The philosopher and the Nazi

Martin Heidegger is sometimes thought to be one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century – and a critical figure in the foundation of existentialism. 

He was also a Nazi.

For decades, his defenders have contended that he was a major philosopher, but only a minor Nazi – a member of the party for only a year, and an unwilling accomplice. 

But what if that isn’t true? 

Several new publications, some with new evidence, are suggesting that Heidegger was a more enthusiastic Nazi than he ever admitted, and his defenders ever knew. 

But more than Heidegger the person, they’re suggesting that Heidegger the philosopher is also suspect.

“Drawing on new evidence, the author, Emmanuel Faye, argues fascist and racist ideas are so woven into the fabric of Heidegger’s theories that they no longer deserve to be called philosophy,” Patricia Cohen writes in the New York Times.  “As a result Mr. Faye declares, Heidegger’s works and the many fields built on them need to be re-examined lest they spread sinister ideas as dangerous to modern thought as ‘the Nazi movement was to the physical existence of the exterminated peoples.”’

Intellectually speaking, those are fighting words – and the issue is one with which some Saybrook community members, as students and practitioners of existential psychology, are grappling.

“This is something I continually struggle with,” said Ted Aames, a PhD Psychology candidate in Saybrook’s Humanistic and Transpersonal Psychology concentration program.  “It is a dark shadow that will forever loom over Heidegger and continues to challenge my understanding of his writings and philosophy.”

Particularly concerning to Aames, and to faculty member Kirk Schneider, who teaches existential therapy in Saybrook’s Humanistic and Transpersonal Psychology concentration , is not just Heidegger’s Nazi past, but his silence about it throughout most the rest of his life:  for all his prolific philosophical output, the great philosopher never offered an explanation or justification for his association with the Nazi Party.

“Given his many years of silence on the matter, his affiliation with National Socialism – ‘temporary’ as it was – simply has to be taken into account in the evolution of existential philosophy and  psychology,” Schneider says. 

But what does that accounting mean for psychology?  Psychology faculty member Eugene Taylor, who heads Saybrooks HTP concentration program and specializes in the history of psychology, says that in his view existential psychology has only some of its roots in Heidegger – that is to say, it’s as much “psychology” as it is “existential.”  As a result, he thinks, the field is not terribly effected by Heidegger’s past or the controversy swirling around existential philosophy.

“There was a uniquely American tradition of phenomenologists around William James and existentialists around the transplant Paul Tillich, one of whom was Rollo May,” Taylor says. “Rollo May, Ernest Angel and Henri Ellenberger publishd Existence in 1958, which I take to be the bench mark date for the introduction of existentialism into American psychology and psychiatry.  From there American psychologists such as Snygg and Combs, Jim Bugental, Tom Greening, and Father Adrian van Kaam were more influential in psychology in the US than the continental existential philosophers.  I don’t get that Heidegger was such a big deal in the Americanization of existential/phenomenological psychology.”

A key point that Faye and other critics miss, Taylor says “is that the existential point of view represents the experience of a distinct state of consciousness.  It is not a school of thought, it is the experience of a person in abject despair, or an artist expressing experience beyond the concepts of the rationalists.  For May, it could also be a higher state of spiritual consciousness.”

While Schneider does consider Heidegger an important figure, he agrees that there are key differences that emerged between existential psychology and existential philosophy that likely address a critique of Heidegger’s philosophy.

“There are strains in Heidegger’s thought, that may have foreshadowed his involvement, such as its level of abstraction, and its lack of grounding in close interpersonal relationships,” Schneider says.  Existential psychology, by contrast, is keenly concerned with interpersonal relationships – with acknowledging the importance of the presence of those around you. 

There is also, Schneider says, a strain of passivity in Heidegger’s “call to being” – as if being itself, rather than the person called, is the most important element. 

“While there is certainly something liberating about attending to being in all its ambiguous glory, there is something horrifying about attending to being as if it were a non-ambiguous, absolutist authority, which is what it appears Heidegger did,” Schneider says.  “Perhaps one take-home message here is that the central existential concept of life’s  ambiguity, echoed from Kierkegaard up to Tillich and May, must not be abandoned in contemporary philosophy and psychology, lest the abandonment be at great personal and collective cost.”

Just as important as realizing that existential psychology has already moved to address the concerns now being brought up in Heidegger’s work is the realization that no thinker is ever as pure as history would like.
“Jung, of course, had a similar problem to Heidegger in terms of people’s perception, as did the comparative religionist, Mircea Eliade,” Taylor says.  “But don’t forget that the CIA collaborated with Nazi intelligence, spiriting SS out of Germany and seeing them safely to South America in exchange for Nazi intelligence on the Russians as the War came to a close.”  In a time of great evil, very few people who had to deal with the Nazis came out clean.

Schneider and Aames both agreed that the discussion is a healthy one –and that Heidegger will remain an important figure.  His thought has simply had too much impact for a new movement to write him out of the philosophical cannon. 

Still, Schneider says, “My hope is that I and my contemporaries will heed and draw on these lessons to reassess our own potential blind spots, our own generational junctures.”


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