Heidegger and Schmitt correspondence (again)

Twenty-five years after they first published it, Telos are again highlighting the letter Martin Heidegger sent to Carl Schmitt in August 1933. The point of the letter was to thank Schmitt for sending a copy of The Concept of the Political. After praising the reading of Heraclitus, Heidegger signifies he doesn’t have time to further comment on the text, making the quip that “But now I myself am in the middle of polémios [war] and all literary projects must take second place”.

In the 25th anniversary commentary on this piece, Juan Carlos Donado discusses the piece, and makes something of the notion of ‘war’. Given the year, that Heidegger was then Chancellor of Freiburg, a political post, and had recently joined the Nazi party, this is significant – he is describing his political actions as ‘war’. Or so we would be led to believe.

Except Heidegger doesn’t say ‘war’ – that’s the translator’s additional gloss. And he actually says pólemos and not polémios.

The term Schmitt uses as the Greek notion of enemy is polémios – is this the reason for the translator error? Heidegger says pólemos. Given what Schmitt makes of this notion there appears to be a relation at stake.

Donado says the fuller discussion of the fragment can be found in the 1934-35 course on Hölderlin. There is a discussion there, as there is in multiple courses, but the key discussion of the notion of polemos, in this fragment of Heraclitus, actually comes in an earlier course from 1933-34 – contemporaneous with the letter and the political involvement. [This has been published as Sein und Wahrheit (GA36/37), recently translated by Gregory Fried and Richard Polt as part of the Being and Truth volume - German pages 90-1; English 72-73.]

Heidegger says that the standard rendering of polemos is as “Krieg, Kampf [war, struggle]“, but then goes on to clarify what he thinks it means: “This does not mean the outward occurrence of war and the celebration of what is ‘military’, but rather what is decisive: standing against the enemy. We have translated this word with ‘Kampf [struggle]‘”. Heidegger goes on to clarify how he means this to be understood – not as competitive, friendly, struggle – agon; “but rather the struggle of polemos, war”. So he brings ‘war’ back in, but only to clarify what he understands by Kampf. He links it to his notion of an Auseinandersetzung – a setting-apart-from-another – and notes it is directed against an enemy, though his enemy is not named.

Indeed, Heidegger more commonly sees polemos as Kampf, struggle.  He translates it that way in the 1934-35 course on Hölderlin (GA39, 125) and in the 1935 course An Introduction to Metaphysics understands polemos as Kampf, as Streit [strife], and says it is “not war in the human sense” (GA40, 47, etc.).

Obviously, enemies, struggle etc. link to some deeply unpleasant connotations – Schmitt with the first; Hitler with the second. It remains crucial to think through and work through Heidegger’s politics. But being critical of his political involvement requires more careful reading than this poorly researched piece. Fortunately the original Telos publication is bilingual, with the German text in a note, so we can see what Heidegger actually wrote, although I suspect relatively few would check.

[This draws on the discussion in my Speaking Against Number, pp. 84-85, updated in relation to the publication of Being and Truth]

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2 Responses to Heidegger and Schmitt correspondence (again)

  1. Mark Purcell says:

    Just a small thing that maybe adds something to the discussion: I can’t help thinking of Polemarchus in The Republic, who says justice is helping ones friends and harming one’s enemies. His arguments have always reminded me of Schmitt (as well as Mouffe’s agonistic democracy). Polemarchus is one of the characters associated with thumos or spiritedness, the quality most appropriate to warriors, but the way he characterizes justice, at least in the Griffith translation I read, seems to be equally interpretable as agonistic politics as antagonistic war…

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