Full disclosure at the outset: I’m a philosopher, and this new column on The Good Life will often be about human nature, knowledge, the meaning of life and, of course, politics.
So let me start by indicating some of my colleagues’ opinions about politics.
A favorite party game for philosophers is to argue about who the most influential philosopher of the twentieth century was. Three names are always near the top of everyone’s list:
- Jean-Paul Sartre, the chain-smoking, café-haunting, woman-chasing French Existentialist philosopher.
- Martin Heidegger, the German metaphysical thinker, famous also for his affair with Hannah Arendt while she was his student.
- In the English-speaking world, Bertrand Russell, the logician and essayist, also noted for his many extra-marital affairs.
A pattern is beginning to emerge: Smart and sexy — that describes philosophers excellently.
But now consider their political views:
Sartre defended Marxist-Stalinism long after the revelations of just how murderous that regime had been.
Heidegger was a member of the National Socialist party the year Adolf Hitler came to power and never recanted his beliefs in the theory and practice of Nazism. (He lived until 1976.)
Russell, over the course of a long career, consistently blamed the United States for most of the world’s problems and in a lecture suggested that it might be better if the Nazis won World War II.
So there’s a natural question: Is there something wrong with philosophers?
Philosophy has a reputation for attracting deep thinkers whose quest for wisdom can serve as a model for all of us. The unexamined life is not worth living, Socrates taught us. And when committing to the highest values in our private lives and to effective policies in the public sphere, we should be able to turn to our strongest minds for guidance. And since politics is a major component of the life well lived, what wisdom can philosophy bring to bear on politics?
To put the problem in perspective: Those of us living in the mostly-free, democratic republics have political disagreements. We argue about who should pay for my contraceptives and whether unemployment benefits should be extended and how much toleration should be extended to suspected terrorists and whether private or government schools best serve children. The language often is heated, and friendships and family relations are often strained as a result.
But note that we are all committed to the same general set of values: rational family planning, encouraging the unfortunate to get back on their feet, tolerance and safety, and quality education. Intelligent and decent people can disagree about how best to achieve those goals.
Now compare those debates in a relatively free democratic-republic with the theory and practice of alternative political regimes — various versions of socialism, theocracies, tribal dictatorships and so on. Nations such as the former Soviet Union, China, Iran, Uganda and others serve as recent examples of political experimentation on a large scale.
And the experimental results are in. Social scientists estimate that the Soviet communists killed over 47 million of their own citizens. The Chinese under Mao Zedong killed perhaps 38 million. Hitler and the Nazis killed about 21 million. And countless others’ lives were stunted, as they were forced to live in fear and material deprivation.
Those numbers do not include the death toll from the wars those nations were involved in. They are only “democide” numbers — that is, the killing of people by their own political leaders. For more, I recommend Professor R. J. Rummel’s work; here is the Wikipedia entry on Democide.
But our important question for today: What does it say about philosophy that its most famous representatives lent their great prestige to the most murderous regimes in recent history? (Or perhaps in all of history, depending on how one estimates the death counts of the Mongol khans, Napoleon’s empire, the Crusaders and so on.)
Why did Sartre advocate Marxism in the first place, and how could he not change his mind as the data came in? What led Heidegger to become a Nazi, and why was he silent for three decades after about its horrors? Why was Russell so opposed to the United States and so blasé about the prospects of a victory by Hitler?
We should have high standards for our philosophers. They devote their lives to thinking about the hard questions. So we can and should expect them to be smarter, better informed, to think through issues more deeply, and to be less prone to foibles.
And we live in a complicated, division-of-labor society, in which we can’t all know everything. So we expect specialists in many areas to get it right and provide guidance to the rest of us.
To be fair, there were philosophers in the twentieth century — Karl Popper, Friedrich Hayek, Ayn Rand, John Searle, and others — who warned us about the truly dangerous regimes. And we can be thankful to the earlier generations of philosophers — John Locke, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and others — who developed and defended the political principles that enable so many of us to live in freedom and prosperity.
Philosophers can get it right, but they can also get it wrong. So as we start this series of articles on The Good Life, it’s worth reflecting on the occupational hazards of philosophy.
- Is philosophy so abstract and theoretical that it leads philosophers to be incapable of making connections to actual practical reality?
- Are philosophers, like other smartypants-types, so full of themselves that they too easily think they can solve the world’s problems?
- Or is it the opposite problem — that too many philosophers have frail egos and can’t admit making mistakes, even when their theories lead to disaster?
- Could it be, as Russell suggested, that philosophy’s questions are just too difficult for us, so a strong dose of modesty is called for when making philosophical pronouncements?
- Or maybe it’s only a quirk of the twentieth century, when so many intellectuals turned against liberal democracy and became enamored of more authoritarian politics?
On these questions and others, feel welcome to comment below, with all the usual caveats about civility and quality argumentation. I will weigh in with my own views — but please feel welcome to challenge me and be prepared to be challenged. That is how we sort out the difficult issues.
We all need philosophy. We are a smart species, and we survive and flourish to the extent that we successfully exercise our intelligence to identify the true, long-range principles to live by. But intelligence also means learning the hard lessons from our mistakes, including the sometimes disastrous mistakes of our most brilliant philosophers.
Stephen Hicks is the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault and of Nietzsche and the Nazis. He blogs at StephenHicks.org. For future columns on The Good Life, feel welcome to send your philosophical questions and moral dilemmas to him at .