic human being, then it is essential that we constantly project our lives onto the horizon of our death, what Heidegger calls "being-towards-death".

Such brevity will lead, no doubt to compromises. In this quote, for example, Being is used in multiple senses, but what is really at issue in Being and Time is the being of human being. In Heidegger's later work, that focus on the being of human being will come eventually to turn human beings away from human beings and towards being itself. That strikes many as anti-human. But as Heidegger insists, it is not inhuman, and it is driven by a profound humanity.

For one seeking a way into Heidegger's greatest book, Critchley's five-part introduction is a great place to start.  You can read the first part of Critchley's account here.