Friday, January 8, 2010

Heidegger, politics and despair

On page 24 of Essays on Heidegger and Others, Richard Rorty writes, “When it comes to attempts to make non-analytic philosophy continuous with politics [as opposed to literature] things become more complex and problematic.  For non-analytic philosophy is, with some exceptions dominated by a Heideggerian vision of the modern world rather than a Deweyan one, and by despair over the condition of the world rather than by social hope.  Because the typical member of this tradition is obsessed with the idea of ‘radical criticism’, when he or she turns to politics it is rarely in a reformist, pragmatic spirit, but rather in a mood either of deep pessimism or of revolutionary fury.  Except for a few writers such as Habermas, ‘continental’ philosophers see no relation between social democratic politics and philosophizing.  So the only sort of politics with which this tradition is continuous is not the actual political discourse of the surviving democratic nations, but a kind of pseudo-politics reminiscent of Marxist study-groups of the thirties – a sort of continual self-correction of theory, with no conceivable relation to practice.”
            COMMENT:  William James wrote Varieties of Religious experience in which he concluded that religious people had either “sick souls” or “healthy souls,” and their “souls” rather than any particular dogma would determine whether their religious life took on a “sick” or a “healthy” bias.  Rorty’s comment suggests that the same sort of thing might be true in the realm of politics.
            One of the great modern mysteries, to my mind, is why the British and French didn’t properly prepare for the Second World War.  The evidence that they would again have to fight Germany was there for them to see.  Historians describe it and it isn’t anachronistic of them to do so.  Those living at the time could have seen and understood it.  Some few did, but the predominate attitude was that of the “sick soul.”  They felt hopeless about the future.  Their mood was of “deep pessimism.”
            I’ve been watching Battlestar Galictica episodes, one after the other.  One of the questions hanging over these episodes is “does mankind deserve to survive?”  The pessimistic writers of this series aren’t at all convinced that it does.  Perhaps it “deserves” to become extinct and replaced by Cylons.  Did the pessimistic French think something like that when they found themselves incapable of preparing properly to fend off the Germans?  Did they continue to think it during their Vichy period?  And did some of their philosophers continue to think it after the war when they took up German philosophy as their inspiration.
            The Battlestar Galictica writers have just (as far as I’ve watched) introduced a revolutionary group of Colonists who want to sue for peace with the Cylons.  The Cylons have consistently and unambiguously sought to destroy all human life.  That is their goal as far as anyone knows; so to seek peace with the Cylons is to become complicit in the destruction of the human race.  The leader of this Pro-Cylon revolutionary group can’t resist flying into a rage when he describes the sins of humanity.  I thought that was clever of the BG writers.  It is true to our own experience.  In the days when the Soviets were promising to destroy us, we in the U.S. had a great number of Communist sympathizers working for our enemy.  And today when the Islamists are promising to destroy the Western way of life, we have those in the West who sympathize with their cause.  Why does this happen?  It is one thing to believe you are psychologically incapable of fighting against an enemy.  It is quite another to actively support that enemy.  Perhaps the answer lies in our having produced in the West an abundance of “sick souls.”
            Rorty mentions “revolutionary fury” which reminds me that some sort of fury is demanded if a nation is to fight effectively against an enemy.  Fury isn’t “sick” in the James’ sense but “healthy.”  American Indians knew the need for fury and engaged in war dances intended to build themselves into a furious rage before rushing off against an enemy tribe.  Hitler knew this when in his charismatic speeches he worked crowds up time after time into a contagion of fury.  Contrast that with the French who felt they had lost too many men during the First World War and that its allies had treated them unfairly.  They could not work themselves into a fury.  The predominate feeling was despair.  Perhaps the Germans would have defeated them anyway, but the French had the supplies and armaments to put up a strong defense.  And they lacked the fury.

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