Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The (Philosophy) Baby and the (Ethics) Bathwater

The New York Times has an interesting article ("An Ethical Question: Does a Nazi Deserve a Place Among Philosophers?") regarding the current debate over Heidegger's classification in most university libraries as a philosopher.  Though Heidegger has had a significant influence on contemporary philosophical thought, it is his involvement with the Nazi movement for which he is best-known.  Though he has always before been placed in the ranks of philosophers, there is now a movement to re-classify the German writer and move his writings to the history section of libraries under "N" for "Nazi."

For example, Emmanuel Faye, the author of Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism Into Philosophy,
calls on philosophy professors to treat Heidegger’s writings like hate speech. Libraries, too, should stop classifying Heidegger’s collected works (which have been sanitized and abridged by his family) as philosophy and instead include them under the history of Nazism. These measures would function as a warning label, like a skull-and-crossbones on a bottle of poison, to prevent the careless spread of his most odious ideas, which Mr. Faye lists as the exaltation of the state over the individual, the impossibility of morality, anti-humanism and racial purity.
Those who support Fayes' argument feel that it is ethically necessary to re-examine the fundamentals of Heidgegger's philosophies as well as those fields which have been strongly influenced by his writing, including but not limited to "existentialism and postmodernism as well as attendant attacks on colonialism, atomic weapons, ecological ruin and universal notions of morality."  Obviously, erasing his name from the annals of philosophy is not the same thing as simply moving the shelves that hold the books.

This begs the question, then, if whether such a re-classification is at all appropriate.  While it is important to be vigilant in how we view racist material, it is also important that we keep in mind the historical period in which the material was written.  For example, Plato, whom many consider the father of Western philosophy, also supported genetic selection and infanticide.  Do we move his books into the history section of the library, as well?

I would argue that this is not the case.  Though we now view parts of these philosophies as morally reprehensible, they have played an important enough role in the formation of modern philosophy that it is a bit ridiculous to try to expunge their names for all time.  In addition, most responsible philosophy professors are able to present the basics of Heidegger's work without instilling neo-Nazi tendencies in their students.  It is the responsibility of the philosopher to think critically about what s/he reads, and it is therefore unnecessary to re-classify Heidegger (and Plato and every other racist philosopher ever) because the philosopher should be able to recognize that which is of value and that which is not.

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