A Night in Heidelberg —Part 1
Letters from Voegelin on Heidegger
by Myron Moses Jackson
Myron Jackson is a PhD student in philosophy at Southern Illinois University. His thesis explores Ironic American Exceptionalism and the Myth of the Open Self. His master's thesis explored Eric Voegelin's interpretation of natural law. His biographical notice may be found HERE. This study is presented here in two parts.
The Nazi Factor
In surviving letters we can often find those candid expressions that help us complete a portrait of the writer.
Such is the case with the publication of the thirtieth volume of the Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Selected Correspondence, 1950-1984 (2007).1 It presents aspects of Voegelin that will help us gain a fuller understanding of him as a man, a man who even at times resorted to what he termed a “peasant roughness.” 2
Of particular interest are the references to Martin Heidegger and his fundamental ontology. The letters contain Voegelin’s most detailed remarks assessing the influence and success of Heidegger’s work, which work is often seen to be marred by his early enthusiasm for Hitler’s regime.
Voegelin scholars have long been aware of Voegelin's impatient attitude towards anyone who could engage in such ideological nonsense, especially given that Voegelin himself managed to become persona non grata in Austria after the 1938 Nazi Anschluss and barely escaped, eventually arriving in the US.
While Voegelin had a tendency to emphasize this negative aspect of Heidegger, others are apt to focus on his philosophical contributions. Prevalent throughout philosophy, political science, and history departments is the “theory of the 'two Heideggers'–the good philosopher and bad politician–[which] no longer seems tenable or adequate in light of a contemporary sense of the entwinement of thinking and action and of knowledge and power.”3
Clearly, we would be hard pressed to find others willing to disagree with Voegelin's opinion of Heidegger's murky political past. What remains in dispute is how he would have responded to Heidegger’s philosophical insights regarding historical consciousness, ontology, and theology.
Admittedly, these topical areas must be addressed, along with the politics so we can attempt to grasp the person as a whole through both his life and works. This article will give a preliminary analysis of Voegelin’s assessment of Heidegger’s philosophy found in the Selected Correspondence to complement Voegelin's well-known published critique.
First, we will consider the various comments on Heidegger found in the Selected Correspondence, detailing how they coincide with some of the central themes running through Voegelin’s thought.
Next, Voegelin’s other published remarks dealing with Heidegger will be tied to issues of ontology and consciousness. The concentration will be on the parallels and differences mentioned in Hughes4 and Walsh.5
Finally, Voegelin’s hostile judment will be weighed against the possibility that Heidegger does in fact offer a viable political theory.