Taking Ideas Seriously
Can we distinguish political choices from philosophical truths?
December 1, 2002
Dec 1, 2002
27 Min read time
Can we distinguish political choices from philosophical truths?
Heidegger’s Children: Hannah Arendt, Karl Löwith, Hans Jonas, and Herbert Marcuse
Princeton University Press, $29.95 (cloth)
The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics
New York Review of Books, $24.95 (cloth)
Hannah Arendt in Jerusalem
Edited by Steven E. Aschheim
University of California Press, $22.95 (paperback)
Philosophy has fallen on hard times. Despite important developments in recent decades in philosophical accounts of thought and meaning, law and ethics, and knowledge and consciousness, the enterprise of philosophy is no longer taken very seriously nor accorded any special status in the broader culture. Of course, philosophy has always been a contested mode of inquiry. Since the successful rise of modern natural sciences, philosophers have had in particular to explain how a form of inquiry that explores the basic structures of human language, thought, and action, but that does not follow scientific methods, can contribute to human understanding. From Edmund Husserl to Hilary Putnam, from Wilfred Sellars to Jürgen Habermas, philosophers have sought to mark off the proper arena of philosophy and navigate the line between philosophy and science.
The principal challenge to philosophy in contemporary culture, however, comes not from natural science but from what Paul Ricoeur has called “the hermeneutics of suspicion”—the idea that every grand theory and noble sentiment hides a base motive. Nietzsche started it all when he said that universalistic morality traces to the efforts of the weak to band together and thwart the powerful while casting their struggle for power in the high-minded language of ought and obligation. Since then the suspicious style of interpretation has evolved in several different directions.
One direction is historical and social and is expressed, for example, in the familiar observation that the philosophical tradition is overwhelmingly the creation of dead-white-male heads of household, including some slaveholders and misogynists. In the 1970s, feminist theorists—including Carole Pateman, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Genevieve Lloyd, and Susan Okin—made this case with respect to the place of gender in liberal-tradition classics. Recently such post-colonial theorists as Paul Gilroy, Uday Mehta, Tzvetan Todorov, and Anthony Pagden have uncovered the complicity of Western philosophy with Western imperialism. Some theorists have argued that the project of modern philosophy, from Hobbes to Locke, from Descartes to Hegel, is implicated—not only accidentally, but essentially—in the global consolidation of Western imperial hegemony. Even the great Western liberals—John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant—have come under heavy fire for their Eurocentric prejudices against the capacity of non-Western peoples to govern themselves, produce culture, and contribute to rational discourse.
Such social and historical contextualization, often a source of illumination, must be distinguished from a second kind of hermeneutics of suspicion, which is biographic in focus and psychoanalytic in theory. Here the personal lives of philosophers and other intellectuals—their political, religious, and erotic choices—are explored in search of some underlying personality pattern, some compulsive reenactment of early hurts or traumas expressed in each thinker’s work.
A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education notes that “since 1982, more than thirty biographies of philosophers have appeared. Of those, twenty have been published in the past decade, a dozen just since 1999.” Among those whose lives have been subject to close scrutiny are Bertrand Russell and John Dewey, leading the group with three biographical works each; Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Michel Foucault, and Hannah Arendt follow with two titles to their names. In a culture in which philosophy has become “breathtakingly irrelevant,”1 the study of philosophers’ lives continues to hold some fascination.
This turn to biography presents unusual challenges. Philosophical theories make claims to truth that transcend historical and social context. From inside the discipline, the details of personal lives seem quite irrelevant to understanding or evaluating a thinker’s views. Every student of philosophy learns to master the distinction between “genesis” and “validity,” between the personal or historical circumstances that may have led thinkers to develop certain views and the correctness of these views. Studying philosophy in this country and Germany throughout the 1970s, for example, I do not recall a single seminar in which the biographical or historical details of thinkers’ lives emerged as a theme.
The fixation on biography, particularly when it is mixed with interpretive suspicion, suggests a retreat from philosophy’s aspiration to truth; we wallow in the particular and revel in salacious detail, whether it be Wittgenstein’s homosexuality, A. J. Ayer’s promiscuity, Foucault’s “sadomasochistic” experimentations in the gay subculture, Dewey’s sexual shyness, or Hannah Arendt’s affair with Martin Heidegger. The ease with which moral judgments are passed on the lives and passions of others and the titillation derived from cutting intellectual giants down to size are indicative of our own culture. Citizens in a republic of voyeurs, we are intent on microscopic moralism, incapable of appreciating more gracefully the contradictions, tensions, and ragged edges of all lives and unwilling to take ideas seriously, as something more than bandages for personal wounds.
If we find something objectionable in a philosophical theory, we can, of course, always attribute it to a personal deficiency. Mill, the great defender of personal liberty and representative government, did not consider Indian people capable of self-rule or the people of the Balkans capable of entering the mainstream of human history. Kant teaches us that there is a universal faculty of human reason that lies at the foundation of moral agency. But his writings on history and anthropology reveal a belief that the distribution of rationality among the human race is not uniform: some human beings, because of cultural and even racial characteristics, are incapable of higher levels of abstraction. Faced with such contradictions, we can call Kant and Mill racists and treat their systems as gussied-up projects of group dominance or expressions of some form or other of heterophobia. But there is an alternative interpretive strategy. We can treat the troubling elements of their views as occasions to probe deeper and ask: What was their understanding of the relationship between reason and culture? Is education the key to the acquisition of human reason? What is culture? And when we do that, we link our efforts at historical interpretation and contextualization with our own efforts to join the debate and engage hard questions about morality, politics, and history, rather than using historical interpretation as a way to satisfy a suspicion, evade these questions, and pretend that we already know their answers.
Two recent books, Richard Wolin’s Heidegger’s Children: Hannah Arendt, Karl Löwith, Hans Jonas, and Herbert Marcuse and Mark Lilla’s The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics, aim to situate the work of some of the twentieth century’s most important thinkers in an appropriate context. For Wolin this context is the mesmerizing hold of Martin Heidegger’s thought upon these four thinkers. After Heidegger’s disastrous alliance with the Nazis—he assumed the rectorship of the University of Freiburg in 1933 for nine months—his former students were the first to search in their master’s thought for clues to his political choices. Yet Wolin insists that their critical awareness could not compensate for the fact “that privileged proximity often proved existentially and philosophically troubling, for how much of what they had imbibed as students of German thought and culture had been tainted by the Bacillus teutonicus?” Wolin’s answer is “quite a lot.”
Lilla opens his collection of essays, most of which have previously appeared in The New York Review of Books, with a discussion of “Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt, Karl Jaspers.” For him, the privileged context for understanding what he names the “reckless mind” is a specific interplay of philosophy and politics. Lilla puts the point sharply: “As continental Europe gave birth to two great tyrannical systems in the twentieth century, communism and fascism, it also gave birth to a new social type, for which we need a new name: the philotyrannical intellectual”—the intellectual whose unmastered passions occlude the tyrannical potential of noble-sounding ideas. Lilla uses this phrase unsparingly to characterize Walter Benjamin, Alexandre Kojeve, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida.
Despite the differences in their political orientations—Wolin is a repentant New Leftist who has discovered the virtues of liberalism, while Lilla is a moderate and thoughtful follower of the conservative political theorist Leo Strauss—both authors are relentless in their use of contextual simplification. For Wolin, biography is destiny (or rather “Heidegger is destiny”); for Lilla, intellectuals’ political choices exhibit that they are tempted by tyranny, whether of the right or the left. Rather than deploying historical, biographical, and political detail to enhance our understanding of their subjects, to solve some conceptual puzzles, or to carry forward an argument on substance, both authors reduce the legacies of their subjects to rubble.
• • •
Martin Heidegger’s political choices and influence are at the center of both works: How might we assess his influence and his students? What is the most appropriate context?
When Heidegger was a young professor in Marburg, even before the 1927 publication of Being and Time, his reputation had reached such proportions that philosophy students from all over Germany were flocking to his courses. Many of Heidegger’s most talented students—Hannah Arendt, Hans Jonas, Karl Löwith, and Herbert Marcuse—who went on to achieve recognition in their own right were German Jews. Like many Jews who entered the universities and came under the spell of German culture and philosophy, they shed their Jewish identity, often trading traditional Judaism and the ideals of Jewish emancipation for assimilation.
For the post–World War I generation to which Arendt, Jonas, Löwith, and Marcuse belonged (the latter two actually served in the German army during the war), the end of the Kaiserreich also brought the passing of patriarchal political, social, and cultural structures. Short-lived workers’ and soldiers’ soviets were declared in Munich and Berlin by returning soldiers and their allies in the workers’ movements. Herbert Marcuse joined in the efforts of the Berlin Raeterepublik for a short period, while the young Hannah Arendt was dragged by her mother to attend demonstrations of the Spartacists after the murder of Rosa Luxembourg. As Germany’s ancien régime collapsed and the Weimar Republic ushered in a great period of political, cultural, and social upheaval, German philosophy itself entered a period of radical questioning. At the root of the questioning was the relationship of reason and freedom. While neo-Kantian traditional philosophy still asserted that the human will was capable of rational choice and that philosophy within the bounds of reason could build a just moral order that would house the free will (a task undertaken by the neo-Kantian Hermann Cohen as well as the Hegelian Franz Rosenzweig, both of Jewish origin), the war and the experience of the Front suggested more ominous tidings.
At that time Heidegger’s thought evidenced a concreteness in its engagement with human experience that was uncharacteristic of German academic philosophy. Being and Time begins with an abstraction named “Dasein,” who is everyone in general and no one in particular. The analysis reflects the existential isolation of and burden on individuals for whom neither reason nor religion provide convincing answers. As this opening abstraction gives way to such categories as care (Sorge), being with others (Mitsein), thrownness (Geworfenheit), idle chatter (Gerede), and “the they” (das Man), the cultural disorientation and moral anxiety of the post–World War I generation seeps through the cracks of the otherwise-forbidding edifice of Heidegger’s thought.
Undoubtedly, Heidegger’s teaching was particularly alluring for his young Jewish students: it captured their sense of having lost their moorings, of being at sea, cut off from traditional Judaism on the one hand and increasingly confronted with the collapse of the respectable German bourgeois world on the other.
Drawing on this general historical-cultural context, as Wolin does, is essential to any understanding of the early Heidegger’s work and influence. Arendt, Löwith, Jonas, and Marcuse emerged out of this milieu, which also produced Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, Georg Lukacs, and members of the Frankfurt School, as well as Karl Mannheim, Gustav Mahler, Karl Kraus, and many other Central European Jews who made some of the most remarkable cultural contributions of the twentieth century. Intellectual historians have long commented on the puzzle that the Holocaust followed upon this great effervescence and creativity, frequently referred to as the Golden Age of European Jewry.
Wolin reprises this story of the failure of German-Jewish assimilation; it has been told previously by such historians as George Mosse, Arno Meyer, and Saul Friedlander. The most influential of these accounts is Gershom Scholem’s autobiographical From Berlin to Jerusalem (1980; published in English in 1988). Scholem originated the observation that the much-touted German-Jewish intellectuals’ symbiosis was in fact a series of “continuous bloodlettings”—a process of “negative symbiosis” (Dan Diner)—and that German intellectual traditions had already begun to decry the very ideals of Enlightenment humanism and emancipation that so many Jewish thinkers were attempting to make their own.
Yet the devil is in the details, and very little in Wolin’s account illuminates the specific familial and cultural milieu of each of the four thinkers. More fundamentally, Wolin’s own concepts of “non-Jewish Jews” and “the delusions of Jewish assimilation” suggest a disturbingly fixed understanding of “authentic” Jewish life. When Isaac Deutscher introduced the phrase “non-Jewish Jew” to characterize Spinoza, Heine, Marx, Rosa Luxembourg, Trotsky, and Freud, he drew attention to the fact that these intellectuals had gone beyond the limits of traditional Judaism into alien cultural territory. For Deutscher their genius was nurtured through their experiences at the edge of their communities: “They were a priori extraordinary insofar that as Jews they lived at the borders of distinct civilizations, religions and national cultures and were born and grew up at the boundaries of different epochs.”2 Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem, as well as Hannah Arendt, were aware of this Jewish tradition and wrote and thought about it. Hans Jonas’s work in The Gnostic Religion (1958) and his reflections on post-Holocaust theology (“The Concept of God after Auschwitz”) draw from the ethical and political roots of traditional Judaism, whether rabbinical or messianic, while reflecting on matters of universal concern to all.
For Deutscher “non-Jewish Jew” is a term of praise, whereas for Wolin it means having false consciousness. Like Gershom Scholem, Wolin affirms the futility of assimilationist Jewish intellectual aspirations. If one believes that authentic Jewish existence is possible only in a Jewish collectivity, whether a nation-state or not; if one believes that life in the diaspora is a form of Galut (exile); if one also believes that the Jews will not be free of anti-Semitism until they become a “nation like all others,” with their own state, army, and territory, then it makes sense to insist as Wolin does that German-Jewish assimilation is illusory, and that assimilation is the road to annihilation.
Yet there is a deep inconsistency in Wolin’s account: he often writes as if he were a convinced Jewish nationalist, for whom Jewish participation in bourgeois liberal democracies, with their individualistic understanding of rights, is itself a form of inauthenticity. But he takes to task all four of Heidegger’s “children” for sharing the master’s prejudices against political modernity, democracy, liberalism, and individuals’ rights.
Wolin cannot have it both ways—either he accepts a liberal democratic understanding of rights and respects the separation of one’s public identity as a citizen from one’s private identity as a Jew, or he considers such a solution inadequate and pleads for a more collective resolution of questions to Jewish existence. The relationship of these collective strategies of Jewish existence to liberal democratic understandings of individual rights, the rule of law, and the separation of public right from the moral good is, as the current situation in Israel well demonstrates, contentious. But if one questions cultural or political Zionism—and surely such questioning is legitmate—then it is possible to regard Jewish assimilation and all its attendant paradoxes as a leaven, a creative force, in political modernity itself—not simply as a self-denying evasion. The dilemmas of Jewish assimilation, with its individual strategies of converting, passing, denying, or displacing are themselves part of the cultural-political toolbox which liberal democracies offer to ethnic, religious, and cultural minorities under conditions of modernity. Surely the kind of moral universalism to which all four thinkers aspired is no less an aspect of the Jewish experience in modernity than the assertion of Jewish particularism. Wolin does not address these dilemmas. In accusing Arendt, Löwith, Jonas, and Marcuse of failing to live up to their Jewish identities, he fails to illuminate their work and instead invites questions about his own vantage point. What are his standards for deciding whether a Jewish life is sufficiently “authentic”?
Ironically, Hannah Arendt, the most self-conscious Jew among the four, is the one for whom Wolin has the least sympathy. Prior to the publication of Heidegger’s Children, Wolin wrote two articles on Arendt in the New Republic3 They continued an assault that Leon Wieseltier, the New Republic’s literary editor, began against Arendt in his 1981 review of The Origins of Totalitarianism4 For Wolin and Wieseltier, Arendt’s attempt to understand the sources of European anti-Semitism through a social, cultural, economic, and political account of the Jewish condition in post–French Revolutionary Europe is a strategy of “blaming the victim.” Wolin goes further: thinking that this harsh assessment is supported by the disclosure of Arendt’s youthful love affair with Martin Heidegger during her student days in Marburg between 1923 and 1925, he writes:
“She had studied—and fallen in love—with Martin Heidegger, one of [Nazism’s] leading representatives. Could it have been those allegiances—uncanny and subterranean—that in some way led her to purvey such calumnies about the Jews in the Eichmann book? Could such remarks have been meant to absolve the Messkirch magician of his crimes on behalf of a regime that sought to wipe out the Jews, by insinuating that, in certain respects, they were no better than the Nazis?”
The link Wolin seeks to establish between Arendt’s personal relationship with Heidegger and her views on anti-Semitism and the Eichmann trial drew a cautious objection even from George Steiner, himself no friend of Arendt (“Seeing the Master Clearly,” Times Literary Supplement, 18 January 2002). The dubious psychobabble which seems to underlie such assertions does grave injustice to the complexity of Arendt’s views on the Jewish question—before and after the Holocaust. By reducing Arendt’s views on these matters, no matter how controversial, to hardly ascertainable motives of twisted self-justification, Wolin evades the hard issues and demonstrates how not to use context in judging the validity of ideas.
Fortunately, the publication of a collection of papers first presented in Jerusalem in December 1997—Hannah Arendt in Jerusalem—does what Wolin fails to do: it reveals the contentious dialogue of the many narrative voices, ethnic perspectives, political choices, and religious colorings that have always characterized the legacy of the Jewish people. The articles in this volume reveal Arendt as an original, at times infuriating, but wholly legitimate voice within this dialogue. The historian Michael Marrus, whose balanced evaluation of Arendt’sEichmann in Jerusalem has done much to secure the value of the book in Holocaust studies, examines a little-noted yet crucial aspect of Arendt’s analysis, namely the international legal ramifications of the trial and sentencing of Eichmann. Arendt defended the concept of “crimes against humanity” and criticized the Israeli court’s verdict for distinguishing “crimes against the Jewish people” from “crimes against humanity.” In Arendt’s eyes no one was more responsible for the juridical confusions in the sentencing of Adolf Eichmann than the Israeli attorney general, Gideon Hausner.
Arendt’s comments on Hausner’s supposed unprofessionalism, his “Galician” background, his showmanship—contrasted with the wholly impeccable behavior of the three “German-Jewish” judges—betray personal prejudice and have been justifiably criticized. But her personal antipathy conceals a more serious matter. In a study that contrasts Hausner’s book on Eichmann with Arendt’s account, Leora Bilsky uncovers a little-known narrative, which she names “the missing chapter” of the trial. This troubled episode of Jewish existence during the Holocaust—the so-called Kastner affair—frames much of the contention between Hausner and Arendt. During 1943 and 1944 Dr. Rudolf Kastner negotiated with Adolf Eichmann to exchange “trucks for lives” and managed to rescue 1,685 Jews, including many of his friends and relatives, from being sent to Auschwitz. During the Kastner trial the issue of collaboration with the Nazis was foremost, and questions about the behavior of the Jewish Councils and the “negotiations” of the Jewish leadership with the Nazis in trying to evacuate European Jews were repeatedly raised. Hausner tried to keep references to Kastner, who had official ties to Israel’s Mapai (Labor) party, from flowing into the indictment against Eichmann. Arendt, in contrast, established their linkage. Unlike Bilsky, who uncovers all the narrative strategies used during the Kastner trial, including the less-than-honorable cover-ups by Israeli officials of their ties to Kastner, Wolin is ready to settle for half-truths and says that Arendt is “spiteful and insensitive” in raising the Kastner issue.
Even more starkly opposed to Wolin’s sanctimoniousness is the admirable candor with which post-Zionist Israeli historians like Moshe Zimmermann and Ammon Raz-Krakotzkin locate Arendt’s views in a larger debate about the shortcomings of Zionism as a political ideology. During the 1940s Arendt maintained that the nation-state, whether Zionist, German, French, or British, reflected a deep-seated contradiction of political modernity—between the ideal of universal rights and the collective self-determination of specific national groups. Collective aspirations to national self-determination invariably led to discrimination against minorities and even their political and economic disenfranchisement. Arendt saw very early that the price of the declaration of a Jewish state in Palestine would be the disenfranchisement of Palestinian Arabs and continuing conflict between Israel and her neighbors. So she supported the founding of a Jewish homeland in Palestine as part of a binational Jewish-Palestinian federation. Raz-Krakotzkin observes that in today’s Israeli context “Arendt’s distinction between ‘state’ and ‘nationhood’ is of great importance. . . . It shows that the terms of the debate in Israel must be over the separation of national identity from the image of the state in order to establish it as a state of all its citizens,” including Palestianian Arabs who hold Israeli citizenship (Hannah Arendt in Jerusalem, 180). Wolin, by contrast, would dismiss her critique of Zionism as evidence of her inauthentic Jewishness and her attachment to Heidegger, thus replacing intellectual engagement with interpretive suspicion.
While the “Jewish question” plays a significant if distorted role in Wolin’s account of Heidegger and his disciples, Lilla begins The Reckless Mind with a puzzle that has always baffled readers of Heidegger: how could one of the greatest philosophers of the past century be deluded by the ideology of National Socialism? Was Heidegger an anti-Semite? Or, regardless of his personal predilections, does his work carry traces of cultural or religious anti-Semitism? Was his dalliance with the Nazis a mistake in political judgment or did it flow from some deeper tenets of his philosophy? Is Being and Timealready a crypto-Nazi work?
Karl Löwith provided a particularly compelling answer to these questions. Löwith, who was Heidegger’s assistant, saw a form of “political nihilism” even in Heidegger’s early work. This tendency, observes Löwith, brought Heidegger into the company of a group of conservative German thinkers such as Ernst Juenger, Carl Schmitt, and Gottfried Benn. They developed a cutting critique of liberal-bourgeois society from the standpoint of a quasi-heroic, quasi-aristocratic ethic of male bonding and solidarity.
Lilla tackles the positions of these thinkers in his essay on Schmitt. War and violence were epiphanies that shattered middle-class security and illusion, revealing the arbitrary authority and violence that underlay liberal rights and institutions of parliamentary democracy. Carl Schmitt gave a pithy expression to this view: “The sovereign is he who decides on the state of the exception.” The “exception” is a broad term which refers to the constitutional issue of how the rule of law can be suspended and martial law and dictatorship legitimized—a theme dear to Schmitt’s heart. The “crown jurist” of the Third Reich, he paved the way for the constitutional undermining of the Weimar Republic and theputsch which brought it to an end. But the “exception” can also refer to those most fundamental assumptions which frame political discourse while remaining invisible and unarticulated. For Schmitt, all politics rested on a form of political theology. Liberalism, in particular, was wholly blind to its own crypto-theological assumptions.
More problematic than the avowedly fascist politics of a Carl Schmitt is what Lilla sees as a widespread temptation among philosophers and intellectuals to dally in authoritarian and illiberal political matters. The “reckless mind” is reckless precisely because it throws political caution to the winds. But does this prove “philotyranny,” a love for tyranny? It never becomes clear if Lilla thinks that there is something endemic to being an intellectual that tempts one to embrace totalizing and tyrannical political alternatives, or whether the specific choices individuals make in certain circumstances reveal their less-than-laudable political judgments and inclinations.
One has the strong impression reading Lilla’s essays that he often overstates the former as a literary device to unite a set of engaging intellectual portraits of thinkers as diverse as Walter Benjamin, Alexandre Kojeve, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. But Lilla is at his best when he does not impose the implausible straitjacket of philotyranny upon his subjects and instead follows the trail of their thought down unpredictable and often counterintuitive paths. His essays on Walter Benjamin and Alexander Kojeve are gems of this more subtle reckoning.
Lilla does not, however, offer the same depth of insight when dealing Foucault and Derrida. Lilla is impatient, at times even dismissive, of their thought. He aims to deflate the cultural left’s interest in these thinkers, in part by showing that their philosophies prompt ridiculous and even dangerous political choices. Lilla mentions Foucault’s support for the Iranian revolution but neglects his work with prisoners’ rights groups, which flows more directly from his arguments in Discipline and Punish about the rise of the modern incarceration system
Lilla’s impatience with the kind of careful textual work that is required to appreciate a philosopher like Derrida becomes quite apparent when he claims that Derrida’s essay “The Force of Law” does not distinguish between law (loi) and justice (droit), between positive law and natural law. In fact, Derrida’s whole essay is devoted to the unbridgeable gap and tension between the law and justice. Collapsing their distinction would lead one to moral and legal relativism—justice is what positive law says it is. Accepting their irreducible tension, however, gives rise to the more difficult question: what is justice and how can one defend a philosophical conception of justice in the post-metaphysical age?
Derrida is hardly the first philosopher to raise these questions. More than thirty years after John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, we may feel somewhat impatient at being told yet again that justice is neither purely conventional nor a matter of metaphysical natural law. Still, the law/justice distinction is essential to Derrida, and exploring whether deconstruction offers a promising venue for thinking about justice is a worthy project.
But Lilla is less concerned with Derrida’s jurisprudence than with his political predilections. Lilla does not distinguish Derrida’s own political outlook—which in the last thirty years has moved from a quasi-Maoist radical-left stance toward what one could characterize as a left civil-libertarian position—from the Derridean gesture, the politics of the epigones. Relying on predictable and traditional sentiments about what is legitimate in politics, Lilla presents both Foucault and Derrida as political freaks whose outlandish views defeat their philosophies.
The relationship between philosophical virtues and political ones is complex, sometimes contradictory. But Lilla is not interested in such complexity. He offers up a world-weary wisdom about the failure of political hopes. Philosophy that judges contingent human arrangements and institutions “sub specie aeternitatus” (from the perspective of eternity), in John Rawls’s memorable phrase, necessarily subjects tradition, habit, and custom to critique. At times this critique may lead to the Platonic temptation to create a philosopher-king, or in Herbert Marcuse’s phrase, to defend an “educational dictator,” whose mission would be to eradicate injustice in the earthly city, to bring it in line with Reason’s unrelenting demands. This radical gesture of philosophy can harbor hopes for tyranny, but it can also pave the way toward reform and revolution. Even the old Hegel drank a glass of wine to toast Bastille Day until the end of his life and never stopped searching for the “rose in the cross of the present.” In any case, we need to engage the arguments, not dismiss them because their conclusions betray a suspect sensibility.
Wolin and Lilla leave us with unsettling questions not only about the astonishing gap that sometimes opens between philosophical brilliance and political stupidity, but also about the role of philosophy in the culture of liberal democracies. Both assume that it is correct, even necessary, to subject philosophical theories to critique for their political implications. But too often they neglect the distinction between political commitments that flow from philosophical doctrine and matters of individual judgment vis-<0x00E0>-vis difficult, even tragic, historical events. It is one thing to argue that the philosophical enterprise itself somehow predisposes one to tyranny—a breathtaking claim that is likely to puzzle students of Locke, Kant, Hume, Mill, Sidgwick, Carnap, Habermas, Dummett, Quine, Ayer, Rawls, Levinas, and Husserl. It is quite another to argue that philosophers sometimes make foolish, unjust, reprehensible, even disgraceful political decisions or that they embrace sexist and racist views. Kojeve’s celebration of the Revolution of 1917, Arendt’s critique-in-solidarity of Zionism, Jonas’s despair about the impossibility of stopping planetary destruction other than through the curtailment of certain liberties, and even Marcuse’s attempt to salvage vestiges of revolutionary resistance through a reform of the senses and a re-vindication of erotic drives, could all be characterized as tragic and at times foolish, but nevertheless understandable political choices and judgments. We may not agree with such choices, but we can respect the contextual pressures which led to them and try to show where error creeps into the argument.
What is missing from both Wolin and Lilla is an appreciation for such moments of historical uncertainty. Certainly, intellectuals of astute political vision should be able to see farther than their contemporaries; that is why we admire them. But if the alternative to risky and uncertain judgments is a quietistic attitude of cautious patience, always on the sidelines of history, ever-fearful that engagement will stir troubling passions, then—while appreciating the counsels of prudence—some of us will respectfully dissent.
Since Wolin is so relentless in his pursuit of Heidegger’s mesmerizing influence on his students, it is worth noting that they were also among the first to show the path leading away from Heidegger toward a transformation of philosophy. Arendt and Löwith sought such a transformation through their focus on language and intersubjectivity; Jonas turned to ethics and technology; Marcuse developed a social critique of capitalism and technology.
Lilla’s concluding observations on intellectuals and politics are so vague and lachrymose that all that seems left for intellectuals is to observe life from their ivory towers and not meddle for fear of tyrannical temptation. In the end, both books fail not because of their political outlooks, but because Wolin and Lilla—despite differences of temperament and allegiance—refuse to take philosophy and ideas seriously: they are too quick to conflate the biographical with the theoretical, the personal with the intellectual, and to dismiss the latter in the name of the former.
A democratic culture requires an appreciation for moments of historical dilemma, even as it also requires philosophy to keep us honest about the validity of our beliefs. Heidegger’s critique of subject-object epistemology, his claim that “language is the house of being,” and his phenomenological account of everydayness as well as his brilliant re-readings of Aristotle, Nicholas of Cusa, Kant, and Hegel will remain with us as instances of such philosophical honesty. And we will need to find serious answers to Foucault’s critique that contemporary welfare states institute a new modality of power called “governmentality” that threatens the autonomous subject associated with the liberal understanding of rights. Likewise, whatever Jacques Derrida’s pronouncements on this or that political cause, we should not dismiss his insights about the polyvocity of language, the indeterminacy of reference, and the problematic recurrence in metaphysics as well as politics of the moment of difference, otherness, and alterity—the instance that cannot be absorbed and neutralized by a coherent intellectual system. We cannot simply dismiss these ideas because someone who finds them attractive might do something horrible.
Too often these days we reduce philosophy to confession and intimacy to kitsch precisely because we live without a sense of the democratic res publica. No amount of voyeurism and biographical judgmentalism should distract us from engaging with unsettling questions.
1. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, cited in Danny Postel, “The Life and the Mind,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 7 June 2002.
2. Isaac Deutscher, Der Nichtjüdische Jude: Essays (Berlin: Rotbuch Verlag, 1988), 60. My translation.
3. Richard Wolin, “Hannah and the Magician,” New Republic, 9 October 1995, 27–37; Richard Wolin, “Within Four Walls,” New Republic, 27 November 2000, 27–35.
4. See Leon Wieseltier, “Understanding Anti-Semitism,” New Republic,7 October 1981, and “Pariahs and Politics,” New Republic, 14 October 1981, 29–34.
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December 01, 2002
27 Min read time