Newsletter: October 2021
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September in Sitka, Alaska, ended as it began: with rain. By my reckoning, we had two days in the month of September without rain. But rainy days make fine weather to huddle indoors and discuss philosophy. With my cohort of students here at Outer Coast, we’ve had a month of intensive philosophy study, discussing Stoicism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, and indigenous philosophies of the Pacific Northwest and Arctic. The course is entering its final week after which the students and I will get a well-earned week off before starting a second term in mid-October.
This busy schedule has left things relatively quiet in the world of online philosophy, although this week saw the first meeting of a small online reading group. We’re discussing Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. My first encounter with the Tractatus as a second-year undergraduate converted me to philosophy and to a lifelong fascination with Wittgenstein. It’s such a pleasure to return to a text that may be the most beautiful work of philosophy I’ve ever read.
This month also saw the launch of a short series of lectures on the question of whether death is to be feared, which I recorded for Academia Courses. You’d need to sign up for academia.edu’s premium package to view the lectures (and much else besides) but if you want to do so I can at least offer you a discount, which you can activate by following this link.
I also published an essay with Psyche called “How to be anxious.” The essay is part of Psyche’s Guides series and shows how existential anxiety can actually be good for us. At least, that’s what its main promulgators, Kierkegaard, Sartre, and Heidegger thought.
Although the rain in Sitka has been nearly incessant, I managed to go for a couple of hikes in the mountains surrounding the town. With high clouds and only light drizzle, the views from above are spectacular.
When it comes to existential anxiety, the figure I’m most familiar with is Martin Heidegger. In fact, next to Wittgenstein, Heidegger is the philosopher I’ve studied most intensively. I even wrote a book about the connections between the two of them!
Heidegger presents an insoluble problem to subsequent generations of philosophers. On one hand, he is arguably the most important figure in European philosophy in the twentieth century. The list of thinkers who bear the deep influence of his thought—Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Gadamer, Derrida, Arendt, and on and on and on—is a who’s who of European thought. Even the ones who weren’t especially impressed acknowledge his importance. Michel Foucault makes scant reference to Heidegger and yet described him as “the essential philosopher,” adding: “My entire philosophical development was determined by my reading of Heidegger.”
On the other hand, Heidegger was for a time a card-carrying member of the Nazi Party.
How do we reconcile these two Heideggers? One solution is simply to reject Heidegger. This route is favoured by many philosophers who don’t want to grapple with Heidegger anyway. His writings are obscure and seemingly willfully difficult. Philosophers who prize clarity above all tend to have an allergic response to Heidegger. But for them, Heidegger’s Nazi associations are a convenient excuse. If you’re going to knock Heidegger off his pedestal, you ought first to understand why he’s on that pedestal.
A second solution is to downplay Heidegger’s Nazi associations. He was only an active member of the Nazi Party for about a year, between 1933 and 1934, and largely for reasons of political expediency. He’d been elevated to the rectorship (effectively university president) of the University of Freiburg and wanted to use his influence to shape the German university system. But leaving aside the fact that political expediency is a poor excuse for aligning yourself with evil, this poor excuse doesn’t even tell the whole story. Even after the Second World War (Heidegger died in 1976), Heidegger never expressed remorse for his Nazi involvement and said next to nothing about the Holocaust. The recent publication of his Black Notebooks reveals an antisemitism that he held to sincerely, and not just because it was politically convenient.
I don’t think we can easily reject Heidegger’s greatness as a philosopher or ignore his Nazi affiliation. I also don’t think we can keep these two things distinct. By way of contrast, consider Gottlob Frege (1848–1925), who may be the most important philosopher of the last two hundred years that you’ve never heard of. Frege was a founding influence on analytic philosophy, a mode of philosophy that is now dominant in the English-speaking world and beyond. We can be glad that Frege died in 1925 because, if he had lived another decade, his reputation would undoubtedly have been stained with Nazi affiliation. Frege was a committed German nationalist and virulent anti-Semite who would have welcomed the rise of the Nazi Party. But none of this matters especially much to Frege’s standing as a philosopher. His contributions were primarily to logic, the philosophy of mathematics, and the philosophy of language. There’s nothing at all political or ethical in what he wrote and we can prize the man’s philosophical contributions while loathing his politics.
Things aren’t so neat with Heidegger. His magnum opus, Being and Time, is a foundational text in existential phenomenology, which treats in a profound and original way the question of what it means for a human being to exist. The book centrally deals with concepts like care and authenticity. It’s the sort of book that can deeply influence the way you live. Heidegger’s later philosophy had broader cultural concerns, addressing the ways that technology impacts our lives and looking to art and poetry as resources to help heal the wound of cultural “devastation.” Unlike Frege, you can’t say that his philosophy is one thing and his personal values and political commitments are another.
I’ve said we shouldn’t reject Heidegger’s philosophy, we shouldn’t downplay his involvement with the Nazi Party, and we can’t keep his philosophy and his political commitments at arm’s length from one another. So what should we do? My best answer is that we should embrace the complexity. A point I regularly try to emphasize when teaching philosophy is that the questions and the arguments are more important than the answers themselves. That’s not to say that the answers are unimportant, but rushing to get to the right answer is antithetical to good philosophical thinking. So maybe it’s better to let Heidegger continue to trouble us than to grasp at an “answer” that will allow us to stop thinking prematurely.
I find that balancing my admiration for Heidegger’s philosophy with my disgust with him as a person helps me think more carefully about his philosophy. His thought has an unmistakable conservative streak to it, and knowing where that conservatism led him can sound a note of caution to those of us who are tempted to follow. If Heidegger had been a saint, I might engage with his work less critically, and thus learn less from it.
And finally there’s a lesson we can learn from Heidegger that’s of value to anyone who takes an interest in philosophy: being a great philosopher is neither necessary nor sufficient for being a good person. Philosophy is full of great teachings that can help us in many ways, but don’t suppose that getting yourself philosophically in order will in itself remedy all of your personal failings.