Friday, January 01, 2010

Nazi Philosophers: Plato, Fichte, Nietzsche, Heidegger

On January 30, 1933, German President Paul von Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler Chancellor. In April, the new Nazi government began dismissing Jewish professors from their university positions, including at least twenty German philosophy professors. On May 1, Martin Heidegger joined the Nazi Party in a public ceremony.

On May 4, Heidegger at Freiburg University began his first lecture for his course on "The Basic Problems of Philosophy." He said that German students had a new purpose:

"It is determined to find discipline and education, to make itself ready and strong for a political and spiritual leadership conferred on it in behalf of coming generations. The question is whether or not we want to create a spiritual world. If we cannot do so, some kind of savagery or other will come over us and we will reach an end as a historical people."

On May 27, Heidegger was inaugurated as rector of Freiburg University in a ceremony with Nazi flags and many Nazi authorities in attendance. In his inaugural rectoral address, "The Self-Assertion of the German University," Heidegger spoke of the need for philosophy to exercise "spiritual leadership" in the present world-historical crisis, so that Germany could fulfil its historical mission as grounded in a new order of being. He concluded by quoting from Plato's Republic.

After his speech, the students pledged their loyalty to Hitler as the leader of the nation. All those present sang the "Horst-Wessel Lied," the anthem of the Nazi Party, as they raised their arms in the Nazi salute, and then they concluded with repeated shouts of "Seig Heil!"

Heidegger never renounced his Nazism or apologized for his active support of the Nazi Party. Even after the war, he continued to affirm the "inner truth and greatness of the movement." That such a prominent philosopher--perhaps even the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century--was a Nazi has created an emotional debate over what this might mean. Recently, a new book by Emmanuel Faye has renewed this debate, because he argues that Heidegger's philosophic ideas continue to promote Nazi-like thinking today. An recent article favorable to the book in The Chronicle of Higher Education stirred anger from Heidegger's philosophic defenders.

There are some big questions here about the relationship between philosophy and politics. Does the support of Nazism by German philosophers show the dangerous tendency of philosophers to support tyranny? If so, what traditions of philosophy are most prone to such mistakes?

Critics of Darwinian science often put the blame for Nazism on the influence of Social Darwinism. But this support for the Nazis among the German philosophers suggests that explaining Nazism as Social Darwinism can't be the whole story. Most of these Nazi philosophers were actually opponents of Darwinian science, because they feared that it promoted a morally corrupting scientific materialism. Against the materialism of modern science, they argued for a metaphysical idealism, which is evident in their interpretations of Nazi ideology.

Hermann Schwarz declared: "The German people have become what the Greeks once were, the human nation to whom the meaning of the universe is linked." Nicolai Hartmann said that Plato was right that "all value is eternal and all meaning eternal meaning." Bruno Bauch agreed with Plato's attack on sophistic relativism and affirmation of "objective values" as set by the eternal Idea of the Good.

For me, this suggests that the evils of Nazism flowed from a metaphysical tradition of idealist utopian philosophy that stretches from Plato to Fichte to Nietzsche to Heidegger.

It's hard to see this, however, if one concentrates just on Heidegger, and fails to see how Heidegger was part of a larger philosophical movement in German history. The controversy over Heidegger's Nazism and the possibility that Nazi ideology was particularly rooted in Heidegger's ideas is misconceived insofar as it ignores the historical circumstances of German philosophy that shaped Heidegger. That broader intellectual history is well studied in Hans Sluga's Heidegger's Crisis: Philosophy and Politics in Nazi Germany (Harvard University Press, 1993).

Sluga shows that most of the prominent German philosophers who stayed in Germany after Hitler's ascent to power publicly supported Hitler and Nazi ideology. 30 German philosophers joined the Nazi Party in 1933. By 1940, almost half of Germany's academic philosophers were Nazis. But since we have forgotten that history, we give too much significance to Heidegger's Nazism as if it were an isolated case. Sluga's history shows that in fact the many German philosophers who became Nazis manifested a wide range of often conflicting philosophical positions. The common assumption that the major philosophical position supporting Nazism was some kind of moral relativism (such as Nietzschean subjective value relativism) is not correct. Many, if not most, of the Nazi philosophers--for example, Nicolai Hartmann, Bruno Bauch, Hans Heyse, Hermann Schwarz and many others in the German Philosophical Society--were Kantian idealists who assumed a metaphysical order of objective eternal values, and who argued that it was the destiny of the German nation to be rooted in that eternal order of value.

This Kantian philosophical idealism of German nationalism as appealing to eternal values goes back to the founding statement of German nationalism--Johann Gottlieb Fichte's Addresses to the German Nation of 1807. Fichte saw Napoleon's conquest of Germany as creating a world-historical crisis in which the metaphysical destiny of Germany to save humanity could be fulfilled only through extraordinary spiritual leadership that ground German life in an eternal order of values. He developed these four themes--crisis, nation, leadership, and order--in the context of his Kantian idealism. Sluga shows that Heidegger's Rectoral Address and all of the other writing of the Nazi philosophers turn on these same four themes.

The alliance of the German philosophers with Nazism manifests the danger in philosophers becoming corrupted by political power, a danger that goes back to Plato and his Republic in his attempt to ground political order in a metaphysical order of cosmic morality. In asserting the need for philosophers to assume "spiritual leadership" in Nazi Germany, Heidegger and the other Nazi philosophers explicitly invoked the teaching of Plato's Republic. Sluga observes: "For the Nazi philosophers, Plato became the most authoritative political thinker and the Republic the most widely read work on political theory" (175).

Heidegger told Karl Jaspers that he wanted to "lead the Leader." He even requested a meeting with Hitler himself. But Hitler was not interested, and they never met.

In Heidegger's writing, all four of the Fichtean concepts--crisis, nation, leadership, and order--assume a transcendental metaphysics, because he sees a "spiritual" meaning in the crisis, in the mission of Germany, in the leadership required, and in the fundamental order that is needed. By speaking of his "spiritual leadership" (geistige Fuhrung), Heidegger appealed to the German idealist tradition for which "spirit" (Geist) was a central theme. So although Heidegger's existential ontology was counter to the German idealist tradition, his metaphysical German nationalism evoked the idealist ideas going back to Fichte.

In the lectures of 1935 that were later published as his Introduction to Metaphysics (Doubleday Anchor, 1961), Heidegger identified Germany as "the most metaphysical of nations" that must move itself and the whole history of the West "into the primordial realm of the powers of being" (31-32) by asking "the fundamental question of metaphysics" as to the meaning of Being (35). In this way, Germany would become the most spiritual of all nations: "For all true power and beauty of the body, all sureness and boldness in combat, all authenticity and inventiveness of the understanding, are grounded in the spirit and rise or fall only through the power or impotence of the spirit. The spirit is the sustaining, dominating principle, the first and the last" (39).

According to Fichte's transcendental rationalism, the history of humanity was the history of reason. In that rational history, Germany was destined to promote true philosophy that would grasp "the eternal archetype of all spiritual life" and thus secure "the education of the perfect man" in the "perfect state." Germany would thus educate its students in the "moral world order." Heidegger and the other Nazi philosophers saw Nazism as fulfilling this Fichtean vision of the metaphysical destiny of Germany.

In his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche continued the metaphysical nationalism of Fichte. The Nazis often cited this book. In his later writings, however, Nietzsche turned against the transcendental metaphysics of Fichte and Kant. But even so, I would say, the later Nietzsche followed the argument of F. A. Lange's History of Materialism in striving to overcome the degrading effects of scientific materialism through "the standpoint of the ideal" by leading Europe towards a new redemptive religion of Dionysus. He thus turned away from the anti-metaphysical Darwinism of his middle writings--Human, All Too Human, Daybreak, and the first four books of The Gay Science--to return in his later writings to the religious longings and metaphysical redemption that he had sought in his youth.

So, despite the conflicts among the Nazi philosophers--between the conservative philosophy of Kantian idealism and the radical philosophy of Nietzsche and Heidegger--they all took for granted the metaphysical German nationalism of Fichte, which they saw as traceable back to the Greek philosophers, and particularly the political metaphysics of Plato's Republic.

The mistake of the Nazi philosophers was Plato's mistake--the mistake of thinking that political order can be grounded in an eternal metaphysical order as discovered by philosophers who then exercise spiritual leadership in politics.

To avoid this mistake, philosophers need to see that philosophy is primarily an exercise in questioning the order of nature and human existence with no hope of finding any absolute metaphysical answers, and therefore the moral and political order of human life must be grounded in ordinary human experience--human desires and needs--rather than any eternal cosmic order. The Socratic life itself--the life of continual questioning--suggests that Socrates was a philosophic skeptic rather than a Platonic idealist.

Nietzsche embraced this Socratic skepticism in his middle writings by denying any claim to metaphysical knowledge and embracing Darwinian evolution as a science of "humble truths." In this Darwinian period of Nietzsche's writing, he saw the philosopher as a "free spirit" or "free thinker" who devotes himself to ceaseless questioning and lives content with tentative answers. This led him to warn against transcendental longings and tyrannical power sanctioned by delusional appeals to metaphysical order. He endorsed liberal democracy as the best regime for such a free spirited philosopher and scientist, because such a regime would leave such people free to think and question.

Oddly enough, this conception of philosophy as perpetual questioning was apparently embraced by Heidegger, but then he tried to argue that the order of primordial questioning of Being could become the metaphysical ground of German political order. He didn't see that philosophy as questioning would throw into doubt any political claim to metaphysical order.

Understanding philosophy as skeptical questioning should have led Heidegger back to the Nietzsche of Human, All Too Human, which would have led him away from the illusory metaphysical certainty of German nationalism, and which would have led him to see that Socratic philosophy is most secure in a liberal democratic regime. Instead, Heidegger asserted that Germany was the metaphysical center of Europe, with America at one end and Russia at the other, and "from a metaphysical point of view," American democracy and Russian Marxism were the same.

We might see here that Leo Strauss corrected Heidegger in seeing the danger of tyranny in Platonic political metaphysics, affirming Socratic philosophy as perpetual questioning without metaphysical certainty, and seeing that liberal democracy might provide the best conditions for such Socratic philosophizing.

But as far as I know, Strauss never recognized how this line of thought leads back to Nietzsche's middle writings as shaped by Nietzsche's insight into how a Darwinian science of evolutionary history supports Socratic philosophic skepticism.

Some of these points about Plato, Nietzsche, and Darwin have been elaborated in previous posts found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.


Greg R. Lawson said...

This is a fascinating read. I think you raise a great point about philosophers seeking metapyhsical certainty and the problems inherent in that as it relates to the embrace and perpetuation of political power based upon such certainties.

However, if the philosophical quest is essentially the Socratic quest for "Truth" through ceaseless examination, it raises a question as to philosophy's ability to facilitate a practicable political order. After all, order cannot be constantly questioned and remain "orderly." To some extent one could argue this was the reason Socrates was forced to drink the hemlock, though I am aware there were also concerns over the authoritarian efforts of some of his students such as Alcibiades.

At the end of the day, political order must have a foundation and man's longing for transcendence offers a foundation that gives man the "meaning" to endure what could seem to be the capriciousness of "nature" cut loose from purpose.

This is a form of idealism, perhaps, even Germanic romanticism, yet it does seem to be an antidote to the trivialization of existence by post-modern relativism.

The tension between the quest for "Truth", philosophically speaking, and the need for a grounded order is real, dangerous, yet ultimately essential.

Paul said...

Being an American and having read Machiavelli's Discourses on Livy, as well as a good portion of the Federalist Papers, I've never really understood Nietzsche's fear of liberal democracy, especially given his high praise for Machiavelli in BGE. However, democracies whose laws don't take their inspiration from Machiavelli might be dangerous enough to Socratic Philosophy to warrant an attempt at Platonic Political Metaphysics to correct them. But obviously Heidigger didn't see it that way.

Also, as for Mr. Lawson's assertion that "order cannot be constantly questioned and remain 'orderly,'" I think that the history of both the Roman and American Republics proves that within a proper institutional framework, order can be constantly questioned without jeopordizing a practicable political order.

Greg R. Lawson said...

In response to Paul,

I agree republics can survive within a "proper institutional framework." The problem is, stresses on the system can often undermine the best institutions and lead to the rise of things like Caesaresque "Dictators for Life."

Obviously, the American Republic has not come to that point, though there may well be questions as to whether or not Lincoln did not act in a quasi-Caesar like fashion in order to maintain the Republic.

Additionally, while I agree Machiavelli was a supporter of republics, he did understand that the need to establish such orders may require more "Princely" actions.

I would argue, that all human institutions are inherently frail. That frailty may not be immediately exposed, indeed it may be well hidden for generations as certain stresses remain subacute. However, the tensions within man lead to explosions that can overturn the best laid "rational" plans.

William said...

Searle recently criticized Heidegger as an idealist and your comments have reinforced the sense in which Searle meant it. Heidegger did not posit the existence of ideals as did Plato and Kant; rather he posited a non existent "Dasein" as an ideal. Heidegger then capitalizes dasein and uses it as a moun predicating attributes to it as if it had identity like an existent. He uses it as if it were an ideal like "God". As such Searle is right in his criticism. Lawson is correct in recognizing that it is an act of will to affirm a non existent as the basis of a philolosphy and build an academic career out of "Nothing". But that is what transcendentalists do.

What I do not understand is how, the opposite view, that instead an transcendentalist origin of ethics a Socratic process can produce an ethics or a politics. Socrates had the advantage of a verbal polis in which by avoiding participation he could avoid ever having to take the affirmative, and lying on his couch just question those who presumed to know in order to act.

Idealism and socratic dialogue are both anathema to Darwin. Darwin understood that by showing man had a natural evolution there was no longer any basis for any transcendentalism especially christianity. He also understood the epistemology of induction and reasoning from facts to reach abstract conclusions. He did not arrive at the concept of natural selection by a questioning process designed to confront a student with their own contradictions. If you apply the deductive and inductive powers of reason, as did Darwin, you can arrive at facts from observation which are the basis of higher level abstractions. Using this process there is only one way to arrive at ethics. Ethics begins with a precise definition of human nature based on man's origin as an animal and his evolved power of reason. The basis of ethics is man must act to eat and the selection of which if any act will best promote his survival, qua man, is only determinable by his personal use of reason.

Biologically his mind has only the ability to contract and release muscles as his means of survival. The ability to contract and release muscles is necessarily volitional and based on the decision by the mind of which muscles for which purpose should instructions be issued.

Volitional muscles presuppose and depend on mental free will. This is man's Darwinian evolved nature. No ethics which does not begin with man as having volition and free will to enable the selection of the actions appropriate for ones own life can claim any Darwinian basis.

It is only 150 years since the publishing of "The Origin" and hard to over throw 2500 years in a few generations but it is happening.

Smith, Tara; Viable Values, ,(Rowan and Littlefield, 2000Oxford, UK)
Pierson and Trout, What is consciousness for? 2005

James Drake said...

That's Emmanuel Faye. Emmanuelle Faye would be a woman.

Larry Arnhart said...

Woops. Must be a Freudian slip . . . a repressed memory of a 1970s soft-porn movie?

Anonymous said...

I think, John Wild's distinguished study "Plato's Modern Enemies and the Theory of Natural Law" gives us much more truths about Plato than this article.
this interpretation of Plato reminds me Karl Popper.

cantueso said...

The Nazi trend is sentimental rather than intellectual and its expression can be found in aesthetics rather than inphilosophical theories.

However, Heidegger's style reflects an aesthete's priorities and gives you the goosepimples if you read him in German.

However, Heidegger's ostentatious lack of interest in Germany's Nazi past is in itself nauseating.

Morgan Louis said...

A few points: Heidegger detested metaphysics, Nietzsche detested Socrates and his influence (see Twilight of the Idols; Nietzsche's entire philosophy is based around the idea that the christian-platonic ideals and utopias are destructive for humanity, leads to nihilism and we would do better to become to Overman and do as we see fit with the world as opposed to longing after an unattainable society. Perhaps the reason you're confusing yourself is the same reason why the Nazis thought they way they did (or rather justified themselves, half-heartedly) and that is a basic misunderstanding of deep, complex philosophy - especially that of Nietzsche. One glimpse at the word uebermensch and you assume it's utopian...jeezo.

These philosophic contradictions picked up by 'Nazi' philosophers could perhaps be explained by the Marxian understanding of historical dialecticism. The economic base in Germany changed and as the rest of the society and culture changed - the thought changed as well. The world determines thought, in other words, and as their world changed so did their thoughts. Rather than some sudden appraisal of The Republic which I think you also grossly misunderstand.