Over the last fifty years, it would have been difficult to read and think about phenomenology without an engagement with the thought of Martin Heidegger. As Husserl’s most famous student, and as a thinker who had an enormous influence on Merleau Ponty, Derrida, and too many others to mention, he would be significant even if it was just for the historical role he played in philosophy. His Being and Time was original, insightful, and bold. It has long been known that Heidegger had affiliations with the Nazi Party in the 1930s and 1940s and there has been a very fair controversy about what this means for our understanding of his work. With the impending publication of previously unpublished Heideggerian texts, a more comprehensive picture of Heidegger’s anti-Semitism is emerging, and it is deeply troubling.
I need to read through the material and form my own conclusions, but we should be very clear about what is at stake. The Holocaust was an historical singularity. For a modern industrial democracy to descend into the wholesale dehumanization and industrialized slaughter of more than six million human beings is grotesquely unique. It is the singular nightmare of the 20th century (a century with no shortage of nightmares). It dispels any notion we might have that depravity is no longer possible, that evil is something we’ve grown out of. Remembrance of the Holocaust may be the single most important signpost to guide humanity through the perils of the centuries ahead. In the shadow of the Holocaust, we should always feel in our bones what is still there — our human capacity for complacency in the face of horror. This isn’t to deny that there are other evils, it is just to say that a rich and genuine remembrance of the Holocaust is our best defense against the next (and probably last) holocaust.
So what to do about Heidegger? I don’t know. Ideas aren’t always systematic and Heidegger’s loathsome racism may have little to do with some of his keener observations about phenomenology. But even if that’s the case, at some point we need to start looking for those same observations elsewhere. There are at least three “strains” of rich thought about phenomenology: The Buddhist tradition of mindfulness and meditation, the Continental exploration of phenomenology running from Kierkegaard through Derrida (and after), and the American tradition of phenomenology of William James, and G.H. Meade, leading a winding path to modern cognitive science. With all of this rich thought, maybe it wouldn’t be so hard to find everything that was vital in what Heidegger said somewhere else. At some point it seems appropriate to reduce Heidegger to a footnote — to transform him into an historical cautionary tale about the consequences of hatred, even when you are otherwise brilliant. Genius is no guard against evil, nor a reason why evil should go unpunished.
No easy answers, but its worth forgetting a thousand Heideggers to unflinchingly remember the Holocaust.