Rudiger Safranski's recently translated book is, in many respects, a deeply philosophical biography. No other great philosopher - except perhaps Socrates - lived a life that influenced so strongly the way his work was received. According to Safranski, there are good reasons for this and he reveals a complex story, of a life driven by philosophy and a philosophy driven by life.
Heidegger's upbringing was traditional and Catholic, conducted in the face of a wave of liberal, modernising thought that was then sweeping Germany. His early education led to clerical training, which gave way to theological studies and ultimately to philosophy. Among the many virtues of Safranski's account is his illumination of the delicate relationship between Heidegger's philosophy and his religious upbringing. Heidegger articulated his early opposition to Protestantism as an opposition to an implicit subjectivism, a failure to acknowledge fully the "transcendental value of life". He went on to depict human thought as taking place within, and made possible by, a context with which its finite resources cannot contend. This belief in a classic, philosophical and religious "beyond" inspired his early reflections on logic and mathematics.
Ironically, this same belief led him, ultimately, to abandon the "system of Catholicism" as well, though not for a conventional atheism. Rather he attacked traditional religious notions of the divine as "a raising of a hand against God", "merely pay(ing) lip service to religiosity". An awareness of our true nature and situation finds expression, but is distorted, in conventional religion, an awareness to which Heidegger wished to restore us. But this led not to a happy accommodation within the mundane human world but to a deeper awareness of the strangeness and difficulty of our existence, features that conventional religion acknowledged but underestimated.
Heidegger's rise through the academic ranks culminated in the 1928 publication of his great work, Being and Time , and his succession to the chair of his mentor, Edmund Husserl, at Freiburg, where he disastrously involved himself with National Socialism. Here, Safranski is admirably even-handed. He argues that although Heidegger's involvement was committed and enthusiastic, it was, nevertheless, the enthusiasm of "a philosophical dreamer". Heidegger had come to believe in the need for philosophy to engage with its times and in the possibility that the Nazis might bring about a spiritual revolution, turning the "German nation" into "the metaphysical nation". Such a nation would throw off the consoling myths that characterise the modern age, bourgeois and scientistic myths that would be undermined by the unsettling questions with which Heidegger himself wrestled. He "constructed an entire imaginary philosophical stage for the historical happening" of National Socialism, and tolerated its anti-Semitic measures as unfortunate concomitants of this great revolution. Safranski argues that Heidegger's subsequent disenchantment with the movement was a disenchantment with the impurity of the revolution - for example, Nazi compromises with the bourgeoisie and the church. Ultimately, Heidegger came to see Nazism as the most extreme development of the modern age rather than its overthrow, as he had initially and fervently hoped.
Safranski's work will not end the debate on Heidegger's Nazism but it presents a sadly plausible interpretation. Illustrating a multitude of ironies, Heidegger's philosophically motivated pursuit of active engagement with the events of his day seems to have blinded him to the real nature of those events. Their philosophical interpretation, the super-history in whose service they were recruited, obscured the actual history in which Heidegger played a part. In this kind of philosophical dream, "the contingency of one's own person disappears in the thinking Self and its great dimensions". From this perspective, a more peculiarly philosophical vice than anti-Semitism seems to have undermined Heidegger. It was perhaps the extreme philosophical narcissism that reality may be following a path that we ourselves have dreamt.
One possible flaw in Safranski's book is that when one searches for an exploration of Heidegger's personal, emotional life, one finds only a deep darkness. The pictures of his relationship with Hannah Arendt and with Karl Jaspers, for example, are extremely one-sided. Perhaps there is no evidence to allow a fuller account. Yet it is difficult to resist the impression that, though he was venerated by others, Heidegger was emotionally empty, or expended all his feeling on the self-scripted philosophical drama of his life. Those who knew him may know this to be a travesty, and Safranski does offer us occasional tantalising glimpses of a more human side (such as Heidegger's wife making his life "hell on earth" after discovering his affair with Arendt). One's desire to see the personal, emotional, human Heidegger remains, however, unsatisfied by this book.
Denis McManus is lecturer in philosophy, University of Southampton.
Author - Rudiger Safranski
ISBN - 0 674 38709 0
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £23.50
Pages - 474