On April 8, 2014, the Goethe-Institut in New York hosted a conference entitled “The Black Notebooks (1931-1941): What Heidegger’s Denktagebuch reveals about his thinking during the Nazi regime.”
An essay by Joshua Rothman of The New Yorker and Roger Berkowitz’s response in The American Interest strike me as thoughtful and measured reactions not only to the conference itself but also to the long and growing scandal regarding Heidegger’s Nazi and anti-Semitic sympathies, now made more pressing by the publication of the “black notebooks.” (Thanks to Alice and Penny for the links.) In their appraisal–and appreciation–of Heidegger’s philosophical work, Rothman and Berkowitz refuse to join, in Berkowitz’s words, “the onslaught of holier-than-thou condemnation by columnists and opinions writers.” The questions they raise circle around recurring themes: Need a philosopher’s personal failures, however considerable, debase his truly philosophical accomplishments? If Heidegger matters, should he not remain a part of our cultural heritage?
In answering these questions, we own that to banish a philosophical legacy on account of its being compromised by the stupidity and political naïveté of its author entails a purposeful act of destruction, that is, a deliberate forgetfulness resulting in an irretrievable cultural loss. It is axiomatic that what merits preserving ought to be preserved. If Heidegger matters–indeed he does, as long as the problems of modernity he thought about endure–the task is “to remove the dross from the silver,” and shape into something useful what remains of value.
Unstated in these arguments, but implicit in the personal engagement evident in Rothman’s and Berkowitz’s essays, is that philosophy is a work of love–φιλοσοφία or love of wisdom. What we do when we carefully attend to a work of philosophy, to use Heidegger’s own terminology, is to care for it, or be intimately concerned with it (Sorge).
The passion required to care for philosophical thought, indeed the very task of sustaining it, is therefore seriously injured by the personal failures of its author. At first this may seem a crude instance of the genetic fallacy, but everyday speech bears this out. Depending on one’s philosophical predispositions, it is not uncommon to say, for example, “I love Aristotle” or “I love Kierkegaard.” In other words, to attend carefully to a work of philosophy is to love the philosopher. The reason is simple: we love one who gets close to truth.
A similar sentiment about Heidegger, however, would need to be less direct, more furtive. His texts, even the early ones, can no longer be read for their content alone. They must be attended to with a keen ear for nasty political overtones. The Heidegger controversy has thus bred suspicion on all his works. Suspicion injures the fruits of φιλοσοφία and an injured love is a damaged love. The Heidegger scandal soils all of us.