Beware the Political Philosopher

When Reason Goes on Holiday is a new book with a distressingly familiar theme: intellectuals who preached reason and research while glorifying romantic ideals of revolution and the ideas of Lenin, Mao and Castro. The author, Neven Sesardic, deals with some big names in modern philosophy and shows that the wooly-headed politics associated with the Frankfurt School and continental philosophy also afflicted analytic philosophers.

The chapter on a renowned philosopher of science is entitled “Imre Lakatos: Eulogized In England: Unforgiven in Hungary.” In 1944 the charismatic Lakatos was the leader of an underground Communist cell in German-occupied Hungary.  What followed was a real-life version of what Arthur Koestler depicted in Darkness at Noon, where the protagonist, an old Bolshevik imprisoned by the regime he helped to create, accepts the logic of the all-knowing party and confesses to crimes he did not commit.

Lakatos feared that one of the members of the cell, a 19 -year-old Jewish girl Eva Izsak, might be a security risk.  Lakatos’ solution- -in the midst of Hitler’s final solution –-was to persuade Eva to commit suicide on behalf of the party. Virtually the entire cell, including Eva’s boyfriend, supported this. Eva took poison a few days later. Eva Revesz, Lakatos’s wife, quickly took possession of the dead girl’s heavy winter coat. Lakatos became a minister in Hungary’s  Communist government and was later imprisoned by his fellow Communists. When the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 broke out, he fled to England and academic greatness as a philosopher of science.

Hilary Putnam, described in his 2016 New York Times obituary as “a giant of modern philosophy,” was, from  1968 to 1972 a member of a Maoist cult known as the Progressive Labor Party, an offshoot of  Students for  Democratic Society prominent at Harvard. After Nixon’s détente with China, the PLP switched its loyalty to Albania and the glorious thoughts of its leader Enver Hoxa. Putnam was part of PLP in a period when the massive crimes of Chairman Mao had become known, but this had scant effect on Putnam. The brilliant academic philosopher, the man of reason, never seemed to grasp the enormity of Maoist moral deformities.

The problem of political and moral blindness was not confined to individual philosophers. In 1969, at the instigation of Hilary Putnam, the American Philosophical Association passed a resolution calling for immediate American withdrawal from Vietnam. A few philosophers, most notably Sidney Hook, argued that academics could not enter politics without undermining their authority. He was ignored, and the APA went on to adopt a resolution on abortion, IQ, nuclear weapons, the death penalty and the Iraq war. Evidence never seemed at issue. In the mid-1970s, when a million North Vietnamese went into the ocean in rickety boats to escape the Communist dictatorship and its re-education camps, the APA was silent.

At about the same time the APA talked about Tito’s Yugoslavia as a “free society.” Yugoslavia would soon begin to decompose, but not before the APA got caught up defending heterodox Marxists during the Praxis affair. In part Serbian nationalists in cosmopolitan garb, they were indeed oppressed by the once-praised Tito, and they became a rallying cry for the APA in defense of intellectual freedom. However, the Praxis philosophers were not troubled by Tito’s crackdown on Croatian academics.

Philosophers, it would seem, have no greater wisdom about politics than the everyday people they seek to instruct. In fact, detached as they are from daily realities, they may have far less to contribute to politics than they assume.  There is, it seems, an unbridgeable gap between philosophy and politics. Walter Lippmann summed it up when he wrote, “When Philosophers try to be politicians, they generally cease be philosophers.”

Fred Siegel

Fred Siegel

Fred Siegel is a senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute's Center for State and Local Leadership, a City Journal contributing editor, and an expert on public policy solutions for urban governance. A former fellow at The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, he is currently scholar-in-residence at Saint Francis College in Brooklyn.

2 thoughts on “Beware the Political Philosopher

  1. Walter Lippman said it all. Philosophy is a business based on time-tested generalities: whatever’s left from the conflagration of experience. If philosophers instead try to jazz up their business by using material that is too fresh (and thus too likely to decay further and turn out badly), they end up in politics; and without the politician’s defenses of BS, ambiguity and a hardened indifference to the truth.

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