Phenomenological Reviews

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1The spectre of Nazism hangs over the work of Martin Heidegger. That spectre has ebbed and flowed. The publication of the Schwarze Hefte brought back that ghost once more. The Schwarze Hefte laid bare aspects of Heidegger’s antisemitism that had not previously been seen. In The Duplicity of Philosophy’s Shadow, Elliot Wolfson, a scholar of Jewish mysticism and philosophy who—by his own admission—was influenced profoundly by Heidegger, sets out to see the absences in Heidegger’s writing. Wolfson uses Heidegger’s approach to analyse the relationship of truth and untruth, silence, the limits of speech, and what can or cannot be said. From the outset, it is essential to acknowledge that The Duplicity of Philosophy’s Shadow is not in response to the Schwarze Hefte, but a much broader and nuanced conversation Wolfson engages in with himself, Heideggerian scholars, and Heidegger.


2The intention here is to sketch out how Wolfson conceptualises and breaks down Heidegger’s personal, political and philosophical miscalculations, and the parallels between Heideggerian thought and that of Jewish Mysticism. It is not to necessarily delve into the depths of the commonality of Heidegger’s thought and that of Jewish mysticism; this is something that Wolfson accomplishes too thoroughly to be summarised in a brief review without resorting to an approach that loses a lot of that nuance. Instead, this review focuses on the analysis of the unthought, Heidegger’s reforming and rejecting the Philosophy of National Socialism, and Heidegger’s silence and refusal to denounce the horrors of National Socialism.

Understanding Miscalculation

3Wolfson approaches his analysis of Heidegger as an outsider, one influenced by Heidegger, but an outsider nonetheless. Wolfson’s approach is shaped by Jacques Derrida’s reflection that “no thinker is above criticism, certainly not one as controversial as Heidegger, but even he, nay especially he, deserves to be read before he is castigated as an outcast and his lifework deemed irredeemable” (xii). By embracing this, Wolfson seeks to neither excuse nor dismiss Heidegger. Instead, to wrestle with that middle ground. Wolfson acknowledges that it is a middle ground that “I am afraid to say, one that can be borne only by those willing to invest an inordinate amount of time and energy in reading through this vastly arduous corpus.” An analysis of Heidegger’s miscalculation is,

The space we must inhabit, as uncomfortable as it might be, is one in which we acknowledge that Heidegger was both a Nazi given to anti- Semitic jargon and an incisive philosopher whose thinking not only was responding to the urgencies of his epoch but also contains the potential to unravel the thorny knot of politics and philosophy relevant for the present as much as for the past. (xv).

4The task Wolfson gives himself, is to read Heidegger in a way unlike how Heidegger sought to interpret himself. This task involves and necessitates walking up to his politics, and not immediately reaching to condemn Heidegger’s silence on Auschwitz but thinking about what that silence says and means. In The Duplicity of Philosophy’s Shadow, Wolfson accomplishes that task without ever losing sight of the reality of the tragedy that occurred. This approach provides a testament to how to engage holistically with Heidegger without losing the historical fact of the tragedy of what happened in Auschwitz.

Politics as Thought and Unthought

5Wolfson begins by highlighting that moral condemnation does not run counter to analysing National Socialism philosophically in the background of Heidegger’s work. For Wolfson, in actuality, suspending condemnation would be wrong as it would remove the historicity of the relationship between Heidegger’s thought and that of National Socialism. Herein, Wolfson needs to be applauded for stepping into a potentially uncomfortable position, but a necessary one. It is not possible to not condemn what occurred, but it is possible to remain objective in studying the relationship between Heidegger and National Socialism and seeing where that leads.

6As Wolfson puts it,

the Heideggerian presumption that questioning is the means to reveal the matter of thought is not forfeited by adopting a critical stance regarding the monstrosity of Nazism nor is there justification to argue that objectivity can be achieved only by abandoning oneself to a thinking that would preclude the ability to discriminate between right and wrong (1).

7Wolfson does not believe Heidegger relinquishes ‘the sanction of good and evil.” Rather, Heidegger sees good and evil as interpreted through historical destiny, and their interaction of going towards and away from a transcendent metaphysical grounding. Wolfson acknowledges herein that this view is not one that would be adopted by certain Heideggerian scholars. Of course, it’s challenging itself to say, beyond a basic framework, what would be and would not be acceptable to a majority in this particular context. Wolfson’s discussion of a transcendent metaphysical grounding does point to a broader criticism that maybe slightly unfairly levelled against the book as a whole: the book places the reader in the midst of an extraordinarily complex and necessary analysis that requires a nuanced knowledge of Heidegger’s corpus. So, the book is not the best starting point for those unfamiliar with the subject matter.

8For Heidegger, philosophical enlightenment ‘consists of unmasking the shadow as shadow, that is, discerning the shadow as a form of luminescence and not as a privation of light, (5). Wolfson examines Heidegger’s attempt to purify the philosophy of National Socialism. From 1933 onwards, in his writings, and lectures, Heidegger sought to both critique and support the present manifestation of National Socialism. The purification that Heidegger sought was to remove the racism and anti-Semitism from the core of National Socialism. Heidegger saw Germany, and Germans as philosophical a people, and nation. By having National Socialism embrace this, Germany would accomplish its national destiny. This, as highlighted by Wolfson, is an alternative form of nationalist chauvinism.

9Counter-posed here is a sense that Heidegger did express remorse in what he had engaged with, and that remorse impacted his ability to visit former friends, for instance, Carl Jaspers, not—in his words—“because a Jewish woman lived there, but because I simply felt ashamed,” (31). That sense of shame is a real and powerful factor that cannot be dismissed.

10In this discussion, there is one aspect that perhaps speaks loudest: that of silence. More specifically, Heidegger’s silence. That of how,

Heidegger fell short of outwardly and forthrightly rejecting the movement or admitting that his own decision was a symptom of a philosophical catastrophe and not merely a political blunder, but this moral failing provides the opening through which the concealed of the unconcealed of his thinking may be revealed as the entanglement of truth and untruth, an entanglement that sheds light on the shadow so that the substance of the shadow is unveiled as the shadow of the substance (32).

11Wolfson returns to this regularly from the outset. Analysing the unthought is most illuminating because something being unthought or absent is as such silent.


12Heidegger’s silence on what happened to the Jews, and the ills of National Socialism, remains one of the most challenging parts of his legacy. Heidegger died in 1976, far removed from the era of National Socialism, but he never publicly denounced the horrors that occurred. This failure poses a challenge that Wolfson, taking inspiration from Derrida, seeks to answer.

13Derrida embarks on what he labels a “risky hypothesis” that it was by not speaking that Heidegger offered the possibility for others to think the unthought connection between his thought and National Socialism. Had Heidegger explicitly offered an apology for his blunders, he would have likely been absolved, and there would have been closure and less of an impetus for subsequent philosophers and intellectual historians to contemplate the affinities, synchronisms of thinking, and common roots that he might have shared with Nazism. However, the legacy of Heidegger’s “terrifying, perhaps unforgivable, silence” bequeaths to us the duty of doing the work and the “injunction to think what he did not think,” (111).

14This deserves to be unpacked because it is the line of thought that Wolfson develops and connects with traditions in Jewish Mysticism. By not apologising, Heidegger placed himself in a space he need not have occupied, and had he apologised he would have lessened the impact of his miscalculation. Choosing to fail to do that forces those within the Heideggerian tradition to engage with that silence and see what that speaks about his legacy. Before proceeding, it is worth noting that there is a truth in Derrida’s hypothesis, but it is challenging to imagine that the Schwarze Hefte would not have led to an alternative if not potentially worse crisis even if Heidegger had publicly apologised.

15The framing of the “risky hypothesis,” and how it borders on a notion of silence used in the Kabbalistic tradition, highlights Wolfson’s ability to think the unthought. Silence is appealing because it is the only way left to react to what came before and the absence that creates. Heidegger’s silence can be seen as a form of language used as a reaction to something so unspeakable that the only language left for it is the absence of language. This silence is a product of a belief that it is only possible sometimes to understand what a thinker thought if we can first be aware of what they did not think, or at least did not verbalise in language—leaving it unsaid. This way the failure to speak is in a sense the action of speaking. It provokes the others to respond in a manner typically befitting language, not its absence. Heidegger interpreted silence as an “essential possibility of discourse” (115). For Dasein to be authentic, it has to be able to be reticent and confront the intelligibility of certain actualities and how they can and cannot be expressed. An inability to show something can be indicative of something in the same way that an ability to communicate something can be.

16This silence takes on a further meaning that of representing the internal solitude of the philosopher, and the withdrawing into oneself, especially in response to an event as powerful as the Holocaust. Part of the challenge is the philosopher’s awareness of how they will be misinterpreted, and how that leaves certain things as unsaid. There is a truth here but a failure to condemn what occurred at Auschwitz exists in a different category than an inability to articulate an ontology. There is the matter that the misinterpretation of a philosopher is inevitable. There is a need to be aware of the historicity and content surrounding the philosophy that is misinterpreted. As Wolfson proceeds in analysing what has been said, there is a mandate, or need to address that which has not been said. Mainly, why that was not said, and what that absence means. Wolfson builds on Heidegger’s emphasis on the linguistic ability of human beings, and how that capacity to not just speak but not speak as a choice. By not speaking, Heidegger may be engaged in an act representative as well of his historicity in that particular time, and how certain truths may not yet be or were not yet able to be spoken.

17Wolfson asks if Heidegger’s silence were not twofold. Firstly, could he only speak by not speaking? Secondly, was it just by heeding and understanding the importance of the said and unsaid that Heidegger could respond to what happened? This point is furthered by Heidegger’s notion that the bloodshed of the war was an example of the excess of evil and wilfulness that was a product of a “non-essence of beying,” (35). This break that is a product of the war and the annihilation that took place is that to which Heidegger speaks by not speaking to it. This speaking by not speaking and indirectness is compared to the Kabbalistic idea of the Other Side. The Other Side is the tool used to explain the existence of evil, the counter to grace. Wolfson explains this in Heideggerian terms as

the evil of the Other Side is the wilful manifestation of the nonessence that belongs to the essence of being, the event of appropriation, which comprises the inexpressible that is expressive of the essentially tragic nature of being (123).

18The Other Side is the opposite of essence. It can be grasped as the potentiality of Dasein to undo itself or come apart. This awareness is one that is limited, and not available to all of those that seek to unravel that piece of knowledge.

The knowledge of being, consequently, is limited to the individuals who remain faithful to the truth of the cataclysmic beginning and can make peace with it. Such individuals are neither recognized by the calculative nature of historiographical knowledge nor by the meditative nature of historical contemplation. Their mission is not to be sought in the ability to confront the other, but to accept the essential misrecognition that ensues from living and thinking within the ring of solitude (126).

19In rounding off the discussion of silence, Wolfson notes how this conception can be used to explain but not justify. That distinction is critical because it illustrates Heidegger’s thought and what may have remained unthought but influential to Heidegger. An understanding of that does not mean that those actions were justified but merely explainable.

20This account of Heidegger’s silence breaks apart what silence meant to Heidegger and the similarities with other traditions. This analysis does develop and ground Derrida’s “risky hypothesis” as something that makes sense and can be understood as the actions that Heidegger took due to his own philosophical framework. Silence is in a sense a performative act or the awareness that it is the only way Heidegger thought he could respond. Whether, as Wolfson notes, that is justified is a separate matter, but it does develop an interpretation based on engaging with Heidegger’s work and methodology.

Duplicity/Thinking the Unthinkable

21Let me conclude this investigation by stating once more that I offer no apology for Heidegger. Indubitably, there will be readers who will accuse me of doing what I emphatically announce I am not doing. No matter how insistent and clear-cut my denial, the passion surrounding Heidegger will prevent some individuals from being able to read my work without a predisposition that, oddly enough, smacks of the very absolutism, despotism and homogenization they find so offensive about the fascist ideology Heidegger unwisely embraced at a crucial moment in his own development as a thinker (169).

22Wolfson begins his Afterword with this paragraph. In concluding, it is important to bear that in mind as is the following.

The truth, as is often the case, lies some- where in the middle too often excluded by our logic of the excluded middle, a middle where something can be both true and not true, where the propositions that Heidegger was a defender of Nazism and that Heidegger was an opponent of Nazism are not mutually exclusive (170).

23The reason for including these is because these paragraphs speak to what Wolfson sets out to do and accomplishes, of wadding into an unpleasant murky water that others are reluctant to do so. He notes that Heidegger was a sublime thinker, but nonetheless he made serious lapses and brought into his philosophy ideas and associations that were and are repugnant. The challenge is to understand both, where they cross over, and learn from that. As Wolfson highlights, the inability to do that is its own dogmatism. As with his silence there are things about Heidegger that we can understand but not justify. Being able to sit in that tension is perhaps the most powerful thing we can embrace from the Heideggerian tradition, whilst acknowledging the horrors. That is a monumental task, but one that Wolfson accomplishes, which by itself makes this book essential in offering a fresh perspective that injects a nuance made possible by an outsider influenced by the material.

Publication details

Published in:

Apostolescu Iulian (2019) Phenomenological Reviews 5.

Pages: 33

Online since: 21st June 2019

Full citation:

Pangarov Peter (2019) „E. Wolfson, The duplicity of philosophy's shadow“. Phenomenological Reviews 5, 33.