There’s something about the flare-up over Carlin Romano’s Chronicle of Higher Ed article “Heil Heidegger!” that manages to crystallize both the virtues and the potential utter barrenness of the web as a site for direct philosophical action (i.e., constructive debate that contributes, however marginally, to philosophy).

Romano’s article takes advantage of the forthcoming publication of a translated text by Emmanuel Faye to deliver what he imagines will be a death-blow to Heideggerian studies. Heidegger, Romano claims, was not only a Nazi, in a brief and passing phase of his career, at a time when many Germans were caught up with the political zeitgeist astir in their country and before the really twisted stuff started happening (pogroms and death camps and all). No, he was the philosopher of Nazism, somehow responsible for it through and through.

To anyone who has taken time to study Heidegger, it sounds like a silly argument, or at least a dramatically overdrawn one. So it fails — if one reads the readers’ comments, which at the time of my writing this post have nearly reached a hundred. But if one doesn’t read the comments — which is more likely the case with readers of the Chronicle – or if one reads them with that skepticism that, among American readers, is all too typically directed at pointy-headed philosophers, “continentalists,” theory-headed “academic leftists,” and the like — then the article succeeds. CHE has made its point: Heidegger is out.

The reactions the article has elicited, both in the comments and on other philosophy blogs, have been understandably steaming hot. Reading them makes one feel like a bicyclist silently passing by a massive car pile-up, at which drivers are screaming at each other, taking sides and forming alliances, lobbing pieces of glass and metal at each other, or throwing remains of broken-up cars into a big bonfire and waiting for a cop or an ambulance who, like Godot, will never materialize. It’s a little like the eight-minute traffic jam in Godard’s mock-apocalyptic Weekend (see above).

What’s missing amidst the commentary is some way of sifting the wheat from the chaff, some guide to the insightful interjections as opposed to the cheap insults, empty histrionics, and chatter. And how many readers, besides the unemployed and the fervently devoted to the topic at hand, have the time to read all of the commentary, anyway? So what to do?

The answer is actually found all over the web — Amazon and Wikipedia and all manner of open-source and participatory sites figured it out long ago: institute mechanisms of collective self-monitoring and evaluation. On Amazon, there’s the rating system that allows readers to vote, with a simple click, for the helpfulness of reviews, followed by the automatic generation of lists of “most helpful favorable reviews” and “most helpful critical reviews.” If we did this here, I’m sure we would quick sift out the genuinely insightful arguments that raise the level of discussion (e.g., zmrzlina’s comments #69, 73, and 91, or oldude’s #90 and 97) from the background chatter.

Philosophical arguments are less easily subjected to a simple “favorable” versus “critical” rating (such as Amazon’s five-star system), but there could some more sophisticated algorithm developed to identify the main “camps” among the commenters on a given piece. For instance, if readers were allowed to favor or disfavor previous comments, there could be a way to automatically generate a color-coded profile of sorts, so that if the voting on the value of previous comments lined up into two or three distinct camps — let’s say “defenders of Heidegger” marked red (indicating that they disagree with the author, Romano) and “critics of Heidegger” marked green — then a new commenter’s voting pattern would identify them as red, or green, or something in between. And if a clear third camp emerged, whether it be a compromise of sorts or some new position, it would be given a different color. An editor might have to step in at some point to identify the trends (the “camps”), but maybe that could even be done automatically.

And secondly, do away with the anonymity; the silly nicknames add little but fog for covering up one’s irresponsible and ill-considered blathering. Link the names of posters to other comments they have posted on other topics, so that we can confirm that they are who we think they are, or that they know what they’re talking about on other topics too (or don’t). Do we really care to hear what “zdenekv” thinks of every comment made by anyone who disagrees with him? (Almost one in four comments to the article are by this Slavic friend of ours.) And why not hear something from Carlin Romano himself? Ah, but if we were to find out that “zdenekv” is Carlin Romano (rather thinly disguised), then we might care a bit more — and it might provide us with more material by which to judge the original article.

Instituting such changes wouldn’t change everything. We’d still have the anti-intellectuals and the pseudo-intellectuals, the anti-Continentalists and the people who feel they have to comment on every topic no matter how little they know about it. And we’d still be stuck with the fact that truth is rarely produced through a poll of those who most want to tell us what they think of it. But we’d also have a way to make a bit more progress with the arguments. Will it contribute to our understanding of Heidegger? Probably not, at least not for those who do understand Heidegger (and depending on who you ask, there are either too many of those or far too few). Would it contribute to our understanding of the place of Heidegger’s philosophy in current academic discourse? Yes, it could do that.

All that said, the proportion of good, thoughtful commentary on this article seems rather higher to me than what one typically finds in such on-line discussions. This tells us something either about the article, or the topic (Heidegger and his politics), or the venue (the Chronicle of Higher Education), or maybe about all three. The comments I’ve seen already on other philosophical blogs convince me that this sort of discussion, and the impact of such articles, does spread, and that in the process we are building a more immediate, more direct, and more participatory way of conducting philosophy. It won’t replace journals and conferences and monographs and all the rest, but it can certainly strengthen the public tier of philosophical (and political, etc.) discourse. And the sooner we can improve the mechanics of it, the better.

For those who don’t have the time or the patience to follow it all, oldude’s summary of the debate (comment #90) is one of the more useful:

The argument here seems to divide roughly between two groups, depending on the importance each assigns to Heidegger’s Nazi affiliation. One group wants to ask: How should we judge Heidegger’s philosophy in view of his nefarious politics? And it answers: Crush the infamous thing! The other group wants to ask: How should we judge Heidegger’s philosophy apart from his nefarious politics? And it answers: With respect, because Heidegger explores in strikingly original ways a variety of issues that have little or nothing to do with politics. The first group says to the second group: There is no “apart” here, and therefore no possible “respect” either. Heidegger’s politics grows directly out of his philosophy – that’s what it’s all about! The second group says: Not so! You can read Being and Time and the handful of tomes on either side of it and never guess they have anything to do with Germany’s discontents circa 1927. The first group says: Well, that just shows how un-historical your reading is – not a little ironic, considering that Heidegger himself was a thorough-going historicist. The second groups say: No, that just shows YOUR unwillingness to separate the philosophy from the man and his historical conditons. Historicism itself is one – but just one – of the important philosophical issues that Heidegger’s philosophy throws light on and challenges us to think about. The first group says: You’re trying to give respectability to a set of ideas that anyone with half an intellectual conscience would condemn outright for what it is, obscurantist propaganda. The second group says: And YOU are playing the very same game that the Nazi’s themselves played; you secretly want to repress the discussion of important ideas because of who they happen to come from. And it’s at this point that the mashed potatoes and creamed corn begin to fly across the room.

Okay, the dispute doesn’t split up quite so neatly or end quite so dramatically as I have stated it, but this seems to me roughly the way it sorts. As for myself, I read Heidegger off and on as an amateur for 10 years before the secondary literature finally exposed him as the Butcher of Freiburg. And, yes, like so many readers of Heidegger, I had that queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. How could I have spent all that time with a friggin Nazi and know nothing about it? How could I have been so duped! But then I wondered, as so many uneasy Heideggerians did, especially we amateurs: Where IS it exactly, this taint of Nazism that supposedly clings to every jot and tittle that Heidegger wrote? How did I miss it? Is it in his critique of Cartesian dualism and the whole epistemological problematic? Does it lurk somewhere deep inside his distinction between World and Nature? Is it in his understanding of human being as care and its radical difference from natural and equipmental beings? Could it be hiding in his analyses of anxiety and boredom? This was all some time ago, before I started wearing my trousers rolled and looking warily at peaches. Still, all these years later, even though the whole truth about this singularly nasty man is now out, I continue to find him philosophically interesting. And NOT because he’s a fascinating case-study that enables me refine my views on fascism. Who would bother? No, the truth is much simpler. Political philosophy just ain’t my bag. And that, I suspect, may be at the root of the displeasure directed toward those of us who who stick with Heidegger. By continuing to read him and by having the apparent calousness to go on cultivating aspects of his thought apart from his politics, we unwittingly condone his politics and are thus complicitous in its evil. One may not be non-political. Period. Am I wrong?

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