How we unlearn to read

Having been busy with grading again, I noticed a strange double standard in our reading practice and posted the following remark on facebook and twitter:

A question for scholars. – How can we spend a lifetime on a chapter in Aristotle and think we’re done with a student essay in two hours? Both can be equally enigmatic.

Although it was initially meant as a joke of sorts, it got others and me thinking about various issues. Some people rightly pointed out that we mainly set essay tasks for the limited purpose of training people to write; others noted that they are expected to take even less than two hours (some take as little as 10 minutes per paper). Why do we go along with such expectations? Although our goals in assigning essays might be limited, the contrast to our critical and historical engagement with past or current texts of philosophers should give us pause. Let me list two reasons.

Firstly, we might overlook great ideas in contributions by students. I am often amazed how some students manage to come up with all crucial objections and replies to certain claims within 20 minutes, while these considerations took perhaps 20 years to evolve in the historical setting. Have them read, say, Putnam’s twin earth thought experiment and listen to all the major objections passing by in less than an hour. If they can do that, it’s equally likely that their work contains real contributions. But we’ll only notice those if we take our time and dissect sometimes clumsy formulations to uncover the ideas behind them. I’m proud to have witnessed quite a number of graduate students who have developed highly original interpretations and advanced discussions in ways that I didn’t dream of.

Secondly, by taking comparably little time we send a certain message both to our students and ourselves. On the one hand, such a practice might suggest that their work doesn’t really matter. If that message is conveyed, then the efforts on part of the students might be equally low. Some students have to write so many essays that they don’t have time to read. And let’s face it, grading essays without proper feedback is equally a waste of time. If we don’t pay attention to detail, we are ultimately undermining the purpose of philosophical education. Students write more and more papers, while we have less and less time to read them properly. Like a machine running blindly, mimicking educational activity. On the other hand, this way of interacting with and about texts will affect our overall reading practice. Instead of trying to appreciate ideas and think them through, we just look for cues of familiarity or failure. Peer review is overburdening many of us in similar ways. Hence, we need our writing to be appropriately formulaic. If we don’t stick to certain patterns, we risk that our peers miss the cues and think badly of our work. We increasingly write for people who have no time to read, undermining engagement with ideas. David Labaree even claims that it’s often enough to produce work that “looks and feels” like a proper dissertation or paper.

The extreme result is an increasing mechanisation of mindless writing and reading. It’s not supring that hoaxes involving automated or merely clichéd writing get through peer review. Of course this is not true across the board. People still write well and read diligently. But the current trend threatens to undermine educational and philosophical purposes. An obvious remedy would be to improve the student-teacher ratio by employing more staff. In any case, students and staff should write less, leaving more time to read carefully.

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Speaking of reading, I’d like to thank all of you who continue reading or even writing for this blog. I hope you enjoy the upcoming holidays, wish you a very happy new year, and look forward to conversing with you again soon.

Embracing mistakes in music and speech

Part of what I love about improvised music is the special relation to mistakes. If you listen to someone playing a well known composition, a deviation from the familiar melody, harmony or perhaps even from the rhythm might appear to be a mistake. But what if the “mistake” is played with confidence and perhaps even repeated? Compare: “An apple a day keeps the creeps away.” Knowing the proverb, you will instantly recognise that something is off. But did I make a downright mistake or did play around with the proverb? That depends I guess. But what does it depend on? On the proverb itself? On my intentions? Or does it depend on your charity as a listener? It’s hard to tell. The example is silly and simple but the phenomenon is rather complex if you think about mistakes in music and speech. What I would like to explore in the following is what constitutes the fine line between mistake and innovation. My hunch is there is no such thing as a mistake (or an innovation). Yes, I know what you’re thinking, but you’re mistaken. Please hear me out.

Like much else, the appreciation of music is based on conventions that guide our expectations. Even if your musical knowledge is largely implicit (in that you might have had no exposure to theory), you’ll recognise variations or oddities – and that even if you don’t know the piece in question. The same goes for speech. Even if you don’t know the text in question and wouldn’t recognise if the speaker messed up a quotation, you will recognise mispronunciations, oddities in rhythm and syntax and such like. We often think of such deviations from conventions as mistakes. But while you might still be assuming that the speaker is sounding somewhat odd, they might in fact be North Americans intonating statements as if they were questions, performing funny greeting rituals or even be singing rap songs. Some things might strike people as odd while others catch on, so much so that they end up turning into conventions. – But why do we classify one thing as a variation and the other as a mistake?

Let’s begin with mistakes in music. You might assume that a mistake is, for instance, a note that shouldn’t be played. We speak of a “wrong note” or a “bum note”. Play an F# with much sustain over a C Major triad and you get the idea. Even in the wildest jazz context that could sound off. But what if you hold that F# for half a bar and then add a Bb to the C Major triad? All else being equal, the F# will sound just fine (because the C Major can be heard as a C7 and the F# as a the root note of the tritone substitution F#7) and our ear might expect the resolution to a F Major triad.* Long story short: Whether something counts as a mistake does not depend on the note in question, but on what is played afterwards.**

Let this thought sink in and try to think through situations in which something sounding off was resolved. If you’re not into music, you might begin with a weird noise that makes you nervous until you notice that it’s just rain hitting the roof top. Of course, there are a number of factors that matter, but the upshot is that a seemingly wrong note will count as fine or even as an impressive variation if it’s carried on in an acceptable way. This may be through a resolution (that allows for a reinterpretation of the note) or through repetition (allowing for interpreting it as an intended or new element in its own right) or another measure. Repetition, for example, might turn a strange sequence into an acceptable form, even if the notes in question would not count as acceptable if played only once. It’s hard to say what exactly will win us over (and in fact some listeners might never be convinced). But the point is not that the notes themselves are altered, but that repetition is a form of creating a meaningful structure, while a one-off does not afford anything recognisable. That is, repetition is a means to turn mistakes into something acceptable, a pattern. If this is correct, then it seems sensible to say that the process of going through (apparent) mistakes is not only something that can lead to an amended take on the music, but also something that leads to originality. After all, it’s turning apparent mistakes into something acceptable that makes us see them as legitimate variations.

I guess the same is true of speech. Something might start out striking you as unintelligible, but will be reinterpreted as a meaningful pattern if it is resolved into something acceptable. But how far does this go? You might think that the phenomenon is merely of an aesthetic nature, pertaining to the way we hear and recontextualise sounds in the light of what comes later. We might initially hear a string of sounds that we identify as language once we recognise a pattern in the light of what is uttered later. But isn’t this also true of the way we understand thoughts in general? If so, then making (apparent) mistakes is the way forward – even in philosophy.

Now you might object that the fact that something can be identified as an item in a language (or in music) does not mean that the content of what is said makes sense or is true. If I make a mistake in thinking, it will remain a mistake, even if the linguistic expression can be amended. – Although it might seem this way, I’d like to claim that the contrary is true: The same that goes for music and basic speech comprehension also goes for thought. Thoughts that would seem wrong at the time of utterance can be adjusted in the light of what comes later. Listening to someone, we will do everything to try and make their thoughts come out true. Trying to understand a thought that might sound unintelligible and wrong in the beginning might lead us to new insights, once we find ways in which it rhymes with things we find acceptable. “Ah, that is what you mean!” As Donald Davidson put it, charity is not optional.*** And yes, bringing Davidson into the picture should make it clear that my idea is not new. Thoughts that strike us as odd might turn out fine or even original once we identify a set of beliefs that makes them coherent. — Only among professional philosophers, it seems, we are all too often inclined to make the thoughts of our interlocutors come out false. But seen in analogy to musical improvisation, the talk of mistakes is perhaps just conservatism. Branding an idea as mistaken might merely reveal our clinging to familiar patterns.

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* Nicer still is this resolution: You hold that F# for half a bar and then add a F# in the bass. All else being equal, the F# will sound just fine (because the C Major can be heard as a D7 add9/11 without the root note) and our ear might expect the resolution to a G Major triad.

** See also Daniel Martin Feige’s Philosophie des Jazz, p. 77, where I found some inspiration for my idea: “Das, was der Improvisierende tut, erhält seinen spezifischen Sinn erst im Lichte dessen, was er später getan haben wird.”

*** The basic idea is illustrated by the example at the beginning of an older post on the nature of error.

Why would we want to call people “great thinkers” and cite harassers? A response to Julian Baggini

If you have ever been at a rock or pop concert, you might recognise the following phenomenon: The band on the stage begins playing an intro. Pulsing synths and roaring drums build up to a yet unrecognisable tune. Then the band breaks into the well-known chorus of their greatest hit and the audience applauds frenetically. People become enthusiastic if they recognise something. Thus, part of the “greatness” is owing to the act of recognising it. There is nothing wrong with that. It’s just that people celebrate their own recognition at least as much as the tune performed. I think much the same is true of our talk of “great thinkers”. We applaud recognised patterns. But only applauding the right kinds of patterns and thinkers secures our belonging to the ingroup. Since academic applause signals and regulates who belongs to a group, such applause has a moral dimension, especially in educational institutions. Yes, you guess right, I want to argue that we need to rethink whom and what we call great.

When we admire someone’s smartness or argument, an enormous part of our admiration is owing to our recognition of preferred patterns. This is why calling someone a “great thinker” is to a large extent self-congratulatory. It signals and reinforces canonical status. What’s important is that this works in three directions: it affirms that status of the figure, it affirms it for me, and it signals this affirmation to others. Thus, it signals where I (want to) belong and demonstrates which nuances of style and content are of the right sort. The more power I have, the more I might be able to reinforce such status. People speaking with the backing of an educational institution can help building canonical continuity. Now the word “great” is conveniently vague. But should we applaud bigots?

“Admiring the great thinkers of the past has become morally hazardous.” Thus opens Julian Baggini’s piece on “Why sexist and racist philosophers might still be admirable”. Baggini’s essay is quite thoughtful and I advise you to read it. That said, I fear it contains a rather problematic inconsistency. Arguing in favour of excusing Hume for his racism, Baggini makes an important point: “Our thinking is shaped by our environment in profound ways that we often aren’t even aware of. Those who refuse to accept that they are as much limited by these forces as anyone else have delusions of intellectual grandeur.” – I agree that our thinking is indeed very much shaped by our (social) surroundings. But while Baggini makes this point to exculpate Hume,* he clearly forgets all about it when he returns to calling Hume one of the “greatest minds”. If Hume’s racism can be excused by his embeddedness in a racist social environment, then surely much of his philosophical “genius” cannot be exempt from being explained through this embeddedness either. In other words, if Hume is not (wholly) responsible for his racism, then he cannot be (wholly) responsible for his philosophy either. So why call only him the “great mind”?

Now Baggini has a second argument for leaving Hume’s grandeur untouched. Moral outrage is wasted on the dead because, unlike the living, they can neither “face justice” nor “show remorse”. While it’s true that the dead cannot face justice, it doesn’t automatically follow that we should not “blame individuals for things they did in less enlightened times using the standards of today”. I guess we do the latter all the time. Even some court systems punish past crimes. Past Nazi crimes are still put on trial, even if the system under which they were committed had different standards and is a thing of a past (or so we hope). Moreover, even if the dead cannot face justice themselves, it does make a difference how we remember and relate to the dead. Let me make two observations that I find crucial in this respect:

(1) Sometimes we uncover “unduly neglected” figures. Thomas Hobbes, for instance, has been pushed to the side as an atheist for a long time. Margaret Cavendish is another case of a thinker whose work has been unduly neglected. When we start reading such figures again and begin to affirm their status, we declare that we see them as part of our ingroup and ancestry. Accordingly, we try and amend an intellectual injustice. Someone has been wronged by not having been recognised. And although we cannot literally change the past, in reclaiming such figures we change our intellectual past, insofar as we change the patterns that our ingroup is willing to recognise. Now if we can decide to help changing our past in that way, moral concerns apply. It seems we have a duty to recognise figures that have been shunned, unduly by our standards.**

(2) Conversely, if we do not acknowledge what we find wrong in past thinkers, we are in danger of becoming complicit in endorsing and amplifying the impact of certain wrongs or ideologies. But we have the choice of changing our past in these cases, too. This becomes even more pressing in cases where there is an institutional continuity between us and the bigots of the past. As Markus Wild points out in his post, Heidegger’s influence continues to haunt us, if those exposing his Nazism are attacked. Leaving this unacknowledged in the context of university teaching might mean becoming complicit in amplifying the pertinent ideology. That said, the fact that we do research on such figures or discuss their doctrines does not automatically mean that we endorse their views. As Charlotte Knowles makes clear, it is important how we relate or appropriate the doctrines of others. It’s one thing to appropriate someone’s ideas; it’s another thing to call that person “great” or a “genius”.

Now, how do these considerations fare with regard to current authors? Should we adjust, for instance, our citation practices in the light of cases of harassment or crimes? – I find this question rather difficult and think we should be open to all sorts of considerations.*** However, I want to make two points:

Firstly, if someone’s work has shaped a certain field, it would be both scholarly and morally wrong to lie about this fact. But the crucial question, in this case, is not whether we should shun someone’s work. The question we have to ask is rather why our community recurrently endorses people who abuse their power. If Baggini has a point, then the moral wrongs that are committed in our academic culture are most likely not just the wrongs of individual scapegoats who happen to be found out. So if we want to change that, it’s not sufficient to change our citation practice. I guess the place to start is to stop endowing individuals with the status of “great thinkers” and begin to acknowledge that thinking is embedded in social practices and requires many kinds of recognition.

Secondly, trying to take the perspective of a victim, I would feel betrayed if representatives of educational institutions would simply continue to endorse such voices and thus enlarge the impact of perpetrators who have harmed others in that institution. And victimhood doesn’t just mean “victim of overt harassment”. As I said earlier, there are intellectual victims of trends or systems that shun voices for various reasons, only to be slowly recovered by later generations who wish to amend the canon and change their past accordingly.

So the question to ask is not only whether we should change our citation practices. Rather we should wonder how many thinkers have not yet been heard because our ingroup keeps applauding one and the same “great mind”.

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* Please note, however, that Hume’s racism was already criticised by Adam Smith and James Beattie, as Eric Schliesser notes in his intriguing discussion of Baggini’s historicism (from 26 November 2018).

** Barnaby Hutchins provides a more elaborate discussion of this issue: “The point is that a neutral approach to doing history of philosophy doesn’t seem to be a possibility, at least not if we care about, e.g., historical accuracy or innovation. Our approaches need to be responsive to the structural biases that pervade our practices; they need to be responsive to the constant threat of falling into this chauvinism. So it’s risky, at best, to take an indiscriminately positive approach towards canonical and non-canonical alike. We have an ethical duty (broadly construed) to apply a corrective generosity to the interpretation of non-canonical figures. And we also have an ethical duty to apply a corrective scepticism to the canon. Precisely because the structures of philosophy are always implicitly pulling us in favour of canonical philosophers, we need to be, at least to some extent, deliberately antagonistic towards them.”

In the light of these considerations, I now doubt my earlier conclusion that “attempts at diversifying our teaching should not be supported by arguments from supposedly different moral status”.

*** See Peter Furlong’s post for some recent discussion.

Heidegger: Uses and Abuse(s)

Following his post ‘‘Heidegger was a Nazi’ What now?’, Martin Lenz invited me to join the discussion.

There has been a lot written about whether we can separate out Heidegger’s philosophical work from his politics, in particular whether Being and Time – which is often seen as his most significant contribution – can be ‘saved’. There is a lot of excellent scholarship in this area (see for example the work of Mahon O’Brien), but this is not my particular field of expertise. Nevertheless, while I do not feel I can speak directly to the historical question, I would say that, personally, when I first encountered Being and Time as an undergraduate, I didn’t read it and think ‘this guy is definitely a Nazi’. However, once you have this knowledge it obviously makes you reflect on the writing, and there are certain points in the text (the issue of destiny etc), which can be read as problematic in light of his Nazism. Although I do wonder to what extent these things are read into the text in light of knowledge of his politics. I would also add that these more problematic aspects are, to my mind, not the key contributions of Being and Time and that what I take to be the more important concepts and ideas can be employed in other contexts without being ‘infected’ by his politics. In this vein, one must also note the influence of Heideggerean ideas, not only on the French tradition, but also for example on Arendt’s work. If Heidegger’s oeuvre is infected by his politics, does this mean that any work, or any thinker, that draws on his ideas is similarly infected? I think not.

Knowledge of Heideggerean ideas can help to enhance our understanding of other key thinkers, as I argue in my paper Beauvoir and Women’s Complicity in their own Unfreedom. Reading the notion of complicity in The Second Sex in light of the notions of falling and fleeing in Being and Time helps to bring about new ways of thinking about complicity that are not available if we just understand the notion of complicity with regard to the Sartrean idea of bad faith, or in light of the Republican tradition.

With regard to the broader debate about philosophers with, to put it mildly, ‘dodgy politics’, I think it is very striking that Frege, for example (who Martin does note in his original blog post), is so often not mentioned in this context and that these debates appear to be had almost exclusively in relation to Heidegger and not other thinkers who would also serve to make the same point. I would not in any way want to defend Heidegger’s politics, but I do think appeal to his politics is often used as a way to dismiss his work because people have other reasons for not wanting to engage with it, and this is an easy way to dismiss him. I’ve had people dismiss questions I’ve asked at conferences because (after a couple of follow up questions) it’s become apparent that I might be using Heideggerean ideas as a touch stone. In the formal discussion they’ve said ‘oh I don’t know anything about him’ and then shut down the discussion, even though knowledge of Heidegger wasn’t necessary to engage with the point. I don’t think if the same point was made using, for example, Kantian ideas or something inspired by Descartes anyone would dream of dismissing this in the same way. I’ve also had senior people tell me ‘you shouldn’t work on Heidegger, you’ll never get a job’. I think this attitude is unhelpful. Yes, his political views are abhorrent, but given his influence on other key thinkers and traditions I don’t think we can just dismiss his work.

I also think there seems to be an underlying assumption that anyone who works on Heidegger just uncritically accepts his ideas and worships him as a god, which is perhaps true of some (bad) Heidegger scholarship. But my own work, which draws on Heideggerean resources to make points in feminist philosophy, does not treat him in this way. One seems to encounter the attitude in a lot of people who are critical of Heidegger scholarship that anyone who works on him has been inducted into a kind of cult and completely lacks agency, that they can’t separate out the potentially fruitful ideas from those that may be politically compromised. Or that if a particular concept or idea does have some problematic elements, the scholar in question just wouldn’t be able to see it or critique it.

Aristotle, Hegel, Nietzsche all say some pretty problematic things about women, but this hasn’t stopped feminist philosophers from using their ideas and it doesn’t make the feminist scholarship that arises from this work somehow compromised, tainted, or anti-women. I think the point should be about how we engage with these thinkers and what we can do with them, rather than just dismissing them out of hand (often by people without a sufficient understanding of their work).

Charlotte Knowles, University of Groningen.

 

Kill your darlings! But how?

Why can’t you finish that paper? What’s keeping you? – There is something you still have to do. But where can you squeeze it in? Thinking about salient issues I want to address, I often begin to take the paper apart again, at least in my mind. – “Kill your darlings” is often offered as advice for writers in such situations. When writing or planning a paper, book or project you might be prone to stick to tropes, phrases or even topics and issues that you had better abandon. While you might love them dearly, the paper would be better off without them. So you might have your paper ready, but hesitate to send it off, because it still doesn’t address that very important issue. But does your paper really need to address this? – While I can’t give you a list of items to watch out for, I think it might help to approach this issue by looking at how it arises.

How do you pick your next topic for a project or paper? Advanced graduate students and researchers are often already immersed in their topics. At this level we often don’t realise how we get into these corners. Thus, I’d like to look at situations that I find BA students in when they think about papers or thesis topics. What I normally do is ask the student for their ideas. What I try to assess, then, are two things: does the idea work for a paper and is the student in a position to pursue it? In the following, I’ll focus on the ideas, but let’s briefly look at the second issue. Sometimes ideas are very intriguing but rather ambitious. In such cases, one might be inclined to discourage students from going through with it. But some people can make it work and shouldn’t be discouraged. You’ll notice that they have at least an inkling of a good structure, i.e. a path that leads palpably from a problem to a sufficiently narrow claim. However, more often people will say something like this: “I don’t yet know how to structure the argument, but I really love the topic.” At this point, the alarm bells should start ringing and you should look very carefully at the proposed idea. What’s wrong with darlings then?

(1) Nothing: A first problem is that nothing might seem wrong with them. Liking or being interested in a topic isn’t wrong. And it would be weird to say that someone should stop pursuing something because they like it. Liking something is in fact a good starting point. You’ve probably ended up studying philosophy because you liked something about it. (And as Sara Uckelman pointed out, thinking about your interests outside philosophy and then asking how they relate to philosophy might provide a good way to finding a dissertation topic.) At the same time, your liking something doesn’t necessarily track good paper topics. It’s a way into a field, but once you’re there other things than your liking might decide whether something works. Compare: I really love the sound of saxophones; I listen to them a lot. Perhaps I should learn to play the saxophone. So it might get me somewhere. But should start playing it live on stage now? Well …

(2) Missing tensions. What you like or love is likely to draw you in. That’s good. But it might draw you in in an explorative fashion. So you might think: “Oh, that’s interesting. I want to know all about it.” But that doesn’t give you something to work on. An explorative mood doesn’t get you a paper; you need to want to argue. Projects in philosophy and its history focus on tensions. If you want to write a paper, you’ve got to find something problematic that creates an urgent need for explanation, like an apparent contradiction or a text that does not seem to add up. Your love or interest in a topic doesn’t track tensions. If you want to find a workable idea, find a tension.

(3) Artificial tensions. Philosophy is full of tensions. When people want to “do what they love”, they often look for a tension in their field. Of course, there will be a lot of tensions discussed in the literature. But since people often believe they should be original, they will create a tension rather than pick up one already under discussion. This is where problems really kick in. You might for instance begin a thesis supervision and be greeted with a tentative “I’m interested in love and I always liked speech act theory. I would like to write about them.” I have to admit that it’s this kind of suggestion I hear most often. So what’s happening here? – What we’re looking at is not a tension but a (difficult) task. The task is created by combining two areas and hence creating the problem of applying the tools of one field to the issue of another. Don’t get me wrong: of course you can write intriguing stuff by applying speech act theory to the issue of love. But this usually requires some experience in both areas. Students often come up with some combination because they like both topics or had some good exposure to them. There might also be a vague idea of how to actually combine the issues, but there is no genuine tension. All there is is a difficult task, created ad hoc out of the need to come up with a tension.

Summing up, focusing on your interests alone doesn’t really guide you towards good topics to work on. What do I take home from these considerations? Dealing with darlings is a tricky business. Looking at my own work, I know that a strong interest in linguistics and a deep curiosity about the unity of sentences got me into my MA and PhD topics. But while these interests got me in, I had to let go of them when pursuing my actual work. So they shaped my approach, but they did not dictate the arguments. Motivationally, I could not have done without them. But in the place they actually took me, I would have been misguided by clinging to them.

Anyway, the moral is: let them draw you in, but then let go of them. Why is that worth adhering to? Because your darlings are about you, but your work should not be about yourself, at least not primarily. The tensions that you encounter will come out of existing discussions or texts, not out of tasks you create for yourself. How do you distinguish between the two? I’d advise to look for the actual point of contact that links all the issues that figure in your idea. This will most likely be a concrete piece of text or phrase or claim – the text that is central in your argument. Now ask yourself whether that piece of text really requires an answer to the question you can’t let go of. Conversely, if you have an idea but you can’t find a concrete piece of text to hang it onto, let go of the idea or keep it for another day.

“Nevermore”. A response to Martin Lenz

Thank you for your thoughts, Martin! As you know, I’ve been teaching Heidegger, I wrote some pieces about Heidegger, 5 years ago I started to follow the advice of Edgar Allan Poe’s raven: nevermore! Here are some reasons. I try to relate them to your argument, in addition I try to push my point in the opposite direction.

I think there is a sort of a priori answer to the question whether someone’s philosophical thought is marked by their political views: If the person expresses in a philosophically relevant and public context an idea expressive of a political idea and if this expression is significantly related to concepts, lines of thoughts or arguments central to the person in question, then his philosophical thought is marked by his political view. If the political view expressed is hideous, then the philosophical thought expressing the hideous idea is also hideous. Heidegger expressed such political ideas in philosophically relevant and public context before, during, and after the Third Reich using concepts etc. central to his thought. I think that Heidegger’s thought is strongly tainted by a hideous political idea (in a way Frege’s or even Nietzsche’s thought isn’t).

My first argument has been about the “logical” notion of thought, not the “psychological” one. However, there is another question beyond that dichotomy: a philosopher is not just a bearer or producer of psychological or logical contents, many philosophers are philosophers by profession, which means that they occupy positions in universities, have certain duties and rights as philosophy professor, deliver certain services to the philosophical community, act as philosophers etc. Heidegger is in this sense very much continuous with us philosophy professors etc. working in universities, in a way Plato, Seneca, Descartes, Spinoza or Kierkegaard aren’t. As professor (and rector) of the University of Freiburg Heidegger acted several times out of a hideous political ideology. The most drastic case is Heidegger’s “Gutachten” about his Munich colleague Richard Hönigswald in 1933. According to Heidegger, Hönigswald’s philosophy has «den Blick abgelenkt vom Menschen in seiner geschichtlichen Verwurzelung und in seiner volkhaften Überlieferung seiner Herkunft aus Boden und Blut. Damit zusammen ging eine bewusste Zurückdrängung jedes metaphysischen Fragens…». While the first part of the quote dismisses Hönigswald’s thought as not being geschichtlich and völkisch, the second part establishes a direct connection to Heidegger’s Antrittsvorlesung “Was ist Metaphyisk?”.

Finally, Heidegger’s thought has been influential for more hideous political ideas. It has been an inspiration for the Ayatollah regime in Iran (mediated by his French translator Henri Corbin), it is an inspiration for the alt right, Donatella di Cesare (author of a book on Heidegger and the Shoa) has been threatened by Italian facists. Honoring Heidegger with seminars at the university gives further force to this kind of reception.

Shall we, thus, not study Heidegger’s thought? Of course. Janek Wasserman’s “Black Vienna. The Radical Right in the Red City 1918-1938” (2014) contains an interesting chapter on Othmar Spann: “For many years, the Spannkreis served as a linchpin of Viennese culture and Central European radical conservative politics. The most influential intellectual group in interwar Vienna was also its most conservative. It was also the most political impactful. Red Vienna was therefore not a Marxist fortress.” (105). We can study Heidegger, his networks, his thought, his influence and reception as part of our history and historically if we study him not as an exceptional philosophical genius (he wasn’t), but as a chapter in the history of ideas, especially the history of hideous political ideas in the 20thCentury.

Markus Wild (University of Basel) and his dog Titus Hunderich

“Heidegger was a Nazi.” What now?

“B was a bigot” is a phrase that raises various questions. We can say it of various figures, both dead and alive. But this kind of phrase is used for various purposes. In what follows, I’d like consider some implications of this phrase and its cognates. – Let me begin with what might seem a bit of a detour. Growing up in Germany, I learned that we are still carrying responsibility for the atrocities committed under the Nazi regime. Although some prominent figures declared otherwise even in the Eighties, I think this is true. Of course, one might think that one cannot have done things before one was born, but that does not mean that one is cut off from one’s past. Thinking historically means, amongst other things, to think of yourself as determined by continuities that run right through you from the past into the options that make your future horizon. The upshot is: we don’t start from scratch. It is with such thoughts that I look at the debates revolving around Heidegger and other bigots. Is their thought tainted by their views? Should we study and teach them? These are important questions that will continue to be asked and answered. Adding to numerous discussions, I’d like to offer three and a half considerations.*

(1) The question whether someone’s philosophical thought is tainted or even pervaded by their political views should be treated as an open question. There is no a priori consideration in favour of one answer. That said, “someone’s thought” is ambiguous. If we ask whether Heidegger’s or Frege’s (yes, Frege’s!) thought was pervaded by their anti-semitism, the notion is ambiguous between “thought” taken as an item in psychological and logical relations. The psychological aspects that explain why I reason the way I do, often do not show up in the way a thought is presented or received. – Someone’s bigotry might motivate their thinking and yet remain hidden. But even if something remains hidden, it does not mean that it carries no systematic weight. There is an old idea, pervasive in the analytic tradition, that logical and political questions are distinct. But the idea that logic and politics are distinct realms is itself a political idea. All such issues have to be studied philosophically and historically for each individual thinker. How, for instance, can Spinoza say what he says about humans and then say what he says about women? This seems glaringly inconsistent and deserves study rather than brushing off. However, careful study should involve historically crucial ties beyond the question of someone’s thought. There are social, political and institutional continuities (and discontinuities) that stabilise certain views while disqualifying others.

(2) Should we study bigots? If the forgoing is acceptable, then it follows that we shouldn’t discourage the study of bigots. Quite the contrary! This doesn’t mean that I recommend the study of bigots in particular; there are enough understudied figures that you might turn to instead. It just means that their bigotry doesn’t disqualify them as topics of study and that if you’re wondering whether you should, that might in itself be a good reason to get started. This point is of course somewhat delicate, since history of philosophy is not only studied by disinterested antiquarians, but also for reasons of justifying why we endorse certain views or because we hope to find good or true accounts of phenomena. – Do we endorse someone’s political views by showing continuities between their thoughts and ours? Again, that depends and should be treated as an open question. But I don’t think that shunning the past is a helpful strategy. After all, the past provides the premises we work from, whether we like it or not. Rather we should look carefully at possible implications. But the fact that we appropriate certain ideas does not entail that we are committed to such implications. As I said in my last post, we can adopt thoughts, while changing and improving them. That fact that Heidegger was a Nazi does not turn his students or later exegetes into Nazis. However, once we know about the bigotry we should acknowledge as much in research and teaching.

(3) What about ourselves? Part of the reason for making the second remark was that I sometimes hear people say: “A was a bigot; so we shouldn’t teach A. Let’s rather teach B.” While I agree that there are huge numbers of understudied figures that might be taught instead of the same old classics, I don’t think that this line of argument helps. As I see it, it often comes out of the problematic idea that, ideally, we should study and teach only such figures that we consider morally pure. This is a doubtful demand not only because we might end up with very little material. It is also problematic because it suggests that we can change our past at will.** Therefore, attempts at diversifying our teaching should not be supported by arguments from supposedly different moral status; rather we should see that globalisation requires us to eventually acknowledge the impact of various histories and their entanglements. – We don’t teach Heidegger because we chose to ignore his moral status. We teach his and other works because our own thought is related to these works. This has an important consequence for our own moral status. Having the histories we do, our own moral status is tainted. In keeping with my introductory musings, I’d like to say that we are responsible for our past. The historical continuities that we like and wish to embrace are as much our responsibilities as those that we wish to disown. Structurally oppressive features of the past are not disrupted just because we change our teaching schedule.

I guess the general idea behind these considerations is this: The assumption that one can cut off oneself from one’s (philosophical) past is an illusion. As philosophers in institutional contexts we cannot deny that we might be both beneficiaries of dubious heritage as well as suffering from burdens passed down. In other words, some of the bigotry will carry over. Again, this doesn’t mean that we are helpless continuants of past determinants, but it means that it is better to study our past and our involvements with it carefully rather than deny them and pretend to be starting from scratch.

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* See especially the pieces by Peter Adamson and Eric Schliesser.

** Additional comment (25 Nov 2018): However, there is a sense in which we can change our intellectual past, namely reassessing the canon and including neglected figures, on the one hand, while relativising the impact of others. – I have to admit that now doubt the conclusion that “attempts at diversifying our teaching should not be supported by arguments from supposedly different moral status”.