Can we separate a person from their contributions?

I didn’t want to hijack the conversation in Pithy quotes from our current reading which give us pause to reflect, but Jonathan Edwards was a slave owner, and I ran across a Twitter thread today concerning Heidegger’s failure to disavow Nazism. Can we separate the man from his philosophy/theology?

Herbert Marcuse visited his ex-teacher Martin Heidegger in his Black Forest hut in 1947. here’s what HM wrote to MH (8/28/47):

“Many of us have long awaited a statement from you, a statement that would clearly and finally free you from…identification [with the Nazi regime]” 1/
Marcuse: “But you have never uttered such a statement… I—and very many others—have admired you as a philosopher; from you we have learned an infinite amount. But we cannot make the separation between Heidegger the philosopher and Heidegger the man…” 2/
"A philosopher can be deceived regarding political matters… But he cannot be deceived about a regime that has killed millions of Jews—merely because they were Jews—…and that turned everything that pertains to the ideas of spirit, freedom and truth into its bloody opposite."3/
Marcuse: “Is this really the way you would like to be remembered in the history of ideas?.. Common sense (also among intellectuals)…refuses to view you as a philosopher, because philosophy and Nazism are irreconcilable. In this conviction common sense is justified.” 4/
Marcuse ends the letter by repeating his demand that Heidegger issue a public disavowal of his Nazi past, but also says that he’s still sending his former teacher a CARE package against the advice of friends. 5/

here’s how Heidegger responds:

Heidegger (1/20/48): “[In 1933] I expected from National Socialism a spiritual renewal of life in its entirety, a reconciliation of social antagonisms and a deliverance of western Dasein from the dangers of communism…In 1934 I recognized my political error and resigned…” 6/
Heidegger claims that his and his family’s lives would’ve been in danger had he issued a public statement in 1934. as for after 1945, he says “the Nazi supporters announced their change of allegiance in the most loathsome way; I, however, had nothing in common with them.” 7/
Heidegger concludes by calling Marcuse’s description of Nazi crimes “dubious” while also claiming that the “bloody terror” of the regime was kept secret from most Germans. then he does a whataboutism in re the plight of German deportees from the East. 8/

Marcuse’s final reply (5/12/48):

“This is not a political but instead an intellectual problem—I am tempted to say: a problem of cognition, of truth. You, the philosopher, have confused the liquidation of occidental Dasein with its renewal?” 9/
Marcuse on MH’s comparison of Nazi extermination of Jews to Allied deportation of Germans from East: “With this sentence don’t you stand outside of the dimension in which a conversation between men is even possible—outside of Logos?” 10/
Marcuse: “For only outside of the dimension of logic is it possible to explain, to relativize, to ‘comprehend’ a crime by saying that others would have done the same thing.” he then states the obvious fact that German deportees suffered nothing like the murdered Jews. 11/
Marcuse: “the Nazi system… demonstrated to the world what, after more than 2000 years of western Dasein, men can do to their fellow men… Perhaps we are still experiencing the continuation of what began in 1933. Whether you would still consider it a ‘renewal’ I am not sure.”//


Heidegger’s excuses three years after WWII ended are fake news, we didn’t know, and whataboutism. Sounds strangely familiar to modern ears.

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Looks like you were right about Heidegger. From a 2014 New Yorker magazine article:

I was so fascinated by his philosophy that his Nazism stayed “hidden”; though his ideas felt vivid and present, his biography belonged to the past. But, over the past few months, not caring has become more difficult. That’s largely because of a philosophy professor named Peter Trawny, who has begun publishing some of Heidegger’s anti-Semitic writings. Trawny is the director of the Martin Heidegger Institute at the University of Wuppertal, in Germany, and the editor of Heidegger’s “black notebooks,” some of which were published for the first time this spring. (Heidegger wrote in the small, black-covered notebooks for nearly forty years—publishing them all could take decades.)

It’s always been safe to assume that Heidegger, being a Nazi, was also an anti-Semite (though not necessarily a “virulent” one, whatever that term might mean). But, as my colleague Richard Brody wrote a few weeks ago, the passages reveal a particularly unsettling kind of anti-Semitism—one which hasn’t been fully visible before. They show that, even as Heidegger held the most banal and ignorant anti-Semitic beliefs (he wrote about a worldwide conspiracy of “calculating” Jews “unfurl[ing] its influence”), he also tried to formulate a special, philosophical, and even Heideggerian kind of anti-Semitism. (Jews, he writes, are “uprooted from Being-in-the World”—that is, incapable of authentically caring and knowing.)



Because Trawny was from Germany, no one knew what he would be like in person—an incomprehensible hermeneutist? A cool judge of history? He turned out to be a tall, disarming man of fifty who sounded less like a judge than a disappointed lover. In a soft German accent, he explained what it had been like to read the notebooks for the first time. “Of course, you have passages about Hölderlin, about Nietzsche, about Bolshevism,” he said—the usual Heideggerian subjects. “But then, suddenly, a passage about the Jews.… You think, Okay, whatever.… And then suddenly you have the second, and you have the third, and you have the fourth, and you have the sixth, and you think, What the hell! Why is he doing this?” As a lifelong Heideggerian, reading and publishing these passages had been “very painful,” Trawny said; it had also introduced all sorts of practical complications into his life. “I’m the director of the Martin Heidegger Institute, and I actually want to be that for a longer time,” he said, to laughter from the audience. (“You cannot be the director of the Adolf Hitler Institute,” a colleague had warned him.) He went on, “If we would say that Heidegger really was an anti-Semitic philosopher, then, yeah, that would be really a catastrophe, in a certain way, for me .” This was true, to varying degrees, for many in the room. It was good to hear someone admit that the controversy wasn’t a matter of purely intellectual interest.

I’m far less invested than that guy but yeah this kind of nutzo could only make one feel they’d extended Heidegger too much benefit of the doubt.

I never could make sense of Heidegger directly so have relied on others to unpack what little I understand. I doubt that he’d welcome such a question but McGilchrist takes questions from his readers a few times a year. I could try to get a response.


Jay, this is a worth-while question, although I’ve not read any Heidegger and only a little Edwards. In one of his Pass the Mic podcasts maybe last summer, Jamar Tisby brought up the problem of Edwards as a slave-holder and proposed that there are better voices to listen to, because of that.
I always wonder, though, if we have the whole context that is needed to make such a judgement. With Edwards in particular, he ended up nearly destitute, writing his later works on scrap paper left over from fans his daughters had made and decorated to sell. He couldn’t afford paper (which I understand was expensive at the time, etc, etc, etc.). Did he ever address slave-holding (he had one slave, which is bad enough, but not the same as a plantation of forced laborers)? If so, how and when in his work? I think of someone like John Newton, for example.

But if he didn’t address it, never set the woman free , etc, etc … How to address it?

Heidegger seems clearer to me, but I have no connection to his work. The closest I got was talking briefly with a physicist friend in Germany, who was trying to read Zeit und Sein(?), who I think had to abandon the project for the sake of Teilchen (particles) and exams. The piece Mark shared about his black notebooks was disturbing and, I think, clear.

Jay, what do you think?


I too have no perceived connection or direct debt or attachment to Heidegger, and so have the emotional luxury of easily writing him off as just another deluded Nazi. Whatever indirect debts for any good things our current state of philosophy may owe to his influence, I can easily ignore by pretending / hoping that they probably came from better or prior sources anyway.

But this all becomes very illustrative of a danger we’ve discussed in this forum before: what to do with ‘tainted’ sources? I can at least empathize with somebody like Trawny who, unlike me, does have considerable investment and intellectual labor associated with Heidegger, the philosopher. What should I expect of him (Trawny) in how he ought to handle that? And given that every one of our heroes (save Christ himself) will in the end be a tainted source, where does that really leave us? Can we dismiss it by saying, “yeah - well, some are obviously a whole lot more ‘tainted’ than others!” And no doubt that is very true - probably Heidegger among them from the sounds of it. But I don’t think it gets us off the Heideggerian hook.

Here is the danger I see: a determined dismissal of all things _________ (insert your favorite bad boy), is still to concede way too much power to that (presumably very fallen) individual. You are still letting that individual have a driver seat in your thoughts by reflexively opposing everything they say. It would be as if I decided: “I don’t like political party ‘x’, and therefore I will always assume everything they stand for or say must be wrong.” And there is a certain biblical looking kind of appeal to this way of thinking. Can you get fresh water from a salt water source? Can somebody with an evil heart produce anything good? Well, for everybody’s and our own sakes … we’d better hope and pray for an affirmative answer to that last question anyway! But regardless, I trust it is obvious that nobody who takes truth seriously can be such a ‘cancel-culture’ reactionary, and long stay attached to anything remotely like truth.

We’re obliged to hear and see truth shining through all the cracks and brokenness wherever it may be found. If Hitler saw pornography as a pernicious influence on society, the thought doesn’t become any less true just because Hitler had it, and nor does he become any less evil for having at least some true thoughts. Obviously I don’t read Jesus’ expressed thought here, then, as saying that pursuit of knowledge becomes a matter of being able to ignore or automatically oppose things because certain people have promoted them. So how do we take it? I think it a matter more at the level of wise discipling. If I decide to become a disciple of somebody, it behooves me to choose well. And if I choose my master poorly, it will be small comfort that my chosen master occasionally (or maybe even predominately!) uttered a lot of true or wise stuff. If there is an evil spirit animating what is taught, then all such ‘truth’ being uttered, no matter how factually accurate it may happen to be, is subjugated into the service of evil, and will be for the loss of all students who continue to devote their loyalties to such a master. There will be no true water of life forthcoming from such a source. That is my take-away at any rate. It doesn’t mean we can’t learn from Heidegger. But reading what I’ve already learned from posts above, no disciple of his will I ever be.

So there is very much a place in the world for people like Trawny - even as they continue to specialize in knowledge of such fallen people. Just as we need there to always be holocaust museums and historians - not because we celebrate that history, but precisely because we don’t!


This is a great article by John Piper reflecting on what Edwards owning slaves means to him and possibly his hero.

“I had read Edwards diligently for twenty years — all of his major works and many sermons and smaller treatises and letters, plus at least three biographies — but had never noticed anything suggesting he owned a slave. I was surprised.”

As far as Heidegger, I find it amusing his philosophy is so uncontroversial, if it just weren’t for his Nazism. What"s worse disguised solipsism or Nazism?

This quote points to an important dilemma, not only in the case of this philosopher but also with our own ideas and societies.

We condemn the Nazi ideas because history has shown the dangers and bad consequences of Nazi ideology. We condemn slave traders and holders because the development of the culture, with human rights, has made us realize that all persons are fundamentally similar beneath the skin and should have at least some level of human rights. For people grown in a different culture, the worldview was different and there were probably blind spots in their ability to notice the weak spots of the culture. We can wonder why the persons were unable to spot the bad points but we cannot be certain that we would have been much better in that situation.

What is interesting to think is how the future generations will judge our opinions and decisions. They will live on a planet that has suffered a lot from selfish human activity. Perhaps they will look how our lifestyle, actions and comments have destroyed the globe. There are plenty of facts showing how our lifestyle destroys the world of future generations but we may not be willing to change our life so much that it would preserve the planet for the future generations. Truth may sometimes be something unpleasant to face.


I do wonder what type of science fiction will be written when atheism is found to be as impossible as an infinite number of planets in space.

In what way was Jonathan Edwards an important thinker? He was a contagiously sick damnationist. Heidegger actually made an important contribution with Dasein. Just as low life Caravaggio did with religious art (integrating that low life in to it) and fascists like Elliot, Yeats and Pound did with modern poetry I fail to see how any of those directions requires that those that point them out, as no one else had publicly, are required to have perfect love based morality.


Aye, the truth is the truth wherever you find it … no matter what we think of the person who claimed it as truth first.


I will only say that Nazism was NOT only in Germany. It was nearly everywhere. It was strong in the U.S. The South Africans had the rotten experience of going to fight in WWII with the allies only to come home and find the Nazis were in power in their own country.

Clearly… many many people made a HUGE mistake. …others were just racist and intolerant… and still are.


Oops. I wanted to reply to the whole thread. Sorry, @mitchellmckain

Related to mitchellmckain’s point, one of Michigan’s most awful exports was eugenics [Thank you Dr. Kellogg (Yes, the cornflakes and whole foods guy)]. Nazis used this work, expanded right here in my home state.


Glad you asked. haha. Sorry I took so long to get back around to a thread I started. Forgive the long response. Feel free to reply to whatever bits strike your fancy.

Martin Luther was virulently anti-Semitic. What to do with that?

Yeah, that’s the overall question. As a Christian, I think it’s more difficult to deal with theologians than philosophers. It’s easy for the normal person to ignore Heidegger. But theologians (recent and past) deal specifically with Christian ethics, doctrine, biblical interpretation, etc., and their ideas sway millions upon millions who have considerable investment in particular Christian “worldviews” and denominations.

John Fea made basically the same argument. It’s trivially true to say no one is without sin. It’s another thing to say a Christian theologian/leader is guilty of gross sin. What qualifies? Barth fell in love with his secretary. Is that in the same league with J. Gresham Machen’s disgusting racism?

I’m not a Piper fan. He’s problematic on multiple levels. I read the article. He recycles the case that slavery in the NT was different than chattel slavery, and Jesus somehow made it all okay because truly Christian slaveowners were “good massas.” It reminds me of the Christian Nationalist/heretic Doug Wilson. He’s big in Classical Christian homeschool curriculum. Check out this assignment:

Just for reference, Piper named Joe Rigney the prez of Bethlehem Seminary. Rigney was a student of Wilson’s and refuses to distance himself from his former mentor.

Solipsism isn’t responsible for genocide, as far as I know.

Edwards isn’t confined to Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. He’s important in the history of Christian thought. Here’s the difference between Edwards and Piper: The former should be studied by specialists; the latter has so many better contemporaries that he’s easily ignored. Look at this passage from the article:

I won’t comment on Piper’s class consciousness or sense of racial superiority, but there’s a bounty of evidence that he hasn’t “crucified” the rest of those sinful attitudes on the list. Bethlehem Baptist Church and Bethlehem Seminary have both left a wake of abuse survivors behind them.


He was virulently anti-Christian too.

And Edwards isn’t important outside America and isn’t a thinker within it, any more than Piper is. I trust Douglas Wilson and G. Tyler Fischer will encourage the seeing of Whipped Peter and teach the full history of Jim Crow including its nadir.

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Thanks for the Tyler’s name, which I hadn’t known. I found this stuff, which I should familiarize myself with. I think it will fit nicely with the eugenics sex ed textbook for girls that I showed off in the video from work.
While we are constantly in battle here over public school (US usage of “public school”) curricula because of local control, the schools that make the news are the anomalies. Nearly all public school kids are learning the realities of slavery (the photo you shared is well known) in US history. Right now in US culture there is a resurgance of what was called 60 years ago “black consciousness” (or rather more broadly “ethnic/racial consciousness” but is even broader to include social groups as well) but I think with better grass-roots-level thinking. The romanticism about Africa, for example, is not part of this round. The process is painfully slow, but there has been real progress. We are nowhere near done. Nowhere. But we aren’t standing still.
As the books I found above, though, demonstrate, the really bigger problem, which is smaller but growing, is the enormously successful, unregulated home school movement and the reasoning behind it. In the name of Jesus parents can present their kids any version of reality they want. Some really provide a great education for their kids. Others …… well, you know.


I meant Will Smith’s new film, which must surely be shown in all public high schools in America.

Sorry, Martin. I don’t know about it. I just found an article. I’ll read up. I have always been terrible at keeping up with popular culture. So, thanks.

Oh, I see it’s on apple+, another stike. We have never paid for tv (well besides the way one does via adverts) and streaming lacks luster where the Internet infrastructure is so fragile. Our section of the township is like the Bramuda Triangle of Telecommunication.


Interestingly, despite knowing more philosophy than theology, I know Edwards much more than Heidegger. While I don’t think we can separate someone from their theology necessarily, we can still learn from Edwards and this writings (he had a huge influence on Christianity in America) while acknowledging the parts in his personal life that he got wrong. I don’t understand the move to replace his writings with the writings of others because he was a slaveholder - those writings still greatly influenced American Philosophical Theology whether he had slaves or not.

I’m of the opinion that while it is impossible to separate someone from their work, the work they get right doesn’t have any less merit because of choices in their personal life. I think it would a mistake to claim Edwards’ theology is worthless and irreconcilably wrong for the sole reason that he had slaves/defended slavery.

Here’s an interesting article about Edwards that touches on this point. I agree quite a bit: Should I Still Read Jonathan Edwards?

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