Sep 122014

We can make a mess of things very quickly by trying too hard to force the thinking of past philosophers into relation with dates and events. Philosophy is not unlike politics in that, though a greater understanding may be gained retrospectively, it is written, and lived, forward and in freedom. “Facts” are not the whole truth, but the occasion for it. But I have been reading the recently published English translation of Heidegger’s seminar on Hegel’s Philosophy of Right1, and there are some dates that just jump out at me, begging for interpretation.

Incidentally, though only published in English this year and in German in 2011 (GA 86), there is already an interesting history to the interpretation of this seminar. In 2009, Emmanuel Faye’s book Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy in Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933-1935 argued that the Hegel seminar and others were an attempt “to spread the fundamental tenets of Nazism on a world-wide scale.”2 I’m not exactly clear on the chronology here,3 but it appears that Faye, who tends to see Nazism everywhere, may have jumped the gun by giving too much weight to the fact that his material was perviously unpublished, failing to consider ideas within their non-Nazi context, i.e., failing to let the 20’s, late 30’s, and 40’s speak also. My interpretation, as we’ll see below, is that Nazism is an excuse for Heidegger to muster his philosophical powers toward a political engagement from which he later shrinks away. Looked at from the broader perspective of the 30’s, what’s really at stake for Heidegger is not so much Nazism as his own search for a home within the history of Germany and his self-assignment to the task of care-taker for the question of Being, for philosophy.

In later posts I’ll be writing on other themes from the Hegel seminar. But first, it’s important to pay attention to some dates, and this will serve as a good introduction to reading the seminar.

To begin, there is no mention of this in the seminar, but we should remember that it was in 1806 that Hegel was finishing his Phenomenology of Spirit just as Napoleon was engaging Prussian troops outside of Jena, where Hegel was writing and teaching.4 On one level, it was a coincidence of events–Napoleon’s arrival was not expected. Yet on another level, Hegel had been creating the philosophical conditions for Germany’s intellectual inheritance of the French political revolution through the tracking of the development of Geist in the Phenomenology. For Hegel, the history of Spirit is a history of loss and dispossession, followed by recovery of meaning and renewed self-understanding. The French Revolution and the ensuing Terror were the key political events of his time that presented a philosophical challenge: how to institute the as yet little understood political gains of freedom and how to reinterpret freedom in light of the social constitution of the individual. As far as I know, Heidegger never explicitly mentions the 1806 incident, but he was certainly aware of the history, and its importance for our reading of Heidegger on Hegel will become apparent below.

As for Heidegger, there are two dates in particular that he himself marked out as important and that philosophically converge on his Hegel seminar: 1888/9 and 1933. There has been no shortage of speculation about the significance of 1933. I’m not here getting into whether his anti-Semitism was genuine or whether his philosophy is infected with his engagement with National Socialism, though I do address some of these questions in Framing Heidegger: Technology and the Notebooks. What I’m concerned with here is a passage which reveals Heidegger’s own understanding of his place in the history of philosophy and the place of philosophy within history in general. Reflecting on the events of 1933 and responding to a quote from Carl Schmitt, Heidegger says the following in the Hegel seminar:

On 30.1.33 ‘Hegel died’ – no! he had not yet ‘lived’ – there he has first come alive – just as even history comes alive, i.e. dies.5

January 30, 1933 is of course when Hitler came to power. Heidegger is challenging the idea that Hegel could become irrelevant for the current historical situation, that philosophy is the type of thing that dies, and he is certainly trying to give philosophical weight to the political event. We also see hints here of another theme: the reinterpretation of death as constitutive of being. A fascinating comment by itself, but it becomes even more striking when read in conjunction with the following passage from the end of the first volume (1938) of the recently published Notebooks, in which dates again take the stage:

End of Dec. 1888: Nietzsche’s ‘euphoria’ before the breakdown and–(09/26/1889).6

Here Heidegger refers to Nietzsche’s mental collapse after a particularly optimistic and literarily productive year in 1888–followed by Heidegger’s own birth. I see two complimentary interpretations of this passage. First, Heidegger assigns himself a place within the history of German philosophy: he is the next German philosopher, in the most Hegelian sense, which means he is the next messenger of historical Being, tasked with bringing history to bear on thought. This is made all the more clear in a note made shortly after, at the beginning of the second volume (1938-39) of the Notebooks:

Being German: to cast oneself down before the most intrinsic burden of history and to take it upon one’s shoulders.7

Now, the imagery of self-dispossession in order to take up the burden of history is the metaphor par excellence for Hegel’s philosophical task in Phenomenology of Spirit. But here we see that for Heidegger–that is, for Geist in 20th-century, post-1933 Germany–Hegel was no longer sufficient. Or rather, it was no longer sufficient that Geist make an appearance. The Phenomenology was no longer sufficient to carry the burden. Hegel’s coming alive–the phenomenon of spirit–created a crisis of Being. Historically–the failure of Heidegger’s political engagement with National Socialism. Philosophically–the failure of Dasein to find its home in Geist. So the second interpretation of the “euphoria” that leads to “breakdown” is: to be true to the Hegelian inheritance, it now meant a confrontation with Nietzsche. This, remember, is Heidegger writing after the Hegel seminar and after the dust had begun to settle from the political-philosophical engagement with Spirit.

These two notes from Heidegger, one from the Hegel seminar (1934/5) and one from the Notebooks (1938), in which dates are placed front and center, illuminate an aspect of the evolution of Heidegger’s thought. Looking at things from Heidegger’s perspective in the ’30’s, we see two paths for German philosophy in Hegel and Nietzsche. In the 1806 and 1933 dates, we see Geist making its appearance on the world stage. A revolution in thought finds its realization in history. Then in the 1888/9 and 1938 dates, the euphoria of philosophy’s political engagement wears off, and Heidegger aligns himself with the Nietzschean breakdown. Geist retreats into the shadows as the Terror can no longer be justified by the Revolution. This section from the seminar notes may foreshadow the tragic conflict:

Hegel’s Philosophy as Completion —

and the subsequent decline — non-fulfillment?
! Facts speak against the system!
“All the worse for the facts.”8

The passing of philosophy from Hegel to Heidegger is interrupted by Nietzsche. The burden to be shouldered is no longer just the philosophical task of recovering meaning from the “slaughter bench” of history, from the “facts,” but the burden is now the loss of philosophy itself. And without philosophy, it is no longer possible to mourn such losses as Hegel taught us. Indeed, for Heidegger, what both came alive and died in 1933 was not only Hegel but philosophy. I see Heidegger as Hegel’s Antigone: standing among the casualties of the conflict between Sein und Geist, caught between conflicting obligations, looking for a proper burial for the dead.

Then what is left? Well, if we are to find any optimism in Heidegger of the late 30’s it might just have to be the fact that Nietzsche’s breakdown was not the end of the story. Of the two paths, Heidegger chooses Nietzsche, or, as Heidegger says in the equivocal and perfectly Hegelian note from 1938: Heidegger is born at Nietzsche’s twilight. Is the insertion of his own birthdate in the chain of events an attempt by Heidegger to take on the full weight of 1933 in order to move on? Whether silently to himself or foreseeing the publication of his notes, is Heidegger holding out hope for a recovery of meaning against the absolute loss of Spirit? For me, these questions cannot be properly answered without looking ahead to Heidegger’s later confrontation with technology.

And this would all challenge the belief that Nietzsche somehow stands at the nexus of Heidegger and Nazism. At the end of Heidegger’s exposition of Hegel’s text, just before a section of notes (added after the seminar) in which we may have “the first, never completed remarks on Heidegger’s own political philosophy,”9 Heidegger comments on the general theme of “absolute thinking” in Hegel. Says Heidegger:

To think the absolute absolutely — and indeed as exit and not as empty abyss — of mere negation.10

Hegel is he who comes alive in 1933, and Nietzsche, rather than representing the irreparable loss of meaning in Nazism, is the proper and sole exit from Hegel’s completion and the insufficiency of Geist. Nietzsche helps complete the loss in thought and thus provides Heidegger with a way out of the abyss of the 30’s, a way to properly bury the dead.

Speculation aside, these dates (1806, 1888/9, 1933, 1938) form an interesting background to one of Heidegger’s few engagements with political philosophy, the 1934/35 seminar on Hegel. I suggest paying attention, though cautiously, to the dates, especially where Heidegger did. 

  1. On Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: The 1934-35 Seminar and Interpretive Essays, trans. Andrew J. Mitchell (Bloomsbury, New York: 2014). []
  2. Ibid., 17. []
  3. So if anyone knows better, please let me know. []
  4. Terry Pinkard famously recounts this story in his Hegel: A Biography. []
  5. GA 86:85. Translation from Peter Trawny in On Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, p. 8. []
  6. This quote comes from GA 94, translated by Adam Knowles, to whom I am very grateful, via his “flash translation” project: []
  7. Translation again from Adam Knowles: []
  8. On Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 170. []
  9. According to Trawny, Ibid., 12. []
  10. Ibid., 172. []

Sep 042014

A short but fruitful conversation between Robert Paul Wolff and I begin when he posted comments about a New York Times review of a new book on the historical Eichmann. The new book is Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer by Bettina Stangneth, and neither of us have read it. But our dialogue about this book we haven’t read was fruitful because it highlighted some of the problems with the Arendt-Eichmann debate that are insufficiently discussed.

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Jul 162014

Luciano Floridi tries to make an analogy between computer systems and philosophy, calling for a “reboot” in philosophy, while promoting his new book here (linked to from here). He says:

Philosophy is a bit like a computer with a memory leak. It starts well, dealing with significant and serious issues that matter to anyone. Yet, in time, its very success slows it down. Philosophy begins to care more about philosophers’ questions than philosophical ones, consuming increasing amount of intellectual attention. Scholasticism is the ultimate freezing of the system, the equivalent of Windows’ “blue screen of death”; so many resources are devoted to internal issues that no external input can be processed anymore, and the system stops. The world may be undergoing a revolution, but the philosophical discourse remains detached and utterly oblivious. Time to reboot the system.

Echoing the always popular sentiment that philosophy is “detached” from something important (politics, history, life, etc.), and riding the wave of cultural optimism about information technology, this analogy sounds smart and relevant. Just what philosophy may need–except if you have any knowledge of actual computer systems, Floridi’s analogy falls flat.

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Apr 252014

Reading this article on “The White Tourist’s Burden”, I couldn’t help but think of Žižek. Or rather, I thought of Hegel, and Žižek was the occasion. What is it that strikes us as not quite right about the idea of voluntourism? Why is it that the fact that there are other things going on (a vacation, for example) along with volunteering takes away from the altruistic act? And why does it matter? Isn’t the school built or the relief aid given the same whether or not the volunteer is acting as part of a tourism package?

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Mar 092014

The question is one of framing, en-framing, positioning, placement, and coercion of life and discussion. It is raised at the intersection of human freedom and technology, of justice and war, and of thought and action. It spills over from the halls of academic philosophy and into the mainstream of public concern and news media headlines. The question is: Is Heidegger’s philosophy connected to his support for the Nazi regime? Is he a Nazi philosopher? Is his philosophy fascist?

With the release of Heidegger’s notebooks from the 30’s and 40’s, this is the question that everyone expects to be answered. But the question, innocent as it sounds, already forges a path toward certain possibilities of answering. We do not ask this question disinterestedly but with focused interest in the answer, because we suspect, even fear, that our own projects depend on it. What I am talking about here is the attempt to pathologize the philosopher for fear of infection–something I discuss in Philosophy and Ethical Life. Such a desire to coax the texts, the notebooks, and the life into offering up an answer, and not just any answer but our answer, is a kind of framing of the conversation, and of all the people involved, beginning with the very formulation of the question. This should be obvious to everyone, especially philosophers!

Surely if we are going to frame a person for their philosophy, or rather, frame a philosophy for the person, the minimal requirements of justice prescribe that we give the philosophy under suspicion a chance to respond to the charges. The objection will be that Heidegger was already given a chance to respond and he remained silent, and this silence now convicts him. Let me clarify that we are not here concerned with a defense of Heidegger any more than his conviction. The court has already ruled, and we are here in the aftermath, looking for the best way to move forward. It is now to the philosophy and the texts which are being implicated in the crimes, we ask: what of this framing? As we know, Heidegger talks often about framing, most explicitly in the 1953 lecture The Question Concerning Technology. The word is Gestell, and we find it, in the intersection of forces mentioned above, translated as “enframing,” which suggests the meaning of ordinary objects like frames and bookshelves but also something more abstract like orientation and positioning. Indeed, as the essence of modern technology, Heidegger wants to bring to mind both the threat of the phenomenon of enframing and at the same time its familiarity as something essential.

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