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7 The French Reception of Heidegger's Nazism
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The Master Thinker in French Philosophy

In order to understand the particular, indeed peculiar, nature of the French reception of Heidegger, it is helpful to provide a brief characterization of the French intellectual context, above all French philosophy. Philosophy in general is not given to rapid changes, since it often takes centuries for problems to be formulated, for ideas to attain wide appeal, for shifts in emphasis to occur. Just the opposite is the case in French thought as viewed on a certain level. In the last two decades, an exceedingly short period by philosophical standards, French philosophy has considered and later discarded options proposed by structuralism, post-structuralism, the nouveaux philosophes , hermeneutics, existentialism, semiology. postmodernism, and so on. There is obviously no guarantee that the latest mode on the scene, deconstruction, which is better known and more influential in the United States than in France, will survive, or survive more than the proverbial fifteen minutes during which each of us will supposedly be famous.[15]

The rapid pace in which the various aspects of French thought come into being and pass away suggests that French philosophy—which gave rise to the postmodernist theory according to which there is no ground, no overarching single tale that locates all its variants—in itself is post-modernist.[16] One could easily infer from what by philosophical standards seems to be the nearly instantaneous rise and fall of competing points of view that, to parody Yeats, things have indeed fallen apart since the center does not hold, in fact fails even to exist.[17] But these appearances are indeed deceiving since to a perhaps unsuspected extent there is an intellectual center in French intellectual life, which underlies and makes


possible the profusion and confusion of swirling ideas only in its various manifestations.

France is not alone in possessing an intellectual noumenon . Another example is the increasingly precarious dominance of analytic thought in Anglo-American philosophical circles, which has begun now to loosen through the realization of some of its main practitioners that it was no longer possible, or even productive, to continue to exclude other forms of thought.[18] For different reasons, a similar phenomenon can be observed in eastern Europe, where the long political hegemony of Marxist orthodoxy has clearly given way to philosophical perestroika , in Soviet philosophy and elsewhere in eastern Europe.[19]

Although French thought may seem to be the philosophical analogue of the Maoist injunction to let a hundred flowers bloom, from a historical point of view it has long been dependent on a single main component. After the French Revolution, which in principle guaranteed fundamental rights, including religious rights, to all, France remained, and still remains, a mainly Roman Catholic country:[20] to a scarcely lesser extent French thought has been dominated over several hundred years by forms of Cartesianism.[21] It is hard to imagine and difficult to describe the extent of Descartes's influence on French intellectual life, which descends even to the level of a correctly written paper, the so-called dissertation , in the lycée . It is not without reason that Sartre has been called the last of the Cartesians and Merleau-Ponty, his younger colleague, has been hailed as the first non-Cartesian French philosopher. For in France over the course of several hundred years, Descartes has played the role of the master philosopher, le maitre penseur , whose thought furnished the central organizing principle of all intellectual life.

In the period since the 1930s the two main philosophical developments in French thought, namely the attention to Hegel and then to Heidegger, can both be explained with respect to the dominant Cartesian-ism. The introduction of Hegel in France has been aptly, although not entirely accurately, traced to the influence of Alexandre Kojève's famous seminar on the Phenomenology during the late 1930s.[22] Although a brilliant thinker in his own right, a major star in the philosophical firmament, and indeed critical of Descartes, Hegel is also in numerous ways a neo-Cartesian, who perpetuates the well-known Cartesian concerns with certainty, truth in the traditional philosophical sense, metaphysics, first philosophy, and so on.[23] The importance of Hegel's influence on French thought in this century should not hide the extent to which, in reacting against Hegel as the maítre du jeu , the master of the game, later French thinkers were reacting through Hegel to the continued influence of Descartes.[24] This reaction is in part prolonged in the more recent turn to Heidegger, a notorious anti-Cartesian.


Roughly since 1945, and increasingly in recent years, French thought has been increasingly dominated by Heidegger.[25] To understand the turn to Heidegger in French philosophy, two factors are important. First, there is Heidegger's well-known anti-Cartesianism, which conveniently meshes with the continued reaction against the father of French philosophy, in a form of conceptual parricide stretching over more than three centuries. Heidegger's thought is inseparable from its anti-Cartesian bias, which only grows deeper in his later turn away from Dasein in part in order to expunge any residual Cartesianism.[26] Heidegger's attempt to dismantle modern metaphysics resembles French philosophy itself. The introduction of his thought within the French context as part of the reaction against Hegel, or rather the French form of Marxist Hegelianism, only showed the persistence of the difficult effort to throw off the Cartesian background.

Second, there is the more immediate antihumanist reaction to the prevailing left-wing Marxist, humanist form of French Marxism, associated with such writers as Kojève in the first place, as well as at various times Camus, Nizan, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Garaudy, Foucault, perhaps Lévi-Strauss, Barthes, and others, which bothered, in fact offended, those concerned to maintain the traditional French value-system. Heidegger's self-proclaimed antihumanism, in fact an effort to found a new humanism surpassing the old variety, provided a convenient way to throw off the yoke of Hegel's influence, which to many seemed merely a stand-in for Marxism, including its political dimension.

Jean Beaufret later played a main rô1e, but at least initially Jean-Paul Sartre was mainly responsible for creating the French fascination with Heidegger. Sartre's Being and Nothingness , which was doubly dependent on both Hegel and Heidegger, focused attention on both thinkers during the Second World War, reinforcing the interest in Hegel and turning attention to Heidegger. Sartre's dual interest in Heidegger and Hegel was seen by many as problematic. The form of Hegelianism current in France, to which Sartre also subscribed, was a left-wing Marxist humanism pioneered by Kojève. Heidegger's own self-described antihumanism was, to begin with, perceived as humanism, particularly in the extensive discussion of Dasein in Being and Time . Heidegger's thought was in part seen as a necessary course correction to what, certainly from a Roman Catholic religious point of view, was perceived as a form of antihumanism associated with Sartre's atheistic form of existentialism.[27] The point is that although Heidegger left the seminary and later the church, and his link to Nazism was not an expression of humanism in any ordinary sense, his thought was perceived as a moindre mal , a lesser evil, by those appalled by Sartre's own form of existentialist humanism.

What is the extent of Heidegger's influence in French philosophy?


There is a measure of truth in Heidegger's famous boutade that when the French begin to think, they think in German.[28] To an important extent Heidegger's thought now forms the horizon of French philosophy. The dominance of Heidegger in French philosophy can be illustrated by the startling fact, certainly unprecedented in any other country with a major role in the Western philosophical tradition, that at the present time the three main younger scholars of Aristotle (Rémi Brague), Descartes (Jean-Luc Marion), and Hegel (Dominique Janicaud) in France can all be described either as Heideggerians or as basically influenced by Heidegger's thought. French Heideggerianism is a flourishing industry, perhaps the most important contemporary source of studies of Heidegger's thought in the world today. Within France, Heidegger's influence has in the meantime penetrated in other directions as well. It is no exaggeration to say that at present Heidegger and Heidegger alone is the dominant influence, the master thinker of French philosophy, and that his thought is the context in which it takes shape and which limits its extent. It is, then, no wonder that in the recent resurgence of controversy about Heidegger's link to Nazism, French philosophy has tended to equate the attack on Heidegger with an attack on French philosophy.

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