Caveat Lector: The New Heidegger

Gesamtausgabe (Collected Edition) projected 70-volume set

by Martin Heidegger
Vittorio Klostermann (Frankfurt), 8 volumes are now in print of a

Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote that “philosophers were hired by the comfortable classes to prove that everything is all right.” But Martin Heidegger, at least for a while, seemed to be the rare exception.

In the late 1920s, when German philosophy meant either Edmund Husserl’s rarified analyses of pure consciousness or the dying strains of neo-Kantianism, Heidegger’s Being and Time landed on the European consciousness like a bomb. It purported to be an ontology, a study of “being as such,” but it read like a mixture of Jaspers, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche. It proposed to “destroy” the history of Western philosophy in order to show that, lurking beneath the tidy surface of reason, science, and faith, the ultimate determinants of reality were negativity and finitude. To that end, Heidegger meticulously described what he took to be the structures of man’s fallenness, guilt, and temporality, and argued that a “passionate freedom toward death” was the authentic position that opens up all realms of meaning.

Heidegger was roundly attacked as a nihilist and an irrationalist, whereas he contended that he was simply excavating the pre-Socratics’ penumbral awareness of the dark side of the world. Reading Being and Time against the backdrop of the crumbling Weimar Republic, Herbert Marcuse, who was then Heidegger’s student at Freiburg, found the book to be “an academic liberation.” “Here at last,” he wrote, “was a concrete philosophy that talked about existence, our existence, and about anguish, concern and ennui.” It was, as he thought, a “new beginning.”1 But Marcuse, like many others, soon found himself disillusioned as Heidegger’s existential analyses began to give way to abstruse interpretations of romantic poetry, the pre-Socratic thinkers, and “being itself.” Above all there was Heidegger’s brief compromise with the Hitler regime.

On April 22, 1933, in an effort to safeguard the University of Freiburg from Nazi pressures, the academic senate unanimously elected Heidegger to the rectorate. His first act in office was to forbid anti-Semitic propaganda on the campus, but within two weeks he had joined the Nazi party. He later claimed that he did this only to smooth relations between the beleaguered university and the regime. Nonetheless, he threw himself into supporting the new government with more than the required fervor and, worst of all, campaigned for Hitler’s decision to pull out of the League of Nations on November 12 of that year. During that winter Heidegger strongly but unsuccessfully opposed the regime’s attempts to remove two anti-Nazi deans whom he had personally appointed (Wolf and Möllendorf), and he resigned the rectorate in protest at the end of February, 1934. (Widespread rumor to the contrary, he did not bar his Jewish mentor, Edmund Husserl, from using the university libraries.)

The Nazi programs in favor of the Volk seem to have attracted Heidegger. It is clear that he believed in some form of “national socialism” as a cure for Germany’s economic ills, even though he quickly took his distance from Hitler.2 In 1935, he spoke about the “inner truth…

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