The Duplicity of Philosophy's Shadow

Heidegger, Nazism, and the Jewish Other

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Elliot R. Wolfson
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , April
     2018.
     336 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780231185639.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Elliot Wolfson’s The Duplicity of Philosophy’s Shadow: Heidegger, Nazism, and the Jewish Other is, in my opinion, the most sophisticated engagement with the “problem” of Martin Heidegger’s Nazism in the English language (surpassing and engaging with even classic treatments like Jacques Derrida, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, and Jean-Luc Nancy). Above all, following Derrida (xiii-xiv), Wolfson aims equally to resist dismissing Heidegger simply as a Nazi ideologue on one hand, or failing to think through his relationship to Nazism, especially in light of his rich philosophical corpus, on the other. Wolfson succeeds quite well in this task. 

The first chapter shows how, “Heidegger allowed his critique of Western metaphysics to become entangled with some of the crudest expressions of anti-Semitism” (29). At the same time, Wolfson notes and explores how Heidegger both opposed elements of Nazi ideology while also showing how Heidegger was, by no means, “articulating Nazi principles intentionally in the guise of his hermeneutic phenomenology” (33). Wolfson does a commendable job showing that—despite his antisemitic remarks, now revealed most infamously in the so-called “Black Notebooks”—there is “no compelling evidence that Heidegger subscribed to the vulgar biological racism of blood and soil” (33). Instead—and it is up to the reader to judge what to make of this point—Heidegger’s antisemitism is grounded in a position that makes recourse to notions of home and homelessness. According to Heidegger, most prominent on his reading of Friedrich Hölderlin, the notion of a homeland—literally: a fatherland, “Vaterland”—is developed as a means to understand nearness to Being, which is, in modernity, already always covered over—most prominently by the spread of technology. Heidegger eventually comes to speak of “language as homeland,” where the “veneration of language as home can only be applied to German because this is the dialect most suited to the poeticizing that discloses the concealment of the event of being in its unconcealment and thereby provides the conditions of Dasein’s historical dwelling on earth” (59). Given that Jews lack such a homeland, and that the Jewish existence is “peripatetic … Jewish existence precludes the possibility of the Jewish people having a land of origin, and by consequence they have no stake in the destiny of being and no historical site for the disclosure of the truth of being, which is the true nature of time” (70). In this way, the question of Judaism and Jews becomes an essentially “metaphysical” question rather than a biological or racial one, and Wolfson notes that this is potentially “an even more deleterious prejudice, as it denies the Jews the possibility of being circumscribed in the hermeneutic circularity of the historical self-understanding of Dasein” (82). 

To my mind, the strand summarized in the aforementioned paragraph forms the core of Wolfson’s book, and subsequent chapters refine and develop various nuances within this basic Heideggerian worldview, noting that above all, Heidegger had a grossly uninformed view of Jewish thought, especially regarding temporality, messianism, and related matters. Indeed, and this is Wolfson’s culminating point, Heidegger’s views are themselves found in elements of Jewish thought, where conceptions of time, analogous to Heidegger’s own, can be found (106). 

This broader point is pursued forcefully in the concluding chapter of the book, where Wolfson presents a reading of elements of the Jewish mystical tradition in order to show how it sometimes conceives of reality along the dualistic lines between good and evil, much in the same way that Heidegger did when conceiving of Jews and non-Jews in relation to Being, and much the same way that we can view Heidegger’s corpus itself, where—Wolfson is here quoting Friedrich Nietzsche—“good and evil come together in the same thing” (170).

As noted above, I find The Duplicity of Philosophy’s Shadow to be incredibly erudite and compelling in all of its paths and approaches. What I wish Wolfson would have considered more, though, is a relatively pragmatic point: “what exactly is the imperative for reading Heidegger?” I mean this in very plain, perhaps banal, terms—and I speak as someone who has frequently engaged Heidegger in his own work—what is the reason, given Heidegger’s depravity, to continue reading him? Given what Wolfson says about the Jewish tradition—that one can find philosophical approaches that are comparable in content and orientation to Heidegger’s—why do we insist on prioritizing Heidegger? I ask this question broadly, not in that I don’t think Heidegger is important or worthwhile (even despite his errors—something Wolfson convincingly shows here), but simply given that there is so much in our “canon” that is overlooked, forgotten, buried, or absent—for whatever reason. I take the suggestion of the concluding chapter to be that there is much that we can still learn from Heidegger despite his thought having deeply unsavory elements … but, in plain terms, our time is finite, and with so much philosophy available to us—more than ever before in the history of the world—why do we continue on with the desire to engage with Heidegger (especially given that we can find elements of his thought elsewhere)? My suspicion—and I am as much at fault here as many others, if not more (to speak with Emmanuel Levinas)—is that we do so for the simple reason that we’ve been doing so. Maybe it’s time to throw away our idol. 

In any case, the thoughts of the last paragraph are not offered as a critique of an excellent book, but rather as a reflection of my own emotions after reading it. Perhaps Wolfson will address these thoughts in his next book, Heidegger and Kabbalah (Indiana University Press, 2019)the book for which this one is meant to serve as a prequel.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Martin Shuster is Assistant Professor and Director of Judaic Studies, and a member of the Center for Geographies of Justice and the Center for Humanities at Goucher College.

Date of Review: 
May 14, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Elliot R. Wolfson is the Marsha and Jay Glazer Endowed Chair in Jewish Studies and Distinguished Professor of Religion at University of California, Santa Barbara. A fellow of the American Academy of Jewish Research and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he is the author of many books including Language, Eros, Being: Kabbalistic Hermeneutics and Poetic Imagination (2005); Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menaḥem Mendel Schneerson (Columbia, 2009); A Dream Interpreted Within a Dream: Oneiropoiesis and the Prism of Imagination (2011); and Giving Beyond the Gift: Apophasis and Overcoming Theomania (2014).

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