Following up on “The constant decline of civilization?” — a series of quotations from across the centuries of intellectuals from Plato to Wordsworth to T.S. Eliot bemoaning the sorry state of their generation’s intellectual and moral life.
Here, from a review of Mark Lilla’s The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics and Richard Wolin’s Heidegger’s Children: Hannah Arendt, Karl Löwith, Hans Jonas, and Herbert Marcuse (both books recommended), is a twenty-first century intellectual carrying on the tradition by assessing the merit of four mid-twentieth century political philosophers.
“Although all these thinkers are gifted, few deserve truly extended study. I say this despite the fact that each is more penetrating than nearly anyone writing today. We are declining from our decline.”
And here is another intellectual, commenting directly upon our current generation:
“Historians will write of this time that the U.S. was in a period of intellectual decline, a kind of anti-renaissance of thought. Simplicity, and brevity displaced thoughtful dialogue. Repetition passed as true conviction, cult-like adherence to shallow philosophies unseated consideration of creative alternatives and honesty gave way to spin.
“This is not an era when thinking about anything for long is valued.”
How do we make great sweeping judgments like this, and why do some of us make them so confidently? My view is the opposite — we have more brilliant people than ever, and more awesome work is being done. But mine is a soft impression, and it’s an open question in my mind how we should weigh the data.
Is it this: History has sorted the good from the bad, so when we read history we tend to ignore the mediocre and shallow and be impressed with the intellectual and moral giants who once lived. But our own age has not been sorted, and we are painfully aware of the large number of chatterers and blitherers out there. So is it a presentist cognitive bias in our personal data sets?
Or is it projection? If one is pessimistic — and there is a lot to be pessimistic about — then one looks for, focuses on, and assigns greater evidential weight to the morons and the mediocre; but if one is optimistic — and there is a lot to be optimistic about — then one does the opposite.
So a question: How should we make an objective judgment about our generation’s stature and the trend-line over history?
The Nazis were evil, killing millions of human beings, and they have universally and properly properly condemned for their horrors.
The Soviets were also evil, killing more millions than the Nazis did, yet they have not been universally condemned. The Soviets have been attacked by libertarians, conservatives, and moderates as a great lesson in evil — but not by the political left. (Alan Kors here takes them to task for this abdication of moral responsibility.)
In part this makes sense: When socialism was in power in Russia, China, and many other places, leftists were widely admiring of those regimes. So it’s understandable that after-the-fact shame would lead them to denial and avoidance. And younger leftists are likely to believe that socialism is moral in theory despite its practical failings, so they will want to cut Stalin and Mao some slack.
But Sidney Hook offers a philosophical explanation — that by egalitarian standards the communists were more moral than the fascists even though the communists killed more people:
“When I confronted them with the evidence that Stalin had unjustly killed more Jews than Hitler, which was true at the time, they retorted that he was killing them not as Jews but as dissenters. Since in this respect the Jews were being treated equally with others, that was more important in their eyes than the alleged injustices of their executions” (Out of Step, p. 353).
So a thought experiment. Which of the following regimes is worse?
* Regime A kills 5 Jews, but it doesn’t kill non-Jews.
* Regime B kills 6 Jews, but it also kills 6 non-Jews.
By the principle of individual rights, both are evil and Regime B is worse.
By the principle of equality, Regime B is better.
Question: Is Hook right that this is actually how leftist egalitarians think, or are the leftists in his anecdote engaged in bad-faith avoidance?
More precisely: Who is the most loathsome philosopher in his or her personal life?
Let me set the bar high by naming my top two candidates.
1. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who fathered several children and had them abandoned to orphanages, and of whom David Hume wrote in a letter to Adam Smith: “Thus you see, he is a Composition of Whim, Affectation, Wickedness, Vanity, and Inquietude, with a very small, if any Ingredient of Madness. … The ruling Qualities abovementioned, together with Ingratitude, Ferocity, and Lying, I need not mention, Eloquence and Invention, form the whole of the Composition.” (David Hume, letter to Adam Smith, October 8, 1767 [Correspondence, 135])
Some follow up questions. When one disagrees profoundly with an intellectual’s philosophy, as I do with Rousseau’s and Heidegger’s, is it legitimate to look for a connection between the philosophical and the personal? Or can deep philosophy vary completely independently of personal behavior? Is ad hominem ever a legitimate argument strategy? One should expect integrity, especially from philosophers — i.e., that they will live what they teach and teach what they live — but we also know that hypocrisy is widespread. Should it matter now that influential philosophers were personally immoral, or do only their ideas and arguments matter now?
Samples from the scholarly reviewers of the first edition:
“By the end of Explaining Postmodernism, the reader may remain ill at ease with postmodernist malaise, but Hicks’s lucid account will demystify the subject.” Curtis Hancock, Ph.D., Review of Metaphysics
“With clarity, concision, and an engaging style, Hicks exposes the historical roots and philosophical assumptions of the postmodernist phenomenon. More than that, he raises key questions about the legacy of postmodernism and its implications for our intellectual attitudes and cultural life.” Steven M. Sanders, Ph.D., Reason Papers
“Refreshingly, Hicks does not take it as given that the poststructuralist viewpoints have been demonstrated to be in error. Rather, he seeks to trace them to a powerful ressentiment directed against the partisan of the Enlightenment and of capitalist achievement, and to provide the Enlightenment thinker with openings for serious intellectual engagement.” Marcus Verhaegh, Ph.D., The Independent Review
“This is not a book review but a flat out endorsement. Stephen R. C. Hicks’ Explaining Postmodernism is a great but very scary read.” Tibor R. Machan, Ph.D., Hoiles Chair of Philosophy, Chapman University
“Stephen Hicks has written an insightful and biting commentary on the nature of postmodernism and its revolt against the Enlightenment. He situates the movement in a larger historical context and analyzes its cultural and political implications. Even when one disagrees with Hicks’ interpretations, his work will challenge and provoke. This is must-reading for anyone interested in philosophy-by-essentials.” Chris Matthew Sciabarra, Ph.D., Department of Politics, New York University
“Explaining Postmodernism is extremely valuable for understanding postmodernism from a standpoint outside of and critical of it. Perhaps the most important value of the work is Professor Hicks’s analytical skill in isolating the essential theses of postmodern writers, in summarizing the relevant historical background, and in tracing the lines of development that led to postmodernism. In addition to wonderfully clear expositions of Hegel, Heidegger, and other influential thinkers, the book has what I think is a brilliant analysis of the different pathways by which skeptical questions that Enlightenment thinkers asked about reason led to the nihilism of Derrida and Foucault.” David Kelley, Ph.D., Executive Director, The Objectivist Center
“Explaining Postmodernism offers a concise and convincing argument that post-modernism is not primarily about epistemology. If postmodernism were about science as a ‘hegemonic discourse,’ then postmodernists would endorse any political viewpoint that tickled their subjectivities. Yet every postmodernist is on the Left politically. Hicks concludes that relativism is not what motivates postmodern thought—but is a device that postmodernists have adopted for strategic purposes. Explaining Postmodernism will be of value to anyone who seeks to understand where postmodernism originated, what impulses motivate it, and how it can be challenged.” Robert Campbell, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Clemson University
“Stephen Hicks has written a very fine book, one that reveals both the historical roots and the current strategies of postmodernism. He has helped to reduce the puzzlement of those of us who have wondered how the truly amazing form of madness called postmodernism has managed to take over the minds of people who in other ways seem both sane and intelligent. Buy two copies and give one to a postmodernist acquaintance. It will ruin his week.” Max Hocutt, Ph.D., The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies
The expanded edition also includes my Free Speech and Postmodernism and From Modern to Postmodern Art: Why Art Became Ugly essay. Images of the art works discussed and referred to in the latter essay are available at a dedicated page at my website here.
Intriguing sideways connection to Heidegger and militarism: Warby also reviews Brian Daizen Victoria’s Zen at War, “a study of how Zen Buddhism became deeply complicit in Japanese militarism,” just as Heidegger’s mystically-charged writings became complicit in German militarism. Warby there points to this piece by Professor Jeremiah Reedy, who reports: “a German friend of Heidegger told me that one day when he visited Heidegger he found him reading one of [Daisetsu Teitaro] Suzuki’s books [on Zen Buddhism]: ‘If I understand this man correctly,’ Heidegger remarked, ‘this is what I have been trying to say in all my writings.’”
Following up on an earlier post about Only a God Can Save Us, here in four parts is my 40-minute interview with van Davis about his documentary on philosopher Martin Heidegger and his involvement with National Socialism:
The line is from Martin Heidegger’s resigned and despairing Der Speigel interview, shortly before his death in 1976.
At Rockford College we are hosting a showing of Jeffrey Van Davis’s film on Martin Heidegger’s philosophy and his disturbing relationship with National Socialism. After the showing, we will have a panel discussion featuring director Van Davis, professors David Sytsma and Jules Gleicher of the Rockford College history and political science departments, respectively, and myself as moderator.
Heidegger is one of the most influential of all twentieth-century philosophers, yet he was also a strong supporter of National Socialism in Germany. Is there a connection between Heidegger’s philosophy and his Nazism or is the coincidence accidental? More generally, is there a connection between philosophical theory and political practice? Heidegger died in 1976 — what should we think of his never recanting his support for the Nazi movement even after the end of World War II and the Holocaust?
Time and place of the showing: March 4, 3 p.m., Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship, Burpee Center, Rockford College (campus map).
From the film’s website:
“Only A God Can Save Us”
Length: 118 min.
Shot in 16mm, mini DV
Country of Origin: Germany
Shot in: USA, Germany, France, Holland
Persons featured in film:
Kardinal Karl Lehmann, Bishop of Mainz
Alfred Denker, Heidegger Biographer
Hugo Ott, Freiburg University
Victor Farias, Free University of Berlin
Tom Rockmore, Duquesne University, USA
Richard Wolin, City University of New York, USA
Ted Kisiel, Northern Illinois University, USA
Rainer Marten, Freiburg University
Emmanuel Faye, University of Paris
Bernd Martin, Freiburg University
Iain Thomson, University of New Mexico, USA
Jürgen Paul, Dresden University
Silke Seemann, Freiburg University
Axel Graf Douglas, Schloss Langenstein
Some of the topics covered in the documentary:
1. Heidegger’s concept of Being and the “turning” from Dasein to Sein
2. His humble beginnings and staunch Catholic education.
3. The Rectorship and his denunciation of teachers such as Nobel Prize winner Staudinger. His enthusiasm for Gleichschaltung of Frieburg University.
4. His highly manipulative love affair with Hannah Arendt.
5. His relationship to Edith Stein.
6. His refusal to give a word of reconciliation to Paul Celan who visited him in his hut at Todtnauberg.
7. The denazification process and his refusal to recant his support for Hitler.
The expanded edition of my Explaining Postmodernism: From Rousseau to Foucault is being published late this summer. In preparing the manuscript, I re-read several transition figures, i.e., those twentieth-century intellectuals whom I judge to be important in preparing the groundwork for postmodernism.
One is anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009), whom I first read as an undergraduate. Lévi-Strauss formally studied philosophy and law, but because the bulk of his influential career was in anthropological field studies and theory he is sometimes labeled the father of modern anthropology. He is enough of a metaphysical realist not to be a postmodernist, but his positions on other major philosophical issues put him among the forerunners.
Here are three excerpts from his The Savage Mind (University of Chicago Press, 1962).
First, on his and Jean-Paul Sartre’s common inheritance from Karl Marx: “Although in both our cases Marx is the point of departure of our thought, it seems to me that the Marxist orientation leads to a different view, namely, that the opposition between the two sorts of reason is relative, not absolute” (p. 246).
Second, on his anti-humanism, which he shares with Martin Heidegger: “I accept the characterization of aesthete in so far as I believe the ultimate goal of the human sciences to be not to constitute, but to dissolve man” (p. 247).
Third, on his carrying on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s glorification of the primitivism: “we therefore remain faithful to the inspiration of the savage mind when we recognize that the scientific spirit in its most modern form will, by an encounter it alone could have foreseen, have contributed to legitimize the principles of savage thought and to re-establish it in its rightful place” (p. 269).
So: Lévi-Strauss is a post-Marxian anti-humanistic primitivist, and thus one of the gurus of the emerging postmodern movement that took off in the late 1960s and is still with us.