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Richard Polt’s Time & Trauma

5,714 words

Richard Polt
Time and Trauma: Thinking Through Heidegger in the Thirties
Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019

Richard Polt is one of the most distinguished and prolific Heidegger scholars active today. He is the author of one of the best introductory books on Heidegger, Heidegger: An Introduction, as well as a commentary on one of Heidegger’s most difficult texts, The Emergency of Being: On Heidegger’s “Contributions to Philosophy.[1] He has also edited and translated at least ten books, alone or in collaboration. And he is the author of dozens of essays, reviews, and shorter translations.

Polt’s Time and Trauma is the best book yet written on Heidegger’s philosophy and politics during the Third Reich.

Books on Heidegger’s politics basically fall into two categories: offensive and defensive. Anti-Heideggerians like Emmanuel Faye and Ronald Beiner generally disagree with Heidegger’s philosophy and wish to diminish his influence by creating a moral panic about the contagions of Nazism and anti-Semitism, so that timid professors will be hesitant to read and teach Heidegger. Heideggerians like Polt wish to defend Heidegger’s core ideas—and their own academic careers—from the stigma promoted by people like Faye and Beiner. Both groups, of course, never entertain the possibility that Heidegger’s ideas on politics might have some inner truth and greatness.

Polt offers a novel argument for critically engaging rather than merely dismissing Heidegger’s political ideas:

The challenge is not just to interpret Heidegger but to think and act today. The twenty-first century is witnessing a disturbing resurgence of neofascist movements, complete with an intelligentsia that draws on right-wing theorists of the past, including Heidegger. To denounce these developments in the name of morality and liberal democracy is correct and necessary, in my view, but this is no answer to the ideas of those who reject these standpoints. A more adequate and philosophical response goes through Heidegger to grasp the theoretical inadequacies of his stances toward politics, and to show that his best insights of the thirties can be appropriated in support of a pluralistic and free society. (p. 7)

Later Polt writes: “[Heidegger’s] metaphysical diagnosis of Nazism is certainly debatable, but that is a debate worth having, and perhaps a necessary one if today’s racist or neofascist movements are to be combatted intellectually” (p. 195).

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In a note, Polt explains who these “neofascist” intellectuals are: “Heidegger is a popular figure on counter-currents.com, home of Counter-Currents Publishing, purveyor of books by racists and neofascists. In Russia, political theorist Alexander Dugin has enlisted Heidegger in his project of a ‘Eurasianism’ that is profoundly antiliberal, although he denies that it is fascist” (p. 250, n15). Although Polt does not mention me by name, I am the primary person at Counter-Currents writing about Heidegger and political philosophy. Naturally, I am flattered that one of the express purposes of Polt’s book is to intellectually combat people like me. But I was a bit worried he might actually score some points. Hence this review.

In his first chapter, “Into the Happening of Being,” Polt explains how Heidegger’s writings in the 1930s emerge from Being and Time, his unfinished magnum opus published in 1927. Chapter 2, “Passing Through the Political,” spans 111 pages and surveys all the relevant texts, many of them recently published, including the first five volumes of the Black Notebooks. Chapter 3, “Recovering Politics,” is a critique of Heidegger’s politics in which Polt argues that his own liberal-democratic political preferences are consistent with Heidegger’s philosophy. Chapter 4, “Toward Traumatic Ontology,” seeks to restate what he thinks is of permanent value in Heidegger’s ideas of the 1930s. Because of considerations of space, I will focus primarily on chapters 1–3.

Time and Trauma has many virtues. Polt’s scholarship is exhaustive, his prose is fairly lucid (although not as clear as his first two Heidegger books), and his treatment of Heidegger’s most controversial statements is scrupulous and level-headed. But I don’t find his defense of liberal democracy very convincing.

In 1927, Heidegger published Being and Time prematurely and under duress. Being and Time was planned to be in two parts, each with three divisions. The published book consists of the first two divisions of part one, i.e., one third of the total outline. But Heidegger needed to get a book into print to be promoted to full professor at the University of Marburg, so he took what he had written thus far and sent it to Edmund Husserl, who published it as a volume of his journal, Yearbook for Phenomenology and Phenomenological Research.

Then in 1928, Heidegger was offered Husserl’s chair of philosophy at the University of Freiburg, where he remained for the rest of his career. His career was secure, but the unfinished business of Being and Time would hang over his head for years to come, and today there is an academic cottage industry speculating about the relationship of Heidegger’s later work to the unfinished outline of Being and Time.

Being and Time is a work of phenomenology, meaning that it describes the different ways in which objects become present to us. It is also classified as “hermeneutic” phenomenology, because Heidegger claims that all things show up as meaningful. Heidegger uses the word “Being” (Sein) to refer to meaningful presence.

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Heidegger calls his book Being and Time because he claims that “time” is the context or “horizon” of Being. Objects show up as meaningful in terms of our projects for the future, which are in turn based upon our pasts: our language, culture, historical situation, and individual life courses. This sense of “time” is obviously a specifically human phenomenon. If one uses “time” in the ordinary sense of the world, it makes sense to speak about a time before human beings, and human time, existed.

Heidegger claims that man and meaning depend on one another. Meaning cannot exist without man, and man cannot exist without meaning. In the published portion of Being and Time, Heidegger deals with the man-meaning relationship from the point of view of man: how meaning depends upon us. Thus Being and Time has a “transcendental” feel. Like Kant and Husserl, Heidegger describes the universal structures and activities of consciousness that allow things to show up as meaningful.

In the third division of part one of Being and Time, Heidegger planned to approach the man-meaning relationship from the side of meaning, showing how man depends on meaning, specifically meanings that transcend the individual mind. Systems of collective meaning like language and culture loom up over us as authoritative powers, enthrall us, enter into us, shape our consciousness, and open up worlds of meaning.

If the extant parts of Being and Time had a Kantian flavor, with its talk of universal structures of consciousness, the unwritten parts would have had a Hegelian flavor, focusing instead on historically contingent and mutable forms of meaning. This focus characterizes Heidegger’s subsequent publications.

In Heidegger’s words, his approach was shifting “from the understanding of being to the happening of being” (quoted in Polt, p. 1). In other words: shifting from the knower’s understanding of meaning to the historical happening of meaning which shapes the knower. In Polt’s words, “The emphasis is no longer on our constitution—human nature, in traditional terms—but on a transformative event that seizes us and thrusts us into the condition of ‘being-there’ (Dasein)” (p. 2). “Dasein” is Heidegger’s term for the human knower who is constituted by a particular there: a particular time and place. Dasein is a historical being’s particular point of view, not a disembodied subjectivity.

A more ordinary sense of “world” is “everything”: all things, including us, whether we know about them or not, i.e., the universe. When Heidegger speaks of world, however, he means something more akin to the “art world” or the “sports world,” i.e., not just a realm of things, but multiple realms of meaningful things.

Meaningful to whom? To us. To Dasein. The universe can exist without human knowers. But the art world cannot. Dasein makes worlds of meaning possible. “With Dasein, world first happens. Dasein breaks in, and beings are revealed” (quoted in Polt, p. 29). Before there was Dasein, there was just a universe, immense but meaningless, not worlds of meaning.

Since meaning is structured in terms of time, Heidegger also speaks of the creation of worlds of meaning as the emergence of time: “the moment when time opens itself up in its dimensions” and is “torn open into present, past, and future” (quoted in Polt, p. 23).

Heidegger wasn’t really interested in the emergence of Dasein and worlds of meaning within natural history. Instead, in the 1930s, his primary focus is on fundamental changes of meaning within human history. Heidegger uses two main words to describe these changes of meaning: Anfang (beginning, inception) and Ereignis (event). Heidegger’s primary concern is not with the history of things but the history of meaning.

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Nor is Heidegger primarily concerned with the meanings of particular things to particular people, but rather with global meanings, the meaning of everything to everyone. These global meanings are the stuff of metaphysics. Changes in global meanings are fundamental breaks in human history, such as the division of history into BC and AD, or between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, or between the age of Enlightenment and the ages of unreason that came before.

Such fundamental changes in meaning often accompany crises, in which settled orders of meaning break down in the face of realities they cannot grasp, and new meanings emerge. These crises of meaning implicate us as well. They are crises of identity.

All of these ideas form the groundwork for Heidegger’s political involvement. In the 1930s, Heidegger spoke of two inceptions: the first Greek, the second German. The first inception was the beginning of Western philosophy in ancient Greece, which gave rise to the idea of objective knowledge unconditioned by the contingencies of time and place. Philosophy is a view from nowhere. Its homeland is no particular polis, but rather the cosmos, hence the idea of cosmopolitanism.[2] Heidegger treats the second inception as still outstanding, but in truth it began with the German idealist tradition, which stressed that consciousness is finite and historically conditioned, a view from somewhere. Dasein is the finite, historically conditioned knower.

The first inception led, ultimately, to the rise of cosmopolitanism and technological civilization. But Heidegger believed that this civilization was entering a crisis, namely nihilism. Heidegger held that meaning ultimately derives from rootedness in a particular culture and language. The first inception’s idea of objective knowledge destroys such roots, ushering in an age of nihilism. To overcome nihilism, we ultimately need a new inception: a culture and a politics that do justice to man’s finitude and rootedness in concrete ways of life.

This is why Heidegger embraced National Socialism in 1930. In 1933, after Hitler assumed power, Heidegger joined the party and became Rector of the University of Freiburg, where he was charged with implementing National Socialist educational reforms. Heidegger was an enthusiastic but unorthodox National Socialist. His tenure as Rector was stressful and racked by conflict with his colleagues and superiors. He stepped down after a year and returned to full-time teaching.

Polt’s chapter on Heidegger’s politics in the 1930s is so rich that it defies summary. It is the best part of his book and should be read by anyone with a serious interest in this topic.

Heidegger’s political thought basically went through two phases. Early on, Heidegger was what one might call a humanistic historicist. He was historicist because he believed that our thought is rooted in concrete historical traditions and ways of life. He was a humanist because, following Nietzsche, he believed that great philosophers, poets, and statesmen create these traditions and ways of life. His hope was that National Socialism would bring about a new inception, legislating a new culture and way of life.

This viewpoint is, however, implicitly totalitarian and nihilistic. Creating a new culture means setting up new standards of truth and goodness. Which means that such decisions are unconstrained by prior standards of truth and goodness. This implies that the legislator can do anything he wishes and call it true or good.

In practical terms, Heidegger’s view is indistinguishable from Stalinism, which declares the Communist Party and its leaders oracles of truth and goodness, since they are the vanguard of the historical process, which in effect means that the true and good are whatever the state says they are, as long it is expedient.

Later, as Heidegger became disillusioned with Nietzsche and National Socialism, he came to see humanistic historicism as another form of nihilism and unbounded technological machination. Heidegger’s mature philosophy is resolutely anti-humanist. Human subjectivity is not “behind” history, not even the subjectivity of great men. Rather, history is “behind” human subjectivity. Which means that human beings cannot take control over our own destinies and change the course of history. That is the error of all forms of modern technological nihilism, including National Socialism. Instead, we can only wait as modern nihilism burns itself out and a new inception emerges.

Heidegger sums up the course of his thinking in a 1939 entry in his Black Notebooks:

Thinking purely “metaphysically” (that is, in terms of the history of beyng [a translation of the archaic German spelling “Seyn”], during the years 1930–1934, I saw in National Socialism the possibility of a transition into another inception and gave it this interpretation. Thereby I mistook and underestimated this “movement” in its authentic forces and inner necessities as also in the extent and the kind of its greatness. Instead, what begins here is the consummation of modernity as regards the humanization of the human being in self-certain rationality—in a much more profound, that is, more encompassing and gripping way than in fascism. . . . The consummation required the decidedness of the historiological-technical in the sense of the Complete “Mobilization” of all capacities of a humanity that has based itself upon itself. . . . (quoted in Polt, pp. 134–35)

In his Black Notebooks from the Third Reich and other contemporary posthumously published works like Mindfulness (Besinnung) and The History of Beyng, Heidegger systematically dismantles such National Socialist ideas as the people (Volk), nationalism, dictatorship, leadership, struggle (Kampf), cultural politics, Lebensraum, eugenics, and anti-intellectualism, connecting them all to nihilism, machination, brutality, and criminality. Thus, as Polt concludes, “It seems safe to say that by the late thirties, [Heidegger] was no Nazi anymore” (p. 153).

Surprisingly, though, even though Heidegger came to see National Socialism as an expression of nihilism rather than as an alternative to it, he still believed there were grounds to affirm it: “On the basis of the full insight into the earlier deception about the essence and historical essential force of National Socialism, there results the necessity of its affirmation, and indeed on thoughtful grounds” (quoted in Polt, p. 135).

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Heidegger’s rationale for this affirmation is a form of accelerationism. The clash of National Socialism vs. communism and liberal democracy may just be a family quarrel between different forms of technological nihilism, but the greater the conflict, the more likely the downfall of all forms of modernity, which would clear the ground for the emergence of a new inception. In Polt’s words, “If being is essentially ‘catastrophic’ or ‘tragic,’ then we should not fear the collapse of modernity but accelerate it. Downfall can become a transition to the other inception” (p. 146). As Heidegger put it, “Before being can take place in its inceptive truth, being as the will must be broken, the world must be driven to implode, the earth driven to desolation, and man driven to mere labor. Only after this downfall, over a long time, the sudden while of the inception takes place” (quoted in Polt, p. 146).

Polt argues that even Heidegger’s famous remark about the “inner truth and greatness” of National Socialism from his 1935 lecture course Introduction to Metaphysics has this accelerationist meaning. National Socialism is true and great because it has the potential to lead to the catastrophic downfall and self-over-coming of modernity (pp. 154–55). If so, this is a clear example of Heidegger using techniques of “esoteric” communication, since his private conception of “inner truth and greatness” is sharply different from what his audience would have taken him to mean.

So, although Heidegger stopped being a Nazi after 1934, he did not think that the alternatives of liberal democracy and communism were any better. Moreover, he still supported National Socialism because he still thought it would bring about the end of modernity. At first, he believed that it could actually inaugurate a new civilization. Later he believed that it could only destroy the existing order. But that was fine with him. Heidegger wanted the modern world to be destroyed. Which would imply that after the end of the Second World War, Heidegger’s greatest regret was that Germany had been unable to drag her enemies down with her. It seems awfully cold. But Heidegger would probably have argued that modernity’s survival dooms us to far greater horrors before it finally burns itself out.

Once one traverses Polt’s scrupulous survey of Heidegger’s remarks on political topics from the 1930s, it is legitimate to ask: In what sense was Heidegger a political philosopher? Heidegger brought phenomenology to bear on fundamental questions concerning metaphysics, epistemology, mind, language, technology, and the history of philosophy. His views on these matters are relevant to his own antimodernist and ethnonationalist political convictions, as well as to political philosophy in general. One can create a political philosophy on Heideggerian premises. But a political philosophy requires, at minimum, accounts of the basis of political legitimacy and the best political regime. If Heidegger himself worked out a political philosophy he never committed it to paper, at least in the nearly 100 volumes of his Complete Edition published so far. And Heidegger did not stint on paper.

It is tempting to parody Heidegger like Aristophanes mocks Socrates in the Clouds. Heidegger floats high above the political realm in a basket, viewing everything through a long metaphysical spyglass, then declares apodictically that all political systems—liberal democratic, communist, and eventually even National Socialist—are “metaphysically identical.” But couldn’t this identity be merely trivial, a matter of Heidegger’s chosen perspective, thus as fallacious as concluding all cows are black because one views them at night?

Polt’s concern is that “by dismissing all political and ethical judgments in favor of metaphysical ones, Heidegger eliminates any grounds for opposing totalitarianism” (p. 196). This is unfair to Heidegger. First, claiming that all modern political ideologies are metaphysically identical is not to say that they are all morally the same. Just because Heidegger doesn’t deal with the moral dimensions of politics doesn’t mean that others cannot. Second, Heidegger’s metaphysical identity thesis has predictive power. Heidegger believed that all modern ideologies, regardless of their differences, would ultimately converge into a totalitarian dystopia because of their common underlying metaphysics.

What does it mean to say that communism, National Socialism, and liberal democracy are all metaphysically the same? Heidegger understands metaphysics here to refer to the interpretation of man’s relationship to the world.

First, all three systems presuppose a subject (the proletariat, the race, the individual) that thinks of itself as objective and sovereign, i.e., uprooted from historical particularity and prejudice and empowered to transform society in light of its imperatives.

Second, all three systems regard society as an object, as something that can be placed before the subject and transformed according to the subject’s values and plans; this is what Heidegger called “machination” (Machenschaft) in the thirties and “the essence of technology” after the war.

Third, these values and plans may vary, but they are all intellectual constructs, divorced from and at war with concrete traditions and ways of life. But if Heidegger is right that our practical reason—our sense of measure, of limits, of the right thing in the right place at the right time—is sustained by such rootedness, then there is nothing to stop any modern ideology, liberal democracy included, from escalating into an increasingly totalitarian moral crusade against anything that resists it.

Heidegger’s view of human nature is anti-totalitarian because it denies the deepest root of totalitarianism: the world-alienated and world-conquering subject. Instead, for Heidegger, subjectivity is embedded in traditional social practices. We are always part of society. We can’t extract ourselves from it, then subject it totally to our plans. But neither are we in total thrall to these traditions, for they are ultimately practices for understanding and coping with what is new. The moment of application gives ample space for creativity. Moreover, it is both natural and noble to want to improve one’s heritage before passing it on to the next generation.

Thus, although Heidegger never really worked out an account of the best regime, his account of man’s relationship to history places him in the company of traditionalist conservatives like Edmund Burke, Michael Polanyi, and Michael Oakeshott, although Heidegger probably would have rejected the “classical liberal” elements of Polanyi and Oakeshott. Moreover, since subjectivity is embedded in a plurality of different languages and cultures, Heidegger’s politics is inescapably ethnonationalist. Politics is always the expression of a particular people and the worldview and way of life that are second nature to it.

These views were present in Being and Time, so what explains Heidegger’s turn toward National Socialism in 1930? Of course, Heidegger never embraced National Socialism because he thought it was a form of modern technological nihilism. That dawned on him later, after Hitler took power. But we can still ask what inclined Heidegger toward a humanistic historicism that made him receptive to the idea of great men engineering a fundamental change in history. The answer to that is: Nietzsche. According to Hans-Georg Gadamer, Heidegger stated that “Nietzsche ruined me,”[3] and it is important to note that Heidegger settled accounts with Nietzsche at the same time he broke with National Socialism. It is also important to note that Heidegger’s subsequent anti-humanism represents a return to and intensification of the ideas of Being and Time.

Polt’s third chapter, “Recovering Politics,” is a critique of Heidegger’s political thought from a loosely “liberal democratic” perspective. I find it possible to share many of Polt’s concerns without, however, embracing liberal democracy.

Two decades into the twenty-first century, liberal democracy is under pressure from authoritarian, nationalist, and religious movements that are reacting nonphilosophically against trends that Heidegger scrutinized philosophically: an economic and cultural globalization that shows no respect for place and history; an anomie that cuts people off from their roots; the empty seductions of technology. These problems are real—but how do we address them without plunging into the tyranny and bloodshed unleased by the anti-Enlightenment movements of the last century? Heidegger’s reflections remain highly pertinent, but we must guard against abandoning the moral, political, and scientific ideals of the Enlightenment without articulating a responsible alternative. (p. 164).

I don’t think Polt realizes how close his position is to the New Right as I define it. The project of the European New Right is to create a post-totalitarian European identity politics.

If one recognizes that “economic and cultural globalization that shows no respect for place and history; an anomie that cuts people off from their roots; the empty seductions of technology” are problems, you have already rejected the impetus of the entire modern political establishment.

If you wish to put boundaries on globalization, the most natural boundaries are nation states.[4] If you think place, history, and roots matter, then the best kind of state is the ethnostate.[5]

I have no quarrel with the Enlightenment’s advocacy of the mixed regime, religious tolerance, freedom of thought, and upholding reason and science as standards. Here the Enlightenment was merely trying to recover aspects of our classical heritage. The sovereign nation-state is another Enlightenment idea.

The only thing I really quarrel with is Polt blaming the cataclysms of the twentieth century on anti-Enlightenment thought. Communism and liberal democracies have spilled oceans of blood as well, because the twentieth century was a battleground between different forms of technological nihilism. On this point, Heidegger was correct.

Polt discusses three ways in which Heidegger’s political thought can be said to be irrationalist.

First, Heidegger rejects the idea that reason can emancipate itself from its social and historical embeddedness. Polt’s concern is “whether a pluralistic public sphere is compatible with this insight into our condition” (p. 169). But Heidegger does not reject reason as such, just a particular false conception of reason. Heidegger would claim that reason, as the Enlightenment defines it, never actually existed. That doesn’t mean that rational deliberation about politics does not exist. It simply means that we need a better account of how reason actually functions, even though it is embedded within the context of social conventions that it can never fully objectify and criticize.

Second, Polt is concerned that Heidegger’s notion of the inception or event in which radical new meanings emerge and take hold, including new standards of truth and goodness, makes history ultimately unintelligible. But what makes this notion politically problematic is Heidegger’s humanist twist that certain human beings can impose a new inception, which places them above all standards of truth and goodness. However, when Heidegger rejected humanism, this would imply that all human beings exist under obligation to some standards of truth and goodness, although we might disagree about what they entail.

Third, Polt worries that Heidegger puts too much emphasis on the idea of “emergency” (Not), for “a state of emergency is typically invoked to authorize extraordinary powers and suspend normal rights” (p. 163). Both in politics and in life in general, we can’t lay down general rules that anticipate every contingency. When we encounter something that the past has not equipped us for, individuals need to think and act anew. In his final chapter, Polt himself emphasizes how ubiquitous this experience is. Everyone has a sphere in which he is free to decide what to do when rules fail to decide for him. That goes for statesmen as well. This is a feature of every political system, however, although liberalism is deeply uncomfortable about this fact and tends to be in bad faith about it. But deciding without rules need not be unreason. Indeed, an insight into the good in particular circumstances is an essential trait of practical reason.

Polt recognizes that if Heidegger is right about human existence, all politics is inescapably identity politics. But identity politics is a complicated thing. Heidegger regards the identity of a people as a complex mix of race, language, culture, and history. Beyond that, he holds that the identity of a people is never finished and fixed but is instead an ongoing form of life that we should pass on to future generations better than we found it. Moreover, part of who we are is our future, which is in part a set of possibilities.

Polt then asks “if Heidegger understood national destiny as an open question, why did he go so wrong in politics?” (p. 170). Polt worries that Heidegger was “incapable of making any distinctions between a politics that might allow for the free exploration of selfhood and a politics that would shut the question down” (p. 170).  He also remarks that “‘Identity politics’ at its crudest becomes a struggle for power among factions who wrestle against each other, but fail to wrestle with who they are” (p. 171).

Polt seems to think that because identity is a fluid and questionable phenomenon that we can have an identity politics of endlessly discussing and interpreting identity, and nothing else. This, of course, fits nicely with Carl Schmitt’s (scathing) description of liberalism as attempting to turn politics into endless talk in order to avoid the necessity of decision and action. But politics cannot exclude action, so discussion must eventually be ended by decision.

But why should politics move from discussing identity to shutting such discussion down? Why should we move from wrestling with ourselves to wrestling with others? Sometimes, the decision is made for us. We might not choose to have enemies, but sometimes enemies choose us. Enmity arises, in particular, when peoples with different identities have to actually live in the same space under the same government. Polt recognizes this, again conceding quite a lot to the New Right, apparently without knowing it:

A perfectly unified community is impossible. As Aristotle observes, an excess of unity destroys a polis as such, reducing it to a household or an organism (Politics 2.5). But of course, a community of people who have nothing in common would not be a community at all. Divisions can become so intense that a society breaks down in civil war. The question, then, is how much division, diversity, and dissent a community should tolerate, or even encourage. . . . Today, Muslim immigration into European countries has led to passionate debates about how much cultural diversity and change a country can stand before it ceases to be itself. (p. 172)

First, I should note that Aristotle is not talking about ethnic or racial diversity in the passage Polt cites. Instead, he is talking about whether property should be private or held in common.

Furthermore, it is possible for a polity to be—or to become—completely ethnically homogeneous, meaning an extended biological family sharing a common language, culture, and regime. The only question is whether or not such homogeneity is desirable. Polt clearly thinks diversity is desirable, but what is most important about this passage is that Polt concedes that diversity is not unconditionally good. There can be too much diversity, which leads to social conflict and breakdown. And what is the standard by which there can be too much diversity? Apparently, preserving the identity of a nation. Even this much political realism can lead to angry protests and witch hunts on college campuses today.

When diverse peoples stop talking about their identities and actually try to live together in the same system, there are tensions that can lead to violent conflict. The worst-case scenario is genocide, which Polt describes as the attempt to “settle the ‘who’ question in the worst possible way: by murdering those who ‘we’ are not” (p. 170). To avoid genocide, warring tribes need to separate, preferably into their own sovereign states. This is why the New Right advocates ethnonationalism. It is the best way to avoid needless hatred and violence between peoples and ensure their ability to live by their own lights without outside interference.

Polt also takes Heidegger to task for his lack of appreciation for negative freedom, including freedom of association and speech (pp. 181, 193). Heidegger, however, was not unthinking in his rejection of negative liberty. His critique was very much in the German idealist tradition of positive freedom. He emphasized that freedom is only real if concretized in finite institutions:

It is misguided to think one understands freedom most purely in its essence if one isolates it as a free-floating arbitrariness. . . . The task is precisely the reverse, to conceive freedom in its finitude and to see that, by providing boundedness, one has neither impaired freedom nor curtailed its essence.[6]

The “free-floating arbitrariness” of negative freedom can be abject slavery to one’s base appetites if one chooses to be a drug addict. Your boss’s freedom to fire you for your political opinions is your slavery to fear and want—and, as often as not, his slavery to public opinion. Conversely, if the state uses force to jail drug pushers and detox addicts, or to force employers to respect freedom of opinion, that increases freedom. Freedom becomes unfreedom unless the state puts limits on it. One really can be “forced to be free.”

Fortunately, one can make a Heideggerian and positive libertarian case for freedom of speech and assembly, based simply on the fact that since all leaders are finite and fallible beings, we need the freedom to bring them bad news.[7]

Polt also chastises Heidegger for his failure to think about the common good of society and how we might determine it (pp. 60–67, 191). These are just criticisms. Heidegger’s comments on the will of the leader, the will of the people, and how they might relate to the good in his 1933–1934 seminar On the Essence and Concept of Nature, History, and State are so rudimentary that they sound like they are literally occurring to him for the first time. They are the clearest indication that Heidegger really did not have a political philosophy.

But the idea of the common good is the best reason to reject liberal democracy. Liberal democracy tends to destabilize society by making false moral absolutes of freedom and equality. If freedom and equality are moral absolutes, then they must be taken to extremes, because no greater value can trump them. If freedom and equality are absolutes, then any negative consequences of absolutizing them just don’t matter, and liberal democracy degenerates into cults immolating society to false idols. One can value freedom and equality. But one should put a higher value on the common good of society, which must trump freedom and equality whenever a conflict arises.

Time and Trauma is obligatory reading for Heidegger scholars and political theorists interested in Heidegger and the New Right. The strongest parts of the book are the first two chapters, which are largely expository. The weakest parts are the last two chapters, which are critical and reconstructive. Still, I am delighted that Polt chose to critique Heidegger and, by extension, to engage the New Right. I hope that in the future, though, the latter discussions will not be confined to the endnotes.

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Notes

[1] Richard Polt, Heidegger: An Introduction (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997) and The Emergency of Being: On Heidegger’s “Contributions to Philosophy” (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006).

[2] See Greg Johnson, “What’s Wrong with Cosmopolitanism?,” In Defense of Prejudice (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2017).

[3] Hans-Georg Gadamer, “Heidegger und Nietzsche. Zu Nietzsche hat mich kaputtgemacht,” Aletheia 9/10 (1996): 19.

[4] See Greg Johnson, “The End of Globalization,” Truth, Justice, & a Nice White Country (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2015).

[5] See Greg Johnson, “The Ethnostate,” The White Nationalist Manifesto (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2018).

[6] Martin Heidegger, The Metaphysical Foundations of Logic, trans. Michael Heim (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), p. 196.

[7] Greg Johnson, “Freedom of Speech,” Toward a New Nationalism (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2019).

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5 Comments

  1. HamburgerToday
    Posted June 4, 2020 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    Great essay though I wonder if ‘[E]thnonationalism…is the best way to avoid needless hatred and violence between peoples and ensure their ability to live by their own lights without outside interference.‘ Certainly the embrace of a universal ethos of ethnonationalism would be a good start, but not sufficient for the same reasons that Woodrow Wilson’s ‘League of Nations’ (and its progeny the United Nations) failed to keep the peace. As a practical matter, acquiring and applying power to maintain an ethnostate is going to be paramount. My view is that the ethos of ethnonationalism as an intellectual enterprise needs to be leavened with a theory of deterrence as well as an appreciation of the limits of ethnic mitosis.

  2. James O'Meara
    Posted June 4, 2020 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    “Heidegger needed to get a book into print to be promoted to full professor at the University of Marburg, so he took what he had written thus far and sent it to Edmund Husserl, who published it as a volume of his journal, Yearbook for Phenomenology and Phenomenological Research.”

    I have always enjoyed the image of Heidegger, asked if he had anything suitable, swiveling around in his office chair, looking around, shuffling through typescripts, remembering the MS in his desk drawer, and taking out… Being and Time. “Will this do?”

  3. HE
    Posted June 5, 2020 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    Thank you, Greg. One always learns much from your reviews of scholarly books like this, because you have a knack for honing in on what is most significant in the work. This is a book that I will read. Most interesting here for me is Polt’s argument — as you highlight it — that Heidegger welcomes and supports NS after ’34 because it will “accelerate” the end of modernity. That sounds right and Polt must be one of the first to articulate it. However, it is somewhat more complicated than that though. For NS, precisely through the nihilistic-technological unification and “organization” of the Germans — uprooting them, for example, from more local, ancient attachments — at once prepares the people for new or future “determination” and beginning as Germans.

  4. Titus groan
    Posted June 5, 2020 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

    I just wanted to say this is really fantastic. I had some comments but I have so much to read I haven’t had the chance to finish it.

  5. Mike Broutin
    Posted June 13, 2020 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Could it be argued that Jews and Poles as competitive groups and, thus, expression of nature which forced the hand of the Germans to take up materialist struggle, offer concession to metaphysical doubts about the authenticity of modernity? Why would these things, or Lebensraum be simply a machination or criminality? I could only see this as the case if it was assumed that under natural conditions humans didn’t struggle and that a pathological mind like Hitler or Stalin seized hold of the modern state machinery and invented the notion of human struggle which would cause so much misery, but what foolishness to think the state of nature is any better?

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