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Heidegger’s Black Notebooks: Extreme Silencing

The Black Notebooks (Die Schwarzen Hefte), containing Martin Heidegger’s assorted thoughts from the 1930s and 40s, throw new light on the self-aggrandizement into totalitarianism of the most German of all philosophers.

The Freiburg professor of philosophy was not yet 50 years old when, in 1937 and 1938, he retraced his way of thought (Denkweg): He conjoined manuscripts of his various books, talks and lectures in a factual (sachlich) and discerning manner, with a view to ascertaining how all of it should be continued, including a publication strategy. Buoyed by the feeling that he had already achieved the “authentic” breakthrough by 1936, as he wrote to his brother Fritz in 1948, he was henceforward convinced of his ability to lead Western philosophy into a form of “thinking” purified by a history of being and event (or enowning) (seins-und ereignisgeschichtlich geläutert) and thus freed of the ballast of history and its decadent offshoot, historicity.

Heidegger’s constant and revisionist revisiting of his 1927 magnum opus Being and Time was motivated by a single question. This was the question of historical being (Seyn) and, therein contained, how this historical being, which even superficially was set off from the being (Sein) of the philosophical tradition, could be thought of in its complex relationship to what is (zum Seienden). Based on the legacy of a select few pre-Socratics, this necessary “different beginning” was the result of an exclusive insight. Heidegger saw how modernity concentrated the entirety of its efforts toward calculative thinking. This was an error rooted in Plato and Aristotle, culminating in Descartes and carried on by Hegel and Nietzsche.

Published under the title Überlegungen (meditations), a title which Heidegger himself chose, the “notebooks” have a precisely assigned place within these constellations: “What is documented in these notebooks […] partly is a rendering of the basic moods or moods (Stimmungen) of enquiry and of pointers (Weisungen) to the most distant horizons of attempted thinking. While these thoughts have seemingly emerged according to the moment (Augenblick), they all bear the mark of incessant efforts to address the only question.”

The Überlegungen are first referenced in a lecture manuscript from the summer semester of 1932. Alongside the convoluted “officially entitled Contributions to Philosophy (Beiträge zur Philosophie) and essentially entitled Of the Event or From Enowning (Vom Ereignis),” the Überlegungen are part of this work. They clarify, explain, specify, give life guidance and go through with what is otherwise only suggested. The Contributions were published in 1989, which means that we have known of the Überlegungen for 25 years. But only now is it actually possible to assess their relevance to Heidegger’s thought.

Spanning the years from 1931 to 1941 and from 1945 until the early 1970s, certain “notebooks” were at times kept simultaneously. The publication of the first three volumes (of no more than 37) of the oilcloth-bound black notebooks already lends the Gesamtausgabe (complete works) definite shape. Clearly, this neither means that the hitherto extant 30,000 pages can only be understood in the light of the Überlegungen nor that they represent the pinnacle of his achievement. And yet, it is through a coupling of the Überlegungen (specifically, the volumes spanning the years 1938 to 1941) with the extensive studies undertaken during the 1930s and 40s that the core of Heidegger’s movement of thought can be exposed.

Why is this? Just like the contemporaneous works, the Überlegungen follow the idea of the “leading question” (Leitfrage), i.e. the question of being, while the “fundamental question” (Grund-Frage) enquires into the “truth” of “historical being (Seyn).” With a view not only to getting a decent grasp of the demarcation between the new way of thinking and that preceding it, but also to pushing his own project forward, Heidegger always formulates his insights in two ways: on the one hand, with critical intent, and on the other, with a constructively and radically different form and language.

When he writes a text on the so-called “event,” reference to the Überlegungen is meant to keep the reader from feeling that he or she has already understood it all. Thus, in explaining the “event,” he writes: “The highest thing that must be possible to say must become an extreme silencing. Silencing [or reticence] authentically as silence bearing. But is the logic of silencing not the betrayal of all and nothingness? Certainly if, like logic, it were hitherto ‘read’ and obeyed.” According to his precisely calculated system of references, in a simultaneous up and downward movement, the Überlegungen are to make possible the abandonment of old rails to ride new ones.

That is not merely incomprehensible at first glance; it is the way it is supposed to be. To enter the Heideggerian hall of mirrors is to be confronted with a decision: either you run out, because you take it all to be nonsense anyway — among these rank some rather bright people — or you run with Heidegger through the labyrinth of his own making, maybe reaching the “clearing” (Lichtung), were “historical being” (Seyn) to show itself once more after its last appearance to Hölderlin. Then you can make a judgment whether “thinking” could actually lead the way out of the ever-worsening disaster of our modern wrongdoings. It all sounds like a privatissimum, like a fantastical thought exercise, like a construct with which to hinder others from being able to follow. And the few who nonetheless do are constantly served new obstacles, thereby coming to the conclusion that, in the best case, the goal lies along the path. But in no way can we leave things at that — Heidegger was always very serious. And we should no less be so.

From the very outset, resentment, deep insights, and uniquely fascinating analyses about the philosophical tradition are coupled with a tendency toward cultural criticism and almost impenetrable rhetoric. When, in December of 1929, Heidegger was ranked third in the race to occupy Ernst Troeltsch’s vacant chair in Berlin, the appointments commission drew a similar conclusion: “Martin Heidegger’s name has of late been on everyone’s lips. Even if the scientific merits of his literary achievements so far have been a matter of controversy, it is certain that he has original thoughts and, above all, that he has a strong and magnetic personality. At the same time, even his admirers admit that, among the many students who flock to him, no one actually understands him. He is currently in a crisis. We must await its outcome.”

The first volume of the Überlegungen does a better job of documenting how Heidegger hopes to solve the “crisis” than anything previously extant. There, he follows a three-pronged strategy: a re-appropriation of undistorted pre-Socratic thought; an ingenious analysis of the levels of philosophy’s self-mistaking (Selbstverfehlung); and, finally, the alignment of his own radicalism with political and cultural phenomena outside the academy, something we might call reality (Wirklichkeit).

Heidegger himself felt the “crisis.” For him, it is clear that its solution can only be found in the mode of a struggle against both oneself and external enemies. Moments of despair (Verzweiflung) must be overcome; half-baked political alternatives, such as the extremely conservative Die Tat circle, were in his opinion to be rejected and rival interpreters required banishing from the field. It is then imperative to find a new language, available from 1936 onwards. Given the task at hand, a blend of clear-sighted energeticism, hubris, and despair runs through every page of the Überlegungen.

In 1939, Heidegger takes stock of the many years dedicated exclusively to the clarification of his own project: “Thinking in purely ‘metaphysical’ terms, from 1930 until 1934 I took National Socialism to be the possibility for a transition and interpreted it as such. This was an underestimation of the ‘movement’ not only in terms of its authentic powers and inner necessities, but also in terms of its own estimation of size and type of size.” Based on his insights into the “hominization (Vermenschung) of mankind in self-certain rationality,” the “historical-technical” and the “complete mobilization,” what follows is this: “Only from the full recognition (Einsicht) of my previous error regarding National Socialism’s essence and historical force of essence (geschichtliche Wesenskraft) does the necessity of its affirmation follow and this is so on the basis of thinking (aus denkerischen Gründen).”

At this point, from around 1938 or 1939 onwards, Heidegger sees himself confronted with what he terms the “Jewry” (Judentum). He conceives of it exclusively in the mode of the National Socialist collective singular form, which he thought through “in the manner of thinking” (denkerisch). These collective singulars do not satisfy their own expectations and therefore also fall prey to the final battle of modernity. Alongside the Jewry stand Americanism, Bolshevism, and National Socialism. It is a value judgment understood in terms of the history of being and enowning, in contrast to the account given by Peter Trawny in his otherwise commendable book. Sticking closely to the motto that “‘radicalism’ is in true (echt) essence the preservation (Bewahrung) of the origin,” those who represent the “eternal race (Volk)” — in his opinion, this is a competition between Germans and “Jews” — must be sent off (verwiesen) into the confines (Schranken) of the history of being and event. Their “temporary increase in power” was made possible because “Western metaphysics” weakened itself, thus offering an “anchor point” to the “spread of an otherwise empty rationality and calculative faculty (Rechenfähigkeit).”

It is striking that the “Jew ‘Freud’” should be just as bad as the National Socialist psychologists. Jewish or non-Jewish, they are Cartesians. But once the final battle has been fought, the collective singulars and their carriers will vanish, letting “concealed Germanness” reveal itself. Before that happens, you’d better watch out. After all, “thievery (Räuberwesen) and banditry can take on various guises.”

By 1941, Bolshevists, such as the “Jew Litvinov,” have been sent off to the confines: “The onset of the war against Bolshevism has finally rid many Germans of the burden they felt as a result of our purportedly all too close ties to Russia.” But only later generations would be able to appreciate the proper relevance of the “document,” i.e. Hitler’s speech of June 22, 1941. It is therefore no wonder that the notes end with a remark on Jewry: his is not a “racialist” (rassische) but a “metaphysical question regarding a type of humanity (Menschentümlichkeit) that can absolutely freely take on the world-historical ‘task’ of uprooting all that is (alles Seienden) from being.”

Attempts to defend these remarks have been made in two ways. Some point to the fact that Heidegger kept these notes secret during National Socialism. (In fact, Fritz Heidegger gave excerpts of the Überlegungen to an American researcher in 1978 and, since 1999, they can be viewed at an archive).

But this just further begs the question as to the reason for publication. The Black Notebooks, as Heidegger called them only by the 1970s, were from the outset considered a constitutive part of his entire opus. They were to expand the horizon of what had already been published. If they were marginal, they should have appeared with the lectures, which, after all, only served to prepare for the essential. Clearly, Heidegger thought that the idea of a final battle of modernity, i.e. the translation of what was occurring in reality into the language pertaining to the thinking of historical being and event, would be sufficient to immunize his Überlegungen against the real National Socialists and their actions. No, quite the contrary is true. His making particular reference to unalterable occurrences that let the raging of “machinations” seem a cathartic spectacle (Schauspiel) linked the project to events at the time (Zeitläuften).

According to the second strategy of defense, Heidegger later distanced himself, as shown in the revision of the “other beginning.” That is extremely difficult to address. For instance, there is a long elegy to the dead German soldier in the volume entitled Event-Thinking (Ereignis-Denken). Its stern tone makes one shudder. Then there is his silence regarding the Shoah. One might ask whether what was said here about the “silence-bearing” (Er-Schweigung) might also apply to the Holocaust; that silence could be the expression of a higher form of recognition for what happened. From what we know today, the question can only be answered in the negative.

The various French and German positions on this issue remain all too determined by reflexes of yesteryear: “kill him off” (erledigen) or “undying loyalty” — incriminating quotes on the one side, reference to the significance of the “whole” Heidegger on the other. Things cannot be left at that. Not only given Heidegger’s history of reception, not merely because this is a German question of principle — rather, it is because of his self-aggrandizement into a totalitarianism of thinking that we are obligated to scrutinize his Überlegungen most precisely. The first round of scrutiny cannot but conclude that Heidegger weakened thinking decisively.

First published in Süddeutsche Zeitung and translated by Philip Schauss for Public Seminar from the original German .

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Thomas Meyer

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