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Philosophical Convictions | The Nation

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Philosophical Convictions

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Most students emerge from the philosophy courses in which such questions as these are debated with their instinctive Platonism intact, just as most Christians retain their religious convictions after having read Hume's Dialogues on natural religion. But those who have been plunged into doubt frequently turn to Nietzsche or Heidegger, hoping to find out how things look after you give up the correspondence theory of truth. They could accomplish the same purpose by turning to William James or John Dewey. But the American pragmatists lack pizazz. Strident and scornful anti-Platonists like Nietzsche attract more readers than jocular and easygoing ones like James. Heidegger's apocalyptic-sounding announcements of "the end of philosophy" sound more impressive than Dewey's mild-mannered suggestions that philosophy should be less ambitious and less pretentious than in the past.

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Richard Rorty
Richard Rorty, a professor of comparative literature and philosophy at Stanford University, is the author of numerous...

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We must strengthen institutions that protect us from a national security state.

Nietzsche and Heidegger thought that once one rejected the Platonic claim to provide rational foundations for moral truth, all things would need to be made new. Culture would have to be reshaped. James and Dewey, by contrast, did not think that giving up the correspondence theory of truth was all that big a deal. They wanted to debunk it, and so help get rid of Platonist rationalism, but they did not think that doing so would make that much difference to our self-image or to our social practices. The superstructure, they thought, would still be in good shape even after we stopped worrying about the state of the foundations. Democracy could be adequately defended by empirical, nonmetaphysical arguments of the sort Churchill offered when he said that it was "the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." It did not need "normative resources."

Wolin does not discuss whether James and Dewey might have been right when they urged that democracy and modernity could get along nicely without any philosophical foundations, and that the thing to do with metaphysics was to mock it, rather than refurbish or refute it. Wolin views Enlightenment politics as inseparable from Enlightenment rationalism, whereas James and Dewey did their best to keep the one while discarding the other.

Wolin is at his best when he deals with the proponents of anti-foundationalist arguments rather than with the arguments themselves. He is more interested in what kinds of people they were, and in which political movements made use of them, than in what they said in defense of their paradoxical-sounding claims about reason and truth. Much of his book tell us of the bad behavior of such men as Carl Jung, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Maurice Blanchot and Georges Bataille. He frequently says such things as that "Gadamer's wartime conduct cannot help but raise critical questions about his philosophy and its relationship to its times." But he rarely follows through by explaining just why one cannot peel off a certain philosopher's conduct from his opinions. He seems to think that any thinker who has displayed either hypocrisy or self-deception is unlikely to have any ideas worth adopting.

Wolin is very good at digging up the dirt on famous European thinkers. He does a fine job of describing how their doctrines were put to use by different bad guys at different times--how, for example, "a critique of reason, democracy and humanism that originated on the German Right during the 1920s was internalized by the French Left." That is an admirable summary of one of the strangest turns in twentieth-century European intellectual life. But, though he protests that his book is "not an exercise in guilt-by-association," that description is actually pretty close to the mark. Wolin neglects the question of why the figures he discusses held the views they did in favor of an account of the uses to which they were put.

Wolin thinks, rightly, that if you understand the sociopolitical contexts in which a philosophical view was formulated, and the factors that account for its reception, you will be in a better position to decide whether to adopt it. Still, the best sort of intellectual history is the kind that pays equal attention to the company a philosophical doctrine keeps and to the arguments deployed in its defense. One book that does just that, and that treats of the same figures as Wolin's, is Jürgen Habermas's magisterial The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. Wolin's polemic against postmodernism is spirited and informative, and his heart is in the right place. But though Habermas shares Wolin's doubts about postmodernism and his sympathies with traditional rationalism, his book does something Wolin's does not: It helps one understand why most of the important philosophers of the twentieth century grew skeptical about foundation-building and foundation-repairing projects. Readers who are stimulated, but puzzled, by Wolin's account of the matter would do well to go on to Habermas's.

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