‘Heidegger’s Fascist Affinities: A Politics of Silence’ by Adam Knowles reviewed by Matt Sharpe

Heidegger’s Fascist Affinities: A Politics of Silence

Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 2019. 233 pp., $28 pb
ISBN 9781503608788

Reviewed by Matt Sharpe

About the reviewer

Matt Sharpe (Deakin) is the author of articles on critical theory, neoliberalism and the authors of …


With the exception of Elliot R. Wolfson’s The Duplicity of Philosophy’s Shadow (2018), Adam Knowles’s Heidegger’s Fascist Affinities: A Politics of Silence (hereafter HFA) is the first English-language monograph on Heidegger’s politics published since the appearance of the Black Notebooks in 2014. HFA raises grave questions about Heidegger’s thought, politics and continuing reception, as well as their relation to the intellectual foundations of Nazism, and the relationship between philosophy and authoritarianism. The book deserves and will reward critical debate.

The framing claim of HFA is that the appearance of the Black Notebooks demands a significant reassessment of Heidegger scholarship. Knowles argues against ongoing attempts to ‘quarantine’ these texts as marginalia, ‘private notebooks’ or ‘reflections on the times’ with no bearing on Heidegger’s philosophy (30-31). HFA is informed by extensive documentary research and understanding of the historical record surrounding Heidegger’s political and administrative activities during the Nazi years. Knowles is hence scathingly critical of apologetic attempts to pin Heidegger’s politics to ‘the man’ as opposed to the thinker, or to argue that Heidegger was a reluctant Rector at Freiburg between 1933-34, subject to political suspicion – as against a thinker deemed ‘politically reliable’ as late as 1942 (22) – or that his fidelity to the ‘inner truth and greatness’ of National Socialism ended after 1934 or 1945 (4-5, 29-31).

HFA contends that the Black Notebooks reveal Heidegger as a thinker of silence, a ‘sigetic’ philosopher, as well as the thinker of ‘Being’. Within Heidegger’s thinking, Knowles notes, the question of silence is intimately connected to the Seinsfrage or ‘question of being’, since ‘from his earliest attempts […] he also recognizes that the question of being is always accompanied by concern for the degree and manner of sayability applicable to the inquiry’ (20). Yet Knowles claims that there has hitherto been too little attention to what Heidegger enumerates in his 1933-34 lectures as ‘the different manners of keeping silent; the multiplicity of its causes and grounds’ and ‘the different levels and depths of reticence.’ (34). Knowles’ confrontation with two dimensions to Heidegger’s ‘sigetics’ gives rise to the two intersecting tasks of HFA; the first, reading Heidegger as a philosopher with a dedicated theoretical account or accounts of silence, and the second, revealing him as a practitioner of a philosophical politics of silence.

In chapters two and seven, Knowles critiques Heidegger’s philosophy of silence by genealogically examining his strophes to the inarticulate authenticity of the German peasantry, whose ‘philosophical’ credentials Theodor W. Adorno also thought were suspect. Adding here to scholarship by Charles Bambach, Emmanuel Faye and others, Knowles shows the deep proximities between Heidegger’s discourse and that of four now-forgotten völkisch and Nazi authors: Ludwig Ferdinand Clauss (a phenomenologist and student of Husserl), Theodor Fritsch, Raymund Schmidt and Walther Darré, the Nazi Peasant Leader (39-49). In each of these authors, Knowles shows, as in Heidegger, we find criticisms of the corrupting noise, ‘scattering’ and ‘distractions’ of urban life, and a deep suspicion of modern technology and rationality (11, 17, 39, 47). In each case, as in Heidegger, this reactionary stance is coupled with celebrations of the nearly-wordless authenticity of ‘Nordic’ or ‘Germanic’ country folk, ‘rooted in the soil, attuned to the landscape through his labor, or bound to the household and family through her labor’ (40). In each case, finally, this discourse is interwoven with the kinds of anti-semitism Heidegger rehashes in the Black Notebooks: ‘a perception of Jews as a disturbing element that destroys the essential harmonious silence that binds the German people to itself, to its landscape, to its language’ (41).

Knowles’ knowledge of Heidegger’s German context, unusual in Heidegger scholarship, also significantly shows how re-grounding the thinker’s hostility to modern Gesellschaft within völkisch thought decisively calls into question the apologia that Heidegger post-1945 moved away from those currencies of thought that saw him enter Hitler’s Gefolgschaft, becoming instead the pastoral ‘thinker of letting-be and peaceful dwelling’ (171). According to Knowles:

if Heidegger was a somewhat unorthodox völkisch thinker in the 1930s, […] he is a much more orthodox Germanic völkisch thinker in his readings of Stefan George, Friedrich Hölderlin, and Johan Peter Hebel. On the Way to Language, for example, follows a rather straightforward set of völkisch themes about landscape, the German language, gathering, and silence. One might also pursue a similar set of links through the influential postwar essay “Building, Dwelling, Thinking” (177)

Knowles’s other approach to Heidegger as a philosopher of silence turns from context to text, from genealogy to critical hermeneutics. It involves tracking Heidegger’s developing conceptions of silence in his philosophical writings from Being and Time (1927) into his lectures on Greek philosophy of the 1930s. In Being and Time, Heidegger had contended that ‘silence’, as opposed to the inability to speak (for instance of animals), is a linguistic potentiality. He valorized some forms of ‘reticence’ as especially disclosive and linked to authentic forms of being-with-others (72). Preeminent here is the tellingly ‘silent’ call of conscience which ‘withdraws the word from the commonsense idle chatter of the they [roughly, public discourse]’ (74), and asks Dasein to assume responsibility for its own existence, in communication and struggle with members of its generation and Volk (73-77).

Yet, Knowles claims that in Heidegger’s post Being and Time works, he develops a second account of silence, as ‘the presence of the absence of language—a presence that comes to be through the word’ (74-75). These cryptic formulations become legible when we consider, with Knowles, Heidegger’s response to the suggestion that, with the publication of Off the Beaten Track after the war, Heidegger had ‘broken his silence.’ Heidegger replies that ‘this very communication is that act of keeping silent. We betray silence as long as we keep silent’ (25-26). True ‘silence’ is here a way of speaking of some kind. Although Knowles does not use the term, what is at issue is a practice of philosophical esotericism: a way of speaking or writing which conceals its truest or most radical contents from all but a select audience.

In chapter four, Knowles traces Heidegger’s mature conception of silence back to the German thinker’s analysis of Aristotle’s conception of sterêsis or ‘withdrawal’ (usually translated as ‘privation’) in his 1931 classes on Metaphysics, Theta 1-3. Aristotle uses this notion of ‘withdrawal’ to understand the relationships between species of opposites, like heat and cold, health and sickness, in the context of his analyses of force – dynamis (90-95) – and poiesis – production (95-98). For Aristotle as Heidegger reads him, the relation of sterêsis between the contraries indicates that the presence of any one term of these opposites just is the ‘being-present of the absence’ (or ‘absencing’) of the other; ‘the potent […] entity that has a particular force is bound to its contrary […] through the relation of withdrawal’ (92). Just so, when it comes to understanding the opposition of speech and silence, Heidegger will write that ‘keeping silent is a sterêsis of speech, and quiet a sterêsis of noise’ (94).

The second task of Heidegger’s Fascist Affinities involves understanding Heidegger as engaged throughout his career in his own political performances of silence, as well as theorizing about this theme. Knowles observes that the open statements of Heidegger’s anti-semitism in the Black Notebooks, especially after Kristallnacht and the radicalization of exterminatory Nazi anti-semitism in 1938 (19), show that what was long agonized over as Heidegger’s ‘silence’ concerning the Shoah was always a ‘worded’ thing. In addition to Heidegger’s infamous 1949 Bremen comments comparing the death camps to mechanized agriculture, the Black Notebooks show to what extent Heidegger ‘pondered’ in his Notebooks upon ‘world jewry’ and the fateful Kampf against this ‘principle of self-destruction’ in occidental history.

Heidegger’s performance of silence, which Knowles sees as deeply indebted to contemporary reactionary discourses (43-44), responds to his sense that authentic disclosive speech or writing cannot survive in the realm of public discourse. The latter, per Being and Time, is monochromatically characterized by its all-levelling curiosity and vacuity: a veritable metapolitical ‘dictatorship’ militating against Dasein’s confrontation with death, and as such the actualization of individual and collective modes of authenticity (13). ‘The more public the public sphere, the more closed the openness of Being,’ Heidegger confides in his Black Notebooks, shortly after having been called before the public forum of the De-nazification committee (16). Such publicity involves the ‘ruination of language’ (56), the ‘most turbulent perversion which the openness of being tolerates’ (16).

In the light of such ponderings, Knowles suggests that Heidegger’s different publications need to be read as belonging to a ‘spectrum’ according to how public, and therefore how necessarily guarded they are. The spectrum goes from speeches and works published (often with editorial redactions) in his lifetime to ‘private seminars, […] personal correspondence, and, finally, the manuscripts that include his writings on the event and the Black Notebooks’ (16). To understand the texts in this spectrum sigetically, Knowles posits a ‘logic of inversion’ governing their differing levels of openness: ‘the less essential something is to his thinking, the more likely he is to expose it to the mass media’ (16). By this logic, the Black Notebooks become the repository ‘in which Heidegger says what is most essential to him’ (33), ‘his most sigetic work’ (32).

The picture of Heidegger that emerges from HFA is not flattering. Knowles’s Heidegger is a thinker whose philosophy is in no way separable from his politics, and whose ‘politics of silence’ is as profoundly illiberal as it is uncritically rooted in the reactionary ideologies of his time and place. Heidegger’s politics and thought involve the calculated assumption of what the Black Notebooks call an ‘insidious ambiguity’, ebbing and flowing ‘in a current tied to the rise and fall of both the National Socialist movement and Heidegger’s own career within it’ (16). To the extent that scholars continue to avoid considering Heidegger’s politics and German context, HFA shows that they misunderstand his sigetics and risk unwittingly laundering his ‘fascist affinities’ as coin of the realm.

HFA is then a brave book, given Heidegger’s continuing canonization as a ‘great thinker’ (184), and the inevitability of the silent non-reception it was always going to receive from those invested in Heidegger’s legacy. For this reviewer, it is also a somewhat uneven book. The reader can wonder especially about the relationship between Knowles’ enlightening contextualizing genealogy of the debts of Heidegger’s sigetics to his non-philosophical Völkisch affinities, and his close hermeneutic reconstructions of Heidegger’s Aristotle and other Greek texts. To comprehend the openly anti-semitic and Germanist currents in the Black Notebooks, the former is sufficient. Knowles’ argument in chapters five and six of the book that, in order to understand Heidegger’s Völkisch particularism, we need to look as far back as ancient Greek philosophical cultures of silencing others, which looks like an example of what Aristotle called ‘situating the middle term too far away’. The notion of particular ethnonational ‘essences’ and ‘destinies’, central to Heidegger’s political philosophy in the 1930s, is so distant from progressive thinkers influenced by the Greeks (from Marx to Camus) that they don’t deign to even consider it.

Nevertheless, Knowles’ assessment that by avoiding confronting the darker realities of what we now know of Heidegger’s thought, we are evading ‘something central’ to Western philosophy, and its later modern institutional forms, is timely (185). ‘Will Western philosophy in its present disciplinary iteration within the structures of the modern neoliberal university serve as a source of resistance?’, Heidegger’s Fascist Affinities asks, and the question resounds: ‘Or might it already lie within a configuration of complicity?’ (185)

31 March 2020

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