Heidegger is a duck

Anti-semitic sentiment, Jew hatred, is not uncommon amongst Intelligent, highly educated people.

However, if somebody expresses an anti-Semitic view does this make that person an anti-Semite? Given that many people are unaware of the implications of uttering a view that is, particularly in Europe, fairly standard (see this debate), there is usually a strong self-denial about being an anti-Semite, especially when there is a stigma against being labeled as such. Typically the anti-Semite offers an alternative explanation, they have Jewish friends, they are proud of their Jewish ancestors, is “only” criticizing Israel, was just making an innocent “gesture” of friendship, youthful indiscretion and so forth. Sadly, even the fact of being Jewish oneself does not rule out the possibility of being an anti-Semite.

When one moves through the haze of rhetoric it can be tricky to determine if there is unambiguous evidence that would justify labeling a person as an anti-Semite (let’s say from a person who is “merely hostile” to Jews) . A masterful example of this is the recent analysis of Max Blumenthal by Petra Marquardt-Bigman of the Brandeis Center. After you read her exhaustive review of the evidence and insightful discussion, one is left in no doubt that applying the term anti-Semite to Max Blumenthal is entirely justified.

Most people would take the sensible viewpoint that if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.

The influential German philosopher Heidegger has always looked like a duck, in spite of significant personal relationships with two Jewish women, one of whom prominently and publicly defended him against charges of anti-Semitism as a “hapless victim of malicious slander”. New evidence not only unambiguously identifies his anti-Semitism, it puts his anti-Semitism at the heart of his contributions to philosophy.

Beyond the intellectual satisfaction of the duck being proven to be a duck, this new information is significant. Heidegger’s philosophy underpins much of European thinking. Yet it is now coming into view as bogus humbuggery. Its power to influence perhaps rested on his academic celebrity status, reinforced by his acolytes. Heidegger’s writing could be fertile ground for thinkers because it was so obtuse, enabling one to authentically draw a variety of different ideas out of the text and claim Heidegger’s “influence” as a form of academic legitimacy.

In other words we might call this a scam. There may be some unanticipated benefits by happenstance although any benefits can’t be claimed to have a secure (and certainly not a moral) grounding.

Fast forward to the current time where we have another celebrity academic, Judith Butler. To quote from her wikipedia page, she has had “significant influence on the fields of feminist, queer, and literary theory, philosophy, political philosophy, and ethics” and is the recipient of numerous prestigious awards. At face value, this is impressive. On the other hand, we do know that she is a duck. And, like Heidegger, her convoluted unintelligible prose cannot stand on its own without its admirers who convey its meanings according to the intellectual debates du jour.

As a scientist I fully admit that philosophy is not my area, which disqualifies me from commenting on Professor Butler’s academic work. My expertise though is in the life sciences and I can categorically state that her assertion that gender is solely “performative” is factually wrong. Wrong in the plain old-fashioned meaning of 100% incorrect. I would venture that it is Judith Butler’s good fortune to be around in an era where discussions about gender are potent. This, combined with charisma and marketing savvy creates the academic celebrity that has vaulted her into a position of influence. Once ensconced in celebrity status, it becomes difficult to say that the Emperor has no clothes. But the logical conclusion of the fact that Professor Butler is a duck indeed suggests that the Emperor is naked.

I am struck by the strange irony in the fact that position in the European Graduate School occupied by Judith Butler is the Hannah Arendt Professorship. Plus ça change.




ETA Here’s another classic example of an individual who walks and talks like a duck but claims to be a footballer. Personal testimony versus factual evidence.



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