The alternative between philosophy and revelation cannot be evaded by any harmonization or “synthesis.” For each of the two antagonists proclaims something as the one thing needful, as the only thing that ultimately counts, and the one thing needful proclaimed by the Bible is the opposite to that proclaimed by philosophy. In every attempt at harmonization, in every synthesis however impressive, one of the two opposed elements is sacrificed, more or less subtly, but in any event surely, to the other: philosophy which means to be the queen must be made the handmaid of revelation or vice versa. If it is confronted with the claim of revelation, and only if confronted with the claim of revelation, philosophy as a radically free pursuit becomes radically questionable.
Leo Strauss, “Notes on Philosophy and Revelation”1
The underlying problem of Heidegger’s anti-semitism, or problem of the problem, for us, would be that we do not and cannot consider Heidegger’s or anyone else’s anti-semitism really to be up for discussion in the way, say, that numbering the planets in our solar system might be up for discussion. Unlike a stand on the proper designation of Pluto, the attribution of content or credibility to the pseudo-predicate of anti-semitism – implicitly some notion of “semitism” or “the semitic” – risks violation of a taboo under moral imperatives taken as good in themselves and also as necessary for a culturally diverse mass society, the “good” and the “necessary” being virtually the same thing from the perspective of that society.
On many a comment thread where ardent young college-educated leftists roam, we will discover even the slightest detour from the true and the good on matters of race justifying abuse of the offender, until repentance and a promise of amends has been wrung from his or her, usually his, virtual lips, with internalization of the lesson to be verified if possible through re-testing.2 The same assumptions will guide public discussion of the accusations against Heidegger, as can be observed in the comments under the Prospect post “In Defence of Heidegger” by Jonathan Rée, where the author’s arguments disappear amidst a confrontation with “radical evil” – the radical evil not, however, of Nazism, the Holocaust, or total war, but of the critical-philosophical enterprise inspired in part by Heidegger’s thought.3 We need not take blog commenters as seriously as they may take themselves, but the same boundless potential for assignment of indirect guilt can be observed “above the comments,” too: “This makes me wonder about Rée as well,” writes Richard Brody in The New Yorker, while responding to that same post. It almost goes without saying that the particular passage under scrutiny is one in which Rée supplies a merely neutral description of one of Heidegger’s claims, before offering his own unaddressed interpretation of a more general train of thought as “not intrinsically anti-Semitic.”4
There are no barriers within philosophy to its own criminalization by irresponsible association. For my own part, I cannot and will not pretend to be in a position to judge and sentence either Heidegger or his critics. Even if I possessed the resources for pursuit of such a judgment, I would remain more interested in our problem with the problem, since that problem of the problem is on the level of our moral-political and finally religious or philosophical precepts, not on the largely irrelevant question of a single individual’s sins. To ask whether Heidegger was really – philosophically, authentically, culpably, meaningfully – an anti-semite must be to ask whether his thought, as per Rée, is intrinsically anti-semitic, but to determine whether Heidegger’s thought is intrinsically anti-semitic we would need to know what the term “anti-semitic,” and its opposites, could possibly mean for both Heidegger and for us. Therefore we must run the risks, or “cross the streams” of philosophy and religion, or we will just be pretending to have that discussion that some of us, the most thoughtful among us as well as their most thoughtful critics, seem to think is important for the possibilities of thought, for how we constitute ourselves and our identities or our identity in thought and thus in history, or meaningfully.
In literature or philosophy, or intellectual history, another word for “semitism” – this word that does not quite exist, but that, if it did exist, might not mean the same thing as Judaism – might be “Hebraism,” the term used by the Victorian writer Matthew Arnold for the philosophical or philosophical-theological alternative to Hellenism: thus the oppositional pairing, also originated by Arnold, of Jerusalem and Athens, meaning thought-from-revelation and thought-from-philosophy. The thinking was that we must choose, or will already find ourselves having chosen, one or the other, Athens or Jerusalem, never quite both, never quite neither. Like Arnold, Leo Strauss, who directly adopted the Athens/Jerusalem opposition, also seemed to believe that a peaceful and equal co-existence of the two modes of thinking or of being a thinking being was impossible, but any statement of this celebrated thought on thought tends to contradict it, since it presents us with the two terms co-existing at least linguistically, side by side, without apparent decision for one or the other – just as we tend to infer occurs in the world at large, as priests and philosophers and more or less certain believers go on about their everyday affairs. Yet Strauss’ assertion may be borne out in Heidegger, if to the opposite of the expected effect. According to the American intellectual historian Peter Eli Gordon, the “startling possibility” presented by a consequential thinking through of Heidegger’s work is that the philosopher, in self-consciously seeking a position beyond Hellenism, found himself “however reluctantly, before the altar of a possibly Hebraic God.”5 Heidegger, it seems, may be another one of us, despite himself, an Hebraist, a “semitist,” a revelationist and monotheist. Heidegger’s seeming adoption of the paranoid’s absurd claim, that the Jews are the power behind everything – casting the Nazis themselves as Germans misled by the Jews6 – takes on yet another twist, or ascends to another level of unthinkability: The manifestation of extreme anti-semitism is and could only be itself another hyper-self-destructive, self-/all-annihilating semitism or pseudo-semitism, as asserted in Heidegger’s own finally semitist thinking.7
Gordon’s tentatively stated conclusion seems to imply that Heidegger’s “Being” and Hermann Cohen’s Judaic-prophetic “Being Like No Other” should have been at worst siblings, if not taken simply as the same divine (divined, divinized, divinizing) (B)eing. One implication, contra Strauss, might be of the inevitable as original interpenetration, interdependence, and final equivalence of philosophy and religion – which in different ways may also be implied in Carl Schmitt’s thought on all “prägnant” modern theories of the state being theological in origin; as in Marx’s description, following Hegel/Bauer, on the bourgeois (or liberal or liberal-democratic) state as “dissolved Christianity.” It would also have been fully in keeping with a certain optimism about German-Jewish comity, not as between German philosophy and Judaic religion, or German religion and Judaic philosophy, but as between two modes of a deeper and unavoidable indistinction of religion and philosophy, also happening to imply or forecast a common, spiritually and materially fulfilling destiny for real Jews and Germans. The epochal or world-historical negation, or world-catastrophic historical reversal, of this conception would seem, or has seemed, to constitute the most definitive possible proof of the failure both of Cohen’s thought, and of Rosenzweig’s expansion upon it, and a verification of Strauss’s counter-claim, made after a proof that took the form, among others, of countless heaps of corpses.8 Quite indicatively, or consistently with the overarching thesis, it would be proof of Schmitt’s and Heidegger’s failure, too, if on a different level, for the German thinkers as human beings, not certainly for their thought. Indeed, to the extent we remember Cohen and Rosenzweig it will tend to be, for now, more often as good men than as relevant thinkers, while for Heidegger and Schmitt it will be just the reverse. The starting point for understanding this strange revenge of the disgraced thinkers, a revenge on the level of thought only, might be in the next indication: The catastrophe also can be seen as the necessary condition for the success of the global liberal-democratic project hitherto: for our success, such as it is, including especially whatever success we have had creating a political culture premised on the unacceptability of what Schmitt and Heidegger (also-)thought.
Inhabitants of a culture-state then in the process of destroying itself, both Cohen and Rosenzweig were able also to say other very wrong things, things that are un-sayable today. They speculated freely, Rosenzweig most explicitly, regarding a Judaism of the blood, in other words about a positively racialized Judaism that would be non-contradictorily a Judaic ideal, a Judaic essentialism that was expressly not a Zionist Judaism: a thoroughly and radically beneficent racism, a sacred racism. Though we can retroactively excuse Cohen and Rosenzweig for their possible violations of our prevailing taboos, and even though the latter are expressly conceived to be universally applicable, good for all times and places; though we will do so in somewhat the same way that we habitually excuse representatives of designated oppressed groups for their own modes of self-assertion, or as we may excuse artists and entertainers for superficially inexcusable utterances, if thought to be offered in solidarity, we do not allow ourselves to think those thoughts again or anew. Maintenance of their alternative view on the German-Jewish question, any attempt to explain their prophetic philosophy as confirmed rather than refuted, would, as I have argued before, imply or require an impermissible and impossible theodicy of those profoundly, extremely contradictory events, of genocide and world war – events which Cohen (d. 1918) and Rosenzweig (d. 1929) in contrast to Strauss, never had to witness at all, much less think through.
As for Heidegger, Schmitt, their defenders, and all those suspected of actual or parallel “sympathies,” they will, of course, be denied the protection we extend to the last great and very German, very Jewish philosopher-theologians of the pre-Zionist or Diasporetic Age. The thought of identifying oneself with the Nazis and fellow travelers will be the thought of leaving normal life in liberal-democratic societies behind. We remain defined morally – to ourselves, concretely – by the justice of the physical and ideological destruction of the perverted culture-state that Heidegger and Schmitt literally stood up for in public, and that privately they supported more in spirit than post-war apologetic exercises led some to hope. To recuperate their thought fully or even to consider it fully freely or dispassionately, would also place us within that impermissible and impossible theodicy.
Put differently, the same impermissibility extends both to any full recuperation of Cohen’s and Rosenzweig’s9 universal-utopian or messianic prophetic thinking, to their synthesism/syncretism of philosophy as prophecy as philosophy, and to any final justification of Heidegger and Schmitt, even to a merely implied justification or merely implied merely conceivable justification. “The fact of being an anti-semitic Nazi shit,” says a commenter, “is relevant in assessing whether its [sic] worth paying attention to someone’s elaborate philosophical justifications of same”: In other words, some knowledge to us is not to be learned or re-learned, or argued as such, but is to be taken as already firmly known, or as elementary instruction: It has the status of revealed truth for a community of believers, but even describing it as such will be to risk excommunication or to be taken to have demonstrated one’s own incipient self-excommunication. For the true believer revealed truth does not have a “status of revealed truth”: It is truth: Failure to accept it as truth demands punishment, and failure to punish that failure when able to do so will itself constitute failure demanding punishment, and so on, if with gradually decreasing force, suggesting an equation with the value of faith divided by the value of distance on one side.
- Leo Strauss, “Notes on Philosophy and Revelation,” 4 verso, in Leo Strauss and the Theologico-Political Problem, Heinrich Meier, p. 150. [↩]
- I began writing these notes as a reply to John C Halasz at Crooked Timber. The thread offers an example of the shaming ritual in the comments of “Roy Belmont” in criticism of “Harold,” beginning at #372. [↩]
- Here is one of many comments from the voluble Alex Verney-Elliott (typos in original):
Jonathan Rée is a Derridean who was a Heideggerian at heart and at liver and at kidney and so it is no surprise at all that he defends Heidegger here. Derrida follows the Heideggerian Party Line to the Spirit in Spirit and was very defensive, irritated, irrational and embarrassed by the ‘Heidegger Affair’ as if Heidegger had been his unfaithful wife! It seems the racism of Hegel and Kant and Zizek as well as the Eurocentrism of Freud and Lacan has become the accepted norm today, just as Heidegger’s anti-Semitism is just now an acceptable norm for an allegedly ‘great thinker’. If Heidegger was such an insightful and profound thinker, why was he so easily incorporated-interpellated into the absolute unthinking of anti-Semitism? Or is anti-Semitism the ‘unthough’t of Heidegger? I am aware when I try to write philosophy I have been intoxicated by the toxic racism of Hegel and the anti-Semitism of Heidegger: I learnt to even ‘enjoy’ that racist and anti-Semitic ‘though’t that shines-darkly through closely reading Hegel and Heidegger whose writings legitimate and promote racism and anti-Semitism which leaks drooling all over the Heidggerian Derrida and Derrideans even if they are not fully ‘conscious’ of it: it is still ‘there’ in the radical-evil of deconstruction itself and post-structuralism itself and so we are all contaminated by it and should not deny it: we unconsciously ‘enjoy’ the racist legacy of Hegel and ‘enjoy’ the anti-Semitic legacy of Heidegger for we go back and endlessly quote them and celebrate them and promote them: now is the time for us to own up and come clean to this intellectual ‘masturbating wit the negative’.
- Thomas Assheuer has written a more comprehensive treatment of the newly published ca. 1,300-page Schwarze Hefte in Die Zeit: “Das vergiftete Erbe.“ [↩]
- Rosenzweig and Heidegger: Between Judaism and German Philosophy (2003). [↩]
- Assheuer, op. cit.: “[F]ragt sich Peter Trawny, der Herausgeber der Schwarzen Hefte, in seinem Buch Heidegger und der Mythos der jüdischen Weltverschwörung (Klostermann), ob der Philosoph behaupte, die Nazis seien ‘von den Juden verführte Deutsche’. Vermutlich ja.” [↩]
- So, one might say, of course Heidegger fell in love with his Jewish student Hannah Arendt. Of course, despite all, she remained loyal to him to the end of his long life. Of course, he seemed to consider himself among the victims, deserving of sympathy, not responsible for expressing remorse. [↩]
- This conclusion, or presumption, is asserted more or less directly by, for example, Mark Lilla, who is good for articulate and well-supported re-statements of conventional wisdom on such matters – see The Great Separation and The Reckless Mind. [↩]
- and also Hegel’s, and not just Hegel’s [↩]