Many who are interested in the social and ethical aspects of science and technology have at least a passing acquaintance with 20th century German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Heidegger’s later work, particularly his essay “The Question Concerning Technology” has influenced a lot of thinking about how we experience and engage with modern technology. For myself I never ventured beyond reading one or two of his later essays; his earlier magnum opus, Being and Time, is renowned for its dense, evocative and highly technical language — give it a ’10’ for degree of difficulty. Although I did not read much Heidegger directly, I did read other thinkers who had been influenced by Heidegger, in particular the excellent study by Albert Borgmann, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (1984).
Heidegger’s legacy has for some time been under a cloud, due to his embrace of Nazism in the lead-up and during the Second World War. The import of this for how we regard and read Heidegger is summed up by William Leiss, a respected thinker on science and technology in the tradition of Frankfurt School critical theory. (As it happens, Leiss was also one of my teachers in graduate school at Simon Fraser University). In an interview in 2011 in the online journal ctheory, Leiss delivers a searing and devastating verdict on Heidegger (see the interview for Leiss’s full presentation of the evidence):
Heidegger was a loyal and committed supporter of Nazism throughout the war. He was an enthusiastic and willing enabler of the Nazis’ destruction of the autonomy of German universities. He spent years bringing his own philosophical terminology into line with Nazi philosophy. And, while it is true that he could not have known much about the appalling crimes being committed outside Germany during the war — although many first-hand accounts of them were circulating inside the country, especially from soldiers home on leave from the Eastern front (Heidegger had two sons serving there) — more than enough evidence stared him in the face each day about the criminal nature of the regime he supported politically. Concentration camps were scattered by the dozens across Germany, including in his own region. Heidegger was there for the regular disappearances, public humiliations of Jews, boycotts of Jewish businesses, street violence, and activities of the secret police; for the passage of the Nuremberg Laws (1935); for Kristallnacht (1938); and for the deportation of all remaining Jews still living in Freiburg to Camp Gurs in France on 22 October 1940 (the survivors were later sent to Auschwitz). If he needed more insight into the party and leader he supported, he could have read or reread Mein Kampf, and also listened to the mad ravings of Hitler, Göring, Goebbels, Streicher and other Nazi luminaries as their speeches were broadcast on the radio.
The most salient fact is that after the war, when what happened abroad also had become well-known, he never once expressed in his own name and conscience, the collective shame of the German people for the horrendous crimes committed by the Nazis in their name. Instead, he sought to cover up the truth about his willing participation and presented implausible reasons and excuses for his behaviour.
Leiss’s assessment, which places particular emphasis on the way Heidegger integrated Nazi and anti-Semitic content into the heart of his thought, was based on the available evidence at the time, which was considerable. But now there is further damning evidence with the publication in German of a large corpus of Heidegger’s journals from before and during the war. These so-called ‘black notebooks’ have provided clear evidence that Heidegger was not just a philosopher who happened to be a Nazi; rather he integrated anti-Semitic and Nazi themes into the very fabric of his thought. An example is provided in Peter Gordon’s review of the black notebooks in the New York Review of Books:
Machination was his preferred name for the technological force that Heidegger saw as dominating the modern world. The notebooks of the later 1930s are thick with dark ruminations on the rise of technology and its manifold consequences across the globe. Machenschaft appears with such frequency that it assumes a quasi-mythological status not unlike an ancient god. Heidegger brooded over “the unconditional power of machination” and “the complete groundlessness of things.” Occasionally, however, Machenschaft is embroidered with a more specific meaning: in an entry (circa 1939) he denounces liberalism, pacifism, and “the rising power of Jewry.” The ascendency of the Jews belonged to “the metaphysics of the West” that helped to spread both “empty rationality” and “a capacity for calculation.” Elsewhere he wrote that “one of the most hidden forms of the gigantic and perhaps the oldest is the tenacious aptitude for calculating and profiteering and intermingling, upon which the worldlessness of Jewry is founded.”
The sheer undeniability of Heidegger’s Nazism and its integration into his thought has horrified many serious students of Heidegger’s work, according to a recent New Yorker article by Joshua Rothman, which reported on a presentation to Heidegger scholars and others by the editor of the black notebooks, Peter Trawny, Director of the Martin Heidegger Institute in Germany. Rothman, a long time reader of Heidegger, sums up his angst:
You don’t spend years working your way through “Being and Time” because you’re idly interested. You do it because you think that, by reading it, you might learn something precious and indispensable. The black notebooks, however seriously you take them, are a betrayal of that ardency. They make it harder to care about—and, therefore, to really know—Heidegger’s ideas. Even if his philosophy isn’t contaminated by Nazism, our relationship with him is.
Heidegger’s work is, Leiss maintains, ‘compromised’. Leiss says it makes the process of reading Heidegger one that requires careful contextualization and qualification:
I would never suggest to anyone that they should not read those texts and draw whatever insight they can from them. I would only add the caution that they are compromised texts, by which I mean that their author placed them, deliberately and with full knowledge of the surrounding events, in a specific context — namely, the great Nazi crimes, which can be understood and memorialized but never forgiven — that is relevant to their meaning and significance in the history of philosophy.
In some ways I am thankful that I never invested much time reading Heidegger. But then I am also most grateful for the deep insights offered by a philosopher of technology such as Albert Borgmann.
Reading Heidegger has just got a whole lot harder.