Academic Virtue

Does a Nazi deserve a place among philosophers?

So asked the New York Times in a brief review published Nov. 9. The story, previewing a soon-to-be-published book by Emmanuel Faye, focuses on the way that philosophers and other theoreticians are struggling with whether — and to what extent — the thoughts and writings of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) should be accepted as valid and respectable. Heidegger’s arguments are a crucial underpinning to many of the deconstructionist and anti-Western sentiments pervading contemporary academic philosophy. As the Times puts it,  “Existentialism and postmodernism as well as attendant attacks on colonialism, atomic weapons, ecological ruin and universal notions of morality are all based on his critique of the Western cultural tradition and reason.”

Yet Heidegger was also a Nazi. Thus, the dilemma. Should right-thinking scholars engage Heidegger’s thoughts, or must his ideas be dismissed whole cloth because of his political associations and racialist attitudes? Put more broadly: Is it reasonable to exclude certain ideas from respectable discourse merely because of some negative characteristic of those ideas’ prime mover — irrespective of the argument’s validity?

If Heidegger had been a Marxist or a Buddhist or a homosexual instead of a Nazi, no one would think twice about embracing his ideas based solely on the merits of the underlying arguments. But because he was a Nazi, and academicians have a visceral hatred of Nazism, there is a long-running debate within the academy about the overall philosophical merit of Heidegger’s work.

This is curious. Surely, the academy should be the one place where every idea is evaluated on its substance, without being prejudiced by ad hominem attacks against the idea’s proponents?

Yet philosophy is not immune to this most distressing closure of the contemporary mind. Even theoretical physics is involved; stories abound about how many physicists divide into camps about string theory, and any idea — even if utterly unrelated to string theory — proposed by a scientists on the opposite side of the line, is greeted with more skepticism and less charity than if the idea came from “within.”

This is tribalism at its most absurd, and its most dangerous. There are hints that the pursuit of objectivity among the academic elite is being gradually supplanted by a soft subjectivity that is willing to apply critical-thinking skills to an argument, but only if the argument and its proponents pass a hazy and unspoken but nevertheless real ideological litmus test.

So we can dismiss Heidegger, who despite his personally repellent political views, was one of the most significant philosophers of the twentieth century. But we can embrace Peter Singer, a one-world socialist who has argued that infants several months’ old can ethically be killed because he has decreed that they are incapable of self-awareness? This is the full logical flowering of alternative feminist approaches to logic, wherein the substance of a discourse is in some ways equal in weight to the nature of the relationship between the discussants; the relative or apparent virtue of a person indelibly marks the respectability of his works in a pre-rational but meaningful way.

Philosophy is not easy work. It requires lucidity, rigor, and precision. Yet any philosophy that lacks the charity to take ideas as things-in-themselves instead of being the mere by-products of a person who is worthy of praise or blame, is a philosophy that is little more than rank ideology dressed in patent-leather shoes and a tweed jacket.

Embrace Heidegger, or reject him — but do it for the substance of his arguments and not because of his political preferences.

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