What a gift it is, to have this collection of Greg Johnson’s essays on Heidegger available together in a real book, on real paper! All sorts of readers will appreciate Johnson’s lively, unpretentious, and accessible presentations of Heidegger’s thought, both those who have never read a word of Heidegger—and may thus stand in need of good reasons for doing so—and those, like me, who have been poring over the German philosopher’s writings for years now.
Johnson gives due credit to the best academic commentators on Heidegger, such as Thomas Sheehan and Richard Polt. But there is one decisive respect in Johnson departs from mainstream scholars and proves to be a far superior guide to Heidegger’s thought: his bold, open-minded, and honest treatment of all matters related to Heidegger’s politics.
For Johnson, Heidegger is an “ethnic nationalist,” which means that he believed that “the primary source of meaning in life and the primary source of moral and aesthetic measure is our participation in various ethnic communities—the very things that cosmopolitan, individualist, and technological man is concerned to have left behind” (p. 119).
Those who devote their careers to interpreting Heidegger’s thought must believe that he has something to teach them, something that differs from and challenges the reigning ideas in academia and society at large. But this openness closes down when they encounter Heidegger’s nationalist metapolitics and his radical critique of global liberalism. Discussions of Heidegger’s politics are almost invariably prefaced by overt dismissal, repudiation, or self-righteous censure.
There are probably various motives behind these “politically correct rituals of execration” (as Johnson so aptly calls them): the need to appease leftist critics of Heidegger and protect one’s reputation, perhaps also bad conscience for being intellectually drawn to reprobate philosophers.
Whatever the case may be, I suspect that behind all these strategies for avoiding Heidegger’s ideas about politics—be they pro forma or heartfelt—one will find an as yet unquestioned attachment to the modern understanding of man as an individual subject who believes that he can be free from what is simply given, or “thrown,” to him—things like ethnos, tradition, homeland, and nature—and yet still live a meaningful life.
It is Heidegger who first and most radically brings this modern liberal concept of man into question. Those who are unwilling to follow him down this path thus demonstrate their unwillingness to entertain the possibility that Heidegger may be more or less right in his understanding of the most important things. And if one is not open to that possibility, can one even begin to understand him adequately?
Johnson, however, by virtue of his willingness to learn whatever he can from Heidegger’s nationalist orientation, sheds light on many ideas that become hopelessly distorted and obscure in the hands of those who are unable to question their liberal assumptions about who or what they are as human beings (see, for example, Johnson’s discussion, at once succinct and lucid, of “authenticity” and freedom on p. 124).
To conclude, Johnson’s book leaves me with the hope that others will follow his lead and undertake a more serious, honest, and open-minded confrontation with Heidegger’s thought—and the dangers that beset us, Western men, in the age of technological nihilism.
Anonymous Heidegger Scholar
August 17, 2020
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