Human, All Too Human – Martin Heidegger

One of a three-part series of BBC documentaries on Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre, first broadcast in 1999.

(details below)

Before watching this documentary I first spent a couple of hours researching Heidegger’s philosophy in Wikipedia, and later I went back online to read about his involvement with the Nazis. Later the same evening I watched a somewhat heated French TV debate between Emmanuel Faye, François Fédier and some others on the subject, so this little project ended up occupying me for a good part of the day.

It could be said that Heidegger is famous for two things: being a philosopher and being a Nazi, and the latter aspect receives at least as much attention in this documentary as the former. Not so surprising, as a good scandal involving Nazis, betrayal and guilt makes for much better television than the words of a philosopher – especially one as obscure and difficult to understand as Martin Heidegger. In contrast to the programme about Nietzsche, which I’d seen a couple of days previously, no attempt was made here to paint a favourable picture of Heidegger. As far as the makers of this programme were concerned, Heidegger was an out and out Nazi who’d simply tried to minimalise the extent of his enthusiasm after the war, and had managed to get away with it. Reading the Wikipedia article on ‘Martin Heidegger and Nazism’, however, I found that it’s still a pretty controversial question with seemingly strong evidence on both sides: there seem to be many indications that he remained an enthusiastic Nazi up to the end of the war (and perhaps even beyond), but equally strong evidence for his having done his best, within the narrow limits open to him, to oppose the regime. Any evidence consisting of Heidegger’s own words, however, was invariably ambiguous because of his way of speaking, which was always complicated, obscure, more poetic than scientific and open to very varied interpretation.

As far as his philosophy itself goes, I knew pretty well nothing about it before today, and a couple of hours reading in Wikipedia hadn’t done much to change that. His ideas seem abstract and complicated in the extreme, and for me almost entirely incomprehensible. The documentary added nothing whatsoever to what I already knew, but I hadn’t really expected it to: this isn’t the sort of philosophy you can easily sum up for a general audience, and certainly not in a 50 minute documentary, half of which is devoted to Heidegger’s Nazi past. I was beginning to despair at how little progress I’ve made in philosophy and how far I still have to go before I have any hope of really understanding the ideas of someone like Heidegger, when I started to realise that lots of well-known professional philosophers have had just as much trouble with him as I do. I would in fact go further and say that many philosophers, especially those on the Anglo-American and Analytic side, regard(ed) Heidegger’s ideas as a complete load of rubbish. In spite of being seen as a genius by his followers and as highly influential by just about everyone, the general opinion seems to be that he’s very difficult to read and that the vagueness and complexity of his writing makes it difficult to form an opinion as to his usefulness. I was particularly reassured by this comment from Bertrand Russell:

Highly eccentric in its terminology, his philosophy is extremely obscure. One cannot help suspecting that language is here running riot. An interesting point in his speculations is the insistence that nothingness is something positive. As with much else in Existentialism, this is a psychological observation made to pass for logic.

On the very interesting question of the relationship between Heidegger’s philosophy and that of the Nazis, things are even more difficult, and yet again this is mainly due to his complicated, obscure and often vague use of language. I get the very strong impression that he was himself convinced that his ideas corresponded very well with many of the Nazi ideals, as did those of Nietzsche, and that the new regime could result in a new, re-vitalised civilisation mirroring his ideas. It’s interesting to note that (according to Wikipedia) Heidegger gave many lecture courses devoted to Nietzsche, especially in the 1930s and 1940s, and that they were focused on the posthumously published Der Wille zur Macht. Heidegger considered this work ‘the culminating expression of Western metaphysics’, but it is more generally regarded as a manipulation and a “historic forgery” by Nietzsche’s Nazi sister. The Nazis, on the other hand, didn’t seem to be of the same opinion about Heidegger’s philosophy, and regarded it as too abstract and difficult to be of any practical use to the movement – when they didn’t just write it off as ‘gibberish’, that is. And if Heidegger made any careful steps towards distancing himself from the regime from 1934 onwards, then I think it was due to a disappointment with the practical implementation of the Nazi philosophy rather than because of any doubts about the ideas themselves. The question of anti-semitism is a bit more difficult: even though he was probably anti-semitic in his youth, there’s enough evidence that he didn’t follow the Nazis in this area, and that he had many Jewish friends and did in fact help various Jews to leave the country. There doesn’t seem to be anything directly anti-semitic in his philosophy in any case.

So, yet another interesting character, but I don’t have the impression, so far at least, that I’m likely to learn anything useful from him.

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Details:

title Human, All Too Human – Martin Heidegger
director BBC documentary
released 1999
language English
seen 30/11/2014, on my PC
download / watch online YouTube

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