5 Phenomenologists

Some of the most fruitful intellectual debates took place in Germany between World Wars. The complex of ideas that went under the name 'phenomenology' were generated in an atmosphere of heightened social conflict and anxiety about the future. It was Edmund Husserl who first developed a phenomenological approach. That mean that he would look at the phenomena of consciousness, and bracket them from any question of whether they are true or not. Reflecting on the formal science of Geometry he came to the conclusion that the objectivity of ideas arose from their assent amongst a community of subjects. This was an intellectual development that closely paralleled Wittgenstein's shift from truth tables to language games - but in Germany, and later in France, the idea got a more sympathetic reception.

Already the distinction between a realm of nature and one of culture, with their respective sciences of Naturwissenschaften and Geisteswissenschaften, had been made in Germany by Dilthey and his fellow neo-Kantians. This was a development that helped the growth of sociology in Germany, as did the influence of Max Weber. Weber's sociology - in part a challenge to a burgeoning Marxism - paid special attention to cultural factors. Amongst Weber's students the precocious Hungarian Gyorgy Lukacs embodied the challenge of Marxism. At the end of the first world war, when Germans were faced with the choice between a pax Americana or the New World in the East, Weber and Lukacs parted company as Weber joined the Weimar government in Germany and Lukacs took part in the brief Soviet revolution in his native Hungary as minister of culture.

After the war, sociologists like Max Scheler, Alfred Schutz and Karl Mannheim were increasingly influenced by the phenomenological approach. Scheler and Mannheim developed Husserl's phenomenology into a 'Sociology of Knowledge' in which competing points of view were taken as the outcome of competing sectional interests - it wasn't hard to divine an attempt to understand the growing dissensus in Wiemar. Schutz linked Husserl's phenomenology to Weberian sociology, understanding that if knowledge was generated between subjects then 'intersubjectivity' and the way that it created a 'lifeworld' of meaning should be the subject of investigation.

However, these investigations were in danger of being overshadowed by a more violent clash of opinion as Germany slid into anarchy. The possibilities of constitutional government and the yearning for dramatic political solutions, the growing alienation from society, and Germany's future were all issues that were at large at the time. In philosophy they found a particularly pointed formulation in the unspoken hostility between Edmund Husserl's brilliant student Martin Heidegger and Gyorgy Lukacs, and the counterposition of their two political and philosophical tracts: Being and Time and History and Class Consciousness.

Lukacs had already broken from constitutionalism, in favour of a bolshevism that even earned him a reprimand from Lenin. The principle of the masses overrode constitutional democracy. Also he had reworked Marx's critique of capitalist society, with elements of the Geisteswissenschaften of Dilthey and Heinrich Rickert, to analyse the alienation in Western society in his essay 'Reification and the consciousness of the proletariat'. The choice facing Germany was the one outlined by Rosa Luxemburg: 'Socialism or barbarism'.

Heidegger was meditating on the same problems as Lukacs, but drawing on some very different resources. He analysed alienation as a metaphysical problem. The instrumental rationality of traditional ontology had separated being from its rootedness, making it inauthentic, 'thrown' and abstract. Lukacs' programme was a 'destruction of ontology' - that is a dismantling of the instrumental reasoning that had separated us from our primordial being. In Heidegger's estimation Germany was caught between the pincers of bolshevism in the East and Yankee capitalism in the West, which, despite their differences were 'metaphysically' the same, operating according to the same indifference. Heidegger's attitude to the masses was quite different from Lukacs. Far from providing the resolution of alienation they were exemplified it as 'das Man', the They. Mass media and mass democracy were poisoned by the They, by their 'publicness' and their 'idle chatter'. Heidegger had his answer to Lukacs's bolshevism. According to Heidegger, the impending disaster facing Germany was a wake-up call to 'take a stand in history'. This kind of thinking was common on the right, as for example the reactionary criticism of parliamentarism made by Carl Schmitt, that would later be characterised as 'decisionism'.

Of course, this is to reduce these two great thinkers to their political outlooks, when their own influence arose less from the political content of what they said, as the more profound theoretical development of their thinking. So, for example, Lukacs's influence was felt in the sociology of Mannheim, a comparatively conservative political thinker, who had been part of Lukacs' circle. In the case of Heidegger the contrasts between ostensible political affiliations and influence were yet greater. Amongst his students were Emmanuel Levinas and Herbert Marcuse at Freiburg and Hannah Arendt at Marburg. Even Jean-Paul Sartre attended Heidegger's lectures. Levinas and Arendt (who had an affair with Heidegger) were both Jews, and all four were ardent critics of the Nazi party that Heidegger had joined. As we shall see, the continuing influence of Heidegger's ideas after the defeat of Hitler and Heidegger's disgrace, comes largely through the influence of his unsullied students.

One important instance of the way that philosophical ideas cut across political affiliations was the work of the Institute of Social research founded by businessman Felix Weil under the directorship of Carl Grunberg in 1923. What went on to be called the 'Frankfurt School' was ostensibly on the far political left, corresponding with the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow. But the key figures in the Frankfurt School, Max Horkheimer, who became director in 1930, Theodor Adorno and later Herbert Marcuse all favoured an unorthodox reading of Marx. They were particularly interested in Lukacs and Karl Korsch's rejection of a mainstream, positivist-inspired Marxism. Following Lukacs they drew upon Weberian sociology, phenomenology and even Heidggerian ontology to 'enrich' Marxism. But departing from Lukacs, the School gradually dispensed with the role of the working class in revolutionary theory, bringing its newly minted 'critical theory' yet closer to Heidegger's romantic rejection of the modern world. In time it would become clear that the affiliations of the Frankfurt School gave it a leftist veneer, but that the content of its work was much closer to the currents of German philosophy and sociology in the twenties.

Impact of War

The Second World War was a turning point in the intellectual history of the twentieth century. For those whose political beliefs or racial origins made it impossible to stay in Germany and Austria it means upheaval: Carnap went to Chicago, Popper to New Zealand, before joining Hayek in London, Goedel to Chicago, Adorno went first to Oxford - as did Mannheim - and then to Princeton, Lukacs went to Moscow to an uneasy relationship with the authorities, Freud and Melanie Klein went to London, Arendt and Karen Horney to New York, Levi-Strauss to Sao Paulo, Althusser was imprisoned, as was Sartre, briefly, who continued his underground activities on release. Most ambitiously the Frankfurt Institute reconvened itself on America's West Coast. There was a knock-on impact upon intellectuals in Britain and America who suddenly found themselves next to the best brains of Europe. For the New School for Social Research in New York this was clearly an unmitigated success, as the college became an organising centre for the most advanced ideas in philosophy, social anthropology and sociology, with Levi-Strauss, Alfred Schutz, and Hannah Arendt joining the faculty. Perry Anderson suggests that the effect in British Universities was less useful, dwarfing the achievements of the analytical philosophers, and inculcating a sense of inferiority towards positivists like Hayek and Popper.

For those Germans who stayed, however, the upheaval came not in 1933 with the accession of the Nazis to power, or 1939 with the outbreak of war, but in 1943 when the reversal of the German campaign in the East made it obvious that the Axis powers would lose. German intellectuals who had supported the Nazis faced the same ignominious trial as other collaborators with the regime. The party ideologue Rosenberg was executed, the architect and armaments minister Albert Speer was imprisoned for twenty years. Behind the front-line of war crimes trials were the local denazification hearings organised by the occupying allied powers, before which academics like Carl Schmitt and Martin Heidegger were judged.

Schmitt spent a year in the internment camps and was interrogated, but still managed to evade responsibility for defending the legality of the Nazi regime, and was allowed to retire. But unlike Shmitt, Martin Heidegger still considered himself a player in the intellectual world and fought tooth and nail to avoid responsibility for his political affiliations. The terms of Heidegger's defence before the commission on 23 July 1945 can be surmised from his article written at the time 'Facts and Thoughts'. There he attempts to differentiate himself from the Nazis by redefining Fascism in terms of his own analysis of the mass societies of America and the Soviet Union: 'the rule and the shape of the worker … is the universal rule of the will to power within history, now understood to embrace the planet. Today everything stands in this historical reality, no matter whether it is called communism, or fascism, or world democracy.' (Rockmore, p94)

Just as Heidegger assimilated Fascism to democracy as the 'will to power' of 'the worker', so too did he relativise the difference between industry and the gas chambers in a lecture given in 1949: 'Agriculture is now a mechanised food industry; in essence it is no different from the production of corpses in the gas chambers and death camps, the embargoes and food reductions to starving countries, the making of Hydrogen bombs.' (The Question Concerning Technology, cited in Lyotard, Heidegger and the 'jews', p85) By these inversions Heidegger maintained the consistency of his hostility to mass society and to 'instrumental reason', by turning Fascism from the proposed resolution of these dangers into an exemplar of them.

In their own mouths Heidegger and Schmitt's evasions were unconvincing. Nobody wanted to hear their excuses. But the Heideggerian philosophy did survive the Second World War in the writings of Heidegger's left-wing, and therefore uncompromised students.

German exiles in America

Hannah Arendt, Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer developed the twin theses of 'Totalitarianism' and the inhumanity of instrumental rationality in America in their books On Totalitarianism (1951) and Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944). In the Dialectic of Enlightenment, technical rationality is held to lead inexorably from the domination of man of nature to the domination of man over man. It is an idea that is taken from Being and Time, reworked in a left-wing style. Anticipating, perhaps informing Heidegger's own apologia, Adorno and Horkheimer see instrumental reason leading inexorably to the gas chambers - an argument that has become a central component of modern environmentalism. Their critique of the mass culture industry (The culture industry: enlightenment as mass deception') is also inspired in part by Heidegger's concepts of the 'publicness' and 'idle chatter' of 'the They', except now the power of mass propaganda is identified with Fascism rather than democracy.

(The strangest story of all was the love affair between the Nazi Martin Heidegger and his Jewish student
Heidegger and Arendt in love)

Arendt's On Totalitarianism also deploys key Heideggerian concepts, albeit to an ostensibly different political goal. Explaining the power of totalitarian movements Arendt makes special play of their mass character, a category which closely parallels Heidegger's Das Man, being characterised by 'indifference' and 'sheer numbers' (p 311). Arendt's contribution to Cold War ideology is the identification of Soviet Communism and Fascism under the heading of Totalitarianism - again an evasion that mirrors Heidegger's own.