Heidegger was one of the intellectual heroes of my youth. Although his prose was infuriatingly convoluted, there was something electrifying about the mysteries the book promised to answer: What is this thing he calls being? Why is there something instead of nothing at all? Why do so many of us struggle through life without becoming the people we feel we were destined to be—becoming inauthentic instead, and leading generic lives? Later, I became enamoured with Heidegger’s writings on technology and the history of western metaphysics. Whereas Being and Time feels like a psychological thriller, these other writings feel like long Russian novels or tragic Greek epics: they chart the slow decline of western metaphysics into nihilism, the nadir of which was reached in the atomic age, with its threat of planetary destruction.
Heidegger often suggests that he—and by extension his readers—are privy to some profound wisdom that is either unavailable to others or perversely denied by them. His works are replete with riffs on how most people are uninterested in the question of being and unaware how much their thoughts are shaped by their interactions with dehumanising technology and the language they speak. He interweaves these highbrow ruminations with loving descriptions of the rural and homely, including long walks along country roads that, he feels, always lead us back to where we belong. He suggests that he and his readers are superior both to the toiling urban masses and to the corrupt and materialist elite—profound yet grounded, intellectual yet folksy, worldly yet local. I found this an intoxicating combination.
So you can imagine my disappointment upon discovering that Heidegger was a Nazi. And not just any old Nazi. As Ronald Beiner and Emmanuel Faye have documented, the wizard of Marburg was a dedicated follower of Hitler. And his writings continue to inspire far right traditionalists, dedicated to fighting against what they see as the nihilism of progressive modernity. Yet even though Heidegger’s politics were sinister, and the themes he explored are often associated with certain toxic political ideas, his work contains some key insights.
Being Is as Being Does
At the core of Heidegger’s philosophy is the provocative question of the meaning of being, perhaps most memorably framed in his Introduction to Metaphysics: “Why is there something instead of nothing?” This question is worth puzzling over. But his insistence that the rise of scientific rationalism caused everyone to stop asking it—as if we’ve all decided that the world is simply matter in motion—is an overstatement. On the contrary, between the late 1920s and the late 1940s, when Heidegger was writing his most famous works, debates raged in scientific circles about what the counterintuitive discoveries of Einsteinian relativity and quantum mechanics could tell us about the nature of reality and our own place in it—debates that resulted in a range of idiosyncratic ontological speculations. Heidegger, however, worried that everyday people would simply assume that these new discoveries had definitively explained the nature of being. He believed that this would be particularly true of people who live in in crowded urban spaces, because that environment makes it easy for them to see themselves—and their personal desires—as disconnected from the many strangers who surround them. As Heidegger puts it in the introduction to Being and Time:
Science in general can be defined as the totality of fundamentally coherent true propositions. This definition is not complete, nor does it get at the meaning of science. As ways in which human beings behave, sciences have this being’s (the human being’s) kind of being. We define this being terminologically as da-sein. Scientific research is neither the sole nor the most immediate kind of being of this being that is possible. Moreover, da sein itself is visibly different from other beings.
Later in the book, Heidegger points out that the rationalistic tradition usually defines Homo sapiens as the thinking or knowing animal, and argues that this definition fails to recognise that it is not just our thinking or reasoning that makes us human, but also our caring. After all, it is only because we care about the world and our relationship to it that we are motivated to think rationally and scientifically about it. And science is only one among the huge variety of projects that we set for ourselves.
Heidegger scholar Herbert Dreyfus draws on this insight in his book, What Computers (Still) Can’t Do, to explore why computer scientists have thus far failed to create a general artificial intelligence that rivals the breadth of human thought. He suggests that artificial intelligence experts are too wedded to the idea of intelligence as something that merely perceives the world objectively and uses scientific calculations to better understand it and underestimate the human relationship to meaning. For example, when I grab a saltshaker and use it to season my steak, I am not simply performing a mechanical act: I’m doing something that I care about. The saltshaker has meaning to me because I care about eating well seasoned meat, and because I’m embedded in a culture in which that is the tool we use to accomplish that goal. To use the language of philosophy, I take an intentional stance towards the saltshaker: my action is driven by my desire to accomplish a purpose I care about, and by my understanding of the role of saltshakers in accomplishing that purpose in my culture. Dreyfus argues that, lacking this information about motivation and cultural meaning, and lacking the intentional stance, computers simply can’t make enough sense of the vast amount of data in the world to form an (artificially) intelligent relationship to it. Simply increasing the capacity of computers to process raw data will not compensate for this lack of an intentional stance towards the data they accumulate. They need some reason to care about it.
These insights are profound, and Heidegger deserves credit for bringing them to our attention. But it’s disturbing and tragic that he tied such a rich set of ideas to such sinister politics. He joined the Nazi party in 1933 and remained a member until it ceased to exist. Although the extent of his contribution to the Nazi effort was initially covered up, it later became clear that he had been deeply involved both in giving Nazism ideological support, and in helping to bring the German university system into line with Nazi objectives. He also taught a variety of courses advocating support for Hitler and Hitlerism. Although he always rejected racism based on biological characteristics, he enthusiastically supported the project of framing the Jewish people as an enemy of German culture. While teaching a course in 1933–34, he even mused chillingly about extermination:
The enemy is one who poses an essential threat to the existence of a people and its members … It is often harder and more exhausting to seek out the enemy as such, and to lead him to reveal himself, to avoid nurturing illusions about him, to remain ready to attack, to cultivate and increase constant preparedness and to initiate the attack on a long-term basis, with the goal of total extermination.
Heidegger and Nazism
It is only where unconditioned subjectivity becomes the truth of the entity in its totality that the principle of the institution of racial selection, that is not the simple formation of race developing on its own, but the thought of race that is aware of itself, is possible, that is, metaphysically necessary.—Heidegger 1941–42, quoted in Emmanuel Faye’s Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism Into Philosophy
Heidegger gained his reputation as perhaps the most important philosopher in the world after the 1940s. Ironically, this was largely due to the efforts of Jewish critic of Nazism (and Heidegger’s former lover) Hannah Arendt, and the Marxist, existentialist and resistance intellectual Jean Paul Sartre, both of whom cited Heidegger as a formative influence.
Heidegger’s work continued to have an enormous influence on well-known thinkers in later generations, including many postmodern philosophers, such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, who identified as stalwart men of the political left. They generally excused Heidegger’s forays into Nazism as the result of ignorance on his part and claimed that Heidegger’s philosophy has little to do with his politics. However, Heidegger himself enmeshed his philosophical thinking in his Nazi politics. Given his popularity among contemporary far-right polemicists like Steve Bannon and Aleksandr Dugin, it is important to explore this connection.
Heidegger’s criticisms of scientific rationalism were grounded in a broader historical and social critique. He argued that scientific rationalism is vapid because it leads people to see themselves largely as isolated individuals, each pursuing their own narrow set of desires, in the assumption that, in order to achieve those desires, they must become inauthentically agreeable and uncontroversial and conform to society’s lowest-common-denominator norms. And he believed that the two political systems that naturally develop out of this worldview are liberal representative democracy and management socialism. Both systems, he thought, encourage people to indefinitely postpone inquiry into the meaning of life in favour of answering technological questions about how to better satisfy citizens’ material desires. In his view, the twentieth-century struggle between liberalism and socialism was a sham, because the two are “metaphysically the same”: liberals assume that the best way to meet people’s material needs is through political back-and-forth talk and market transactions; socialists assume that the best way is through top-down government management of the economy: both approaches promote nihilism by numbing us to the deep underlying angst that is the human condition, which, if we felt it, would motivate us to pursue truly meaningful projects.
It is probably no coincidence that Heidegger’s writing is most political during the period in which he was engaging deeply with Nietzsche’s work, because this outlook is similar to Nietzsche’s. But the two philosophers had very different views of nationalist politics. While Nietzsche was no liberal or egalitarian, he often described himself as first and foremost a “good European.” Heidegger, by contrast, never stopped being enamoured with the volkish politics that were popular on the German right and that became radicalized with the ascent of the Nazi Party. He apparently believed that a strengthened and rejuvenated Germany could serve as a counterweight to the nihilistic influence of liberal America and the communist Soviet Union, situated as it was geographically between them. Heidegger was also attracted to the idea of giving himself over to a project with a purpose far greater than the gratification of an individual desire—unfortunately, this project was the Nazi movement.
The supreme irony of Heidegger’s attraction to Nazism is that, in theory, the totalitarian state it established required the surrender of individuality and of the freedom to express independent thought. However, as Richard Evans makes clear in his Third Reich Trilogy, the regime fortunately never came close to achieving such complete control, and most Germans were far more clear eyed than Heidegger was about the vulgarity of the Nazi approach. Like many intellectual idealists, he was so blinded by the colourful fantasy version of Nazism in his mind that he failed to see the brutality going on around him. As philosopher Theodor Adorno might have put it, he failed to recognize that fascism was not a response to the flaws of modernity or of human nature, but a manifestation of those flaws. Perhaps this explains why Heidegger never apologized or tried to make amends for his support for Nazism, but framed it as a mere error of philosophical judgement. In his view, he had supported Nazism because his study of history had misled him into believing that it would be a profound break with the nihilism of modernity, and he only later realised that it was merely a continuation of that nihilism by other means.
Contemporary far-right thinkers who find Heidegger appealing are drawn, as he was, to the idea that the world is a radically fallen place, and that some primal wisdom has been forgotten—buried beneath a venal and decadent culture. For them, as for Heidegger, the only reasonable response is to find a truly grand project to invest in. Typically, their goal is to restore people’s sense that they belong to some venerable but now decayed group identity, such as a nation, a people or a religion. To this end, they believe that the chosen group identity must be restored to greatness and protected against its enemies—which means anyone who doesn’t share that identity. Anything that falls short of this goal is considered too costly a concession to what they see as the nihilistic relativism of liberal pluralism, according to which anything goes. The identities that they think will achieve the desired results are different from the one Heidegger had faith in. While Heidegger thought that history demonstrated the need for a resurgent and unified German volk, the far right today advocates a bricolage of identities cobbled together with little regard to their mutual compatibility. Their failure to recognize the value of coherence is one reason why the far right is so impervious to rational argument. Their appeal is emotional first and foremost.
This emotional appeal draws on the human need to invest in something bigger than ourselves. In its most benign iterations, this involves taking part in a “transcendent” national identity and tradition. There would be nothing wrong with this in itself, if it were undertaken within in a liberal democratic (or liberal socialist) society in which different cultures and visions of the good life are permitted to coexist. What is noxious about this project is its totalizing and dictatorial ambitions: any and all difference must be liquidated in the drive to restore total unity and direction to the “people” as a whole. It is this yearning that opens the door to totalitarianism, and that is why we should remain critical of Heidegger and his postmodern progeny.