The King Is Dead: Heidegger’s “Black Notebooks”





Intellectual historian Martin Woessner and LARB philosophy/critical theory editor Arne De Boever invited philosopher Gregory Fried to write an essay about the philosophical repercussions of the recent publication of Heidegger’s private Schwarze Hefte or “Black Notebooks.” The notebooks caused an uproar not so much because they provided further proof of Heidegger’s personal involvement with National-Socialism but because they seemed also to link Heidegger’s thought to anti-Semitism. Fried’s essay investigates these connections and assesses what the notebooks mean for our understanding of Heidegger as well as Heidegger’s legacy today. 

We invite responses to this piece from voices within and beyond the philosophical profession. If you are interested in contributing to a small forum of short position-pieces on this issue, please contact the editors.

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Introduction: From Scandal to Philosophy 

WHY WOULD MARTIN HEIDEGGER (1889–1976), one of the most celebrated and influential philosophers of the last century, embrace National Socialism, one of the most infamous regimes of any century? That question grounds the near universal uproar that has greeted the publication of Schwarze Hefte (“Black Notebooks”), the collective name Heidegger gave to the black-clad books in which he assembled his notes from the early 1930s to the early 1970s. It is all the more striking that this has happened even before the more than 1200 pages of these first three volumes of a planned 12 have been translated into English.[1] 

The first three volumes comprise the Notebooks from 1931 to 1941. They contain writings in a variety of styles, from schematic notes to pithy observations and occasional translations from the Greek, but the great majority are entries ranging from a few paragraphs to essays of several pages. These are not off-the-cuff jottings; Heidegger clearly labored over them carefully, intending them “not as ‘aphorisms’ or ‘worldly-wise adages’ but as discreet outposts” on the path to a momentous new way of thinking he was trying to prepare.[2] The time period covered by the first three volumes encompasses the years during which the National Socialists in Germany rose to power, and the outbreak of the Second World War. Heidegger’s involvement in these world-historical events is well-known: In April 1933, he took on the leadership of Freiburg University under the new Nazi regime, joined the Party in an elaborate public ceremony in May, helped enforce anti-Jewish laws against faculty and students, gave speeches in favor of Hitler’s decisive plebiscite in November — and then abruptly resigned his position as head, or rector, of the university in April 1934. 

That one of the century’s most influential philosophers would seemingly join forces with one of the most barbaric regimes has been the source of endless controversy. Defenders argue it was a short lapse of an unworldly man, one that Heidegger soon regretted — a lapse having nothing to with the philosophy. Detractors, on the other hand, claim that Nazism so infects his thinking that it must be discredited entirely. Of course there are positions between these extremes as well; the Notebooks promised to settle this debate by exposing Heidegger’s private thoughts from the period.

Heidegger certainly speaks here on a variety of topics with a personal frankness rarely seen elsewhere in his work, but two are especially telling. One is that Heidegger explicitly declares, “Thinking purely ‘metaphysically’ (that is, in terms of the history of Being), in the years 1930–1934 I took National Socialism as the possibility of a crossing-over to another beginning and gave it this meaning.”[3] Not only does Heidegger confirm his philosophical understanding of National Socialism’s significance — at least until 1934 — he also acknowledges how early he came to believe this: 1930, three years before the Nazis came to power. His involvement was therefore no trivial opportunism. Secondly, the Notebooks contain several passages (some of which I will discuss below in more detail) that can only be described as anti-Semitic, and not just in an off-hand way, but rather as expressions of Heidegger’s philosophical understanding of history. The immediate question might then well be: if Heidegger’s Nazism and anti-Semitism are confirmed by the Notebooks, then what more is there to know? Why should anyone care now about someone whose thinking can be tied to such abominations? Why not just kick him to the curb? 

One answer as to why we should care is that we just do, as evidenced by the present uproar over the Notebooks. People delight in the tabloid spectacle of a once-famous figure made infamous by their own failings, as we know all too well from our appetite for political scandal. Such morbid rubbernecking ill suits the seriousness of Heidegger’s case, though, because he has indeed been one of the most influential thinkers of the past 100 years. One reason to take the Notebooks seriously, therefore, is to understand how a figure who inspired such a wide following could have held such views — and what this might mean for his legacy. This is a question of intellectual history and influence. While it is important, there remains an even deeper one: whether there is anything left for us to think about in reading Heidegger; whether in the Notebooks or the rest of a body of work that will amount to over 100 volumes, there was something other than Nazism and anti-Semitism at work.

The Hidden King and His Legacy

To answer these questions, we need to understand why Heidegger had the electrifying impact he did.

When he began teaching after the First World War, Heidegger was just another obscure junior lecturer without a secure university position. He had published nothing of note. Nevertheless, in that early period, a strange kind of subterranean fame preceded him. Late in her life, Hannah Arendt, the German-born Jewish philosopher who escaped the Nazi regime in 1933, described what it was like to be Martin Heidegger’s student when he was a young teacher in Marburg, Germany. Heidegger’s strange fame, she explained, was based entirely on the extraordinary effect of his lectures on the old works of the great figures in philosophy—Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and others—which opened up philosophical questions in ways that astonished the students: 

These lectures dealt with texts that were generally familiar; they contained no doctrine that could have been learned, reproduced, and handed on. There was hardly more than a name, but the name traveled all over Germany like the rumor of the hidden king.[4]

When Heidegger finally did publish Being and Time, the groundbreaking work that secured his fame and career nearly overnight in 1927, its triumphant reception stemmed in part from the eight years of students who had expected no less of him than coronation as king in philosophy.

Those students included many who would go on to become influential thinkers in their own right. Ironically, many of them were Jews, such as Leo Strauss, Herbert Marcuse, Karl Löwith, Emmanuel Levinas, Hans Jonas, and Hannah Arendt herself, who was also Heidegger’s lover for a time in the 1920s. Whatever Heidegger’s anti-Semitism was then, he must have kept it quite private. He was clearly adept at wearing a mask for years, even decades. Heidegger’s kingdom extended beyond Jewish students, too, of course. For example, among the Germans, there was Hans-Georg Gadamer, who made important contributions to hermeneutics, the study of meaning and interpretation, and Jürgen Habermas, an avid reader of Heidegger, was one of the few to criticize him openly after the war. Most such students and admirers were shocked when he came out in support of the Nazis, and he managed to convince most of his followers after the war that this episode was merely a brief, clumsy attempt to protect the university until his resignation as its head in 1934. 

Heidegger’s influence soon became international. Among the French, Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism is greatly indebted to Heidegger, as are the deconstructionism of Jacques Derrida and the discourse analysis of Michel Foucault. Americans inspired by Heidegger include the philosopher Hubert Dreyfus, who used Heidegger to challenge assumptions about the pretensions of artificial intelligence, and the filmmaker Terrence Malick, who was a Heidegger scholar before he turned to filmmaking. There is also Heidegger’s wide-ranging impact on academic life in the universities, from literary studies, to architecture, to psychotherapy and theology. Indeed, Heidegger’s reach is global, with long-standing influence from Latin America to Iran, China, and Japan. Particularly remarkable about Heidegger’s legacy is its political diversity, from Leo Strauss on the right, considered the founding inspiration for the neo-conservative movement in the United States, to those on the left such as Sartre and Derrida, who combined Heideggerian ideas with Marxism or forged new intellectual movements, such as deconstruction. Even Herbert Marcuse’s work, which played a key role in the emergence of the New Left and the counterculture of the 1960s through its critique of the dehumanizing effects of mass society, consumerism, and technology run amok, derived in part from Heidegger’s analysis of human beings’ everyday inauthenticity and his critique of modern hyper-rationalism. Heidegger’s diverse influence is all the more striking because, apart from the overt involvement in National Socialism from 1933 to 1934, his publications themselves have had, until recently, virtually nothing to say about political philosophy or ethics conventionally understood. That has changed in the last decade or so, with the posthumous publication of works long locked away, such as the Notebooks themselves. Now the time has come for a reckoning.

The Question 

But what is it, specifically, about Heidegger’s thought that has proven so gripping to so many? His writings are notoriously difficult because of the very peculiar terminology he develops to express his ideas, but once one gets a feel for the core question he wants to ask, one can see that he is seeking to overturn 2500 years of Western thought and that he thinks he needs a new language for a new thinking. That question is announced by the title of the work that made him famous in 1927: Being and Time. In the Notebooks, Heidegger returns often to that book, regretting some of its shortcomings but always reaffirming what remained essential to him: the questionof the meaning of Being as the most fundamental question of all philosophy. Don’t be misled by the capitalization, which is only to distinguish Being from beings in English; for Heidegger, Being is not just some very important being among other things that is the explanatory key to all reality, be it the “Supreme Being” (God) or the formulae of mathematical physics underlying the Big Bang. In English, the question of Being might best be expressed by asking, what does it mean for anything, any being at all, to be? Being, as what it means “to be,” is not itself a being or a thing, however exalted.

According to Heidegger, for nearly 2500 years, the West has answered the Being question in ways that are in some manner indebted to Plato. Plato asked, how is it possible that any being — be it chair, dog, mountain, triangle, law — be meaningful to us in the first place, as what it is or even seems to be? His answer is perhaps the most famous in philosophy: the ideas, a word we have in English thanks largely to Plato. In ordinary Greek, an idea is a thing seen with the eye, a distinct form that distinguishes this being (a chair, say, or a dog, or a square) from that one (a table, or a cat, or a circle) thereby giving the visible world a navigable meaning. Plato’s ideas, however, are seen with the mind’s eye, not the body’s: when we ask what something truly is, be it chair or dog, or mathematical things like triangles and numbers, or even abstractions like law or courage, the answer is not this dog or that triangle or this law or that courageous act, for these are all just transient exemplars; it is the idea of the dog, the triangle, law, or courage. The ideas, as what each thing truly is, transcend the transitory. Being for Plato exists in a realm beyond time, beyond change, beyond the senses; the world of chairs and dogs and triangles on a blackboard, even historical concepts like law, are simply dimmer or brighter reflections of what truly is.

Throughout the Notebooks, Heidegger reaffirms his view that this Platonic misconception of Being as the eternal and unchanging basis of all reality has driven Western thought ever since, even if it no longer uses Plato’s language of the ideas. Following Nietzsche, Heidegger holds that both Judaism and Christianity became carriers of Platonism for the people, with God taking the place of the ideas as the source of all that is real. Modernity set in with Descartes, who made the self-conscious human subject displace God as the touchstone for reality: the methodologies of the sciences decide what really is, and the technologies that the sciences set loose serve the human subject as the presumptive new master of the objective universe (even if a master still in swaddling clothes). Despite how far the sciences may think themselves advanced beyond Platonism, Heidegger’s argument is that they still hold that the meaning of what is must be expressed in the form of timeless laws and formulae, accessible only to the mind, that transcend the seemingly given world around us.

Everything that has happened since Plato Heidegger calls “metaphysics,” his word for all thinking that attempts to explain what it means to be by reference to some thing, some other being, whether that be the ideas, God, the human subject, or the laws of modern mathematical physics. Metaphysics, he claims, has utterly forgotten the simplicity and corresponding difficulty of the question of what it means to be. Being is not the eternal; it is the radically finite: the meaning of Being is bound up with how we interpret what any thing is and all beings are as a whole, but that meaning is always bounded by time for Heidegger. He is the most radical historicist: truth as meaning is not the securing of a subject’s representation as corresponding to an eternal, objective reality; truth is the time-bound unfolding of how the world simply is meaningful to us as historical human beings, embedded in a given time, place, and tradition. The “event” of that unfolding truth is not our subjective possession to control; it happens to us as the overwhelming power of time as it opens up a meaningful historical world to us.

In the Notebooks, Heidegger sharpens a critique of modernity and the West familiar from his other works. He gives the forgetting of the question of Being and the ascent of metaphysics the name nihilism because metaphysics treats that question as if it were nothing. By elevating the human subject to the center of what is, modernity has brought on the fullest expression of metaphysics, which Heidegger calls machination in the Notebooks. Machination aims at the total domination of nature, both as material stuff and as forms of energy, and acknowledges as a “being” only what can be subjected to this domination. The human subject, once so proudly presuming to wield science and technology as the crown and scepter of its own deification, finds itself instead subject to machination as just another resource: “human resources” as we are now pleased to call ourselves. What remains is what Heidegger follows Ernst Jünger in calling the “total mobilization” of all such resources for all domains of activity: industry, war, education, culture, even entertainment, all in service to a titanic will to power. The only standard left is “the gigantic”: that which makes sheer quantity into quality.[5] We bow before the idol of quantity, in stuff and in power, as the only quality that matters. 

The Politics of the Crossing-Over

Throughout the Notebooks, Heidegger describes the trajectory of Platonism that culminates in this titanic nihilism as the fulfillment of “the first inception” of Western history. For Heidegger, an inception is more than a beginning, which can be factually dated on a timeline; an inception is an event that takes hold over the meaning of a historical world for human beings across generations, even millennia. The first inception began when the Greeks first asked the question of Being, but they fumbled it when Plato allowed philosophy to lapse into metaphysics. The Notebooks demonstrate how ardently, even desperately, he hoped for “an other inception,” especially during those early years of the 1930s, when he had thought that National Socialism might be the catalyst for a “crossing-over” to a new history. “What will come, knows no one,”[6] he wrote; no one knows, because it will not be “the” other inception, or even “another” inception, as if it were a definite cyclical occurrence, but rather an entirely “other” inception that cannot be predicted or measured by the standards of the first one. All he knows is that it will require the complete transformation of what it means to be human, away from the self-deifying subjectivism of modernity.

In the entries of the early 1930s, Heidegger thinks the Germans have a special role to play in this overturning of history, but not because of race, as in conventional Nazi doctrine: “Only the German can give new poetic voice to Being.”[7] Through their philosophers, their language, their poets, the Germans alone stand as the decisive counterpoint to the Greeks at the first inception of history; only they, he believes, can see metaphysics through to its bitter end and find a way to express a new mode of thinking. This can only happen, though, if the German people, the Volk, actually grasp this as their decisive historical task. For Heidegger, the Volk is not to be defined racially but rather by its ability to take on this fateful burden and make itself question-worthy, not as a “what” as in the racial conception of human being, but rather as a “who” for whom the epochal questions of the age remain powerfully open by asking, “Who are we?” — and not answering right away with crude biological racism or half-baked folk-history.

This also explains why Heidegger took on the role as head of his university: to lead a new generation onto this path of ending one era and starting another. In the entries of 1933, we feel his excitement: “The university is dead; long live the future school of higher learning for the education of the Germans to knowledge”[8]; and: “The great experience and gladness — that the Führer has awakened a new reality that gives our thinking the right road and its strength for impact.”[9] But there is also doubt: “National Socialism is not a complete and eternal Truth fallen from heaven — taken as such it will become an aberration and buffoonery.”[10] He wants to rebuild the university from the ground up, to take nothing as a given, to unite the faculty and students across the disciplines in a spirit of questioning that seeds the ground for that other inception of history. He sees this task as requiring a hardness and daring for radical change, but everywhere he finds resistance from Spießbürgerei, a word almost impossible to translate: it expresses such a depth of virulent contempt for the cowardice, lack of imagination, and conformism of the many who pretend to be Nazi revolutionaries that “bourgeoisie” or “yuppiedom” would not even scratch the surface of Heidegger’s loathing. “Is it any wonder,” he asks in 1933, “how Spießbürgerei rises up all around, conceited half-culture, petty-bourgeois phony education — how the inner requirements of German socialism are not even recognized and therefore also not desired […]?”[11]

The Notebooks demonstrate the intensity of Heidegger’s ambitions for the Nazi revolution in a way that also makes clear his own hubris, even megalomania: the revolution will succeed only if the German Volk, the youth, the university, even the Nazi Party itself, understand its stakes on his terms, as a decision about the crossing-over from the first to an other inception of Western history as an ongoing question about what it means to be. Even the word “Revolution” is not strong enough for what Heidegger wanted: “Revolutions — these are overturnings of what is already familiar but never transformations into the entirely Other. They can prepare such transformations, but they can also undermine them.”.[12] However dramatic, “revolution” suggests a merely cyclical reversal. Heidegger sought a radical over-turning that would not simply shake things up but plough them under. He wanted a transformation of history and humanity so profound that nothing in the last two millennia would prepare us for it. 

By the late 1930s, the Notebooks demonstrate the inevitable consequences of such extraordinary hubris and risk-taking on the grand scale: a Heidegger lost to bitter despair. Of his tenure as head of his university and the speech he gave to inaugurate it, he says, “the great error of this speech consists in this, that it still assumed that there would be a hidden generation of those ready to question in the context of the German university, that it still hoped to bring them to dedicating themselves to the work of inner transformation.”[13] Heidegger had not failed; Germans, the university, the revolution itself had failed to shoulder the task set for them by history. Virtually nothing and no one escapes his withering scorn and critique. The university is incapable of genuine, creative questioning; the German people fails to find the strength for the essential tasks of thinking; National Socialism caves in to its petty-bourgeois careerists; America represents the full-fledged outbreak of gigantism upon the world stage; racial doctrine emerges as just another manifestation of a modern thinking that reduces what it means to be human to some biological feature that can be adapted to metaphysics’ programs of machination. The only consistent exception to Heidegger’s sweeping condemnations is his beloved German poet, Friedrich Hölderlin, whom he grants the honor of prefiguring the overturning needed by Western history in the confrontation between the Greek inception and what should have been its German rejoinder.

Why Nazism? Why Anti-Semitism?

Even granting Heidegger’s longing for a radical departure in history, why would he embrace the Nazi revolution at its dawn, especially given the Nazis’ grotesque and virulent anti-Semitism? Didn’t the Communists also promise a transformative break with history?

For one thing, the Notebooks show that the Nazi revolution was only an opportunity for Heidegger, a moment when the overturning might be possible, not guaranteed. He was proud enough to think he could become the leader in spirit of this movement, as Marx was to Communism, but the movement failed him and the historical rupture it should have served, not the other way around. Furthermore, Communism itself was, for Heidegger, just another form of Platonism. Much like the Christian end-times and apocalypse, Communism promises an end of history, a complete fulfillment of human destiny. Platonism in all its forms, according to Heidegger, explains what it means to be human as something grounded in a timeless realm beyond history that applies universally to all human beings, whether as created in God’s image, or as bearers of human rights that apply to “all men” — as the American Declaration would have it — or as participants in Communism’s world revolution that would put an end to the question of what humanity has been and will become. To all such movements Heidegger applies the name “liberalism,” not in the parochial, contemporary sense of modern welfare liberalism, but rather in a sense that reaches back to Plato and that defines human “liberty” on the basis of an appeal to timeless and universal truths. In the Nazis, Heidegger thought he had found a movement that would reject universalistic liberalism in all its forms — Christianity, the secular Enlightenment, Communism — in favor of a politics that would root human history in the communal belonging of a finite historical people.

By the end, though, the Notebooks show Heidegger accusing Nazism itself of falling prey to liberalism through its metaphysical reduction of all human differences to race, its treating the Volk as kind of super-subject akin to conventional liberalism’s subjective individual, and its capitulation to the idols of machination and gigantism. For example:

all well-meaning excavation of earlier Volk-lore, all conventional cultivation of custom, all extolling of landscape and soil, all glorification of the ‘blood’ is just foreground and smokescreen — and necessary in order to obscure what truly and solely is: the unconditional dominion of the machination of destruction.[14]

Or, in describing various types of Nazi “science” and propaganda about the Volk:

The disaster here does not lie in one specific doctrine [about the German Volk] but rather in the manner of ‘thinking,’ which is nothing other than the cogito ergo sum [I think, therefore I am] of Descartes applied to the gigantism of the body of the Volk in the following form: ego non cogito ergo sum [I do not think, therefore I am].”[15]

The promise of the Nazi revolution had devolved, for Heidegger, into a kitschy mish-mash of blood-and-soil myth-making, its followers qualified only by their willingness not to think or to question the meaning of modernity.

Heidegger’s anti‑Semitism, in turn, must be understood in terms of what Peter Trawny, the German editor of the Notebooks, has rightly called “an anti-Semitism rooted in the history of Being.”[16] The Notebooks contain several passages that portray the Jews in the standard, stereotypical way as rootless cosmopolitans, globally united in their aims, without genuine allegiance to their adoptive homelands, and skilled at sly calculation. But beyond such crude clichés, there are passages like this one, dating from around 1941:

Even the thought of an agreement with England, in the sense of a division of imperialist “jurisdictions,” does not reach the essence of the historical process that England is now playing out to its end within Americanism and Bolshevism, and this at the same time means within world Jewry. The question of the role of world Jewry is not a racial question, but the metaphysical question about the kind of humanity that, without any restraints, can take over the uprooting of all beings from Being as its world-historical “task.”[17]

The Jews represent, for Heidegger, a global force that uproots Being from its historical specificity, its belonging to peoples rooted in time and place. As such, the Jews are just another representative of Platonic universalism, or liberalism on the grand scale. But they are a dangerous representative — one that includes these other forms, Americanism and Bolshevism — because their machinating rootlessness had become the spirit of the age.

Some further points: Heidegger’s pronouncements about the Jews are relatively uncommon in the Notebooks compared to his criticisms of other groups, movements, and peoples, including Christianity, which he excoriates time and again, and the Nazis themselves, whom he eventually comes to judge as yet another manifestation of metaphysics. Nevertheless, the passage quoted above singles out the Jews for a particular condemnation: as the “kind of humanity” (he does not deign to call them a “people”) that makes uprooting other peoples its “world historical ‘task’” (he cannot even attribute the otherwise noble word “task” to them without scare quotes), presumably through both their machinating rationality and their demands that nations admit them to citizenship on the basis of liberal universalism. Furthermore, while Heidegger does indeed come to criticize Nazism and many other things besides in the Notebooks, he never criticizes the Nazi policies against the Jews. Nor does he explain or apologize, either here or later, for the part he played in such policies in an official position as head of his university from 1933 to 1934. This is unforgivable.

Life after Death?

There is more than one way for philosophers to die. As human beings, they all die, just like the rest of us. As the name for a body of work, they can also die through neglect, refutation, or scorn. Heidegger the man is dead, of course, but is the kingdom of his work dead, too, given the revelations of the Notebooks?

Answering this depends on remembering that the question of Being is as old as philosophy itself, and was never Heidegger’s private property. By taking it up, even in reading him, we are not obliged to respond as he did. Furthermore, that question is no mere academic chestnut: by genuinely confronting Heidegger’s way of posing the question and his obsessively monolithic history of the West as a series of way-stations in a nihilism inaugurated by Plato, we can also confront the questions facing us in this century, if not the millennia lying ahead. “To be or not to be” — that truly is the question we face in the 21st century, and not just as a matter of human survival. It is also the question of Being itself, which encompasses what it means to be human at all. We may rightly despise Heidegger for his anti-Semitism and his Nazism. But who we are, and who we are going to be as human beings in a newly global world, is indeed still very much the question, and we seem allergic even to asking it seriously. It is not just in the Athens of Socrates that the examined life was both the calling and the burden of thinking.

So however we might judge Heidegger the man, it is worth taking stock of how much in crisis we remain after the horrors of the 20th century. One thing to bear in mind is that “fascism” (of which Nazism is only one sub-species) is just a label, a symptom for an affliction of modernity, an affliction that is still with us, hidden behind new names. Fascism is a particularly modern phenomenon, because it arises amidst the uprooting of traditional life at break-neck speed; it announces a longing for belonging that rejects liberal universalism, the rule of law, and mixed government in favor of a rootedness in atavistic identity — be it race, religion, ethnicity, or culture — violence, and unquestioning dedication to a leader. If we want to resist this atavism in its new forms, we must face up to how uninspiring liberal democracy has allowed itself to become as an alternative. Twenty-five years after Francis Fukuyama raised the question of “The End of History?” in the triumph of liberalism at the close of the Cold War, the liberal West has failed again and again to live up to the universalistic promise of that supposed victory. It has failed in Sarajevo and Srebrenica, in Rwanda, in the Congo; it has fumbled its so-called “War on Terror.” American democracy is polarized and paralyzed, unable to face up to the challenges of economic disparity, racism, and its role in the world. Today, the far right is ascending across Europe, with xenophobia and anti-Semitism on the rise. Europe and the United States stand blinking in the face of a Russian irredentism grounded in nationalist mythology and contempt for the rule of law — not that the United States has much of a leg to stand on after a mendacious war of choice in Iraq and a program of torture justified as “enhanced interrogation.” Neoliberal policies have left the global economy in a shambles, and worse, our only operational measure for economic success is growth for growth’s sake and binge‑purge consumerism as the model for happiness. Science in its wider modern sense, as Francis Bacon’s quest for the relief of man’s estate through the technological conquest of nature by reducing all matter and energy to a resource, has brought us to the point that the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change now tells us we have 15 years to halt global warming or the results will be catastrophic and irreversible.

The great physicist Stephen Hawking has said that “philosophy is dead” because it has not kept up with modern science in answering questions like “Why are we here?” and “Where do we come from?”[18] Hawking assumes that philosophy’s job is to serve as the handmaiden to the sciences, to make itself useful in resolving these metaphysical problems and in the conquest of nature. The trouble is that science can tell us what human beings are, as collections of atoms or products of evolution since the Big Bang, but science as such can neither tell us who we are nor provide the moral compass for where we should be going, given that we are here. Philosophy is dead only if we mistake its proper domain. We can and should think the question of Being against Heidegger, and perhaps with Plato and those after him, but if we don’t think the question at all, we will stagger blindly to our fate. As we persist in fouling our own nest in the relentless quest for power upon power and resource upon resource, as we ramp up the apocalyptic lethality of our weaponry, as the march of technology continues to transform even human nature itself, we will in this coming century have to confront the question, “to be or not to be” — and what does it mean to be human upon this earth? If we cannot feel the force of that question, we won’t even get started with an answer.

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Gregory Fried is Professor and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Suffolk University. He is the author of Heidegger’s Polemos: From Being to Politics, and co-translator, with Richard Polt, of several of Heidegger’s works. He is also author, with his father Charles Fried, of Because It Is Wrong: Torture, Privacy and Presidential Power in the Age of Terror, and he is director of the Mirror of Race Project, online at mirrorofrace.org.

 

[1] All translations of the Notebooks here are my own, in collaboration with Richard Polt.

[2] GA 95, 274. In all of the following footnotes, the abbreviation GA refers to Schwarze Hefte. Gesamtausgabe. The number following the abbreviation refers to volumes 94–96 of the Schwarze Hefte.

[3] (GA 95, 408).

[4] Hannah Arendt, “Martin Heidegger at Eighty,” trans. Albert Hofstadter, The New York Review of Books, October 21, 1971; available online here.

[5] (GA 94, 487).

[6] (GA 94, 441).

[7] (GA 94, 27).

[8] (GA 94, 125).

[9] (GA 94, 111).

[10] (GA 94, 114–115).

[11] (GA 94, 135).

[12] (GA 95, 48).

[13] (GA 95, 286).

[14] (GA 95, 381–2).

[15] (GA 95, 299–300).

[16] See Peter Trawny, Heidegger und der Mythos der jüdischen Weltverschwörung (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 2014).

[17] (GA 96, 243).

[18] Matt Warman, “Stephen J. Hawking tells Google philosophy is dead,” The Telegraph, May 17, 2011; available online here.


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