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Stuck in the Cave

By: Keith Whitaker
July 5, 2017

hile finishing my dissertation in Platonic political philosophy, I worked part-time for John Silber, Boston University’s president and noted philosophy professor. One afternoon I told him about an 18th-century Latin article I was reading on “Whether Socrates was a good husband.” “Why the [expletives omitted] are you wasting your time?” Silber replied. “That’s gossip, not philosophy!”

I can imagine someone leveling a similar charge at Neven Sesardic’s When Reason Goes on Holiday: Philosophers in Politics (2016), a catalogue of analytic philosophers’ political misadventures. After all, the heart of philosophy is thinking, not acting. Perhaps Wittgenstein had a soft spot for Stalin. Hilary Putnam distributed leaflets defending Mao. But do their misguided emotions or actions detract from their thinking? Isn’t their thinking what really matters?

This line of argument runs into at least two difficulties. First, philosophers are citizens, bearing the same responsibility to their communities of any citizen. Some philosophers enjoy public acclaim and influence, which increases rather than diminishes their duties. Shouldn’t people who claim a special competency in clear thinking exercise this virtue in distinguishing sound, moderate opinions from flawed, destructive ones?

Second, for those of us who aren’t philosophers, observing their words and deeds is the closest we may come to the philosophic life. That is one reason Plato wrote Socratic dialogues, not treatises. So, if a philosopher’s thinking culminates in absurdities, it can hardly be a good recommendation for philosophy.

Or can it? That is one puzzle Sesardic poses. Bertrand Russell published intellectually embarrassing screeds against America, and remained the icon of British philosophy. Rudolf Carnap enjoyed a successful career in the USA, his adopted country, while lending his name to claims that the country was running concentration camps and murdering innocent citizens. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s stance towards World War II seems to have shifted with the winds of the Soviet Union’s changing relationship to Nazi Germany. Imre Lakatos led a communist cell in Hungary, quite possibly drove a friend to suicide—and was celebrated in London. Michael Dummett flourished in academia even while ignoring research and leading a dubious campaign against racism. More recent Americans Sesardic describes—Donald Davidson, Richard Rorty, Hilary Putnam—scaled disciplinary heights while spouting political nonsense. Clearly unreason of a certain sort—to the far Left—pays dividends in the contemporary field of academic philosophy.

Sesardic grew up in Croatia when it was subjugated to Yugoslavia. He admits that analytic philosophy was an inspiration to him and other students who sought to preserve their sanity in a “world of constant lies.” He went on to have an academic career in Britain, the United States, and the far east. This formative experience set him up for a “huge disappointment” when he discovered his inspirations’ propensity to be taken in by the far Left.

And it poses another puzzle. Leaving aside the perennial challenge that thinkers face when they turn to practical matters, a challenge reflected in the laughter of the slave girl who watched the star-gazing Thales fall into a well, why would people devoted above all to clarity, rigor, and argumentation prove so susceptible to the fallacies of Communists, Socialists, and their fellow travelers?

Sesardic evokes the specter of Marx, with his dictum that up till now philosophy has sought only to interpret the world, but the point is to change it. Or as Hilary Putnam put it, a liberal should “participate in the radical task of remaking our world—the true task of philosophy.” For these “thinkers”—as for many others in academia more broadly—understanding takes a back seat to “progress.” Thinking becomes an instrument for activism.

Though a modern himself, Rousseau observed much the same phenomenon in the philosophes of his day, who were Leftists avant la letter. As he remarks, if they had lived a generation or two before, these “free-thinkers” would have been among the most fervent devotees of the reactionary church. Once thinking takes second-place to activism, fame, or money, illiberalism of one sort or another follows. It is no surprise that while many of the professors Sesardic describes castigated the United States for being illiberal or praised the Soviet Union for its freedoms, they were ready at a moment’s notice to crush dissent in their own departments, journals, or associations. They paved the way for the contemporary “liberal” academy’s rejection of free speech.

Still, there seems little danger that analytic philosophers will wield significant direct power in political debates or judicial decisions—though Martha Nussbaum’s misleading testimony played a part in the court cases that laid the groundwork for judicial legalization of gay marriage. Nonetheless, if such a danger arises, Sesardic’s book could serve as a useful witness against such “expert” testimony.

For philosophy itself, however, this book is a reminder that we’re living in hard times. Sesardic purposefully does not focus on the “continental” philosophers, since they seem to offer even less in the way of reasoned responses to practical problems. By his telling, analytic philosophy has devolved largely into irrelevant language games mixed with unthinking Leftist propaganda. That is not to say that no one can use the training in clear thinking that analytic philosophy offers. For example, Roger Scruton credits his own education in this mode of philosophy, particularly its insistence on facing the fundamental questions with your own resources of thought, rather than referring reflexively to what Nietzsche, Hegel, or Plato had to say on a matter. Still, for lesser minds than Scruton’s, this autonomy has allowed shallowness and group-think to reign, when a more serious attention to the history of philosophy would have had a moderating or even deepening influence. Sesardic ends his book with the hope that if reason can go on holiday, then it can also return. It’s hard to see what developments would bring about such a return, however, at least from the type of philosophy he has described.

In a measured amount, gossip is enjoyable; that’s why it persists, and Sesardic’s book provides a tasty portion. More importantly, it also points to enduring questions about the relation between philosophy and political community. Socrates was rumored to be a man of the Right, a suspicion that seemed to have played some part in the Athenian democracy’s decision to execute him. None of the “radicals” described in Sesardic’s pages has ever had to contemplate this fate. One can make a case that the ancient philosophers tended to ally themselves with the wealthy, landed gentlemen for good reasons—and by doing so helped philosophy persist through good times and bad for over 2,500 years. Whether the habits of our contemporary philosophes will prove as sound is very much in question.