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Why Read Heidegger

German philosopher Martin Heidegger gets a lot of bad press. And for good reason. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the Nazis, he did and said and wrote some nasty things before and after serving as the rector of Freiburg University from 1933-1934, and though he eventually distanced himself from his earlier enthusiasm for Hitler, he seems never to have ceased believing that there was an "inner truth and greatness" (those are Heidegger's own words, spoken in a lecture from 1935) to the National Socialist movement. That sounds bad, and it is. By now, scholars have demonstrated beyond just about any reasonable doubt that, judged from moral and political standpoints, Heidegger was a pretty despicable human being.

But here's the thing: Heidegger also possessed the most powerful philosophical mind of the twentieth century. If he had written nothing besides Being and Time (1927), he would deserve to be recognized as Europe's greatest philosopher since the death of G.W.F. Hegel in 1831. (I realize that for many philosophy professors trained in the Anglo-American tradition, the judgment contained in the previous sentence is absurd on more than one level.) But Heidegger wrote much more than Being and Time. His collected works--including previously published books, transcripts of university lectures, private notebooks, and much else--will eventually run to over 100 volumes. There's a lot of redundancy in those books, some of it is impenetrable, but there are also frequent flashes of philosophical brilliance that rival the profoundest passages of Plato, Aristotle, and Kant. And that means that rendering a global judgment of Heidegger and his legacy is extremely complicated.

Unless, that is, you're Carlin Romano. I'm referring to Romano's recent essay from the Chronicle of Higher Education in which he uses the sordid evidence of Heidegger's Nazi enthusiasms compiled in a just-translated book by French philosopher Emmanuel Faye to argue that the time has come to excommunicate Heidegger--or rather his writings and ideas--from the university. In Romano's view, "the pretentious old Black Forest babbler," the "provincial Nazi hack," should be considered "a buffoon" whose ideas are "the butt of jokes, not the subject of dissertations."

I've long admired Romano's essays for the Chronicle and the Philadelphia Inquirer. But this column is an intellectual disgrace, and one that the Chronicle should be ashamed for having published. I say this as someone who's very far from being one of the "acolytes" who "bizarrely venerate" Heidegger and his ideas. I've written critically about his thought on a couple of occasions myself and am in complete agreement with Romano about the moral obscenity of Heidegger's actions (and of some of what he taught and wrote) during the 1930s. But moral disgust does not relieve a reader--let alone a critic--of the burden of intellectual engagement.

Faye is hardly the first to demonstrate continuities between Heidegger's thought and his political enthusiasms--or even to argue that the philosopher went out of his way in the mid-'30s to collapse the distinction between his philosophy and his public actions. Where Faye, according to Romano, goes further is in his efforts, using unpublished lectures from the Nazi period, to implicate Heidegger's entire philosophical corpus.

But this is absurd. Unlike many other philosophers, Heidegger was relentlessly, obsessively interested in a single question--the question of "Being." And his interest in that question--as well as his characteristic ways of posing it--can be traced back to the period of his first lectures courses (1919 to 1923), which took place well before the rise of National Socialism as a serious political force in Germany. While there can be no denying a striking and deeply troubling convergence between Heidegger's ontological investigations and Hitler's political movement--a convergence that very much deserves to be pondered and probed--those investigations pre-dated Hitler, just as they survived Hitler by several decades, as Heidegger's philosophical project continued on its way through the 1950s, '60s, and '70s.

Yet even if distinguishing between Heidegger's philosophy and his politics were as impossible as Romano (and Faye) would have us believe, that still would not justify excluding Heidegger's thought from serious reflection, study, and a place in the university. On the contrary, it would serve as an additional reason to wrestle with the challenge it poses.

I'm a liberal democrat and a humanist who considers totalitarianism in general, and Nazism in particular, to be moral and political abominations. I believe in the truth of science, and I like many things about technological modernity. I accept logic as a valid means of determining many forms of truth. And I happily accept the vision of Being that has prevailed in the Western world since the time of the ancient Greeks. In other words, I'm not inclined to follow Heidegger in its efforts to prepare the way for a more "primordial" encounter with Being by subverting these and other aspects of our world. But what a breathtakingly exciting experience it is to be forced to think about and make a case for, rather than lazily accept as self-evident, our most fundamental assumptions about the world and ourselves!

That is--or should be--what philosophy is all about. Which is why Heidegger was right at assert in an electrifying lecture course from 1929 that "philosophy is the opposite of all comfort and assurance." What Carlin Romano has advocated in his essay is something altogether different--something tamer, more congenial, more comforting. Fine: By all means, let's offer another seminar on Rawls and the foundations of liberal justice. But surely there should also be a place in the university for a close encounter with a dramatically different style of thinking--with the stunningly radical (and perhaps radically erroneous) thought of Martin Heidegger.