The German Geist Dwells Nowhere

The turmoil surrounding Heidegger’s Black Notebooks achieved new heights recently, with Freiburg University’s announcement that its legendary Heidegger Lehrstuhl would be abolished and converted to a junior professorship in logic (!) and analytic philosophy, as if to deliberately obliterate Heidegger’s legacy. Apparently, the Lehrstuhl has become too controversial. This decision may well be scandalous, as Markus Gabriel argued on March 3rd in Süddeutsche Zeitung, but the reasons he marshals in defense of a Heidegger Lehrstuhl in his essay — “Where Does German Spirit Dwell?” — seem to us to create needless confusion. A collegial response is in order.

To avoid misunderstanding, let us say upfront that we agree with Gabriel that phenomenology and hermeneutics are among the most significant philosophical developments of the 20th century. Black Notebooks aside, Heidegger’s — and Husserl’s — impact on the humanities worldwide is deep and lasting. This should be reason enough for Freiburg’s administrators to reconsider their poor decision to convert Heidegger’s old Lehrstuhl into a junior chair in analytic philosophy. These academic and institutional reasons are bolstered when one considers the importance of phenomenology and hermeneutics, not just in the writings of Heidegger or Husserl and their illustrious students, but in the human sciences more broadly. In this light, the decision to replace a world-class chair in phenomenology and hermeneutics with a marginal professorship in analytic philosophy looks self-defeating, institutionally and academically, to the point of being ridiculous.

Other concerns expressed by Gabriel, however, seem metaphysical rather than academic. “German Geist now resides in America!,” he quotes, with lament, a former American colleague as having said. The scandal apparently is that German Geist is in exile, “dwelling” — the choice of Heidegger’s technical terminology is unfortunate — in American rather than German universities. In this narrative of the German Geist (what is that, actually?), German spirit has been deposited in American elite universities and, apparently, the American spirit has colonized the black forest: “People believe, that in [American] universities everything is done better, so that we can just dispense with Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Husserl and Heidegger, and instead write articles about current American philosophers” (“Man malt sich aus, an den dortigen Universitäten werde alles besser gemacht, also geben wir doch gleich Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Husserl und Heidegger ab und schreiben lieber Aufsätze über amerikanische Gegenwartsphilosophen.”) This type of argument, intentionally or not, revives the bitter question of whether a philosopher who was once prohibited from teaching by the American-allied denazification program should now be remembered by a Lehrstuhl in his name where the “German spirit” would “dwell.” It seems to us wiser, especially in this context, to cling to the academic justifications we just mentioned than to fret about the dwelling of German Geist.

Since we’re dealing with hermeneutics, it is worth pointing out that Gabriel’s American colleague did not use Heidegger’s technical term “dwells” but a friendlier term, “resides.” Knowing the colleague in question, this does not surprise us. Could the American have meant to suggest simply that German Geist does not “dwell” anywhere; that one can engage German philosophy in the U.S.A. just as well as one can in Mexico, Tel-Aviv or the black forest?

Gabriel, however, understood the “famous American Hegel researcher” to mean to say “that the discussions of our classics are largely delegated to the United States” (our emphases). As professors who teach at the New School in New York, Gabriel’s former institution, we were surprised to learn that we teach German philosophy because German classics have been “delegated” to us. It would be wiser to defend a Heidegger Lehrstuhl without treating the writings of Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Husserl and Heidegger as “German” patrimony. Let us not see philosophy the way some in Athens view the Elgin marbles — as property which may currently “reside” abroad in enviable institutions, but which should be brought back from its diaspora to the homeland to “dwell.”

Rather than provoke worry about whether Husserl’s Chair remains intact, or whether Heidegger’s shoes will be filled, or whether the “great philosophical tradition” of Germany moves to different shores, we think the current situation in Freiburg provides a noteworthy occasion to think again about the institutional shelter for philosophy, hermeneutics, phenomenology or related fields that are no longer “at home” with themselves. The dispersion of these fields is, in fact, something that academic institutions should consider when deciding which new faculty to hire.

So, to answer one of the questions Gabriel poses; no, we are not afraid of tradition, quite the contrary. But we resist the association of tradition as the dwelling of the German Geist with the question of a Heidegger Lehrstuhl. Let us think again, from the start, academically, about what a Lehrstuhl in Philosophy at Freiburg should now be. A strong case can be made for defending a Lehrstuhl for phenomenology and hermeneutics.

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Omri Boehm

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