Philosophical Convictions

Philosophical Convictions

Philosophers get attention only when they appear to be doing something sinister–corrupting the youth, undermining the foundations of civilization, sneering at all we hold dear.


Philosophers get attention only when they appear to be doing something sinister–corrupting the youth, undermining the foundations of civilization, sneering at all we hold dear. The rest of the time everybody assumes that they are hard at work somewhere down in the sub-basement, keeping those foundations in good repair. Nobody much cares what brand of intellectual duct tape is being used.

The public becomes incensed, however, when rogue philosophers come upstairs, buttonhole the tenants and tell them that there really are no foundations–that their industrious colleagues are just providing “bad reasons for what we believe upon instinct” (F.H. Bradley’s description of metaphysics). Every anti-foundationalist movement within philosophy produces a spate of books by nonphilosophers denouncing “the treason of the intellectuals” (the title of Julien Benda’s 1927 attack on the pernicious influence of thinkers such as Henri Bergson and William James).

Books about this sort of treason have proliferated in the United States and Britain in the past decade. This is because post-Nietzschean European philosophy has become increasingly popular in the English-speaking world. No graduate student in literature, history or political theory in an American or British university can afford to be ignorant of Foucault. For a time, deconstructing texts–that is, trying to sound as much like Derrida as possible while not actually engaging with any philosophical issues–was all the rage in the literature departments. Deconstruction is no longer in fashion, but Derrida is still, deservedly, admired.

These two original and influential French thinkers agree that Nietzsche was right to reject Plato’s attempt to demonstrate rationally that some moral and political values are better grounded in the nature of things than others. When Derrida and Foucault were students, they assimilated and accepted Martin Heidegger’s story about how Western philosophy began with Plato and ended with Nietzsche. They were convinced by Heidegger’s books that we should stop trying to “ground” Western institutions in something august and ahistorical. They regretted both the “superman” passages in Nietzsche–the ones that the Nazis made such good use of–and Heidegger’s admiration for Hitler. But these regrets did not diminish their admiration for the two men’s philosophical achievements.

Richard Wolin thinks that it is not as easy as all that to separate the conduct of a philosopher from the utility of his ideas, or his moral character from his teachings. A distinguished intellectual historian who teaches at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Wolin believes that the prevalence of “slack postmodernist relativism” is very dangerous. “The postmodern left,” he says, “risks depriving democracy of valuable normative resources at an hour of extreme historical need.” His book seeks to demonstrate that “at a certain point postmodernism’s hostility towards ‘reason’ and ‘truth’ is intellectually untenable and politically debilitating.” Many of the essays that make up the book focus on the dubious–and sometimes appalling–political stances adopted by eminent post-Nietzschean thinkers. Wolin argues that their political attitudes are closely bound up with their anti-foundationalist philosophical views.

Wolin has an easy time showing that fans of Nietzsche and Heidegger have said stupid and irresponsible things about democracy. But he does not do much to show that the stupidities follow from their philosophies, nor that those philosophies are untenable. To do the latter, he would have to argue in defense of specific philosophical claims–those that constitute what he thinks of as democracy’s “normative resources.” He leaves it pretty vague what a “normative resource” might be, and how such resources are put to use in political deliberation.

Postmodernism, Wolin says, is “the rejection of the intellectual and cultural assumptions of modernity in the name of ‘will to power’ (Nietzsche), ‘sovereignty’ (Bataille), an ‘other beginning’ (Heidegger), ‘différance’ (Derrida) or a ‘different economy of bodies and pleasures’ (Foucault).” So one expects him to enumerate “the intellectual and cultural assumptions of modernity” and show why they should not be rejected. But Wolin seems to assume that his readers already know what these assumptions are, and are disposed to take rejection of them as a reductio ad absurdum of a philosopher’s outlook.

Sometimes, however, he goes out on a philosophical limb, as when he says that Derrida’s “criticism of the modern natural law tradition–the normative basis of the contemporary democratic societies”–leaves us with a “‘political existentialism,’ in which, given the ‘groundless’ nature of moral and political choice, one political ‘decision’ seems almost as good as another.” In such passages as these, Wolin endorses the old Platonic argument to the effect that if there is nothing “out there” (the Platonic forms, the will of God, natural law) that makes our moral judgments true, there is no point in forming such judgments at all.

Plato argued along the following lines: Truth is a matter of correspondence to reality. Propositions are made true by things that are as they are, independent of human desires and decisions. This goes for propositions like “Kindness is better than cruelty” as much as for those like “Annapurna is west of Everest.” Relations of moral preferability are no more up to us to decide than are spatial relations between mountains. The claim about kindness is as obviously true as the one about Annapurna, and so there must be something out there (something metaphysical, something that philosophers know more about than most people) that makes it true. If you deny that there is anything like that, the Platonist argument goes, you are denying that there is a rational way to choose between Athens and Sparta (or, as we moderns would say, between Social Democrats and Nazis). To agree with Protagoras and Nietzsche that “man is the measure of all things” is, Wolin thinks, to reduce the choice of democracy over fascism to a matter of taste.

The most dubious premise in this argument is the one that says that truth is correspondence to reality. As everybody who has ever taken a philosophy class knows, it is hard to specify what the correspondence relation is supposed to be. What, for example, does “There are no unicorns” correspond to? What entities make “There are infinitely many transfinite cardinal numbers” true? If you do not believe in the mysterious things that Plato called “the Forms,” what exactly is it that you think moral truths are made true by? And anyway, why are claims about the existence of truth-makers such as the Forms, or “natural law,” supposed to be more evidently true than the intuitive moral judgments they are used to ground? Could we ever become more convinced of the truth of a metaphysical theory than we already are of the truth of those judgments?

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.

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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