Some Comments on David Krell’s Black Notebooks Review

Thanks to Stuart Elden and Marie-Eve Morin for simultaneously sending me along the Research in Phenomenology review (my library for some odd reason–an odd reason [making sure that libraries get the print version?] shared by previously libraries for my universities–embargoes RIP for a year online). As Stuart Elden noted, it is the best of reviews out there on the Black Notebooks and indeed a good piece of writing in itself. (Writing an insightful review of a short book is one thing; writing one on volumes taking thousands of pages that has already been the subject of quite a few polemics is another. I’ve barely had the energy–who wants to think alongside that?–to look through those volume’s pages stacked in the corner of my office, let alone the energy to make sense of them to any audience.) Krell’s review is often repetitive but his point is that this matches something like a repetition compulsion in the materials, as if Heidegger had amnesia from one day to the next about what he just wrote days before.

His summary judgment of a text that seems full of them is that these volumes show what I’ll suggest is what Heidegger’s critics imagine he thinks and how he writes: the history of the world is at an end and we just await the last gods; there is no glimmer of hope save quietly and meditatively awaiting this return while incanting quixotically about Seyn; mere politics is unworthy of himor will be as long as no one will listen to his rantings about thinking or Hölderlin or, yes, the Jews, Catholics, and anyone else not joining him in his incantations for thinking (about what? …nothing since all content is to be chased away in a time of real danger, a time of a real decision, a time where the thinker invariably critiques anything anyone has to say about anything–the nihilism Nietzsche diagnosed, though of course Heidegger critiques him too during this time in the long published Nietzsche lectures, which Krell himself translated); and that he can’t tell the difference between ontology and ontic levels–all is reduced to the history of Seyn and its forgetting: ontic history is for fools who haven’t seen Being’s forgetting in Descartes et al. Here is Krell:

The confusion of levels throughout the Schwarze Hefte is quite striking— here, the mystique of Mother Russia and the history of beyng in the same breath. Or, again in the same breath or with the same stroke of the pen, the universal uprootedness of beings in modernity and an international conspiracy of uprooted Jews. It is as though we were to imagine Kant making his scurrilous remarks on Africa and Africans the basis of a fourth synthesis in the transcendental deduction. Perhaps this confusion of levels is the thinker’s form of vulgarity? (145)

And then a few pages later (allow me to quote a long-ish paragraph, though it is worth it):

A moment ago I mentioned the confusion of levels in the Notebooks. A good example of this confusion is Heidegger’s arguing that in a time of political Machenschaft no real (that is, no seynsgeschichtliche) decisions can be made. The worst are full of passionate intensity, while the best prepare for the unlikely arrival of the other beginning. Thus Heidegger declares the essential identity of both militaristic imperialism, represented equally by National Socialism and Bolshevism, and humanistic pacifism, represented by persons he does not identify. But then this: “Therefore, ‘international Jewry’ can make use of both [sich auch beider das “internationale Judentum” bedienen], soliciting the one and managing it as a means for the other [die eine als Mittel für die andere ausrufen und bewerkstelligen]” (96:133; cf. 95:97). The many possible meanings of ausrufen and bewerkstelligen defeat me here, as I believe they may have defeated Heidegger. And who would not be defeated by the phantasm of an international Jewish conspiracy manipulating both Bolshevik Russia and National Socialist Germany? For his text continues: “—such ‘history’-making in a time of machination entangles all the players to the same degree in its net—; in the scope of machination there are ‘risible states,’ but also risible flourishes of culture.” The only thing that is clear, or that I take to be clear, is that Heidegger is doing everything he can to resist the realization that a terrifying criminality has overtaken his beloved Germany; by equating victims and victimizers he hopes to lay everything that is happening in Germany at the feet of the machinations of modernity. The problem is not Germany but Occidental history since the occlusion of beyng. That leaves him with nothing to do but rage against machination and whine for Seyn. (149)

That last part is a good warning to any philosopher and perhaps it was ever thus: to reduce history to one’s ontology and to see recognition of that ontology as history’s saving forgets history happens in complicated communities and discourses, in failed agreements and small inventions that later loom large, in mass movements and mighty dispossessions, in the stroke of a sovereign’s pen and the pauper’s sudden victory–in short, in things that happen far beyond or below the philosopher’s study. To write any history is to reduce the contingent to the quasi-necessary, to reduce events to one cause here, an effect over there, etc. But Heidegger’s arrogance–surely a better word is needed–was not only to write that history from above but to give historicity–historicality as he himself defined it in Sein und Zeit–its sovereign last word, to call it a day for the world until it was worthy of him.

What then of reading Heidegger now? Krell’s claim throughout that the volumes are a “wound” to the corpus of Heidegger, a self-lnflicted one, and no amount of problematic editorial decisions by Klostermann can undo this (somehow reference to the Jews doesn’t make the index, though there have been long complaints noted by Krell about the handling of Heidegger’s WWII-era writings).

First there is nothing of what Arendt called thinking: the ability to see from the point of view of another. (No doubt her own harrowing engagement with Heidegger after 1933–she could never have read these Notebooks–led her to redefine the key term of his post-WWII work.) With death on all sides, the one who is betrayed is him: nothing in these private notebooks about the dead and wounded, nothing about anyone not German, nothing about the Nazis save how they didn’t conform to his philosophy–all while often equating the victims and the perpetrators in his horribly obtuse visions of this period. The Jews, the Nazis: all are a part of a general machination. Krell’s word for this is  a lack of “heart”–and surely he has in mind a more subtle notion on lone from the Romantics–as well as a coldness Arendt (again to her) would define through her reading of Richard III. 

Second, Krell notes that there is not just a lack of heart but also any critical self-reflection. These are after all supposed to be his private thoughts to himself (and of course, as written, always to another). We cannot say what Heidegger should have done against some idealized version of himself, or against some ideal it’s easy to have after the fact (we are all the heroes, even if fallen, of our dreams–and there is no more widespread fantasy than what one would have done if one were of that time and place, while of course acquiescing to the worst of our own time and place). But Heidegger seems incapable of looking backwards at all: no error is ever his and there are always those to blame–a paranoia that Krell tries to work out in more subtlety towards the end.

Krell suggests that in his post-WWII work there is a brighter Heidegger, one who is more self-reflective, perhaps even more playful. I disagree: his critique of his own earlier self (for example, the anthropologism of Sein und Zeit) is that it wasn’t faithful enough to his own central insight about the forgetting of being. There are great thoughts in the fullest sense in those late texts, some of which remain for me central. But that Heidegger was incapable of listening to anyone but the benighted few he himself has chosen (and rounded down, as with Hölderlin and Rilke, to a few lines to be trotted out again and again, even if brilliantly) is shown not just in his inability to look backward (except without pity for himself) on what he had done during the war years, not just in his inability to stop equating what happened to the Jews with other kinds of machination (his listing of the death camps with factory farming comes to mind), but in his letters with Arendt and recorded interactions with others. (He simply, it’s believed, cast Arendt’s Human Condition aside–after all she had done for rehabilitating him to be translated outside of Germany. Perhaps that is just what is owed to greatness.) Has there been a recent philosopher who seemed so little read in what others of his time wrote and thought?

It’s often remarked that Heidegger after the war retreated to a certain mysticism, by which is meant his incantatory remarks on the four-fold and the mysterious repetitions often found in such writing. But more than often he took himself to be the shepherd of being, the one who heard its call–and no one else. Krell notes how Heidegger records that no one has read his Sein und Zeit properly (though one can think of so many from that period who wrote greatly on that project), and so too with Sartre and so on. (The story of William Richardson, the American, reportedly being the one is the ironic counterpoint.)  This is that mystic as alone in touch with being, whose followers, if they repeated him, failed to think, and thus failed him. After all his critiques of Platonism and the forgetting of Being (as temporalization), the failure was his and he was indeed, as Foucault at points suggested, our last Platonist, though without any of the play, the dialogue, and thus adaptability, of that corpus. That is, Heidegger was ultimately and often without a sense, ironically enough, of timing and time–especially of his own.


  1. Krell has a unique brilliance when it comes to skipping right by the obvious and and coming up with a fantastically complex but utterly wrong interpretation of what he reads. Much of his work is fascinating as long as you don’t expect it to have any connection with the ostensible topic.

    From the couple of hundred pages I’ve gotten through of the ostensible topic of this particular review it’s a striking example of the confusion and frustration felt when in a situation where intelligence, truth, and worth are seen as detrimental and dangerous; where making a more intelligent argument than your opponents only makes you more suspect; where telling the truth only makes you unfaithful to whatever cause it is.

    Lonergan, in the book Insight, speaks about how we cannot deny intelligence nor our respect for it, that even were we to extol the virtues of stupidity and ignorance we would betray ourselves by trying to argue that in some sense it was really more intelligent to be stupid and ignorant. What happens to the intelligent mind, though, when that isn’t the case? What happens when an astute observation will only be met with an ignorant fist? What happens when we experience not simply the annihilation of human beings, though that is devastating enough, but the annihilation of the ability to be human in an appropriate way?

    I don’t fully know the answers to those questions but in certain situations I’ve experienced some fraction of that kind of annihilation and the result, at least initially, is an almost complete foundering . The notebooks appear to be an exibition of that kind of foundering. Did Heidegger shoot himself with them by showing that behind his work was a jumbled mess of half-experienced insights and jumbled antagonisms? Possibly he did.

    Heidegger’s writing, though, is always performative as much as discursive, so I would be a bit hesitant to jump to the conclusion that something isn’t being demonstrated through a performance and assuming that it was simply a naive exposition of Heidegger by Heidegger himself.

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