Kant and “giving back”

Here is a common scenario: A successful person makes a donation to a worthy cause but downplays any praise by saying “I’m only giving back.”

Like many others, I am troubled by the “giving back” phrase when I hear it.

The usual gentle rejoinder is to point out that the phrase assumes that the giver has taken something from others in the first place — he’s borrowed or stolen something and in “giving back” is merely restoring it to its rightful owners. That zero-sum assumption is usually untrue: most donors have earned what they have. So the phrase “giving back” contains within it an injustice: a false accusation.

Yet there is more to it: the phrase also denies the benevolence of the giver. If you are only giving back what is rightfully someone else’s, then you do not deserve any special praise for your action. Your benevolence need not be acknowledged or honored.

So the phrase really is a double injustice: it implies that you do not deserve what you have and it denies you any credit you deserve for your benevolent act. (Or to put it abstractly: It is the imputation of an undeserved negative and the denial of a deserved positive.)

So far so bad.

But it gets worse. Let me now pin the blame for this on He Who Is Almost Always At Fault When Something Fishy Is Going On Philosophically.

I turn to Immanuel Kant.


Looking through Kant’s Lectures on Ethics again, I came to one of the later sections entitled “Duties to Others.” (Let’s set aside for now the perplexing question of why, during spring break, I find myself re-reading Professor Kant’s 1775-1780 lectures on ethics and editing this post.)

In this section Kant employs his standard distinction between inclinations and duties, arguing that actions done from inclination have no moral worth while actions done from duty do. So if we apply this to acts of charity, charity done out of benevolence has no moral significance for Kant, while charity done out of duty does.

But, Kant asks, on what is the duty to be charitable based? Why ought we be charitable, whether we want to or not?

Kant’s answer is that to give charity to the poor is to make good on past injustices. Here is the key quotation: in giving to a person in need of charity, the giver “makes restitution for an injustice of which he is quite unconscious; though unconscious of it only because he does not properly examine his position. Although we may be entirely within our rights, according to the laws of the land and the rules of our social structure, we may nevertheless be participating in general injustice, and in giving to an unfortunate man we do not give him a gratuity but only help to return to his that of which the general injustice of our system has deprived him. For if none of us drew to himself a greater share of the world’s wealth than his neighbor, there would be no rich or poor. Even charity therefore is an act of duty imposed upon us by the rights of others and the debt we owe to them” (p. 194).

Here we have the first part of the “giving back” claim made explicit: the zero-sum assumption and the consequent implication that one is merely returning something one has borrowed or stolen.

On the very next page, Kant makes explicit the second assumption of “giving back”: “A man ought not to be flattered for his acts of charity lest his heart swell with generosity and desire to make benevolence the sole rule of his conduct” (p. 195).

To my knowledge, Kant is the first to argue that charity is a matter of justice — compensatory justice, to be precise. He denies that charity is properly a matter of benevolence or of a duty to help the poor meet their needs, as previous thinkers had argued.

(And if charity is a matter of justice, then there are implications for the role of the state, given that the state is an arbiter and enforcer of justice. In other words, Kant’s twist on the ethics of charity has consequences for modern political philosophy and the welfare state.)

I am in favor of rationally benevolent giving but against “giving back.”

And an intellectual history question: Is Kant original in arguing charity to be a matter of justice?

[Updating a post first published here.]

Stoic Week 2015

[Stoic Week 2015 is from November 2 to 8. In honor of that, here is a revisiting of an earlier post.]

I occasionally teach Epictetus (55-135 CE) or Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE) in my courses. So to prepare for Stoic Week, here are some sample quotations:

epictetus-webEpictetus on philosophy: “If you have an earnest desire toward philosophy, prepare yourself from the very first to have the multitude laugh and sneer.” (Enchiridion, XXII)

On what can be controlled: “There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power. Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and, in one word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office, and, in one word, whatever are not properly our own affairs.” (I)

On controlling one’s mind: “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of things.” (V) Also: “As in walking you take care not to tread upon a nail, or turn your foot, so likewise take care not to hurt the ruling faculty of your mind.” (XXXVIII)

Including one’s thoughts on mortality: “If you wish your children and your wife and your friends to live forever, you are foolish, for you wish things to be in your power which are not so, and what belongs to others to be your own. So likewise, if you wish your servant to be without fault, you are foolish, for you wish vice not to be vice but something else.” (XIV)

On worrying about the opinions of others: “If a person had delivered up your body to some passer-by, you would certainly be angry. And do you feel no shame in delivering up your own mind to any reviler, to be disconcerted and confounded?” (XXVIII)

Marcus Aurelius on Man:

* “A little flesh, a little breath, and a Reason to rule all — that is myself.” (Meditations, 2,2)

marcus_aurelius_louvre1* “In the life of man, his time is but a moment, his being an incessant flux, his senses a dim rushlight, his body a prey of worms, his soul an unquiet eddy, his fortune dark, and his fame doubtful.” (2,17)

* “‘A poor soul burdened with a corpse,’ Epictetus calls you.” (4,41)

* “How small a fraction of all the measureless infinity of time is allotted to each one of us; an instant, and it vanishes into eternity. How puny, too, is your portion of the world’s substance; how puny too, is your portion of all the world’s substance; how insignificant your share of all the world’s soul; on how minute a speck of the whole earth do you creep. As you ponder these things, make up your mind that nothing is of any import save to do what your own nature directs, and to bear what the world’s Nature sends you.” (12,32)

Aurelius on self-mastery: “No one can stop you living according to the laws of your own personal nature, and nothing can happen to you against the laws of the World-Nature.” (6,58)

And on predestination: “Whatever may happen to you was prepared for you in advance from the beginning of time.” (10,5)

One more from Epictetus, quoting Cleanthes on our acceptance or not of destiny:
“Conduct me, Zeus, and thou, O Destiny,
Wherever your decrees have fixed my lot.
I follow cheerfully; and, did I not,
Wicked and wretched, I must follow still.”

Both Enchiridion and Meditations are well worth reading.

(My reading of Dominique Francon in The Fountainhead is that she’s a Stoic in her value philosophy; that is, she is trying to achieve apathia in a morally valueless world. Another compelling Stoic in contemporary literature is Conrad Hensley in Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full.)

This graphic fits:

Socrates in jail — escape or not?

[This week in my Introduction to Philosophy course, we are reading Crito and discussing whether Socrates should escape or accept his death sentence. Here is a revisiting of an earlier post.]

Socrates’ two bad arguments for not escaping

Socrates-three-quartersIn the Crito, Socrates is in prison awaiting execution for impiety and corrupting the youth. His impiety was judged to be a matter of questioning and possibly disbelieving the traditional gods, and his corrupting the youth was a matter of his teaching them to do the same.

Crito arrives at the prison having arranged an escape opportunity for Socrates, and they proceed to debate whether it would be just for Socrates to escape.

Socrates argues that while the verdict was wrong, it was nonetheless reached through legitimate procedures — the trial was conducted according to the established rules, he had a chance to make his case, and the voting was done by citizens.

Thus we have to choose whether content justice (getting the right result) or procedural justice (following the right procedures) is more important.

Socrates-LouvreSocrates argues the latter (50b-c), while I argue the former: The most important goal in justice is achieving actual justice; secondarily we establish procedures that we think will achieve actual justice; when those procedures fail to do so, we should alter or override the procedures.

Socrates also points out that, additionally, we have to choose whether the social peace the laws enable is more important than the life of an innocent man (50c). Socrates argues the former, while I argue the latter: we form social groups for the advancement of the interests of the individuals involved, and when the social group makes a mistake it is the social that should take the hit, not the innocent individual. On this proto collective-versus-individual issue, Socrates is more collectivist while I’m individualist.

In support of his position, Socrates makes a strongly paternalistic claim at 50d-51d, arguing that since the laws enabled his father to marry his mother, the laws are as much his parents as they are. He also points out that the laws commanded his parents to educate him. Consequently, he is both the “offspring and slave” of the laws (50e) and owes them the same unconditional obedience that children owe their parents and slaves owe their masters (51b).

Also in support, Socrates makes an early social-contract style claim at 51d-52a, arguing that when he reached the age of majority, he chose voluntarily to stay and live in Athens and that he did so knowing how justice was administered there. He therefore made an at-least implicit contract with Athens to do what the laws say.

david-the-death-of-socrates-133x100Both arguments support the same ultimate conclusion: In this case the laws are ordering him to die, so he is obligated to obey the order and die. So it is on to the Phaedo and the death scene.

I admire Socrates for his commitment to reason, his courage, and his integrity in acting on his principles, but I disagree with his principles.

We have four issues at hand:

1. Procedural justice or content justice?
2. Collective security or individual life?
3. Legal paternalism or the law as servant?
4. What are the terms of the implicit social compact?

For this post let me just make two quick points about issue 4, which I think is the most interesting one, and leave the rest for follow-up discussion.

socrates-lysippus-100x121A. I think Socrates’ argument in issue 4 contradicts his position in issue 3. In issue 3 he argues that he’s the slave of the laws and owes them unconditional obedience, implying that he has no choice at all in the matter. In issue 4, he argues that he made a decision to stay when he could have left, implying that he was a free agent with a choice in the matter.

Is there a contradiction? If so, why? I don’t think Socrates and/or Plato were too stupid not to have noticed it. So is it a matter of making whatever arguments will appeal to the likely different audiences — the slave/child argument for the more traditionally inclined and the social compact argument for the more modern? And if the arguments being made are driven by such rhetorical considerations, what does this imply for the claim at Socrates’ trial that he was a sophist, given that sophistic strategy is to make whatever argument will work for the audience(s) at hand.

B. If one accepts the premise of the social compact as Socrates lays it out, there’s still the question of the other side of the compact. Citizens may have obligations to the law, but the law in turn has obligations to the citizens. If the law fails to fulfill its obligations, e.g., by threatening to kill an innocent citizen, does this not mean that the law has broken the agreement? And if the agreement is broken by one party, is the other party not then released from its obligations to uphold its side of the agreement? Thus Socrates, an actually-innocent man, is free to escape an injustice, if he so chooses.

Feel welcome to follow up in the comments.


Updating the Philosophy’s Longest Sentences competition

More on philosophers’ mind-numbingly long sentences. My initial post with my top candidates is here.

Kazuma Kitamura sends in a new contender — a 175 word plea from Chapter One of John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women:

mill“If the authority of men over women, when first established, had been the result of a conscientious comparison between different modes of constituting the government of society; if, after trying various other modes of social organisation — the government of women over men, equality between the two, and such mixed and divided modes of government as might be invented — it had been decided, on the testimony of experience, that the mode in which women are wholly under the rule of men, having no share at all in public concerns, and each in private being under the legal obligation of obedience to the man with whom she has associated her destiny, was the arrangement most conducive to the happiness and well-being of both; its general adoption might then be fairly thought to be some evidence that, at the time when it was adopted, it was the best: though even then the considerations which recommended it may, like so many other primeval social facts of the greatest importance, have subsequently, in the course of ages, ceased to exist.”

Good find, Kazuma!

So updating our ongoing contest results: Kierkegaard is still in first place, followed by Aristotle and Locke, but Mill pushes Kant into sixth place and Bentham into seventh.

kierkegaard1. Kierkegaard: 330 words.
2. Locke: 309 words.
3. Aristotle: 188 words.
4. Mill 179 words. (Also: 161 words.)
5. Mill 175 words.
6. Kant: 174 words. (Also: 163 words.)
7. Bentham: 164 words.

The real father of modern philosophy — Bacon versus Descartes

[At the beginning of the new academic year, a re-visiting of the beginnings of modern philosophy.]

I vote for Francis Bacon.

descartes-50x63 The standard answer gives the honor to René Descartes.

Descartes’s claim to the title is based primarily on his epistemology — specifically his method of doubt. The method of doubt is both a challenge to previous, more authoritarian epistemologies and a re-invigoration of a skepticism that exercises philosophers to this day.

Bacon’s reputation is also based in epistemology — his re-introduction and expansion of inductive methods. His empiricism is also a challenge to authoritarian epistemologies and grounds much of the scientific method used by investigators to this day.

How do we decide matters such as who should be considered the founder or father of modern philosophy? Let me propose four criteria.

1. Influence on academic philosophy. Descartes’s skeptical challenges have generated a huge literature in academic philosophy. Yet a huge literature has also been generated developing empirical methods in philosophy of science along lines established by Bacon. My call: a tie between Descartes and Bacon, absent a quantitative measure of the literature.

2. Influence on philosophy as used by all thinkers. Baconian epistemology has been internalized by most modern intellectuals (especially in the sciences and social sciences) and is part of their normal professional practice, and the more sophisticated inductive methods are explicitly used as guiding principles. The hardcore Cartesian skeptical challenges are rarely used outside academic philosophical discussions. My call: Bacon.

3. The positive and the negative. Descartes’s legacy is essentially negative. He digs philosophy into a skeptical hole from which many haven’t escaped. Bacon’s legacy is essentially positive. He provides tools many have used to develop new knowledge. Clearly there is still much truth to C. P. Snow’s “two cultures” thesis, in which much of the humanities is skeptical and pessimistic while much of the sciences is progressive and optimistic. My call: Absent a quantitative measure of the literature, a tie between Descartes and Bacon.

4. Chronology. Bacon’s key works were published in the first quarter of the 17th century: The Proficience and Advancement of Learning (1605), The Wisdom of the Ancients (1619), Novum Organum (1620), and The New Atlantis (1626). Descartes’s key works were written in the second quarter of the 17th century, and some were not published until the third quarter: Rules for the Direction of the Mind (1628; published posthumously in 1684), Discourse on Method (1637), Meditations on First Philosophy (written in 1641, published in 1647), and Principles of Philosophy (1644). My call: Bacon.

So by simple philosophy math, Bacon wins by two.

Before we revise the textbooks, let me ask: Are there other criteria we should consider?

The Birth of Philosophy — Thales and Homer

[At the beginning of the new academic year, a re-visiting of the beginnings of philosophy.]

The standard claim is that philosophy begins with Thales.

When I teach this to my students, it’s a hard sell, for here are the founding texts in philosophy — ascribed to Thales by Aristotle:

thales-bust-50x60“The first principle and basic nature of all things is water.”


“All things are full of gods.”

You can imagine how impressed my students are.

Clearly, some interpretation is necessary. Why do historians of philosophy get worked up over these lines?

To see their significance, let’s set a context by going back to the worldview of the awesomely great Homer. So brush up on The Iliad, which I want to use as our pre-philosophy-worldview contrast object.

Homer’s World: The Death of Hector

homer_british_museum-100x126Homer is thought to have lived 800s-700s BCE, a century or two before Thales (born around 624 BCE). Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey are magnificent expressions of archaic Greek culture and of incalculable importance to the Greek way of thinking about human life and its place in the universe.

I want to focus on one major event in The Iliad to illustrate a pre-philosophical, yet sophisticated, view of reality.

Why did Hector die?

Continue reading The Birth of Philosophy — Thales and Homer

Piotr Kostyło’s review of *Nietzsche and the Nazis*

P.Kostylo (2)Professor Piotr Kostyło of Casimir the Great University in Bydgoszcz, Poland, published a review of Nietzsche and the Nazis. The text of the review follows:

Do We Know What We Advocate?
Stephen Hicks’s Defence of Individualism

The forty-five years of communism in Poland (1944-1989) were marked by the government reminding society of the atrocities committed during World War II by the Nazis. The patriotic attitudes of citizens were formed on the basis of overt hostility to the Germans, who were not only held responsible for Nazi war crimes, but also presented as a source of constant military threat. As Poles, we were told that we had to defend ourselves against this threat, against a new war. And since we were too weak to defend ourselves, we had to ask the great Soviet people for help. In this way, the Communists justified the presence of Soviet troops on Polish territory and, more broadly, the total political and economic subordination of Poland to the interests of the Soviet Union. The Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks and the Baltic nations heard analogous justifications. The arguments were thoroughly cynical, since democratizing Germany was not a threat to anyone at the time, and no central European nation ever asked the Soviet Union for any help of this kind. Frightening central European societies after 1945 with allegedly resurgent Nazism in Germany was one of the key tools to keep them in a state of bondage and submission to the Soviet Union. The order which was formed after the Second World War in Europe and beyond was also a result of the disaster caused in the 1930s by the Nazis. The end of the Second World War in 1945, which from the perspective of citizens of the United States and Western Europe meant an end to totalitarianism and a return to the idea of freedom, was interpreted differently by the majority of citizens in Central and Eastern Europe. For them, the end of the war meant the replacement of one oppressor, Nazism, by another, communism. I am writing these words in the introduction to this text in order to emphasize the complexity of the issues that I am going to deal with below. The madness of enemies of freedom does not end with their death, but it lasts in time and affects future generations of peoples and nations, whose only crime was that they found themselves on the path of this madness.    


The reference point for my analysis is the book by Stephen Hicks, Nietzsche and the Nazis: A Personal View. It was published in Polish on the initiative of Dr. Przemysław Zientkowski by Martin Fuhrmann Chojnice Foundation in 2014. Hicks is an American philosopher specializing in ethical and educational issues, currently employed at Rockford University, Illinois. Owing to translations of his books, he is a scholar recognized in many European countries, as well as in both Americas. He promotes his ideas also by running an interesting blog http://www.stephenhicks.org/. The book Nietzsche and the Nazis: A Personal View was published in the USA in 2010, and a two-hour documentary on this subject recorded with the author’s participation in 2006, and then distributed on DVD, became the basis for the development of the text. Thus, the publication of the book in Poland should be greeted with great satisfaction. It raises important issues, often cited in the philosophical debate in our country, presenting at the same time the American perspective, so different from ours.

The book consists of nine parts, in which the author presents the various aspects of the relationship between National Socialism and Nietzsche. The message of the book, however, is much broader. It shows the interdependencies between political systems together with the ideologies underlying them and the great philosophical systems inspiring human minds and hearts over the centuries. The adoption of a particular system by governing forces is not without influence on their political agenda. Moreover, Hicks even claims that the impact of philosophy is of key importance here, even more important than the impact of other elements of culture such as the economy, education, religion and law. Thus, governing authorities and citizens are always in favour of something, they identify with some ideas, and sometimes even set the ideals they want to pursue. It is important for us to know what exactly our leaders advocate and what we ourselves want to be in favour of.


In the next part of the text I shall deal with three issues.

The first one concerns the question that has attracted the attention of many prominent thinkers, as well as reflective ordinary people since the end of World War II, namely, how it was possible that the German people, who gave the world so many distinguished creators of culture, and was for centuries admired by the civilized world, including many Americans, could perpetrate with the hands of their leaders and their supporters such terrible crimes. “How could Nazism happen?” asks Hicks on p. 5 of his book. After all, the German nation was the most educated in Europe, and it gave the world many outstanding scientists, including Nobel Prize winners (some of whom, Hicks reminds us, actively supported the Nazis). Rich literature on the subject suggests different answers; the author presents a concise overview of them on pp. 6-7. However, he rejects these answers, calling them “little convincing”. Instead, he proposes his own explanation, which he calls “philosophical”. I shall return to this later in this text.

The second issue is the title question of the impact of Nietzsche’s philosophy on the developers of National Socialism and the programme of their political and social action. The question of Nietzsche’s responsibility for fascism, and especially for the Holocaust, is one of the most frequently asked by authors dealing with the great German philosopher. To what extent did this uncompromising critic of bourgeois society at the end of the 19th century contribute to the formation of the ideological foundations of National Socialism? Can he be held co-responsible for spreading the hatred of the Jews in the 1920s and 1930s, and then for their extermination? How did the main ideologists of German fascism, with Adolf Hitler at the head, treat Nietzsche and his philosophy? It is these, and many other questions, that the author answers in a substantial part of his book. I shall also return to them in the further part of my argumentation.

And lastly, the third issue, which is related to the cultural situation in which our country and other countries of Central and Eastern Europe found themselves after the fall of communism. Like fascism, communism was a criminal ideology; it led to the death of more people than the system created by Hitler. In communism, too, many prominent intellectuals unconditionally supported the political system and its ideology. It is not about asking them now to account for their earlier choices, or even asking, following the author, what attracted these people to a totalitarian vision of the world (after all, numerous, in-depth studies have been written on the subject, the most famous of them being The Main Currents of Marxism by Leszek Kołakowski). Hicks’s book, and especially its ending, brings us to the question: what next? Having rejected communism, we must choose such a socio-political system that will protect us to the highest degree against the return of totalitarianism. I shall address this in more detail in the last part of this text.

Let us start then with the question posed by Hicks: how could this happen? German fascism was able to occur and then achieve such great success, says the author, because it appealed to very noble motives in the minds of the Germans, especially young people. It was not an ideology which encouraged evil, announced atrocity, or declared human degradation. On the contrary, “Nazi intellectuals and their followers thought of themselves as idealists and as crusaders for a noble cause. This may be even harder to accept. The National Socialists in the 1920s were passionate men and women who thought that the world was in a crisis and that a moral revolution was called for. They believed their ideas to be true, beautiful, noble, and the only hope for the world”(Hicks, 2014, p. 11). Hicks rightly notes that the Nazis invoked not so much ideas, but ideals; they did not want to join existing projects but to implement a project which no one had managed to achieve yet. This gave impetus to their actions and provided them with energy, owing to which, step by step, they conquered the minds of fellow citizens and gained real power. Ideas that exist in the world certainly do have a great impact on us, but it is ideals that inflame the heart and induce us to take extraordinary actions. Their importance in the lives of individuals and communities had been emphasized before Hicks by another American philosopher, William James. He wrote about this in, among others, What Makes a Life Significant?, stressing that what appeals most strongly to the consciousness of people is the heroic struggle with the adversity of fate in the name of high ideals. “But what our human emotions seem to require, wrote James, is the sight of the struggle going on. The moment the fruits are being merely eaten, things become ignoble” (http://www.uky.edu/~eushe2/Pajares/jsignificant.html). As humans, we need far-reaching objectives, risks, and determination; we also need mystery and metaphysics. Hicks shows that the Nazis were able to offer all these things to German society and that this offer was accepted.


How did this idealistic philosophy translate into the political programme of the National Socialists? Hicks answers this question in the third part of his book (pp. 15-26). He presents and succinctly characterizes five points of the Nazis’ programme. These are respectively: collectivism, economic socialism, nationalism, authoritarianism and idealism. The interesting thing is the similarities and differences between the Nazi programme and the communist one. Both programmes are close to each other as far as the attitudes to private property and individual economic initiatives are concerned. Both the National Socialists and communists were hostile to these things. Hicks cites a fragment of Hitler’s speech from 1927 as significant in this respect. “We are socialists, we are enemies of today’s capitalistic economic system for the exploitation of the economically weak, with its unfair salaries, with its unseemly evaluation of a human being according to wealth and property instead of responsibility and performance, and we are all determined to destroy this system under all conditions.” (Hicks, 2014, p. 17). The differences between the two programmes, however, were essential. While communists promoted internationalism, proletariat class solidarity and, ultimately, the abolition of nation states, the Nazis emphasized ethnic and racial differences between people. According to them, “the major battle is between different racial and cultural groups with different biological histories, languages, values, laws, and religions. The battle is between Germans — with their particular biological inheritance and cultural history — against all other racial cultures.” (Ibid, p.19). At this point it is worth returning to the question of idealism. Hicks notes that in the case of the National Socialist it also meant contempt for traditional politics. For Hitler and Goebbels, ordinary parliamentary and democratic politics meant simply “jostling”; it lacked grandeur and idealism. That is why they rejected it and in its place they introduced the programme of the nation’s moral renewal, where calling for the ultimate sacrifice replaced tedious procedures to achieve compromise.

Following Hicks’s argument from the point of view of Polish philosophical tradition, we cannot forget to mention the criticism of irrationality by Kazimierz Ajdukiewicz. This thinker, a representative of the Lvov-Warsaw School, noted that people who adopt irrational concepts, for example in politics, take great risks. For they have no intellectual tools to predict what these concepts may lead to. In some ways they surrender themselves into the hands of charismatic leaders, not knowing whether they are altruists ready to make sacrifices and focused on the welfare of others or selfish cynical egoists taking advantage of the confidence of others to implement their private interests; whether they want to serve people or use them. Therefore, Ajdukiewicz concludes, from the social point of view it is safer to reject irrationalism. “[A] rationalist’s voice is a healthy social reaction,” writes Ajdukiewicz, “it is an act of society’s self-defence against the dangers of being taken control of by uncontrollable factors, among which there may be both a saint preaching of revelation, as well as a lunatic proclaiming the products of their morbid mentality and, finally, a cheat wishing for evil and selfish purposes to gain followers for certain views and mottoes”(Ajdukiewicz, 2003, p. 52). The example of Nazism shows that it is a true opinion. Hicks, who at no time during his narrative, even when writing about ideals which inspired the Nazis, loses sight of the horrific and inhuman consequences to which this ideology eventually led, would certainly sign his name under it. A clear warning on his part is also the mention that the liberal-democratic system guaranteeing societies peace and opportunities of development is, on the background of human history, an exception and not a rule.


Let us now move on to the issue contained in Hicks’s title, namely Nietzsche and his responsibility for National Socialism. This is a complex issue. Ending the part of the book devoted to the exercise of power by the Nazis, Hicks again highlights the role of philosophy in the formation of the ideology of that power; he warns his readers against considering Nazi intellectuals as “mediocrities” (pp. 52-53). They were not uneducated people who followed in the dark accidentally encountered ideas; nobody manipulated Adolf Hitler or other influential Nazi ideologues. Many party leaders could boast degrees from prestigious German universities, some in the field of philosophy. In the same passage Hicks confirms Hitler’s favourable interest in the figure and thought of Nietzsche. “In his study, Adolf Hitler had a bust of Friedrich Nietzsche. In 1935, Hitler attended and participated in the funeral of Nietzsche’s sister Elisabeth. In 1938, the Nazis built a monument to Nietzsche. In 1943, Hitler gave a set of Nietzsche’s writings as a gift to fellow dictator Benito Mussolini” (Hicks, 2014, p. 50). The question to what extent Nietzsche’s philosophy influenced the formation of Hitler’s views certainly remains open. Hicks does not claim to be able to finally resolve this issue (hence, probably, the subtitle of the book — A Personal View — which emphasizes that the author’s interpretations do not necessarily have to be shared by others). However, taking into account Hicks’s thesis as mentioned above, i.e., that what inspired the Nazis was the philosophy, one should look at all the evidence of the proximity of beliefs of the National Socialists and Nietzsche’s views with the utmost attention.

Hicks presents Nietzsche’s views in Part Five of his book. The reader will find a brief presentation of the fundamental theses proclaimed by Nietzsche. For philosophically educated people these things will not be anything new, but the advantage of Hicks’s approach is the clarity and systematic method of exposition. The author does not focus on too meticulous analyses or juxtapose numerous, often conflicting, interpretations of the views of the German philosopher but avoids, so to speak, “splitting hairs”. As a result, his thought is at all times clear and the argumentation remains in close contact with the purpose of the book as expressed in the title. Thus, on pages 55 to 74 we familiarize ourselves with the concepts of the death of God, nihilism, master and slave, slave morality and the Overman. Each of these concepts is thoroughly presented, interpreted, and referred to its text sources. Saying that Hicks does not go into too meticulous analyses does not mean that he proposes a simplified reading of Nietzsche. On the contrary, focusing on the most important issues, he helps us to reject many of the existing simplifications. One of them is the belief that Nietzsche had acted with absolute hostility to the Jews. Hicks explains that the attitude of the German philosopher in this regard was more complex. It is true that he held the Jews (and also the Christians) responsible for the emergence and triumph of the morality of slaves, which he himself opposed. On the other hand, however, he did not hide his recognition for the Jews who managed to survive despite such unfavourable conditions accompanying their lives in the course of history. “Here Nietzsche says the Jews asked themselves some very realistic, practical questions about morality. If it is good to survive, then what policies and actions will keep you alive? And if you happen to be a slave, how does one survive as a slave?” (Ibid, p. 64).


The parts of the book which are of key importance for the understanding of the impact of Nietzsche’s philosophy on the ideology of National Socialism are parts six and seven. In the former, under the title Nietzsche Against the Nazis, Hicks highlights those thoughts in the philosophy of the German philosopher which are in clear opposition to Nazi beliefs. And thus, according to Hicks, Nietzsche’s philosophy cannot be reconciled with the National Socialist version of racism, according to which the Germans occupy a unique position among racial and ethnic groups. “Nietzsche clearly is using the lion analogically and comparing its predatory power to the predatory power that humans of many different racial types have manifested.” (Ibid, p. 79). Next, contrary to what is generally believed, Nietzsche’s opinion of the Germans contemporary to him was not at all favourable: “between the old Germanic tribes and us Germans there exists hardly a conceptual relationship, let alone one of blood.” (Ibid, p. 77). According to Hicks, it would also be questionable to hold Nietzsche responsible for the Nazi anti-Semitism, for promoting the image of the Jews as wicked people, as well as for the fundamental diversification of the approach to Judaism and Christianity. Therefore, if the Nazis had wanted to find in Nietzsche justification for their beliefs about the inferiority of the Jewish race, the moral poverty of representatives of that race, and the superiority of Christianity over the Jewish religion, they could certainly not have done that. On this basis, we can say that to identify the whole ideology of Nazism with the philosophy of Nietzsche is a misunderstanding. Nietzsche certainly would never have shared many of the points of the programme of Hitler’s party.

On the other hand, we do find in the philosophy of Nietzsche a few themes that are identical with the ideology of the Nazis. In Part Seven of the book, under the title Nietzsche as a Proto-Nazi, Hicks lists the following themes: 1) anti-individualism and collectivism, 2) a conflict of groups, 3) instinct, passion and anti-reason, 4) conquest and war, and 5) authoritarianism. In the case of these issues, the reading of the work of the German philosopher would certainly provide the Nazis with many arguments in favour of their actions. Among the themes mentioned by Hicks, attention should be paid to anti-individualism and collectivism. The common belief has it that Nietzsche is regarded as an individualist, but Hicks writes: “in my judgment his reputation for individualism is often much overstated” (Ibid, p. 87). Hicks’s argumentation at this point (pp. 87-92) deserves a thorough analysis. The author poses three questions allowing us to determine whether in the case of a given philosophy we are dealing with individualistic or collectivist orientation. In Nietzsche it is the latter that clearly dominates. It is, as I said, surprising, since it is community in the form of bourgeois German society that became a major object of Nietzsche’s criticism. Hicks notes, however, that in criticizing his contemporary society the German philosopher placed himself not in the mainstream of individualism, but different collectivism. “As Nietzsche says repeatedly, “Not ‘mankind’ but overman is the goal!” Nietzsche’s goal is a collectivist one — to bring about a new, future, higher species of man — overman. This is the significance of his exhortations about the Übermensch, the overman, the superman.” (Ibid, pp. 89-90). The importance of this point cannot be overestimated. Hicks notes that, despite the appearances of individualism, Nietzsche was in fact a collectivist. He represented the dominant line of continental thinking taking its origin in the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, which highlighted the existence, above an individual, of a superior being more important than the individual, both in ontological and ethical terms. The Overman would therefore be a species and not an individual, i.e., it is mankind that should undergo a fundamental change and not its individual representatives. I took up this theme in my article “Postmodern Dialectic of Social Care,” referring to Gertrude Himmelfarb’s interesting analyses.    

From the point of view of Polish society, which a quarter of a century ago freed itself from the state of political and economic enslavement and is still on the way to define its own identity, the ending of the book can be very helpful. The author reflects on whether we have a good understanding of the philosophical assumptions of Nazism and whether, therefore, we will be ready to oppose it when it decides to return in one form or another. According to Hicks, however, understanding the ideals of Nazism is not enough. We also need to know well what we are in favour of ourselves, what our philosophical assumptions are, and what ideals we pursue. The last sentence of the book reads: “I will end on a provocative note: The Nazis knew what they stood for. Do we?” (Ibid, 2014, p. 107). This question should still be posed in our part of Europe since, while we knew well that we did not want to live under the yoke of communism, we do not always know what model of life we want to implement after regaining freedom. As Isaiah Berlin would say, we have won freedom in a negative sense, but do we know what it looks like in a positive sense? Hicks’s book, like many other American books referring to the recent history of Europe, carries a clear message. Only liberal and democratic principles guarantee security and development, mutual respect, and individual success. Liberalism, however, does not belong to the most popular intellectual orientations in Central and Eastern Europe. Moreover, in the opinions of many it is something dangerous and ruthless, as it makes the individual count only on himself. There were many causes that contributed to the consolidation of this belief. There is no place here for deciding to what extent it is true. But let us say that reading Hicks’s book puts us, in a sense, in a situation with no way out. For what in fact is an alternative to individualism and liberalism? The American author says that it is collectivism and authoritarianism, which combine concepts such as irrationality, conflict, and socialism (Ibid, p. 97). None of them will necessarily lead either conceptually or, a fortiori, in practice to Nazism, but do they provide an opportunity for self-realization of man?


Hicks argues that they do not. Self-realization requires individualism, rationalism, entrepreneurship, freedom, and capitalism. The example of Nazism shows that the rejection of these values, even in the name of great community ideals, leads to the tragedy of many individuals and peoples. We return here to the question of ideals and their understanding by William James. While it is important to pursue one’s own ideals, James argued in On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings, one has to pay heed not to impose them on others. “Hence the stupidity and injustice of our opinions, so far as they deal with the significance of alien lives. Hence the falsity of our judgments, so far as they presume to decide in an absolute way on the value of other persons’ conditions or ideals” (http://www.uky.edu/~eushe2/Pajares/jcertain.html). Hicks seems to follow the same trail. His book is an absolute critique of political programmes which subordinate the freedom of the individual to the good of society, nation, or race. At the same time, Hicks is aware that individuals need great challenges, risks, and personal success. It appears from many other publications of the American philosopher that the area in which individuals could safely implement their ideals is entrepreneurship.     

The book Nietzsche and the Nazis: A Personal View is addressed to a wide audience of readers; a sophisticated philosopher, a teacher sensitive to philosophical issues, or a school student thinking reflectively will certainly read it with great interest. Such a wide range of potential readers does not mean that the book is superficial. On the contrary, it is a deep study, supported by solid preliminary literature research and the author’s thorough consideration. However, it is accessible, which attests to the author’s great respect for the reader. To write about very complex issues in a clear and distinct manner, ensuring precision of the concepts used, is a great skill which Stephen Hicks presented to the highest degree.

* * *

1 The question of the relationship of Nietzsche’s philosophy with National Socialism is one of the topics of Przemysław Zientkowski’s book under the title The Theory of Human Rights and Its Critique of the Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (Chojnice 2013). cf. also Zielińska, H., Was Nazi Pedagogy Necessary? (Absent discourses Part V, Kwieciński, Z., (ed.), Toruń 1997). M. Wędzińska’s review of Hicks’s book discussed here will be soon published in Forum Oświatowe [Educational Forum]. 

[Professor Kostylo’s Bibliography section is omitted but can be found in the PDF version of the review here.]

John Dewey on Kant and the causes of World War I

Dewey-Character-and-Events1924 was the 200th anniversary of the birth of German philosopher Immanuel Kant, and American philosopher John Dewey was writing a series of essays reflecting on philosophy and current events. The series was published in book form in 1929 as Characters and Events: Popular Essays in Social and Political Philosophy.

Here are a few striking excerpts about the significance of Immanuel Kant.

One is about whether the philosophy of Kant is partly responsible for World War I: “It is possible that the Great War was in some true sense a day of reckoning for Kantian thought” (68).

How is that possible, since Kant died over a century before the great conflict between the German-led Central powers and the Allies?*

Dewey’s response begins with describing Kant as “the thinker who for the past seventy-five years supplied the bible of German thought” (63).

kant-stampThe Kantian “bible’s” core themes were skeptical, idealist, and duty-based: “Kant to himself and to many in his own day was a revolutionary. There is no valid intellectual access, he taught, to the things of ultimate importance to man, the things with which traditional philosophy has been preoccupied, God, the soul, immortality, even the universe as an objective single whole. From this standpoint, all previous philosophy had been on the wrong track; it had been attempting the impossible” (65).

Dewey then connects that Kantian idealistic philosophy to the major thinkers in subsequent generations of German thought — Fichte (d. 1814), Hegel (d. 1831), Treitschke (d. 1834), Nietzsche (d. 1900). For example:

“That Treitschke had assumed a philosophy of the state and history distilled by Hegel and Fichte from idealistic philosophy, and given it and acrid positivistic application to contemporary affairs, was unnoted. In vain were the allusions of Bernhardi to the categorical imperative and the idealistic mission of Germany spread over his pages” (135).

Also striking is Dewey’s attention to the impact of German philosophy on British intellectual life in the fifty years leading up to the War. Dewey notes “the immense interest taken in professional German philosophy in the generation after 1870 — the generation of revolt against the empiricism that reigned in Great Britain from Locke onwards” (137-138).

wwiThat immense interest, according to Dewey, was not only abstract-theoretical but activist-applied:

“German philosophy was seized upon as a weapon with which to attack the former official philosophy of England. It is more than a coincidence that the reign of German idealism in Great Britain coincided with the revolt against laissez-faire liberalism in economics and politics, and with the growth of collectivism … . Consequently the English attitude was not concerned with what German idealism meant at home, but with what it could do in Great Britain. Everything which did not contribute to this end was ignored, or else treated as a mere technical blemish without serious import” (138-139).

So: a provocative attempt to work out connections between philosophy and politics by a major thinker grappling with the after-effects of the devastation of the First World War.

Source: John Dewey, Characters and Events: Popular Essays in Social and Political Philosophy, Vol. I. Joseph Ratner, Ed. Henry Holt and Company: New York, 1929.

Related: More of my posts on Immanuel Kant.

[* Changed to “Central” from “Axis”. Thanks to Todd Myers for catching that.]