Archive for category The University

Talking to Students

It happened again on Monday. We were talking in class about the importance of the body in Christian theology — not in any rigorous way, but I was pointing out that many Christians think that when you die you go to heaven and stay there forever. But then what about the Creed: “We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come”? If the body is the principle of individuation, then you will need a body (perhaps a “glorified” body) in order to be you. According to Christian tradition, dying and going to heaven is not the end of the story.

Anyway, prior to this discussion students were giving their opinions as to what happens after you die. Some said that you will come back in another body, perhaps even as an animal. Some thought you would come back, but only as some other human being. But, as usual, most thought when you die (if you’re good) you go to heaven forever. By the way, only a few thought some other people (bad people) would go to hell forever.

Then a couple of students asked me what I thought about it. As usual, I punted. I said, “Who cares what I think? I’m just some guy.” They insisted. I replied that I have a certain power relation to them, and that if I were to give my views either (a.) students would believe it was true because it was my view; (b.) students would not believe it, but would regurgitate it on the test in the hopes of getting a better grade by appearing to believe what I believe; (c.) students would just fixate on my beliefs to the detriment of our learning the views of some really important thinkers. One student, however, asked, “Well how about (d.), simple curiosity?”

All this brought to mind a piece in Chronicle of Higher Education by my good friend, Paul Sracic, entitled, “Teach Only What You Know,” (10/11/2007). Sracic, a professor and Chair of the department of political science at Youngstown State University, was asked during one of his government classes whom he intended to vote for in the presidential election. Sracic refused to answer. Indeed, he took the fact that his students did not have any idea who he supported to be a sign that he was doing his job well. He said the college catalogue description of the course didn’t say anything about his sharing his political views, and, besides, he was no more qualified to answer that question (as an academic matter) than anyone else in any other department. He argued that in cases where knowledge (as opposed to opinion) was available, then we ought to consult the person(s) holding that expertise. But in cases where such knowledge is lacking, let everyone decide for himself. No one is an expert.

When we are all equally ignorant, we might as well vote.

His piece elicited a great deal of commentary and criticism. While many applauded his professionalism, many others took him to task for cheating his students of something they came to college particularly to get: the informed views of teachers and scholars who’ve done some real legwork in the questions that we all face. Students, the critics argued, are not sheep, and they will not mindlessly ape their teachers. Why not tell them your views? They asked.

The more intense criticism tried to make analogies: What if they asked you your view of torture? Would you simply coyly demure? Is there not a moral imperative attached to the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom? And would it not be a moral failure to refrain from making moral judgments (no matter how unpopular).?

I may have mentioned that I am no fan of the comments section of websites. However, back in the day I felt compelled to toss in my two-cents’ worth on the matter. I have reproduced those comments here, but the gist is that, while I am sympathetic to Sracic’s concerns, the university – especially in the humanities – has lost its way in exploring the great questions of existential and spiritual concern in its obsession with “professionalism.” Being a professional is important, of course, but can we professors not put ourselves as well as our learning into our work?

So today, I had to decide what to say – if anything – to my students who I put off on Monday. I was not sure what I was going to do even up to the point I opened my mouth to begin the class. But I told them about Paul, about my response, and how I did not think I was consistent with my otherwise deeply held views. I then asked them if they would like me to share my opinions about such things as life after death and other questions about which no one has any expertise – certainly not I.

For the most part, they said yes they would. One student preferred that I did not because he had had an experience with another prof who always gave his (or her?) personal view, and then students who got bad scores on papers chalked it up to their disagreement with the prof. Another student pointed out that, in effect, they trust me not to be like that. I think I can say that they really can trust me on that point.

So I told them what I think. And now, with the same trepidation, I will tell you, dear reader: What I think is both (a.) that when you die, you’re dead and (b.) that Kellie (my wife) and I will be together somehow forever and ever, that we are far more connected than physics can explain or comprehend. I have no reason to think people come back. I believe that each and every human that has ever lived is unique, a singularity as Caputo would say, and when we die the world – the cosmos – loses something. I don’t keep a scorecard for beliefs vs. knowledge. I know I don’t know what happens after death. The question for me is whether the answer to that question matters now, in this life, and if so, how? But, for what it’s worth (and it’s not much), I told them (and now you) what I think.

They asked me my religion. I told them: “Heinz 57 Varieties.” They asked me if I go to church. I told them I go to brunch or go birding. They asked my why I had trouble with the RC church. I told them I felt abandoned when I went through a crisis. They asked me if I am an atheist. I told them that I am definitely not, but that I usually act like one. They asked me a bunch of questions. I do not mean to say that anyone was truly prying, and I did not in any way “over-share,” as they say. But for a few minutes I did feel unusually vulnerable.

I found it was a bit difficult for me at times. Maybe that’s because I hide behind my persona too much. Maybe it is because I know that as today’s discussion was oriented, it was not the purpose of our class meeting. Maybe I was uncomfortable not knowing (and exhibiting that non-knowing). Maybe I didn’t like my own views, or didn’t like that I couldn’t articulate them well or explain them satisfactorily.

These kinds of questions, as you can easily see, are either personal questions (and not really part of the curriculum at all) or broadly philosophical questions that cannot be managed in soundbites. One student – one of my very good ones (in a whole class-full of very good ones) – noted that the questions raised today were “too big” and would be better discussed “over coffee.” She is right, of course. Good philosophical method dictates one should try to analyze the big questions into more manageable bites and certainly to give arguments for those views. I freely admitted I had no good arguments (although, maybe I have “arguments” of some sort…).

I will never be the guy who comes into class and wastes a lot of time talking about sports or my hobbies or spouting off my political views (I have a blog for that!). But I suppose if in the future I am asked for my opinions about such things as I usually refrain from addressing, I should consider answering if there is some way to tie it into what we’re doing (as I tried to do a couple of times even in today’s session). I think it might help deepen the trust relation that I am fortunate to have with my students. I had to trust them, or I would not have had that kind of conversation with them today.

Every class I collected a notecard from the students which includes their understanding of the key points of the day’s class and a question or two that arose for them. I read today’s notecards with particular attention. I would say that the overwhelming majority of students who offered their opinion of the day’s session as a whole indicated that it was a positive experience.

I am grateful to them, and I would not want to cheat them in any way.

Whoever is a teacher through and through takes all things seriously only in relation to his students – even himself.

[Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, section 63, trans. Walter Kaufmann]


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Reply to Sracic (2007)

[The following is a comment I made in October of 2007 in response to a piece written by my friend Paul Sracic (Youngstown State University). See this post for the context.]

Like most of us most of the time, Professor Sracic is partly right. He is certainly right in attending to an underlying scruple to teach his students with prudence and fairness. Full disclosure: I am a long-time friend of Sracic, I’ve observed his teaching, and Respondent “dah” [one of the commenters to his post] is wrong: Sracic is a very fine teacher, indeed, and I believe popular and well-respected by his students. If I understand Sracic’s position correctly, his intentions are noble. He wants to be careful to teach his subject to students in such a way as to inform them of the relevant information about his subject but also (and especially) to help hone his students’ critical thinking skills. He hopes to teach his students in such a way as to respect their autonomy and freedom in crafting their own lives. He does not want to cheat them.

Part of his commentary here is a response to reports that surface from time to time of professors rambling on about political views instead of teaching the subjects they are paid to teach. For instance, if my kid is trying to take a course in intermediate calculus, the instructor should not spend three-quarters of the time talking about, say, the merits or a Kucinich or Keyes administration. I’ll want my money back. That non-intermediate-calculus discussion could (and even should) be held over coffee after class–extracurricular discussions between faculty and students being a not insignificant element in a rich educational experience.

So Sracic is trying to do what he’s paid to do: teach a subject in which he has developed an expertise. Any hint that he might be violating his code of ethics strikes him as unacceptable.

But would he really be violating his code of ethics by answering his student’s question about his personal political views? I think the answer in the context of a course on American politics is: not necessarily. If he were to fail to teach about the structures and processes involved in American polity, and instead tried (emphasis on try..students aren’t sheep, and Sracic does not think they are, by the way) merely to sway his students to cast their vote in a certain way, then I would think that he did not perform his job well. If, on the other hand, he were to answer his student and provide his student with his reasons for supporting Kucinich or Keyes (or whomever), this could easily constitute a teachable moment–especially if he were to encourage his students to do the same. It would then be a manifestation of an element of the democratic process: debate and deliberation.

However, there might be good pedagogical reasons for not sharing a personal view. When I taught the history of philosophy, students would often ask me which philosopher we studied I thought was “right.” I would frequently (and flippantly) answer: “We’re not here to talk about me.” It is not that I do not have views on the question. It is not that I was (merely) being coy. For pedagogical reasons, I was trying not to make things too easy for my students, trying not to let them let their guard down concerning the rhetorical force of authority and expertise. Don’t misunderstand: both I and my students knew I knew more about the various philosophers than they did. They knew I was the expert and their hard-earned money was going to pay for my expertise. But, asking “which philosopher was right” is, in itself, especially at that stage of the learning process, the wrong question to take up. And I should mention that a refusal can often incite further curiosity, which of course is pedagogically very valuable.

So for at least one (and probably both) of these reasons–some version of a professional code of conduct and pedagogical strategy–Sracic may have been right to not answer the question. But then again, he could have easily answered it for the same reasons. Either way, a teacher senstive to both the ethics of his or her profession and the techniques and strategies for success can hardly be called “not a very good teacher.”

But there is a much larger question that haunts this discussion: What is the role of the humanities in the contemporary university?

I commend to readers Anthony T. Kronman’s new book, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. His analysis can shed light on Professor Sracic’s dilemma, along with that of his critics: Does the humanities professor have the authority to teach about profound questions that do not admit of “objective” answers? Sracic might feel that he does not. Those who do often face as much (or more) criticism as some of Sracic’s respondents have leveled at him. Why is this?

Kronman, in a Boston Globe piece, writes,

Over the past century and a half, our top universities have embraced a research-driven ideal that has squeezed the question of life’s meaning from the college curriculum, limiting the range of questions teachers feel they have the right and authority to teach. And in the process it has badly weakened the humanities, the disciplines with the oldest and deepest connection to this question, leaving them directionless and vulnerable to being hijacked for political ends.

But the encouraging news is that there is, today, a growing hunger among students to explore these topics. As questions of spiritual urgency – abortion, creationism, the destruction of the environment – move to the center of debate in our society, America’s colleges and universities have a real opportunity to give students the tools to discuss them at a meaningful level.

What our society now desperately needs is what it once had: An alternative approach to a college education that takes these matters seriously without pretending to answer them in a doctrinaire way.”

The question of who should be president is important. The answer will involve people’s understanding of the nature of government and politics, which in turn involves an understanding of the meaning and purpose of life. The issues raised by Sracic’s editorial and the discussion it has spurred are critically important for both the university and society.

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Getting High for Higher Education | Talking Philosophy

Now here’s an idea!

Getting High for Higher Education | Talking Philosophy.

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The meaning of enemies for philosophy

…a philosopher is bound to make enemies because of his ideas, or else we can say he isn’t a proper philosopher at all.

I used to work for an organization that promoted the “constructive engagement of science and religion.” The trouble with that mission, though, is that it is milquetoast. It tried to show that everyone on both sides has a point and that all should be taken, if not totally seriously, then at least with a modicum of respect. But who can disagree with a mission that reduces to “don’t be so judgmental”? The problem for that organization was that, as I always used to say, “we didn’t have any interesting enemies.” If you are saying something that absolutely no one would find objectionable, then you are not saying anything of interest at all.

Same goes with philosophy. But there are other reasons a thinker might gain enemies: jealousy, pettiness, stupidity, posing, and so on. Slavoj Žižek attracts both kinds of enemies, the ones who read and understand his work yet do not agree with his ideas and the ones who don’t bother to read his work yet feel compelled to not like him anyway. (Jacques Derrida had plenty of the latter.)

Read this piece concerning Slavoj Žižek and one of his enemies to see what I mean.


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Hello Kitty Studies

Yes, there is now the discipline of Hello Kitty Studies!

So maybe I was too hasty (see post below).

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The University is too liberal. Whaa, whaa….

There is so much glaringly wrong with this one does not know where to begin. But I will try here: the complainers call themselves “conservatives” which tends to mean, for this bunch, “libertarian,” which tends to mean unquestioning capitalist shills. Now why oh why would such persons complain that “universities have gotten less intellectual and more consumer-oriented,” and “Nowadays it’s the consumer who’s king. The consumer will tell the administration what it wants to learn”? Isn’t that a good thing – indeed, the only good thing – (to such people)? Why oh why would such people complain that “What parents seem to want is to have their kids’ credentials so they can get a job, but they don’t notice or refuse to notice that they’re paying a fortune for a really inferior product which does not educate their kids at all.”? Isn’t it the economy, stupid? (Yes, I quoted the neoliberal Clinton mantra.) Why oh why would such people fret that “the university is on the brink of self-destruction.” Isn’t creative destruction the engine of the economy? Why should it not apply to the university? Isn’t a “hacked” education a good thing?

It is the capitalist corporatization of the university that has caused that about which such people complain, not left-wing ideology (if there really were any such thing anymore). They, themselves, are responsible.

Okay, I won’t paint with the broad brushstrokes as such people do (no one is well-read, no one thinks about this matter), but I will speak to my teaching experience in the past number of years: students don’t care about “identity politics” and “gender studies” for the most part. They care about getting a job. That’s what it is all about. There is much less intellectual curiosity these days, it seems – at least in that kind of direction. The essay in question here calls race, gender, and class “arbitrary categories.” I think it seems so to my students.

If a good neoliberal education is what these authors want for our students, then I think they have little to worry about.

But I don’t think that’s all they want. They want to have their cake and eat it, too. They want a capitalist corporatist economy and the institutions to support it, but then complain when it turns education into another consumer-oriented commodity. They want students to read the classics, but their cherished system teaches students that the classics don’t pay. The want students to pursue history and philosophy, but don’t want students to actually ask questions (philosophy) about how the world has come to be as it is (history).

And speaking of history, there once was a kind of conservatism that worried a lot about capitalism, that it would ruin the diversity and integrity of communal life. Of course, that worry also led to reaction – and none of us wants to see that again. You can start to see the intricacy of the problem (ignored by those profiled in this piece).

They want to mock “fat studies” (a research project that has not come to any of the campuses I am familiar with). But fat costs money. Fat contributes to self-image and ideas of what matters, which has economic consequences. But God-forbid anyone studies it.

Okay, should we study fat instead of U.S. history and the Great Conversation of world philosophy? Well, if we had learned a bit more history in primary and secondary education…. Look, it is easy to tease arcane research projects (I just saw one in the paper the other day that proved – once and for all, I guess – that men will look over a woman’s body when they first engage in conversation. I would never have guessed). I probably want 1/2 of what these whiners want…but I’m willing to upend the other half that actually results in our not getting the first half we both want (or think we want – bet they didn’t waste time on trivial, bourgeois questions in Soviet universities). But I don’t think you can have it both ways.

John Leo says, “We think that there’s a lot wrong with colleges, and it goes across the board.” Who doesn’t think that? I don’t think you could find a single person in any way connected with higher education who would disagree. The trouble is finding a way to determine the root cause or causes of the troubles without lapsing into raw ideology and propaganda or reaction. As the author of this piece notes, “it’s easy to make fun of the American university or dismiss it as no longer necessary. Engaging with its problems, on the other hand, takes tenacity, conviction, and a resistance to cynicism. Most importantly, you have to believe the university offers something worth saving.” That will take some thought and questioning, not just bandwagon sloganeering.


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Philosophy and Christianity in the Marketplace

Philosophy was never supposed to be a narrow discipline, fortified from the argumentative swells of the agora by specialization and merely professional ambitions. That was for the Sophists whom Socrates [railed] against. Philosophy was supposed to serve the polis, to educate and embolden its young, to raise up leaders. Whether one likes their preconceived conclusions or not, today it is evangelical Christians, with William Lane Craig in the lead, who are doing so better than just about anyone else.


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This is Water

Nine minutes and twenty-three seconds of wisdom, for your consideration….

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What’s the real outcome of “learning outcomes”?

Frank Furedi is right:

…learning outcomes are not just another banal instrument deployed to monitor and quantify the achievements of students. The very purpose of this organisational instrument is to accomplish a shift in emphasis from learning to outcomes. This is a technique through which a utilitarian ethos to academic life serves to diminish what would otherwise be an open-ended experience for student and teacher alike. Those who advocate learning outcomes do so expressly with the aim of abolishing such experiences….

And not just a shift in emphasis, but a shift in the fundamental structure of academic institutions. Here’s the recipe (for disaster): Add “learning outcomes” mentality to MOOCs, sprinkle with a generous helping of self-serving misunderstanding of revolutionary education theorists such as Ivan Illich, deploy in a bottom-line obsessed corporate structure, and you can kiss the idea of a “teacher” goodbye. SIRI will be able to to it all at a fraction of the price of a human teacher!

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Does philosophy love the swastika?

Don’t you hate it when you read an article that is half right and therefore all wrong.

An example?

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.

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