In February 1988, philosophers Jacques Derrida, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe came together in Heidelberg before a large audience to discuss the philosophical and political implications of Martin Heidegger’s thought. This event took place in the very amphitheater in which, more than fifty years earlier, Heidegger, as rector of the University of Freiburg and a member of the Nazi Party, had given a speech entitled “The University in the New Reich.” Heidegger’s involvement in Nazism has always been, and will remain, an indelible scandal, but what is its real relation to his work and thought? And what are the responsibilities of those who read this work, who analyze and elaborate this thought? Conversely, what is at stake in the wholesale dismissal of this important but compromised twentieth-century philosopher?
In 1988, in the wake of the recent publication of Victor Farias’s Heidegger and Nazism, and of the heated debates that ensued, these questions had become more pressing than ever. The reflections presented by three of the most prominent of Heidegger’s readers, improvised in French and transcribed here, were an attempt to approach these questions before a broad public, but with a depth of knowledge and a complex sense of the questions at issue that have been often lacking in the press. Ranging over two days and including exchanges with one another and with the audience, the discussions pursued by these major thinkers remain highly relevant today, especially following the publication of Heidegger’s already notorious “Black Notebooks,” which have added another chapter to the ongoing debates over this contested figure. The present volume recalls a highly charged moment in this history, while also drawing the debate toward its most essential questions.
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About the Author
Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe was Professor of Philosophy at the Universite Marc Bloch, Strasbourg. His many books include Poetry as Experience; Typography: Mimesis, Philosophy, Politics; and, with Jean-Luc Nancy, The Literary Absolute: The Theory of Literature in German Romanticism.
Jeff Fort is Associate Professor of French at the University of California, Davis, and the translator of more than a dozen books, by Jean Genet, Jacques Derrida, Maurice Blanchot, Jean-Luc Nancy, and others.
Jean-Luc Nancy is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the Université Marc Bloch, Strasbourg. His wide-ranging thought is developed in many books, including Portrait, The Possibility of a World, The Banality of Heidegger, The Disavowed Community, and Corpus.
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HEIDELBERG, FEBRUARY 5, 1988
NEUE UNIVERSITÄT, HS 13
CONFERENCE OF FEBRUARY 5, 1988
MIREILLE CALLE-GRUBER: On June 30, 1933, in the Neue Aula of this same building, Heidegger, at the time the rector of Freiburg University, and since Sein und Zeit on his way to achieving world-wide recognition, gave a speech with the title "The University in the New Reich." There was such a large crowd that it became necessary to transmit audio of the speech into another room nearby — as is the case again this evening. Among the listeners was Karl Jaspers, who would later remark, in his Philosophical Autobiography:
As to form it was a masterful speech, as to content it presented a program of National Socialist renewal for the universities. He demanded a total change of the essence of spirit. The majority of professors then holding positions were incapable of accomplishing this new task. In ten years, a new generation of competent academics would be formed. In the meantime, it would be a transitional period. He railed against many aspects of university life, including the high salaries. For this he received thunderous applause from the students and even from a few of the professors. I sat in the front row, at the end, my legs stretched out in front of me and my hands in my pockets, completely still.
This story from Karl Jaspers, describing himself in contrast with the enthusiasm aroused by the program of National-Socialist renewal, says a great deal — or too little — about the atmosphere of that time.
Two accounts of Heidegger's intervention appeared in the newspapers, one in the Heidelberger Neueste Nachrichten, which Guido Schneeberger republished in his collection, the other in the Heidelberger Student, in which the author of the piece is pleased to report "that the words of the speaker did not disappoint the audience and that these words grasped profoundly what is coming to pass in our time [das Geschehen der Zeit] and indicated with clear certainty [mit klarer Sicherheit] what is in the process of becoming [das Werdende]." As for the text of this speech itself, it was never published, contrary to what the book by Victor Farias, Heidegger and Nazism, may claim on this point.
I evoke these details as a reminder. More precisely, I evoke them because this location — Heidelberg, the university — is itself a memory that charges this evening's encounter with a singular significance. As a reminder, then, more than as a way to evoke again a controversial book, the one by Farias, whose errors, not to mention the dishonesty of its conflations, have been denounced by a number of French philosophers, whereas others, particularly Jürgen Habermas, consider it important and, despite its faults, true regarding the essentials.
But what, truly, is essential here? That is indeed the crucial question, and we see clearly enough that a compilation of facts is not sufficient for grasping what is at stake. For if, when it comes to the revisionist theses, it is necessary to have the political vigilance of Habermas, the problem for thought becomes all the more complex when it is posed in the following way: how was it possible for a thinker who is considered to be the greatest philosopher of our time to have engaged in the National-Socialist movement? And still more grave: how could one be silent on his postwar silence, and how could one accept that he never publicly retracted what he had said, thus failing to think the greatest horror that has ever been — the industrial extermination of the Jews?
Could one minimize such a fault and, like Jean Beaufret, separate the man from his work (which Marcuse refused to do)? Hans-Georg Gadamer, in a recent piece published by Le Nouvel Observateur, is categorical:
Did he then feel no responsibility for the terrible consequences of Hitler's seizure of power, the new barbarism, the Nuremberg laws, the terror, the blood spilled — and, finally, the indelible shame of the extermination camps? The answer is a rigorous no.
There is no doubt that in a few moments the debate will take up this concept of responsibility, especially given that the author of those words has indicated to me that the article, precisely on this point, was truncated.
This is indeed the path of reflection opened in recent years by writings that interrogate the responsibility of thought — that is, that enter into a debate with Heidegger's thought and in the terms of this thought. It is there that Jacques Derrida's book Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question is inscribed, as is that of Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Heidegger, Art and Politics: The Fiction of the Political, among others. And in Germany, in addition to the recent book by Karl Löwith, Mein Leben in Deutschland vor und nach 1933, there are studies by Otto Pöggeler, Hugo Ott, and Bernd Martin. Paradoxically, one discovers thus that it is through the thought of Heidegger, and through this process of the Auseinandersetzung whose name he fashioned, that one can attempt to understand — I quote Jacques Derrida — "what avoiding means" and "where spirit escapes deconstruction" and can attempt to think the Nazi crime in its specificity — that is to say, to think the unthinkable: the apocalypse of Auschwitz where, as Hannah Arendt has written, "something happened to which we cannot reconcile ourselves."
Finally, for France today there are perhaps other questions, as well. The incredible agitation the Heidegger "case" has caused there for a few months now, and the passions it has aroused, are no doubt related to the fact that the French are in the process of settling their own accounts with a past that they have never thought through — Vichy, collaboration — and that has resurfaced recently during the Barbie trial, where the anticipated debate was avoided. But one thinks also of the revisionist positions of Robert Faurisson and of the Henri Roques affair; of the Jankélévitch-Sartre affair; and, most recently, of the letters from Beaufret to Faurisson, published in Le Monde, that undermine the image of the Resistance.
In this respect, there is in Lacoue-Labarthe's book a terrible sentence: "Nazism is a humanism insofar as it rests upon a determination of humanitas which is ... more powerful," a sentence that says clearly enough that the Nazi crime is neither a museum object nor the fault of the Other, but that it reveals the totalitarian essence of our Occident.
We can appreciate, then, the extent to which the dialogue to be engaged this evening constitutes an important moment in the advancement of these questions. It is all the more significant in that it integrates two elements that I would like to mention in conclusion: on the one hand, this encounter hearkens back to the one that took place in Paris, in 1981, between Gadamer and Derrida, and that since then has remained without a sequel. On the other hand, its significance is increased today by a double gesture: that of Jacques Derrida and of Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, who have agreed to come here for this discussion, here to Germany and to this university whose importance I recalled a moment ago, and the reciprocal gesture of Hans-Georg Gadamer and of Reiner Wiehl, who from the outset offered to cross into the linguistic territory of French — a generous gesture for which I am infinitely grateful to them, since, without it, this encounter could not have taken place. The force of thought also lies in its exposition; if the discussion had required the intermediary of a translator, it would have had neither the same sincerity nor the same intensity.
This tolerance and this welcoming of the language of the other, which are also yours since so many of you have come to follow this discussion in French, manifest the will to open a dialogue in all its gravity. In short, it is for this openness, which is so emblematic, that I would like to sincerely thank the four participants, certainly, and all of you here.
REINER WIEHL: I will add only a few words to this excellent introduction by Mireille Calle-Gruber, to whom I express my gratitude for having organized this encounter, which is, for all of us, an exceptional occasion. I would also like to extend a warm welcome to our French colleagues, Jacques Derrida and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, whose presence offers the possibility of a discussion between French and German philosophers. I would like to welcome as well the great master of the Heidelberg School, Professor Gadamer. Mireille Calle-Gruber has indicated in a very expressive way, I think, why the Heidegger case causes us such disquiet today — and will no doubt continue to do so, I am sure, in years to come. But regarding this Heidegger case, the stature and the knowledge of our guests guarantee us that reflections of the highest order will be devoted to it, and that the problem of the political will be situated on a philosophical plane — and this is of great importance.
As for the organization of the debate, I would say ... that there is no organization. There is the reality of this discussion, which we are now beginning, and for which we will give ourselves time: all the time necessary. It will last one hour and a half, perhaps more. When the "combatants" are tired, we will take a break, before opening the discussion to the public.
HANS-GEORG GADAMER: I am very grateful to my friend Reiner Wiehl for having already conveyed what is most important: that is, our thanks to our guests, and to the audience for their presence and their attention. We must also ask forgiveness for our French, which is not very pleasant to your ears. I have never lived in a French-speaking country. This is not my fault: it is the history of the world that has prevented it from being otherwise. It is therefore only a French learned at school that I am using here, a French from before the war — the First World War.
I proposed that we hold this conversation in French for, I believe, there is no authentic conversation without dialogism, that is, without the basis of a common language. Hence my decision. And I am grateful that our friends who have come from France have agreed to suffer listening to our pronunciation and our stammering. That is also the reason why I have no text: my French would not be sufficient to the task. It would not be sufficient to the basic standards of style. The license permitted to an improvisation is the only way I can introduce myself into this evening's conversation.
To begin, I will recall how I came into contact with M. Derrida and his friends, in Paris. I was already old, indeed I was already retired, when the first books by Derrida were published. I remember perfectly the day I received the book dedicated to M. Beaufret; a book in which I found, for the first time, a French author who was speaking of Heidegger by beginning with Aristotle. I said to myself, well, now, this is something worth reading and examining. For this was also the tune I had forever been singing to my students and colleagues: there is no point in speaking about Heidegger if one is not familiar with the origins of Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysics. That is why I was drawn from the beginning to the publications of Jacques Derrida. And that is why when I studied the first publications, and his point of departure in Husserl in Voice and Phenomenon, this reading was in a way a return to my own beginnings — to a period when I was under the first impression of the young Heidegger and of Husserl's Logical Investigations, which stimulated me but also provoked me by this abstract Platonism that dealt with the question of meaning-to-say [le vouloir-dire]. Later I began if not to understand, then to enter somewhat into the set of problems touching on Heidegger and the different directions in which this thought led us — and how, to some extent, it also determined us.
The characteristic concept of Jacques Derrida's work, deconstruction, was for me a provocation of the first order, because I understood immediately how one aspect of the term "Destruktion" that resonated in our own ears, in our youth, had in it nothing negative, nothing of a "destroy." "Destruktion": at that time, what was being said in this way was a new opening, where things had long been covered over and hidden, falsified by a long history of Latinization and scholastic conceptualization. "Destruction" became the return to living speech. The term "deconstruction," then, taught me immediately to recognize this connotation that had never come to mind for us when we were listening to the young Heidegger speak of Destruktion. "Deconstruction" wants, it seems to me, to underscore that it is a question not simply of destroying, but also of constructing something. And I believe that this is true, at least in intention, for Heidegger himself, as for all those who were provoked but also stimulated by his thought. That is also the reason why there are no "Heideggerians." Heidegger said it himself several times, and I believe that he was not wrong: the work done by those who imitate Heidegger has no philosophical value. One can certainly develop perspectives, whether contrary, opposite, or similar to the directions of Heidegger's thought, but one could never proceed in the form of an imitation, no more than of an orthodoxy.
I was therefore ready, in sum, to adapt myself to Jacques Derrida and to his own approach to philosophy. No doubt I am not inhabited, as he is, by the conviction that there is a total rupture of communication among men today. Perhaps I am too superficial, or too optimistic, but I am terribly preoccupied with the task that consists in communicating with others — with the youngest, first of all, but with those of my age, as well. This function of rupture seems to me to be one of the concepts that really do constitute a difference from my own approach to philosophical thinking. This has led some to make a distinction by invoking a "hermeneutics of suspicion." And it is true that the hermeneutics that founds my reflection insists on communication and is less interested in the hidden meanings [sous-entendus] of words and of discourse.
This was one of the first problems between us, a problem that it is certainly worth discussing. The point on which this divergence is manifest in an almost polemical manner, not with regard to ourselves, but with regard to the interpretation and appraisal called for by Heidegger's thought, is the problem of Nietzsche, at the moment when he plays a determining role in France — that is, after the Second World War. Jacques Derrida sees in Heidegger's interpretation of Nietzsche a form of continuation, unintended and involuntary, of the tradition of metaphysics and even of logocentrism. I confess that this thought of Jacques Derrida was, for me, a true provocation. For in my view it was precisely in this that Heidegger's great merit lay: having taught me that logocentrism was in a way the destiny of the West. That it was at the foundation of metaphysics, especially, of course, in Aristotelian philosophy. That this logocentrism had constituted, for Heidegger himself, the true invitation to philosophy.
Heidegger was no doubt a religious thinker when he began to develop his own concepts and to comprehend something that is not comprehensible by means of the conceptuality or the metaphysics of the Greeks and of medieval or even modern thinkers. It was then that he risked this metaphysics of finitude or of Sein [being], which is a verb, a temporal expression, and not at all something that one could articulate as das Sein, the Sein: that does not really make sense. And I believe that on this point Jacques Derrida is not very far away in his manner of approaching Heidegger. But perhaps I am underestimating the differences to be found in our common point of departure, namely Nietzsche.
I must confess that for my part I never had any direct contact with Nietzsche in my youth, and Heidegger himself came to Nietzsche later, only around 1930. Of course, Nietzsche had a presence for all of us, and when Heidegger in Sein und Zeit quotes the second of the Untimely Meditations, this was a common reference point for all of us. In contrast, the question of the eternal return, the will to power, the preference for what was in a way incomprehensible in the audacious experiments of Nietzsche's writings, all this had no existence before this second stage in the development of Heidegger's thought. One of the points of debate will therefore also be, no doubt, what we tried to discuss a few years ago in Paris, which concerns the different approaches to Heidegger by way of his interpretation of Nietzsche.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Heidegger, Philosophy, and Politics"
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Table of ContentsForeword by Jean-Luc Nancy
Preface by Reiner Wiehl
Event of the Archive by Mireille Calle-Gruber
Conference of February 5, 1988
Discussion of February 6, 1988
Appendix. Hans-Georg Gadamer, "Like Plato in Syracuse"