Magazine | February 20, 2017, Issue

Excellently Foolish

Statue of Socrates at the Academy of Athens (Photo: Brigida Soriano/Dreamstime)
When Reason Goes on Holiday: Philosophers in Politics by Neven Sesardic (Encounter, 256 pp., $25.99)

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates famously proposes to create an ideal regime ruled by philosopher-kings. One of his companions, Adeimantus, replies that most philosophers, “when they carry on the study, . . . become strange monsters, not to say utter rogues,” and that “those who may be considered the best of them are made useless to the world by the very study that you extol.” He argues that, whatever the merits of philosophy, when we look around us and observe actual philosophers, the best of them are made useless or even dangerous to politics.

Even Socrates, the defender of the philosopher-king, admits that Adeimantus has a point. Philosopher Neven Sesardic’s book amasses a great deal of evidence in support of Adeimantus’s warning that even great philosophers usually go wrong when thinking about politics.

Sesardic limits his subject to prominent academic philosophers from the past century within the so-called analytic school of philosophy. It is much easier, he argues, to show that “Continental” philosophers (the other dominant tradition within contemporary philosophy) historically endorsed disastrous political ideas, and this “opens the path for the argument that analytic philosophers are better protected from committing political blunders.”

Alas, as Sesardic shows, some of the greatest thinkers of the analytic tradition have also made disastrous assessments of political questions. The chapters of his book comment on a variety of these blunders. Otto Neurath, a prominent member of the “Vienna Circle,” which promoted logical positivism, was heavily involved in socialist and Communist causes. Neurath played a prominent role both in the ill-fated Bavarian Soviet Republic of 1919 and in the Soviet Union’s statistics bureau in the early 1930s, developing Stalinist propaganda.

Ludwig Wittgenstein assured the Soviet ambassador to the U.K. that he was not politically dangerous to the Soviet Union, and expressed strong sympathy for the objectives of the Soviet Communists. These assurances earned him the right to visit the Soviet Union in 1935, and, according to Sesardic, he was impressed enough on that visit to remain sympathetic to the Communist cause throughout his life.

Imre Lakatos, one of the most important philosophers of science in the 20th century, persecuted “reactionary” professors on behalf of Communists in Hungary in the mid 1940s (and was perhaps responsible for the murder by suicide of Eva Izsak in 1944). Hilary Putnam was, from 1968 to 1972, a member of the Progressive Labor Party, a radical left-wing party that Martha Nussbaum described as a cult dedicated to the propagation of Maoism. Putnam frequently sold the party’s newspaper on a street corner at Harvard Square.

Sesardic also notes the propensity of prominent intellectuals to make irresponsible comparisons. In 1954, Albert Einstein lamented that “we have come a long way toward the establishment of a fascist regime”: “The similarity of general conditions [in the United States] to those in the Germany of 1932 is quite obvious.” Bertrand Russell wrote disapprovingly, in 1951, that America had become like Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia: “If by some misfortune you were to quote with approval some remark by Jefferson you would probably lose your job and perhaps find yourself behind bars.”

Many significant philosophers did, of course, reject their colleagues’ extreme politics. Max Weber wrote that Otto Neurath’s economics were “amateurish, objectively absolutely irresponsible foolishness.” Karl Popper was critical of Marxism and said of Neurath: “He supported a kind of politics which I regarded as very wrong. Furthermore, he was especially naïve, in the best sense of the word. His attitude to Communism was naïve, decidedly naïve.”

Sesardic summarizes the overall problem as follows: “In their academic (nonpolitical) work, philosophers become successful when they present arguments their colleagues find persuasive or worth discussing. As a rule, one is rewarded for presenting good arguments. With political views it is different. The opinions here tend to be held passionately, judicious arguments do not have so much force, and animosity is often freely expressed.” This is why, “despite their declared love of wisdom, . . . many leading philosophers have shown embarrassingly poor judgment in their excursions into politics”: “Many contemporary philosophers have disgraced themselves by defending totalitarian political systems and advocating political ideas they should have easily recognized as distasteful and inhumane.”

Readers disposed to defend the philosophers criticized in this book could point out that much of the evidence is circumstantial, and Sesardic arguably makes too much of the connections he is able to make. The chapter on Rudolf Carnap, for example, explains that he was associated with Communist causes (he often signed petitions that appeared in the Communist Party’s newspaper) and that he supported Henry Wallace in 1948, but fails to provide direct evidence that Carnap supported Stalinism or the Communist Party.

Many of the subjects of Sesardic’s book can also be defended on the grounds that they were simply naïve, not irrational, when it came to politics. As academics, they had little experience with the real-world implications of endorsing faulty ideas and few run-ins with people who had a vested interest in manipulating them for political gain. For instance, the chapter on Albert Einstein (who, Sesardic admits, straddles the distinction between philosopher and scientist) notes that he was a frequent apologist for the Soviet Union. However, the evidence paints Einstein more as a dupe of the Soviet Union who supported bad causes out of ignorance than as a true believer.

These lapses of practical judgment also seem to be what caused the missteps of philosophers such as Donald Davidson. Davidson, who chaired the philosophy department at Princeton during the 1960s, took the side of the student protesters who demanded the abolition of grades and pressed for the hiring of radical activist Angela Davis. In many cases, then, Sesardic is able to demonstrate not that these philosophers’ reason itself went on holiday but that they were naïve and imprudent in their left-wing political advocacy.

Still, in spite of these potential objections to Sesardic’s thesis, the evidence he amasses cannot be dismissed easily. Over the past century, even the most sober, logical, rational philosophers in the analytic school made political miscalculations that even far-left politicians might avoid. What accounts for this strange phenomenon? Why is it that great philosophers are so bad at thinking about politics?

Sesardic acknowledges that “the strong leftist bias among philosophers is certainly a part of the explanation,” but he believes that “there must be something else at work as well.” To explain this other factor, he invokes Hobbes’s statement that, “as men abound in copiousness of language, so they become more wise, or more mad, than ordinary. Nor it is possible without letters for any man to become either excellently wise or . . . excellently foolish.”

But in my view, the key to understanding the problem Sesardic chronicles is found in the work of an older (and wiser) philosopher: Aristotle. In his famous work on ethics, Aristotle divided virtue into two categories: moral and intellectual. The latter category, he argued, could be further divided into theoretical wisdom and practical judgment. Wisdom is concerned with things that cannot change or be other than what they are. Practical judgment, or prudence, is intellectual virtue about the things that can change. Someone can possess wisdom without being prudent. This person might be able to construct an elaborate and coherent theory about eternal truths but be hapless when it comes to the practical considerations that belong to politics.

Many of the philosophers Sesardic describes are wise without being prudent. But some others are neither wise nor prudent. They are irrational about politics not despite but because of their theoretical commitments. These are the people who pursued their ideology regardless of the consequence and justified any evil as a necessary means to achieve some noble vision. The problem of these philosophers is not just that they lacked prudence but that they ignored any evidence that called their ideology into question. So another important lesson Sesardic’s book should teach philosophers is the need to test their political, social, and economic theories to ensure that they account for empirical realities. Doing philosophy should not be an excuse to ignore social science.

Regardless of the cause, Sesardic’s book demonstrates that philosophers — and, in general, academics who have little connection to everyday life — should exercise more humility when tempted to speak definitively about political matters. Perhaps Adeimantus was right after all.

– Mr. Postell, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, is the author of the forthcoming book Bureaucracy in America: The Administrative State’s Challenge to Constitutional Government.

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