Love on Mitchell and Trawny, 'Heidegger's Black Notebooks: Responses to Anti-Semitism'

Andrew J. Mitchell, Peter Trawny, eds.
Jeff Love

Andrew J. Mitchell, Peter Trawny, eds. Heidegger's Black Notebooks: Responses to Anti-Semitism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017. 280 pp. $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-231-18045-0; $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-231-18044-3.

Reviewed by Jeff Love (Clemson University) Published on H-Ideas (July, 2018) Commissioned by Eliah Bures

Printable Version:

Simply as a point of fact, the influence of Martin Heidegger’s thinking can scarcely be matched by any other twentieth-century philosopher in terms of scope and diversity. The same could be said of its divisiveness. If Heidegger was an unavoidable presence in European thought for most of the century, he was all too avoidable in the Anglo-American philosophical community, where his thought was generally treated with disdain and derision. This latter attitude was bolstered by the various “scandals” that arose, from 1987 onward, concerning the extent of Heidegger’s association with National Socialism. These scandals were all the more important because of Heidegger’s immense influence on several controversial figures in French theory (Jacques Derrida above all) whose work had a significant impact in Europe and in the United States during the so-called culture wars that took place in the US in the 1980s. For the opponents of French theory, Heidegger’s association with National Socialism provided a uniquely fertile opportunity to discredit those influenced by him. The pattern that emerged in these initial debates has not changed in any substantial way up to this day. Heidegger’s detractors condemn him and his thought as intrinsically dangerous (to the point that one critic recommends that Heidegger be removed from the canon), whereas his defenders insist that Heidegger’s thought holds insights that can (and should) be insulated from his association with National Socialism.

The publication in 2014 of the initial three volumes of Heidegger’s Black Notebooks (referred to as such merely because the notebooks have black covers) renewed the debate largely by providing additional evidence to Heidegger’s detractors. These notebooks, which seem to form a philosophical diary but are in fact rather more enigmatic, contain a wealth of commentary and are a sort of Heideggerian Zibaldone. They immediately elicited close scrutiny because of warnings made by their editor, Peter Trawny, regarding various anti-Semitic comments. Though relatively few in number (one of the contributors, Richard Polt, counts twenty-seven passages out of 1,753 pages of text), these comments made it impossible for anyone to ignore that Heidegger was an anti-Semite of some kind, a conclusion that, despite considerable previous evidence, still proved shocking to many admirers of Heidegger when the Black Notebooks were first released. Since that time the tenor of the debate over Heidegger’s association with National Socialism has become even more rancorous, focusing largely on what relation Heidegger’s anti-Semitism had to his thought and thus returning to the basic concern of the older debate: should Heidegger (and his progeny) be rejected from the canon or suitably “edited” for future generations?

The book under review, Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, is but one of several recent collections dealing with the Black Notebooks and Heidegger’s anti-Semitism. It contains a highly accessible and valuable contribution to the debate as a whole, providing a nuanced overview of the basic positions that have begun to emerge. The editors are both distinguished Heidegger scholars, and they have brought together an equally distinguished group of contributors. Let me give a brief thumbnail sketch of the book’s content.

The volume contains twelve essays. Trawny opens the collection and introduces his important notion of a “being-historical” (seinsgeschichtlich) anti-Semitism. By this term Trawny means to place anti-Semitism squarely within Heidegger’s narrative of the history of Being as nihilism and thereby within the central narrative of Heidegger’s mature thought. Trawny’s piece is followed by a suite of essays that deal more or less directly with the theme of Jewish cosmopolitanism or worldlessness that Heidegger decried at certain points in the Black Notebooks. Sander Gilman’s essay addresses the sources of Heidegger’s criticisms in the trope of the wandering or cosmopolitan Jew. Eduardo Mendieta then investigates worldlessness within Heidegger’s thought and, like Trawny, places Heidegger’s accusation of Jewish worldlessness within the broader context of Heidegger’s history of Being. The next essay, by Bettina Bergo, pursues the worldlessness accusation with specific attention to the problem of death, developing the potentially explosive claim that for Heidegger Jewish death may well be closer to animal perishing.

This suite is followed by four essays that are somewhat more eclectic. Polt attempts to find a middle ground between condemnation and apology by affirming that Heidegger’s anti-Semitic remarks are not to be dismissed but rather added into his reductive history of Being, along with his broad and crude attacks on other groups like Americans and Christians. Michael Marder notes that Heidegger, who otherwise privileged questioning above all other aspects of thinking, seemed unable to question his own views about Jews. Rather than examining the Jewish question as Karl Marx had done almost a hundred years earlier, Heidegger was content to repeat stereotypes and integrate them thoughtlessly into his thought. Martin Gessman affirms the importance of Heidegger’s association with National Socialism as reflecting Heidegger’s political intentions in the 1930s and his desire, however unrealistic, to be the master thinker of Adolf Hitler’s revolution. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht simply dismisses the Black Notebooks as banal and unworthy of Heidegger’s more substantial philosophical texts.

The final set of contributions turn more directly to the question implicit throughout the volume: what, if anything, can be saved of Heidegger’s thought in light of his anti-Semitism? Peter Gordon affirms the importance of Heidegger’s critique of metaphysics while decrying his inability to free himself fully of a generalizing impulse, realized in his attack on world Jewry, that is essentially metaphysical. Tom Rockmore presents a related argument, suggesting that Heidegger was unable to free his thought, otherwise so dynamic in its undogmatic restlessness, from dogmatic assertions, of which his anti-Semitism is but one example. Robert Bernasconi notes that while Heidegger’s anti-Semitic views were hardly original they constituted an integral aspect of his thinking. Finally, Slavoj Žižek suggests that Heidegger’s anti-Semitic comments were not central to his thinking and that the attacks on Heidegger are aimed more proximately at French theory. He then engages in a brief excursus on trans- and post-humanism to provide a concrete example of where Heidegger’s thought might still contribute to current philosophical debates.

As a whole the volume is a disciplined and careful meditation on Heidegger’s anti-Semitic comments. Not one of the contributors suggests that Heidegger be excluded from the canon, nor does any contributor seek to dismiss the comments as “merely” a reflection of anti-Semitic platitudes of the era, though Gumbrecht’s condemnation of the Black Notebooks as banal comes close to this position. The difference between this manner of treating Heidegger and the latter’s own manner of treating his enemies, perceived or real, is striking, and this difference raises an important question about dealing with Heidegger’s legacy that the volume tends to avoid, perhaps necessarily. The appearance of academic propriety that implicitly holds to notions of fairness and objectivity, which Heidegger himself sought to undermine, appears to impose a problematic fetter on approaches to this most radical thinker. Indeed, one might consider it somewhat absurd to engage in arguments about the exact nature of Heidegger’s anti-Semitism when it is evident that none of the authors approves of it in any form. After all, what insight could possibly excuse anti-Semitism and the cruelty it inflicts and did inflict on millions of people? What kind of thinking is so precious that it must be conserved despite a noxious penumbra? Conversely, how might we defend a more aggressive condemnation of Heidegger?

The true danger (and liberation) of Heidegger is that he put judgments and justifications in question, including, at least implicitly, his own, by suggesting that justification is ultimately not grounded in anything other than a decision or narrative created to conceal the essentially original quality of that decision. In the bold new language of Heidegger, scholarly objectivity and restraint are little more than cant, caution, or self-deception, and they protect scholars from the realization that there is nothing insulated from politics, from combat, from self-assertion. While Heidegger might have deployed the mask of scholarly objectivity when it served him (and he did so in many ways, especially through his astonishing mastery of philosophical technē), the Black Notebooks, perhaps more than any of his other writings, shed this mask and show what lies underneath. Gumbrecht may well be right that what appears is banality, since what emerges is a completely other Heidegger whom the philosophical community influenced by him can embrace only with difficulty, if at all (one thinks of his less guarded claims about German supremacy and the supremacy of his own thought). Thus Heidegger’s call to revolution, change, destruction simply does away with any pretense of fairness, objectivity, or cultural sympathy, all of which are apparently forms of decadence associated with a lost political cunning that Heidegger sought to recuperate, albeit in a suitably veiled form. Hence, if we are to come to anything like an honest encounter with Heidegger’s legacy, we have to challenge our own myths and deceptions; we have to be able to see why Heidegger propagated myths and why he showed us how to undermine them at the same time.

Citation: Jeff Love. Review of Mitchell, Andrew J.; Trawny, Peter, eds., Heidegger's Black Notebooks: Responses to Anti-Semitism. H-Ideas, H-Net Reviews. July, 2018. URL:

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