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An Ethical Question: Should Journalists Be Allowed to Write About Philosophy? November 10, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy.
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Patricia Cohen’s article in the NY Times, “An Ethical Question: Does a Nazi Deserve a Place Among Philosophers?” is another in a collection of recent hatchet jobs in the press (here and here) condemning the work of Martin Heidegger for his connections to the Nazis.

The occasion for these journalists writing about something they know nothing about is a book by Emmanual Faye, soon to be released in the U.S., claiming that Heidegger’s thought ought to be stricken from the canon because it was allegedly inspired by Nazism.

The articles consist of some “he said, she said” opinions about the matter with no discussion of the nature of Heidegger’s work. And Faye’s book has been widely discredited as itself a hatchet job. (see comments here)

I have no idea what inspired Heidegger. It is well known that he was a provincial German nationalist, probably an anti-semite, and an all-purpose jerk. But I can’t for the life of me figure out what this is supposed to tell us about his philosophy.

Heidegger’s main points, at least in his major work Being in Time, were that (1) our experience is always situated in a context of which we already have a non-cognitive (or non-representational) grasp prior to conscious deliberation, (2) that non-cognitive grasp is a product of the way things matter to us (care), (3) and ultimately how things matter to us must be understood in terms of our temporality (roughly our sense of past, present, and future). This view draws a sharp contrast with philosophical views that assume meanings are abstract, fixed entities without a history grasped primarily through theoretical reason. Heidegger’s ideas have found their way into the mainstream of philosophical thought and in fact have deeply influenced contemporary cognitive science.

I suppose one could interpret these ideas as meaning there is some sort of national destiny written into the “blood and soil” of a nation being disseminated through its history, and that the surge of “feeling” and “will” emanating from that destiny make reason irrelevant. Maybe Nazism flows from such an point of view. But it is a real stretch to find this in Being and Time–Heidegger’s works neither entail nor lend themselves to such a reading.

The genetic fallacy and the intentional fallacy are not necessarily incompatible with standards of good philosophical reasoning, but they must be handled with care—and neither Faye’s book nor the articles in question take the requisite care.

Heidegger’s limitations as a thinker (and perhaps a person) are revealed, not by what he said,  but by what he didn’t say. Moral relationships with other persons do not occupy a sufficiently central role in Heidegger’s thought. This is the source of much criticism of Heidegger, especially from thinkers such as Levinas, and to my mind the criticism is deserved. But that hardly makes his work an example of “Nazism” and is no argument for refusing to read Heidegger but, instead, for taking what insight one can and building a more adequate account.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Martin Heidegger, Emmanual Faye, Heidegger and the Nazis




1. Paul J. Moloney - November 11, 2009

Banning Martin’s books seems like something the Nazis would do, either that or burn it at one of their book burning parties, and do it without even reading them.

2. Nina Rosenstand - November 12, 2009

I actually welcome the debate—not as a serious question among philosophers, but as a form of awareness-raising of a duality embedded in the writings of an influential thinker. A thinker’s life world (!) cannot be completely separated from his or her works. And Heidegger did some awful things, primarily to Husserl. However, the false dichotomy of forcing us to choose between H. as a philosopher or a Nazi is ridiculous. Rorty said it best (see article), and that’s all we need: Heidegger was a great, but fundamentally tainted thinker. That’s a warning label right there, and then people can exercize their free choice to explore further. Let’s not get into the mode where only philosophers we agree with are “real” philosophers. Good grief.

3. Maryann Spikes - November 18, 2009

On that note, I just wrote an article based largely on your text, Prof Rosenstand, “Weighing the great theories in Ethics against the Golden Rule, with emphasis on human rights,” if you aren’t too busy to take a look at it and offer feedback. You can find it at the url provided (Examiner.com), or also at my Ichthus site at yuku, or the Ethics forum at PhilosophyChatForum.com, both linked (in the box on the right) inside the provided url.

4. Why Are People So Strange… | Christian Marriage - November 22, 2009

[…] An Ethical Question: Should Journalists Be Allowed to Write About … […]

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