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.

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