Friday, 17 September 2010

The Extremist

Sometimes just to quote is enough…

If his writings continue to proliferate without our being able to stop this intrusion of Nazism into human education, how can we not expect them to lead to yet another translation into facts and acts, from which this time humanity might not be able to recover?  Today, more than ever, it is philosophy’s task to work to protect humanity and alert men’s minds: failing this, Hitlerism and Nazism will continue to germinate through Heidegger’s writings at the risk of spawning new attempts at the complete destruction of thought and the extermination of humankind.  (Emmanual Faye, quoted in a review of his HEIDEGGER by Taylor Carman TLS 10/09/2010)

Who can actually read Heidegger?  Let alone explain him to the rest of us.
The review is sensible, highlighting the anti-Semitism and general ugliness of Heidegger’s behaviour during the Nazi period, but at the same time making a distinction between his actions and his philosophy. His assessment of the above passage is spot on – ‘too silly to merit serious discussion.’  Although he does offer an explanation for these views: the author’s belief that Heidegger’s ideas, by erasing the Cartesian “I”, threatens our individuality, and will induce fascism. He rightly says this is absurd; while pointing out that such a view condemns much of 20th century philosophy.  Yet opinions so extreme suggest there must something else going on.

The whole question of the relationship between a person’s ideas and their surroundings is a fraught one; but in this case it seems unlikely that Heidegger had much influence on the Nazis, and them on him; for they share a common background, arising in large part from 19th Romanticism and its associated irrationalism. J.P. Stern:

[the rejection] of all values which are not expressive of an individual self and which are not created by that  self.  ‘Let your speculative thinking go no further than your creative Will’, says Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra; and: ‘Let your self be in the deed, as the mother is in the child.’  The self is authenticated by its commitment to its chosen task.  The choice, dictated by nothing but the self in circumstances experienced as contingent, is gratuitous.  The commitment of the self is authenticated not by the value and worth of its objective – the value of what a man is committed to – but by the strength, energy and originality of the willing self.

Stern then goes on to show how this concern with the Will (Heidegger’s being?) was transformed in the generation following Nietzsche’s death:

These men… present the extraordinary spectacle of intellectuals bent on the depreciation and destruction of the intellect: coffee-house philosophers, eternal students and brawling radicals with knuckle-dusters, exalting the life of the instincts and attacking criticism in all its  forms as decadent, uncreative and un-German…. These men reduced his [Nietzsche’s] complexities and ambivalences to an exaltation of the ‘organic community’ (Volksgemeinshaft) which, they claim, by its very existence determines what knowledge is valuable and which enquires are worth pursuing. Men like Martin Heidegger… direct their aggression towards a revival of those ‘authentic’ values which the modern cosmopolitan world is destroying. (This is one of only four references to Heidegger in the book, which shows the extent of his influence on Nazi ideology).

Why should a professor of philosophy make such an obvious mistake as to give an abstruse philosophy the power of a nuclear weapon?

Ideas cannot exist without some social and intellectual context, which in turn will be enclosed within a cluster of socio-economic forces; from which they cannot be separated out, if their influence in the world is to be understood.[i]  However, if your only concern is with ideas, if you are a specialist in concepts, then you may come to overvalue their influence; you may, depending on your level of sophistication and pathology, come to see them as the or only motive force in society. You believe philosophers rule the world!  Is this the case here?

There is also the emotional investment – how we love our ideas!  And are prepared to fight for them…  But maybe there is something more.

Let us assume that at the very least ideas are important to Emmanuel Faye: for they are his profession and his livelihood, and his life depends upon them in a quite direct way.  But we have to qualify this.  His job is the management of ideas in general, he is not paid to choose this or that theory; his salary is not dependent on any particular philosophy; the university won’t sack him because he rejects the Categorical Imperative.[ii]  That is, his post, the job he is paid to do, is the manipulation of ideas; and this is separate from the content of that manipulation.  However, it is quite easy to see how these could be mixed up, and somewhere in his unconscious his livelihood becomes fused with a particular theory: making the decision to follow Kant or Edmund Husserl all important. That is, ideas are no longer simply mental objects to be thought about, but become extensions of a personality, upon which your sense of self, and your university role, depends. And you must defend them against all comers; and especially against theories which flatly contradict your own; for they are no longer just ideas, but a competing force, an existential threat – their content becomes a personal attack. Of course, I am talking about philosophers, and perhaps only a certain kind of philosopher…. If this analysis is correct Faye’s perception about his job, his profession, and his self-worth, will depend on the success, the robustness, of what he thinks.  For although the content is irrelevant to his work it is essential, he will come to believe, to his status; to how he is perceived in the world.  However, you can be a distinguished Kantian scholar or a great Husserlian specialist, but unless you are a creative thinker breaking new ground it doesn’t really matter – if you are lucky you’re be a footnote in some classic text, read still a hundred years hence.[iii]  But how easy, if you are not careful, to believe it is the content of what you think that counts; that everything rests on that.  And then the usual happens: you project your own ideas and feelings onto everyone else; and the world around you.  Here, Heidegger is perceived as a threat to his own thought; therefore Heidegger threatens all thought; and since thought determines all actions, and your life is on the line, ergo, the world will come to an end if we don’t eradicate Sein und Zeit.  And this is reflected in his book, apparently.  Not much philosophy but plenty of discussion about Heidegger’s behaviour, and the words he uses.  Why?  Because for Faye they are the same: ideas and being are one (he actually says there is no Heideggerian philosophy – its just Nazi propaganda).

He mistakes the arguments inside his head for their influence in the world outside; because he comes to believe those arguments are his meaning, is raison d’être.  And he is right, on his own terms.  If Heidegger’s theories are correct and they completely contradict his own, then his ideas are mistaken. How hard to admit our ideas are wrong! All those years studying and thinking, all that psychic investment, all that vanity in one’s own brilliance, and snap! You are wrong, and you are shown to be wrong to everyone in your field.  How many people can recover from that… He could be reduced to a crank peddling false promises. His identity, perhaps his post, is thus dependent on his intellectual competence, which is at risk if he fails.  Of course it is not so clear-cut.  Do any professors lose their jobs because of logical failure?  And outside the sciences contradiction is easily accommodated; it is actually built into our understanding of the empirical world (see David Hume).  However, it is easy to be led astray, by one’s obsessions and self-importance.

There may be something else: is Faye an apostate from the Heideggerian worldview?  The extremity of his views suggest this is far more than the usual intellectual fisticuffs – it has all the psychological force of a conversion:

Today a different battle, more protracted and sinister, is unfolding: a contest in which the future of the human race is at stake… the diffusion of Heidegger’s works… slowly descends like ashes from an explosion – a gray cloud slowly suffocating and extinguishing minds… [we must] react and resist before it is too late. (from the Carman review)

Faye is an extremist who wants to erase his enemy. But an extremist of what?  There are two tendencies, which we all have to a degree; one veering towards an atomised conception of the world, a life made up of separate individuals, and the other towards life as a kind of community (see Be Individuals! and Art and Life, particularly the discussion of Ernest Gellner’s ideas). Descartes and Heidegger can be seen as representatives of the two extremes.  Our feelings will gravitate towards both of these opposites; though the tendencies will vary depending on the time and place.  Today we live in a modern industrialised economy where the strongest tendency is towards an atomised existence.  Though our desire for individual freedom doesn’t make us a psychopath.  Likewise our desire for an organic community doesn’t make us a fascist.  Other attributes are needed for that: hate, paranoia, the worship of violence etc., together with the power to enforce them.  But Emmanuel Faye has turned these tendencies into a battleground, an intellectual game of either/or; and we have to make choice, he believes, between them.  There is a very close relationship between ideas and religion: a certain purity and fragility, together with an authoritarian streak – my ideas have to be right!  This is fine, for as long as you can divorce the ideas from your life, and have some scepticism about them; that you accept uncertainty.  I don’t believe this is the usual way for intellectuals: too often they come to believe absolutely in their ideas; which in turn becomes a faith.  This is in part because so much intellectual work is actually imitating, or merely rearranging, a few people’s original thought (see Magee in How Weak Are You?).  Thus many academics are followers and disciples, accepting the assumptions of their Great Thinker, as a believer accepts the word of God.  Ideas can be become fixed, immovable objects, which have to be proved and supported; rather than unstable constructions, which can be changed and transformed into new knowledge.  The difference perhaps between the creative and uncreative thinker (but beware!  Karl Popper wasn’t called the Authoritarian Liberal for nothing).  Intellectuals can thus be very intolerant (the original totalitarian?) and can become dangerous once out of the academy and into the world of high politics.  They didn’t create the Vietnam War but the Power Intellectuals[iv] certainly intensified it; likewise with the Neo-Cons in Washington; they added a certain extremism to a constituency that already existed. If only intellectuals stayed in their ivory towers, how little damage would they do!

And then there is the Cartesian “I”. 

From the mere fact that each of us understands himself to be a thinking thing, and is capable, in thought, of excluding himself every other substance, whether thinking or extended, it is certain that each of us, regarded in this way, is really distinct from every other thinking substance and from every corporeal substance. (Descartes quoted in John Cottingham)

The mind as free-standing enigma.  The key philosophical task is to explain this mind and its relationship to the body; and to the outside world. These are intellectual tasks, and have little role in our actual lives; which have to be explained in different terms.  Compare Heidegger’s actual life with Emmanuel Faye’s and contrast them with two factory workers – one a liberal, the other a fascist.  Where would the greatest differences lie?  Between the professors or the people? Between the two with political views in common, or between those with the same livelihood? Faye’s confusion about this appears to be mirrored in the book – he cannot separate out the philosophy. But what if you overvalue the mind, and rate your profession higher than those around you? And that overvaluation is organically linked to the content of your ideas, which believe in their own independence? You believe yourself to be different and important, and you hold ideas that say: yes you are! 

We live in a society that puts tremendous value on education; an inevitable consequence is that intellect and cleverness are overrated.  There is also the myth that we live in a meritocracy, with intelligence the main driver; the higher it is the more successful you will be.[v]  In such a world, any attempt to reduce the value of intelligence, and your own intellectual talents, suggesting, perhaps, that individual success relies on your relationship to the community (or on your class origins) could be seen as a personal attack: to your dignity and status. Though this is actually true: our position in society is in large part dependent upon it, no matter what a person’s ability.   Consider Norman Finkelstein’s dismissal from De Paul University.  And strangely this is played out within Faye himself; by his inability to separate ideas from their surroundings he tacitly accepts that they cannot have independence. He may want to be Descartes, but he thinks like Martin Heidegger (or what he believes him to be).

What is happening here?  Is he from a privileged background, and feels guilty about it?  A former radical?  What is his relationship to the rest of his university, and French intellectual life generally? Does he hate everybody….

And do I catch echoes of the “Clash of Civilisations” of enlightenment reason against religion; liberalism against fundamentalist Islam… We live in a time where the myth of Rationality has been created to attack another culture, perceived as a threat.  Is Faye projecting his own fears and prejudices about another religion onto Heidegger? Part of one community, is he, in reality, attacking another?

[i] Though ‘no theory can be wholly reduced to its surroundings’ as the book’s editor correctly notes.
[ii] Although there are subject areas that are highly sensitive and can lead to discriminatory action based on content: Eg Norman Finkelstein and Ward Churchill.
[iii] The fact that most of what academics do is trivial and unimportant might also be a factor: at some level this is recognised and can cause psychological tension, with the resultant drive to make oneself decisive and significant.
[iv] Though there is significant difference between a tenured academic and a government policy advisor: the latter’s position is dependent on his advice being sound.  Content does matter to his livelihood.  For more discussion of the Power Intellectuals see How Weak Are You?
[v] See Tony Judt in the New York Review of Books: the 1960s may have been the last time this was the case.

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