A few weeks ago I posted a strongly-worded critique of American intellectual magazines for what I see as their tendency to publish simplistic, moralistic reviews of European philosophy. I complained that these reviewers tend naively to take liberal politics as grounded in some sort of empirical secular understanding of human nature, and to conclude that any sort of philosophical critique of reason, science, or the political status quo is inherently irresponsible. If these ideas come from any one of several radical streams of European thought (i.e., Marxism,  German conservatism), they are eligible for speedy dismissal on moral and political grounds (ie, reductio ad hitlerum). This means that European philosophical ideas are rarely treated on their own terms, but almost always measured according to the prosecutorial predilections of middlebrow American critics.

Then I stumbled across this 1988 review by Richard Rorty in The New Republic, a magazine I had identified as a particular offender when it comes to moralizing about European intellectuals. Rorty is reviewing Victor Farias’ Heidegger and Nazism, which caused a sensation in philosophical and intellectual history circles with its revelations about the depth of the philosopher’s involvement with National Socialism. Rorty was a major rarity in American ideas for his serious engagement with European thought, and his refusal to participate in the firing-squad type analysis one often finds in liberal publications. So I wanted to highlight the piece as a counter-example of what I was complaining about in the earlier post.

In fact, Rorty spends most of his review (full text PDF here) making a case against the very type of moral or “irrationalist” dismissal readers of The New Republic are particularly prone to embrace. He is very harsh on Heidegger as a man, perhaps overly so, and he makes a few declarations that aren’t supported by a broad view of Heidegger’s work (i.e. his “blood-and-soil rhetoric”). But there is so much wisdom, so many paragraphs that offer a powerful rebuttal to the anti-intellectual antics of certain liberal magazines in recent years, and to the more overzealous Heidegger critics in the U.S. and France in the past 40 years.

Even if we grant that philosophical talent and moral characters wing free of each other, it is tempting to think that we can classify philosophies by reference to the moral or political message they convey. Many people think that there is something intrinsically fascistic about the thought of Nietzsche and Heidegger, and are suspicious of Derrida and Foucault because they owe so much to these earlier figures. On this view, fascism is associated with”irrationalism,” and a decent democratic outlook with “confidence in reason.” Aristotle’s casual acceptance of slavery as natural and proper is taken to be central to his moral outlook; Heidegger’s blood-and-soil rhetoric is taken to be central to his “history of Being”; Nietzsche’s elitist swaggering is taken as central to his ethic of self-creation; “deconstruction” is condemned on the basis of the young Paul de Man’s opportunistic anti-Semitism.

Such attempts to simplify the thought of original thinkers by reducing them to moral or political attitudes should be avoided, just as we should avoid thinking of Hemingway as simply a bully, of Proust as simply a sissy, of Pound as simply a lunatic, of Kipling as simply an imperialist. Labels like “irrationalist” or”aesthete” are of no use when dealing with authors of the complexity and originality of a Heidegger or a Proust. They are merely excuses for not reading them.

“Irrationalism,” for example, has been diagnosed in everybody from William of Ockham to William James. As it happens,James was as decent a man as ever gave a philosophy lecture, as well as being Whitman’s heir in the visionary tradition of American democracy. Yet that did not prevent Julien Benda (the Allan Bloom of the 1910s) from including James in his list of treasonous clerks—the people who were undermining the moral fabric of our civilization. (Heidegger and James shared the same doubts about traditional philosophical accounts of Reason and Truth—the sort of doubt that Benda found intolerable—despite having no political hopes in common.)

Karl Popper, in The Open Society and Its Enemies, did a good job of showing how passages in Plato, Hegel, and Marx could be taken to justify Hitlerian or Leninist takeovers, but to make his case he had to leave out 90 percent of each man’s thought. Such attempts to reduce a philosopher’s thought to his possible moral or political influence are as pointless as the attempt to view Socrates as an apologist for Critias, or Jesus as just one more charismatic kook. Jesus was indeed among other things, a charismatic kook, and Heidegger was, among other things, an egomaniacal, anti-Semitic redneck. But we have gotten a lot out of the Gospels,and I suspect that philosophers for centuries to come will be getting a lot out of Heidegger’s original and powerful narrative of the movement of Western thought from Plato to Nietzsche. If there is something anti-democratic in Christianity, or Islam, or Platonism, or Marxism, or Heideggerianism, or “deconstruction,” it is not any particular doctrine about the nature of Man or Reason or History, but simply the tendency to take either religion or philosophy too seriously. This is the tendency toward fundamentalism, the assumption that any-body who disagrees with some given religious or philosophical doctrine is a danger to democratic society. No specific doctrine is much of a danger, but the idea that democracy depends on adhesion to some such doctrine is.
This strikes me as exactly the right choice of a person to review the book in question, and the right way for a reviewer committed to American liberal politics to approach an anti-democratic philosopher like Heidegger. Rorty’s disageement with Heidegger’s politics is matched by his appreciation of Heidegger’s philosophical brilliance and originality, and it makes for a review that is much, much closer to fair than a typical “takedown” by some literary critic who only reads philosophy to write long, pretentious articles about it.
About The Author

David Sessions

David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol, and is currently a doctoral student in modern European history at Boston College. His writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Jacobin, Slate and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.

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