Book on Heidegger causes a stir

An English translation published by the Yale University Press of a French book that seeks to remove German philosopher Martin Heidegger from philosophy curricula because of his Nazi sympathies is drawing criticism across the country.

The book, “Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy In Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933-1935” by French philosopher Emmanuel Faye, is reigniting a scholarly debate about whether or not Heidegger deserves his respected position in Western philosophy. Faye, who argues that the work of Heidegger, a member of the Nazi Party, should be treated as hate speech and not be taught in universities, has drawn strong reactions both supporting and ridiculing the idea from within academia and journalistic circles both at Yale and beyond.

Philosophy professor Karsten Harries, who published on Heidegger’s Nazism in the 1970s and is writing a new book containing a chapter debating the same issue, said ultimately the argument is “very complicated and should not be simplified.”

“No philosopher should be looked at in a vacuum,” he said. “You have to nest philosophy in its historical context.”

Heidegger, a philosopher who figures prominently in most studies of German philosophy, has been the subject of this same controversy for years, Yale Philosophy professor Seyla Benhabib said.

“The debate is just resurfacing because this book is being published,” she said. “It’s hard for us to asses if there is anything really new historically.”

The book, like the debate, is not new either. Faye published it in France in 2005, but Yale University Press is only now publishing a translated version, sparking new discussion across the United States.

Two of the most outspoken responses to the debate have come from journalists. Ron Rosenbaum, a writer for Slate Magazine, denounced Heidegger for his Nazi associations in an article published Oct. 30. He refers to Heidegger’s “slavish devotion to the Fuhrer” and says that although he recognizes the need to divorce individual people from their academic work, Heidegger’s life experiences still had an important and unavoidable impact on his work.

Carlin Romano, a professor of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania published one of the most outspoken responses to Faye’s book in The Chronicle Review, bemoaning the fact that Heidegger will likely still figure prominently in most Philosophy departments.

“He should be the butt of jokes,” he wrote, “not the subject of dissertations.”

But Yale professors disagree with critics like Romano. Benhabib said that although she has not read the book, she believes Heidegger should still be taught. She said though Heidegger eventually left the party because he fell out of favor with the Nazis, he never renounced his Nazi affiliations or acknowledged the Holocaust. So, she said, she prefers to teach her students the writings of Heidegger before he joined the party in 1933, most notably his famous book “Being and Time.”

History professor Jay Winter, who teaches the popular lecture course on the world wars, said that although he finds Heidegger “disgusting, degrading and beneath contempt,” it is still necessary for academics to treat his work with some level of respect. Winter said he thinks that it was important for intellectuals to recognize Heidegger’s contribution to his field apart from the politics he espoused.

“There’s a different between contextualizing and reducing the text to its historical context,” he said. “It’s a romantic illusion that if someone is loathsome in one part of his life that that loathesomness seeps into the rest.”

Harries said he thought the book would inspire more interest in Heidegger’s work, because Nazism sells to the general public. Still, he said, there is already more undergraduate interest in Heidegger than the curriculum can handle, he said, explaining that the only class offered at Yale on Heidegger is one of his graduate seminars and is closed to undergraduates.

“There is already too little teaching of Heidegger,” he said. “The idea that a thinker like Heidegger should be excised from the curriculum — that is just silly.”

Benhabib agreed that Heidegger should be taught as a part of any student’s philosophical education.

“What is the use of teaching 20th century thought if you do not also teach the works of those who have led one into a disaster?” Benhabib asked. “Without teaching the works of Heidegger, Lenin and others like them, this would be the dark ages.”

Faye’s book will be released in the United States on Nov. 24.


  • Recent Alum

    I approve. Now can we also remove from all Yale curricula any book by an author who had Communist sympathies?

  • Loser

    All works by Wagner have been banned from performance in Israel for the same reason. Who is the loser here? Wasn’t it the Nazis who burned books?

  • Robert Schneider

    Dismiss Heidegger from the curriculum on the grounds of “hate speech?” Is there nothing these days that cannot be successfully attacked by means of this two word juggernaut? ‘Hate speech’ means nothing and should have no influence in debate anywhere, but, of course, I’m tilting at windmills.

    With Karsten Harris, I have no doubt that Heidegger should continue to be taught. I find Leninism abhorent, but I agree with Seyla Benhabib that Lenin should be taught, too. At the very least, it is because each of them wield a considerable influence in the world.

  • Mark Hedges

    Heidegger wanted to understand the process of perception not as intake of information, then digestion and reflection of that information, but the most authentic perception as a unity with being itself, so that the world, when perceived taken to heart, would live inside you as an extension of itself, without separation. Does this leads to fascism? It does de-emphasize cortextual memory thinking in isolation from the sensory events, that “step back” taken to stay cool under fire and keep our heads. It is true that people who do not connect their thinking to perception live scattered, inauthentic lives. It is also true that people who live close to their perception without abstract thinking can be easily manipulated by fascists. By the same criteria, systematized beliefs and religions from astrology to zen which emphasize connection to senses without reflective, self-inspired thought can leave their followers prone to fascist manipulation – not just nazism. That does not mean, however, that there is not something valuable, essentially inexplicable and seemingly magical about the raw experience of sensory information which bears philosophical exploration. I think that was what Heidegger tried to describe. I also think he was a moron, but that does not mean none of his ideas had any value.

  • Juan Diaz

    If Nazi Germany is a valid academic subject, how can we also not teach Heidegger? One of the best courses I took at Yale was about Nazi Germany. How are we to prevent a recurrence of the political movements–Nazism, Fascism and Communism–that almost destroyed Europe in the 20th Century if we do not study them in depth and understand how they arose in the first place? How can we truly value our Western democracies if we do not study the other political systems over which they have resolutely won the battle of ideas?