Academic journal article Philosophy Today

The Perils of a Total Critique of Reason: Rethinking Heidegger's Influence

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

The Perils of a Total Critique of Reason: Rethinking Heidegger's Influence

Article excerpt

Richard Wolin, Heidegger's Children: Hannah Arendt, Karl Lowith, Hans Jonas, and Herbert Marcuse. Princeton University Press, 2001.

One of the most tormenting realities of contemporary social thought is the fact that many thinkers devoted to the cause of emancipation unwittingly embrace philosophical positions with totalitarian consequences. Another tormenting reality is that thinkers sometimes embrace such positions deliberately. A case in point is Martin Heidegger, whose advocacy of the conceptions of "Volk," "labor," and "historicity" in the early 1930s led to widespread-though far from universal-condemnation of his philosophy as inherently pernicious. Those who find the terms of Heidegger's philosophy to be inseparable from his support of National Socialism see in that support an expression of a metaphysical commitment; thus, for example, RUdiger Safranski, the most recent in a line of Heidegger biographers, observes that "to Heidegger the National Socialist seizure of power was a revolution. It was far more than politics; it was a new act in the history of Being, the beginning of a new epoch."1 To anyone familiar with Heidegger's conception of "two beginnings"-one the achievement of the early Greeks in the establishment of the polis and the other an as-yet unrealized "advent" that promises to overcome the specter of nihilism-these words ring ominous. For they confer on the National Socialist revolution a metaphysical significance, and they make it impossible not to ponder the implications of Heidegger's unyielding insistence that the Germans possess pride of place in the unfolding of world history and in the endeavor to overcome nihilism.2

No contemporary critic of Heidegger has pondered these implications with greater tenacity than Richard Wolin. In the past decade Wolin has published no less than four books and numerous essays that deal exclusively or significantly with "der Fall Heidegger. " And yet by the late 1980s a certain kind of conventional wisdom had already begun to spread among strong critics of Heidegger, to the effect that Heidegger's philosophy is "obviously" pernicious in principle and therefore no longer worthy of serious examination on its own terms. The generation of this conventional wisdom was given tremendous momentum in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Victor Farias's Heidegger et le nazisme and Hugo Ott's Martin Heidegger: Unterwegs zu seiner Biographie, published in 1987 and 1988 respectively.' But the world did not have to wait for these publications in order to explore the relationship between philosophy and politics in Heidegger; much had already been written on the subject by then, most notably Alexander Schwan's Politische Philosophie im Denken Heideggers.4 Schwan concluded his 1965 study with the judgment that "Heidegger ultimately appears to adhere to a utopian and illusory romanticism," and in the late 1970s Karsten Harries argued that Heidegger's "romantic conception of the state... in the image of the polis will tend towards totalitarianism."5 What, then, would motivate a thinker like Wolin not only to re-open the Heidegger case long after all the evidence about Heidegger's National Socialism had come to light, but to do so with such energetic attention to the details of Heidegger's philosophy'? And why would Wolin, after authoring two books and editing another dealing significantly or exclusively with Heidegger, devote his energies to the writing of yet another, his latest book, Heidegger's Children: Hannah Arendt, Karl Lowith, Hans Jonas, and Herbert Marcuse? For while this book is ostensibly concerned with the fundamental limitations of the thought of each of these most famous and influential students of Heidegger, its real theme is the pernicious anxiety of influence exerted by Heidegger even on his most talented and presumably free-thinking students-all of them Jews.

In order to appreciate Wolin's aims in writing Heidegger's Children, one must bear in mind above all else his commitments as an intellectual historian rather than as an academic philosopher. …

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