Don’t you hate it when you read an article that is half right and therefore all wrong.
In The Telegraph (London) I read a preview of a book about to appear on academic philosophers, notably Heidegger, in Germany during the Nazi era. The headline is “Philosophy’s shameful love for the swastika.” Not “philosophers’ shameful love,” or even “some philosopher’s shameful love,” but philosophy’s shameful love of the swastika. Shameful, all right, and incendiary and histrionic and provocative. But not on philosophy’s part, but rather on the part of the headline writer (who is usually not also the author of the piece being headlined, it must be said). The fact is that some (but not all) academics (including philosophers) were (at least for some amount of time) persuaded that Hitler and his party offered something desirable for Germany (and for the academy and perhaps for philosophers and perhaps even for philosophy). I admit, it’s hard for me to see how.
But for Alasdair Palmer, the author of the article in question, it is impossible to see how. He has apparently seen (and perhaps read) a forthcoming book by Yvonne Sherratt entitled, Hitler’s Philosophers. Besides Heidegger, no other philosophers are mentioned in Palmer’s piece.
Here is how it begins:
Crude and vicious anti-Semitism; narrow, bigoted nationalism; and total indifference to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people – these are not attitudes we expect from philosophers. On the contrary, these academic thinkers are supposed to have sophisticated ethical outlooks. They aim to be supremely rational, and to believe only what they can show to be true. So it comes as a surprise to be reminded of the story told in Hitler’s Philosophers.
Let’s take a good look at the claims here. Crude, vicious anti-Semitism, crude, bigoted nationalism; gross indifference to the deaths of hundreds of thousand (but it was millions, right – is this a sign of Palmer’s own indifference?) – these attitudes are not to be “expected” from philosophers. Are they to be expected from non-philosophers? Is that the division: philosophers vs. non-philosophers? The former cannot be expected to be anti-Semitic, nationalistic, or coldly indifferent to suffering, but the latter may? Moral philosophers are more moral than non-philosophers? Palmer might want to see the results of various studies on the subject of the moral character of moral philosophers, linked to here, which will prove to be an eye-opener to him but which seems predictable to me. I’ll say why such results were predictable presently.
Also, the flow of the paragraph suggests that philosophers are identical with academic philosophers, and the piece suggests that philosophy is identical with what philosophers (who are academics) do. Further, academic philosophers are “supposed to have sophisticated ethical outlooks.” However, it is a fact that many philosophers – and not just German philosophers – do no work in ethics whatsoever, and so have not developed “sophisticated ethical outlooks.” Some academic philosophers have even claimed that philosophy really has nothing to do with ethics, which they take to be just another version of telling people what they ought to do minus the religious trappings but cloaked instead in a mantel of “scientific” respectability. The claim that academic philosophers – by virtue of the fact that they are in the academy – ought to be held to higher moral standards seems a bit precious these days. Philosophy, like our natural and social sciences, is touted as being “value free,” as they say, which alleges to give it its legitimacy and respectability as an academic discipline. In short, leaving aside his painting with a broad brush, Palmer’s disgust with philosophy is based on his view that philosophy ought to make us better human beings, when clearly it did not in the case, for instance, of Heidegger. And again, refer to the experimental philosophy (“X-Phi”) research noted above.
Palmer says he’s surprised to be reminded (?) of the bad behavior of German academic philosophers during the Nazi era. But Heidegger’s reprehensible character and his fascination with, support for, and ultimate disappointment with (because of its “vulgarity”) of National Socialism has been very well documented (Farias, Ott). In addition, the question of the nature of the relationship between Heidegger’s thought and the historical reality of National Socialism has been explored in painstaking detail. Just as there has been a thick strand of “left-wing” Nietzscheanism (for instance, the feminist use of Nietzsche’s ideas of genealogy and perspectivalism in the service of overcoming patriarchy, despite Nietzsche’s own misogyny), so there have been thinkers who have “demythologized” Heidegger and used his otherwise profound insights in liberatory causes that likely would have been distasteful to him. Thus even Heidegger’s own philosophy may not essentially love the swastika. I cannot see how Kant’s philosophy or Dewey’s philosophy or Buber’s philosophy (!) has of necessity to love the swastika. So much for the headline.
Palmer continues with a description of the book. He says the book shows how “some academics in Germany reacted to the coming of Hitler” (emphasis added). He reads Sherratt as saying that “most” of these not only accepted but embraced, even enthusiastically, Hitler’s views and leadership. They made a show of their loyalty to Hitler while treating disloyally their Jewish colleagues and friends. They were not bullied into supporting Hitler. Perhaps they were looking out for their careers (which, I suppose, Palmer must think academics cannot be expected to do, contrary to the rest of humanity). They praised Hitler “as a great philosopher.” Palmer notes, “They even went so far as to insist that making Hitler’s word law represented the supreme rational principle for Germany.” It will be interesting to read Sherratt’s book to find out exactly who “they” were and whether “they” included all German academic philosophers.
Palmer thinks that holding such views should have been, but were not, seen as betrayal of philosophy’s commitment to rationality and truth. This, however, is a highly questionable claim, although I for one fervently wish it were not. I wish it could be shown to be a violation of reason and truth to hold anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, anti-climate change, anti-gay, anti-women, war-mongering, pro-racist, pro-Nazi views. But it cannot be shown in the way Palmer implies. People who hold those views cannot simply be dismissed as irrational, unless by “rational” you mean “exactly what I believe instead.” Alas, I find it very unlikely that you can argue adherents out of (i.e., show a knock-down logical fallacy in) their views. Further, as Palmer recognizes that (some) philosophers have “sophisticated ethical outlooks,” one might expect these outlooks to differ from and even be at odds with the less sophisticated ethical outlooks the rest of us have. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is not very sophisticated. But some academic philosopher might whip up a very sophisticated vision of the good that would include, say, cutting any “cancers” out of society for the good of the body politic. You know where that can lead (and has led).
But for Palmer all such views as anti-Semitism and vulgar nationalism are deluded, and he knows why philosophers come to have these deluded views: it “is an instance of the fact that people who spend their lives debating abstract issues can become so distanced from the quotidian world that they can no longer see the obvious.” It is a fact that one can become distanced from the day-to-day views of those around one if one debates “abstract” issues long enough. But if it is a matter of this being possible, what accounts for it becoming actual? Not simply because it is possible. Why is it not the case that all philosophers become Nazis or adopt other radically unpopular (but was Nazism always “unpopular” in Germany?) ideas? Palmer offers no clue. He suggests it is just what happens to philosophers because they pursue philosophy. His anti-intellectualism would, ironically, be right at home with the more popular versions of Nazism (Heidegger’s eventual disillusionment with National Socialism came not because he thought it “wrong” but because he thought it “crude” and “anti-intellectual”). I can hear echoes of Ronald Reagan (not a Nazi, of course): “There you go thinking again….”
Here’s where the wheels really come off:
John Maynard Keynes once said of a man that “he has his ear so close to the ground that he cannot hear what an upright man says”. These philosophers suffered from the opposite problem: their heads were so far up in the clouds that they could not recognise the blindingly obvious fact that Nazism meant torture, persecution and genocide. They became astonishingly stupid as a consequence.
Philosophers are particularly vulnerable to this form of idiocy, because there is so little content to their subject. It does not consist in the discovery of new facts, and philosophical theories are only seldom decisively refuted by anything. Fashion is often the most important factor in explaining which doctrines come to be accepted by any group of academic philosophers.
Philosophers are those who have their heads far up in the clouds. Philosophers are vulnerable to idiocy because there is so little content to their subject. Because philosophy does not discover new facts as the natural sciences do, philosophy is really just about fashion. Idiocy indeed – but it is Palmer’s idiocy that is on display. He gives no evidence of knowing anything about philosophy, about its diversity of practices, it purposes, its value, its utter necessity. Indeed, we could see this book preview as a paradigmatic case of someone in a way philosophizing without realizing it and doing it poorly to boot.
But, as I said at the outset, the piece is all wrong because it is half right. What about the half that is not wrong? What can really be salvaged from this little screed?
Palmer, following Sherratt, is right that many German academics, including philosophers, were enamored (at least for a time) with views any sensible person now would find reprehensible. He is right to hope – even expect – that persons who devote themselves to the truth would not be taken in by such evil machinations.
Palmer writes the following:
This is why the relationship between the way a philosopher acts, and the doctrines he espouses, is so important. In the case of a physicist or a mathematician, there is little or no overlap between what is being studied and how a person should live. But in the case of philosophy, at least when the philosopher studies and teaches ethics, his ideas have obvious implications for personal conduct. Whether he lives according to the precepts he espouses seems to me a legitimate test of whether there is any merit in his views. A philosopher’s actions should not contradict his teaching. If they do, it suggests that he does not really believe what he says – and if he doesn’t, then why should we?
Aristotle – a philosopher, I should note – said in his Nicomachean Ethics that (and I am paraphrasing) the point of studying ethics is not to know about the good. The point is to be good. So I want to agree whole-heartedly with Palmer here. To do so, I have to make a distinction between philosophy and philosophers, on the one hand, and academic philosophy as it has become on the other. Philosophy has been institutionalized, and for similar reasons as when we institutionalize certain people when we cannot understand them: we find them a bit disagreeable, discomforting, and even dangerous. So we discipline them, make them compliant, subject them to measures and assessments that are alien to their own nature. So there is no end to the usual academic, institutional practices, the petty politics, the back-biting, social climbing, posing in academic philosophy. If you have spent any time at all around academia, you know just what I’m talking about.
And we try to make philosophy itself something domesticated. We expect it to efficiently produce findings, marketable results, and job skills. We expect it to produce knowledge, and any attempts at fostering wisdom (which is wild, undisciplined, free) are frowned upon as something like idiosyncratic indoctrination.
It is important to note that though there is this widespread tendency, not all academics, not all philosophers working in academia, are determined by this tendency. As for me, although I work in academia, I think philosophy is more like a way of living a human life than it is like an academic subject such as chemistry or accounting (and I am certainly not alone in this, although those of like mind are in a minority, I am afraid). Thus I agree that how you “walk” is your “talk” as a philosopher. This may not be what the American Philosophical Association means by what they call “philosophy.” It may not be what gets you tenure in an academic “philosophy” department. But it is, I have rich historical evidence for saying, what philosophy really is and should be. So Palmer’s intuition on this point is important and right. It does not follow from his own thinking, however, since he thinks philosophy just is what academic philosophers do. How could “academic fashion” have anything to do with how one ought to live? If there is “no content” to philosophy, how would one read off of that how one ought to live (especially such that they are not to become enamored with Nazism, for example)? On the contrary, it is only because philosophy is about something, something profound and timeless, that it can be directing of a good human life. If Palmer wants to lay some charges against academic philosophy (insofar as it is academic), okay. But to level them against philosophy is misguided.
So what was it that attracted some German academic philosophers to Nazism? I am sure that is a complicated question, and I will assume that Sherratt will address those complications in her forthcoming book. But I will hazard a guess. I think the root of the problem can be found in a certain understanding of two philosophical ideas: principle and history. Western philosophers have tended to look for principles, archai, “first things,” things that abide through the swirling changes of appearance of the world around us. These eternal and unchanging things are considered, from their Greek beginnings (archai), to be the true, good, and beautiful things. But this world in which we live our daily lives tends to be considered, by comparison, to be “fallen,” “mere,” “imperfect,” “less.” The philosopher strives to push through the world of appearance and mere opinion to get to the timeless truth of things, of reality itself. This yearning is not the province of philosophy alone, but is also at the heart of what we now call the natural sciences. The weather changes all around us, but what are the unchanging principles of that change? If we didn’t think there were such principles, we would never bother with meteorology. Philosophy in particular feels the value or worth of those principles as something good, true, and beautiful. We think if we find them, things will be better, come closer to the good itself.
History, as a philosophical idea, arrived much later on the intellectual scene, most centrally with Hegel, a German philosopher I will point out. What Palmer refers to as academic fashion might be seen here. Students learn what their teachers teach them. Students read what their teachers read. That’s how it goes. It would be unthinkable to have German philosophy students not study Kant and Hegel, even if to level significant criticisms against them, even if to attempt to “overcome” them. Even today, in any course of study in Western philosophy, no one gets away without becoming at least familiar with the giants of German philosophy, while most can get a Ph.D. without studying any philosophers who wrote in Spanish, Italian, or Russian, for instance, let alone non-Western thinkers (that’s a whole other discipline, of course). We have our boundaries, our fences. So German academics have Hegel in their blood. And so they have the concept of “history” in their blood. History, on Hegel’s view, is not merely “one damn thing after another,” as they say, but about a certain kind of unfolding of reality, of reality becoming more real, more perfect, more true. History, itself, is a principle on this view. Heidegger was not immune from this thought. Whatever his criticisms of the metaphysics of Kant and Hegel (and Nietzsche), he held to this view – rightly called a myth – that in the beginning (in principio), before “philosophy” (the scare-quotes conveying the birth of a discipline, an academy, the academic field of scholarly research, and the institutionalization that follows), thought saw the real truth, the real reality. But then it lost it. By the time we get to Plato and Aristotle it is already too late. Stephen Mulhall would call this one version of the “philosophical myth of the fall.” The point was to try again to think, to cast off “philosophy” and “metaphysics” and think.
So – and this is my guess, of course, and perhaps Sherratt’s book will give a better explanation – some (not all) academic thinkers in Germany, after the wretched disaster of World War I, working in an environment with long-standing anti-Semitic roots, were on the lookout for something on the horizon of Being, some lightning-flash, that would make thinking possible again. The genius of Heidegger was to elaborate this myth in profound ways, ways that are frankly incomprehensible to ordinary “civilians” like most of us. The Nazis quickly came to the conclusion that they didn’t want this guy around trying to be the intellectual leading light of their movement. They thought he was a kook (the most profound philosophers are often thought of as kooky – or worse – by the non-philosophical; and sometimes they actually are kooks, cranks, and unsavory characters). In other words, they (at least Heidegger) found something in Hitler because they had been wanting to find something. I suspect that some of these same academics that Palmer is trashing became disillusioned with Nazism soon enough – not the way Heidegger did, but because they saw it for what it was (they were not idiots, after all). Heidegger was, in a deep way, an idiot – not in the way we mean that word today but in its originary sense of being self-centered, disconnected from the polis in some way. Palmer is right about this in Heidegger’s particular case, although there is no necessity in this for any given philosopher. Questioning, which is central to philosophy, is always both “inside” and “outside” the polis. The questions derive from the polis, but to question is to not accept the answers of the polis in principle. The risk is to become, in the Greek sense, idiotic. But it is a risk, not a necessity. The question is whether there is a stay against idiocy. Hegel at the lecturer’s podium thought that he, himself, was the very embodiment of Absolute Spirit. Hard to imagine, though, Aristotle thinking such a thing about himself.
Palmer concludes his preview of Sherratt’s book:
It is a sobering and disturbing tale, and a reminder that intelligence and a lifelong devotion to “truth” is no protection whatever against believing that the most brutal, stupid, dangerous and unethical ideology is the greatest achievement of mankind.
The key here is to note the scarequotes around “truth.” If what you are devoted to is not truth but a counterfeit, you will run aground sooner or later, and the results will likely be disastrous. But what is the point Palmer is trying to make here? That a thinker can go wrong or that a thinker will go wrong? Is the devotion, itself, to seeking the truth wrong or unethical or unacceptably dangerous? Does Palmer think he, himself, is infallible? If so, is that due to a lucky accident of his birth or does he think there is a way to avoid delusion? A way, for instance, that Heidegger could have avoided his delusion? What would such a way be? How about: a devotion to seeking the truth, indeed, to seeking wisdom out of a pure (i.e, not self-serving, not fashionista, not idiotic) love of wisdom? How about genuine philosophy? But do we know what that is?
In sum, here’s what set me off about Palmer’s preview of this book. He thinks, sitting where he’s sitting now, that had he been sitting in Nazi Germany during the rise of Hitler he would have been sure that no one should have found anything attractive about National Socialism at any time. That just seems smug and self-righteous. He implies, if he does not say it outright, that philosophy is to blame for the blindness of German philosophers, that philosophy made these people unethical or immoral. And that’s plain stupid. The whole thing smacks of anti-intellectualism, of know-nothingness, even as it makes gestures to something noble about philosophy, and is thus incoherent. He gives no evidence of knowing what that nobility is.
Maybe it’s like this: Intellectuals, especially philosophers, who ask questions for a living, feel at liberty to play around with dangerous ideas. The trouble is that because they can entertain dangerous or wrong ideas, they sometimes come to hold those ideas. What would be the lesson? Would it be that to avoid this danger, do not entertain any ideas that might be dangerous? Would it be: Don’t ask any questions not sanctioned by popular opinion? Or – since Hitler and his crew had some degree of popular backing – don’t ask any ideas that are sanctioned by popular opinion? There’s just no take-away here.
The fact is that some (but not all) academics (including philosophers) were (at least for some amount of time) persuaded that Hitler and his party offered something desirable for Germany (and for the academy and perhaps for philosophers and perhaps even for philosophy). The fact is that those who did were wrong, very wrong, about all of it. Nazism was bad for Germany, bad for the university, bad for philosophy, not to mention catastrophic for Jews (and many other victims of the “final solution”).
And perhaps that’s it: The source of the attraction for some German philosophers was the promise of a “final solution” for philosophy. It ended badly. Maybe the lesson is to not seek a final solution, not in politics, or in ethics, or in philosophy. Every time someone goes on a quest to settle things once and for all, evil follows.
The trouble, in my view, with some (not all) academic philosophy is with the academic part. I am not against academies or institutions. How could I be? They are necessary for human existence. Even as I have anarchist tendencies, I still insist that institutions are inevitable and necessary. But we must be constantly vigilant about them. The trouble comes when the dialectic (I don’t mean this in any specific technical sense) between us and our institutions breaks down, when we forget that the institutions are us and think of them as other-than-us, and then think of ourselves as being at the service of them. Yes, of course, we shape institutions and institutions shape us. There is no getting around that. But there is always a risk, a dangerous tendency, to let the institutional practices take over, to let the processes of normalization and regimentation run roughshod over our freedom.
As Diotima taught Socrates, lovers love what they do not have. Philosophers love wisdom, implying that they do not have it but deeply desire it. Expecting philosopher to be wise, as Palmer does, is a mistake. Philosophers thinking themselves wise can lead to disaster. Hitler was such a “philosopher.” He believed he knew how it was best to be. He had a “sophisticated” ethical viewpoint (which is obviously vulgar and deranged from standpoint of a simple ethical position like love your neighbor, indeed, love your enemies).
Institutions, such as universities, are embodied answers to philosophers’ questions: What is truth? What is knowledge? How do we learn? What is education for? Those institutions harden as we come to believe we know our answers are the truth. And then they become oppressive obstacles to that in the name of which they developed in the first place. So I anticipate that in reading Sherratt’s book that we might all find that it is not philosophy that by nature loves the swastika. I think there is something potentially in all of us that loves the swastika, that loves a final solution, that wants to achieve closure. Call it a death-drive. I, myself, confessed above that I harbor a wish that I could be rid of, once and for all, those views that I find abhorrent. This wish, this drive, mercifully does not always lead to Auschwitz, but it regularly leads to myopia, narrow-mindedness, reaction, suppression, oppression, or mindless prejudice. We must all be on guard. What I mean by real philosophy, in part, is this: always being on guard.