What is Martin Heidegger's philosophy basically about?

Rohkrämer, Thomas: Martin Heidegger. A political biography, 297 pp., Schöningh, Paderborn 2020.

Reading this book is not only educational but also an intellectual pleasure. Seldom does a historian speak as informed as here, in the same breath plausibly and clearly, about the historical circumstances and the factual appropriateness of his subject. And this on a topic that is as complex and difficult as Martin Heidegger's philosophy and political effectiveness. What Thomas Rohkrämer is all about is no less than answering the old question of how Heidegger's philosophy of being and his political stance are connected. And he does this with an astonishing balance between historical evaluation and philosophical discussion. Heidegger's philosophical discussions, the content of which is often just as difficult as he is enlightened by his idiosyncratic language, are not presented here in their metaphysical detachment from historical reality, nor are they flatly leveled on their political and historical function. They retain their own weight and yet invite critical inquiries, which in turn are closely related to their historical impact.

To reproduce the course of Rohkrämer's presentation is neither possible nor necessary here. From the charismatic teacher who showed the disappointed and searching students a new way after the First World War, to reflect on the existing reality, to 'existence', to the university rector who hoped in 1933 to philosophically authenticate the new rulers with his philosophy and political energy To be able to point the way out of the destructive power of nihilistic modernity, up to the cultural critic of the “technical age” after 1945, who never broke from his National Socialist creed even in his seemingly religious orientation towards the “great” German poets and thinkers Hölderlin and Nietzsche , follows an educational path that absorbed a multitude of contemporary topics and concerns and in this sense can be considered significant for the German 20th century until the 1960s.

Rohkrämer's reconstruction of this path of life is sensitive and critical at the same time: He follows the intellectual and linguistic traces of Heidegger's outlook on the world, but then also repeatedly asks critical questions that break up this structure of thought and thus make it up for discussion in the first place. In this way he comes to clear but differentiated assessments: Integrated into the cultural conditions of his time, Heidegger usually took an outsider position, which was supposed to hit the center: as a provincial in the national awakening after the First World War, as a Catholic who came to terms with Church, as an academic who transcends the sphere of influence of the university, and as a modern critic of modernity.

There is no doubt that Heidegger was actively committed to National Socialism and, even after the resignation of his rectorate in 1934, retained essential parameters of the National Socialist worldview. And this even after 1945, when he, threatened by professional bans and marginalization, felt and stylized himself as a victim of the Allied denazification campaign through no fault of his own; yes, ultimately until his death in the 1960s. But Rohkrämer insists that this philosophy did not necessarily amount to National Socialism. His analysis of existence was also to be understood differently. That is plausible, given the effect of Heidegger's work that went beyond National Socialism. But it contradicts Heidegger's self-image, who viewed the National Socialist implementation as a decisive test for the correctness of his philosophy.

Rohkrämer finds a masterpiece in the analysis of his confrontation with Nietzsche and Hölderlin in the late 1930s: In the work of art, Heidegger was able to expose an "occurrence of being" in the modern age, which he did without bothering with the failed and brutal sides of National Socialist rule essentially followed their anti-pluralistic, nationalistic and anti-Semitic basic parameters. However, Rohkrämer then quite rightly objects to Heidegger's heroic interpretation of van Gogh's “shoes” and an ancient Greek temple, stating that these interpretations by no means arise without alternative from the works of art themselves, but are due to a longing for a heroic experience of reality. Such critical reflections are seldom found in historical works and should therefore be highlighted at this point as an example of special merit.

But it is precisely because of such strengths that Rohkrämer's book invites critical inquiries: Ultimately, the main question is whether his central thesis is actually true, that Heidegger's basic philosophical concepts, above all 'being' and 'existence', were so general that they were political could be filled in very different ways (p. 240). On the other hand, it can be argued that his “jargon of authenticity” (Theodor W. Adorno) contained a promise of truth that he could not keep: “Dasein”, for example, is first and foremost every existence, regardless of whether or not it releases a special attitude towards life . For Heidegger, however, this category only gains its philosophical significance because it is heroically and existentially charged, as the National Socialists did. Heidegger was not interested in the unheroic 'existence', because it was not possible to gain the intensity of 'actual' life from which the philosopher was concerned. It was only the heroic existence that transcended the banality of being as it was, as it was bad and right.

In my opinion, Heidegger's central terms remained pathetic empty formulas that served to assure the philosophical seeker of the meaningfulness of his own existence and to give the age an ultimately unreliable guide into the future. That is why it is probably not enough to explain Heidegger's philosophical concepts as politically different. Rather, they evidently had a basic normative tendency that predestined them to work in the spirit of their National Socialist occupation.


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  1. Ruhr University Bochum, Bochum, Germany

    Lucian Hölscher

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Correspondence to Lucian Hölscher.

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Hölscher, L. Rohkrämer, Thomas: Martin Heidegger. A political biography, 297 pp., Schöningh, Paderborn 2020 .. New Polit. Lit. (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s42520-021-00363-1

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