The People Versus Martin Heidegger

William E. Hughes

Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 38 (December 1993): 34-38.

Several members of the Philosophy, History, and Political Science faculties at the University of Tulsa recently completed a Martin Heidegger reading group, which read and discussed the principal writings of this important German philosopher. Among the many topics discussed was whether Heidegger’s philosophy is related to his membership in and support of Germany’s National Socialist Party during his tenure as Chairman of the Philosophy Department and Rector at the University of Freiburg in the 1930s.
As a basis for discussion, the group assigned William Hughes, a "civilian" member of the reading group and a former Assistant U.S. Attorney in Boston, to present the case against Heidegger. What follows, in the form of a prosecutor’s closing argument, is his summation. The argument is based on Heidegger’s philosophical works (principally Being and Time and What is a Thing) and on lectures and interviews given by Heidegger before and after the war. References by Mr. Hughes to his cross-examination and to an actual trial of Heidegger are of course imaginary.

May it please the court, members of the jury: It has been my responsibility and privilege in this case to represent the People in the prosecution of Dr. Martin Heidegger, late Chairman of Philosophy at the University of Freiburg.

As the court has just instructed you, I will now present what lawyers call the "closing statement." In that statement, I will put into perspective the evidence we have heard during the several months of trial in this case and show there is but one conclusion reasonable men and women such as you may reach based on the evidence: that Dr. Heidegger is guilty.

The charge framed in the indictment is that the thought of Martin Heidegger bears a logical and necessary connection to his support of National Socialism in Germany in the 1930s and 40s and that his philosophy constitutes an historical cause of that experience, related to it as ideas are to each other and to the events they foster. The issue you must decide is whether he is guilty or not guilty. There is of course no serious doubt about it.

I will do two things in my closing statement: I will first direct your attention to three arguments you may feel tempted to accept in order to conclude that Dr. Heidegger is guilty, and I will ask you to pay no heed to these arguments in the course of your deliberations. Second, I will outline for you three compelling reasons, grounded in the very structure of Martin Heidegger’s thought itself, that show him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

What arguments in favor of guilt am I asking you to disregard, and why am I, the prosecutor, asking you to disregard them? Let me answer these questions in reverse order.

The court has instructed you that the People have the burden of proof in this case and that the burden is to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This is a burden we willingly accept, because we are confident it can be carried—and carried not on superficially attractive grounds, but on Martin Heidegger’s own ground: the implications of his very philosophy. We therefore wish there to be no question that he has been convicted on scrupulously fair grounds. So I will ask you to disregard three things that may seem to support his guilt: the undisputed fact of his support for the Party; the content of his rhetoric; and the manner in which his intellectual descendants have understood what he has to say.

Let me elaborate. When you retire to the jury room, some one of you will say: "Why can’t we take just a peek at what we know Martin Heidegger did after writing his most important philosophical works? He became a National Socialist Party member, followed Party directives as Rector of the university, seemed shamefully unrepentent after the war about National Socialism and his role in it." "May we not properly infer," this juror will ask, "that for an intelligent and systematic thinker for whom internal consistency was surely a virtue, he must have thought his philosophy and politics coincided?" "We would be silly fools," this juror will conclude, "to believe that a thinking man’s ideas and conduct bear no relation to each other."

Now, I admit I find some superficial force in the suggestions of this juror, but you must disregard them wholly and for this reason: it is conceivable, though barely so, that intelligent men may make mistakes or change their minds, and we therefore owe the defendant the benefit of the doubt.

"What about his rhetoric?" another juror will surely ask in deliberations. "When he wrote of ‘the destiny of the German people,’ emphasized the need for a ‘hero’ in the life of a culture, and spoke of the state serving as a disciplining force in society, are we not entitled to say, ‘Why, these are the very properties by which National Socialism defined itself’?"

Given the historical context, no doubt such rhetoric makes the hair on our necks stand on end, and coming from such certifiably evil men as Himmler and Goering might be taken readily as evidence of a coherent worldview. Still, I am once again going to ask you to put your instincts aside and to disregard Martin Heidegger’s rhetoric, and for a very good reason: the judge will instruct you in this case, based on judicial notice he will take, that academics—and particularly academic philosophers—have a strong herd instinct. It is again conceivable, though again barely so, that Dr. Heidegger used such rhetoric simply out of academic fashion.

An instance of our contemporary experience illustrates the point nicely: one may easily imagine how little modification is needed in today’s academic discourse—regarding multiculturalism, group entitlements, racial pride, reductions of all questions to political power, and the like—for such current wisdom to appear to support truly ugly results. And support ugly results such discourse would truly do. But how many academics can fairly be said to be able to resist peer pressure? In the same way, I ask you to disregard the unfortunate phraseology in Martin Heidegger’s philosophy.

Finally, I ask that you not consider evidence presented in this case to the effect that those who consider themselves, in one degree or another, descendants of Martin Heidegger—Sartre, Derrida, Foucault, the Critical Legal Studies faculty at the Harvard Law School—and who seem congenitally unable to criticize politics of a piece with National Socialism, should be found representative of Heideggerian thought.

The reason I ask you to disregard these lineal descendants is self-evident: even though they may have thought of themselves as children of a patriarch of postmodernity, they may have gotten it wrong. What I am asking is not more than what we do for others in our everyday life. Would we impute anti-Semitic meaning to Mein Kampf purely by using the evidence of Brown Shirts and German SS cadres who saw themselves as following its precepts? Of course not! Similarly, I ask that you disregard what Dr. Heidegger’s descendants have said in manifesting his influence.

Which brings me to the marrow of the case against the defendant. Of what does it consist? He directed his efforts of course to ontology, that branch of metaphysics that asks what we mean when we say that something is, and he sought to begin those inquiries by examining the relationship between Being generally and the being we call conscious human existence. How could such esoteric speculation be related to the nasty realities of Nazi politics?

There are, I suggest to you, three central aspects of Heideggerian thought that lead to National Socialism, or something like it.

First, there is an implacable hostility to universals and specifically to the possibility that there is such a thing as human nature.

Remember my cross-examination of Dr. Heidegger? "Dr. Heidegger," I asked him, "is there or is there not such a thing as human nature?"

And how did he respond? To begin with, he treated me like a provincial, or a bumpkin, or a naif, for even asking the question. Then he waffled and spoke on and on about this aspect of human existence he kept calling "Dasein" (a term he had lifted from Kant, it turned out). But I insisted he stick to the point.

"It is a simple question," I demanded, "and I want a simple answer."

And in his answer, he gave his case away: No, he said, with his usual mumbo jumbo; the concept of human nature lacks ontological clarity and has no meaning.

Now, the important and relevant consequence of this denial is the following: If men need not be defined as men by something in their nature as men, but rather may be randomly grouped in categories that are arbitrary or self-selected or merely convenient and without any natural commonality among members from one group to the next, then there is no possibility of human right. So, take your pick as to categories—Rotarians, tax accountants, the bourgeoisie, Republicans, Germans, Aryan Germans, gypsies. The one thing we cannot say, if we are to follow Dr. Heidegger, is that any individual member of one of these groups has a human nature. And the second thing we cannot say is that anything done to any individual is a violation of human right.

Similarly, there is nothing about purpose in Martin Heidegger’s Dasein—a serious failing, I would have thought, for an ontologist.

Remember when I asked him on cross-examination about purpose and whether he should have considered it explicitly rather than ruling it out by implication and omission? I would have thought it a fair question to pose to a philosopher who rather ostentatiously advertises as his stock in trade the acceptance at face value of apparent commonsense phenomena that most folks intuitively believe.

I asked him, "If every Dasein were to have a purpose, then wouldn’t such a purpose become a structural part of its being?" It seemed, after all, essentially the question Plato’s Socrates had pestered his interlocutors with, if not indeed the conclusion Plato’s Socrates had suggested to be true.

Teleological fallacy, Dr. Heidegger sniffed, and he refused to discuss it further. In truth, of course, the defendant proposes a telos of his very own, one he says determines being—death and the nonexistence that he says follows death.

Another way to make my point is this: if man cannot be said to have a purpose, then man for all practical purposes is without purpose, that is to say, purposeless. And if man is purposeless, what does it matter what happens to him? If the being of man lacks purpose as a component, then destroying the being of man has no importance that survives the destruction.

This is at the central axis of controversy in this prosecution, so let me pursue it, if I may. If, as Martin Heidegger says repeatedly, the essence of a man is in his existence alone, then a man has no meaning transcending the bare fact of his existence—that is to say, a man has no meaning beyond the meaning of any other existent thing, such as a spotted owl, a dandelion, or a clod of dirt. Oh, sure, maybe a man, alone among other existent things, is aware of his being, but what bearing has that fact on the issue before us?

So who can be surprised by what happens to men under National Socialism? Where is the principled ground in Martin Heidegger’s thought for objecting to it?

Second, Dr. Heidegger’s philosophy is characterized by a coy ambivalence towards the possibility of ethics or morals beyond self-actualization.

It is possible to read Martin Heidegger as denying altogether the possibility of ethics of any kind, and it certainly seems his intention—if only by routinely putting quotation marks around the terms—to undermine ethics or morals as philosophy has traditionally understood them. I incline in the direction of understanding him to suggest in a covert and probably incoherent way that there is a kind of morality in self-actualization. That is to say, one should exist in a certain—"authentic"—way, with the "should" never explicit, explained, or justified.

But either interpretation convicts him, for just as surely as we ask philosophy to tell us about the nature of being, we look to philosophy to tell us about the nature of right and wrong. "What is virtue?" Socrates asked—or the Good, or whatever name we will give to something having a normative claim on us. And what Dr. Heidegger is telling us rather clearly is that there is no right or wrong, at least none beyond that of self-actualization.

We know from our common experience that men have an intractable tendency to believe there are at least some things describable in terms of right or wrong. But Martin Heidegger, who otherwise takes as valid and at face value and then elevates to a level of high ontological principle everyday phenomena such as fear of death and use of hammers, disregards this basic human inclination and, indeed, implies there is no objective basis behind it.

Let us conceive of it in terms of the useful distinction between freedom-from and freedom-for: Heidegger’s thought gives no indication there is any end toward which freedom of the self might be directed, other than whatever end might be willed arbitrarily by the self. Accordingly, the freedom of the self he makes its own end. This freedom becomes liberating without being obligating. Another way to say it is this: Dr. Heidegger’s philosophy says what I may do, but fails utterly to say what there may be about you that should limit what I may do, and why.

Where philosophy fails to provide a theoretical limit to universal freedom, power provides it. A morality of self, as I could show easily if we had more time, to the extent it does not collapse into solipsism, becomes a morality of power, exercised by an elite over the nonelite. This describes National Socialism perfectly.

Dr. Heidegger’s philosophy, that is, justifies his National Socialism.

Finally, Martin Heidegger’s grimness and despair. A condition of the "unshakable joy" of authentic existence, he says, is anxiety, and specifically a recognition of the nonexistence that will follow death.

Remember that I noted in cross-examination that there appeared to be no material difference between his position and that of Samuel Johnson—that to face the hangman concentrates the mind wonderfully—except that at least Dr. Johnson saw in the formula the possibilities for comic irony. Of course, one could say that there are in Dr. Heidegger’s philosophy the possibilities of tragic irony—think if you will of the unshakable joy flowing from the sober anxiety of those being led to their deaths by National Socialism.

The important point Martin Heidegger makes about human existence is this: Death is the end of existence, which has no significance transcending itself anyway, though compared to nonexistence, existence is somehow better and some present consolation for those of us who happen to exist. In short, death for Heidegger serves as the only universal, and another word for such philosophy is nihilism.

If we doubt what effect this kind of promoted hopelessness has on the functioning of the social order, we have only to look at the plague years, or at the Thirty Years War—or at National Socialism: consensual social institutions cease to function; individuals become agorophobic, if not solipsistic, responding to human injustices not with outrage, but with relief that the injustices have been visited on someone else; and the vacuum becomes filled by men willing to apply force to get what they want from the cowering and phlegmatic many.

Of certain other existential thinkers, it might be said their philosophy is a courageous response to nihilism. But of Dr. Heidegger’s thought we must say it is a celebration and promotion of nihilism. We might grant him to be a decent man whose politics reflected his personal revulsion against the decadence of the Weimar years. But in that case, can anyone doubt that his philosophy and politics perpetuate the very nihilism against the symptoms of which his politics revolted?

So I say I have proved my case: the thought of Martin Heidegger bears a logical and necessary connection to his support of National Socialism and constitutes an historical cause of that experience.

Do I say that but for Martin Heidegger, National Socialism would not have occurred? No, of course not. I could not make such a claim of Himmler. I could not make such a claim of Hitler. Nor do I for a moment suggest that Heidegger’s thought came out of nowhere—rather clearly, I believe, its genealogy is traceable to the Greek sophists. But I can and do say that Dr. Heidegger did his part. The views he articulated with such influence were a voice added to the chorus, amplifying the historical forces and conditions from which National Socialism emerged.

And in a crucial way. What he did was to articulate a system of ideas that paralyzed moral judgment in Germany’s intellectual class. An intellectual class has great leverage in any society, because it is a class of opinion makers. And when the intellectual class falls into error or silence, believing it impossible to characterize events in terms of right or wrong, the thugs take over, with scattered opposition only.

That is what happened in Germany in the 1930s, and that is how the defendant helped it.

I expect opposing counsel will urge three propositions by way of defense. While I will have another opportunity in rebuttal to address these defenses at length and to show why they are wrong, I will alert you briefly to the fact they are coming and ask you to consider their fallacies as you hear them.

First, the defense will argue that the individualism of the defendant’s ethic of self is fundamentally inconsistent with the corporatism of National Socialism. But we know from our modern experience that an ethic of self, if anything, increases the state’s intrusions into the private life of individual man: an ethic of self first weakens and then destroys the institutions and group norms of society, creating a vacuum soon filled by the power of the few through a state they control, unimpeded by any coherent voice in opposition or by any principle of obligation owed by one man to another.

Second, counsel will doubtless assert the just-a-simple-ontologist defense and argue that an ontologist should feel no more obligation to decry National Socialism while pondering the nature of Being than, say, a writer of an algebra book should feel, being free to leave the vetting of ethical problems to the ethicists. Such a contention obviously rises or falls with the extent to which the present defendant’s philosophy remained isolated from its social and political implications, and I believe I have already shown that such an isolation is precisely what Dr. Heidegger’s philosophy lacks. The People’s case here, let it be emphasized, complains not simply of a sin of omission—that Heidegger failed generally to articulate a system of ethics or that he failed specifically to condemn National Socialism—but rather that his philosophy supported National Socialism in an affirmative and active way.

Finally, I expect he will be defended as a mere articulator of process, rather like the efficiency expert or scientist of whom it is said that his "value-neutral" ideas can be put either to good use or bad. I am sure you can see that this defense must fail as well, where we have a process philosophy, as we do here, that excludes the possibility of universals and purpose and so endorses the kind of nihilism we associate with Martin Heidegger’s politics.

As the judge will instruct you, you are to give no consideration to possible sentencing following your verdict, as this is a matter for the court. Accordingly, any defense mention of "censorship" and "witchhunts" is of no relevance. But in fact, I will tell you that censorship is the last thing on my mind, and I intend to urge as the sole sentence a broad publicizing of the fact of a guilty verdict. I rather take the view that we need bad novels in order to learn what makes a good one and that heresies help us shape our views about the nature of truth. But error’s advantages are lost unless we can freely and honestly characterize some things—art objects, ideas—as intrinsically better than others, with the measure of relative merit ultimately transcending individual judgment, and that is all that I ask of you in the present case: to examine what you have heard of Dr. Heidegger’s philosophy and to render a clear verdict that it is full of ideas that seem to be bad because they are dangerous.

You will note I did not say "ideas dangerous because they are bad." I have not attempted today a philosophical refutation of Martin Heidegger’s philosophy, because my burden is to show only its logical connection with historical events. Historical events can suggest the invalidity of an idea by showing it to have dangerous consequences, much as the invalidity of an idea is suggested by the absurdity of its consequences. I certainly will agree that for dangerous ideas it becomes urgent to show them bad in their own terms or a priori. But that urgent task is a task for another day and not for this trial.

Thus, the judge will instruct you that my burden today is not to show what right or wrong consists of, or to demonstrate that there is purpose or meaning in life, or to convince you that such a thing as human nature exists. It is not my burden to show what was wrong with National Socialism, or even to show there was anything wrong with National Socialism. And it is not my burden to show, as I believe I could show, that Martin Heidegger’s ontology is incoherent. Some of these important problems seem easy; others seem difficult, perhaps impossibly difficult. My only burden today is to show that if you do not like National Socialism, then you must also dislike that in Dr. Heidegger’s thought that connects to and promotes it.

By way of conclusion, I would ask that you give the same courteous attention to the arguments of the defense counsel that you have given mine. My opponent has tried many cases and has a reputation for saving the hopeless cause, which is to say making the weaker argument appear the stronger. And who knows? Perhaps he can manage to pull this one out of the fire.

But I don’t think so. I am confident that upon careful deliberation, you will find the defendant guilty.

William E. Hughes is an attorney in Tulsa, Oklahoma.