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Heidegger and the Nazis

November 4th, 2002

In 1933, the famous German philosopher Martin Heidegger was appointed as rector of Freiburg University by the Nazis.He took a prominent role in the persecution of Jewish academics, including his own mentor Edmund Husserl. What if any implications does this sorry episode have for judgements about Heidegger’s philosophy. One viewpoint, which has been argued recently by Jason Soon in the comments thread of this blog is that this kind of ‘moral’ failing has no implications for our assessment of a philosopher’s thought. I’ve written a lengthy response to this viewpoint, arguing that it can’t be sustained , at least in cases where the person concerned claimed to be acting consistently with their own philosophical views.
I argue that Jason’s position would prevent us from assessing any body of thought as a coherent whole. A complex philosophical or political proposition can’t be assessed in isolation – it’s necessary to examine both its underlying assumptions and its implications. Heidegger’s understanding of his own philosophical position led him to derive the implication “I should support the Nazis”. It seems clear that something is badly wrong in Heidegger’s thought, but it is not immediately obvious what is wrong. There are two possible responses. If you believe that at least some of Heidegger’s work contains valuable insights, you should try and isolate the problem, then salvage those points that are unaffected. If you are doubtful about the value of the entire enterprise, you are justified in concluding that the salvage job is unlikely to be worth the trouble.

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