Review: Michael Millerman’s “Beginning with Heidegger: Strauss, Rorty, Derrida, Dugin and the Philosophical Constitution of the Political”

“However, its veneration of far-right thinking (sometimes qualified but always in the most intellectualized vein) undermines its claims to genuine seriousness.”

Introduction 

If we will the essence of science understood as the questioning, uncovered standing one’s ground in the midst of the uncertainty of the totality of what is, then this will to essence will create for our people its world of innermost and most extreme danger, i.e. its truly spiritual world. For “spirit” is not empty cleverness, nor the noncommittal play of wit, nor the boundless drift of rational dissection, let alone world reason; spirit is the primordially attuned, knowing resoluteness toward the essence of Being. And the spiritual world of a people is not the superstructure of a culture any more than it is an armory filled with useful information and values; it is the power that most deeply preserves the people’s earth- and blood-bound strengths as the power that most deeply arouses and most profoundly shakes the people’s existence. Only a spiritual world guarantees the people greatness. For it forces the constant decision between the will to greatness and the acceptance of decline to become the law for each step of the march that our people has begun into its future history.”

Martin Heidegger, “Rectoral Address” (“The Self-Assertion of the German University”)1933

In his essay “On Heidegger’s Nazism,” Richard Rorty declared that “Heidegger was a Nazi, a cowardly hypocrite, and the greatest European thinker of our time.” Rorty might have added “an evil man.” This last point was, until very recently, deeply unpopular and widely denied. For many, Heidegger’s status as an undeniably brilliant philosopher made it simply unacceptable that he could have given his wholesale support to the most monstrous political movement of the 20th (and indeed any other) century. This had led plenty of commentators to follow Rorty and Arendt in downplaying the significance of Heidegger’s Nazism to his broader thinking, typically by chalking it up to a combination of instinctive conservatism and ruralism, bad practical judgement, and, if we are being candid, an admittedly swollen ego. When it comes to the first, plenty of great German philosophers whose names were not Kant or Marx took a dim view of liberalism and democracy. On the second, since at least Plato’s ill-advised dalliance with Dionysius I of Syracuse, plenty of us have accepted the irony that otherwise swell political philosophers are not always at making nitty-gritty judgement calls. And, of course, who could deny the “greatest European thinker” of the age an ego?

Recent scholarship has increasingly turned against this view, as the publication of Heidegger’s notorious Black Notebooks showcased the thinker directly linking his philosophy to anti-Semitism and Nazism. Beyond that, historians such as Emmanuel Faye and political theorists like Ronald Beiner have published significant works reemphasizing the depth of Heidegger’s far-right convictions and examining his ongoing influence on figures like Richard Spencer, Steve Bannon, and President Vladimir Putin fanboy and the self-described “post-modern” conservative Alexandr Dugin. The latter has been in the news lately, with op-eds examining his influence on President Putin and his rhapsodic support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Less known is Dugin’s status as a cult figure in the North American and European far-right. One of the figures who has done the most to make his work available is Michael Millerman, who was responsible for translating several of Dugin’s major writings into English. More recently, in 2020, Millerman published a book Beginning with Heidegger: Strauss, Rorty, Derrida, and Dugin with Arktos Media, based on his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Toronto.

On Heidegger’s Politics 

One of the most elitist errors liberals and leftists make is assuming that the political right is inherently stupid. Ever since J.S. Mill, like me a liberal socialist, described “most stupid people” as conservative, leftists mostly assume that the political right’s opinions can largely be pathologized down to a combination of bigotry, anxiety, and the “solid force in sheer stupidity” that will always be latent in any society. Of course, many of us have had at least a few laughs at the expense of Marjorie Taylor Greene, and the unintentionally surreal comedy of a book like Gad Saad’s 2020 work The Parasitic Mind will always generate the yuks before one ends up crying over how much of one’s precious life has been irretrievably stolen. But plenty of intelligent authors have spent considerable time defending the indefensible, and Heidegger and Dugin directly fall into this paradigm. Millerman’s book makes a strong case for the sweep of their visions but never persuades that the vision is not, in fact, a profoundly ugly one. 

Millerman was actually at the center of a minor scandal at the University of Toronto, with many members of the faculty expressing frustration and anger over his not foregrounding the issue of Heidegger’s Nazism in the dissertation and promoting Dugin’s work in his spare time. On his end, Millerman tends to equivocate, sometimes defending himself as pursuing an exercise in scholarly exposition while at others admitting to sympathies for far-right views while downplaying their excesses and rejecting any association with the crude biological racism that routinely crops up on the alt-right. These tendencies persist in Beginning with Heidegger, an erudite but often dry book that nevertheless contains many disturbing implications. The book often displays its roots as a Ph.D. dissertation with the scholarly aim of analyzing the impact of Heidegger’s thinking on four very different thinkers. These include Richard Rorty and Jacques Derrida on the center and far-left and Leo Strauss and Alexandr Dugin on the center and far-right. If that were all there was to the book, I would say that there is nothing wrong with such a project, which would undoubtedly make an important contribution to Heidegger studies and account for the remarkably distinct ways his insights have been picked up. The problem is Millerman’s own attraction to the far-right take on Heidegger comes though despite his attempts at qualification. 

Millerman opens his book with the bold statement that “since the beginning of the twentieth century, the rational foundations of liberal democracy have been attacked and undermined by anti-liberal philosophers. Foremost among them is Martin Heidegger.” More disturbingly, Millerman agrees with Leo Strauss that this intellectual challenge has never been successfully answered since the “crisis of rational liberalism needs to be solved with the help of great thinkers, but the only great thinker of the time, Heidegger, is a critic of rational liberalism.” Now, as far as I am concerned, this is, at best, a half truth. Heidegger was a great thinker in some respects; his contributions to phenomenology have been profound and influenced everything from literature to computer theory. But for reasons I will get into, Heidegger’s political thinking largely strikes me as far less impressive. At best, it is neither as original nor insightful as it declares itself. At worst, it amounts to an expression of an irredeemably inauthentic man repeatedly pounding the bombastic drums of volkish authenticity until the reader comes face to face with the nihilistic reality of sheer disdain paradoxically missed with what can only be called profound boredom. 

Oddly enough, Millerman and I share some similarities in how we arrived at Heidegger before breaking off into two very different directions. I began reading Heidegger early in my undergraduate degree to cope with a deepening sense of existential unease brought about by losing my Catholic faith; indeed, I became so enamored with Heidegger that most of my work was inspired by him until part way through my Ph.D. Millerman also describes himself as being “interested in beginnings” and so coming under the sway of “Heidegger’s thinking of another beginning.” Predictably, the first part of the book is an extensive discussion of Heidegger’s most creative period between the late 1920s and 1930s, bookended by his significant works Being and Time and Contributions to Philosophy (of the Event). 

The chapter is largely expository, though Millerman stresses the importance of his “discoveries,” describes his work as “magisterially” raising the question of Being and discusses how Heidegger’s words and formulations “can attune our hearing to something profound and forgotten in our traditions.” This discovery is that the history of Western metaphysics and so history as a whole, though undoubtedly consisting of great peaks in all eras, is generally one of decline toward the chattering decadence of the modern era. In this respect, he is hardly unique compared to other reactionaries who still have not gotten over the French Revolution. What makes Heidegger distinctive in this way is that, by contrast with lesser figures like de Maistre or Spengler, his critique of modernity goes all the way back to the beginning.  Already with Plato we see a transition from thinking in terms of Parmenides’ question about what “the meaning of Being” is to his argument that Being is best understood in terms of the ideal and eternal forms—the Platonic “ideas.” This forecloses the possibility of more essential and inceptual—put simply, what Heidegger means by more ontologically basic—questions by arguing that the only goal of rational thought could be obtaining certainty about these ideas. As time goes on, this Platonic position assumed ever more bastardized forms as “technical thinking,” where ideas are held to stand in for things, which can be manipulated through cultivating scientific thought to gratify human desires. From Heidegger’s standpoint, these rather obtuse philosophical developments are, in fact, extremely important because they gradually lose their dynamism and become encased as the “framework of a culture” and its “worldview.” In the Western context, this devolves down to the technocratic rationalism and egoism of the modern era. 

If one is now thinking that this all seems to operate at a high level of academic abstraction, then he is not alone; one of the tropes of Heidegger’s thinking is a tendency (sometimes deliberately) to operate at a level of icy remove from the concrete specificity of human interactions. This gives the work both its grandeur and pomposity but also ironically withdraws it from any culpability for errors—no matter how cataclysmic. And this is where the rub really comes in. To his credit, Millerman does engage with the controversy surrounding Heidegger’s Nazism in some detail. He admits that Faye and Beiner are correct to warn us that uncritically swallowing Heidegger’s thought can mean having far-right politics “smuggled” in under the “seductive allure of Heideggerianism.” But he plays that down by warning against the opposite risk, which is that to “sacrifice philosophy” to liberalism by suggesting that any reasonable philosophical speculations must abet the cause of liberalism would compromise the discipline’s intellectual integrity. If philosophy leads to illiberal conclusions, perhaps that is simply what a commitment to truth demands of the intellectually honest. 

As Millerman puts it:

“A liberal whose politics and philosophy are in bed with each other has no right to criticize any other political philosopher on that score under the guise of neutrality, objectivity, etc. We do not, in short want our anti-Nazism to drive us to become propagandists of a different sort, if we claim to value philosophy over propaganda and ideology.”

Stupid, Flat Being 

The problem with this is that it evades the real issue, which is not that Heidegger’s Nazism asks us to choose between a responsible liberal politics and a commitment to philosophical truth. It is that his Nazism raises the serious question of whether Heidegger actually has access to some philosophical truth that needs to be taken seriously and not simply dismissed as an act of stupidity or, worse, condemned as an act of malice. Mincing these fine-grained questions in real detail would require a far deeper dive into the more concrete claims Heidegger makes in favor of Nazism, from his infamous “Rectoral Address” demanding submission to the Führer to the declaration in Introduction to Metaphysics that liberal capitalism and Marxist socialism are “metaphysically the same” and a threat to the unique mission of the authentically “metaphysical people” of Nazi Germany. It might entail some critique of Heidegger’s pathetic “whataboutism” when, confronted with the knowledge of the death camps, he responded by pointing to the suffering inflicted by the Allies on the Sudeten Germans. Or it could entail the breakdown in his authentic historicity when he declared the German victory over France in 1940 a vindication of his thinking but, decades later, in Der Spiegel grumbled that the shattering of Nazi arms had not proved anything in favor of democracy. 

The shared root of Heidegger and Millerman’s error is the historical idealism thinly hidden by phenomenological appeals to everyday life. Now, Millerman is correct to argue that Heidegger is not a crude historicist, in the sense of arguing that the nature of humankind and truth changes over history. Instead, his philosophical anthropology demonstrates that we are historical beings embedded in a world of meaning which preexists us, whose histories gave rise to worldviews that shape our acts in the present and so, in turn, define the future. In other words, it is in the nature of dasein to be a being within history (How is that for Heidegerrese?). But Heidegger’s history is a flat and dull one, and one can tell because philosophers are the primary actors within it. In his hands, the “history of being” is one where philosophical concepts are the great peaks within which base valleys emerge, filled with inauthentic and spiritually dull people who only thinly apprehend the root of their own actions and thinking. This, in turn, makes moments of “inception” those of unique grandeur compared to the profane fallenness of routine history, since it is in the moment of inception that the basic philosophy that determines everything else emerges before it falls into the average everydayness of mass man. It also grants the philosopher the titanic role of the truly great man, at once actor and prophet, who alone truly brings forth those sublime things which are the truth and terror of the earth. In this view, the actual events of the Second World War decide nothing because for all its death and destruction, it is a pitiful squabble that does not resolve the far more essential problem: that Heidegger really does not much agree with Descartes, joined the Nazi Party, and wrote several papers expressing how he has an outsized influence on our culture, yet no one much cared. Not even the Nazis. And the reason no one much cared is history is far bigger and more complex than this kind of idealism can ever capture, and it is far more often the larger world that shapes philosophy than philosophy that shapes the larger world. In this real world, the influence of philosophy is minor, and of far greater interest are the actual lives, hopes, and connections of living human beings and nature. And it was those real lives the Nazi party treated like garbage by condemning millions—along with their own humanity—to the gas chambers. All the while, Heidegger shrugged and went back to the far more serious task of giving us yet another charmless rumination on Holderlin. 

The idealist oblivion into which Heidegger’s historicity falls is the fault of its key fetish: this nostalgic fixation on inceptual thinking and moments, something very close to what the great theologian Paul Tillich called the “myth of the origin” in his own criticisms of fascism. This is what Slavoj Žižek, in his 2012 book Less than Nothing, called the “non-historical core of historicity” or “stupid” flat being. In his work, everything turns on how Being appears to humans, as well as the historical story of how different eras of philosophy determine how Being appears to humans.  This means, of course, that projected beginnings are always where the real action is; at the origin of Western philosophy is the great inceptual moment where everything got started before it all went downhill and the question of Being turned into crude technical calculations and political life was reduced down to questions of who could build better refrigerators. But the key insight of modern political thought, which elevates it above this reactionary fixation on “beginnings” and “inceptions,” is recognizing that it is the process of changing concrete relations between people over time, and not where and how they began in time, which is the most intellectually interesting and important question from a philosophical standpoint. This is because the concrete relations between people within time—everything from Wittgenstein’s language games to the relations of production—far more impactfully shape people’s thoughts and ideas than any fragment by Parmenistotle written 2,400 years ago. 

One last irony of this nostalgic fixation on inceptual thinking is how symptomatic it is of the broader culture of the time. In his great 1991 book Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fredric Jameson diagnoses nostalgia as a reflection of our belief that there is no historical horizon which will look different from what has come before. This leads people to search for meaning and significance through restoring the glories of the past, when it is suspected truly great and when spiritual events occurred. Heidegger wants to break out of this by positing an overturning of Platonism and the inauguration of a new era. But he can only imagine this occurring through something like the inceptual moment of Platonism occurring again, meaning what we have is not really the new but merely repetition. Heidegger cannot overcome the past because his thinking remains pathologically fixated on it as more glorious than the present. Consequently, his account of change is mystical, and Heidegger’s only argument for it can be prophetic, endlessly predicting the recurrence of what came before and calling it transformation when it is little more than nostalgia. But it is, in fact, authors such as Adorno who are correct. If real change occurs, it will not be from some mystical break with the past, which merely repeats what came before; it will come from a rearticulation of the possible within existing conditions, with the future inevitably stamped by what has come before. This holds out the possibility of a redemptive conception of history that heals the wounds of experience in a way in which Heidegger could never conceive.

Ending with Dugin 

Of course, one need not follow Heidegger down this obscure path, and there are insights (particularly in his early work) that are undeniably brilliant and even essential. Many of these were incorporated into the thinking of the three early thinkers Millerman discusses: Strauss, Rorty, and Derrida. Millerman’s analysis of Heidegger’s impact on each of them is undeniably well done and thoughtful, though it is disappointing to find him continuously evaluating each thinker from an often piously Heideggerian perspective. 

In particular, Millerman takes very seriously Heidegger’s reverence for philosophy (and more garishly himself) and might have benefited from adopting a bit more of the irreverent and democratic sensibility embodied by Derrida and especially Rorty. At the end of a chapter on the latter, Millerman refers to Darren Aronofsky’s seminal 1998 film Pi, where a major character bemoans that some people simply do not feel the call of spiritual questions of “highest concern,” as Tillich might call it. The implication is that Rorty’s perspective is a willing embrace of shallowness. But this a deep misreading of Rorty’s perspective, which is not that we should be shallow. Instead, it is that personal depth does not come from the manic pursuit of answers to theological and philosophical questions. Rorty would likely argue that the reason most of the characters in Pi are not leading good or happy lives is they have deluded themselves into thinking there is a singular set of questions and answers that will solve the riddle of the meaning of everything. This is sometimes comically expressed in the film itself, via the belief that there is a single number which provides the actual “name of God” which, in turn, will resolve everything. This is what one might call a fetishized “sublime” object of ideology: an, in truth, banal object which a person overinvests with meaning rather than resolving the tensions within his life and society. Rorty would say that if we want to find meaning in our lives, it is far better to look to the world around us. His commitment to social democracy, which Millerman often makes light of even while calling it “laudable,” is, in fact, a moral one which, among other things, fulfills that purpose by directing the solipsistic gaze of the philosopher outwards toward his fellows who find meaning in him. It awakens us to the extraordinary lived reality of other people’s lives and affects the sentimental attachments through which many of us mature and become content should we be lucky enough to have genuinely unalienated relationships. 

Instead of taking this route, Millerman is deeply attracted to the thought of Alexandr Dugin, whom he claims is the thinker most faithful to Heidegger’s project as he himself understood it. And I actually agree with Millerman on that point; in fact it is the supreme evidence that we should reject Dugin and count ourselves fortunate. Dugin certainly does follow Heidegger in having a flamboyantly exaggerated sense of both his own and philosophy’s significance, even claiming that the “main strategic task of the Russian people and Russian society” is to master Heidegger since that is the “key to the Russian tomorrow.” I would have thought that not inching the world toward a nuclear catastrophe might be more significant than yet another far-right reading of The Question Concerning Technology. But I suppose if the world and all life in it is obliterated to smoldering ashes, there can be no more vulgar reduction of nature to mere standing reserve. 

This is not the time for a lengthy criticism of The Fourth Political Theory or Dugin’s other works, which include plenty of nice things to say about fascism, so I will simply share a few comments here. Millerman reads Dugin as doubling down on Heidegger’s nationalist take on human dasein (Heidegger’s term for the human being, that entity for whom his being and being in general is an issue). Dugin argues that “Russian dasein has a structure that differs from the structure of Western dasein” which means that Russians differ in the “basis, the foundation, the existential social, the ground of [their] thought and being.” Interestingly, he appeals to many of the post-modern philosophers who followed in Heidegger’s wake to justify this anti-universalism but goes even further in that direction. Heidegger at least claimed there was a distinction between the existentiell conditions of a human life (often set by cultural and national context) and existential conditions common to all. Dugin argues that even the existential experience of death is different for Russians than for Westerners. In much the same way one supposes the experience of thousands of Russians currently being jailed for protesting Putin’s illegal war is different for them than it would be for those of us raised in a decadently permissive liberal society. 

Whatever one thinks of this, the political takeaway is that the Russian “conservative episteme” which flows from its unique dasein is “opposed to the prevailing liberal one” in consisting “not primarily in economics and jurisprudence, but rather theology, ethnosociology, and geopolitics, regarded as parallels to spirit, soul and body in one man.” Strangely, he often defends this position by appealing to a banalized form of liberal toleration at the international level, arguing that it is fine for the West to have its beliefs so long as it lets Russia hold to its own. But if that is the case, Dugin is being deeply inconsistent in not extending this normative approach to Russian society itself. Why does tolerance for difference end at the national level and not apply to individuals, just because Dugin says it should not? Why should the distinct dasein of each Russian individual not entitle him to pursue his vision of the good life without interference from oligarchs, militarists, and homophobes? In the most anti-universalistic moments of The Fourth Political Theory, Dugin does not say, except to stress he will not under any conditions compromise with liberalism for Russia. 

At other points, Dugin moves away from this militant anti-universalism to advance good ol’ fashioned spiritual revanchism, by arguing that liberalism inherently lacks spiritual dynamism and precludes the pursuit of truly “great” projects at the national level. “Great” projects apparently mean sending 17-year-old conscripts to die without supplies while invading a neighboring country. At various points, he has called for geopolitical realignments to challenge the hegemony of liberal imperialism, which, in its American form, I would happen to agree with. Liberal imperialism needs to be condemned in the most emphatic terms. But the creation of some pan-Eurasian union of authoritarian regimes best known for brutalizing their own peoples is hardly an appealing counterpoint. If Dugin truly wants to allow the “Russian” dasein to express itself as the people themselves understand it, he might consider the virtues of democratic life, which is precisely the Arendtian effort of a group of individuals to become a group through creating a shared world together. As long as it is President Putin and his oligarchs who get to decide what Russia is, I say Dugin can say as many nasty things as he wants about liberal elites. He is fundamentally defending inauthenticity by not allowing the Russian people to express what they want but instead assuming the status of a philosopher-king who gets to dictate it from afar and backing a regime that terrorizes any and all who dissent. Some depth of spirit. 

Millerman himself does offer some criticisms of Dugin, including calling out his inconsistency in calling Western dasein divisive and Russian dasein inclusive while, at the same time, calling for “radical divisions” between authentic Russia and the inauthentic West. Millerman tends to softball these contradictions by calling attention to the “experimental character of some of [Dugin’s] speculations.” But he also defends Dugin by arguing one cannot reject his philosophy for a simple “lack of moderation.” Millerman also argues that there is no “clear path” to Dugin’s refutation and that there is “much in his favor as the main political theorist to extend Heidegger’s inceptual thinking through theses like Volk als Dasein.” This is quite damning since Millerman makes clear he regards Heidegger as the greatest thinker of the era, and positing Dugin as his premiere disciple increases both his prestige and intellectual status. This is an extremely velvet glove way of criticizing an intellectual who has had many positive things to say about fascism, even if Dugin is critical of 20th century facism’s crude biological racism and association with genocide. Millerman’s own takes are highly intellectualized and theoretical and rarely get into the weeds of how Dugin appeals to Heidegger to justify these noxious kinds of positions—something which is of special importance now when he is cheerleading on a crusade resulting in the butchering of Ukrainians. Ironically, this level of removal from the specificity of real life through this style of philosophical and aesthetic intellectualization affirms the idea that Heideggerian it is to be taken less rather than more seriously as a guide to our troubled times.

Conclusion 

“We should free ourselves from the narrowness of being related only to those familiar to us, either by the fact that they are blood relations or, in a larger sense, that we eat the same food, speak the same language, and have the same ‘common sense.’ Knowing men in the sense of compassionate and empathetic knowledge requires that we get rid of the narrowing ties of a given society, race or culture and penetrate to the depth of that human reality in which we are all nothing but human.”

Erich Fromm, The Revolution of Hope

Erich Fromm once opined that many people experience a yearning for submission, the desire to invest themselves in something bigger than they are, whether it be the history of Being, the movement, or Dugin’s conservative “eternity.” These projects are often carried out with grand seriousness, which belies the fact that it lacks any deep sense of moral responsibility. Heidegger’s own life was an exemplar of this, with the continuous abstracting of real life events into the language and removal of fundamental ontology. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Heidegger is that he never appreciated what was clear to Plato, Aristotle, and Rawls: that justice is the chief virtue of social institutions, and greatness means being just and good before anything else. Ethics and politics may not be first philosophy, but, as Aristotle argues, they are undoubtedly of higher priority because they aim at the greatest good. 

Millerman’s Beginning With Heidegger is a smart book written by an analyst of skill and analytical prowess. Seen purely an exegesis on Heidegger’s thinking and its influence on four very different authors, it succeeds in its ambition. However, its veneration of far-right thinking (sometimes qualified but always in the most intellectualized vein) undermines its claims to genuine seriousness. It was once said that there is more in heaven and earth than in one’s philosophy. That includes the vast majority of what actually makes life worth living for most of us, and it is exactly what Nazism and fascism set out to destroy, then and now. We should not let them, and the goal of a truly rich philosophy is not just to fixate on origins and beings. It is to help us bend the arc of the universe toward justice.

Matt McManus teaches at the University of Calgary and is the author of A Critical Legal Examination of Liberalism and Liberal Rights and the forthcoming The Emergence of Postmodernity, among other books. He can be found on Twitter @mattpolprof