Philosophy’s Culture of Silence

Neven Sesardic’s recent book, When Reason Goes on Holiday, provides a detailed account of the morally questionable actions undertaken in the interest of political causes by some of the most important philosophers in the analytic tradition: Otto Neurath, Rudolf Carnap, Imre Lakatos, Donald Davidson, Hilary Putnam, among several others. Some of their actions were not just questionable from a moral point of view, but outright reprehensible. Yet, as Sesardic points out in the conclusion to his book, the reaction from the philosophical community has been one of utter indifference:

One of the leading logical positivists spends more than two years doing propaganda for Stalin while millions die in the government-caused famine. Reactions? None. One of the most highly esteemed philosophers joins a militant Maoist party and is very active in it for four years, during the horror of the Cultural Revolution. Any interest among his colleagues in knowing more about the episode or understanding how this was possible? Nonexistent. A hugely influential thinker describes in his autobiography and several interviews how he suspended his opposition to Hitler and the Nazi-Stalin Pact and then reversed himself miraculously on the day of the German attack on the Soviet Union. Reaction? Yawn. … A scholar in one of the top philosophy departments in the UK defends for years the brutal Soviet oppression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 as a completely justified response to “fascist rebellion”. Response? A total lack of interest, followed by his being elected to the prestigious Chichele chair of political theory at Oxford. A renowned philosopher of science was in his youth an ultra-Stalinist as well as a police informer and also gratuitously forced a young woman to commit suicide. Response? An attempt to distort some of these facts and present them in a positive light, plus naming a university building and the highest award in the field after him (p. 214; emphasis in original).

As this—incomplete—list suggests (and as Sesardic himself observes in connection with a particular case), there has never been anything remotely similar to the controversy caused by revelations of Martin Heidegger’s Nazi past. The reason is not hard to fathom: the political inclinations of the analytic philosophers discussed by Sesardic were without exception progressive or left-wing ones. In other words, they are fundamentally good inclinations in the eyes of the establishment. Therefore, it seems, we are not supposed to be distracted by a miscalculation over here or a dead body over there. One can easily imagine how different the reaction would have been if the paragraph quoted from Sesardic’s book had mentioned that a logical positivist had spent two years doing propaganda for Hitler, or that a highly esteemed philosopher had been active for four years in the American Nazi Party.

It should not come as a surprise, then, that Sesardic’s book has so far met the same muted response. It has been mentioned on a couple of right-wing blogs (here and on the Maverick Philosopher), but not, to my knowledge, on blogs such as Leiter Reports, Daily Nous, Digressions and Impressions, Crooked Timber, and Feminist Philosophers. (By the way, there is a lot of material in the book that might be of interest to feminist philosophers, including a prominent philosopher of science’s role in the suicide of a woman, and progressive Princeton philosophers supporting a serial rapist’s presidential bid in the 1960s.) This is all the more striking since these blogs are otherwise very open to airing philosophy’s dirty laundry. The proof of this is the attention that has been given to all sorts of allegations of sexual harassment, to Heidegger’s Nazi past, and to a conservative philosopher’s one-time connection with a Japanese tobacco company. Moreover, very recently, Justin Weinberg of Daily Nous has called on three prominent philosophers who had expressed support for Donald Trump to justify themselves on his blog. The same three philosophers were said to be “naïve” (and implied to be “embarrassing”, “naïve suckers”) in one of Brian Leiter’s lengthier posts. It seems, then, that support for political causes considered to be questionable is, at least in principle, an important blog topic.

In short, it seems that philosophy’s culture of silence has resulted in a one-sided omertà on the political misadventures of left-wing philosophers. However, the culture can be expected to have taken other forms as well, affecting the reviewing process conducted by journals, publishers, and funding bodies. For example, a recent article in Philosophy of Science by feminist philosopher Janet Kourany openly defends a culture of silence regarding research on cognitive differences between groups in order to “move science closer to the forefront of social change” (p. 789). Needless to say, Kourany’s uncritical reliance on stereotype threat research (apparently) passed the reviewing process unchallenged. Hence, the article itself could serve as an illustration of how philosophy’s culture of silence imposes an epistemic cost on the profession: students and scholars are not exposed to the best case that can be made for or against certain positions (for example, positions assuming the explanatory power of stereotype threat). In turn, this may lead society to lose trust in the expertise of the profession, with possible defunding as a result.

Sesardic ends his book on a hopeful note, though, citing a friend who remarked that “the word holiday implies that reason might come back” (p. 215; italics in original). Let me also end on a positive note by offering some justification for this hope. In this day and age, where information can be so easily accessed and distributed, it is quasi-impossible to maintain a culture of silence. At best, one can maintain the culture on one’s own blog, in one’s own classroom, or in one’s own edited collection. But in the end, one’s partisan attempt to conceal powerful arguments and inconvenient truths is bound to be exposed.

Bob le flambeur

Bob le flambeur is a professional philosopher who enjoys the finer things in life, but who is afraid that his opinions about politically sensitive topics are becoming unaffordable. Hence, he has decided to go underground.

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  1. The silence runs in another direction as well: the professoriate doing little that’s visible in the way in giving credit to major conservative and libertarian thinkers where it’s due. 95 years ago Mises wrote a magisterial treatise, ‘Socialism’ – a tour de force in political economy as such – demonstrating (in his ‘apriori’ fashion, no less) that socialist central planning would be pretty much as impractical and destructive as it turned out in practice to be. Has he been given due credit for this? Has it caused his critics to rethink the ‘aprioristic’ method the subtleties of which Mises probably grasped to much greater degree than his critics do?

    Then, 60 years ago, he wrote another magisterial work, ‘Theory and History,’ a chapter of which goes on to obliterate dialectical materialism as a huge fraud perpetrated by and on the intelligentsia. 60 years ago was about the height of Marxism-Leninism’s worldwide influence, with Cuba and China revving up to take the ill-fated plunge. Mises was drowned out at the time by the fever-pitch pro-Marxism, but time vindicated him. Robert Heilbroner was pretty much the only notable socialist to give a mea culpa in 1989.

    60 years ago also marked the year that Rand published a philosophical novel demonstrating in meticulous detail and beyond any reasonable doubt how idiotic anti-capitalist thought was. Standing nearly alone (with Mises and Hayek, basically) among the intellectual giants of the day against the tide of Commie nonsense run amok, she has also been vindicated by time and world-political experience. So why do so many of the professoriate continue to heap scorn upon her to this day? Has it occurred to them to reconsider, to inquire into just how much Rand managed to see that they did not? (Hasn’t she also been vindicated by the resurgence of virtue ethics over the last 60 years?)

    It seems few in the left-wing professoriate have had the intellectual curiosity of a Nozick, who started out a leftist before doing his dialectical homework and realizing that against the combined forces of Rand, Mises, Hayek, Rothbard, Friedman and John “other men’s lives are not yours dispose of” Hospers, the most extensive state he could justify was a minimal one with a ‘framework for utopia.’ Nozick went on later to explain the anti-capitalist biases of the non-hard-science professoriate: . Since the appearance of this essay in his ‘Socratic Puzzles’ collection nearly 2 decades ago now, have the professoriate given us any good reason to doubt the insightfulness and basic reasonableness of Nozick’s explanation? Any rebuttals . . . or basically silence?

    Or how about any leftist rejoinders to Alan Charles Kors’ hard-hitting thesis about the place of the intellectuals vis a vis socialism’s legacy?

    For good measure, let’s consider Walter William’s newest op-piece on how the nations’ so-called educators have undermined student achievement: . With all the intellectual resources supposedly possessed by the so-called progressives predominantly in charge of schooling – not to mention the world-leading financial resources at their avail ( ; at the least it’s almost certainly in the top 5 in the world in spending per student: ) – you’d think they could overcome obstacles to student achievement and thereby avoid having to come up with pitiful excuses for the mediocre outcomes they’ve been overseeing. Perhaps they might even give away the entire case to the conservatives by offering up the one legitimate excuse they might muster: they’re managing to prevent even worse outcomes than otherwise, given all the broken homes so many of the students are raised in. (But, pray tell, just what intellectual and cultural influences, and attributable to what actors, might explain the catastrophic numbers of broken homes? What if lots and lots of valuable intellectual resources got squandered on the wrong things – like disregarding or insulting Mises and Rand, Buckley and Moynihan, for instance?)

    • I agree that right-wing intellectuals very often don’t get the credit they deserve (in philosophy). My discussion of how the culture of silence affects the reviewing process was supposed to hint at that problem, but the problem is no doubt far more widespread.

  2. Ultimate:

    Thanks for mentioning Mises; I’d never heard of him. I think I’ll now read some of his work.

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