Thursday, February 19, 2009


Philosophy and Fascism: Reflections on Richard Wolin's "Heidegger Made Kosher"
By Thomas Riggins

This year is the centenary of the Lithuanian born French thinker Emmanuel Levinas who died in 1995. Perhaps motivated to celebrate the occasion, Richard Wolin has reviewed two new books on Levinas for “The Nation” (2-20-2006) in an essay he calls “Heidegger Made Kosher” (Ethan Kleinberg, Generation Existential: Heidegger’s Philosophy in France, 1927-1961 and Samuel Moyn, Origins of the Other: Emmanuel Levinas Between Revelation and Ethics).

Wohin’s essay is worthy of being reviewed in its own right. Anyone who says that “Philosophy advances by the critical discussion and examination of truth claims” can be trusted as a guide to the works of those for whom this conception seems alien.

Wolin opens by remarking that 2005 was the “Sartre Year” in France (Sartre was born in 1905) but that Sartre’s brand of political engagement has gone out of fashion. It became the fad to be anti-Marxist and to rest contentedly in anti “totalitarian” liberalism (i.e., bourgeois conservatism). Wolin says French intellectuals have only themselves to blame if they are now upset with the current world order.

Sartre and Levinas have this in common: they both studied with Heidegger. The difference is that Sartre completely broke with Heidegger on the question of “humanism” but Levinas did not. Wolin says, “Levinas’s entire philosophical endeavor” was “directed against Sartrean existential humanism.”

Levinas was also a late bloomer-- being 55 when his magnum opus appeared (Totality and Infinity, 1961). But why is he important? Wolin maintains that Sartre’s reputation was so great that he towered above all the other French intellectuals. New movements developed that claimed to make Sartre’s existentialism outmoded-- such as structuralism, post-structuralism and even postmodernism-- associated with such names as Claude Levi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida among others.

The structuralists were the first to take on Sartre but their problem was they “lacked an ethical dimension” to their thought. This might not seem like a problem since Sartre had also failed to produce an “existentialist ethics” but it was. Sartre had a human centered philosophy of the self. One of his most famous works was a little essay “Existentialism as a Humanism” and his philosophy was seen as being in the tradition of Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum”-- i.e., as having the subjective self and its problems at the center. Sartre was seen as a philosopher of “freedom” and individual rights.

Levinas developed an ethical alternative to humanism by basing his philosophy not on the self-- i.e.., the “ego” or what Sartre called the For-itself (pour-soi) but rather on the “Other.” This was radically anti-Sartrean as the “Other” for Sartre was an obstruction to the self but is central for Levinas. Let us see how this was done.

Wolin points out that both the structuralists and their heirs, he specifically mentions both Foucault and Derrida, “wagered everything on a withering critique of ‘humanism’”-- meaning any philosophy that put human beings at the center of its concerns. Wolin says that “Foucault famously prophesied that ‘man’ would soon be effaced like a drawing in the sand at the edge of the sea.” Sartre’s philosophy of existentialism would have to go as well.

The French anti-humanists soon found themselves in a quandary. As “socialism” began to unravel in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe as a result of an unrelenting Cold War waged by the West (taking full advantage of the unripened social conditions that were also undermining the socialist project), many French intellectuals wanted to jump on the band wagon of “human rights” being touted by the anti-socialist “dissident” elements in the East. How could they simultaneously descry “humanism” and focus on “human rights”?

The French anti-Sartrean anti-humanists had based their post existentialist systems on the work of the German thinker Martin Heidegger, “For it was Heidegger’s radical assault on Sartrean humanism,” Wolin writes, “that had set the tone and provided the ammunition for the subsequent structuralist attacks.”

Heidegger was interested in what he called “being” and he had written that “The history of Being is neither the history of man and of humanity, nor the history of the human relation to beings and to Being.” Being in and of itself was the only thing important to study to learn the history of Being. The study of humanity was a waste of time. Starting in the 1960s Heidegger began to really catch on with many European thinkers. In France the post-Sartreans, confusing the thought of Karl Marx with that of Leonid Brezhnev, began to shun Marx and court Heidegger. They became anti- workingclass as well. Wolin says, “They dismissed Marx’s theory of the proletariat as another failed variant [as was Sartre’s philosophy-tr] of Western humanism.”

Following Heidegger along the path in search of the mystery of Being, these French anti-humanists thought that it was Being that determined the meaning of the world and that human beings counted for naught in the great scheme of things. They abandoned the “project of human emancipation to the dustbin.”

Heidegger also attacked “Reason” as a product of humanism. Reason, he said “is the most stiff-necked adversary of thought.” Sartre saw what was happening and realized that the flight from reason and the subjection of human fate to the Mystery of Being was itself an opening to totalitarianism and the subjection of humanity. Wolin quotes his response that the subordination of “the human to what is Other than man...has hatred of man as both its basis and its consequences....Either man is primarily himself, or he is primarily Other than himself. Choosing the second doctrine simply makes one a victim and accomplice of real alienation.”

Enter Levinas. He will provide the “philosophical” prop by which the French Heideggerians will reconcile their contradiction between anti-humanism and human rights. He will provide a new ethics not based on humanistic values. After studying with Heiddeger in the 1920s he became enamored of the older man’’s philosophy. In the 1930s he wrote the following, as quoted by Wolin: “No one who has ever done philosophy can keep himself from declaring, before the Heideggerian corpus, that the originality and power of his effort, born of genius, have allied themselves with a conscientious, meticulous, and solid elaboration.”

Heidegger's genius led him into the Nazi Party in 1933 and he became an ardent supporter of Hitler. Here is what the great man recommended to German youth, and to all those who thought that philosophy might help one think for one’s self: “Do not let doctrines and ideas be the rules of your Being. The Fuhrer himself and he alone is the present and future German reality and its law.”

Well that should have been that. Time to dust off Marx or Hegel or at least Kant, anything to distance oneself from a “philosophy” that leads to Auschwitz. But no. Levinas still thinks that there are good things to be found in “the Heideggerian corpus.” But, being Jewish, he at least concedes that Heidegger himself, “the empirical individual” as Wohin puts it, has gone over the top. Levinas must now work out a philosophy that will keep what he thinks are the worthwhile insights of his mentor (an attack on reason) and at the same time reject, he hopes, those elements that lead to the Third Reich. The next part of Wohin’s essay discusses how Levinas developed his “mature” philosophy. I want to show why this attempt failed and why, ultimately, the only real alternative to fascism is Marxism.

Wolin turns his attention to Levinas’s 1934 “Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism” where he rejects Nazi thinking as a threat to the “Judeo-Christian” tradition. But is this true? Just as a question of history the two major representatives of the “Judeo-Christian” tradition in Germany-- namely the Catholic Church and Lutheranism --saw no threat and in fact embraced Hitler and his movement. One must also ask, given the intense anti-Semitism of Christianity throughout the ages, what sense does it make to talk of a “Judeo-Christian” as opposed to just “Christian” tradition in the first place. Tri-theistic Trinitarians are ultimately not in the “same” tradition with monotheists.

Nazism, for Levinas, shows the “impotence” of Western thought. “Why was it,” Wolin writes, “he inquired, that Western philosophy, despite its manifest sublimity and grandeur, could do nothing to prevent the genocidal mania of the Nazis?” Neither Wolin nor Levinas answer this question. The answer is that Western philosophy has always supported reason and rationalism and follows in the tradition of the Enlightenment. The number of philosophers is very small compared to the number of regular citizens who in the main are under the influence of religion and religion bases itself not on reason but irrationality and authority. The Nazi movement was also based on irrationalism and authority and this is one of the reasons for its popularity. Heidegger’s philosophy was an attack on the Western philosophical tradition and an abandonment of the Enlightenment’s view of Reason. Marxism, even in its Stalinist deviations, preserved more of the Enlightenment traditions with respect to anything like a mass movement, than anything going on in Germany except for the labor movement which the Nazis destroyed. Ultimately it was the Western philosophical tradition, in its Marxist guise, that defeated the irrationality of Nazism. Even today the surest guarantee against fascism (on the philosophical front at least) is Marxism.

This, however is not seen by Levinas who will try to overcome Heidegger’s irrationalism with more irrationalism. The West’s concern with “theoretical reason” must be replaced with a greater emphasis on morality. Wolin thus says, the “watchword of Levinas’s mature philosophy” becomes “ethics as first philosophy.” When the choice has to be made between Athens and Jerusalem, Levinas prefers Jerusalem. He thinks philosophy is wrong to turn its back on the Biblical tradition. But philosophy would not be philosophy if it preferred revelation to reason

Levinas bases his ethics on an analysis of “the Other.” He holds that the Other has an infinite moral claim on us. Wolin says Levinas considers this claim to be “anterior to all theoretical or intellectual judgments.” Where does it come from then? Since I am an ”Other” for other egos why don't I have an infinite claim on them as well? Why don’t these claims cancel each other out? We must give Wolin credit for seeing the weaknesses of Levinas’s position. Wolin remarks that “The radical critique of reason that both Levinas and Heidegger advocate risks rendering social criticism impotent.” You also risk becoming a Nazi!

Wolin further points out that that “it is next to impossible to derive a meaningful politics from his [Levinas’s] ethical doctrines.” This would seem to indicate that Levinas’s philosophy is pretty much useless for the world we live in. Wolin also quotes from Samuel Moyn’s book the suggestion that Levinas is really doing a form of theology not philosophy at all. Levinas’s “Other” may be a relic of Yahweh. Moyn says, “Levinas may never have given up the habit--- the hankering for God’s command that he merely internalized to the human realm-- of theology.” Heidegger too may have been hankering after a god when he swooned over his “Fuhrer.”

Wolin also finds fault with Levinas’s style. Rather than promote open critical discussion (as philosophy should) it “encourages an attitude of submissive adulation.” I hope my little review here has stimulated your interest and that you pick up a copy of the Nation, or go on line to get Wolin's article (google the title). The upshot of all this is that the irrational and mystical “philosophy” of Levinas doesn’t seem worth the effort. Stick with Sartre if French philosophy appeals to you, but even better is the Marxist world outlook.

Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at

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