Petrillo: Searching for truth

The Yale University Press’s publication of Emmanuel Faye’s “Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy In Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933-1935” has sparked debate about whether the practical implications and historical context of a philosophic work should color our view of the work and, if so, whether it should be removed from philosophy departments. But, is this a discussion we want to be having? And, what is it about Heidegger’s work that we really fear?

This discussion brings me back to the question of why we do philosophy in the first place. It is to find truth, or at least to understand the world a little better and maybe learn a bit about how to live our lives. We seek to clarify our ideas and dispel the illusions our blind socialization has given us. No one embarks on reading Plato and Kant to be made complacent with the status quo, to be idly controlled by the mass media and shielded by the anxieties and difficulties of everyday life. As the embodiment of the project of the enlightenment — the cultural ideals of the West for the past 400 years — this goal of philosophy also captures the primary symbolic reason for the existence of Yale and other universities. We are here at Yale to pursue truth. Whether in an objective or subjective sense, and even with other competing factors, this pursuit is, in the end, true for us all.

In our liberal, democratic society, we may at first think that discourse on any issue is worth having, since discourse lies at the foundation of our democratic processes and allows us to decide how we the people want to structure the norms and laws of our society, in any way we choose. But, the presuppositions of starting this debate about whether Heidegger should be removed from universities for practical or historical reasons are that we should question this ideal for truth — that Yale may not necessarily be for truth and that there may be more important reasons for us being here than the pursuit of truth. By publishing Faye’s book, Yale is promoting this discourse, and communicating to the world that it wants to question this purpose of the university and the student. But, is this a cultural ideal we want to consider tearing down? Why shouldn’t we start questioning gender equality, which is an even newer ideal?

According to Faye’s book, our ideal for truth should be suppressed for the practical concerns of social solidarity. Yet, given our ideal for truth, there is never a good reason to suppress a work unless its truth is undermined — not even for its historical context or its practical implications. The historical context of the work doesn’t affect its truth-value, except that the truths may only be valid in its specific historical context. In teaching this sort of work, as Jay Winter so pointedly commented in a recent News article, “There’s a difference between contextualizing and reducing the text to its historical context.” This commitment to understanding both a work and the context that produced it is why we still read Marx’s work on ‘alienation of labor,’ but are also informed that it may not be as true any longer.

But, the historical context around Heidegger has been an old topic of discussion, so it seems that Faye may instead be shifting the discussion to the work’s practical implications. Believing that the National Socialism ideals shaped Heidegger’s “Being and Time,” Faye wants to show that students reading it as philosophy — for truth — may be accidentally swept into the Nazi ideals. Since Marx’s works on Communism have been shown historically to lead to oppressive regimes, professors try to ensure students are aware of these facts before the utopia of communism takes hold of their imagination. Still, we have not pulled “The Communist Manifesto” out of philosophy departments. As part of upholding our ideal for truth, professors need to inform students of these empirical facts or logical consequences.

This case is even more clear cut; there aren’t even any empirical or theoretical connections between reading Heidegger’s “Being and Time” and becoming a Nazi. Faye, therefore, not only wants an ideological and false connection to be taught between the work’s theory and practice, but also wants the work’s truths to be suppressed.

If “Being and Time” won’t turn the country into Nazis, then what is it that Faye and others really fear in Heidegger’s works? “Being and Time” teaches us that we have a preunderstanding of the world that we bring to every new situation and interaction. But this preunderstanding is shaped entirely by our culture. These are the work’s timeless truths. Taken to the extreme, this can mean that we can’t step outside of the dominant norms of our culture to critique them, and must instead accept as truth what our culture tells us. So, those in Nazi Germany should accept the ideals of National Socialism as Truth. This leads to moral relativism — that any moral stance, even those of National Socialism, are acceptable as long as they are the ideals of a culture. This would clearly be a bad situation for the world — legitimizing Nazism, genocide to name a few

And yet, in publishing Faye’s book, in considering tearing down our ideal for truth, we are considering destroying the last dam holding back this dreadful relativism. Our ideal for truth is what gives the possibility of transcending our culture and critiquing others. When we question the value of truth for its practical implications, we are upholding social solidarity and our idiosyncratic cultural values above what may be universal. In doing so, we have accepted postmodernism in its entirety and taken from under us any platform from which to reject relativism, to say that Nazism or mass killings of a minority in a foreign culture are wrong. Through Yale University Press publishing Faye’s book and in engaging in the discussion on Heidegger Faye wants us to have, we are promoting what we fear in Heidegger to begin with — relativism. It is not Heidegger we have to fear, but postmodernism itself.

When you lift your head from this page, you can continue criticize Nietczche for being anti-Semitic, Mill for actually being an imperialist and Heidegger for being a Nazi, but whatever you do, don’t give up on truth!

Justin Petrillo is a junior in Timothy Dwight College.