WHAT WE KNOW
The German philosopher Martin Heidegger has always been a deeply problematic character. Scholars have long known that Heidegger was an active and unapologetic Nazi. But for the most part, they managed to separate the man from his work. Until now, that is: after examining several of Heidegger’s private notebooks, released just last year, Gregory Fried (“What Heidegger Was Hiding,” November/December 2014) argues that such a separation is no longer possible.
Fried is one of a growing number of academics who claim that Heidegger’s anti-Semitism infected his core philosophical ideas and who have delivered, in essence, an intellectual death sentence. “The notebooks will almost certainly spell the end of Heidegger as an intellectual cult figure, and that is a welcome development,” Fried writes. But he has things backward: philosophers achieve immortality not by escaping the eye of critics but by being subjected to critics, who chisel away at the uninteresting and inconsistent to reveal a bedrock of truth.
All the notebooks provide is further evidence that Heidegger was a flawed person with dangerous political views. His work, like that of other philosophers with problematic biographies, will continue to stand on its own. Marx’s ideas have survived despite his xenophobia; Nietzsche’s, despite his madness. Students still read these thinkers at seminar tables around the world, just as they should Heidegger. However abhorrent Heidegger’s politics, his ideas are more relevant than ever. They tackle today’s most important philosophical question: How can humans find meaning in modern lives?
Heidegger believed that previous philosophers had answered this question incorrectly, assuming that meaning came from external forces. For Plato, truth derived from ideal forms; for Christians, from God; for Nietzsche, from the so-called will to power. Heidegger feared that such worldviews, by directing people’s focus outward, estranged them from their fundamental “being,” turning them into mere resources available to be optimized. Something can be said for that prediction: many businesses now refer to their employees as “full-time
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