Down From the Ivory Tower

Review: Neven Sesardic, 'When Reason Goes on Holiday: Philosophers in Politics'

Bertrand Russell addresses a crowd of some 3,000 anti-nuclear demonstrators in London in 1961 / AP

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Neven Sesardic has written an unfortunate history of modern philosophy. That's not to say When Reason Goes on Holiday is a bad book, although the prose is nothing to write home about. It's not even to say that Sesardic has his facts wrong, since he doesn't, for the most part. No, the publication of When Reason Goes on Holiday is an unhappy occasion primarily because of the moment in which it appears.

Relentlessly cataloguing the embarrassing moments in which famous modern philosophers have made political pronouncements, Sesardic gives us all the ammunition we could need to take pot shots at everyone from Bertrand Russell to Robert Nozick. But even with a loaded gun, who wants to pull the trigger? At a moment in which philosophy needs to be reinvigorated and reestablished, the last thing we need is a tale of philosophers' foolishness when they wander down from their mountaintops. At a moment when the life of the mind is in such disarray—a moment in which the majority of students disbelieve that philosophy can achieve anything, actively rejecting the masterworks of intellectual civilization—the last thing we need is a story of intellectual failure.

In other words, When Reason Goes on Holiday is a book that decries the politicization of philosophy. But with so much of the contemporary world seen through the lens of politics, the effect of the book is to join what it denounces—it is a politicized jeremiad against politicization.

Sesardic is surely right that philosophy, as an intellectual discipline, begins to spiral away from its center when its celebrated practitioners use their celebrity to give luster to their often naive pronouncements about the political situation. But the author invites us to reject not just the politics of the philosophers but also the philosophy of the philosophers. Attempting to teach us to reject the error of spinning out from a core of competence, Sesardic actually teaches us to reject the original competence. In the name of depoliticizing philosophy, he moves us further toward disbelief in the project of philosophy. If these philosophers can't get politics right, and politics is the point of everything, then who needs philosophy?

I say that, and yet … man, are the political incidents awful. In eleven chapters devoted mostly to individual philosophers, and a pair of chapters about the groupthink of philosophical associations, Sesardic explains how trends among the intelligentsia have lured thinkers into fashionable causes. Made famous by their abstractions, they entered the particularities of political and social arguments with no more sophistication than anyone else—and sometimes, a great deal less.

Part of the reason was, no doubt, to share the political views of their academic colleagues from other fields. Another part was certainly the desire to see themselves as advanced, progressive thinkers, not just in the history of philosophy but in the history of the world. There's more, however—a psychological pressure of modern times that pushes the philosophers to opine beyond their expertise. In Sesardic's view, philosophers are rewarded for presenting arguments recognized as skillful by other philosophers. In the modern public realm, they receive positive feedback for passion. And because passion is easier—and the feedback quicker and more addictive—they quickly learn to lend their philosophical prestige to the political passions of the moment.

No one exemplifies that dichotomy more clearly than Bertrand Russell. From fame in logic and such works as the Principia Mathematica he wrote with Alfred North Whitehead, Russell went on to denounce the United States ceaselessly from the First World War to the Vietnam War. The Depression, Korea, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the delay in Ho Chi Minh's victory, the arms race with the Soviets: If Russell opined on it, America was to blame.

In his second chapter, Sesardic moves on to Otto Neurath, whose fame in philosophy of science and recognized position among the "Vienna Circle" of philosophers was leveraged to promote communism—to the point of helping the Soviets create Stalinist propaganda in the 1930s. Albert Einstein and Kurt Gödel (somewhat oddly taken by Sesardic as philosophers) were less favorable to the communists, but they still tended to support Stalinism against the West.

Sesardic devotes a chapter to Gerald Cohen, the Oxford philosophy professor. Since Cohen was openly a communist, best known for his work in Marxist philosophy, he seems slightly out of place in When Reason Goes on Holiday, a tale generally about the twentieth century's non-political philosophers saying foolish things about politics. But recounting the work of the British Marxist allows Sesardic to point out the evil position Cohen took during the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. The Hungarian theme continues through a chapter on Imre Lakatos, the philosopher of mathematics and science who helped purge non-communist faculty in Hungarian schools and planned the suicide of a young woman named Eva Izsak in 1944, in order to divert attention away from his communist cell.

Meanwhile, Rudolf Carnap was outspoken in his support for Stalin. Even Ludwig Wittgenstein—by nature, as apolitical a man as ever existed—constantly expressed his sympathy for the USSR and visited Russia in 1935, praising what he saw. By the time we reach the renowned American philosopher Donald Davidson in the 1960s, the explicit Stalinism has given way to a more general leftism and desire to be on the right side of history, as seen by fellow academics. In the case of Hilary Putnam (who died in 2016), a generally Marxist phase gave way to a full-blown far-left Marxism while he was a member of the Progressive Labor Party, a Maoist cult.

So, what does it all add up to, the cases that Neven Sesardic has collected in When Reason Goes on Holiday? Yes, philosophers can be fools—a fact known since the disastrous attempts of Plato and his students to influence politics in the city-state of Syracuse. And yes, the political foolishness of those philosophers escalated through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. But the news is news we've heard before, generally as a way of telling us we don't need to waste time on the intellectual discipline of philosophy.

Before the complete politicization of art, we didn't typically take artists' support for dictators as indictments of all the art they produced. That some poets supported dictators (or simply behaved immorally) did not necessarily make them bad poets. Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will could be praised as a well-made movie, even though she was a Nazi. In fact, the ethical problem of art arose precisely because the morality of the artist—or even, sometimes, the morality of the artwork's subject—had little to do with the question of whether the art was good art.

Philosophy seems a trickier proposition. Is Seneca's stoicism wrong because his student Nero proved so evil? Are Francis Bacon's philosophical foundations of science false because he was a thief? Is Being and Time in error because the Black Notebooks recently have revealed just how vicious an anti-Semite Martin Heidegger was? With Socrates as the model of a philosopher, we expect a greater personal wisdom about the human condition from philosophers than we do from artists—or scientists, doctors, or military officers, all of whom can be independently good at their jobs while holding despicable political views.

But a strong version of that idea, holding philosophers to a higher standard, would mean that we have had hardly a single great philosopher since the beginning of the twentieth century. Nearly all of them flirted with fascism or communism. Nearly all of them used their academic fame to glamorize their political pronouncements. Nearly all of them stepped out of their intellectual fields to try to influence the world of praxis. And if the sins of philosophers ruin their philosophies, then what survives?

The lesson we need to take from Neven Sesardic's When Reason Goes on Holiday is not that modern philosophers are idiots. Instead, the lesson should be that philosophy needs a strong defense in these days when everything is made political. Art for art's sake, the old slogan ran. And to it we need to add: Philosophy for philosophy's sake.

Joseph Bottum

Joseph Bottum   Email | Full Bio | RSS
Joseph Bottum is a professor of cyber-ethics and director of the Classics Institute at Dakota State University. His most recent book is An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.

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