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.