Heidegger, the Statesman

and the Vision of Aristotelian Socialism

Characterizing Heidegger, the statesman, is a project which does not appear to be too uncommon among academic literature. Perhaps it was Leo Strauss who had prepared for this. After all, he is most likely to be the one responsible for popularizing the question of Heidegger’s commitment to the political, outright. However, and despite the availability of the literature, it is the succinctness of Michael Allen Gillespie’s Heidegger’s Aristotelian National Socialism which proves itself to be quite useful in answering Heidegger’s relationship to politics. What becomes apparent through Gillespie’s article is that a Straussian preoccupation with natural rights (as it appears, for example, in his lecture course on Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra) is exactly that which prevents an understanding of Heidegger’s politics. However, once the priority of rights is abandoned altogether (and along with it, the responsibility of a governance to secure those rights), then a fresh intellectual space opens up. In that space, novel forms of governance are allowed to fill the void. In order to open up that space for us here and now, and in order to understand exactly how far outside of rights Heidegger’s thinking is situated, let us consider that ideal which rights are supposed to secure — namely, freedom. Let us do so by way of Heidegger’s Aristotelian National Socialism, together with Gillespie.

“Heidegger understands freedom in an essentially Greek fashion as the freedom of the people that arises from giving themselves their own laws (i.e., from constituting themselves as a people). Such freedom thus is not individual freedom. Indeed, it imposes new duties on individuals. The duties and social roles that fall to individuals will vary, but they will not be determined by theoretical or technical necessities. Social differences based on economic or technical distinctions will be swept away and replaced by the human distinctions that arise out of the needs of the people.”

Indeed,

“Heidegger believed that the Nazis were already beginning this transformation. Village and city were being reunified and bound to rural areas. National Socialism was eroding class differences, bringing together people from different parts of society through their cooperation in the joint enterprise. Individuals thereby ceased to be members of a class and became fellow countrymen (Volksgenossen). As countrymen, they were members not of an abstract and anomic society but of a community.”

Following Gillespie’s interpretation of Heidegger’s conception of freedom, and his interpretation of Heidegger’s projection for the future of National Socialism, the project to characterize something like Heidegger, the statesman, appears to be ill-founded — of course, this is the case, insofar as we understand the modern state in a thoroughly liberal fashion (that is, as invested with the responsibility to secure rights for the sake of individual freedoms). Heidegger’s freedom, you could say, is prior to the establishing of laws for the protection of rights, or of other such legislation. However, in the absence of any prioritization of liberalism’s rights, and in looking towards a more foundational understanding of governance (as Heidegger did), we can ask, if not rights, then what exactly are we supposed to think when we think of governance? For Heidegger, governance begins, firstly, in the relationship between the δημιουργoς (dēmiurgos, ‘creator, craftsman’) and the δημος (dēmos, ‘the public, the people’). For Heidegger, the δημιουργος should not be understood in the sense of a god-creator — which Heidegger designates as φυτουργoς (fytourgos) — but as a craftsman who produces the ιδεα (idea) of the δημος. That is to say, the δημιουργος produces the outward appearance of the world within the commerce of the public’s usage of things and in communal life.

What should not be overlooked is that for Heidegger, following the Ancient Geeks, ποιησις (poiēsis, ‘creation, production’) is paramount. Etymologically, ποιησις is related to the Ancient Greek ποιεω (poieō, ‘I make’). Therefore, when we read the word ποιησις, we should not simply substitute it in our minds with the Modern English version of the word, namely production. We should instead couple it with personal creation. Note that the Modern English words poet, poetry, and poetic are also derived from the Ancient Greek root word ποιεω. The contemporary philosopher John Vervaeke, in his description of ‘transjectivity’, calls our apprehension of the phenomenal experience (and our objectification of the phenomenal experience) as “poetizing”. Δημιουργος, then, is the Ancient Greek description for that way of being which presences the ιδεα of the δημος through any and all walks of life. Every πολιτης (politēs, ‘citizen’) as πολιτης, has, as their way of being in the Ancient Greek experience, δημιουργος. Inasmuch, ποιητικη was not merely activity of the craftsman, the τεχνιτης (technitis), rather, it was equally that of the πολιτικος (politikos), the politician, as well.

While the above explication on the δημιουργoς and the δημος follows from Platonic thought, all-the-same, it also prepares us for understanding Gillespie’s interpretation of Heidegger’s so-called “Aristotelian National Socialism”. Gillespie’s interpretation of Heidegger’s socialism follows from Heidegger’s lecture course material from the winter semester of 1924–1925, at the University of Marburg — material which was later published under the title Plato’s Sophist. This is evident in the succinct recapitulation of the preparatory interpretation of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics from that lecture course material. Gillespie’s recapitulation provides for the force of his article. However, underlying his recapitulations is an attempted critique — and this critique is evidently not with the purpose of analysis, but rather, attack on Heidegger’s political project outright as it manifested through his rectorship at Freiburg University. In particular, Gillespie is critical of Heidegger’s endorsement of the führerprinzip — that is, the principle that the leader is always right and that his words demand total obedience. We will proceed with a consideration of Heidegger’s political project at Freiburg by way of Gillespie’s article, then we shall consider Gillespie’s critique.

From Gillespie we read that,

“[Heidegger] first attempted to reorganize the university according to the führerprinzip to refound it on the basis of a philosophical questioning of Being. He sought to push individual disciplines and departments to consider fundamental questions. He also enthusiastically attempted to insert labor and military training exercises into the curriculum to counteract what he saw as the hyperintellectualism of students and faculty. Finally, he organized science camps (retreats for selected members of the faculty and a few students) according to the führerprinzip to try to integrate the practical and theoretical sides of education.”

What should not be overlooked is that Gillespie’s critique is historical, not philosophical. And while Gillespie’s history is elucidating, by the end of the article we find that he has failed to deliver his initial promise, which was to show that “Heidegger’s vision of φρoνησις (fronēsis, ‘prudence or practical wisdom’) is fundamentally flawed” — or rather, that Heidegger’s theory of a political economy founded upon φρoνησις is fundamentally flawed.

Φρoνησις is Aristotle’s word for one of the five ways in which the world is ‘known’ or operated with. Φρoνησις describes a non-theoretical operation. In today’s language, we might say that it is pre-theoretical, or pre-cognitive, if we are to use more scientific language. Perhaps the American philosopher, John Dewey, might have said that it was our habits. Heidegger sought a political activity which was not merely rational, but grounded upon the grounds for rationality — namely, our proximal wheeling and dealing commerce with our environment, φρoνησις. Gillespie’s evidence for the failure of Heidegger’s phronetic political project is that “in the aftermath of [Heidegger’s] failure [at Freiburg]”, Heidegger turns from considerations on death to considerations on Being. And while this is true, what should not be shunted aside is that, again, Gillespie delivers a historical reason, not a theoretical one. Of course, our article here on Medium, entitled Heidegger, the Statesman, is not an appropriate place to consider Heidegger’s historical turn from death to Being. However, what must be apparent to anyone here, already, is that Heidegger’s failure at Freiburg does not speak towards a failure of a theory of political economy founded upon proximal φρoνησις; such a proof could only be found in the rejection of such a theory, today. Therefore, if Heidegger’s failure can be said to have proven anything, then it is the less interesting failure of such a political economy within the canvas of National Socialist Germany. In other words, it is the case that Heidegger failed as a Nazi.

If we understand democracy — that is, a rule by the people — not from the perspective of top-down government administration, but in the sense of communal economy, then Heidegger’s endorsement of the führerprinzip is democratic. Gillespie’s theoretical error begins with his interpretation that “φρoνησις is not present in all human beings. Indeed, for the most part, human beings are lost in their everyday concerns.” Yet, this understanding is inconsistent with the authentic/inauthentic nature of da sein, as Heidegger expounded upon it in Being and Time. The possibility of authentic and inauthentic moments is an essential ‘characteristic’ of da sein, in each and every case. This is true for the führer inasmuch as it is for any one else. To think otherwise would be to think of Heidegger as quite the monster — that Heidegger must consider most human animals (possibly any one of them other than the führer himself) as less-than-human. However, this understanding does not follow from Heidegger’s texts. It is instead founded upon the historical realities of National Socialism as it manifested particularly in Nazi Germany. However, this claim puts us in direct opposition to Gillespie. So, let us now ground that claim.

If we continue to allow ourselves to think of democracy as an economic activity (as has been suggested above), then the production of the δημιουργος is, and can only ever be, a manifestation of ιδεα insofar as the δημιουργος is equal in its being as the δημος. That is to say, the ιδεα essentially belongs to the people. Therefore, the δημιουργος can only ever merely present the ιδεα through the act of producing, being as one such instance of the people. Consequently, if the ιδεα is not of the δημος, then neither is the being of the producer as δημιουργος. Of course, what becomes paramount, then, are the mechanisms by which the production of the δημιουργος coheres with the δημος. And while this collapse of autocracy into democracy may sound frightening to those of us invested with the spirit of liberation (perhaps it may sound as if this collapse provides for tyrannical leadership), if we continue thinking of democracy as an economic activity, then we are granted a new perspective on exactly those mechanisms.

Thinking upon the historical narrative of liberalism, we find that Enlightenment values established liberal governance mechanisms. We call these our democratic institutions: electoral processes, freedom of the press, the right to bear arms, et cetera. However, those institutions have proven themselves to be satisfactory only insofar as they allow for social governance mechanisms. From the perspective of social governance, thinking of governance as merely top-down government administration is not only unsatisfactory but also archaic. Consider, as an example, the social justice warrior’s fight against the system itself. Yet, we can say that a similar dissatisfaction belongs to social governance also. Simply recall some of the tactics of social governance-as-law: social legislation, surveillance, and punishment. This form of governance-as-law is apparent in, for example, early third millennium cancel culture. Yet, neither does this represent the entirety of governance. For sure, governance-as-law (whether it be liberal or social) neglects exactly what the church, for example, meant to satisfy in the whole of liberalism’s human economy. Inspiration. Hope. Communion. What should be kept in mind, then, is that in thinking about governance through the lens of economy (in particular, the political activity of the δημιουργος, as Heidegger did), we are not suggesting the abandonment of either liberal or social governance mechanisms. Instead, we are suggesting something else altogether, something grounded on the historical conditions of both liberal and social governance mechanisms. Equipped with this progressive narrative of democratic governance, we are suggesting a future governance which satisfies our ideal of democracy by way of creative-production.

Without a doubt, Gillespie is a better historian than he is a metaphysician; this is particularly evident in Gillespie’s telling of the historical facts. Gillespie’s facts ring truer than any theoretical critique which suggest that “Heidegger’s vision of φρoνησις is fundamentally flawed”.

“All of Heidegger’s efforts failed. In part, this was because the [Nazi] party was suspicious of his intellectualism and his Jesuit and Jewish connections. A more important reason for his failure, however, was resistance from within the university and especially from the natural scientists who did not want their research programs derailed by philosophical questioning. The faculty as a whole was also bitterly opposed to required labor and military exercises. Faced with this failure and unwilling to compromise with either the party or the faculty, Heidegger resigned.”

These, then, are the facts. Therefore, we leave behind Gillespie’s interpretation and subsequent critique. But, in doing so, we take from him what was valuable and leave behind what was all-too fashionable in his time. This Medium article, entitled Heidegger, the Statesman, is a call for abandoning the liberal witch-hunt of the post-WWII period. It is equally a call for revisiting, afresh, socialist economics as they follow from Heidegger’s so-called “Aristotelean National Socialism”. Of course, the economic reading of socialism which we encourage here is not merely economic. It is, after all, more primordial than we are accustomed to thinking. Our economics, if they are to be the economics which come to satisfy the democratic ideal in future political economies, must operate parallel to Aristotle’s metaphysics, τα περι της πρωτης φιλοσοφιας (that is, ‘the [writings] concerning first philosophy’). Of course, the French philosopher Rene Descartes offers a more English-friendly term for this realm of thought: prima philosophia. And so, following the Latinized expression, we might say that we are here looking for a prima economics — prime economics. However, for ease of translation into English, let us simply name the realm which will come to satisfy our ideal of democracy in the future as first economics. The economics which we are asking after here are, specifically, a socialism; one which is characterized by creative (and ‘yes’, that means artistic) and proximal production of culture, arts, and philosophy, generally. It suggests that we revisit (and ‘yes’, abandon) our ideal of a liberation from governance.

*Editor’s note: This reading of metaphysics, as first economics, is likely unfamiliar to the reader. For further explication, visit Justin’s YouTube channel, here or here; and, also the first economics Facebook group here.