On Geoffrey Waite on Esoterism, Heidegger, and Cassirer

By Ralph Dumain

Waite, Geoffrey. "On Esotericism: Heidegger and/or Cassirer," Political Theory, Vol. 26, No. 5, (Oct., 1998), pp. 603-651. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/191766

Capitalism today is Nietzsche's nihilism, ungrounded, relativistic . . .

As opposed to the Enlightenment's valorization of truth, we have here the undermining of same via esotericism.

. . . exo/esotericism renders radically problematic our ability to grasp that long history, assuming (as we mostly do) that this history consists of exoteric statements alone, that philosophers necessarily mean what they say, and that when they do not this is due only to the structural interference of the unconscious. As a form of lying, as the manipulation of other subjects' consciousness by surreptitious means, every form of exo/esotericism nonetheless points—more or less tacitly—to its systemically and systematically unstated premise, its elusive surplus: truth.

Fascism, in its moments of conscious awareness, confesses its ground/lessness:

In political terms, and concomitantly, we also are precariously close to the self-definition of philosophically coherent fascism. Mussolini and other fascist philosophers publicly averred that ungrounded relativism is fascism's only ground, the conceptual precondition for the realization of Nietzschean Rangordnung or order of rank (translated into Italian as gerarchia: hierarchy). The sole thing that can decide—ultimately—between competing ideologies is raw power. For fascism, however, entailed is not any simple, immediate suppression of "equality" (I'ugualianza)—for that can be stupidly counterproductive. Fascism's argument, rather, is that order of rank "corrects" "natural inequalities" on behalf of the powerful who are equal only inter pares, who know that the truth is ungrounded and decisionistically arbitrary, and who are willing to use any means necessary—including controlled dosages of free debate—to maintain this truth and their own power. Poised to take state power in 1922, Mussolini boldly announced in his programmatic article "Relativismo e Fascismo" ("Relativism and Fascism") (1921) that "the philosophy of force" (la filosofia della forza)—on which Fascism is conceptually and institutionally grounded in explicit contrast to German national socialist (racist) essentialism—is nothing but relativist. For his primary authorities, Mussolini drew on Nietzsche himself and on Hans Vaihinger, the leading neo-Kantian Nietzschean and his "philosophy of the as-if." We know that relativism and fascism are ungrounded systems but we decide to act as if they were grounded, so that this very ungroundedness in effect becomes our ground. "In truth, we are relativists par excellence," Mussolini proclaimed, and "the moment relativism linked up with Nietzsche, and with his Will to Power, was when Italian Fascism became, as it still is, the most magnificent creation of an individual and a national Will to Power."

And here's the trick today:

If the central problem of political theory today is to produce effective opposition to capitalism, and if the only reason to study the past is to find alternatives to the present, then the overall function of exo/esotericism is to obstruct both tasks. But this obstruction is not primarily accomplished by prohibiting the possibility of opposition and alternatives. Capitalism itself encourages crises and challengers, even produces them itself, to ensure that it remains dynamic. Generally, overt prohibitions are counterproductive insofar as they are easily identifiable and contestable as such. Therefore, I argue, the most effective way of keeping complex systems in power lies neither in prohibition nor even in producing hegemonic consent through "the diffusion of ideology (through the presentation and inculcation of culture)," but rather in rendering radical alternatives to appear logically impossible in the first place, in our case in rendering capitalism (the) unconscious—exactly like God, ideology, and absolute truth. Such is the general function of exo/esotericism in secular modernity. [1]

There is a bit too much Lacan and Althusser in the mix. Waite warns that Marxism remains pre-psychoanalytic by having ignored the esoteric dimension.

The historic debate in 1929 between Heidegger and Ernst Cassirer in Davos, Switzerland (the subject of Friedman's book), was a seminal event, signifying not only the triumph of right over left but of "Heideggerian exo/esotericism . . . over Cassirerian exotericism." 1929 was also a watershed political moment in the Weimar Republic, involving the status of Jews (e.g. Cassirer) in academia, Marxism, the currency of myth (e.g. in fascism as well as in Cassirer's philosophy) . . . It is commonly assumed that Heidegger won the debate. Waite describes the orientation that, retrospectively, Heideggerians, Straussians, and Cassirer's have to take viz. this debate. But the debate was never really a debate as those devoted to reasoned discourse—Cassirer and Cassirerians—are conditioned to believe. Obscurities remain, which Waite purports to address.

This relates to a contemporary strategem to pit Cassirer against the hegemony of "Cultural Studies". But we need to dig deeper before committing ourselves to such a course.

Maybe you can decipher Waite's position:

I claim that Marxism and communism are exactly like Platonism, Jewish-Christian theology, nihilism, fascism, and capitalism insofar as all are logically constructivist and decisionistic; that is, they all share the aporia that they are ultimately grounded on no logic save for tautology. But Marxism and communism can also be different from those other positions in three related respects: in terms of discursive practice they are in principle exoteric; in terms of socioeconomic and ethical aim they are in principle egalitarian; and in terms of epistemology they maintain in principle an open, heuristic, and asymptotic relation to the truth. [2] In this last regard, Marxism and communism relate to the philosophical tradition (encompassing Spinoza, Kant, Marx, Lenin, Wittgenstein, Lacan, and Althusser) that continually aspires to point ('scientifically,' if you will) toward the truth. In this way, they are not logically decisionistic and constructivist, safeguarding as they do a certain surplus—truth—vis-a-vis the tradition against which they are in mortal combat. And, as Althusser cautions, "[T]he conflictuality of Marxist theory is constitutive of its scientificity, its objectivity"—in other terms, its ethical performativity of the truth. However broad my claim, I will inscribe 'Davos' with a hitherto unremarked line of demarcation—the hitherto obscure interference of exo/esotericism in the debate—in order that we might better understand the relationship (or lack thereof) between Heidegger and Cassirer and what really went wrong (or right) at Davos.

For a while Waite teases us with the promise of a third position outside this debate. The steps:

(1) First he addresses Heidegger's rhetorical style. Also, he addresses current moves to reconcile the positions of Cassirer and Heidegger, which he may have his own reasons for supporting. One should not underestimate Heidegger's superior grasp of the sciences and mathematics, which adds to Heidegger's cunning.

Heidegger attacks the transformation of philosophy into another specialized science or branch of learning.

This Heidegger derisively calls a discipline limited to mere "content."' Here begins his open assault on the bogus metaphysical desire to attain "the formal level of an absolute science." It is in this sense that the hegemony of modern metaphysics and science entails the victory of "content" over more radically and authentically "questioning." What Heidegger's definition of "content" here again leaves silent, however, is the stylistic and rhetorical consequence his position must have for the articulation of radical questioning insofar as it relates to what he calls "the authority" of "silent persuasion." Although sometimes appearing critical about his own authority in the pedagogical situation, what matters more than any stated valorization is not only that he thus hints at his awareness of the ancient tradition of silent persuasion, but also that he is logically required to make use of it to recruit the new philosophical lifeblood inasmuch as authentic questioning per definitionem can never transpire at the level of "content." At Davos, the most attentive listeners, and not only Strauss, intuited that it was Heidegger's style that helped carry the day over Cassirer's "content." They may even have intuited that, in a sense, in exo/esotericism (exoteric) style is (esoteric) content,[ . . . .]

(2) Mythic and symbolic sources: Cassirer attempted to be all-inclusive. Waite sees a problem in this he relates to Althusser's structural causality, but I don't get it. Whatever the problem is, "Cassirer and his followers simply cannot ground an exoteric theory of symbolic form on Goethe's profoundly esoteric definition of the symbolic." [3]

Let's see if you can make anything out of what follows:

Put differently, if Cassirer (consciously or unconsciously) 'silently' withheld his full insight about his sources, including Goethe, so as to conceal his own inability to ground his entire project, and hence also to conceal his lack of an ethics, or if for him this concealment was for any reason necessary for conceptual and social cohesion against opposing forces (including fascist irrationalism), then we confront a quite serious irony both for him and for any cultural studies that would ground itself on him, inasmuch as it has always already given up even asking the question of intentionality. For if Cassirer was silent about the esoteric dimension of his key sources, he himself would have been accepting and even using—consciously or not—the Heideggerian double rhetoric and its antecedents. If Rosen is right, this problem is not merely neo-Kantian (as in Nietzsche and Vaihinger) but properly Kantian as well. And deeper still it is Platonic, as Cassirer never understood. Cassirer was a marvelous reader (or, if you prefer, paraphraser) of the vast Western philosophical and cultural heritage (hence, his interest for cultural studies)—but only on its exoteric plane. He simply did not grasp exo/esotericism and, thus, had no weapons with which to debate Heidegger on his own turf. What is more, Cassirer was thus ripe to become an unwitting member of the Nietzschean-Heideggerian corps/e.

Waite references Lenin, Sloterdijk, and Schelling, but this is way too inside an exposition for me to follow. Heidegger, understanding something about Schelling that Cassirer did not, was able to outmaneuver Cassirer. Furthermore, Heidegger was on to Cassirer, to know how to recruit the younger generation to his cause.

There is a Nietzschean subtext here, and Nietzsche is basically terra incognita, when not anathema, to Cassirer. As Heidegger would have known from reading Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil (1886), one of the few places Nietzsche identifies the problem of esotericism by name, at the very core of great philosophy (i.e., philosophy not found in "books for all the world which are always foul-smelling books, the smell of small people clinging to them") lies the fact that the exoteric-esoteric distinction has been the founding principle of every society grounded on "order of rank"—and the one entails the other. This, Nietzsche continues, has been well known to all philosophers globally, giving as examples: "Indians as well as Greeks, Persians, and Muslims, in short, wherever one believed an order of rank, not in equality and equal rights." Typically, Nietzsche kept silent the specific consequences for his own rhetorical practice, preferring to produce and use, not mention, them. By leaving to readers the task of comparing Cassirer's remark to Nietzsche's, Heidegger offered certain cognoscenti a tacit but effective critique of Cassirer's ignorance of esotericism, without further exposing the great transhistorical and sociohistorical principle to public scrutiny. Heideggerian "courage" and "resoluteness" (philosophically legitimated already in Being and Time) entail an irreversible decision for exo/esotericism—including, in his later "turn," after World War II, their supplemental replacement by "releasement" (Gelassenheit), which, however hardly, means a turn away from exo/esotericism. All of Heidegger's utterances are contingent on this prior decision—which may appear courageous, modestly withdrawn, or whatever else the situation demands. As we have seen, at Davos, Heidegger's key rhetorical trope in this regard had been that Kant, followed by Cassirer, "shrinks back" or "draws back in terror" in the face of his own discovery that he had unwittingly destroyed the foundation of reason.

Eloquence and silence at Davos:

It would be a mistake, however, to think (in 'Cartesian' fashion) that what is here being contested by Cassirer and Heidegger is a binary opposition, division of labor, or choice between two rational systems: with the one focusing on ontological origins, the other on ontic effects. Nor (pace an otherwise salutary remark by Peter Gay at the Yale Cassirer conference) was politics in any obvious sense at stake, either. Rather, as Cassirer himself worried, Heidegger was using or appropriating Kantian reason to undermine not merely Kantian reason, but reason tout court. Like Nietzsche, he was seeking appropriately postrational—that is, sub- and surrational—modes of speaking and writing, and any constated 'political' stand he might take is subtended by the problem of how it can be performatively transmitted and received. Although Heidegger's decision for exo/esotericism can be viewed as an authentically politico-ontological act, on his own definition, by the same token no specific "content" of this act can be publicly expressed. For, as Heidegger had said a year later (in 1930), the " 'doctrine' of a thinker is what is unsaid in his saying, to which man is exposed so that he might expend himself for it." To repeat, not 'content' but 'style'—the eloquence of silence—is ultimately operative.

Heidegger yadda yadda yadda, and:

The Davos audience must have gasped silently, if not aloud. For it was clear to "everyone who had eyes" that Cassirer—his person, institution, and tradition—was suddenly being accused of inauthentic, cowardly, opportunistic parasitism. The rule of academic decorum had been irrevocably broken: in Nietzschean fashion the ad hominem had invaded philosophical disputation.

It gets even more demented:

A quasi-class distinction between the two debaters was visible and palpable: on the one side of the podium there was the fifty-five-year-old haute-bourgeois, cosmopolitan, eloquent, conciliatory, immaculately dressed, white-haired, and momentarily ill-disposed Cassirer. On the other side stood a forty-year-old, swarthy, hale and hearty provincial Swabian citing impeccable Greek. This overall impression was to be recalled by all present as a mechanically reiterated trope or mantra. Cassirer, it was said, looked like "reincarnated Goethe," whereas Heidegger was perceived as the reincarnation of nobody known, wearing what his Marburg students had dubbed his "existential suit," the "costume of his own invention"—part forester, part peasant. As he had made clear before the debate, Heidegger had come to Davos not least for the superb skiing. Now, such anecdotes are not as incidental or exclusively ad hominem as they may appear. Bourdieu has shown that they are an intimate part of the habitus that informs the "philosophical field" (le champ philosophique) generally, including battles such as 'Davos.' And, as defined superbly by Kant, "[A]n argumentum ad hominem is an argument that obviously is not true for everyone, but still serves to reduce someone to silence."

Cassirer, like Kant, draws back in terror.

Waite quotes Bourdieu but claims he is wrong in stating that Cassirer was not fooled. Cassirer was unable to escape from the trap of relativism or maintain his assertion of a common language or ground (extoteric) on which he and Heidegger could communicate. 1929 was also a turning point for the fate of Weimar.

. . . . on the Kampfplatz der Metaphysik circa 1929 in the battle being waged over the next generation of select philosophers—Heidegger had to dispute Cassirer in a certain way. But, after having staked out the grounds on which recruitment could be carried out with reasonable hope of success, Cassirer was no longer as particularly interesting for Heidegger. Which is why Heidegger refused to continue the debate at Davos, and yet also felt perfectly comfortable months later when he invited Cassirer to speak at his own Freiburg (Cassirer chose to lecture on Rousseau, of all things). On the royal road to philosophy, noblesse oblige, particularly when the major opponents have been corps/ed and when, after Davos, 'the rumor of the hidden king' (Hannah Arendt) of philosophy was a rumor no longer. Sooner a public secret, if not noble lie. Liberal humanism, Enlightenment, and their 'publicity' are most useful, now and then, to maintain social cohesion when the Holderlinian gods have departed, the Nietzschean night of the soul is dark. [4] And when political ontology stands poised—imperceptibly—to smash liberal humanism and Enlightenment from without and from within whenever the time is ripe and whenever it sees fit. Alternatively posed as questions: Is Heideggerian political ontology a structural component of humanism and Enlightenment, developing within them immanently but, as Cassirer might argue, as such in principle susceptible to exoteric critique and self-critique? Or is instead political ontology an externally imposed, radical other, that always eludes detection even as it is being incorporated through esoteric means, as Heidegger would affirm? Or, as I am suggesting in this essay, is there a third alternative that can comprehend and combat both possibilities? [5]

Cassirer's later work The Myth of the State was hardly adequate to the task of grappling with the problem of fascism, and with the underlying violence of Heidegger's philosophy.

When Cassirer concluded The Myth of the State (and his life work) by admitting that "it is beyond the power of philosophy to destroy the political myths," because "a myth is in a sense invulnerable . . . impervious to rational arguments," and hence "cannot be refuted by syllogisms," he was still confirming one of Heidegger's basic arguments, was still unwilling or incapable of taking the next step and asking how myth might then work so supremely well as illocutionary act and perlocutionary effect. For his part, Heidegger's exo/esoteric intervention in the Third Reich was capable of not just producing at that time what he notoriously called "the inner truth and greatness of the Movement" (i.e., national socialism) but later reproducing his brand of fascism to live to fight another day exo/esoterically long after it had succumbed politically—as is the inevitable fate of any ontic phenomenon during the long march of the transhistory of Being. As helpless as virtually any isolated individual or philosopher is in the face of historical disaster, in The Myth of the State Cassirer could add only one qualification to his admission that "it is not in the power of philosophy to destroy the political myths": "But philosophy can do us another important service. It can make us understand the adversary better. In order to fight the enemy you must know him. . . . We should see the adversary face to face in order to know how to combat him." The uncanny problem, however, is that this enemy may be us. And it is us, if grasping the exo/esoteric dimension of modern myth is indeed impossible, "impervious to rational arguments," and without our ability fully to know how the enemy debates, thinks, writes. One thing is certain. In 1929 Davos, Ernst Cassirer had met his enemy face to face—absolutely clueless about how to combat him effectively. And today this is the Cassirerian ball that is in 'our' court, including the conceptually foundationless court of cultural studies.

Post-conference cabaret:

But in one important respect Heidegger did not simply 'win' the Davos debate whereas Cassirer simply 'lost' it. In terms of class struggle (not to be conflated with political ideology), Cassirer and Heidegger always say the same thing—albeit the one exoterically, the other exo/esoterically. In this sense, they both won the real debate, the one 'extimate' to all academic philosophical disputes: the debate on behalf of capitalist interests. [6] At the very end of the Davos event, a slapstick cabaret was organized with the inevitable caricature of the main participants.

Levinas played the role of Cassirer.

As for alternative positions, Waite concludes:

Among the audience were several young self-described Marxists: including Alfred Sohn-Rethel, later the leading Frankfurt School economist, and Herbert Marcuse, although the latter was already swimming fast toward Heidegger's undertow. The record shows that they were all silent. But then vulgar Marxists—here defined as all those unaware of, and hence victims of, exo/esotericism—are always reduced to silence. [7] And justly so. I conclude. Whatever will be the 'final' outcome of the encounter between Cassirer and Heidegger (i.e., their mutual victory disguised as a 'debate' 'won' by Heidegger), and whether any academic discipline could ever find its philosophical base or ethics in Cassirer and/or Heidegger, the present essay has attempted to rectify the evident vulgar Marxist silence—not only at Davos. My argument hardly amounts to a philosophy or an ethics that constitutes an effective opponent of capitalism, fascism, Stalinism, and exo/esotericism. But, drawing one line of demarcation, this may be one exoteric start.

A footnote on Marxism and Neo-Kantianism:

66. Karl Kautsky, Ethics and the Materialistic Conception of History, 4th rev. ed., trans. J. R. Askew (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, n.d.), 160. As noted by Steven Lukes, Kautsky is one of very few Marxists to address the problem of ethics in any depth. And he did so within a problematic basically established by the Marburg neo-Kantians, including Cohen, Natorp, Lange, Stammler, Staudinger, and Vorlander—all of whom attempted "to supplement Marx with Kant, whose practical philosophy, they thought, could provide the ethical justification for the pursuit of the socialist goal" (Lukes, Marxism and Morality [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985], 15). On this topic, see Timothy R. Keck, "Kant and Socialism: The Marburg School in Wilhelmian Germany" (Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, 1975); and Klaus Christian Kohnke, Entstehung und Aufstieg des Neukantianismus: Die deutsche Universitatsphilosophie zwischen Idealismus und Positivismus (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1986). As Lukes also points out, other Marxists who were influenced also by Kant (including the Austro-Marxism of Adler, Bauer, and Mach) did not share Kautsky's need for ethical grounding, and still others attempted to mediate the two positions. I would add that by his neglect of ethics, Cassirer was indirectly opposing this 'ethical' moment in socialism. At least he was neglecting ethics compared to Marburg neo-Kantians—most notably Cassirer's teacher, Hermann Cohen. As Pierre Bourdieu has put it, Cohen had "proposed a Socialist interpretation of Kant, in which the categorical imperative enjoining us to treat the other person [le personne d'autrui] as ends, not means, is interpreted as the moral program of the future" (L'ontologie politique de Martin Heidegger, 2nd rev. ed. [Paris: Minuit, 1988], 55-56).

This mind-fuck of an article is truly remarkable, with lessons to be learned beyond the small circle of Waite's peers. It is also too delicious, that, comparing this to Friedman's work, the utter naivete of analytical philosophy is revealed in the process, whatever there may be to criticize in Waite. That Neo-Kantianism could have so much weight to pile a battle for the fate of the world onto it—boggles the mind for those of us alien to this mental universe. I knew Heidegger was a sick manipulative bastard, but I guess I will have to admit he was an evil genius, using all this erudition for bad ends, and fooling a lot of people to this day. But the real lesson of this forensic autopsy of intellectual history—we could make it into a TV series: CSI Freiburg—is that we ideology CSIs have to dig in to get to the bottom of this shit, because the entire intellectual tradition is our suspect.

Written 6 July 2008

The original footnote numbers have been stripped from the excerpts quoted. The boldfacing and all the footnote numbers (to my comments) are my additions.

1 What on Earth does this mean?

2 These contrary posits are as much gibberish as the rest of the paragraph.

3 If there is any truth to this assertion about Goethe, an explanation is in order.

4 Again: what on Earth does this mean?

5 Again, incomprehensible.

6 A nonsensical, arbitrary, and unjustified assertion.

7 Arbitrary inference drawn from the alleged silence coupled with a stupid generalization.

Re-reading these quotations from Waite's article convinces me that once Waite begins to abstract from his specific characterization of the Cassirer-Heidegger debate at Davos and draw general conclusions, he's bankrupt. In the final analysis, how esoteric is all this? Following this characterization: Cassirer thinks a sincere intellectual debate is involved, while Heidegger is speaking in an ideological code which is not what it seems but is structured in a manipulative way to subvert reason. How is this a new phenomenon for Marxism, other than the novelty of the specific philosophical code language? What does the failure to master esoterism mean if it doesn't mean the failure to master the structure and function of reactionary irrationalist ideology? One could see such a failure in Carnap, for Carnap refused to engage in taking the structure of irrationalist philosophy seriously as an object for analysis. Cassirer seems out of his depth, but his capacity for social analysis was nil, and to him Marxism was a total mystery.

18 June 2010


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