Heidegger's Children: Hannah Arendt, Karl Löwith, Hans Jonas, and Herbert Marcuse. By Richard Wolin


Pp. xvi, 276 , Princeton and Oxford , Princeton University Press , 2001 , $23.95.

How would these four philosophers have reacted to their designation as Heidegger's children? No doubt they would have considered it an insult. Students yes, disciples perhaps, but children? This implies both immaturity and subservience, neither of which is evident in Wolin's description of their relationships with Heidegger. The unexplained use of this term calls into question the accuracy of his description.

Some of Wolin's account is beyond dispute. During the 1920s and early 1930s Heidegger attracted numerous brilliant students, many of them Jewish, who went on to become major 20th century philosophical figures. His Jewish students were profoundly disillusioned by his embrace of Nazism, including its anti-Semitism. After World War II some of them attempted reconciliation with him and his philosophy, with generally disappointing results. Their evaluation of his philosophy was ambivalent, as is Wolin's.

The relationships between Heidegger and the four philosophers profiled in this book differed significantly. Hanna Arendt's was sexual as well as intellectual. Despite his abrupt termination of the relationship and her subsequent turn away from his philosophical outlook, they were reconciled in 1950, and she became one of his strongest post-war advocates. She downplayed the significance of his Nazi involvement and anti-Semitic pronouncements, even though he never apologized for them. In Wolin's view, Arendt's own philosophical writings mirror certain important deficiencies of Heidegger's, such as its anti-democratic bias.

Even more than Hanna Arendt, Karl Löwith was a frequent commentator on Heidegger. Already in his doctoral dissertation under Heidegger, Löwith did not hesitate to criticize his supervisor for being too anthropocentric. He was equally critical of the emphasis on being in Heidegger's later works. For Wolin, however, ‘despite his insightfulness as a historian of philosophy and critic of modern “spirit”, it seems that the distortions and biases of Heidegger's philosophical temperament resurface in the key dimensions of Löwith's own mature thought’ (p. 79).

With Hans Jonas, Wolin finds it more difficult to determine Heidegger's influence. Although Jonas wrote his dissertation under Heidegger and Ruldolf Bultmann, the topic was Gnosticism, rather far removed from Heidegger's contemporary, and future, interests. At a 1964 conference Jonas delivered a sharp critique of Heidegger's philosophy, especially its relevance for theology. Unlike Heidegger's other Jewish students, Jonas had a strong commitment to his religious heritage. Wolin is hard pressed to find resemblances between Heidegger and Jonas, apart from their shared aversion to liberal democracy.

Herbert Marcuse is identified as Jewish, but Wolin says nothing about his Jewishness. Nor was he ever a ‘convinced Heideggerian’ (p. 135); the major influence on his philosophy was Karl Marx. He subsequently rejected his early attempt to existentialise Marx with the aid of Heidegger's Being and Time categories when he realized that they were abstract rather than concrete. In particular, he felt that the preoccupation with being-towards-death ‘is perfectly suited to the ideological needs of an instinctually repressive social totality’ (p. 164). After 1933 he had little to say about Heidegger, especially the latter's later philosophy, although Wolin discerns a similar elitism in them. His plea to Heidegger to repent of his support for Nazism was rejected.

In keeping with the initial conception of this book as ‘a series of loosely related essays’ (p. xiv), the last two chapters barely mention his Jewish students. One is entitled, ‘Arbeit Macht Frei: Heidegger as Philosopher of the German “Way”’; it elaborates Heidegger's relationship with Nazism based on an examination of his 1934 lecture course on logic and the importance of labour therein. In the second chapter, ‘Being and Time: A Failed Masterpiece?’ Wolin reviews Heidegger's lectures prior to 1927 in order to show the development of the ideas that found their definitive expression in this book.

In his brief conclusion, Wolin praises both Heidegger and his Jewish students for dealing with important philosophical issues, unlike many other 20th century philosophers. Their principal shared weakness was ‘their lack of commitment to the values of “public reason”’ (p. 236), which can be explained in large part by the historical circumstances in which they found themselves. It remains to be seen whether Heidegger and his students, together or separately, can provide resources for philosophical progress in the 21st century.