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<i>Heidegger's Children</i> -- Sins of the Father

Sins of the Father

By James Ryerson

A review of Heidegger's Children

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

By Richard Wolin

Illustrated. 276 pp. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. $29.95

If recent history is any judge, Princeton University Press is taking a risk
by publishing this book -- a provocative and erudite study of the
affinities between the Nazi sympathizer Martin Heidegger and his Jewish
philosophy students. Ten years ago, after Columbia University Press
published Richard Wolin's last book on Heidegger, the French intellectual
Jacques Derrida denounced it as ''a sneaky war machine'' and had his lawyer
threaten to impound future editions.

Though Wolin's grievance with Derrida is not at issue in ''Heidegger's
Children,'' one can't help feeling that, indirectly, it is being reprised.
The heart of that controversy was Wolin's accusation that Derrida had
tailored his ''far-fetched and illogical'' opinions about Heidegger's
Nazism to dodge an important question:

By embracing the legendary German thinker's philosophy, had Derrida and
other radical postmodern leftists accepted the core of Heidegger's dubious
politics as well?

A similar charge of guilt by philosophical association animates
''Heidegger's Children,'' although here the accused parties also had
personal (and, in one case, sexual) dealings with the chief offender.
Before Heidegger became the Nazi rector of the University of Freiburg in
1933, he served as teacher and sage to four gifted students of assimilated
German Jewish backgrounds. Hannah Arendt, who at 18 began a three-year love
affair with Heidegger, achieved fame as a political thinker. Herbert
Marcuse, denounced by the pope in the late 1960's, became a philosophical
guru for the New Left. Hans Jonas matured into a pioneering theorist of
environmentalism, serving as a touchstone for the German Green Party. And
Karl Lowith became a distinguished scholar of modern historical

Wolin, a historian at the Graduate Center of the City University of New
York, is far more fond of these thinkers than he is of their mentor, but he
frets that their work, like that of Derrida, exhibits ''a series of
deep-seated prejudices'' about the modern West that reveals their
Heideggerian pedigree. As Wolin presents it, all of the ''children'' tended
to view the worst features of 20th-century life -- the bureaucratic
administration of death camps, the environmental threats of technology,
mass social conformity -- as the natural extensions of modern democratic
ideals. Some even flirted with antidemocratic visions of rule by a
philosophical elite. Until fans of Heidegger's work are made aware of the
worrisome effect that his philosophy can have on one's politics, Wolin
warns, ''the sins of the father will be visited upon the daughters and

After the late 1980's, when archival research first exposed the depths of
Heidegger's longstanding faith in what he called the ''inner truth and
greatness'' of National Socialism, many observers assumed nonetheless that
his philosophy, like that of the great logician and anti-Semite Gottlob
Frege, would remain untarnished. But the situation with Heidegger, Wolin
argues, was not so cut and dried. Heidegger believed that Western
philosophy was hopelessly preoccupied with unworldly abstractions like
those of logic -- Descartes, for instance, had singled out disembodied
thought as the defining feature of our existence. For Heidegger, the most
primal aspect of our existence was the practical business of caring for
ourselves in the world, the timebound particulars of our life-and-death
decisions. This is why Marcuse, in a stern letter to Heidegger about his
Nazism, wrote that ''we cannot make the separation between Heidegger the
philosopher and Heidegger the man, for it contradicts your own philosophy.''

This may be, but it's not the end of the story. It's one thing to observe
that Heidegger was a philosopher of practical life, and it's another thing
to claim, as Wolin does, that Heidegger was basically a philosopher of
Hitler's practical life. It's another thing still to trace the political
lapses of Heidegger's students back to this philosophical upbringing.
Nonetheless, Wolin makes a forceful case, drawing expertly on everything
from correspondence between teacher and pupils to subtle readings of dense
academic texts.

In Wolin's view, Heidegger and his students went astray by conflating the
history of philosophy with history itself. Heidegger argued that to neglect
our defining moods and actions, as the tradition of Western reason had
done, was to fall into a type of inauthentic, perfunctory existence. To
gauge the cost of this mistake on society at large, Heidegger looked at
cosmopolitanism, the rights of man, the rise of science -- what he took to
be the social and political counterparts of Western logic and reason -- and
saw nothing but the vulgarities of mass society and a soulless technology
that had supplanted a once glorious soldier ethic. Authentic Being had left
the building. National Socialism would bring it back.

Why did Heidegger's students buy any of this? Partly it was the sheer
magnetism of an extraordinarily talented thinker. Partly, Wolin suggests,
it was because they were secular, assimilated Jews who had staked their
German identity on their mastery of the nation's cultural traditions, and
Heidegger stood as a sort of ''self-proclaimed heir'' to those traditions.

Arendt is Wolin's most dramatic example. But her case is also an example of
the difficulty of what Wolin is trying to argue. Was her conception of
politics as a forum for aristocratic greatness really a rehashing of
Heidegger's idea of politics as an existential proving ground, as Wolin
suggests? Or could it have simply been the result of a passion for the
ancient Greek polis that she shared with her mentor? Was her notoriously
unforgiving criticism of Jewish collaboration with the Nazis really the
unconscious attempt of a reluctant Jew to absolve her former German lover
of his crimes? Or could it have just been a harsh moral judgment that she
made on the basis of the information in front of her?

These are enormously difficult questions to answer with confidence, not
least because they straddle the boundaries between intellectual, social and
psychoanalytic history. If Wolin's verdicts sometimes come too easily, his
arguments, at their best, provide insightful portraits of the intellectual
evolution of some of the last century's most ambitious political and social

His case against Heidegger's children, though strained at points, sets a
clear standard for those who wish to adopt an informed but cautious stance
toward Heidegger's immense influence.

James Ryerson, formerly an editor at Lingua Franca, is a senior editor of
Legal Affairs.

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