Apr 20, 2010

Thinking -- or not -- with Heidegger

It's not about Heidegger. It's not about Nazis. The argument is an argument about the priority of politics.

The debate's been going on for some time now -- seemingly cyclically -- and always the attackers say, Heidegger was a Nazi, and they use the evidence of his affiliation, which is, in fact, a fact, and which was, in fact, never in question. But they argue from the assumption of a conclusion. Instead of wading into the thinking and showing how and where the thinking errs, and that the thinking errs, they pre-judge the philosophy by its apparent political end. This means, though, that thinking itself is sapped of any power or potential. The argument erects a structure where the only acceptable answer to whatever question is the one we have already decided upon, and all thinking is inadmissible unless it ends up at the right conclusion.

The defenses of Heidegger do the same thing, though -- ceding the priority of the political, ceding that it would be right to reject him if he were a Nazi, ceding that thinking is to be evaluated not as thinking but according to its final alignment with what we, in some consensus, already accept as true without having to thoroughly think it through at all. They argue Heidegger was not really a Nazi, or he was but that was an accident of time and place and an error, but not of thinking, not of philosophy, but ambition and understanding.

In doing this, though, in defending him, they assent to the main point, which was never about Heidegger himself, but is, in fact, a dismissal of the entire project of philosophy.

At Hillsdale, a school whose public persona is hyper-political, even as real liberal arts are taught, the philosophy department is occasionally visited by hyper-political senior citizens, in town for a seminar, or hyper-political high schoolers, considering application. Almost without exception, they eventually interrupt the class with a question that is always, in spirit, the same: But how does this -- this of Plato/Aristotle/Kant/Hegel/Wittgenstein's -- support our politics?

When someone says Heidegger was a Nazi, or even that he wasn't, the same thing happens. Thinking is delimited, boxed in -- and only allowed if it doesn't have the potential or power to overturn what we think we know. It is only allowed to operate as the hack to our machine. It is only accepted if it serves and is rightly deferential to our orthodoxy and our agenda. Politics has priority, and thinking is good thinking only insofar as is serves our end.

Remember here the conservative mantra, popular a while back, that ideas have consequences. Ostensibly this works as a caution against ivory tower idea-mongers who were, somewhere along the way, overly cavalier about the outworkings of ideas, thinking them "just" ideas, in some sense, safe within the confines of being completely impractical. It is not quite clear, of course, who is supposed to have thought ideas weren't also causes with effects. Even the worst caricatures of liberal hippie profs preaching Marx didn't do that. Or course ideas have consequences. Of course they work out and unfold and have effects. In this sense, the mantra is meaningless.

Yet the silliness of this actually serves to underline the true subversiveness of the slogan: ideas have consequences works to elevate conclusions over thinking, to give politics priority. It's not just that ideas "have" consequences, but that they are to be judged by them, that the consequences are what count, what matters. This is not just a question of priority, either, because thinking isn't thinking if it doesn't have the space or the freedom to arrive at conclusions. Here, under the conservative slogan, with this prioritization, thinking is smothered. Thinking is killed. All that's left is hackery.

We'd do better to reverse the mantra, to say, consequences have ideas. Because consequences and results are manifest all around us, but we don't even and can't even know what they are unless we're free to think. And we cannot think -- cannot interrogate the world as it is, as we find it, as we assume it to be -- unless our thinking has the potential to change us, which is also the power to convince us, at least possibly, that everything we think we know is upside down and backwards. Thinking isn't thinking unless it can dismantle us and our world. Mutatis mutandis, with the priority placed on thinking, the slogan makes thinking free and gives it priority, which is the only way it's possible, but which also means dangerous.

When someone says, "All I know about Heidegger is he was a Nazi," they are also saying that this is all they want to know, all they want to be known. In the most recent eruption of the debate, it's no accident that the argument went from Heidegger's affiliation to banishing him from philosophy. Politics, here, is totalized, which means thinking vanishes, and we're left with dogma, but at least we're safe from the anarchic potential of ideas.

It is not about Heidegger, though. It's not about Nazis. It's about thinking, and whether we're going to do it or not.