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Rorty’s Alternate History of Heidegger

I repost here Rorty’s brilliantly written and imagined alternate history of Heidegger. He contingently falls passionately in love with a young Jewess in 1930, moves to American eventually to teach at Rorty’s literal alma mater the University of Chicago (not mentioning that when he enrolled there while still a 14 year old in 1946, Rorty could have taken a course with the projectional Heidegger – can you imagine the little pubescent/precocious young boy staring at the lowering German, I think Rorty wants us to), eventually taking a formative place in the moderate Right of German politics, a thorn in Habermas’s side.

It shows off something more than just a political, or even philosophical point. I think it shows the glee Rorty felt for the nature of an Idea, even a narrative one, a glee that drove many of his Anti-Realist, a-philosophical musings. There is a tendency I think to minimize the weight of Rorty’s contribution to philosophy, to see him as a something of a popularizer – how can someone be saying something philosophically significant, and still be understood by the “masses”, must not philosophy be a question of access, of initiation, of terms…a profession in code? I sense that Rorty did something more than synthesize and simplify. In any case, this piece contains something of the elan of the man, his Joy, the professional anti-philosopher. 

Aside from this, Graham Harman, Heidegger’s metaphysical revisor/interpreter seemed to enjoy it, so at the very least it takes its place among some of the more entertaining, concisely written “ifs” in the history of philosophy.

The Alternative History of Martin Heidegger | Richard Rorty
From Philosophy and Social Hope (p.190-197 ), originally published in the London Review of Books as ‘Another Possible World’, 8 February 1990. This is an excerpt found at Good Reads:

I take a person’s moral character – his or her sensitivity to the sufferings of others – to be shaped by chance events in his or her life. Often, perhaps usually, this sensitivity varies independently of the projects of self-creation that the person undertakes in his or her work.

I can clarify what I mean by ‘chance events’ and ‘independent variation’ by sketching a slightly different possible world – a world in which Heidegger joins his fellow antiegalitarian, Thomas Mann, in preaching resistance to Hitler. To see how this possible world might have been actual, imagine that in the summer of 1930 Heidegger suddenly finds himself deeply in love with a beautiful, intense, adoring philosophy student named Sarah Mandelbaum. Sarah is Jewish, but Heidegger barely notices this, dizzy with passion as he is. After a painful divorce from Elfride – a process that costs him the friendship of, among other people, the Husserls – Heidegger marries Sarah in 1932. In January 1933 they have a son, Abraham.

Heidegger jokes that Sarah can think of Abraham as named after the patriarch, but that he will think of him as named after Abraham a Sancta Clara, the only other Messkirch boy to make good. Sarah looks up Abraham a Sancta Clara’s anti-Semitic writings in the library stacks, and Heidegger’s little joke becomes the occasion of the first serious quarrel between husband and wife. But by the end of 1933, Heidegger is no longer making such jokes. For Sarah makes him notice that the Jewish Beamt, including his father-in-law, have been cashiered. Heidegger reads things about himself in the student newspaper that make him realize that his day in the sun may be over. Gradually it dawns upon him that his love for Sarah has cost him much of his prestige, and will sooner or later cost him his job.

But he still loves her, and eventually he leaves his beloved Freiburg for her sake. In 1935 Heidegger is teaching in Berne, but only as a visitor. Switzerland has by now given away all its philosophy chairs. Suddenly a call comes from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. There Heidegger spends two years slowly and painfully learning English, aching for the chance once again to spellbind seminar rooms of worshipfully attentive students. He gets a chance to do so in 1937 when some of his fellow emigres arrange a permanent job for him at the University of Chicago.

There he meets Elizabeth Mann Borgese, who introduces him to her father. Heidegger manages to overcome his initial suspicion of the Hanseatic darling of fortune, and Mann his initial suspicion of the Black Forest Bauernkind. They find they agree with each other, and with Adorno and Horkheimer; that America is a reduction ad absurdum of Enlightenment hopes, a land without culture. But their contempt for America does not prevent them from seeing Hitler as having ruined Germany and being about to ruin Europe. Heidegger’s stirring anti-Nazi broadcasts enable him to gratify a need a strike a heroic attitude before large masses of people – a need that he might, under other circumstances, have gratified in a rectorial address.

By the end of the Second World War, Heidegger’s marriage is on the rocks. Sarah Heidegger is a social democrat to the core, loves America, and is a passionate zionist. She has come to think of Heidegger as a great man with a cold and impervious heart, a heart which had once opened to her but remains closed to her social hopes. She has come to despise the egotist as much as she admires the philosopher and the anti-Nazi polemicist. In 1947 she separates from Heidegger and takes the 14-year-old Abraham with her to Palestine. She is wounded in the civil war but eventually, after the proclamation of independence, becomes a philosophy professor at Tel Aviv University.

Heidegger himself returns to Freiburg in triumph in 1948. There he gets his old friend Gadamer a job, even though he is acidly contemptuous of Gadamer’s acquiescence in the Nazi takeover of the German universities. He eventually takes as his third wife a war widow, a woman who reminds all his old friends of Elfride. When he dies in 1976, his wife lays on his coffin the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the medal of the order Pour le Merite, and the gold medal of the Nobel Prize for Literature. This last had been awarded him in the year after the publication of his brief but poignant elegy for Abraham, who had died on the Golan Heights in 1967.

What books did Heidegger write in this possible world? Almost exactly the same ones he wrote in the actual one. In this world, however, the Introduction to Metaphysics contains a contemptuous identification of the National Socialist movement with the mindless nihilism of modern technology, as well as the remark that Hitler is dragging Germany down to the metaphysical level of Russia and America. The seminars on Nietzsche are much that same as those he gave in our world, except for a digression on Nietzsche’s loathing for anti-Semites, a digression that contains uncanny parallels to Sartre’s contemporaneous but independent Portrait of the Anti-Semite. In this world, Heidegger writes most of the same exegetical essays he wrote in our world, but he adds appreciations of Thoreau and of Jefferson, composed for lectures at Harvard and at the University of Virginia respectively. The two essays evince Heidegger’s familiar sentimental agrarianism and suspicion of the urban proletariat. His books in this world are, in short, documents of the same struggle he carried on in the actual world – the struggle to move outside the philosophical tradition and there ‘sing a new song’. This struggle, this private pursuit of purity, was the core of his life. It was incapable of being greatly influenced either by his love for particular persons or by the political events of his time.

In our world, Heidegger said nothing political after the war. In the possible world I am sketching he puts his prestige as an anti-Nazi to work in making the German political right respectable. He is adored by Franz Josef Srauss, who pays regular and worshipful visits to Todtnauberg. Occasionally Heidegger appears with Strauss at political rallies. Social Democrats like Habermas regret Heidegger’s being consistently on the wrong side in postwar German politics. Sometimes, in private, they voice the suspicion that, in slightly different circumstances, Heidegger would have made a pretty good Nazi. But they never dream of saying such a thing in public about the greatest European thinker of our time.

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One response to “Rorty’s Alternate History of Heidegger

  1. Pingback: Rorty’s alternate Heidegger history « Object-Oriented Philosophy

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