Saturday, May 17, 2014


Years ago conservative historian Paul Johnson published an hysterical book entitled Intellectuals.  It examines the lives of many important philosophers and artists, finding them, in general, to be hateful, foolish, cheap, nasty and filthy.  Oh yes--most of them were secular leftists, i.e., Johnson's arch enemies.  So there it is, page after page on one thinker's inability to pay his debts, another obsessing about his penis, another failing yet again to bathe.

I find the book funny because, aside from all the odd (and sometimes questionable) facts Johnson unearthed, what exactly is the point?  Even Johnson admits few lives can withstand serious scrutiny--especially in the hands of a tendentious historian.  Should we expect artists and intellectuals to be any better than the rest of us?  To Johnson, if you're a thinker, and you want to change the world, you apparently have a higher duty. I don't see it.  In fact, if you want to make a change, or be noticed, in addition to being brilliant it helps if you're driven--if you put your ideas, and your work, before personal relationships.  This doesn't always lead to the best personal outcomes.  And once you're lucky enough to attain wealth, power or fame, there are many temptations that can lead you astray.

One person Johnson didn't attack (if I recall) was Martin Heidegger. Heidegger was, after all, one of the most significant philosophers of the 20th century, but also a man who joined the Nazi party when they took over Germany. (Some claim Johnson left him alone because Heidegger's often associated with the right, but that's a whole different argument.) It could have just been bad timing, because new revelations were coming out regarding Heidegger and National Socialism just as Johnson was finishing his book.

For years, the excuse had been Heidegger had to join up or lose his position, and that he may have been hopeful at first but soon learned that Nazis weren't congenial to his thinking.  But as the full extent of his involvement became clearer, that was hard to maintain.

Lately, even more revelations have come out--personal notebooks written in the 1940s which show how anti-Semitism was part of Heidegger's thinking, or, perhaps, how he applied his thinking to the Jews.  Here's a piece in The New Yorker by Joshua Rothman about how tough it's been getting for Heideggerians lately.

Rothman was excited by Heidegger when he first read him. (I wasn't so excited, though perhaps I didn't read closely enough.  Heidegger seemed to me yet another obscure and mystical German taking up questions the Greeks handled better.) Unlike Johnson's examples, the trouble here isn't just the personal life of Heidegger--it's how his association with the Nazis infected his thinking. There it is in his notebooks, where he says Jews are different, always plotting, and not able to fully participate in what it means to be human.

Perhaps this means we have to throw over Heidegger.  Though the question becomes, in general, how do we deal with old thinkers.  Ideas change, and the unquestioned assertions of yesteryear become the anathema of today. Back in the 1930s, straight up racism didn't grate like it does today, and fascism (not necessarily tied to racism) seemed like a new idea that might be able to deal with the problems of capitalism.

In general, older thinkers regularly let us down.  Look at, for example, the things they say about something as basic as the differences between men and women.   And no doubt people today will disappoint those in the future for our lack of vision.  For that matter, I'm pretty disappointed in the perennial popularity of socialism among intellectuals.

So throw out Heidegger.  Who needs the bastard?  But I'm not sure where we'll stop.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...his association with the Nazis infected his thinking."

I think you need to consider that it was possibly a two way street. Far from personal peccadilloes, its the big thinkers whose ideas have influence that are the most dangerous.

8:44 AM, May 17, 2014  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That and the fact that he was a boozing beggar who could drink you under the table.

8:55 AM, May 17, 2014  
Blogger ColumbusGuy said...

This sounds like something a First Lady could fix. Maybe Mrs. Rubio has a thing about personal hygiene. And I'm sure our state legislatures would be happy to require our schools to dispense Zanax and adopt a toiletry supervision policy.

9:42 AM, May 17, 2014  
Blogger LAGuy said...

I don't think Heidegger had much influence on the Nazis. The ideas behind fascism and anti-Semitism were around without Heidegger--in fact, without any particular major philosopher to think them up.

10:25 AM, May 17, 2014  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

CG- Are you responding the post or the comments here? It sounds more like your debating with the voices in your head.

5:07 AM, May 18, 2014  
Blogger ColumbusGuy said...

Ha. Laugh's on you. My debating with the voices in my head is doing just fine, thank you. In the immortal words of the New York Times, "Japan says your lazy".

9:11 AM, May 18, 2014  

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