Some Reflections on Philosophy Yesterday and Today

IWMPost Article

Every philosophy, Hegel once said, embodies the spirit of its times, marking a progression from what came before and anticipating what is to come. What can we say about philosophy today, in the aftermath of two world wars and a cold war, what does it mark, and what does it promise?

Any general account of the history of philosophy in the twentieth century must include a reflection on the devastating impact of the First World War, that inaugural cataclysm that set the stage for much of the century, presaging its many sorrows. This is perhaps above all the case when considering philosophy from its social and political position, which in the development of the modern university during the previous century had become progressively more institutionalized, binding the philosophical vocation ever more tightly to the interests of state power. The dramatic mobilization of the intelligentsia for propaganda purposes during the Great War, as described in Ernst Piper’s Nacht über Europa, was something of a culmination of this process, and it left an indelible mark and a lasting trauma. Philosophy would now be marked by the enduring division of the European cultural community along nationalist lines. The war shattered what had been a robust transnational community of scholars, undermining that sense of a shared calling that would afterwards only ever be provisionally reconstituted and always subject to renewed disintegration in the face of the political needs of the moment. The trauma emerged from another division, this one having to do with a crisis of conscience that the demands of political existence had suddenly set into motion. Here one thinks of the contrast between the spectacle of a Rudolf Eucken or a Henri Bergson committing with surprising enthusiasm not only their public support, but their philosophical energies as well to the war efforts of their respective lands, and on the other end of conscience Bertrand Russell sitting in prison on sedition charges and writing An Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, the stark rationality of its very subject expressing moral condemnation of the utter irrationality of the times.

The result of all this is that the philosopher emerged as a distinctively ambiguous figure in the wake of the First World War. Like all cultural production, philosophy has proven itself to be an essential instrument of the modern state, and its organization through the institutionalization of its practices the fulcrum of its potential mobilization for public ends. Yet like all activities of human creativity and spirit, philosophy also proves to be a source of resistance. However available to being manipulated, time and again the philosopher proves to be reticent. Even where philosophy seems to disappear without remainder into institutional roles, it still retains, as with Fernando Pessoa’s anarchist banker, a distinct critical posture from which it surveys the world with subversive suspicion.

Something of this ambiguity had of course always been characteristic of the philosopher, for no pursuit of thinking is wholly autonomous from the spiritual demands of the times, just as no philosophy worth noting fully succumbs to its prejudices. What is arguably different in the twentieth century is that the classical figure of the philosopher who stands apart in the exercise of a peculiar critical distance, who as Friedrich Nietzsche put it was capable of a reflection that was distinctively unzeitmäßig, incommensurate with the age, was eclipsed by something that seemed to be far more complex, even contradictory. It is as if philosophy had become more worldly, not in its content so much as its form, which no longer seemed to stand on its own as distinctive. The world had ultimately proven too corrosive, and the philosopher tended to appear more in the broken formlessness of a sea-eaten Glaucus than the shining example of moral-intellectual rectitude of a Socrates.

Yet this ambiguity of form is not so much the result of the inability of the philosopher to hold the world at bay, as it is an expression of a sense of the very loss of the world, in the sense that had been described so poignantly in Stefan Zweig’s Die Welt von Gestern. It was the loss of a sense of security, of the belief that the world possessed a fundamental stability that, however severe the tensions and profound the conflicts, would never simply unravel. That the world can and does unravel in its very foundations brings with it an experience of groundlessness, and with that the corrosive nihilism that came to dominate the philosophy of the twentieth century as one of its most intractable problems—even to the point when it arguably becomes the very problem of the possibility of philosophy itself.

The ambiguity of the philosopher born from the nihilism of the age became even more palpable, and its permutations even more varied, in the wake of the Second World War, the utter madness and barbarity of which completed and surpassed what had been set into motion in 1914. It was followed not by another spell of uneasy recovery, but a renewed mobilization, a peculiar war-peace haunted by the possibility of nuclear annihilation. Here philosophy, in the name of older conceptions of wisdom and the good life, became at best a thin line of defense against the emerging hybrid regime of technology and power, a development towards which, true to its formlessness, it equally contributed. This ambivalence regarding instrumental reason played a role, among other things, in yet another chapter in the mobilization of intellectuals for ideological warfare, which had already begun in the interwar period with the rise of totalitarianism, but during the Cold War became incorporated into the basic parameters of intellectual life, defining styles of cooperation and resistance.

The leveling force of the Cold War, coupled with the ambiguity of an intellectual life unable to cope adequately with the demands of nihilism, provides something of a lens through which to consider the legacy of a widely diverse group of philosophers. Not without some irony, the social and political constraints that one associates with the Cold War (the overwhelming influence of ideology in public life, the cynical manipulation of academic and cultural institutions for political ends, the sacrifice of initiative and autonomy to serve as means for confrontation) arguably contributed to an explosion of philosophical activity post-1945. Hannah Arendt—the philosopher who was not a philosopher—defending against the demands of ideological thinking a conception of the political that was formulated as a direct response to the technological nihilism of the age shares with Jean-Paul Sartre, despite everything that divided them, a singular sensitivity to the tasks of securing meaning against the generally distorted regime of understanding that both thinkers saw to be characteristic of contemporary public discourse. Whereas Arendt sought to substitute the promise of politics for that of philosophy, Sartre’s reaction to the ambiguity of the philosopher expressed itself as an embrace of the ideal of the écrivain engagé, presenting himself as a writer first, and a philosopher only by a certain default.

The philosopher as writer is not a question of genre. It is an experiment in fashioning a public of reflection and understanding in conditions increasingly inhospitable to both. This is perhaps the deeper resonance that a dissident writer (the very contestability of that nomenclature symptomatic of its Cold War origins) such as Václav Havel has with the philosophical situation of the times over and above the explicit influence, as moral example and intellectual mentor, of that other philosopher who cannot be fully understood outside of the strange conditions of thinking during these years, Jan Patočka.

The philosopher as écrivain engagé, ideological warrior, institutional technocrat, dissident intellectual, as well as the many modes of escape into various permutations of the bad faith of scholarly existence, together represent the confusing legacy of the philosophy of the twentieth century. And it is a legacy that endures, for the essential ambiguity of the philosopher that lies at the existential root of all these figures of the philosophical self has only deepened. The very question of what philosophy is today, what it means to practice the art, remains rooted in the deeper human question of what it means to live in an insecure world.

James Dodd is Professor of Philosophy at the New School of Social Research in New York and recurrent visiting fellow at the IWM.