Heidegger, racism, and scholarship

My doctoral training was in European philosophy. At University of Memphis (1991-1996), I studied Kant, Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger, Levinas, Irigaray, and Derrida with some of smartest folks out there, including most prominently Robert Bernasconi, Tom Nenon, and Tina Chanter. Around 1999 or so, I decided to shift fields to what I do now: Africana studies in a philosophical register. I still follow some European trends and work, and there’s no doubt that my own orientation is informed by what we call “poststructuralism.” I read from that place, even as the tradition I used to work in gets reworked at every level when I think and write. The re-emergence of Heidegger and the question of anti-Semitism, controversial yet again, caught my eye and I’ve been meaning to write a bit on it. Here’s that bit, for what it’s worth.

The release of the Black Notebooks caught my eye, but I haven’t read them and rely reviews and general characterizations. Apparently they confirm what’s been said for a few decades now: Heidegger was deeply involved, at a personal level, with anti-Semitic values, politics, and thinking, which pairs easily with his reprehensible professional conduct in 1933-34, when he assumed the rectorship under National Socialist rule and oversaw, largely in silence, the beginning of the mass-dismissal of Jewish professors. Adding the personal dimension is interesting. It means you can’t interpret away ’33-’34 as mere maneuvering and self-interest. It means Heidegger probably believed a lot of this stuff. It means the National Socialist take over of the university system, while objectionable to Heidegger at the level of bureaucracy and mission, was likely not disturbing to Heidegger as a racist project.

heidegger hutParticulars of the Heidegger case aside, it raises a really interesting question for me about the character of reading and writing on Western philosophy – modern to the present – as a kind of ahistorical project. For all the insistence on historicity and historicality, Heideggerian ideas through and through, the deeper and bleaker meaning of history is almost never taken very seriously. I mean of course the problem of European and British philosophy’s entanglement with centuries of global terror and mass death, from the Middle Passage to plantation slavery to colonialism, not to mention persecution, ghettoization, and terrorizing of Jews and Roma communities. Entanglement. With that term, I simply mean how philosophical ideas are part of enormous cultural projects – or sometimes dissent from them. Philosophy has never taken that entanglement seriously (and by “philosophy,” I here mean the institution and scholarship on important thinkers and movements). Kant’s texts of race and nationality are occasional pieces and rarely connected to conceptions of reason and the like. Hegel’s stuff on non-European thinking is unfortunate, but better to move to the “real” ideas of History, consciousness, and the like. Same with Locke, Hume…the list goes on and on.

This sort of casual disentanglement would all be news to those thinkers, for whom theorizing about race, nation, and violent subordination was part of what it meant to be a big thinker.

This would also be a troubling vision of the slave trade, the institution of slavery, and colonialism, implicitly reinventing them as side concerns of England and Europe. All of Western thinking was gathered to these projects. Natural science, literature, what becomes social science, philosophy, religion – thinking itself was dedicated to the justification of this project. It wasn’t a mere economic endeavor headed by a handful of bad guys. It was a total cultural project from the beginning, beset by crises that philosophy and its friends were tasked with resolving.


If slavery and colonialism were total cultural projects, then what does it mean as a reader today if we say “okay, but these are still important ideas and I won’t bother to reckon with their entanglement with centuries of the unspeakable”? I’m not sure what that says about particular readers, but as a tradition, as a group of scholars who continue and further a history of thought, it is both naive and complicit. I’ve argued just this elsewhere on this blog: European philosophy needs to decolonize itself. The colonized were tasked with decolonization after the end of formal colonial ownership relations. That makes sense. But the colonizers have never taken up that same process, even though Europe and England lived from centuries of violence – “lived” in the sense of having economic, political, and cultural life embedded in that violence, its world, and the effects of it.

This is a roundabout way of coming back to Heidegger. It’s astonishing to me to read the sense of beleaguerment among scholars of Heidegger (or related thinkers) when confronted with his anti-Semitism. Just as Europe lived from the violence of slavery and colonialism, Christian Europe lived from anti-Semitism. It helped define nations, boundaries (what is Europe? not a continent, even as it’s called “the continent,” but there is of course the religious boundary), and entire modes of cultural and political life. It’s a part of Europe, not as a marginal feature, but, like slavery and colonialism, part of the infrastructure of its own self-realization and meaning. To say Europe is entangled with racism is uncontroversial. To engage Europe without thinking hard and systematically about entanglement? That requires some serious justification. And it’s not there.

So when Heidegger’s anti-Semitism comes up and a philosopher like Michael Marder, in a piece for The New York Times’ column The Stone, characterizes Heidegger’s current status in the profession as a “fight for the right to read Heidegger,” I get a little miffed. Of course Heidegger is entangled with anti-Semitism. If Heidegger is so important and influential – yes, let’s grant that he is (fairly uncontroversial, I think) – then even more needs to be said about his anti-Semitism. Not less. Don’t get over it. Don’t ignore it. He’s a European thinker. All of this crazy, violent history is entangled in his thought and the thought of all his compatriots. Heidegger was anti-Semitic, worked for the Nazis, and didn’t say anything of substance about the Shoah. That needs to be taken seriously. Especially because his colleagues did talk about those things. Sometimes in great detail.

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But neither he nor more than a few European philosophers ever spoke to the question of colonialism, even as – and here France is of particular importance – anti-colonial wars in Viet Nam and Algeria bled Europe into concessions. And bled even more from the populations of the former colonies. Silence. Almost all of them said and say nothing.

What, then, about Heidegger, who was in act and thought entangled in anti-Semitism’s history and culture? Marder is plain when he writes:

Of course, none of the recent revelations about Heidegger should be suppressed or dismissed. But neither should they turn into mantras and formulas, meant to discredit one of the most original philosophical frameworks of the past century. At issue are not only concepts (such as “being-in-the-world”) or methodologies (such as “hermeneutical ontology”) but the ever fresh way of thinking that holds in store countless possibilities that are not sanctioned by the prevalent techno-scientific rationality, which governs much of philosophy within the walls of the academia. It is, in fact, these possibilities that are the true targets of Heidegger’s detractors, who are determined to smear the entirety of his thought and work with the double charge of Nazism and anti-Semitism.

Interesting that it is a smear to take anti-Semitism seriously. The facts of the case demonstrate anti-Semitism at a number of levels. When facts are considered smears, well, we can’t get far with that. Instead, perhaps Marder and sympathizers should take questions of the relationship between racism and the infrastructure of thought seriously, contend with it, bring their best criticism to bear honestly and systematically on these questions – even when one’s own thinking and commitments are put in question and at risk.

The next bit from Marder is astonishing for its privilege of not taking violence seriously. He continues:

Now, if canonical philosophers were blacklisted based on their prejudices and political engagements, then there wouldn’t be all that many left in the Western tradition. Plato and Aristotle would be out as defenders of slavery and chauvinism; St. Augustine would be expelled for his intolerance toward heretics and “heathens”; Hegel would be banned for his unconditional admiration for Napoleon Bonaparte, in whom he saw “world spirit on horseback.”

I’m not sure why critique and critical historical reading is blacklisting and banning. That’s a straw man and frankly paranoid. If Emmanuel Faye is your touchstone for Heidegger-critics, then of course everything is in crisis and unfair. Faye’s polemic is just that: a polemic. But there are more thoughtful pieces out there. And, besides, a polemic like Faye’s is only possible if there is some really troubling stuff at the foundation of the Heidegger case.

Part of what’s interesting to me about paranoia is what it reveals, and perhaps we can speculate about the anxieties that give rise to such worries. If you ask me, and I’ve been in the profession awhile, there is a creeping anxiety that perhaps all of this stuff we read from the Western tradition is committed to some fundamental evil and violence. That it is entangled and that we, as thinkers and writers who love the texts, might find ourselves entangled if we take it seriously. I know a good bit about white people. I’m one myself, and I’m from Idaho; I have roots for insight. And this I know about my fellow white people: we are in love with innocence. Reading the West as a racial project – something, I should add, that the global South has been doing for a long time – means no one and no book is innocent. I say all the better, because that’s just being honest and honesty is the keystone of decent scholarship.

Marder concludes his piece with what is supposed to be a sneer at the growing imperative to justify reading Heidegger, but sounds to my ears like an absolutely essential project for anyone reading a tradition so tightly entangled with a history of mass death and violence.

The current fight for the possibility of reading certain philosophical works is, therefore, a fight over the very meaning of philosophy, with or without quotation marks.

Of course, part of philosophy – one of the first and most important philosophical questions – is the question of what we mean by “philosophy” and what justifies reading something and calling it philosophy. When the moral stakes are as high as anti-Semitism, slavery, and colonialism, the questions Marder sneers at are actually urgent, direct, and unavoidable. One would hope.


If I’m right about that, and I think I am, then we’ve arrived at an important moment: who are we in relation to the text? If we take suspicion seriously, suspicion that these texts are entangled, then we begin the process of critical dismantling – searching for what Levinas called “the echo of that evil” in the entangled text. (Of course Levinas never heard the echo of evil in his own work, but that’s another story.) If we are afraid of that entanglement and hold fast to our provincial concerns, casting the entire issue in terms of “right to read” and “censorship,” then who are we? What kind of scholars have we become?

We’ve become the worst kind of scholars, really. Or we always have been those scholars and are just continuing the tradition. The kind of scholars who shrug at atrocity because it would require a lot of tough criticism and critical reading. What kind of privilege is exercised when someone makes that shrug and moves along, forgetting the entanglements? The privilege of habit. And the privilege of white (often Christian) Westernness as a mode of domination – domination so profound that it finds comfort and a sense of home in radical indifference to the history of the words and ideas that give life to the life of thinking.