Richard Wolin

Position: Distinguished Professor of History and Comparative Literature
Degrees/Diplomas: Ph. D. in Social and Political Thought from York University
Research Interests: Frankfurt School, modern French and German political thought and politics

He has taught at Reed College, Rice University, and the Central European University.  He has published widely on twentieth-century French and German political thought.  His books have been translated into eight languages.  He has been a frequent contributor to The New Republic andDissent.  Among his books are: Walter Benjamin: An Aesthetic of Redemption (Columbia UP, 1982), The Politics of Being: The Political Thought of Martin Heidegger (Columbia UP, 1990), Heidegger’s Children: Hannah Arendt, Karl Lowith, Hans Jonas, and Herbert Marcuse(Princeton UP, 2001), which has been translated into five languages: Spanish, Dutch, Swedish, Japanese and Chinese, and The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism (Princeton UP, 2004).  In January 2002 The Chronicle of Higher Education featured a profile of his scholarly achievements entitled “Losing Friends and Influencing People.”


Richard Wolin, The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzche to Postmodernism (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2004).

Fifteen years ago, revelations about the political misdeeds of Martin Heidegger and Paul de Man sent shock waves throughout European and North American intellectual circles. Ever since, postmodernism has been haunted by the specter of a compromised past. In this intellectual genealogy of the postmodern spirit, Richard Wolin shows that postmodernism’s infatuation with fascism has been widespread and not incidental. He calls into question postmodernism’s claim to have inherited the mantle of the left–and suggests that postmodern thought has long been smitten with the opposite end of the political spectrum.

In probing chapters on C. G. Jung, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Georges Bataille, and Maurice Blanchot, Wolin discovers an unsettling commonality: during the 1930s, these thinkers leaned to the right and were tainted by a proverbial “fascination with fascism.” Frustrated by democracy’s shortcomings, they were seduced by fascism’s grandiose promises of political regeneration. The dictatorships in Italy and Germany promised redemption from the uncertainties of political liberalism. But, from the beginning, there could be no doubting their brutal methods of racism, violence, and imperial conquest.

Postmodernism’s origins among the profascist literati of the 1930s reveal a dark political patrimony. The unspoken affinities between Counter-Enlightenment and postmodernism constitute the guiding thread of Wolin’s suggestive narrative. In their mutual hostility toward reason and democracy, postmodernists and the advocates of Counter-Enlightenment betray a telltale strategic alliance–they cohabit the fraught terrain where far left and far right intersect.

Those who take Wolin’s conclusions to heart will never view the history of modern thought in quite the same way.

Richard Wolin, Heidegger’s Children: Hannah Arendt, Karl Lowith, Hans Jonas and Herbert Marcuse(Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2001).

Martin Heidegger is perhaps the twentieth century’s greatest philosopher, and his work stimulated much that is original and compelling in modern thought. A seductive classroom presence, he attracted Germany’s brightest young intellects during the 1920s. Many were Jews, who ultimately would have to reconcile their philosophical and, often, personal commitments to Heidegger with his nefarious political views.

In 1933, Heidegger cast his lot with National Socialism. He squelched the careers of Jewish students and denounced fellow professors whom he considered insufficiently radical. For years, he signed letters and opened lectures with ”Heil Hitler!” He paid dues to the Nazi party until the bitter end. Equally problematic for his former students were his sordid efforts to make existential thought serviceable to Nazi ends and his failure to ever renounce these actions.

This book explores how four of Heidegger’s most influential Jewish students came to grips with his Nazi association and how it affected their thinking. Hannah Arendt, who was Heidegger’s lover as well as his student, went on to become one of the century’s greatest political thinkers. Karl Löwith returned to Germany in 1953 and quickly became one of its leading philosophers. Hans Jonas grew famous as Germany’s premier philosopher of environmentalism. Herbert Marcuse gained celebrity as a Frankfurt School intellectual and mentor to the New Left.

Why did these brilliant minds fail to see what was in Heidegger’s heart and Germany’s future? How would they, after the war, reappraise Germany’s intellectual traditions? Could they salvage aspects of Heidegger’s thought? Would their philosophy reflect or completely reject their early studies? Could these Heideggerians forgive, or even try to understand, the betrayal of the man they so admired? Heidegger’s Children locates these paradoxes in the wider cruel irony that European Jews experienced their greatest calamity immediately following their fullest assimilation. And it finds in their responses answers to questions about the nature of existential disillusionment and the juncture between politics and ideas.

Richard Wolin and Gary Steiner eds., Martin Heidegger and European Nihilism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995).

Martin Heidegger and European Nihilism makes available in English Lowith’s major writings concerning the origins of cultural breakdown in Europe that paved the way for the Third Reich. Including incisive discussions of Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, a noted legal theorist of the same period who also supported the Third Reich, Heidegger and European Nihilism helps to illuminate the allure of Nazism for scholars committed to revolutionary nihilism. Lowith’s landmark essay on European nihilism is also included in its entirety here, along with two never-before-published letters from Heidegger to Lowith. In a work of impressive historical depth, Lowith traces the abandonment of higher European ideals in favor of a fatal flirtation with nihilism. These essays explore the enthronement of man above God, a trend that had begun to appear in European thought by the mid-nineteenth century in the works of Nietzsche and Marx and one that informed the nihilist philosophies of Heidegger and other theorists of the early twentieth century. An introduction by editor Richard Wolin provides lucid commentary, placing the three essays gathered here in a broad historical context, along with suggestions for further reading. This seminal work of intellectual history sheds light on the fascist impulses of nihilism in the first half of the twentieth century, but also offers unique perspective on the intellectual malaise of today.

Richard Wolin, Labyrinths: Explorations in the Critical History of Ideas. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995).

This book offers a series of probing reflections on issues at the heart of recent debates in philosophy, literary, theory, and intellectual history.


Richard Wolin ed., The Heidegger Controversy: A Critical Reader (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993).

This anthology is a significant contribution to the debate over the relevance of Martin Heidegger’s Nazi ties to the interpretation and evaluation of his philosophical work.


Richard Wolin, Terms of Cultural Criticism: The Frankfurt School, Existentialism, Poststructuralism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992).

Though seldom examined together, the Frankfurt School, existentialism, and poststructuralism have clear commonalities as well as considerable differences. All three address the apparent collapse of European tradition, and they have all posed formidable challenges to such legacies of the Enlightenment as political liberalism, instrumental reason, and self-positing subjectivity. The Terms of Cultural Criticism enters into lively debate with these highly influential schools of thought, reflecting on ways in which Enlightenment precepts, rather than being fundamentally mistaken, have historically miscarried. Each intellectual current is surveyed with a view to its historical adequacy, since each emerged, writes Wolin, “from the ruins of twentieth-century historical experience in order to offer intellectual guidance for a Western cultural context that has seemingly lost its raison d’etre.” The contributions in Part I address the efforts of the Frankfurt School theorists to define the relation of Critical Theory to the Western philosophical tradition, their turn toward a philosophy of history, and the utopianism of Adorno’s aesthetics.

In Part II, Wolin explores connections between the thought of Carl Schmitt and political existentialism, examines the political insights of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and contrasts Sartre’s and Heidegger’s understandings of history. The concluding section of The Terms of Cultural Criticism critically surveys the works of three important recent figures–Richard Rorty, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. The Terms of Cultural Criticism is written in a spirit of “enlightenment about Enlightenment.” In his provocative introductory essay, Wolin shows that when the critique of “reason” is at issue, only the hand that inflicted the wound can cure the disease. He believes not that our Enlightenment heritage should be jettisoned, but that a contemporary critique of that heritage must pave the way for a new, positive conception of the meaning of enlightenment. In this way, Wolin rejects many currently fashionable renunciations of reason and seeks to rehabilitate the methods of immanent criticism

Richard Wolin, The Politics of Being: The Political Thought of Martin Heidegger (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990).

In what may be the best available study of Heidegger’s relation to Nazism, Wolin demonstrates that Heidegger’s thought was inextricably combined with his decision to support the Nazis. (Dissent)


Richard Wolin, Walter Benjamin: An Aesthetic of Redemption (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982).

Few twentieth-century thinkers have proven as influential as Walter Benjamin, the German-Jewish philosopher and cultural and literary critic. Richard Wolin’s book remains among the clearest and most insightful introductions to Benjamin’s writings, offering a philosophically rich exposition of his complex relationship to Adorno, Brecht, Jewish Messianism, and Western Marxism. Wolin provides nuanced interpretations of Benjamin’s widely studied writings on Baudelaire, historiography, and art in the age of mechanical reproduction. In a new Introduction written especially for this edition, Wolin discusses the unfinished Arcades Project, as well as recent tendencies in the reception of Benjamin’s work and the relevance of his ideas to contemporary debates about modernity and postmodernity.

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