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Werner Heisenberg

Werner Heisenberg

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.

• Category: Ideology • Tags: Intellectuals 
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  1. I’ll take their quibbles seriously the second they start asking if someone’s support of Marxism somehow should mean banishing them from the canon.

    I somehow doubt it. Which of course reveals this nonsense for what it is… outright enforcement of religious (egalitarian/progressive) norms.

  2. Josh says: • Website

    I think the issue is sort of what you said, but it goes a bit deeper. Suppose a philosopher has two arguments, A and B, and you believe A but not B. In the case that A and B are totally independent arguments, that might be fine—the philosopher was just wrong about B. But in practice arguments A and B are likely to share common threads, and I think that’s where the problem comes from. If I really like Heidegger’s argument about some stuff and he used those same arguments/beliefs to back up his antisemitism, then either I’m inconsistent or Heidegger was inconsistent. So this needs to be sorted out. On the other hand, a correlation coefficient is just some formula, and you can just apply it. It doesn’t even matter if Pearson himself didn’t understand properly how to apply correlation coefficients, we don’t need to worry because it’s just a formula that anyone can inspect and it’s independent of the rest of Pearson’s belief system.

  3. if heidegger’s views were more clear & distinct there would be less of an isssue, as you could separate the different aspects. but as it is many humanities intellectuals aren’t so clear, and to be fair, their domains of inquiry are not so clearly modular.

  4. They (the Left) will definitely make exceptions for people like Gandhi (sex), Dalai Lama (homophobia), Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Castro, Che, Rand, Keynes’ eugenics, John Lennon’s spousal abuse, drug abuse by their favorite musicians, etc. but then will stop at the point of Alec Baldwin. I guess everyone has their own threshold depending on how well known their hero’s transgressions are.

  5. I always took the humanist’s obsession with their intellectual heroes’ ideological purity to be basically a heuristic: philosophical ideas being notoriously controversial even among ‘experts’ in a particular field, the real life test of a big moral question (slavery, suffrage, nazis, etc) can help one decide whether to accept or reject a philosopher’s entire system. This would be most relevant for moral philosophers: if a moral system is a tool for making good choices, then failure on a big moral question implies that that particular tool, though intellectually seductive, is pretty worthless.

    There still are numerous reasons to distance one’s self from these ideological purity heuristics- experimentally, it seems that in depth knowledge of ethical systems doesn’t translate into behavior at all (see the stuff by Eric Schwitzgebel for instance), so ethical systems aren’t really tools in the sense described above. I also think the academic fetish for studying a single person (too many philosophers are ‘Kant scholars’ or ‘Hume scholars’) contributes to the humanist’s impulse towards ideological purity: ‘I’ve studied this guy for decades, so it will feel like a strike against me personally if he isn’t right about *everything*’.

  6. AG says:

    Guilty by association or identity politics are very common belief among common people. A lot of people can not make distinction between poltics and science. For politics, there is no absolute truth. For science, absolute truth is final answer like earth is not flat. Unfortunately, ideological motivation and poltics often make situation chaotic when the answer is not clear.

  7. to be fair, scientists engage in idol worship as well. for example, there are many passages in *descent of man* which many might find highly objectionable, but most secular liberals like to emphasize darwin’s legitimate credentials a whig humanitarian. the truth is he was both a man of his age, and, a humanitarian. of course since ultimately darwin’s fame is as a scientist these other issues don’t obscure the whole of his ouvre..

  8. “Why is that humanists have to judge their intellectual forebears by the standards of a modern Oberlin seminar?”

    FWIW, as someone who has taken modern Oberlin history seminars probing these kinds of issues (e.g., a seminar under the guidance of the late Professor Geoffry Blodgett where we discussed the issue for a couple a days), I can state that we were warned sternly that if we wanted to do history in a way that was fair and accurate and provided meaningful lessons about the present that we shouldn’t get too hung up in judging our forebears by the moral and cultural standards of today, or by an unduly idealized standard of how people in leadership roles should act.

  9. Wittgenstein’s attitude toward women was characteristic of German culture; men often treated their wives and even their mothers as domestic servants. France wasn’t a lot better. Scandinavia may have been.

    The “puritanism” of 19th c. American life meant that men did not think of their daughters as will-less, helpless sex objects to be locked up until married. As a result, unchaperoned American girls had a freedom and outgoing curiosity that fascinated, terrified and horrified Europeans. This difference was already noted early on by de Tocqueville (before 1840), who was quite positive.

    I doubt that Oberlin seminars often talk about the early American origins of women’s lib, and superpatriots still less. But it’s there. And it is connected with Puritanism — the idea that people can control their desires.

    This is somewhat peripheral to the post, but all these things are examples of the fact that if you look closely at anything, it starts to look strange, and that he actual past was always much different than the summary standard picture of the past people have. It’s not even that a different summary standard view would be better. Just a different distortion. The summary standard view cannot be true.

  10. It’s funny someone raises Wittgenstein against Heidegger, not just for the reasons you note but also because many see a lot of overlap between them. At least with the later Wittgenstein. The early Wittgenstein was of course a strong positivist.

    I think it would be fantastic to have intellectual heroes who were ethically praiseworthy. However even people who seem like good fellows often had dark sides. (Feynman’s womanizing and occasional misogyny for example; Einstein’s horrific treatment of his wife and the way he treated other women, etc.) There are some who manage to pull it off. After reading Gauss’ biography he seems as praiseworthy in his personal life as he was in his scientific and mathematical one. (I’d go so far as to say Gauss sets the standard)

    Still, when talking about intellectual ideas it seems odd that so many bring up the person. Perhaps it makes more sense in philosophy where one imagines ideas affect behavior more. Yet there are studies showing ethicists behave less ethically and so forth. Can’t we look to Heisenberg or Heidegger’s ideas without necessarily having to comment on their relations to Nazi Germany?

  11. In general, Jews and Judaism don’t seem to play much express role in Heidegger’s historiography or other aspects of his worldview–aside from two individuals, Spinoza and his early mentor Husserl, neither of whom adhered to Judaism. (He was ambivalent about both of them.)

    This is a little odd given that a) he was very concerned with cultural divides within European history (especially Roman/German), b) one of his major influences, Nietzsche, was obsessive over the Jewish contribution to Western thought and reactions to it, and c) Heidegger was very concerned with religion’s role in Western culture. Maybe he just saw the Jewish/Gentile duality as an annoyance. Another possible factor is that Nietzsche’s interest in Judaism mostly had to do with ethics, and Heidegger though there was no objective morality and only gave incidental attention to metaethics.

    The references to politics that he made after the war obviously have to be read critically. But in the Letter on Humanism (1946), there is some fairly direct criticism of German nationalism, aimed especially against ideas of superiority.

    On a side note, I can’t say I ever found Heidegger to be all that difficult a read. Maybe I just had really good teachers.

    Wittgenstein I know less about, despite having taken a class on him when I was was an undergrad. A lot of people around Cambridge seemed to think he was gay–maybe that had some influence on his views on women.

    “Why is that humanists have to judge their intellectual forebears by the standards of a modern Oberlin seminar?” I think philosophy has a certain cachet to it that a lot of people want to co-opt to support their political ends, and that this is what a lot of popular writers on philosophy are trying to do.

  12. Fisher encouraged his female students to go on and have academic careers. Pearson did not. That is one reason why Fisher’s influence has been greater.

  13. Well, a large part of philosophy is fundamentally normative, in the sense that it is about finding out “how to live”. Ethical positions are in a sense the “implicit axioms” of a normative philosophical system. If I find that someone had dubious ethics, that would certainly impact my willingness to follow their ethical conclusions, even if I can’t quite spot the flaw in their reasoning.

    If you want to see actual bona-fide assholes who still gather an inexplicable following among left-wing continental philosophers, Rousseau and Nietzsche are the obvious go-to examples (Bertrand Russell has a few choice words for both). Rousseau wrote a treatise on education while promptly abandoning all of his five children at birth. I’ll be damned if I take his conclusions on the matter seriously, but all French students still have to learn about the Emile in high school.

    I never read Heidegger, but if I do, I’ll certainly keep his Nazi tendencies in mind.

    In science and engineering the problem is less acute because there are “gold standards” that can eventually sort out the truth, like experimental replication. Heisenberg could have walked in goose-step with a brown shirt (he didn’t), and that still wouldn’t make quantum mechanics wrong, because we’d still have the Aspect experiment and Bell’s inequalities.

  14. I’m pretty comfortable separating the work from the worker in most cases. I am bothered by Heidegger’s role in NAZI-fication of his University, in order to “conquer[] the world of educated men for the new national political spirit.” He saw it as his role to teach this stuff to others.

  15. Priss Factor [AKA "Andrea Ostrov Letania"] says: • Website

    What’s wrong with being anti-Jewish? Holocaust was evil, but most anti-Jewish people never supported such a policy. Why should they be tainted by association with Nazism and the Holocaust?

    Should everyone who is anti-Chinese be associated with Japanese lunatics who raped Nanking?
    One can be anti-Chinese while also detesting Japanese aggression against China.
    One can be anti-American without taking delight in 9/11.
    One can be anti-Japanese without defending the nuking of Hiroshoma and Nagasaki.
    One can be anti-Muslim without praising Crusader atrocities.

    Similarly, there were lots of legit reasons for not liking Jews. Why should all such legit reasons be associated with the Nazis and the Holocaust?
    Besides, Jews often express anti-wasp, anti-Russian, anti-Iranian, anti-Chinese, anti-Palestinian feelings. Do such feelings mean that Jews want to carry out genocide against all such peoples? Some Jews might, but most don’t. Most are critical or hostile without being murderous.

    When Jews bitch about ‘antisemitism’, it means they can attack and criticize others, but others better shut up about Jews.

  16. KA says: • Website

    Nazism and Holocaust ,both were elevated o the consciousness long after the dark decade had
    passed and been vanquished. What would we be talking if Nazi won? We would correctly see it as another example of evils like slavery,liquidation of natives in New world . But this darkest chapter has been mystified made inscrutable,pitchforked into the opposite pole of the divinity,rendered into a moral failure of abysmal darkness creeping out of the bleakest corner of human’s animal instincts that target the beauty and the sublime for the pure vile hatred and for no other reason.
    The nazi and holocaust have replaced the moral,spiritual ,and religious understanding of the God ,Devil,and human falability in today’s secular version of divine entitlement claimed by the Zionist.

  17. KA says: • Website

    Despite this. We continue to associate and we will continue to do so . This is easy and has benefits of scoring points quickly and effectively against any opponent . This claim of evil nature in an otherwise successful and productive display of achievement in different fields make judgment easy when we are trying to discredit somebody rightfully or wrongly.
    Even the prosecutors in court of law will use foibles and beliefs in one area or history of discredited views or activities of the past unrelated to the issue on hand to get the noose around the defendant.
    The nazi association or support from these giants could also be explained by simple human nature of not to question,not to refuse , not to scrutinize ,not to be seen as trouble maker ,not to wander off the social fences unless he or she is threatened by the developments around him or her.
    There is evil in us that shows its presence by our absence from the struggle for what is right,proportionate,egalitarian,lifting,moral,and just.

  18. “Can’t we look to Heisenberg or Heidegger’s ideas without necessarily having to comment on their relations to Nazi Germany?”

    Heisenberg, yes, because his ideas don’t deal with Nazism. I’d go as far as to say that we should be willing to use Mengele’s medical results, or at least his data, if they’re methodologically sound. (I’ve heard that generally, his data aren’t useful because his methods were poor, but I haven’t researched the issue.) While Mengele was a convinced Nazi and a pretty thoroughly nasty man, the results he got will be true or not whether Nazism or his personal sadism are ethical or not.

    Heidegger, no, because his ideas deal with the relations of man to man, and man to the state, and if he believed his ideas justify Nazi government, we are obligated to consider whether his logically prior ideas do lead to National Socialism.

    The simple rule I’d propose is that once you’re doing normative work, your politics and your personal actions should be considered.

  19. The moral life of a scientist is indeed irelevant to the value of his work. Heidegger, was not a scientist. he was a “philosopher”. It won’t do to try to absolve Heidegger, or any other European “philosopher” who has written since the French revolution. They have all been on a toboggan ride to hell. They have whored after murderous thugs like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Fidel. They have strewn rose petals in the paths of tyrants.

    Distinctions such as communist, fascist, left, and right are all meaningless. They have all denigrated human dignity, rationality, the fatherhood of God, and the brotherhood of Man. Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Sartre, Arendt, are all guilty, they all deserve the obscurity of forgetfulness.

    Don’t say one of them is less bad than another. They were all complicit. They are all guilty. They all must be condemned.

    For all of you people trying to defend various intellectual miscreants like Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre, give up. We are on to you and to them. Don’t try to justify them or yourselves. They will always be what they were, and you make yourselves look delusional.

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