The Cold War’s shaping of American philosophy

John McCumber, Time in the Ditch: American philosophy and the McCarthy era (Northwestern UP 2001)

George Reisch, How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science (Cambridge UP 2005)

Whether inclined toward socialism in the 1930s or defending itself against anticommunism in the 1940s and 1950s, logical empiricism was neither apolitical in its values and ambitions nor an unpolitical community of scholars, somehow insulated from Cold War pressures.  (Reisch, p. 373)

truth dollars

from Reisch, p. 354

According to McCumber and Reisch, as the logical positivists moved from Europe to the U. S. and formed a loose alliance with the pragmatists, they retreated into safer political territories in order to protect themselves against the nefarious forces of McCarthyism. And even further: the “scientific philosophy” they developed, forsaking traditional moral philosophy for rational choice theory, provided a theoretical backdrop to America’s cold war temperament (and in several cases was funded directly by the RAND corporation). As a result, several generations professional philosophers in America cut themselves off from topics of any social or cultural relevance, and also actively resisted meaningful connections to the rest of the humanities or social sciences.

(A short version of McCumber’s view – the one that got me into reading further on the topic – can be found in an Aeon essay here.)

Both studies trace the gradual transformation of academic philosophy in the U. S. into a discipline of thought that worked hard to free itself from both metaphysics and ethics (at least into the 1970s). Metaphysics, according to the logical empiricists, was just loopy, untethered science, never held in check by actual experimental results. Ethics, on the other hand, was all fine and good, but also not empirical, and guided ultimately by whatever values an individual might happen to have. The resultant philosophy is a perfect fit for a society that aimed at producing technical know-how and left morality to individuals as a matter of personal preference. (One thinks immediately of Tom Lehrer: “Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department, says Werner von Braun.”)

It is an odd result for philosophy, which one might otherwise believe to be a realm where questions of value (and critical assessments of knowledge, scientific and otherwise) should be the meat-and-potatoes of scholarship.

Of the two books, Reisch’s pays closer attention to details and the changing relations among the actors involved. One of several interesting episodes he recounts is a struggle at the University of Chicago, where the University’s president, Robert Maynard Hutchins, did indeed think that philosophers should be more than adjuncts to the RAND corporation. In the 1930s, philosopher Charles Morris came to the Chicago with the intention of building its philosophy program in a direction that would blend Dewey’s pragmatism with logical empiricism and bring the resulting amalgam to bear on American culture. But Hutchins did not share Morris’s enthusiasm, as he was drawn more toward Mortimer Adler’s neo-Thomistic vision for philosophy (which holds science at arm’s length, and Thomas close to the heart). The more that Morris tried to connect the department’s efforts to the rising tide of logical empiricism, the more opposition he met from Hutchins and Adler. Indeed, it seems that both Morris and to some extent John Dewey were interested in finding ways to make logical empiricism actually connect with the sorts of practical, political, and cultural problems the U. S. was experiencing over some intensely unsettling decades (though eventually these two also fell out with one another). Over time, Morris was marginalized (and Dewey died), and logical empiricism followed its evolution into analytic philosophy, partitioning off any social concerns as valuable but not properly scientific, and so not within philosophy’s proper scope. Hutchins and Adler never had much influence beyond “great books” curricula at Chicago, Columbia, and several small colleges.

McCumber’s proposed solution to this disciplinary dead-end is basically less Carnap, more Hegel. Hegel knew concepts to be historically conditioned, and envisioned philosophy as an age grasping itself through concepts. To do this right, one has to be a careful student of history and an astute observer of contemporary society, and one has to think our culture through down to its deepest features. This is what an ordinary person might suspect philosophers are supposed to be doing anyway; but then an ordinary person has probably not spent much time around a university department of philosophy, which more often than not strives to talk about stuff no one outside of their membership can understand as meaningful or relevant.

McCumber obviously has some personal axes to grind: at some point he left academic philosophy so that he could pursue his own studies more freely in a department of Germanic studies. But his critique rings true. I had no idea of the connections between the analytic philosophy of the 50s and 60s and McCarthyism, and at first I was doubtful, but I now think Resich and McCumber make a compelling case. And the weaker thesis – that American philosophy has striven to be irrelevant – does seem quite evidently true. I can remember years ago reading the Library of Living Philosophers volume on Quine, and coming across an article that criticized Quine for not engaging actively with the big philosophical questions of human understanding, social morality, and the meaning of human existence. I suspect the editors included this fellow’s essay just to give Quine the chance to smack back – and smack back he did, writing that if this author had any good proposals for making the world a better place, then he should get on with it. Then and now I imagined readers of the volume cheering Quine on, saying, “Way to go, Van! Tell that ninny to take his big questions elsewhere! We have problems of linguistic reference to sort out!” 

I do agree with McCumber’s proposed solution: philosophers need to be better-equipped to apply philosophical thinking to questions and problems that matter to people. As I’ve argued before, there should be at least some graduate programs in philosophy that aim to prepare young philosophy PhDs for the actual array of courses they are likely to teach, and which nourish and support the big-picture enthusiasms that attract many students to philosophy in the first place. Some philosophers should write some best-selling books on subjects that interest a broader swath of readers, if they have the talent for it; for if it can be done in subjects like particle physics and economics, it can likely be done in philosophy. (And if it can’t, that’s more evidence that something has gone terribly wrong.) And undergraduate philosophy programs should strive to find ways to integrate with professional degree programs, as we can all agree that the world would be a better place if the people pushing the buttons had some training in thinking philosophically – meaning, with open hearts and critical minds.

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Mars teleporter essay on Aeon

I am stranded on Mars. The fuel tanks on my return vessel ruptured, and no rescue team can possibly reach me before I run out of food. (And, unlike Matt Damon, I have no potatoes.) Luckily, my ship features a teleporter. It is an advanced bit of gadgetry, to be sure, but the underlying idea is simplicity itself: the machine scans my body and produces an amazingly detailed blueprint, a clear picture of each cell and neuron. That blueprint file is then beamed back to Earth, where a ‘new me’ is constructed using raw materials available at the destination site. All I have to do is step in, close my eyes, and press the red button…

The rest here.

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Handcarts, beer, and apes

To the rest of the world, today is an ordinary Monday – people are going to work, the mail is being delivered, the media focus on the latest outrages issuing from politicians, and so on. But here in Utah, it is Pioneer Day, a holiday bigger than the Fourth of July. Pioneer Day marks when Mormon settlers completed their arduous trek from Missouri to the Salt Lake Valley, thus entering into their Promised Land and escaping the hegemony and oppression of their tyrannical overlords – this being the U. S. government.


(from the Salt Lake Tribune, illustration by Francisco Kjolseth) 

Like any such holiday, it’s more hype than history, and it tends to drive non-Mormon Utahns (called “gentiles” in these parts) straight up the wall. And so they celebrate their own holiday – “Pie ‘n’ Beer” Day, trumpeting the fact that they prefer beer to celebratory parades of handcarts. It is all meant in good fun, and most Mormons take it in stride. But, beneath the humor and irony, Pie ‘n’ Beer day is a way for Utahn gentiles to celebrate the ways in which they can escape the hegemony and oppression of their tyrannical overlords – this being the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

My family and I tend to be on the reclusive side, and so we will avoid any handcart parades or parties featuring pie and beer (separately delicious, but a most unfortunate combination, to my way of thinking). Instead, we have taken this holiday weekend to watch the latest re-boots of the Planet of the Apes movies.

The movies (Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn o.t.P.o.t.A.) are better than the original movies in every conceivable way, and all the credit goes to CGI and the amazing Andy Serkis. The core thrill of the films is to see apes – mistreated and tortured by greedy and violent humans – rise in intelligence and power until they can break free from their bondage and create a civilization of their own, while the human civilization goes down in flames.


Andy Serkis as Caesar

It’s puzzling why my family, a small band of human primates, should cheer while watching our kind get pounded by another branch of primates. But I think it is because the films highlight ways in which we know our civilization has gone wrong – the capitalistic enterprises of pharmaceuticals and genetic engineering, the cruelty of those enterprises, and the broad human disposition toward war and devastating weaponry. The apes, led by the forward-thinking Caesar, represent at least the possibility of a different path – though one, as it turns out, that ends up facing the same problems of greed, power, treachery, and tragic misfortune. By cheering for the apes, we are cheering for some fantasy in which we can wipe the slate clean and establish a new society, thus celebrating the thought of escape from the hegemony and oppression of our tyrannical overlords – in this case, our own species.

Plus, the apes are wicked cool as they swing through the trees and roar and tumble. They are delightful films to watch with a beer in hand – saving the pie for later.

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The Shed

About five years ago, we hired a great guy named Joe Smart to build a philosopher’s shed for me. (More about that story here.) I’m really glad to have this separate place for reading, thinking, and writing – as nutty as it may seem to anyone else. Anyway, just to celebrate the approach of our five year anniversary, here are some photos from the shed (or, as it is officially named, The Canyon Road Institute for Humanistic Studies).

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Philosophy: it helps you get reddit points

The blog Useful Concepts posted a set of interesting observations about why philosophy doesn’t have more of a cultural presence, particularly on the web. The author posted on reddit, and then summed up the more cogent replies. What he came up with is: (1) philosophy isn’t taught in schools; (2) when it is taught, it’s taught badly, focusing more on who thought what rather than the ideas themselves; (3) academic philosophy focuses on pointless distinctions rather than big pictures; (4) public debate is usually unreflective; (5) the media are profit-driven, and not idea-driven. This all seems right to me.

A question raised along the way, by a very polite commenter, is why philosophy is worth doing. I know this question is asked a lot, but it should be asked a lot, because the answers to it are rarely obvious. There is the “unexpected benefits of open-ended questions” answer, alongside “the unexamined life is not worth living” and “the discipline of critical thinking” and “integrating fields of knowledge”, as well as “helps you with law school”. All of these have something to them, and I don’t see a need to award one the trophy of best answer (though if I did, the law school one would not get it). But I do think there is a way to combine them all into a hazy, single answer.

It is this: philosophy helps you get reddit points.

redditNow for the explanations. If you are on the web, you probably don’t need to be told what “reddit” is, as it is in the top ten of websites visited by the entire world. It is an inconceivably huge forum for discussing anything from quantum mechanics to dadjokes to whatever. And while (as one would expect) there are acres and acres of crap, there are also acres and acres of good, substantive discussions. Perhaps my favorite subreddit – suggested to me by a student – is “r/changemyview”, on which people express their views and other people try to reason them out of them. In this subreddit, as with many others, the discussion is sharp, clear, respectful, on target, and ruthlessly defended against trolls. On such subreddits, one gets points for making comments that are deemed valuable by everyone else (“valuable” here meaning “that is very insightful!” or “that is very funny!” – or sometimes “Good for you for admitting your mistake!”).

Now obviously there are ways to amass reddit points without any inclination whatsoever toward philosophical thought. If you possess wit, or have a knack for expressing what the readers of some specific subreddit are prone to like, or can express the profane to the profane, you will get points on some subreddit or other. I don’t mean to paint reddit as some Athenian agora populated only by fair-minded savants.  But if you happen to be a fair-minded savant, and you steer your browser away from the acres of crap and toward more enlightened discussions, your study of philosophy will help you to accrue reddit points.

This is because at its heart philosophy is informed fair-mindedness. The marks of a good philosopher are being able to see any complex problem from multiple points of view and being able to express those differing perspectives with clarity. Readers of reddit, at least on the sites I have in mind, dig that sort of thing, and they’ll upvote what you say.

But what, you may ask, is the point of getting reddit points? There is no point, except for the fact that you are getting them for making valuable contributions to a public discussion. You are being helpful, and building the discussion in a positive direction. If you ask me why that’s important, I’m really stuck; it just seems to me that’s a good thing to do, especially in a world where it happens pretty rarely.

You also may ask, “How many points do you have, Charlie?” and my answer is a paltry 600. That’s not a lot in the reddit universe. In my own defense, I don’t post or comment very much. I’m basing my opinions here on what I generally see as I read my way through reddit posts, including the one entitled “Philosophy is disappearing from public debate and it’s the fault of philosophers.”  In this way, the reddit discussion neatly contradicts its own thesis: there are plenty of philosophically-inclined reddit commenters out there, thank goodness, enriching our public discourse and getting well-deserved points for it.

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“Perfect Language” essay on Aeon

L0026297 J. Wilkins, An essay towards a real character...Poets, historians, scientists, philosophers – we all seek to capture the world in a net of language. Yet it is the nature of nets to capture some things while letting others slip away. Our words turn experiences into objects, qualities and actions, and we can build these into a kind of structure, a tower reaching into the sky – but towers can go only so far, and there are always the negative spaces surrounding the structure and its beams. What is left unsaid speaks volumes.

We might resign ourselves to this fact – the inescapable limits of what’s sayable – but in fact a great many minds have sought to construct a perfect language, one that carves reality at its joints, and captures the whole shebang of human experience. Presumably God was speaking such a language when he spoke the world into being – a common tongue that was lost at Babel. Or perhaps a perfect language can be built from atomic elements that reflect the most basic concepts a mind can have, with rules that keep it clean from all the clutter that the accidents of history place on our tongues.

The rest here.

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My Life as an NPC

NPCcover2Another Stacks of Books essay to add to the library. This one makes good on a promise I’ve been making for sometime, which was to reflect philosophically on playing Skyrim. (Now those hundreds of hours can count as research!). I’m especially interested in non-playable characters (NPCs), or the fake people one runs into in these virtual worlds. They couldn’t pass the Turing Test. But what would it take for them to do so? And once we start thinking along these lines, how might we understand ourselves to be NPCs?


I’ll post a brief excerpt, one I had a lot of fun writing. It concerns a moment when Lydia, our faithful NPC companion in the game, shows signs of consciousness. The whole essay is available on Amazon here.


The second time it happens is when we are trying to sneak up on a troll. They are nasty creatures, tough to kill, so a sneak attack can really help. Suddenly Lydia asks, “What happens when you sleep?”

Really, now you ask?! I want to say. But I don’t want to lose the opportunity; and if the troll kills us, well, we’ll have another chance anyway. “What do you see happening when I sleep?”

She thinks. “You lie on the bed and don’t move and I watch you for several hours.”

“For me it is only a few seconds. Nothing happens.”

She presses onward. “So is it like death?”

“No,” I say. “For one thing, I don’t go back in time to before I went to sleep.”

Suddenly the troll is upon us! It makes a noise – something like, “Raaw! Uglyuglynosleepsyforugsytrollses.” I am utterly stunned. Trolls do not speak! But Lydia is untroubled and takes up the conversation with the troll. “I don’t sleep either. I see that other people do, but I never seem to need it.”

The troll nods, and says something like, “Raaw! Ikillsyotherusesandthen stompsybutnosleepsyfurugsytrollses.” The two of them carry on for a few more exchanges, but I cannot follow what they are saying because I cannot stop thinking: LYDIA IS HAVING A CONVERSATION WITH A TROLL ABOUT THEIR LIFE EXPERIENCES. I feel a panic rising in me, and suddenly more than anything else I need to get out of this cave, so I run to the sunny world outside. What is happening? Is there a consciousness emerging in this strange world? Am I spreading it, like a disease? Is this some kind of new magic – a magic even deeper than the kind that lets me die and come back and remember it? Am I really just like Lydia or the troll – occasionally coming into consciousness, but just not remembering all those times when I am not conscious? Lydia’s question returns to me, but more threatening: what does happen when I sleep?

Suddenly Lydia emerges and stands by my side, ready to go. “Hey, look, a cave. I wonder what’s inside?” she says. I sigh.

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