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.
- Live and Let Live, or Let the Left Live? - March 31, 2017
- Philosophy’s Culture of Silence - March 1, 2017
- Against Open Borders - February 8, 2017
- Implicit Bias: From Early Death to Failed Resurrection - January 17, 2017
- On What Doesn’t Seem to Matter - December 28, 2016
- Closet Conservatives - December 12, 2016