“An Ethical Question: Does a Nazi Deserve a Place Among Philosophers?” (Dick Whyte)

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………………..heavy rain…
………………..I read Heidegger’s essay
………………..about nothing

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Headlines:

“An Ethical Question: Does a Nazi Deserve a Place Among Philosophers?” (NY Times)

“Cast Heidegger Out?” (NY Times)

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Poem by Dick Whyte (see editor biographies). Read more by this poet.

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^ 20 Comments...

  1. Laurence Stacey

    Nice work Dick! As I mentioned when I first read the poem, I love the contrast here between the weight of a “heavy rain” and the final image of “nothing.” This article is also interesting. I’ve never read any of Heidegger’s work. Are racist ideas really woven that deeply into his philosophy?

  2. Chris White

    This is a scorcher! I find your overt use of philosophers (or thinkers) to be a really powerful technique (also at work in the Marx one I read), and what a brilliant contrast: heavy rain, and the discussion of nothingness…! I can’t help but think of the space between the raindrops…I am pulled there (even if that is not exactly what Heidegger is getting at, it figures as a substitute for the actual meaning in my reading).

    Regarding the news article: if Heidegger ought to be thrown out for having some very questionable beliefs then a number of other notable philosophers should probably be chucked out too (I wonder what Mr Faye would feel about this?). The first that springs to mind being Plato (given that Emmanuel Faye states placing the state over the individual as one of the prime reasons for disregarding Heidegger). In any case, I don’t agree with the suggestion. Great thinkers have frequently held positions which seem dispicable to us (Kant and Hume were both racist) but have simultaneously generated some of the most significant thought in history. If anything, such problems serve as a useful reminder that even the most brilliant minds cannot be assumed infallible.

    By the way, if you are interested in nothingness then you might find Kitaro Nishida’s work worth a look. I’ve only had the time to read the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on him (online) but it serves as a good overview.

  3. Chris White

    Laurence, that’s exactly it – the heavyness of the rain contrasted with nothingness! Is nothingness heavy too? What is the nature of nothingness?

    Also, I don’t think racist ideas really are present in his philosophy, though not having read it myself I can’t say for certain. While he was a Nazi-party member, and possibly anti-semitic, I don’t think the anti-semitism is a part of his philosophy. His philosophy probably doesn’t have any valuation of race, at least that’s what I suspect. I’ll be interested in any light Dick can shed on the matter. I’m very interested in Heideggerian thought actually (one of his books is on my bookshelf awaiting reading when I have the time!).

    Something you might be interested in is the relationship many have drawn between Heideggarian thought and Eastern philosophy. I know a theology MA student who wrote his dissertation on the relationship between Heidegger and buddhist philosophy.

  4. Ikiru

    Dick, this is a good one — connecting the “nothing” with the heavy rain… its as if the image is really the spaces in between the rain as it falls. And the “nothing” of course has a double meaning with the essay (as in “much ado about nothing”) LOL

    Soapbox: Heidegger’s politics is certainly a HUGE black mark, but for all that I don’t think that means he ought to be tossed out of philosophy courses in university. Certainly the couple books I read on him ten years ago did show he was involved with the Nazis but “fervent”? I never got that impression– just very misguided. (unless new information has come to light in the past ten years). Not that I’ve ever really *got* for Heidegger anyway who seems too deliberately obscure… It doesn’t make sense to define Heidegger’s entire philosophical work on Nazism– that is too much of a simplification I think.

    Whereas literary critic Paul de Man was more directly involved in actual anti-semitic propaganda…!

    And to what degree do we go? As Chris says, there is Plato, Kant and Hume. Schopenhauer was a terrible misogynist. Nietzsche, while himself being an anti-anti-semite, his work was still (mis-)appropriated by the Nazis. If you really want some frothing-at-the-mouth anti-semitism, turn to Martin Luther or Richard Wagner! Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, etc. etc.

    Any major influential figure in history is likely going to have some black marks, some more than others. I would think that most rational people approaching any of these figures would have the intelligence to use their bullshit detector. I don’t toss out my Sartre just because he supported the Stalinist regime. I’ll decide for myself what is of value and what is not and with plenty of grains of salt. Isn’t philosophy about thinking for oneself, after all?

    In the meantime, like it or not, we can’t simply extricate Heidegger’s influence from the stream of western philosophy– regardless of what we think of him or his philosophy, his influence is here to stay.

    /soapbox

    ~josh

  5. Chen-ou Liu

    Hi! Dick,

    I’m a little troubled by your haiku, especially by the concluding word, nothing.

    Read in the context of the Times piece, it’s confusing to the general reader who have little knowledge of the details of the heated debate among scholars over Heidegger’s political thoughts in general and over his Being and Time in particular. The idea of Nothing is not discussed or mentioned in the news piece, and is easily treated as trivial (merely no thing).

    Read in the context of Heidegger’s philosophy in general and of his first influential essay, What Is Metaphysics? In particular, it’s also confusing to the attentive reader of his work. It’s because his ”philosophy of Nothing” is tightly related to that of Being. In the essay, he subtly articulates the linguistic and philosophical problems of discussing Being and Nothing. His accounts of Being and Nothing should be read into the regio-cultural-philosophical context of the Judeo-Christian tradition. And this is not the context of this news piece and its related issues.

    More importantly, I’m really pissed off by Emmanuel Faye’s calling on

    “philosophy professors to treat Heidegger’s writings like hate speech.”

    For anyone who is interested in Heidegger’s political thoughts, they should at least read Richard Wolin’s The Politics of Being: The Political Thought of Martin Heidegger. Apparently, this Descartes scholar is the one who is willing to do the homework.
    Sorry for my grumbling.

    Chen-ou

  6. Chen-ou Liu

    Correction:

    Apparently, this “Descartes scholar” is the one who is not willing to do the homework.

  7. Dick Whyte

    Laurence – thanks man – I never really thought consciously of those dichotomies (ie. heavy vs. nothing, and the nothingness between the raindrops). No, I don’t believe his work is racist at all personally, but his politics during the Nazi regime were problematic (in terms of supporting Nazism). But we have to remember that all the atrocities which we now know about were not known by the German public at the time, so it is complex. I personally feel his philosophy is well worth reading and has many interesting aspects to it. As Chris points out, this all needs to be put in context in terms of thinkers and the way in which the ideology of their social context is often still present in their work. So, yes, Kant and Hume were racist, for instance, but so was EVERYONE in their culture. I am not excusing their racist remarks, but they are not surprising considering the culture they came from. And just because Kant made some racist remarks, this is a very small part of his philosophical output. Particularly – racism is not central to his understanding of humans – it is an afterthought of sorts. Again – I am in NO WAY condoning the racism of the 17 and 1800s. But it doesn’t mean that everything we learned then is diseased. Don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

  8. Dick Whyte

    Chris – thanks man. I read philosophy often so it is always close at hand, so I have started incorporating it into my haiku. I am pleased with the results, and I am really happy that they are working for you too (cause I really respect your opinion).

    Yeah – I think you hit the nail on the head – if we are going to take his support of Nazism as a reason to diregard his whole philosophy, then there are very few (if any) philosophers that are able to transcend their entire culture (because, in Germany most people supported the Nazis at the time).

    Nishida is a very interesting philosopher. I liked his ways of thinking through subjectivity and objectivity (which is a precursor to Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze, in some senses). I only read one book (while doing my masters) but I liked the way he began to merge Japanese and Western thought together to create a really interesting way of looking at binary concepts. I think I read “An Enquiry into the Good.”

    Yeah – I have noticed that Heidegger’s thought has many connections with Eastern philosophy in terms of how he deals with binaries (he uses yin-yang logic a lot to drive his conceptual territories). In a sense the whole of phenomenology has an Eastern modal logic going on (from Berkley, Kant and Hegel, to Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty). I always think of ontology as Western analysis and synthesis and phenomenology as Eastern analysis and synthesis (and then we have all the in betweens – phenomenological ontology, ontological phenomenology, and so on).

    Thanks for the great unpacking Chris. Great reading. I was hoping this poem would get people talking, and it has. Yay!!!! Man, I love philosophy sooooooo much.

  9. Dick Whyte

    Ikuru and Chen-ou – I will respond later today (I want to give deep responses to all comments, because they are so involved). And I wanted to thank both of you for such perceptive and thoughtful comments.

    See you all soon.

  10. Draw

    Its great to see such dense and interesting comments, I also enjoyed the dichotomy between heavy and nothingness.

  11. Terry

    What a great piece. Certainly grabbed my attention and stirred up some interesting thoughts.

    The worst thing about the human brain is that sometimes it falls into the wrong hands. I have not read Heidegger but if and when I do, it will be difficult to do so with an open mind. I imagine if Charles Manson were to write a philosophy, his interpretation of the world, I would treat it much the same.

    If you have an agenda born of some warped fundamentals, then no matter how rational and brilliant the thinking that follows…it is still the ravings of a madman in my opinion.

    Great verse and intriguing article.

    Thanks Dick

  12. Dick Whyte

    I dunno Terry, I think it is far more complex than that. Remember that the atrocities of the Nazi’s was only public knowledge after the war. Heidegger is far from Manson. The two are incomparable to me. And by your logic all of philosophy (and in fact, all of human history) would be tainted and therefore the “rantings of a madman” (see above for examples). Almost all philosophers (and most people considered great thinkers) have believed some ideas that were suspect or downright despicable because of the context of their society. I am not saying that one should not be aware of their prejudices, but it doesn’t make their work invalid. Aristotle, for instance, wrote in support of slavery, but that doesn’t mean his metaphysics isn’t worth reading.

    Heidegger didn’t write books about supporting Nazi’s and his books are not about Nazi philosophy. They are deeply interesting metaphysical books which have a unique way of looking at the world. One of his principle concepts is “care,” for instance. His work is well worth reading. His essays on metaphysics are excellent and give a nice parallel to Lacanian psychoanalysis. Heidegger’s work does not display an “agenda born of some warped findamentals” but a deeply thoughtful human mind struggling with the world.

    I really didn’t mean to put Heidegger’s work in this light, but I guess you live and learn in terms of pairing poems with articles. I don’t mean to say it isn’t an interesting discussion, but it really doesn’t have that much to do with his work. I don’t at all support the idea that his affiliations with the Nazi party makes his philosophy suspect. I actually think I didn’t read the articles fully, because I don’t support their tone and suggestions.

  13. Chen-ou Liu

    “I am not saying that one should not be aware of their prejudices, but it doesn’t make their work invalid. Aristotle, for instance, wrote in support of slavery, but that doesn’t mean his metaphysics isn’t worth reading.”

    I couldn’t agree with you more.

    Dick, I really enjoy reading this thoughtful and insightful reply.

    In addition to “care,” I love his concepts of “thrownness,” “Being-in-the-world,” “theyness,” “authenticity, “ and “being-toward-death.” All of these have influenced me profoundly.

    Best,

    Chen-ou

  14. Dick Whyte

    Chen-ou,

    Thanks for that – I also love the concepts of “thrownness,” “being-toward-death” and “being-in-the-world.” I also really like the here, there and yonder and “existenz” (the term existenz is great).

    I still really want to reply to your longer comment from earlier, because it raises interesting points, but I have been quite busy. I will get to it in the next day or two – sorry to keep you waiting.

  15. Terry

    Well, I haven’t read him but of course to throw the baby out with the bathwater would be silly. I’m sure there is some good thinking behind it all.
    I really must sit down with a knife and fork and read a synopsis of some of his core ideals then I could have a stronger opinion instead of this gag reflex response, which should always be guarded against.

    Maybe he has been interpreted unfairly, I dunno? I do remember reading that Nietzsche’s Uberman was hijacked by ‘The Party’ as his sister was a member. So, it’s all down to interpretation.

    I too will be back to this topic, thanks.

  16. Chris White

    Hi Terry, Heidegger’s certainly been interpreted unfairly. You’re right about Nietzsche too: not only was his thought hijacked by the Nazi party, but the fact is that Nietzsche was explicity against anti-semitism. As you may know, Nietzsche’s life ended in mental illness and, unfortunately, his sister exploited this period of time to take control of his work and edit it to suit her own Nazism… this included a lot of major editing, removing anything that was against anti-semitism for a start.

  17. Bill Kenney

    I’ve read “Being and Time” and some of the essays. H. wasn’t exactly hijacked by the Nazi Party, a la Nietzsche and Wagner. He was an active member of the party. Does this invalidate his philosophical writings? I’d say no, but I was not aware when I was reading him of the depth and extent of his involvement in Nazism. Had I but world enough and time, I might be tempted to reread some of his work to see how it looks when read consciously in the light of his political commitments.

  18. Dick Whyte

    Chris and Bill – some interesting observations. This kind of thing is very interesting to me because it draws on our ethics. It makes us dig deep. Although I was a little bummed by the article/poem match in some ways (because it was not clear I was critical of the articles) I am so happy that it has generated all this discourse.

    That is out there what happened to Nietzche’s work (through his sister’s manipulation). I never realised that. But Bill is right too – Heidegger’s case is different, but, as Bill says as well, this doesn’t necessarily affect all his work. And it is worth remembering that most of Germany was under the spell of Nazism. I mean, transcending one’s own culture is quite a task, and though I agree we should ask this of our deepest thinkers, I don’t feel we can discount their work just because they slip into nationalist concerns (however – I am stridently anti-nationalist).

  19. Chris White

    Actually Dick, I think your poem is ambiguous towards the article (and this isn’t necessarily detrimental – I, personally, don’t feel that the poems have to express a partcular position on the article).

    When I first read the last line “about nothing” I wasn’t sure whether that was a statement that Heidegger’s essay was a load of empty waffle (as a lot, particularly from the analytic tradition, argue – though notable not so with Wittgenstein who was quite comfortable with Heidegger’s writing apparently) or whether it was a reference to the subject of the essay (knowing that Heidegger wrote about nothingness and being etc), or even if it was a double-entendre combining both of those… but in the end the second of those three options worked best for me so I took it to mean that.

    Yeah, Heidegger’s case is definitely different owing to his active involvement with the Nazis (though I think he may have left the part post-war (not sure of his reasons for doing so)). My Nietzsche comment wasn’t meant to say that Heidegger and Nietzsche were similar in their relation to the Nazis, it was just an elaboration of Terry’s point on him as a matter of interest really.

    Dick – I think exactly the same as you on the notion of “transcending one’s own culture”.

  20. Editor

    I agree totally Chris, but at the same time if it starts to read like it supports the article – that is problematic. Yeah – the use of nothing is ambiguous. I like Heidegger’s work personally and even though his prose can be difficult, the subjects he is tackling is difficult too. Anyone who uses his language style to critique him is lazy, in my eyes, because style shouldn’t get in the way of finding substance. I mean, with a fiction book, style is very important, and I think it is important to philosophy, but it cannot determine the value of the work. It is like a nature documentary and a fiction film. I can’t really critique the nature doco for that shot of the lion, because that may have been the only shot of the lion doing that which they got. But in a fiction film I KNOW they had all the options. I see philosophy next to fiction as similar. A philosopher is trying to get to an idea, and the words they use are just vehicles. When I go on holiday I don’t spend my whole time complaining about the ugly plane I flew there in. Well, his difficult language is like the ugly plane to me. And yeah – the second of the two options is the one I am aiming for in the poem, but with a gentle rib at Heidegger (because of the criticisms he got, which you point out) but also that to “talk about nothing” is actually intelligent in itself.

    I dig what you mean about Nietzsche – yeah, with national states co-opting philosophers it is hard to tell where their politics lay. Do you know if heidegger actually wrote on Nazism??? That would be interesting.

    :)

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