Saturday, March 21, 2015

Heidegger's Götterdämmerung?

The philosopher Martin Heidegger was a Nazi "of the first hour". Red Baron wrote down Heidegger's story on his website Freiburgs Geschichte in Zitaten. In 2014 the philosopher's notebooks, Schwarze Hefte, were published clearly demonstrating his antisemitism.

Following the Nazi takeover Heidegger usurped the post of rector of the University of Freiburg in spring 1933. In his inaugural speech he fabulated: Das Wesen der deutschen Universität kommt erst in Klarheit, Rang und Macht, wenn zuförderst und jederzeit die Führer selbst geführt sind - geführt von der Unerbittlichkeit jenes geistigen Auftrags, der das Schicksal des deutschen Volkes in das Gepräge seiner Geschichte zwingt (The essence of the German university will only achieve clarity, rank, and power if first, foremost, and always the leaders themselves are guided - guided by the relentlessness of that spiritual mission that forces the fate of the German people in the imprint of its history).

Martin Heidegger with Rector's Chain among his taller colleagues and student corps
at the procession for the opening of the winter semester 1933/34 in Freiburg (©BZ).
Erich Kästner whose books the Nazis burned as degenerate literature at the Opernplatz in Berlin on May 10, 1933, commented on Heidegger's speech sarcastically: Möge er der größte Philosoph unseres glorreichen Jahrhunderts sein oder seyn und bleiben! Ich glaube und hoffe, dass ihm eines Tages im Pantheon, Sokrates und Seneca, Spinoza und Kant nicht die Hand geben werden (May he be the greatest philosopher of our glorious century and remain so! I believe and hope that one of these days Socrates, Seneca, Spinoza, and Kant will not shake hands with him in the Pantheon).

At the end of the 19th century the University of Freiburg had created a chair of philosophy with emphasis on phenomenology and hermeneutics. The first chairholder was neo-Kantian Heinrich Rickert followed in 1916 by Edmund Husserl. By his phenomenological thinking Husserl greatly influenced epistemology, aesthetics and sociology. When he retired in 1928 his pupil Martin Heidegger took over. Although Heidegger's role in the Third Reich overshadows his merits as a philosopher Freiburg's "Heidegger Chair" is an institution.

At the beginning of 2015 Freiburg's University decided to scrap the Heidegger Chair changing the position of a tenured professor into a junior professorship. The idea was to attract young philosophers with the possibility transforming the junior post into a full professor in case of merit.

This idea did not please the establishment. A storm broke lose. More than 2600 philosophers signed Professor Markus Gabriel's petition: Save Phenomenology and Hermeneutics in Freiburg carefully avoiding Heidegger's name.

Freiburg's university rector fought back accusing the opponents of adhering with dynastic fervor to a personality cult. He insisted: The fundamental concern of the University of Freiburg is the advancement of young scholars.

In the following Rüdiger Safranski, author of a Heidegger biography and spokesman of Save Phenomenology and Hermeneutics in Freiburg, excused the philosopher: Heidegger gehört 1933 ganz einfach zum intellektuellen Mob, das heißt zu dem Teil der geistigen Elite in Deutschland, dem zu Hitler etwas Erhabenes einfiel (In 1933 Heidegger simply belonged to the intellectual mob, i.e., he was part of the intellectual elite in Germany who came up with something sublime about Hitler). Rüdiger attacked the narrow minds of Freiburg's university who like to do the right thing at the wrong place: Das ist einfach Geschichtsvergessenheit und verrät fehlenden Stil im Umgang mit philosophischen Traditionen (Transforming the Heidegger Chair simply is historical amnesia and just reveals missing style with philosophical tradition).

Red Baron however thinks that a university is not a museum conserving the past but should instead prepare for the future. Milestones once gloriously passed only make sense within past structures. Today it is reasonable to give scholars a good start. It is the younger people who generally have innovative ideas and question outdated conventions.

Heidegger's Götterdämmerung? At the University of Cambridge nobody would transform the Newton Chair*.
*officially known as Lucasian Chair of Mathematics

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