Friday, November 21, 2008

Politics and the History of 20th Century Philosophy

Last week's post about the interest in existentialism led to a discussion in comments about politics and the analytic/continental split in philosophy. It is probably worth discussing the political nature of that split.

For those who are not philosophers, the roughest version of the split is that analytics are the logic nerds and the continentals are the ones wearing black and getting dates. The details of the split and how the traditions came to be manifested in American universities is a bit more complex.

The early years of the 20th century in Europe were a time of great upheaval, politically and intellectually. With the end of World War I, the old structures lay in ruins. What had been the distribution of power for as long as anyone remembered was destroyed. What had been the undeniable mathematical and scientific beliefs for as long as anyone could remember were destroyed. What had been thought of as art, music, and architecture had been destroyed. In addition, the war itself, with its incredible brutality shocked the sensibilities of those who considered themselves the end of history, the pinnacle of existence. Trench warfare, chemical weapons, mass death, how could we have done that?

In Germany, which was on the cultural ascendant, the failure of the Wiemar government was widely taken as a sign that liberal, free market approach was bankrupt. Something new needed to take its place to prevent what just happened.

The analytic side took its clue from the non-Euclidean geometry and Einstein's theory of relativity. From these advances, they saw not only the need to radically revise all of our basic concepts, but to seek a way of justifying them that was science-like in not needing to appeal to the human intuition which could be so easily corrupted by politics and self-interest. We would try to ground all beliefs on that for which we could have evidence which could be observed by anyone. Further, the scientific community would serve as the basis for our view of the world. It was the scientists and mathematicians who collaborated across boundaries, who ignored artificial borders for the advancement of all humanity. The horrors of the period were due to nationalism and superstition, the sorts of falsehoods that prey on human frailty and need to be guarded against with scientific rigor.

The Continental side followed the lead of Edmund Husserl, a mathematician who saw the failure as one based upon the alienation of human experience from the conceptual basis used in our intellectual pursuits. Husserl's protege was Martin Heidegger who followed Husserl's approach called "phenomenology" and argued that the lived experience was no longer the foundation of our understanding of the world and this led to technologies and social systems that valued theory and ideology over human welfare.

This philosophical divide needs to be superimposed upon the political divisions of the time. Science was as political then as now. To be pro-scientific was generally to be left-leaning. And so the early analytics were largely socialists. Because of Cold War sloppiness, we often now conflate socialism with Communism, but the divide was something real and deep in interwar Germany and Austria where the socialists and the Communists were all but warring factions. There were a few notable exceptions. Karl Popper and Ludwig von Mises, for example, were champions of the free market and Otto Neurath leaned towards Marxism, but by in large, the bulk of the early analytic thinkers were socialists.

Heidegger's view was that the foundations of phenomenology were rooted in the individuality of the being and this led him to so oppose Communism that he became a member of the Nazi party, eventually turning his back on his own mentor Husserl because he was Jewish. Indeed, Heidegger removed the dedication to his masterwork Being and Time which had thanked Husserl for his influence.

But not all of those influenced by Heidegger shared his despicable politics. Hannah Arendt and the existentialists like Sartre, de Beauvior, and Camus took up the phenomenological approach, but were opposed to Nazism.

At the same time, in Frankfurt there arose a group of intellectuals who were explicitly neo-Marxist. Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse were amongst the leading lights of this group. They joined the phenomenologists in arguing that the analytic approach, specifically positivism, was deeply flawed.

When Hitler came to power and purged the universities, all of these groups had to flee -- with the exception of Heidegger who became rector of the university in Freiburg, a very prestigious position. Others -- those who managed to escape, and not all of them did -- took positions in Britain and the US. Many of the neo-Marxists of Frankfurt found a home in New York at Columbia University and the New School where they influenced the American "New Left."

The analytics, on the other hand, settled across the country taking positions in Los Angeles, Chicago, Princeton, Minnesota, Iowa. The positivists were less strident politically when they emigrated here. The end of the war had brought McCarthyism and it struck the analytics as worrisome to see the beginning of what they had just left. As guests who were under suspicion for having German accents, they toned down the political end of the project and focused on the technical. Indeed, some of the analytics became the first hires at the Rand Corporation. But this must be understood in its context. Rand was formed by the Air Force to be a think tank focusing on basic research without concern for particular military use, but whose work could then be used as the military saw useful. As such, it was a chance to develop things like game theory whose foundations von Neumann and Helmer developed at Rand. In this way, analytic philosophy in the 50's became apolitical while the continental side maintained its overt political sensibility.

This may be why it appears to some that Continental thought is to be aligned with our political left while analytic is to be aligned therefore with the right. But this is not at all true. While Quine was politically conservative, he was unusual in that sense. Indeed, as Aspazia points out the work of Francis Fukuyama is part of the basis of neo-conservativism and pulls from contemporary continental thought. There simply is no neat mapping of the analytic/continental divide onto the contemporary American political split.