Heidegger and intellectual applicability: the good, the bad and the ugly

© Willy Pragher

In opening this longish Insight text, I want to dwell on another text delivered 85 years ago this week by one the greatest minds of the twentieth century.  This was entitled ‘The Self Assertion of the German University’, and was given on the occasion of Martin Heidegger’s appointment as chancellor of Freiburg University. As an apolitical philosopher, he became active in university and national politics because he felt called to combat what he saw as the dangerous fragmentation of academia and European society at large.  This fragmentation was the result of what Heidegger termed ‘the forgetting of Being’, a 2,500-year-old process initiated by Socrates, whereby value existed not in phenomena themselves, but in what they represented metaphysically, from ethics and religions to techniques and progression.  For Heidegger, this defined the very predicament of Western life: beings without unity, existence without essence, knowledge without understanding, and life without awareness. This condition had reached critical mass in modern society, which had become obsessed with the gathering and manipulation of facts at the detriment to any appreciation of existence.

More immediately, the experience of the massive socio-economic breakdown within post-Depression Germany only added impetus to Heidegger’s belief that he was witnessing the climax of this process. Given his role as a lecturer at Freiburg, it is perhaps unsurprising Heidegger felt that Universities themselves advanced and reflected this breakdown of ‘originary’ thought in their profusion of disciplinary specialisation. However, as a contextual analysis of Heidegger’s address will demonstrate, despite basing his vague formulas for renewal upon parchments of Ancient Greek writings, he was giddily working toward an academic solution that would literally transform the modern world. It is therefore possible to say that Heidegger took up the chancellorship of Freiburg on May Day 1933 because he believed properly harnessed scholars and scholarship could lead in this recovery of a forgotten essence that would remake European culture into a coherent and cohering society. This promise of change was at the heart of his address that fateful.

I feel the circumstances and content of Heidegger’s address pivot upon two fundamental themes relating to academia that are well worth comparing and contrasting with our own environment today. The first theme is explicitly connected to Heidegger’s own background: namely, the role of academia in the modern world.  The second theme is one that has been the subject of much scrutiny in Heideggerian studies but which is not usually directed at scholars collectively.  This centres upon what each of our erudition as an ‘intellectual elite’ – if I may use those dirty words together- what that learning is generally, not specifically, intended to serve and achieve.  In an age of self-referential postmodernism and academics-only conferences, in an age where more than half the world’s top economies belong to corporations not countries and where there now exists a handful of prospects for global annihilation; revisiting issues of scholarly relevance raised by this philosopher seems highly worthwhile.

Indeed, I share his concern that the spirit of our mutual discipline, the Humanities, is changing from a world-view to an occupation at the very moment it is needed most. Prophetically, Heidegger sensed that terrible consequences would follow if philosophy and the arts, as the historic conscience of academia, finally completed their descent from traditionally informing other fields to becoming ones simply in direct competition with them. The aim of this blog is to ponder whether this has or is happening. Unfortunately, as my inquiry into these issues will offer little in the way of new ideas and even less in the way of answers, the litmus test of this paper’s reception will not lie with the subsequent questions it provokes, but the reflection and debate it encourages. It is my hope that this deliberation will move toward Heidegger’s plea to return to the ideals of our common discipline, and away from his goal of joining knowledge with power.

By the time of his address in May 1933, Heidegger’s analysis of academic and social fragmentation finally gave way to a positive programme for change, one in which he was to participate in most enthusiastically.  He came to believe the intellectual had the duty to decisively enter the political fray and impact its events, instead of merely calculating them and passing specialist judgements. Just as importantly, these newly-politicised intellectuals would, in Heidegger’s words that day, “will the essence of the German universities”. These institutions would become hallowed places by literally ‘converting’ modern forsaken individuals into a spiritually united people, through a resolve strong enough to reshape life itself in a way previously unimaginable. Higher learning would fuse intellect and purpose, giving the nation its greatest gift: a community that was whole again, no longer suffering from “their boundless and aimless dispersal in individual fields and corners”.

This itself was a turning point: his political views of university life could be extended to Germany at large. Just as there would no longer be thirty political parties, there would no longer be thirty academic options claiming to be better than the others. There would simply be a united view which everyone could work toward in every occupation, starting, of course, with academia: “the faculty is a faculty only if it becomes capable of spiritual legislation, and, rooted in the essence of its science, able to shape the powers of existence that pressure it into the one spiritual world of the people”.  This science was nothing other than the forgotten knowledge of the Ancient Greeks, the axis of Heidegger’s politico-philosophical ‘turn’, appropriated to the problems of modern culture. In short, Heidegger’s academic studies had become national remedies, solutions to the problem of cultural deterioration wherever he felt it occurred, and a priori answers to any and all obstacles.

This convergence is epitomised by Heidegger’s conclusion. Convinced that this possibility of comprehensive renewal was not without the hazards of sacrifice and commitment, Heidegger ended his address with the phrase “we will only fully understand the magnificence and greatness of this new departure when we carry within us that profound and far-reaching thoughtfulness that gave Ancient Greek wisdom the saying ‘All that is great stands in the storm.’” With this, the audience stood up at Heidegger’s request, pointed their unified fingers toward the new national flag behind him, and shouted a threefold Seig Heil!, before breaking into Nazi anthems under the direction of brown shirted SA members flanking the new chancellor on stage.

Even though I agree with much of Heidegger’s analysis of academic absconding, a point we will consider further on, I also feel it is in many ways indecent to discuss our situation with his, or our allegiances with his. For in the ten months of his chancellorship, he helped initiate the German universities’ political co-ordination with the state; expelled Jewish, Marxist and pacifistic scholars from Freiburg; forced students to support Hitler in national referendums; and helped create the conditions whereby a generation of indoctrinated youth inflicted greater suffering in less time than at any point in recorded history. Far from his own successful post-war reinvention as some sort of appeaser or even critic of the regime, Heidegger’s university leadership simply glorified the Nazi state at the time when its continuance, let alone its crimes against humanity, were by no means fated. The state needed academic Heideggers for legitimacy and stability, and he helped give them both. It is a tragic irony and a serious challenge today knowing that Heidegger’s response to academic impotence and intellectual disengagement helped accelerate genocide. Thus, while his analysis was broadly admirable, I am sure few would disagree that his answer contradicted knowledge and made a mockery of its purpose. But are we faring any better today?

With this question in mind, I would like to place Heidegger aside and return to the two themes I mentioned at the beginning of this paper: the general role of intellectuals in academia and the relevance of academic institutions today.  Indeed, just as I have suggested that Heidegger’s fascistic world-view determined his own path; I will approach these points by presupposing that our morality is strongly refracted through our own ideology. Like fascists, or Marxists for that matter, we view liberalism as containing inherently good values.  But are we too indoctrinated or too blinded to see its underside, or has liberal humanism finally taken us to the ‘end of history’?  Importantly, one analyst recently defined the core of liberalism as freedom, emancipation and non-constraint.  As long as this core is antithetical to prejudice, tries to include rather than abolish the ‘other’, and encourages debating the merits of a policy freely in order to avoid conformity or tyranny, I am proud to subscribe to it.  But are these Enlightenment ideals passionately fought for today?

It can be hard to think so. For most, it is easier to retreat into that infamous ivory tower, built with the tusks of a now endangered species: applicability.  By this I mean that academic specialisation once aspired to be a gestalt product whereby the sum of the parts are greater than the sum of the whole. But instead, this has only created scholarly jargon, self-referential theories, a type of academic currency that measures success on the amount or placement of publications, and an ethic that too often seems unconcerned with the utility of knowledge.  A fitting analogy is that of the sightless, each feeling a part of the elephant, and believing it to explain enough about the massive creature, yet missing its essence entirely.  And the effect is that the words ‘its not my field’ echoes daily within the corridors of the Humanities itself, let alone carrying over to other fields.  Speaking of the research league-tables now controlling university funding, Les Black of Goldsmith’s College has phrased this succinctly: “Scholarly writing has become self-referential and full of convoluted argot. It seems that we are writing too often to impress our peers. This produces a kind of surfeit of metalanguage that passes largely unread from the desktop to the university library.  But in order to be published in the right places, work has to conform to conventions that value academic technique over accessible prose”. This sentiment seems even more pertinent now than when Heidegger voiced his warnings in 1933. But has any of it been noticed enough to matter?

Moreover, does any of this matter?  And if it does, what can we do as a liberal arts community to save this from becoming just another vocation with its own currency? I feel this question can never inform our studies too greatly. So in raising questions about scholarly utility and academic objectives, particularly in the Humanities, I have tried to use Heidegger to illustrate how even my own learning might be generally applicable. Yet I am far from one of the ones on the front lines: I can only aspire to directly comfort victims and advance justice, for instance, in the way that the historian Richard Evans did to Holocaust survivors throughout his week-long expert testimony in the David Irving libel trial.

Heidegger’s prophetic analyses of fragmentation and his disastrous response to it have convinced me that we must carefully navigate between the Scylla of allegiance to institutional liberalism that often mocks the very word, and the Charibdys of head-down specialisation that shuns the well-worn path of engagement, for the pristine enclaves of ineffectual data.  Even if we do choose to ‘enter history’ rather than silence and immediacy, we must also debate how it is possible to fashion a system that does not demand us as an elite to definitively answer exactly what would make life better. This has plagued the implementations of Heidegger’s fascism, Lenin’s Marxism, and now our global liberalism to a degree matched only by the older religious wars and imperialism in the history of the West. If we as a community could reach a resolution, I believe it could allow the Humanities to be truly progressive, to offer something to base knowledge upon and a sincere position to critique from, something to encourage us together in the face of the powerful who use liberalism’s differentialism as a pretext, not as a world-view.

Now, I certainly cannot say what this something is, only that we must not dodge defining it any longer in a world that burns while we fiddle: people are dying ever faster and suffering ever longer, the environment may not support the length of our natural lives let alone those of our children, and the weapons only get bigger, bolder, and uglier. Thinking with and against Heidegger therefore leads me to make an appeal not to our intellectual minds but an appeal to be intellectually mindful, to make not a call to arms but a call to hearts, not an outraged reclaiming or outright rejection, but a compassionate reflection of our role as teachers and learners to be what Albert Camus calls in The Plague ‘true healers’.

And it is with this ‘authentic’ liberal that I wish to finish: someone who saw no division between work and life, someone ostracised by virtually all institutions for adhering to no ideology and supporting no side in the Algerian War, and fittingly, someone who shared Heidegger’s views on growing academic irrelevance but refused to meet with him because of his service to Nazism at Freiburg.  This excerpt is taken from Camus’ 1957 Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech:

The writer’s role is not free from difficult duties.  By definition he cannot put himself today in the service of those who make history; he is at the service of those who suffer it….But the silence of an unknown prisoner, abandoned to humiliations at the other end of the world, is enough to draw the writer out of exile, at least whenever, in the midst of the privileges of freedom, he manages not to forget that silence…None of us is great enough for such a task.  But in all circumstances of life, in obscurity or temporary fame, cast in irons of tyranny or for a time free to express himself, the writer can win the heart of a living community that will justify him, on the one condition that he will accept to the limit of his abilities the two tasks that constitute the greatness of his craft: the service of truth and the service of liberty.

So, in closing, if not us as academics and not us in the Humanities, then what community is left to raise the standard of truthful and unconditional liberal humanism?

Professor Matthew Feldman is the Director of CARR, and Visiting Professor at Richmond, the American University in London. See his profile here:

© Matthew Feldman. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

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