Heidegger's Children: Hannah Arendt, Karl Löwith, Hans Jonas, and Herbert Marcuse

Heidegger's Children: Hannah Arendt, Karl Löwith, Hans Jonas, and Herbert Marcuse

by Richard Wolin

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Martin Heidegger is perhaps the twentieth century's greatest philosopher, and his work stimulated much that is original and compelling in modern thought. A seductive classroom presence, he attracted Germany's brightest young intellects during the 1920s. Many were Jews, who ultimately would have to reconcile their philosophical and, often, personal commitments to Heidegger with his nefarious political views.

In 1933, Heidegger cast his lot with National Socialism. He squelched the careers of Jewish students and denounced fellow professors whom he considered insufficiently radical. For years, he signed letters and opened lectures with ''Heil Hitler!'' He paid dues to the Nazi party until the bitter end. Equally problematic for his former students were his sordid efforts to make existential thought serviceable to Nazi ends and his failure to ever renounce these actions.

This book explores how four of Heidegger's most influential Jewish students came to grips with his Nazi association and how it affected their thinking. Hannah Arendt, who was Heidegger's lover as well as his student, went on to become one of the century's greatest political thinkers. Karl Löwith returned to Germany in 1953 and quickly became one of its leading philosophers. Hans Jonas grew famous as Germany's premier philosopher of environmentalism. Herbert Marcuse gained celebrity as a Frankfurt School intellectual and mentor to the New Left.

Why did these brilliant minds fail to see what was in Heidegger's heart and Germany's future? How would they, after the war, reappraise Germany's intellectual traditions? Could they salvage aspects of Heidegger's thought? Would their philosophy reflect or completely reject their early studies? Could these Heideggerians forgive, or even try to understand, the betrayal of the man they so admired? Heidegger's Children locates these paradoxes in the wider cruel irony that European Jews experienced their greatest calamity immediately following their fullest assimilation. And it finds in their responses answers to questions about the nature of existential disillusionment and the juncture between politics and ideas.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400873692
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 08/25/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 1,183,614
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Richard Wolin is professor of history and comparative literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author of The Politics of Being, The Heidegger Controversy, and The Terms of Cultural Criticism.

Read an Excerpt

Heidegger's Children

Hannah Arendt, Karl Löwith, Hans Jonas, and Herbert Marcuse

By Richard Wolin


Copyright © 2001 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-7369-2


Introduction: Philosophy and Family Romance

Dilemmas of Discipleship

The protagonists of Heidegger's Children — Hannah Arendt, Hans Jonas, Karl Lowith, and Herbert Marcuse — were non-Jewish Jews who thought of themselves as proverbial "Germans of Jewish origin." As philosophically trained intellectuals, they expected to find salvation and meaning not in the traditions of Jewish cultural belonging but in the hallowed Germanic ideals of Geist and Bildung. All four were trained by Germany's greatest philosopher, Martin Heidegger. Although Heidegger was virtually unpublished until the landmark appearance of Being and Time in 1927, his talents as a lecturer and teacher had already gained him considerable renown.

Heidegger's Jewish students were among his very brightest. Each of the protagonists in question carved out a distinctive niche in the world of twentieth-century philosophy and letters. Hannah Arendt is probably the twentieth century's greatest political thinker. At an advanced age, Hans Jonas achieved renown as Germany's premier philosopher of environmentalism. Herbert Marcuse gained fame — and notoriety — as a philosophical eminence of the Frankfurt School as well as a mentor to the New Left. (At one point in the late 1960s, he was denounced by the Pope himself.) Karl Lö, upon his return to Germany in 1956, became one of the leading philosophers of the postwar era. Moreover, Heidegger's own mentor, Edmund Husserl, to whom the philosopher dedicated Being and Time, was also Jewish. In light of Heidegger's zealous involvement with Nazism during the early 1930s, the attendant ironies — the Nazi rector of Freiburg University, a former assistant to Husserl, who was in turn surrounded by talented Jewish disciples — are considerable.

However, the inconsistencies in Heidegger's attitude are less profound than they may appear on first view. Among Heidegger's Jewish "children," none were practicing Jews. As assimilated Jews devoted to the allurements of Geist, the manifestly Jewish dimension of their personae was in most cases imperceptible. Lowith, in fact, was a convert to Protestantism. Jonas had some Jewish education as a youth and, late in life, published several influential texts on the theme of post-Holocaust theology. Yet, in his major philosophical works, traces of Jewish influence are negligible. For a time during the 1930s, Arendt worked with Youth Aliyah, a Paris-based organization that helped send Jewish children to Palestine. Yet, following the Jewish Agency's 1943 Biltmore declaration rejecting a two-state solution to the question of Palestine, she became one of Zionism's most vocal critics. And although as we shall see, Heidegger's worldview was by no means free of the everyday anti-Semitism that seethed beneath the surface of the liberal Weimar Republic, he never subscribed to the racial anti-Semitism espoused by the National Socialists. To him this perspective was philosophically untenable, insofar as it sought to explain "existential" questions in reductive biological terms. For Heidegger, biology was a base exemplar of nineteenth-century materialism — a standpoint that needed to be overcome in the name of "Existenz" or "Being."

This book is a careful study of Heidegger's Jewish students — their intellectual orientations, doctrines, and political convictions. As such, it oversteps the customary disciplinary boundaries among philosophy, politics, and intellectual history. What is it that such a study has to teach us?

To begin with, there is much to learn about the conditions that governed the global dissemination of Heidegger's ideas, especially in the postwar period when he had been banned from teaching due to his political fall from grace during the early 1930s. Since his students' attitudes were often instrumental in determining how Heidegger's views would be received, Heidegger's Children is in part a study in reception history. In contemporary scholarship, the idea that there can be no absolute separation between a body of thought and its reception has become commonplace. Long before such notions became fashionable, the philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin formulated a related insight: "The work is the death of the intention." Once objectified, doctrines and ideas tend to defy the will of their author, taking on a life of their own. Often, commentary and interpretation outstrip proprietary assertions of authorial intention: rarely are authors the best judges of their own work. Thus, by observing the peregrinations of Heidegger's gifted Jewish students, one simultaneously gains new insight into both the richness and the limitations of his manner of thinking.

Insofar as his Jewish protégés went on to become celebrated thinkers in their own right, Heidegger's Children is also a study in the "anxiety of influence." Heidegger's impact as a teacher and mentor was, according to most extant accounts, inordinately profound. Few scholars who experienced his mesmerizing lectures and seminars remained untransformed. By the same token, students who fell under his powerful philosophical shadow often had difficulty extricating themselves and establishing an independent intellectual identity — a dilemma that even his most gifted students were forced to confront. Needless to say, such problems were compounded in the case of his extraordinarily talented Jewish students, men and women who often first experienced their Jewish identity in the crosshairs of German anti-Semitism. For these students, the dilemmas of intellectual individuation proved doubly fraught, insofar as Heidegger's doctrines had fallen within the orbit of contamination circumscribed by the "German catastrophe" in ways that were both readily intelligible and ineffable since, often, what was at issue was a quintessentially Heideggerian habitus or gestus. At the same time, as eyewitnesses to Germany's shocking political devolution, Heidegger's "children" were able to offer invaluable firsthand testimony concerning the spiritual conditions responsible for the collapse. Yet that privileged proximity often proved existentially and philosophically troubling, for how much of what they had imbibed as students of German thought and culture had been tainted by the Bacillus teutonicus? Many would continue to pose similar questions until the end of their lives.

In the aftermath of Hitler's seizure of power and Heidegger's brief, though concerted and incriminating complicity with the regime, his "children" sought to philosophize with Heidegger against Heidegger, thereby hoping to save what could be saved, all the while trying to cast off their mentor's long and powerful shadow. In this respect, Heidegger's Children is the story of the search for new beginnings undertaken by his Jewish disciples. But the task would prove a difficult one, for Heidegger's children were as much his contemporaries as they were his juniors. Fundamentally, they were shaped by the same momentous political and cultural transformations that formed Heidegger's own worldview. Hence, rarely did their efforts to circumvent the parameters of his immense gravitational influence prove successful. To wit, all accepted, willy nilly, a series of deep-seated prejudices concerning the nature of political modernity — democracy, liberalism, individual rights, and so forth — that made it very difficult to articulate a meaningful theoretical standpoint in the postwar world. Though all came to reject specific features of Heidegger's doctrine (his later, quasi-mystical Seinsgedanke, or philosophy of Being, was a frequent target of attack), at base they shared much of his conservative revolutionary "diagnosis of the times." Often, the reception of Heidegger the philosopher has led commentators to neglect his extremely influential status as a Zivilisationskritiker, or "critic of civilization." But the two aspects of his persona cannot be divorced; an airtight separation between philosopher and Weltanschauung is impossible to maintain. In Heidegger's view — and this was a perspective that his disciples largely shared — the modern age was an era of "absolute sinfulness" (J. G. Fichte). As such, any and every means was justified to drive it into the abyss. For the "front generation," to which both Heidegger and his children belonged (Heidegger, Löwith, and Marcuse actually served in the First World War), a distinct flirtation with nihilism was a corollary of the conviction that widespread destruction was required before anything of lasting value could be built.

Heidegger's Children also returns to the question of how to account for the uncanny ideological affinities between Heidegger the thinker and the political movement known as National Socialism. In Chapter 7, I have sought to address this question explicitly, taking as my point of departure the recent publication of a disturbing 1934 lecture course in which Heidegger delivers his own brief on behalf of a starry-eyed "ontological fascism" — Nazism in the service of the Seinsgedanke or idea of "Being." Prior to the 1980s, it still seemed plausible to deny that there was a causal nexus between Heidegger's philosophy and Nazism. Following the pathbreaking biographical studies by Hugo Ott and Victor Farias, however, the reality of Heidegger's turn to Hitler as the charismatic leader capable of redeeming humanity from a fate of unremitting nihilism has been convincingly established. At the same time, it would be foolish to claim that Heidegger's political lapsus, however egregious, would somehow disqualify his immense philosophical achievement. Instead, to state the obvious, the truth of the matter lies somewhere between these two extremes. Each of Heidegger's Jewish disciples was compelled to confront this conundrum: how Germany's greatest philosopher — and the man who was heir to so much that was distinctive and admirable about the German spirit — could willingly embrace a political movement that seemed to represent the wholesale negation of philosophy and culture. In this context, it is worthwhile to invoke the reflections of Herbert Marcuse who, in a 1948 letter to Heidegger, formulated the problem in the following way:

A philosopher can be deceived regarding political matters; in which case he will openly acknowledge his error. But he cannot be deceived about a regime that has killed millions of Jews — merely because they were Jews — that made terror into an everyday phenomenon, and that turned everything that pertains to the ideas of spirit, freedom, and truth into its bloody opposite; a regime that in every respect imaginable was the deadly caricature of the Western tradition that you yourself so forcefully explicated and justified.

In this passage, Marcuse emphasizes something that is important to keep in mind: Nazism was a tyranny unlike prior tyrannies, a historically unprecedented form of political terror. To be sure, its gruesome endpoint — Auschwitz — was not foreseeable from its quasi-Chaplinesque beginnings; but those beginnings — Gleichschaltung, mass arrests, concentration camps, and convulsive anti-Semitism — were egregious enough. To his discredit, Heidegger never renounced this obscene terminus, the death camps that have become emblematic of twentiethcentury industrialized mass murder. His philosophical ruminations on this problem, moreover, were myopic and largely beside the point. In his view, the genocidal politics of the Nazis were attributable to the evils of "technology," the distortions of the "modern world-picture," the post-Cartesian "will to will," or the "forgetting of Being." Thus, his contorted, "metapolitical" explanations stressed everything but the obvious: the peculiarities and distortions of German historical development that had from the outset facilitated Nazism's political success.

Heidegger's "Fall"

Had it not been for Heidegger's fateful political lapse of 1933 when, with great fanfare, he joined the Nazi Party and assumed the rectorship of Freiburg University, biographers might have scant material to work with. Heidegger was studiously averse to traveling outside his native home in Baden. In the early 1930s, he twice turned down offers to teach at the University of Berlin with resounding affirmations of the virtues of provincialism. One such account, "Why We Remain in the Provinces," reads like a parody of the German discourse of "blood and soil."

Yet Heidegger's dalliances with Nazism, though short-lived, have made biographical considerations central to the evaluation of his intellectual worth. Heidegger resigned as Nazi rector of Freiburg University after a year in office, but by then sufficient damage had been done. He had effectively delivered the university over to the aims and ends of the "German Revolution." On the lecture stump, he proved an effective propagandist on behalf of the new regime, concluding one speech by declaring: "Let not ideas and doctrines be your guide. The Führer is the only German reality and its law."

In May 1933, Heidegger sent a telltale telegram to Hitler expressing solidarity with recent Gleichschaltung legislation. There were instances of political denunciation and personal betrayal. Moreover, Heidegger remained a dues-paying member of the Nazi Party until the regime's bitter end. He continued to open his classes with the so-called "German greeting" of "Heil Hitler!" In 1936, he confided to Löwith that his "partisanship for National Socialism lay in the essence of his philosophy"; it derived, he claimed, from the concept of "historicity" (which stressed the importance of authentic historical commitment) in Being and Time.

As the rector of Freiburg University, Heidegger was charged with enforcing the anti-Semitic clauses of the so-called "Law for the Preservation of a Permanent Civil Service," which effectively banned Jews from all walks of government service, including university life. Despite his later disclaimers, in his capacity as rector Heidegger faithfully executed these laws, even though it meant banning Husserl, to whom he owed so much, from the philosophy faculty library. In the eyes of Hannah Arendt, this action, which had affected the septuagenarian phenomenologist so adversely, made Heidegger a "potential murderer." At the time, Husserl complained bitterly in a letter to a former student about Heidegger's growing anti-Semitism: "In recent years [he] has allowed his anti-Semitism to come increasingly to the fore, even in his dealings with his groups of devoted Jewish students," observes Husserl. "The events of the last few weeks," he continued (referring to Heidegger's joining the Nazi Party as well as the recent university ban on Jews), "have struck at the deepest roots of my existence."

In 1929, Heidegger had already complained that Germany was faced with a stark alternative: "the choice between sustaining our German intellectual life through a renewed infusion of genuine, native teachers and educators, or abandoning it once and for all to growing Jewish influence [Verjudung] — in both the wider and narrow sense." According to a former student, the philosopher Max Muller, "From the moment Heidegger became rector, he allowed no Jewish students who had begun their dissertations with him to receive their degree." He dashed the hopes of one doctoral candidate with the callous declaration: "You understand, Frau Mintz, that I cannot supervise your promotion because you are a Jew." In an unsolicited letter in which he tried to block the academic appointment of Eduard Baumgarten (nephew of the sociologist Max Weber), Heidegger complained that Baumgarten hailed from a "liberal democratic" milieu, had become "Americanized" during a stay in the United States, and associated with "the Jew [Eduard] Frankel."


Excerpted from Heidegger's Children by Richard Wolin. Copyright © 2001 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Preface to the New Paperback Edition xi
Preface xlix
PROLOGUE "Todesfuge" and "Todtnauberg" 1
ONE Introduction: Philosophy and Family Romance 5
TWO The German-Jewish Dialogue: Way Stations of Misrecognition 21
THREE Hannah Arendt: Kultur, "Thoughtlessness," and Polis Envy 30
FOUR Karl Lowith: The Stoic Response to Modern Nihilism 70
FIVE Hans Jonas: The Philosopher of Life 101
SIX Herbert Marcuse: From Existential Marxism to Left Heideggerianism 134
SEVEN Arbeit Macht Frei: Heidegger As Philosopher of the German "Way" 173
EXCURSUS Being and Time: A Failed Masterpiece? 203
Conclusion 233
Notes 239
Index 271

What People are Saying About This

Martin Jay

Not the least of Martin Heidegger's contributions to twentieth-century thought was his ability to inspire gifted disciples who read him against the grain, producing political theories very different from the ideology endorsed by the master, to his eternal disgrace, in l933. Looking closely at four of the most talented of their number, Richard Wolin, with the provocative directness his readers have come to expect, argues that troubling residues remain not far beneath the surface of their influential work. Heidegger's Children is a book that many will seek to refute, but none can ignore.
Martin Jay, University of California, Berkeley

Michael Ermarth

This is an exceedingly important book that goes right to the core of debates about modernity and the human condition. It is both timely and enduringly important. It is also engrossing—provocative in some places, deeply insightful in others. More than a significant contribution to the field, it constitutes a new field in its own right. Wolin has defined a philosophical Pandora's box, and his interpretation is going to initiate some agonized soul-searching.
Michael Ermarth, Dartmouth College

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