It is generally acknowledged that philosopher Martin Heidegger effected a kind of paradigm shift in thinking about the world and about thought itself when he asked us to put aside western philosophy’s foundational binaries idea/object or mind/matter and formulated anew, the meaning of being and thinking, this time viewing all that exists through the specificities of time and history. His work led to philosophical movements as varied as phenomenology, hermeneutics, existentialism and post-structuralism, and yet since 1940 and rather frequently in recent times, his work has made news not only in academic circles where one would expect his ideas to be critiqued but in the popular press because new evidence regularly surfaces tying him more and more firmly to his pro-Nazi past. The fact that he was, for a brief period, a Nazi party member, wrote about the menace he perceived inherent in Jewish rootlessness and cosmopolitanism, and still had an intense love affair with his star Jewish student, Hannah Arendt, continuing to see her until her death, multiplies the dimensions of the story considerably. Add the fact that Arendt, herself the object of public scorn, forgave him for his refusal to recant his anti-semitism adds yet another extraordinary and certainly perplexing element to the history of this relationship. Understandably, much has been written about these two international figures, including a book by Daniel Maier-Katkin called Stranger from Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness, published in 2010. I recommend this book, particularly to those who enjoy psychological puzzles. And it can probably be agreed that the Arendt/Heidegger puzzle is amongst the more unusual of the recent past.
Stranger from Abroad lays out the controversies, introduces major and minor actors, theories, and provides quotes from many sources, including letters from the two protagonists but in the end it cannot resolve the Arendt/Heidegger enigma.
How deep was Heidegger’s anti-semitism? Did it go beyond personal opinion? Did it have philosophical ramifications? If the latter is the case (debates are ongoing), then what is one to do? Discard “Being and Time” and all those ideas that have been built upon Heidegger’s work? And what of Arendt’s forgiveness of Heidegger? Was it willful blindness, naive adoration of a love object, or considered, rational thinking that kept her at Heidegger’s side?
Neither Maier-Katkin nor any other writer of recent times has been able to tell us.