More than most other philosophers, Heidegger’s life is almost as much a subject of scrutiny as his writings. Part of this comes with the territory of being a founding figure in Existentialism, but 99% has to do with his conduct during and immediately after the National Socialist era in Germany, particularly regarding his membership in the Nazi party, treatment of Husserl, failure to speak out against Antisemitism and steadfast refusal to apologize or admit he had acted poorly, if not immorally.
The BBC covered Heidegger’s life, focusing on his involvement in National Socialism, in their “Human, All Too Human” series, reproduced on YouTube in 6 parts. Here’s the first:
The purpose of the series is biography, not intellectual history, but there’s still some insight into his philosophical work. It touches on Being & Time, but as you might expect, focuses on the Existentialist aspects over the ontological undertaking. Of special note are the interviews of Richard Rorty, Hans Georg Gadamer and Heidegger’s son Hermann.
The show claims without qualification that Heidegger had an affair with Hanna Arendt, which I’m not sure is completely agreed upon. It also allows the commentators to draw some fairly strong conclusions about his Antisemitism and speculate about his vision of the relationship of his philosophy to National Socialist ideology. The anecdotal evidence – letters, the Goering book, the archive documents – are more convincing and damning. As I said in the podcast, at best naive, petty and self-deluded; at worst a Nazi ideologue. And he never apologized or expressed remorse or regret.
The reenactments are unnecessary and I have to say that the speculation about Heidegger’s state of mind may be a bit of a stretch, but where else on TV can you get a sentence that includes the phrase “dense, evocative, strangely worded text”? This story has played itself out in a lot of writing, but there is little to watch about it. I think it is sad, fascinating and unsettling all at the same time. We have talked about the relationship of biography to philosophy in the past and I’m sure will do so again. In Heidegger’s case, the fact that his ideas extended such a power influence over thinkers who also lived through the war (on the right side) and were aware of his participation and equivocation convinces me that his thought isn’t to be discarded due to his actions. I have to respect Hanna Arendt here.