Questions concerning Heidegger: Opening the Debate

Critical Inquiry 15 (2):407-426 (1989)

Arnold I. Davidson
University of Chicago
Through the thickets of recent debates, I take two facts as clear enough starting points. The first is that Heidegger’s participation in National Socialism, and especially his remarks and pronouncements after the war, were, and remain, horrifying. The second is that Heidegger remains of the essential philosophers of our century; Maurice Blanchot testifies for several generations when he refers to the “veritable intellectual shock” that the reading of Being and Time produced in him.5 And Emmanuel Levinas, not hesitating to express his reservations about Heidegger, can nevertheless bring himself to say that a person “who undertakes to philosophize in the twentieth century cannot not have gone through Hiedegger’s philosophy, even to escape it.”6 In this century, perhaps only Ludwig Wittgenstein has had a comparable impact and influence on philosophy. I do not mean to deny that one can reject the over seventy volumes of Heidegger’s Gesamtausgabe as worthless, that one can, as with Wittgenstein, find that his work is obscure, indulgent, impossible to read, that nothing in it contributes to philosophy. But both Heidegger and Wittgenstein write in anticipation of this reaction, recognizing that their desires, differently articulated, to overcome philosophy will help to determine how their writing is received. Stanley Cavell’s characterization of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations describes Heidegger as well:Philosophical Investigations, like the major modernist works of the past century at least, is, logically speaking, esoteric. That is, such works seek to split their audience into insiders and outsiders ; hence they create the particular unpleasantness of cults ; hence demand for their sincere reception the shock of conversion.7When combined with Heidegger’s political engagement, the particular unpleasantness of cults and indifference are more than joined. Thus it can seem as though one must either exculpate Heidegger, explain away his relation to Nazism as an aberration from the outside, or reject his thought entirely, declare that his books should no longer be read. In an attempt to begin to confront these issues, Critical Inquiry is publishing this symposium. 5. Maurice Blanchot, “Thinking the Apocalypse: A Letter from Maurice Blanchot to Catherine David,” trans. Paula Wissing, p. 479 of this issue.6. Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo, trans. Richard A. Cohen , p. 42. See also the last line of Gadamer, “ ‘Back from Syracuse?’ “ p. 430.7. Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy , p. xvi; hereafter abbreviated CR. Arnold I. Davidson, a coeditor of Critical Inquiry, is associate professor of philosophy and member of the Committees on General Studies in the Humanities and on the Conceptual Foundations of Science at the University of Chicago. His most recent contribution to Critical Inquiry is “Sex and the Emergence of Sexuality”
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DOI 10.1086/448490
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