Ideas, not Idols

September 29, 2014

When various philosophical movements become too closely connected with particular personas, the results can be disastrous for fruitful areas of inquiry. Recently, Martin Heidegger’s “black notebooks” have been released, and the New York Times just published an excellent review which renews questions regarding his student Hannah Arendt’s view that we should separate Heidegger’s despicable personal views and alliance with the Nazi party from his philosophical work. My own views of Heidegger are tainted by his frequently obscure prose (at least in translation), but I acknowledge his seminal role in modern phenomenology and existentialism, both of which are worthy and important additions to modern philosophical work which receive too little attention from “analytic” philosophers. But all that aside, we might well note that Heidegger’s personal viewpoints and mostly private expressions of anti-semitism honestly give us reason to think much less of him as a person, even to despise him. Philosophers, it’s sad to say (speaking as one) are faulty, they are human, they often do not arise to the lofty levels of the ideals they espouse. Like many humans in general, they can be jerks, or worse. This is true for scientists, for artists, for founders of religions, etc. It is one reason we must be careful not to place “thought leaders” on a pedestals. 

A danger, of course, to making idols of intellectuals or anyone else is that once we learn more about them as persons, their very real and valuable contributions to their fields may become tinged, just like Heidegger’s work now seems iredeemably blighted by his antisemitism. How shall we confront this danger? As Arendt urged, there are incredibly valuable elements of Heidegger’s work that have changed the nature and path of modern continental philosophy. We would be foolish to ignore his contributions, and we should remain compelled by those ideas within his work that seem devoid of hateful ideology. But we would be equally foolish, in my opinion, to view the fact of these contributions apart from his personal failings, and unwise in any case to idolize anyone, be they layman, genius, or god. It is ultimately the ideas that matter, the principles not the personas. Our heroes will always disappoint us if we dig deeply enough, because like most humans, their lives falls short of even the most modest ideals. It is unfortunate that Heidegger and those who have been influenced by his philosophy now face the uphill task of distinguishing the best features of his works from the worst features of his personality, and it has long been a setback to Continental German philosophy to separate Heidegger from the history and philosophies of phonomenology and existentialism in general. 

As students of philosophy, as members of movements, as communities sharing worldviews, we must be wary of elevating ideas by attaching them to specific personalities, no matter how strong, attractive, compelling, or even valuable to the projection of a message. When these people fall, they risk setting back the valuable ideas we explore and they espouse, undermining the progress of our philosophies in the short term. We are human, and sometimes prone to bad behaviors, and none of us is so perfect that we can afford to forget that of our idols and heroes. We do them harm too when we hold them to impossible standards, elevating them to the status of heroes, and making any revelation about their faults all the more damaging to them when facts emerge. We also have a duty to not conflate people with philosophies, and to pursue ideas regardless of the nature of the individuals who first describe them. The ideas are too important, and the stakes are too high, and as many churches have learned, the descent is too great if we hitch our wagons to our fellow humans, or make their ideas eventually answer to their faults.