When reason goes on holiday

In chapter 3 of Patriotism Is Not Enough, Steve Hayward describes how inadequately American political scientists responded to the rise of Fascism in the 1930s. That inadequacy helped cause Leo Strauss to push political science in a radically new direction on the theory that “a social science that cannot speak of tyranny with the same confidence with which medicine speaks, for example, of cancer, cannot understand social phenomena as what they are.”

The leading philosophers of the same period and beyond had no trouble speaking confidently about tyranny. Unfortunately, as Neven Sesardic shows in his new book When Reason Goes on Holiday: Philosophers in Politics, too many of them spoke confidently in favor of it.

Many readers know that Martin Heidegger actively supported and celebrated Nazism and that Jean Paul Sartre championed Stalinism. A few may be aware that Michel Foucault publicly expressed enthusiasm for Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution.

But these cases all involved continental philosophy, which is well-known for its obscurantism and flights of fancy. Surely, analytic philosophers, with their emphasis on clarity, rigor, and argumentation, were not seduced by Stalinism and its offspring.

Sesardic demonstrates that, in fact, many leading lights of analytic philosophers were so seduced. Examples include Bertrand Russell, Otto Neurath, Rudolph Carnap, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Hilary Putnam, Donald Davidson, Imre Lakatos (for whom the most prestigious award in the philosophy of science is named), and Michael Dummett (a recipient of that award).

Sesardic also demonstrates the mindless, infantile leftism of contemporary American philosophers. The American Philosophical Association receives its own scathing chapter.

I’m no expert, but I believe Russell, Carnap, and Wittgenstein are arguably the most important analytic philosophers in history. In addition Putnam, whom I believe John knew slightly at Harvard, is probably among the very most important American analytic philosophers ever.

Russell was irrationally anti-American. Towards the end of World War I he predicted that America would occupy England and France. Nearly half a century later, he wrote:

Wherever there is hunger, wherever there is exploitative tyranny, wherever people are tortured and masses left to rot under the weight of disease and starvation, the force which holds down the people stems from Washington.

At the same time, Russell was a big fan of Ho Chi Minh’s Communist regime in North Vietnam. “Uncle Ho” was responsible for labor camps, reeducation, torture, and mass executions under the slogan “better ten innocent deaths than one enemy of the state survives.”

Carnap was an apologist for Stalin. Though he never joined the Communist Party, he expressed “an inclination to Communism” and supported many of the Party’s actions.

Carnap blamed the West for the Iron Curtain, saying it “is chiefly caused by [American] military threats.” In 1952, he signed a letter that appeared in the Communist newspaper the Daily Worker calling on the U.S. government to stop preparing concentration camps.

Wittgenstein was also quite sympathetic to Soviet Communism. One of his friends wrote:

Even after the show trials of 1936, the worsening of relations between Russia and the West and the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, Wittgenstein continued to express his sympathy with the Soviet regime — so much so that he was taken by some of his students at Cambridge to be a Stalinist.

The friend denies that Wittgenstein was a Stalinist, but it’s difficult to understand his basis for the denial.

Wittgenstein famously left Cambridge during World War II to work in a London hospital. However, Sesardic points out that, contrary to what some of his admirers say, the great philosopher did so only after Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Before that, he opposed going to war with Nazi Germany.

Hilary Putnam was, by his own admission, a Maoist (“I was connected with a Maoist group; I am no longer a Maoist”). The Maoist group in question was the Progressive Labor Party (PLP), to which Putnam belonged from 1968-72, when he was in his forties.

Ron Rodosh describes PLP as “a Marxist-Leninist sect that made the Communist Party look like a group of tame reformers.” Having attended a few PLP meetings myself, I can say that Rodosh isn’t far off the mark.

PLP fell out of love with Mao when Nixon visited China. After that, Albania and its dictator Enver Hoxha became PLP’s shining lights. Putnam remained a member, following the new party line that, as Sesardic puts it, “extolled Enver Hoxha as the only hope for the future of humanity.”

Talk about reason going on holiday!

Why are philosophers, including some of the best analytic philosophers of the last century, so susceptible to such absurd thinking? Sesardic finds an answer in this passage from Thomas Hobbes:

[B]etween true science and erroneous doctrines, ignorance is in the middle. Natural sense and imagination are not subject to absurdity.

Nature itself cannot err; and as men abound in copiousness of language, so they become more wise, or more mad, than ordinary.

Nor is it possible without letters for any man to become either excellently wise or (unless his memory be hurt by disease, or ill constitution of organs) excellently foolish.

(Emphasis added)

I strongly recommend this book.