Is Heidegger’s philosophy anti-Semitic?

Considering the new book, Heidegger and the Jews

by Rembrandt Zegers

I chose to read Donatella di Cesare’s Heidegger and the Jews and review it out of curiosity. However, as soon as I received the book and started to read it, I felt sorry for myself for having agreed to do this. Not only because of the book itself— the text is dense, chapter after chapter. The sheer amount of information is incredible. But the main reason for being sorry, however, is because of the topic and how ‘me being curious’ but not a real expert in matters concerning the philosopher Martin Heidegger, immediately felt that I could not justify myself to do this task. Still, my curiosity won.

In this review I will address why di Cesare wrote this book and what she hoped to achieve with it. I will also comment if I think she was successful in that. It is because of the ‘Black Notebooks’ recently having been published that she hoped to find the answer to the question, ‘Why did Heidegger remain silent about what happened with the Jews during World War two?’ Although in the book she is convincing about Heidegger’s anti-Semitism, it is this question about his silence that drives her.


Heidegger’s phenomenology
Understanding Heidegger’s philosophy is not easy. Di Cesare has not written this book for beginners. To appreciate her analysis of the recently published ‘Black Notebooks’, some overview or introduction to basic concepts is needed. Those notebooks are philosophical texts, by the way, not personal diaries. So, to begin with I provide some context here myself, through the work of another philosopher, namely Louiza Odysseos. Through her essay, ‘Radical Phenomenology, Ontology, and International Political Theory’, I try to give a picture of what Heidegger is about.

Heidegger was Edmund Husserl’s student. Husserl conceptualized phenomenology as a proposition to go back to the things themselves. It was clearly a response to the consequences of Descartes’ philosophy that had become too much of an ‘I can think it therefore I know it’, kind of idea. This was a very powerful idea as it emancipated philosophy from religion. Husserl meant to take a distance from immediate interpretation (so called ‘epoche’, meaning one ‘suspends’ oneself from one’s intentions). Another term introduced by Husserl, was ‘bracketing’. That means one puts aside what one already knows, in order to look afresh from the experience of what it is one is researching. However a big point of debate in Husserl’s philosophy is his idea of the transcendental ego. This means that even when you discard immediate interpretation, you still are left with some kind of self that looks upon the world, thinking about it (and thus interpreting).

Now Heidegger wasn’t happy with this transcendental ego and came up with a different version of phenomenology, as Husserl’s version (and others) meant falling back on ‘traditional definitions dividing man into reason and sense, soul and body, inner and outer, without a sense of what holds these realities together as a whole’ (Odysseos, 2002, p. 377). In fact, philosophers at the time posed two questions to Husserl, and Heidegger took upon himself to answer them. Here Odysseos quotes Kisiel 1on these fundamental questions: ‘How is the non-objectifiable subject matter of phenomenology to be even approached without already theoretically inflicting an objectification upon it? How are we to go along with life reflectively without de-living it?’ She continues: ‘Such a fundamental challenge was aimed at the very basis of phenomenology as a means of access to lived experience that guarded against the objectification imposed by reflection and theoretical constructs. The second objection voiced the doubt that, in addition to the first problem of accessibility, phenomenology was not able to express its purported access to its subject matter without recourse to theoretical construction’ (Odysseos, 2002, p. 378).

Heidegger formulated answers to these two most critical questions, through coming up with what he called existential analysis. ‘Existential analysis concerns itself with the structures of existence (Dasein / RZ: Being) in order to find out how Dasein is without assuming in advance, as was the case
with traditional ontology, what it is. The how and what are related since, as Heidegger has shown in his rejoinder to Natorp, there is an “initial” unity of method and subject matter in human experience. In rejecting the phenomenological isolation of the pure “I” from the perceptual objects, phenomenology and ontology become explicitly intertwined: in interpretative phenomenology, the “perceiving subject” turns to inquire about itself as the “perceptual object.” The analysis of Dasein shows it to be both the investigator and that which is interrogated. Hence, Heidegger’s phenomenological concern becomes the manner in which Dasein shows “itself to itself” (Odysseos, 2002, p. 382).
Many philosophers are quite happy with Heidegger’s work (not his anti-Semitism) because it implies that seeing and understanding everything in the world is relational. It also points at beings in a world that is already given, but at the same time holds potential. This is not necessarily from individual positions, but from positions of collectivity and mutual dependency, including dependency on the land. This is where Heidegger started to mix his philosophy of phenomenology with politics of anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitic roots
Now back to Di Cesare. She doesn’t fight the relevance of his thoughts on phenomenology still acknowledged today, for that would become an either-or kind of analysis of all good or all bad. Instead she focuses on the meta-level of philosophy and politics. Her book is an analysis of a philosopher and his responsibility for his published writing.
Her astonishment (and that of many others) is that he hardly did take any responsibility. Many others have written about Heidegger and the commentaries over the last decades had more or less come to a rest. However, as di Cesare states it is the recent publishing of the Black Notebooks that has renewed people’s interest in the man and generated a renewed debate about him, not only among philosophers, but also with a broader audience. Di Cesare explains her own interest in writing this book quite early on in the introduction, where she says:

‘For that matter, anti-Semitism is not an emotion, a feeling of hatred that comes and goes and can be circumscribed within a particular period. Anti-Semitism has a theological provenance and a political intention. In the case of Heidegger, it also takes on a philosophical significance’ (p. viii).

In other words, Di Cesare says that Heidegger’s anti-Semitism was deeply rooted in his philosophy (in the way he applied it himself). Her first problem is trying to understand this ‘application’. For that, Di Cesare explains that Heidegger and Judaism had many points in common, ranging from the concepts of nothingness, to the concept of time. But Heidegger took a different turn when putting ‘Being’ (RZ; Dasein) on the foreground. It is there where he ‘recoiled. Being was more important. The Jew was left aside’ (p.ix).
What was his problem with them? Di Cesare: ‘To the Jews, seen as the rootless agents of modernity, accused of machination to seize power, of the desertification of the earth, of uprooting peoples, condemned to be weltlos – worldless, “without world”- Heidegger imputed the gravest guilt: the oblivion of Being. The Jew was a sign of the end of everything, impeding (RZ: prohibiting) the rise of a new beginning’ (p.ix).

Heidegger’s silence
But then an even bigger question for Di Cesare is about Heidegger’s silence and the way he didn’t budge under the post war attempts to have him speak (many people tried) and comment on his thinking and responsibility. Does she find an answer to this question, ‘Why the silence?’ Let’s see.

In the second part of the book – Di Cesare illustrates the history of the hatred of the Jews in philosophy. This goes far beyond Heidegger. She goes back to Martin Luther and further illustrates that Judeophobia is not only a German phenomenon. However, Germany started looking for an identity from the Middle Ages on. The role played by Jews in the Enlightenment—while present in Germany in large numbers—created perhaps more of an entanglement for German identity than elsewhere in Europe. Di Cesare then discusses Hegel and Nietzsche who, both for different reasons, rejected the teachings of Judaism. From here she makes a connection to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, where rejection of Judaism has gone to absurd extremes with the argument that the fact that Judaism has not changed its essence over the course of centuries, shows a lack of the capacity to establish or initiate things (p.60). Di Cesare points at this argument coming back frequently in Heidegger’s Black Notebooks.
The third part of the book focusses on the question of ‘Being and the Jewish question’.

Here Di Cesare discusses extensively Heidegger’s concept of Being:

Thus, for Heidegger, being-in-the-world was the way in which being exists – constantly emerging – ex-isting – from the facticity [the quality or state of being a fact] into which it had been thrown. For him, Being was not simple presence: rather, it was always the potential of being. Being-in-the- world constantly goes beyond itself, projecting itself toward its own possibilities, starting not from a stable, objective base, but instead emerging from an abyss of nothingness, in which those possibilities threaten to disappear. In its projection, Being comports itself toward the things that it encounters in a praxis that has no cognitive velleitty [desire to be ‘what one is able to represent, conceive, and express] (p.162-163).

In this way, the world (der welt) depends on ‘Being’. Therefore, Heidegger thinks of animals as world poor (welt arm) and of the inanimate things as without world (welt loss). Then further on in the text Di Cesare says:

In Heidegger’s view, the Jew, a petrified and unassimilable remnant in the history of Being, threatens in turn to petrify Being. His a-cosmic, distorting inertia weighs upon the planet, already darkened and desertified; he darkens every light, precludes any clearing, cancels out any place on earth from which the world might spring forth, in an acceleration which, in the eschatological background [Christian eschatology is the study of the ultimate destiny of the individual soul and the entire order], infinitely reiterates the end (p. 164).

With Judaism, Jews became a metaphysical enemy. Di Cesare then states that in being drawn into metaphysics—looking to answer lives questions in terms of generalities—Heidegger was lead in complete darkness, wanting to find the answer to the question of the essence of the Jew. This was a philosopher’s error against his own phenomenological method where the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ could not be separated. But he did separate them.


After the war

In the fourth part of the book Di Cesare discusses the post-Auschwitz period. In this part, she further analyses Heidegger’s writing and teaching (although he was expelled from teaching at his University shortly after the war) and his public appearance. In an interview in Der Spiegel published September 1966, Heidegger states about his involvement with National Socialism that ‘I believed then that in my encounter with National Socialism a way could be opened, the only possible way’. Further down on the same page Di Cesare says: without admitting that that had been for him the path to revolution, the epochal event of Being, a philosophical path more than a political one; on the other hand, Heidegger did not attempt to pass himself off as a late-blooming democrat—he did not believe in, nor had he ever believed in, democracy—much less in the “technological age.” Even in the last pages that he wrote, Heidegger spoke of “the destiny of the Germans,” but he did not speak about any responsibility on their part. Not even one syllable about the extermination. Nothing’ (p.179). Heidegger died in 1976. But it is from the Black Notebooks (numbers II-XV were published in 2014, others in 2015 and more to follow) that Di Cesare manages to construct some answers to the questions he did not answer himself during his life. What astonishes and repels her (after having analysed the Black Notebooks, she gave up her membership of the Martin Heidegger Society) becomes clear from the next passage: In keeping with his metaphysical anti-Semitism, Heidegger interpreted the extermination of the Jews as a “self-annihilation”: the Jews would annihilate themselves. Agents of modernity, complicit with metaphysics, the Jews followed the destiny of technology, which was summed up in the word Verzehr (RZ: consumption): the usurers would lend themselves, the consumers would consume themselves, the destroyers would end up destroying themselves. If the Jews were being annihilated in the lagers, it was on account of the Gestell (RZ: frame), the technological framework to take over the world that they had promoted and fostered everywhere (p.201).

Di Cesare has given us an extensive analysis of Heidegger’s thinking about the Jews and his silence after Auschwitz, based on the Black Notebooks. The main reason for his silence according to Di Cesare is that the man himself identified with his metaphysical analysis of the Jews as well as believing that the Germans were the victims of the World (infected by Jewish nihilism and ‘gestell’). It is for the reader to decide for him or herself about Heidegger. What is relevant is to see if Di Cesare’s book, in the context of Heidegger taking responsibility for the publications of his thinking and his silence after Auschwitz, has given us valuable insights about him. I think so.
What do you think about this, as a PhD student interested in environmental philosophy? How does it affect your own understanding of his philosophy, and your possible use of it as a student? How does it relate to environmental philosophy (where Heidegger’s philosophy is common?)

Rembrandt Zegers is finishing his PhD on leading nature practices and what such practices tell us about relating to nature. He worked for Greenpeace International, Ernst & Young and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. Currently he is promoting Earth Trusteeship as an innovation in governance, that bases itself on an inclusive relation with nature.

Heidegger and the Jews: The Black Notebooks is available from Polity.