Werner Heisenberg was no Nazi. But his Nobel is obviously well deserved. But, I think it is safe to say that he, like many Germans, made his accommodation with the Nazi regime, as a patriot, if not an ideologue. In contrast Konrad Lorenz actually aligned his understanding of the nascent science of ethology rather explicitly with Nazi thought during World War II. He later disavowed this era in his intellectual life, and became sympathetic to the Green party (though it must be remembered that European right-wing thought has long had a green aspect which might confuse American conservatives). Lorenz won a Nobel for his eminence as a scientist. R. A. Fisher, one of the founders of population genetics and statistics, was famously an unpleasant and self-centered person. If you wish to be confirmed of this simply read the biography coauthored by this daughter, R. A. Fisher: Life of a Scientist. His lack of personal humanity, which his colleagues and family experienced firsthand, does not diminish his contributions to humanity as a whole. Apparently Fisher, a traditionalist Tory, had a much dimmer view of women than the man who he supplanted as the doyen of statistics in Britain, Karl Pearson. This stands to reason, as Pearson was a man of the socialist Left. He supported women’s suffrage and refused an offer of knighthood in 1935. Yet Pearson held conventional views on eugenics and race for his era, highlighting the importance of the “the struggle of race with race, and the survival of the physically and mentally fitter race.” I doubt this distasteful view will prevent readers from making recourse to the Pearson’s correlation when needed. Just as truth of the tool’s utility has no bearing on the character of the toolmaker, so the character of the toolmaker has no bearing on the utility of the tool.
This comes to mind after reading Rebecca Schuman’s Heidegger’s Hitler Problem Is Worse Than We Thought. By Heidegger, she refers to Martin Heidegger, the famously inscrutable but inexplicably influential German philosopher who wrote Being and Time. Invariably when discussing Heidegger one has to make mention of his Nazi years. As a practical matter he was marginalized rather early on in Hitler’s reign. Werner Heisenberg likely gave much more direct material aid to the Nazi regime. But Heidegger’s involvement, like Lorenz’s, does seem to involve more explicit espousal of National Socialist beliefs. Or at least in Heidegger’s case a synthesis of his own esoteric worldview and that of the Nazis. But he would be a footnote were it not for his substantial influence upon Post-War French philosophy, and Continental philosophy more generally. As an undergraduate I had to deal with somewhat lame apologia on Heidegger’s behalf by a philosophy lecturer who was clearly moved by his ideas, but shaken by the reality of his idol’s association with Nazism (for what it’s worth, the individual was of Jewish background, and also admitted a debt to Martin Buber). Schuman’s piece was triggered by the revelation of personal letters from Heidegger which indicate more longstanding and deeper anti-Semitic attitudes and such (totally unsurprising from where I stand, casual anti-Semitism was not uncommon before World War II). She finishes:
You’d have to search far and wide to find an actual Nazi sympathizer working in legitimate academia—but soon, teaching Heidegger may have people wondering. So, should academic sources be subject to the “Hitler Test”? And if they fail, does this mean responsible teaching simply includes a thorough critical contextualization—or banishment from the canon altogether?
Me, I’m a Wittgenstein fan, the Shark to Heidegger’s Jet, so it’s not a question I’m particularly fit to answer. But for those who do use his work, it’s an issue whose undeniable Dasein they must address.
It’s the part about being a fan of Wittgenstein that leaves me confused. Perhaps to the average reader this does not need further exploration, but as an Oberlin undergraduate might say, Wittgenstein is also somewhat “problematic.” To get a sense, just read Ludwig Wittgenstein on Race, Gender and Cultural Identity. I’m not saying that Wittgenstein was on Heidegger’s level, most certainly not, but he was no saint, and a close reading of his biography indicates real inner conflicts with issues such as his self-hatred as an ethnic Jew, as well as unreflective classism and sexism.
Does any of this matter? Why is that humanists have to judge their intellectual forebears by the standards of a modern Oberlin seminar? Would any of us withstand critique and deconstruction a generation down the line? Instead of grappling with the ideas, it seems that in much of the humanities there is grappling with personality’s who can no longer argue, and inveighing against ages long dead. I can compute Pearson’s correlation coefficient without being troubled by Karl Pearson’s socialism and white supremacism. Obviously it is too much to ask the humanities to be view their intellectual production in a similar manner, but it strikes me that they have gone too far down the road of putting the dead through ghostly show trials meant to solidify conformity in the ranks. As I stated on Twitter, the problem with fashionable intellectuals is that they need to be careful not to outlive the fashions of their age.