Do Ethicists Need Ethics?

John Haber
in New York City

Heidegger and Nazism

Philosophy was born from the rigor of one man's life and speech, but it abandoned him to find its own way to live. A philosopher who truly understood Socrates must no more revere his voice than follow him into death and silence. Since principles based on reason apply to all, they must be discoverable by all. They must therefore break with Socrates himself: they must survive and be written. And once they are written, they take on a life all their own.

The Socrates who speaks is a fiction, and his words—really Plato's written words—can thus have followers as Socrates never wished and as no one alive ever could. Plato's re-creation demands a philosopher-king, but as another necessary fiction, the ideal propounded by a follower who speaks only through imagined voices. Ever since, philosophy has had its academy. Martin Heidegger

Today, the old relationship between speaking about the world and living well, between leaving disciples and leaving a scar, is again as urgent as it is confused. If Romanticism sprang from the age of reason, Postmodernism might be the age of values. Conservatives demand them; most people, perhaps especially art lovers, take them for granted while pufing them up; smart critics see them behind the pretended objectivity of every institution, society, and theory.

Appropriately, Heidegger's Nazism has become a test case, just as the Holocaust has challenged the validity of art. No serious postwar thinker grew more philosophically influential or more publicly reserved, and none was so close to this century's greatest evil. Through his great influence on hermeneutics and deconstruction, his rejection of "values" is supposed to have tainted all postmodern attacks on modernist traditions, authentic truths, and artistic conventions.

So do ethics mattera man's writer's, an artist's, or even a theory's? Heidegger's conduct invites us to judge the moral relevance of any critical philosophy. That includes the postmodern eye of this essay.

Doing philosophy in public

For many, Martin Heidegger's defense of Nazism has only confirmed an abrupt repudiation of his writings. In fact, they would be hard pressed to decide which—his politics or his prose—makes him more unreadable. Nietzsche would believe only in a god who can dance; Heidegger lumbers and crawls, pontificates and retreats. His painstaking vocabulary is often hard to distinguish from confusion or evasion; our memories of Hitler can make turgid evocations of the human calling simply too frightening. Many off the continent—from Walter Kaufmann, Nietzsche's best translator, to most analytic philosophers—long refused outright to discuss the finer points of this putative Nazi's apparently impenetrable ethics.

Outside of scholarly culture, dismissal of the renewed controversy over this Heidegger can be equally abrupt, but now because it is hard to take seriously. Anyone truly threatened by Hitler, we might reason, had better things to worry about than the nature of existence. Surely by now we are accustomed to foolish writers; a less-repressive era practically demanded they be severely neurotic—or at least alcoholics. The whole matter sounds suspiciously like an excuse for petty attacks on academic freedom, complete with vague associations between left-leaning scholars and Fascism. In highly visible denunciations of obscure but insidious influences, we might well see nothing less than a dangerous extension of cold-war politics.

I share that dismay, in no small measure because I have learned greatly from Heidegger and been deeply moved by him. However, I want to take his critics seriously, to consider why after all he must be a pivotal test of philosophy as a moral force. Concessions that Heidegger made to nationalism, tyranny, and whole-scale slaughter may not only be visible in his works; they may also show why the framework of debate has so readily been conceded to conservative displays of academic politics and media manipulation. Perhaps I shall better understand not only his critics, but him as well.

Philosophy, killing, and splitting hairs

Many other writers have had disturbing ethical flaws, of course. But always theirs came with a large "but."

Plato argued for tyranny, but we cannot be sure what he would have done with the power to act on his ideas. Some even claim that his philosophy arose precisely from his inability to act, from his failures in politics. Heidegger, however, did take part, at least briefly.

Hegel apologized for history. Heidegger boasted of a movement.

Nietzsche is partly responsible for how he was later used, but he would have despised those users. Heidegger had decades to disclaim the Holocaust, and he would not.

Ezra Pound too acted horribly, but his treatment by the victorious allies led many to feel that he was more sinned against than sinning. Heidegger got off soft after the war.

T. S. Eliot was antisemitic, but literature, or so we pretend to grant, can school our imagination freely. Anyway, as Eliot became more hostile to democracy, his finest poetry stopped maligning groups. Heidegger was a philosopher, the kind of person who shows us how to live, and his writings, whatever their merits, appear more of a piece.

Paul de Man wrote for the Nazis, but the discovery has surprised those who know him and his books best. Many have concluded that his alleged commitment was far more momentary than that of his compatriots, perhaps even ironic and critical. Heidegger claimed that his political involvement would connect his life to his teaching.

Other writers, or so biographers tell us, were lechers, drunks, and liars. On the other side from the Nazis, Anthony Blunt, the art historian and Soviet spy, probably aspired to all three. Yet this kind of gossip is colored by biases ranging from whispered prurience to our very gender, like a judgment of who has seduced whom next door. Heidegger outspokenly endorsed unspeakable crimes.

But to begin a list does more than isolate Heidegger. It shows that there is no paradigm of the bigoted writer; there are only bigoted writers, each with unrecoverable words in terrifying circumstances. Austin wrote "A Plea for Excuses," and moral talk in real life, as opposed to a philosophy of The Good, is always caught up in qualifications. That talk will never vitiate judgment: it is exactly what engenders value, and it will last as long as people have the courage to add to it. We are never all that far after all from Bacon and the Scholastics splitting hairs, even if we no longer mistake their nominal categories for signs of truth. Words spring from life, are given life, signify life, and in turn give life.

Only a philosophy of total rationality or estheticism would not encompass its author's beliefs and character, and it would be all the more indicative of its author's weaknesses precisely for that. Even so evil a case as Nazi Germany had to allow a lot of people to project their aspirations to exist. If it did so by manipulating or restricting aspirations through fear, dreams of a German nation, and fictions about Communism, it must also have manipulated the writer. We think of writers as somehow smarter, more objective; they may instead be people most drawn to exceed their human limitations by the way society marginalizes thinking by opposing it to action.

More perplexing still, just as a good text is rich enough to encompass its author's flaws, it will also exceed them. Science, literature, and indeed any practical achievement require a kind of impersonality to exist, even if the popular imagination then sadly makes science into a god. Science's dependence on the objectivity of shared methodology and philosophy's on language or traditions present different obstacles to connecting person to work, but the same sort of obstacle nonetheless.

The connection of writing to events is always that complicated. It embarrasses both Heidegger's friends and enemies. Look again at the casual dismissals of the controversy.

One side says that his philosophy is discredited because he was a Nazi, which means that we do not have to worry about what it says. Worse, those influenced by his philosophy are discredited along with it. This is scary on all counts. It teaches us not to think about the ethics of what we in fact read; it casually misstates the writing; it indulges in guilt by association, just like condemning leftists on account of Bolshevism (we should observe the very same right-wing sources benefitting from both); it urges conformity as it comforts the powerful and the complacent, which is in no small part how it ends up in the press. It is abominable—and I mean morally so.

The other side says that his conduct has no direct bearing on his writing. It defends Heidegger by dogma (he could never have said it), relativity of interpretation (he meant the opposite of what he said), or formalism (nothing he is appears in the work). We should not fall back on any of these postmodern versions of the old intentional fallacy, something that Heidegger himself did so much to undermine. He saw that he could bring art and life into a world of feelings and intentions by understanding them as "uncovering"—as public revelation rather than privileged, formal representation.

As late as What Is Called Thinking?, we are asked to associate the transcendence of selfhood with a cry of Nietzsche's Zarathustra: "Caesar with the soul of Christ." That cry hauntingly evokes the philosopher-king again, and there is no use refusing the awkward hyphen in Plato's ideal leader if we have also discarded foundations for both philosophy and politics. It is quite fair after all to demand a philosopher-king, so long as we are not entirely dismayed when we then necessarily find a flawed reasoner and a petty tyrant.

Telling stories out of school

We should accordingly be able to articulate some of the flaws in a philosophy from a study of its interchanges with its situation. Those exchanges need not be restricted to such horrendous episodes as Nazism. Any text is flawed right along with its author; it has to draw its power from its circumstance, or it could never see through its time and place—and so outlive them. We should be able to tell a story about a person's life, philosophy, and influence, but the more rigorous our ethical demands, the more complex the story will be.

Critics from Bakhtin to Booth have distinguished between a novel's characters, the fictive narrator, an "implied author," and the real author, who is never fully encompassed by the works yet never as wise as the best of them. That is not to say that these imagined people do not tell us much about each other. Instead we are obliged to work all the harder, once we see the distinction, to make the connections.

That work will necessarily be hard. We know that it takes time to learn to read well, but we can easily forget that it is harder still to understand and to judge a human being, much less to draw the connections to a given work. In interpreting a text, we look for its meaning to us; it is tougher to imagine ourselves into the author to see its full meaning to him. A person is different things at different times—and drastically different at drastically different times. Pinning down these connections is therefore all the harder. There may turn out to be more direct routes into a text's flaws after all!

Any judgment that a text is fatally injured by its author's conduct therefore has to be based on other judgments, not just on biography. The interpretation it provides may actually turn out to be less interesting than the formalist's reading, and if it is revealing, it may then be as trickily nonlinear as postmodern fiction.

For example, if, and again I say if, de Man had been a Nazi, we might tell how his lifelong beliefs tainted his later criticism or, alternatively, how his shame at his earlier position led him to a philosophy that eschewed politics in favor of formalism. But even very good stories like these are colored by our lifelong beliefs and our shame at the need to defend them.

Like personal behavior and values, every interpretation has suppositions but is no less accountable for them. An interpretation might be a conscious immersion in the past, like Hegel's vision of his predecessors; a forthright revision, like Marx's reading of Hegel; a treacherously loaded reading, like Lenin's of Marx; a violent distortion, like Stalin's of Lenin and the Nazis' of Nietzsche; or a distant, irrelevant association, like "everything is relative" as applied to Einstein—just a pop slogan that gets vaguely connected to its ostensible subject by gathering wool. The ethics of life and interpretation equally demand qualifications.

In fact, I demand a standard so rigorous that I doubt it can be lived. To return to Plato, on the one hand, I want to take away from a critical reading new delight, fresh challenges, and even edification. On the other, I want to see all subsequent thinking as corrupted by the Athenian's influence.

I believe that Heidegger's philosophy must be flawed if he really is a Nazi, but this should send me back to his philosophy to read more attentively. We must learn from the dogmatist to see what Heidegger actually wrote, from the ironist to read it carefully, and from the formalist to expect its bearing on his life to be complex and indirect. I may have less sympathy for it than before, but I shall gain a useful prejudice for a new reading. And my account may never lose the sense that were Martin Heidegger to have been a far, far better man, he might well have given us much the same disturbingly complex philosophical legacy.

And we must acknowledge our limitations as well as the writer's in taking up a philosophical legacy. If our interpretation is to take Nazism seriously, we must be wary of how we make use of it for our own interests. So much of the German nation thought it could use Nazism for its own purposes: the monied classes to eradicate Bolshevism, the working class to reassert nationalist populism, the physicist Werner Heisenberg and his colleagues in research on the atomic bomb to further German science, or Heidegger to promote himself and academic philosophy.

We can hope to use Heidegger for our own attempts at self-understanding, but only as long as we acknowledge the danger in the appropriation. As the very first English novel began, "I have great comfort, and some trouble, to acquaint you with."

Appropriating a holocaust

So what was "the real author" like in Heidegger's case? The facts are quite well documented. Despite the uproar, they have not changed materially from the version made widely available decades ago—for example, by George Steiner in the Modern Masters volume.

Heidegger had long cultivated a senior academic post. This was partly the worst careerism. It was also the difficulty of living, given how slowly he wrote. He published Being and Time with less than half the original design completed—ironically, just as Heidegger's teacher, Edmund Husserl, now owes his reputation to the intended first volume of a projected longer masterwork. Publish or perish. For either philosopher, the rest never followed.

Heidegger begged the Nazis to appoint offer him the post of rector, but he demanded academic freedom. They refused; he compromised. His first act as rector was to protect Jews. His last was to resign owing to infringement from the Nazis. Supporters will claim he acted on his principles, detractors that he always looked out for number one.

During his tenure, at least two things went very wrong. He allowed his book's reprinting without its dedication to Husserl, a Jew. It is unclear, however, whether he contributed to this decision of his publishers, and a huge footnote remained saying that he learned everything he knew from Husserl. I take this to be the kind of compromise that happened a great deal in Germany.

More grossly, he delivered one speech that did more than even just reconcile Nazi control to a university's mission; its blood-and-guts rhetoric shamelessly celebrated their union. If his country's infatuation with the Nazis lasted longer than his, it was rarely so fervid, so disgusting.

After the war, he never directly disavowed his past. Worse, he did everything possible to hide it. But here as well, the record is mixed. His first postwar work, a "Letter on Humanism," condemns nationalism. Here he further argues that Sartre's insistence on "man" can only lead to metaphysical perversions such as nationalism; the reason is that the concept of humanity celebrated by Sartre entails a forgetting of the true human essence, which Heidegger sees not as the cool universal truth of the enlightenment but as "care" for Being. Hence humanism is in fact an abandonment to the inhumane. I see in this stern critique of nationalism and inhumanity a cryptic reference to Fascism. Heidegger is hinting to Western civilization of his principles, prudery, and egoism like a shy person expressing love, so subtly that only the speaker gets the point.

Also after the war, he altered his only published reference to Nazism—in fact, to the "truth" of Nazism. And that was a big word to alter for Heidegger, who tried in another essay to look for "the truth in painting." Rather than omit the line, he added a phrase to show what he supposedly really meant. Imagine someone too ashamed to say that he once wrongly called his friend a name; he now says that he wasn't so much wrong as that to him the word meant.... Well, you fill it in.

I have been trying to suggest that his crimes mixed so many motives—careerism, ego, shame, infatuation, enforced surrender—motives that so many Germans shared for so terrifyingly long, that it would not be surprising if their connection to his writing were complex indeed. Can I make that connection? To do so, I must again ask why our age so specifically makes the connection necessary. If Heidegger is under attack for inspiring Postmodernism, turn again to the death of a philosophical protagonist and the birth of the modern.

Heidegger and the modern

Two millennia after Plato's Socrates, another fiction shouted, "Be a man and do not follow me," and increasingly since Goethe's fable of young Werther, philosophers have grown anxious about their influence in a discipline that so firmly excludes the hero. Even before Zarathustra, a Romantic philosopher created an imperfect dramatic character that aspires to self-understanding but admits no followers: Hegel's spirit.

For all its moral growth, the world spirit never simply commands or fulfills history. It is not quite consciousness, the self, the Prussian state, some immanent or transcendent being—or, for goodness sake, liberal democracy—and it holds out no hope of escape from personal ties to global terror. After years of growing disparities between wealth and poverty, claims of an "end to ideology" are merely ancestral voices prophesying war. Rather, Hegel asks us to leap headlong from our past values and present lives into philosophy, and to watch as they return to haunt our future. In Ulysses, Stephen says, "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." I like to think of Hegel's notion of thinking through history as lucid dreaming. Thought, in its intricate history of self-creation and self-correction, again tries to fulfill the self-effacing demand for a philosopher-king.

It was Marx, reinterpreting, who gave philosophy millennial aspirations, and the agony of entrapment in history and ideology has been an issue ever since. A characteristic reading of modern thought depends on the tension inherent in the desire to escape from history. On the one hand, it is argued, Modernism lays out the urgency of starting afresh, making it new (as Pound put it), chucking the dry weight of dogma so as to revel in the damp, muddy present. On the other hand, Modernism tries to judge the past and select from it, to place us consciously in a historical world rather than drifting in its currents.

One thing that may or may not define Postmodernism, should that turn out to have existed, is a rejection of both halves of the bargain. We hear "these days" that the present is never quite new after all but always laden with the values of the past, while the past is always multiple, never fully fusible with our own "horizons." Value is as value does. As historical beings, we are said (following, in fact, the standard translation of Heidegger) to have an essential historicity, not a bad coinage for setting this sense of the word "history" off from history as whatever happened and from history as a study or a discipline. (Historiology, one sometimes hears the last of these called—qualifications again.) It is useful to see our historicity as embodied in our shared languages.

This development of a historical value structure implies that thinking and living are intertwined. The roots of such an idea are already in Modernism. Ludwig Wittgenstein argued, for example, that our use of words is never exhausted by the form of logical argumentation; Gilbert Ryle said that we are wrong to assimilate all forms of knowing, such as knowing how to do something (some would insist on adding, or knowing others) to "knowing that." Heidegger wrote that we know the world because, on the one hand, it is sometimes as "present-to-hand" as a hammer and, on the other hand, it sometimes refuses to be merely a tool, as when the round peg doesn't fit.

Sometimes the problem of the values inherent in the present is connected to our supposed postmodern way of life. A modernist might have imagined that some cultural and intellectual elite could be at a critical distance from things, even if things, through economics and ideology, do ultimately determine the limits of criticism. However, the argument continues, this modernist stance is no longer tenable now that culture is itself an industry. Now information gets exchanged, consolidated, controlled, and disseminated like a material good—all as a matter of business. In the jargon of our "post-industrial society," ideology is thus necessarily "foregrounded." To recall Heidegger's image, it is as if no peg really fits any longer, unless the toolmaker is insidiously powerful or a media consultant has been hired and given a huge budget to alter our perception of the shape of the hole.

An extreme, less palatable postmodern sociology insists that life now has no more reality than televised images. Some advocates of this account deeply despair at the MTV experience, some happily turn up the volume, and some are just looking thoughtfully for a way to break the spell. Throwing a brick at the tube helps, as the action and result are plainly material, but, like Dr. Johnson's kicking the stone to refute British idealism, they can do little about the root problem.

This troublesome history drives us back to Heidegger, for whom every value is only a human value—moreover, a value that humanity as its destiny must transcend. Sometimes he insists that this limit on human detachment is a condition of existence rather than a product of recent history; only sensations of giddiness and despair hint at technology and inauthenticity. Elsewhere, as in the "Letter on Humanism," he argues that Marx correctly gives "the estrangement of man" its "essential dimension of history." The sad course that humanity has followed since the dawn of Western philosophy now returns to "its roots in the homelessness of modern man." As a consequence, America's self-satisfied inheritance of the old European traditions constitutes not only an increasingly dismaying "lifestyle," but also another "dawning." The end of modern history is a dead end, but not a hopeless one.

This, then, is Postmodernism in a nutshell. Depending on how you look at it, Modernism is just an extension of the silly old nineteenth century, so that Postmodernism is the true break; or Postmodernism completes and institutionalizes Modernism (without necessarily pejorative connotations), the way the Victorian period is an institutionalized Romanticism.

Either way, Postmodernism threatens to put an end to our sense of ourselves and our freedom of moral action: it threatens to make the fiction of moral leadership, from Plato to Romanticism, fit only for the best-seller racks. And, again either way, Heidegger is a prophet of that solemn demise. What sort of moral stance—or indifference to any morality—could motivate so grave a vision?

Being, history, and value

Now we are ready to ask whether Heidegger made a mess of more than his life from the moment he committed himself to a new critique of values. In his earliest and greatest writings, I shall locate a yearning for transcendence, nostalgia for the past, fear of individual strivings against injustice, and dismaying violence to the present. All these, in retrospect, may be latent in notions central to his thought: the deeply felt immersion in this world of human existence and human labor. And all these suggest an openness to making worldly mistakes. I shall then consider where these mistakes might have led his philosophy. We can therefore face up to tensions and risks in his greatest insights, so long as we continue to acknowledge them as insights.

From the very first, his conception of Being contains, on the one hand, a full human existence in the world and in history (I omit Heidegger's hyphens and capitals here) and, on the other hand, a loss of vision in the everyday. The first strand emphasizes the bare anonymity of a self caught within world history, and the second poses a self-consciousness that aims beyond mere things and events. Both strands are compelling, but either, and especially the second, can take on escapist overtones.

The delicate poise between these two sides of Being can be troubling if we carry with us knowledge of Heidegger's own moral choices. It then becomes literally a matter of life and death. On the one hand, Being connects us to the fate of others. "Death, in the widest sense," he tells us in Being and Time, "is a phenomenon of life," and no matter how deeply anticipated, how "futural," its understanding "is authentically as having been." Death, we might conclude from all this, is understood through the past and the present, through our lives, our rituals, and the lives of others—through the everyday deaths that foretell not our own demise but the very limits of our Being. I think of the Greek funeral monuments in which the dead and the living acknowledge one another though their gazes never meet. On the other hand, a death is "primordially" our own rather than the deaths of others. A "full existential sense" knows death not as an event but strictly as possibility, as the ever-receding future. This second, "primordial" understanding of death can sound chillingly bloodless amid the carefully planned deaths of millions.

Heidegger's philosophy gains its remarkable complexity by never separating these insights, but their deliberate tension is easily broken. In the hands of younger philosophers, his vision in fact did soon lead in mutually contradictory ways. The influence of the first, past-directed part of the story shaped hermeneutics and postmodern historicism with all their academicism; the influence of death as possibility led to the fashion for existential anxiety of the 1950s. Either alone has too often sounded trendy and glib.

We may therefore ask how this tension was disturbed in his own later work, after politics. We might guess now at a motive behind both his awful silence and his writings. While readers have disputed the extent to which there is a "turn" (his word) after Being and Time, there does seem to be a kind of growing mysticism, a new insistence that consciousness of one's existence demands patient listening rather than action, a sense that Being is about vague prospects of a future more than the terrible "fallenness" of the present or the dread weight of the past. "The question," he writes in What Is Called Thinking, "is no longer historical": "Being is." This escape to an eventless, even bloodless contemplation suggests more than the sanity of the meditative intellect. It also makes me think that he was disillusioned by the attempt to act on his philosophy—and yet reluctant to imagine that the action mattered any more.

In sum, in all Heidegger's writing, things and events hide Being from us. In Being and Time, however, that also means we fail to attain a more authentic relation to things and events. In contrast, in his later writing the need to become open to Being becomes all-encompassing.

The public realm, after all

The shift in emphasis need not be gauged solely, however, from a growing silence with respect to politics and history. Heidegger's increased distaste for vulgar historical struggle is made quite clear in the "Letter on Humanism," where the very insistence on a human destiny raises an interesting paradox.

Pointedly, in attacking Sartre's humanism for its ahistoricity, he must define humanity in a "sense that is older than its oldest meaning chronologically reckoned." In calling attention to the unexperienced shallowness of Sartre's conception of existence, he reverses his great follower's priorities by elevating the postmodern bogey of originary essence: "we must experience the essence of man more primordially." In reminding us that humanity is "thrown" into history, he subtly reinterprets this formula from Being and Time entirely in the future tense—as "a fateful sending." Perhaps most telling of all for a postmodern critic, before locating humanity "in the house of language," he first apologizes that questions about ego and action must be answered in writing rather than "direct conversation": "in writing it is difficult above all to retain the multidimensionality of the realm peculiar to thinking." The century's foremost advocate of understanding as textual interpretation has begun to stand in fear of its precision and its actuality.

Heidegger means, I think, to deconstruct the very opposition of history to an essence. However, these paradoxes also testify to unexamined fissures in his own later thought, fissures that reveal a grasping after transcendence. As his writing about existence becomes more heavily inflected with essentialism, his demand that humanity listen to its Being implicates him in a terrible silence. And as with the death of Socrates, silence may not put an end to buried longings for a greater ethical leader.

If the nature of Heidegger's turn from politics must not rest on his silence, it can also be measured in the increasing violence of his one remaining approach to the public realm, his views of technology. Heidegger would have had no patience with a Popperian system in which science is objective and hopeful. We typically tend to see a scientist who takes shortcuts and cheats on data as somehow not a part, not even a distorted part, of science. Rather, we picture at worst a sort of rupture from the outside that science, this great homeostatic creature, will mend. Heidegger saw that if we allow science to carry implications of creativity, it will have to struggle with the darker, instrumental side of individualism as well.

I believe that his own imagery of pegs and hammers should bring home the value of hard practice. It is not reflection alone, but reflection on experience that defines what we are and brings us fresh awareness of what we are not. As a locus of intersection of practical and theoretical knowledge, science must then, I claim, be especially important to our exploration of ourselves, including in art. Not so Heidegger, who again may hide a yearning for escape in his refusal of opposing terms. He argues in the "Letter on Humanism" that "the deed of thinking is neither theoretical nor practical, nor is it the conjunction of these two forms of behavior."

In his later writing that distrust became still more bitterly explicit. It came to stand for a distrust of any manipulative stance toward the world, and it never lost its sardonic association with Germany's conquerors. The essay "What Are Poets for?" reminds us that whereas "Americanism" did not create the "unexperienced nature of technology," it still "surrounds us with its menace."

The question of technology will reveal how his descriptions of Being grew increasingly escapist. They swung more and more away from historicity toward reflection. Perhaps it was history itself—or an all-too-human actor on the stage of history—that had made a "turn."

Complexity and crisis

I believe Heidegger was on to something in the first place. Greeting card sunsets offer the illusion of pure contemplation amid force-fed images of created desire. I still want to say, along with the traditions indebted to him and to Wittgenstein, that practical questioning holds out the chance that we can learn to think and to live. If we fail to think of experience, science, and political action as creativity in the face of the likelihood that something "out there" could prove our assumptions wrong, then we shall make bad choices, and as a result we shall get a technology and a society that no one deserves.

However, we should never think of the renewed attacks on Heidegger as returning us forthrightly to honest value: they are a late, desperate attempt to recover all those picturesque sunsets. The striking publicity of these attacks is owing to more than the natural alliance between the conservative wing of the university and the media as a highly concentrated business. Rather, they also serve as a last desperate evasion of the postmodern dilemmas that Heidegger himself foretold. They tap our fears in the face of an uncertain future, the very "anxiety" he so pointedly analyzed.

I think of the media as following the usual stages by which we deal with things that make our culture uneasy. For society as well as for consciousness, repression begins with pretending something does not exist; then we try overt denial; then we turn to denigration and ridicule, the current stage. Ultimately the stuff becomes a truism, another sort of distortion. Meanwhile we dream again of a philosopher-king, pretending outrage and disappointment at the dethronement when it suits our political purposes.

How can Heidegger be called by anyone a philosopher of integrity, if not indeed the century's greatest? Personally, I am not keeping score, but it would not be the worst thing one could say about the twentieth century if it turned out to be true. Think again of science. Physics has made progress in this century by having to live with crisis—having to put in question just what science, or the world, is. I hope that we can revere a thinker who revered that word "is," who tried honestly to deal in crises, and who, at one critical time in history, may have dishonestly hid from them.

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Martin Heidegger by George Steiner has been reissued by the University of Chicago Press (1991).


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