Heidegger, racism, and scholarship

July 23, 2014 John Drabinski

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.

reads frege

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.


Comments (27)

  1. John: I agree entirely. Marder makes the implicit case that everything is tainted, but then doesn’t follow that thought to ask about how everything should be questioned. I do think that his piece starts from the assumption that the task, as with so much in the US (at least) today, is to determine which group one belongs to. Are you a Heidegger-lover or a Heidegger-hater? Then we supposedly can deduce all sorts of other things about a person as well.

    I don’t think that Marder is even right in his analysis of Heidegger’s approach to Jewish life. He argues that the rootlessness of the Jews was the issue, and thinks that doesn’t follow from Heidegger’s own thought – “After all, didn’t Heidegger want to make (finite) time, rather than space, fundamental to human existence?” I think there’s been plenty of work by this point to show that place (not space) is fundamental for Heidegger from the beginning (Jeff Malpas has worked most of that out). So, it did flow from Heidegger’s thought to frame things this way. The question then, though, is what place means, and whether this potent concept needs to be used as Heidegger did, or whether it can be taken a different direction.

    You’re right that the critiques of Western philosophical racism have long been fodder for writing from the non-West (Africa certainly has its share), but it’s also worth noting that there are some really interesting re-appropriations of some of this material, including Heidegger. I’m thinking of things like Achille Mbembe’s On the Postcolony which, whatever its limitations, works out an interesting direction for Heidegger.

    Good thoughts on this issue.

    • Thanks, Bruce. I think it’s important to see how this opens up new dimensions in scholarship, rather than being some sort of gloomy condemnation to the hellscape of censorship or whatever folks worry about. Seeing what I here call entanglement requires creative, analytical readings and deep expertise. For that reason, I think it is fertile ground, rather than a guilt-trip … but, of course, it is a pretty standard response (largely subconscious, I think) of white people to presume critical race analysis is just an attempt to kibosh enthusiasm. It’s not. It’s real scholarship.

      Your remark about Heidegger’s conception of Jews and Jewishness is a great example of that. If you and Marder were both taking this critique seriously, then we’d see a lot of interesting, deeply engaged scholarship. We don’t see that, though, for the very reasons Marder outlines here: impatience with critique.

      Bad for scholarship. For me, it’s that simple.

      • I completely agree that it opens up new possibilities for scholarship. Not interested in guilt trips, more interested in creating concepts within the place we find ourselves. We’re not banishing Heidegger and his influence, that much is clear, nor do I think do we want to. At least, I don’t. I too would rather have new and interesting scholarship.

        On the issue of the question of place and critical scholarship, within an African context – that’s more or less what my book Philosophy in an African Place was about. Sorry for the plug, but I think taking seriously the concepts that have real currency in a place, and asking how new concepts can develop that address the reality of the place, is what has been missing, certainly in African philosophy over the past several decades. Much has been made of answering a question posed by non-Africans, and less has been made of thinking about what it means to ask a question that matters to Africans. Doesn’t mean that Heidegger or anyone else is either irrelevant or taken at face value.

  2. Ok, I think there is something to the concern that Heidegger is mainstream in continental philosophy and the frustration with having to legitimate working on Heidegger is the desire to be able to do philosophy *without having to legitimate* that it is philosophy. That seems to be a desire to be at the center of power in the field, to share the privilege with our M&E colleagues (“Reads Frege”) whose position in the field allows them to assume they are doing philosophy without justifying it. But as I remarked when I posted the link to The Stone piece on justifying reading Heidegger, and I think others have raised this concern too, isn’t the problem that Heidegger is singled out because it’s a short cut for dismissing continental philosophy when a whole bunch of other philosophers are accepted despite their biographies without the need to justify that their work is philosophy?

    I agree with Robin James when she says because she has to legitimate her work, so should Heideggerians – in fact, her notion that the work in continental philosophy of legitimating that it is philosophy is done by the margins of continental philosophy, and this is second shift work really resonates. I would like the implications to be that not only do Heideggerians need to legitimate their work as philosophy, but so should everyone. Once you don’t have to do that work, it seems that you’ve closed off the question of what philosophy is not because you’ve answered it but because you have the privilege of not asking it.

    What I hear in this piece at the Stone reflects the way that I think continental philosophy operates the way other movements for equality have (I’m really not trying to say the struggles of continental philosophy compare to the civil rights movement or the feminist movement since we are really pretty privileged, but we should consider this structural analogue), by saying we can’t criticize the movement because that would cripple the larger project. I’ve been guilty of this too. As in other movements, the more marginalized within them bear the weight for the less marginalized to be heard.

    • For me, there’s a distinction between the institutional bullying and domination we see in Anglo-American philosophy against all other approaches – that’s usually done under the guise of “you don’t do philosophy,” which turns on an idea of “legitimating” – and the practice of philosophical thinking – in which “what is philosophy?” or “what makes something philosophical?” is a fertile, creative space for contemplation. The former is just a power horde, if you ask me, and the latter is what we should always be doing.

      And asking what makes something philosophical makes for such interesting writing and conversation. It’s not painful or cruel or punitive in and of itself, but the institution and power-horde makes it feel like that sometimes.

      If we started with the presumption “let’s decolonize all the things!,” then imagine how the field opens up, how new dimensions (amazing and disturbing both) open up in any given thinker or profound text.

      That’s my approach.

      • When I was doing my dissertation in a philosophy department, I was working on the German mystic Jacob Boehme. This was not generally regarded as “real” philosophy – in fact, one faculty member distinguished between macho philosophy and wimp philosophy, and opined that I was doing wimp philosophy. I suppose I still am, having moved to working in African philosophy and a bunch of other areas that don’t generally show up in the Journal of Philosophy or places like that. I can live with that.

        • I remember hearing that phrase too: wimp philosophy. Is there anything more revealing – and depressingly so – than that phrase?! Wow.

  3. John, I LOVE this. The last paragraph especially resonates with some stuff I’ve been trying to think through. I philosophers are serious about remedying the demographic problems in the discipline, this is gonna require a radical reformulation of what it means to do philosophy, and few seem really willing to go that far–privilege of habit, the “those kinds of scholars” etc that you refer to in the end of your post. So, thanks!

    • I agree, Robin. Unfortunately, I think the mainstream in philosophy imagines that reformulation as terrible and terrifying. It’s not. It’s research, creative and searching debates, and all around the meaning of what it means to do philosophy, think and read philosophically, and encounter different modes of theorizing.

      Nothing in that is terrible, except that it disrupts some habits. But of course disruption of habits is one of the most anxiety producing things a person can do. Think of the suggestion that, say, someone quit eating sugar. Or eating meat. People flip the fuck out, because it disrupts some habits that are deeply held.

      Add in gender and race anxiety, and you have what we have in the profession now: heels dug in deep, smugly, and everything is burning down around philosophy. In that way, I often think the profession/discipline gets what it deserves – even while feeling profoundly sad about the slow, increasingly rapid though, erosion of philosophy in American academic life.

  4. Michael Fagenblat

    John, thanks for another very thoughtful reflection. I’ve got a swirl of thoughts but I can’t quite get them straight to respond briefly. But I do want you to know that I really appreciate you putting your mind to this in such a clear and methodical way.

  5. Sayres Rudy

    Hi, John, thanks for this provocation. Some clarifications, please?

    First, have you posed the question in a too-totalizing manner, with the result that you make an absolutist programmatic statement without defending that statement in concrete terms? If Heidegger’s thought and work are caught up in anti-Semitism, rather than being, say, the philosophy of a person who happens to be anti-Semitic, then does this mean that his hermeneutics, etc., are themselves anti-Semitic? If a whole unites one’s time, place, history, character, and thought, then these elements are of a piece in some sense, presumably, or co-constituted. But it doesn’t seem likely that e.g., hermeneutics is anti-Semitic, does it? Or is it only HIS hermeneutics? But if it’s HIS hermeneutics, then the totality that you suggest, or holism, doesn’t seem correct. That is, there is some kind of gap between the context and text, or at least there is potentially. So is it better to say that we should always consider, not presume, that a way of thinking or writing is tainted, designed, or shaped by politics, culture, etc.? Or do you want to say that all are implicated in the identical way, as you seem to imply. In short, isn’t wholism either reductive or truistic?

    Second, doesn’t this possibility suggest you played loose w/ Marder, who seems to be raising a similar issue, re. the “entirety” of H’s work? Marder wrote that “Heidegger’s detractors…are determined to smear the entirety of his thought and work [bc of his] Nazism and anti-Semitism.” Then you say: “Interesting that it is a smear to take anti-Semitism seriously”; and “When facts are considered smears, well, we can’t get far with that.” But are these remarks fair to Marder? He did not suggest that anti-Semitism should not be taken seriously as facts that bear on people or even their ideas; he said that it is a smear to discredit one’s “entire thought and work” based on his animus. I think you know this, because then you refer to taking “the relationship between racism and the infrastructure of thought seriously.” This idea of an “infrastructure” of thought is, to me, crucially distinct from the “facts” of one’s thoughts; in fact the distinction at the core of Marder’s remark. If not, I would myself urge that the “infrastructure” and “facts” of one’s ideas are not identical.

    This returns me to the first clarification. Now it seems you are arguing that there is a broader social context, in which ideas form, and there is an overlap between what you call the infrastructure of this society and the infrastructure of a particular person’s thought. Can you say a bit more about the relationship between these two infrastructures? Is one mini-me to the other? Is the German or Nazi totalizing “infrastructure” of the 1930s the sort that generates little copies, depositing highly refined versions in the likes of Heidegger?

    Third, how does the position you lay out, in which a philosophy (or symphony, painting, etc.?) MUST contain or express its historical background, help us to think through the ways that culture may under-determine aesthetic, intellectual, or even political novelty? I’m cribbing from an essay of R. Geuss’s on Adorno and Berg, but if an artwork or system of thought can be “negating,” “affirming,” OR perhaps radically other, viz. unsayable within a given moment, then how does the (Hegelian?) claim that ideas are instances-of-Ideas situated in specific historical parameters account for variation? I don’t mean merely that totality may not help us deal with specificity, but more that totality seems to deny that there can be a gap between a society’s norms and an artist’s or philosopher’s work. It is, again, surely right to say we ought to consider text and context together, but I worry that you’ve overstated a general theory of this relationship in a way that forecloses the under-determination of human creativity.

    Finally, and purely for the sake of argument and my own clarification, my concern is the possibility, in our dark PC times, that someone could take this piece of yours and, rather than take it seriously it on its own terms, indict you for writing a piece about Heidegger’s anti-Semitism during one of Israel’s most savage attacks on the Palestinians in many decades. On the logic of inculpation you seem to be offering (and that you seem to find pretty easy-going and obvious?), could your choice of this topic at this time not be seen as expressing a broader social logic of Zionist apologetics? Could your concern with who was a Nazi or an anti-Semite in the 1930s be entirely coincidental, given your own country’s unquestioned support for Israel during this terrible occupation and invasion, justified in large part by the refrains about Hamas as a anti-Semitic, Nazi organization elected by a Jew-Hating people? Do you give unwanted cover to those who would insist: “Drabinski’s obsession with Heidegger’s Nazi and anti-Semitic commitments, and his relative silence on Zionism during this horrible time must be seen,” to quote you, “not as a marginal feature, but, like slavery and colonialism, part of the infrastructure of its own self-realization and meaning”? I hope it is plain that I would be appalled to hear anything like that said about your posting, and that is exactly my point. My worry is that you unwittingly open the door, with a totalizing theory of signification, to absolutist political thugs who will find cause in your own words to judge your thinking topically and not substantively.

    Thanks, and I hope you’re well.

  6. Sayres, it’s been forever. Hello! And thanks for these questions. In order:

    1. Too Totalizing Question: in a certain sense, I think you ask for too much. This is a blog post and mostly tries to thumbnail-sketch things, so spelling all of this out is the task of a book or even books. I’ll self-serve and refer to my book Levinas and the Postcolonial: Race, Nation, Other as an example of what I call there, and a bit here, “decolonizing the colonizer.” I try to do that with one thinker, but even that is a first effort.

    That said, this is also a programmatic claim about British and European philosophy and a suggestion of how we ought to read. I think we absolutely have to read British and European philosophy (and any other cultural expression) as embedded in deep historical forms and habits. Anti-Semitism has been central to European and Christian-world identity for almost two millennia. Not just as a belief, but part of the habits and values of everyday life, so, if you ask me, I don’t think radical or totalizing at all in thinking we ought to read for this in the vocabulary of philosophy. In fact, I think anyone arguing against such a project has to account for what is, for me, the bizarre position that such deeply held, long practiced beliefs are somehow of separate concern and signification than philosophy, literature, and the arts. Same goes for slavery and colonialism. (I don’t think you think this, just drawing out implications.)

    It’s a programmatic claim, and you can’t decolonize a thinker in a blog post. But you can sketch out what such a project looks like, which I’ve tried to do here in this post, but also previous here:


    and here


    2. Underdetermining Culture (your “second” and “third” covered): I’m definitely not saying every German is a little copy of Nazism. Especially because what concerns me is not Nazism, but hundreds upon hundreds of years of anti-Semitic practice and values. What I am saying is that a critical moment of reading opens up when we wonder about the place of such everydayness in the vocabulary, expressions, formulations, and arguments of (in this case) philosophers. I put it as an echo of evil – a phrase from Levinas about Heidegger’s work. That’s neither totalizing nor overdetermining. It’s a critical theory moment that takes empire, enslavement, and racialized violence seriously as a cultural form that is part of everything.

    I’m definitely not content, and certainly not comfortable, with the idea that empire and racism are held at firm distance from other cultural expressions. While it doesn’t say everything about all intellectual products, historicizing ideas, if done with care and attention, certainly contaminates – in a deconstructive manner – those produces. This is important and under-theorized internal to the European context, which bothers me. Especially since philosophers, literary figures, artists, theologians, natural scientists, and other agents of world making have always been part and parcel of justifying, deepening, and emboldening the practice of violence and persecution. Kant and Hegel are two examples here, also Locke and Hume. Decolonize all the names, I say, and read with critical suspicion.

    Heidegger is the example because of Marder’s article. And also because he’s at the crossroads of two millennia of anti-Semitism, Nazism, and personal anti-Jewish beliefs.

    3. John and Palestine: I’m not sure what to say about this. If someone says such a thing, well, have them write me and we’ll probably find that, if it’s a critique of settler logic, ethno-religious based apartheid policies, and the like, we probably are on the same page. In terms of focus, I’m a philosopher and my concern is with the black Atlantic, Europe, and the United States in the context of Black Studies. Thus, my emphasis on racism in that circulation. My thoughts on Israel-Palestine are on social media conversations and defriendings (isn’t that so much of how we declare these days!), but those aren’t my expertise and never will be. We can all only do certain things, never everything. Otherwise, I’d say “why are people so concerned about what’s happening in Palestine and not police brutality against black people in this country, gun violence in Chicago, defunding schools in black neighborhoods and cities…etc.?”

    Everyone writes on what they write on. No one can say that I didn’t write on empire and violence, because that’s most of what I write on, just not in a Middle East context.

    Also, like everyone, I’m capable of and committed to thinking about multiple things at once. I do in fact have thoughts about Palestine. But, my blog on that would be boring and uninformative – mostly because it would be unoriginal, derivative. I do think my post on Heidegger, colonialism, racism, and decolonizing thought is less unoriginal and derivative because of my expertise and intellectual passions.

    If you mean that someone raises the issue “people shouldn’t talk about anti-Semitism in European history and thought now because Israel is cruel and terrifying,” then that’s on those people. Israel’s bullshit does not get European Christians off the hook for nearly two millennia of anti-Semitism and genocide (I know you don’t think that, working from your hypothetical). If someone thinks Israel’s bullshit means we can’t talk about that or take it seriously, then that person should do some soul-searching.

    • Sayres Rudy

      As I surmised, we agree that (1) enduring, persistent “positive” ideas, beliefs, attitudes, ways of being in the world and (2) “negative” forms of hatred, bigotry, exclusion, and violence converge in empire, capitalism, slavery; and that the noble task of “decolonizing the colonizer” would begin with this convergence. I was trying to take that fundamental point, which is firmly established in 50 years of subaltern thinking (if not more, like throughout all history) and pushing some questions that strike me as still pressing, challenging, and valuable. In a sense, I’m asking what problems or impasses result from various kinds of decolonization.

      I take this to be a version of the question, “How do we de-politicize politics?” Or maybe to ask, is de-colonization something like de-politicization? Does it rely on some vision of a world without politics, power, etc.? Is that world one without animus, coercion, injustice? If so, who could be opposed to this? I had intended to get from the imperative “decolonize colonizers” to the method; so I agree with you that we ought to do this, but was asking how, even for a blog-size sketch of the problems this project manifestly still confronts (since it’s an old project to which many academics have long been committed). You seem to get irritated at this point where the question is how we think of decolonization, for surely if the answer is in your excellent book, so is the question! In this vein, i’m sorry the point of my “applying” a version of your argument to current events did not work for you. The point was obviously not to claim that Zionist policies now absolve Europe of past anti-Semitism (wha?!) but to demonstrate the problems inherent to a fully embraced auto-critique of “entanglement.” Presumably, at any moment, one who is decolonizing the colonizer, including all white north americans, must be willing to answer this question: how can we justify our lives right now, given the genocide of the Native American nations, the taxes we hand over to the Israeli occupation, the American military, etc. This is one cliche of the Zionist charge against American critics of Israel, of course, about how we criticize their treatment of the indigenous but not our own. there is truth in this, and I was just finding a gripping way of bringing it to the fore in an open discussion among friends. How DO we really decolonize our own lives, which benefit so richly from our own colonial past? That your response seemed to grow so defensive and irate may betray the difficulty of the kind of project you rightly call for.

      It surely is one thing to go on about “two millennia” (it’s more, see Seinfeld episode on the anti-Dentite) of anti-Semitism, Nazism, Heidegger but if not a displacement of the decolonizing project onto others rather than oneself, what kind of rhetoric is that? Seems friends can push each other on such an issue without antagonism! I actually think we academics are doing about as much as we systemically can toward decolonizing projects. But I would also want to ask, self-critically, is it enough? Have we accepted the gilded cage of academia in a de-politicizing bargain, while the world burns…? Is this a form of capitulation that permits us to live well with our colonial past — in short, our version of entanglement? These questions, too, may be old, but doesn’t the critique of decolonization begin with our own actions and situations, as someone like Gandhi or Fanon argued? I never meant to offend or annoy you, John, i promise, but to play with the crucial questions and proposals your urging us to consider…


      • This is a great comment and underscores that this is an enormous project, with many contours and shifting fields.

        We can’t justify our lives. For me, that’s a given of history.

        There is activism, scholarship, and the crossing between them. All are limited by the kinds of expertise, interests, and energies any one of us has, and as a philosopher, I am at peace with the sorts of things I can do and do well. I can write critically about the history of ideas, which, perhaps, has some small bit of impact on the ideas written toward and in the future.

        For some folks, that’s not enough direct action. So be it. Teaching is a way that “gilded cage” makes people who think differently, etc.

        Your sense that people are working on decolonizing thought in the academy is where I see a different world: European philosophy, whose shadow is of course very global. The Europeans themselves, who work so hard on texts and are intensely invested in tradition (even as they upset and reorient it), have had none of that decolonizing work. That’s the scholarly opening I see and work in.

        Césaire, Fanon, and other early figures in anti-colonial studies had this truism all over their work: colonialism harms the colonizer and the colonized. I think that’s been remembered rather flatly to mean that the colonized needed the labor of postcolonial cultural and political formation and that the colonized were monsters (true enough). But not that the colonizers themselves were infected, to the bone, with the damage.

        So, there takes root this decolonizing the colonizer thing. It looks like this: an opening happens when you see the disturbing racism of a thinker (for my last book, when Levinas says the Palestinian is faceless) and you ask “what in their thought makes this utterance and value possible?” Critical work is necessary to get that out of a series of dense texts, yes, but then we get to the second question: what is left of this thinker if we excise the part that makes hatred and violence possible?

        I don’t think this necessarily arrives at a de-politicized politics analogy, though I also don’t want to decide it at the outset. Rather, I’d like to employ the later Derrida’s principle: least violence. And see how that leaves the history of ideas.

  7. A longer reply a bit later (ED: that is the comment above, this is out of order), but reading this I did want to say: I wasn’t irritated or annoyed at all! Reading over my response, I see how it might sound that way, reading, but wasn’t like that as I wrote. Apologies for the tone-deafness. For real! I wrote it rather quickly and should have edited for tone, something I see now.

    We’ve been friends awhile, Sayres, so I certainly read your queries as a friendly critic, and also a fellow-traveler on these sorts of issues.

    Yours are absolutely crucial questions, though I think I misread the last (and understand better now). More words later, but a reference to another piece on this site. This is a sketch that might respond (a little bit) to what you ask here:


  8. Keith Lee

    Perhaps anti-Semitism needs to be redefined. Hermeneutically speaking, once upon a time Jews were persecuted on a regular basis but now enjoy a colonial privilege of their very own. I’m speaking in particular about the state of Israel. When you consider the racist colonial nature of anti-Semitism it has, in essence, become the exception the very rules and laws which make up the foundation of International human rights and equality. Anti-Semitism has indeed become an exceptional right in itself to dehumanize the Palestinians.

  9. Israelis enjoy a colonial privilege, not Jews. That’s a crucial difference. And the reason anti-Semitism is not a major problem in Europe (let’s presume) is that European Christians killed almost all the Jews in World War II and remaining Jews, for the most part, fled to other parts of the world.

    Anti-Semitism is not a right, it’s a form of hatred. That’s key.

    When I said to Sayres above that folks very well might think that the existence of Israel gets Europe off the hook for nearly two millennia of anti-Jewis violence, persecution, and genocide, this is the sort of comment I had in mind!

  10. Steve Gilbreath

    What about Epicurus? He allowed women and slaves into his garden. He and his friends fought superstition. He seems pretty good to me, but he doesn’t get much play. “The Swerve” help to reintroduce his ideas. From a strictly amateur reader and thinker about philosophy.

  11. Feler Dureus

    If European philosophy “decolonizes” itself, does it cease being European philosophy?

  12. Late to this, Feler, but a crucial question.

    I would say yes, it is still European philosophy because it is written by those identifying as European. But it also, in that, becomes a racialized project constituted by the shifting back and forth: thinker is entangled, which draws them into empire, but also European, which identifies them as a part of the racial political and intellectual economy of empire.

    On the one hand, this is nothing like what’s been meant by “European philosophy.” It is something new, something contaminated, something disrupted, and probably in many, many cases something too reprehensible to desire or want to own.

    On the other hand, it is entirely European philosophy, but here understood both as its explicit articulation (“here is my theoretical position, born out of thought”) and as its repressed complicity with, even facilitation of, violence and mass death (entanglement). Sort of like, if I can make the roughest analogy, Europe as a subjectivity now forced to live with its thoughts and all the thoughts it wishes it didn’t have. (Or perhaps is fine having, in which case the allegations of a racial project are a compliment, rather than critique.)

    There’s a lot to think about in this very straightforward question. Those are my initial thoughts.

  13. Nico

    I’ve enjoyed all the discussion here. But a quick question: are there any Heidegger scholars on the thread? And can we genuinely claim that their are underlying racial prejudices manifesting in his work if we’ve never read his work?

    I understand the point – to read with that critical, historical eye, conscious of the personal and cultural assumptions of the writer and his/her time. And that is fine. But my issue with this type of inquiry is that it obscures a philosophy with questions that I believe can be separated from his work. For instance, I read all of Being and Time before even knowing he was a Nazi. Then I re-read it in grad school with that in mind, and still found nothing. I’m confused as to how a fundamental phenomenological ontology can have such underlying prejudices.

    Please help me sort this out.

    All in the spirit of debate!

    • Nico

      To clarify, I like the idea of re-examining his thought with this critical eye. However, based on what I’ve personally read, and what I’ve read on here, there are no (definitely no glaring) instances where his prejudices manifest themselves in his work. If there are, it seems that at least one example would benefit this article.

      Again, this isn’t an outright defense of Heidegger. The project is a good one, and intellectual integrity beckons us to pursue them. However, after raising the question – and you mention you studied Heidegger in grad school (the author) – there are no examples of how it has influenced his theory. If you have studied his thought, shouldn’t these prejudices be easy to recognize and provide examples of?

      Perhaps I’m being too demanding in response to a blog post.

      Hope to hear back!

  14. I’m not a Heidegger specialist, but have spent plenty of time with his work. And what I am outlining here is much more of a methodological question, namely, asking what it would mean to historicize concepts and language – itself a very Heideggerian question, albeit with a critical race angle that he would never have taken seriously (and it’s worth thinking why he wouldn’t take such a thing seriously!).

    Heidegger’s obsessive return to authenticity, belonging (to history, time, place), language, and especially the imagination of the Greeks as the foundation of a distinctive Western culture – these are all de- or under-politicized concepts in Heidegger’s work, and worth putting alongside his Black Notebooks and other remarks (and non-remarks, perhaps more importantly) on the Shoah. How do those concepts, that imagination…how do they sustain Heidegger’s though AND how do they sustain his silence and indifference toward catastrophe? That is how I would start the inquiry.

    Of course we can get nowhere if we assume from the outset that there is no entanglement and texts can be read without such disruptive questions. That’s why I started with a set of remarks on methodology.

  15. Did Heidegger “oversee the mass dismissal of Jewish professors”? Medard Boss claims that Heidegger was elected rector by his colleagues precisely to preserve the autonomy of the university and that the protected Jewish professors the Nazis wanted dismissed.

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