Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Rorty and Geuss, two kinds of philosophical foolishness: the metaphysics of intimacy, and the metaphysics of the macroscopic and the pseudo-universal. Rorty could have chosen to be a writer, but obviously that wasn't enough. He needed to make generalizations; he tried in his depressed half-assed way to make them stick, like Derrida, another passive-aggressive.
Nevertheless, I think that we should hold our noses, separate the life from the work, and adopt the same attitude to Heidegger’s books as we have to other people’s. We should test them not against our moral intuitions but against competing books. An original story about the history of Western philosophical thought is not all that easy to come by – no easier than an original story about the movement of the heavens or the structure of matter. Stories of the former sort try to explain why we use the words we do, and thus, among other things, why we have the moral intuitions we have. When a genuinely new story of this sort comes along, we cannot afford to dismiss it. We will do so only if we have the sort of egomaniacal faith in our own noses that Nietzsche and Heidegger had in theirs. Such faith may be a necessary condition for the production of works of genius, but we non-geniuses who think of ourselves as tolerant and open-minded had better try to lose this faith. 
We will be willing to separate someone’s life from his or her work precisely insofar as we think of moral character – our own and that of others – as varying independently of the possession and deployment of talents. To help ourselves think in this way, we should remind ourselves of a lesson Freud helped us learn: a person’s moral character – his or her selective sensitivity to the pain suffered by others – is shaped by chance events in his or her life. Often, perhaps usually, this sensitivity varies independently of the projects of self-creation which the person undertakes in his or her work.

I can clarify what I mean by ‘chance events’ and by ‘independent variation’ by sketching a slightly different possible world – a world in which Heidegger joins his fellow anti-egalitarian, Thomas Mann, in preaching resistance to Hitler. To see how this possible world might have been actual, imagine that in the summer of 1930 Heidegger suddenly finds himself deeply in love with a beautiful, intense, adoring philosophy student named Sarah Mandelbaum. Sarah is Jewish, but Heidegger, dizzy with passion, barely notices. After a painful divorce from his first wife, Elfride – a process which costs him the friendship of, among other people, the Husserls – Heidegger marries Sarah in 1932. In January 1933 they have a son, Abraham. ...
It's goes downhill from there.

Geuss: another form of morose self-aggrandizing self-pity (via Leiter and also the essay itself [pdf])
[One day] Dick happened to mention that he had just finished reading Gadamer's Truth and Method. My heart sank at this news because the way he reported it seemed to me to indicate, correctly as it turned out, that he had been positively impressed by this book. I had a premonition, which also turned out to be correct, that it would not be possible for me to disabuse him of his admiration for the work of a man, whom I knew rather well as a former colleague at Heidelberg and whom I held to be a reactionary, distended wind-bag. Over the years, I did my best to set Dick right about Gadamer, even resorting to the rather low blow of describing to him the talk Gadamer had given at the German Embassy in occupied Paris in 1942, in which Gadamer discussed the positive role Herder could play in sweeping away the remnants of such corrupt and degenerate phenomena as individualism, liberalism, and democracy from the New Europe arising under National Socialism. All this had no effect on Dick. His response to this story was that Gadamer had probably wanted to finance a trip to Paris—a perfectly understandable, indeed self-evidently laudable aspiration—and, under the circumstances, getting himself invited to the German Embassy was the only way to do this. As I persisted in pointing out that this in itself might “under the circumstances” not exactly constitute an exculpation, I came up against that familiar shrug of the shoulders which could look as if it meant that Dick had turned his receiving apparatus off. In this case, the shrug also made me feel that I was being hysterically aggressive in pursuing a harmless old gent for what was, after all, no more than a youthful indiscretion. In retrospect, I am not sure but that I don't now think Dick was right about this last point, but that was not my reaction at the time....

As the years went by, and we both left Princeton, I am afraid the incipient intellectual and emotional gulf between us got wider, especially after what I saw as Dick’s turn toward ultranationalism with the publication of Achieving Our Country. Dick had always been and remained to the end of his life a “liberal” (in the American sense, i.e., a “Social-Democrat”): a defender of civil liberties and of the extension of a full set of civic rights to all, a vocal supporter of the labor unions and of programs to improve the conditions of the poor, an enemy of racism, arbitrary authority, and social exclusion. On the other hand, I found that he also enjoyed a spot of jokey leftist-baiting when he thought I was adopting knee-jerk positions which he held to be ill-founded. That was all fair enough. I tried not to rise to the bait, and usually succeeded, but this did not con- tribute to making our relations easier or more comfortable for me. The high (or low, depending on one’s perspective) point of this sort of thing occurred some time in the 1980s when Dick sent me a postcard from Israel telling me he had just been talk- ing with the Israeli official responsible for organizing assassinations of Arab mayors on the West Bank. He closed by saying he thought this was just what the situation required. I often wondered whether in acting in this provocative way he was treating me as he would have liked to have treated his father, a well-known poet, and man of the (relatively) hard Left, who eventually, as Dick put it, “became prey to very powerful fan- tasies on which he was perfectly willing to act”; Dick had to have him institutionalized after some potentially murderous outbreak. Probably by wondering about this, I was trying to convince myself that I had an importance in Dick’s imagination that I surely did not have.

Achieving Our Country, though, represented a step too far for me. The very idea that the United States was “special” has always seemed to me patently absurd, and the idea that in its present, any of its past, or any of its likely future configurations it is in any way exemplary, a form of gross narcissistic self-deception which was not transformed into something laudable by virtue of being embedded in a highly sophisticated theory which purported to show that ethnocentrism was in a philosophically deep sense unavoidable. I re- main very grateful to my Catholic upbringing and education for giving me relative immunity to nationalism. In the 1950s, the nuns who taught me from age five to twelve were virtually all Irish or Irish-American with sentimental attachment to certain elements of Celtic folklore, but they made sure to inculcate into us that the only serious human society was the Church, which was an explicitly international organization. The mass, in the international language, Latin, was the same everywhere; the religious orders were international. This absence of national limitation was something very much to be cherished. “Catholica” in the phrase “[credo in] unam, sanctam, catholicam, et apostolicam ecclesiam” should, we were told, be written with a lower-case, not an upper-case, initial because it was not in the first instance part of the proper name of the church, but an adjective meaning “universal,” and this universality was one of the most important “marks of the true Church.” The Head of the Church, to be sure, and Vicar of Christ on earth, was in fact (at that time) always an Italian, but that was for contingent and insignificant reasons. The reason most commonly cited by these nuns was that, as Bishop of Rome, the Pope had to live in the “Eternal City,” but only an Italian could stand to live in Rome: it was hot, noisy, and overcrowded, and the people there ate spaghetti for dinner everyday rather than proper food, i.e., potatoes, so it would be too great a sacrifice to expect someone who had not grown up in Italy to tolerate life there. I clearly remember being unconvinced by this argument, thinking it set inappropriately low standards of self-sacrifice for the higher clergy; a genuinely saintly character should be able to put up even with pasta for lunch and dinner every day. I have since myself adopted this diet for long periods of time without thinking it gave me any claim on the Papacy. In any case, it was obvious even to a child of six or seven that none of these sisters had ever been within a thousand kilometers of Rome.

Similarly, the (mostly) Hungarian priests who taught me from age twelve in a boarding school near Philadelphia had some residual Hapsburg loyalties—Grillparzer and Nestroy played a larger part in the curriculum than they would have in some other schools—but they were all very distinctly tri- or quadri-lingual men of the world, who knew very well that it was the accidents of history—specifically the closure of their schools by the Hungarian Communist regime in the late 1940s, and the failure of the uprising of 1956—that had brought them to a culturally insignificant place they would in the normal course of events never have chosen even to visit. They were not in any doubt but that the us (in the 1950s and early 1960s) was an empire which engaged in continuous dis- plays of exaggerated self-praise, as all such empires had always done, showed its soft side when that was politically expedient, but was as capable of impatient, insouciant, or fully-intended brutality as any other empire. These points were driven home pretty sharply in between discussions of the syntax, lexis, and meter of Vergil’s Aeneid. “His ego nec metas rerum nec tempora pono / imperium sine fine dedi” (1.277–78); that’s what they all think (in their prime), the “rerum domini et gentes togatae.” The two Spanish priests on the staff had had some experience in Central America and did not refrain from enlightening anyone interested about the operations of the United Fruit Company (and the cia) there and about some of the uses to which the us Marines were put. All the priests made the assumption which was all the more effective for not usually even being at all explicitly articulated that American power, influence, and prosperity, and the relatively relaxed and tolerant regulation of the non-political aspects of everyday life which they permitted, were highly contingent and transitory, a result of a geographical and historical conjunction that would not last or recur. McCarthy had recently shown how thin and fragile the culture of tolerance was. We were all encouraged to get on with our lives as quickly as possible: the prosperity and relative freedom might last twenty, even thirty or forty years, but that would be it, and the bubble could unexpectedly burst even more quickly than that, so it was best to make the most of the resources on offer at the moment. Philadelphia in 1960 was a pale shadow of Vienna in 1830: City Hall was a sec- ond-rate imitation of Vienna’s Rathaus, the Lyric Opera a poor provincial cousin of the Volksoper, and the orchestra, like virtually all the other major American orchestras in the era of Szell and Solti, was directed by a Hungarian (E. Ormandy). The recently departed John Foster Dulles was a kind of latter-day Metternich, and nato was the Holy Alliance. One might in the final analysis prefer the Holy Alliance to its opponents, but that was no reason to idealize it.
but before that, Geuss again (and another pdf)
of course, every philosopher will have his or her own favourite topics, periods, and themes, and in a book like the one envisaged it will not be inappropriate to allow these to guide the choice of gures to be treated, at least to some extent. My own favourites included Rosa Luxemburg, Ghandi [sic], Frantz Fanon, Julian the Apostate, and the Sphinx,...

I originally suggested that Arendt and Ricoeur, who did feature in Critchley’s book, be excluded on the grounds that the first was certainly not a philosopher at all, and had not even been a particularly good practitioner of her chosen profession of historically oriented political journalist, and that the second had been utterly unmemorable either for his writing or, as far as I could tell, for his life—I had been his colleague for a couple of years at the University of Chicago in the very late 1970s, and had had some conversations with him, had jointly examined some doctoral dissertations, etc. and so felt that I had some basis for this judgment. I then realised that in fact both of those deaths could, contrary to first appearance, be seen as somehow ‘enlightening’ in that they were both especially appropriate to the lives the people in question had lived. Arendt died in a kind of traffic accident, an appropriately trivial conclusion to a singularly uninspired intellectual life, and I had not noticed the reports of Ricoeur’s demise until several years after the fact, as I had failed to notice his publications.
The misspelling of Gandhi is repeated. It's not a typo. I was curious about Geuss until I realized his universalism was anti-political; his "real politics" is an ideal and an absolute. He's a modernist. His contempt for Arendt makes perfect sense.

This came back to me after reading the paragraphs by Rorty, from Achieving Our Country,  being handed around in reference to Trump. He wasn't wrong, but he wasn't alone.

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