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.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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