Tag Archives: Cold War

When you have read my posts regularly, you will have noticed that I tend to discuss (and read) more history books than you would perhaps expect in a philosophy blog. Today I will try to explain some of my reasons for this.

During my studies I also read ‘other’ books of course, because philosophy as such has no subject, or ‘everything’ is its subject. Philosophy is a way of thinking about things, but these things can range from the principles of mathematics to poetry, and all other thinkable subjects. Famous are writings from philosophers such as Bertrand Russell or Gottlob Frege on mathematics, and Heidegger and Gadamer on poetry, just to illustrate my remark. Of course there is also philosophy on philosophy, on its methods of reasoning and argumentation, on its history, and on its place in the whole range of human sciences.

My ‘subjects’ outside the works of philosophers and about philosophy itself have gone through different phases. After finishing my masters, for some years I read passionately in the field of theology, history of Christianity and bible studies. The philosophers I read in that time were Arendt, Levinas, Strasser and of course Spinoza. After finishing my PhD there was a phase that I read rather widely, in environmental studies, in philosophy of science, and, in philosophical methodology (so to speak), investigating the approaches of hermeneutics (Gadamer), deconstruction (Derrida) and pragmatism (first Mead and Cooley, later James). It was the time of my postdoc research. Later I moved to African philosophers like Mudimbe, Mbiti, and E. Eze, and read a lot of cultural anthropology on the side. The last few years I discovered, next to reading more of James and Derrida, more of Scheler and Foucault. And the ‘extra’ reading is nowadays very often in history, especially in ‘alternative’ views on the history of the US (not the one of the victors) and on WWII.

Why this route anyway? Just yesterday, when I started another book in the history of philosophy, on James, to be specific, the interesting study by Francesca Bologna called William James at the Boundaries. Philosophy, Science, and the Geography of Knowledge, I was fascinated by her introduction on the strange address James gave as president of the APA in 1906. The speech was about ‘The Energies of Man’. In this speech he described the benefits of yoga and drinking alcohol to enhance the human spirit, and cited popular works and works by thinkers on the verge or outside academia. Bologna provides good reasons for discarding the idea that James was losing his mind (as some philosophers present did), by showing that it was a deliberate and recurring strategy in his work to transgress boundaries. “James struggled to reconfigure the relationships between philosophy and the sciences, as well as professional and amateur discourses. Through these efforts […] James reinterpreted the nature of philosophy and science and, by doing so, proposed a new vision for the intellectual and social order of knowledge.” (Bologna, p. 4) When reading this, I realized that for many years, without knowing what I was doing, I had been following a similar course as James, in this respect: something in me always opposed itself to the pressures to keep to one discipline, and to specialize within that discipline – to discipline my curious mind, so to speak.

So now why the history? Let’s start IMG_3706with WW II. In other posts I have made clear that the world in which I grew up pushed me to read up on it: the world of the 60s and 70s of the last century, a world that wanted to move on, that drove itself crazy over Cold War stuff, and that actually consisted of an almost audible silence about matters nobody wanted to be remembered of. Every year now new material on that time still comes out. Some things were only researchable after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and some are only researchable now that certain individuals die, leaving archives, or because their power to silence others is gone. Just recently I came across an article about a collective of secret historians who wrote on the events in the Warsaw ghetto. Those writers, who knew they probably were not going to survive the hell they had landed up in, took it upon themselves to register things as they experienced them, for posterity. I was absolutely amazed and awed by their farsighted courage and mental strenght. And I realized that all over the world, projects like that must still be happening, even now, more or less in secret, more or less under the duress of oppression.

The powers that try to rule history, attempt to obscure it at the same time, for their own actions to be more effective. And that’s where the alternative histories of the US also come in, from that same stifled Cold War time I grew up in, where we were taught to think of the US as our saviours from Hitler, who brought us all the goods of modern life, washing machines, cigarettes, chocolate bars, and scientific management. There was nothing to be worried about anymore ever, as long as we stuck to our new big brother. Even as a child I felt that both things were unhealthy: not wanting to know about WW II, and not wanting to know about who our new protector was. I realized more and more over the years that there can be no good thinking, no good philosophy, without a wish to know history as it ‘really’ happened. Not that we can ever find ‘real’ history in an absolute sense. But we can at least get rid from the worst outgrowths of propaganda, by doing the real work of serious history. And if we are no historians ourselves, we should read all the painstakingly collected facts and carefully reconstructed structures of what happened and how it was transferred. It will clear our minds.

And, last but not least, we should do the same with the so called ‘history of philosophy’, which, for the most part, is not history at all, but a construction to bring us under the impression that the Europeans, that is the Romans and the Greeks, and later the Enlightenment thinkers, imagined all things worthwhile. There are powerful powerstructures at work in that construction too. Peter Park, in his recent work Africa, Asia and the History of Philosophy. Racism in the Formation of the Philosophical Canon, 1780-1830 has written a real historiography of how this powerstructure came to dominate the history of philosophy. Many others of course pushed in this direction by their own investigative work, among others a philosopher whom I discussed here before, Emmanuel Eze. Just the other day I watched the entire talk he delivered some years before his untimely death, which has been luckily recorded and publicized on youtube, and would recommend you, when you watch, to keep watching till the end of the second part, which makes clear why not reading outside the ‘official’ history of philosophy will not only makes the discipline remain stuck in old questions, but also deny itself many qualitative texts that it has never read or even known of which could help to rethink these questions and perhaps think up better answers than it did before.



Today I must combine work to be done with writing my weekly blogpost – and I do so with pleasure – reading Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man once more while preparing for my paper presentation next week on the ‘unsustainable society’. An ethical paper it shall be. I am grappling with the richness of thought in this book still. A book that for a long time has been considered outdated, as it inscribed itself in the Cold War debate on ‘communist’ versus ‘capitalist’ answers to the post-fascist era. I write ‘communist’ and ‘capitalist’ in question marks for I doubt the very opposition of concepts. And in fact, although Marcuse’s work shows an attempt to rise beyond it too. The core of his undertaking is to try to see the truth about the world he lived in, a world which is in our day, although ‘post-cold-war’ now, in many aspects still the same.

Many people think Marcuse’s work has nothing to do with ethics, since that discipline considers human individuals and the rightness/wrongness of their acts, whereas One Dimensional Man would only consider social reality. A judgment that is wrong. As Marcuse has shown a person cannot have freedom of thought when he/she is caught up in what he calls ‘repressive desublimation’. This funny reversal of Freud’s idea that sublimation helps people to grasp with unpleasant or injust realities goes to the insight that in post second world war society it is desublimation – the actual and gradual dissapearance of unpleasantness and injustice that makes us loose sight of reality. As wealth grows, working hours are legislated, pensions and unemployment support are regulated, people in the richer parts of the world loose the ability to see their unfreedom. This process is, according to Marcuse, sustained by a continuous and aggressive marketing of goods, ideas, desires. ‘To take an (unfortunately fantastic) example: the mere absence of all advertising and of all indoctrinating media of information and entertainment would plunge the individual into a traumatic void where he would have the chance to wonder and to think, to know himself (or rather the negative of himself) and his society.’ Repressing repressive desublimation therefore means: denying ourselves to be constantly immersed in this continuous stream that fills the negative void that would have been our freedom.

Without freedom there is no moral agent, and no ethics, so Marcuse has shown that one cannot start to reflect on morality without repressing the repressive physical and psychological obesity of which all people in the richer parts of the world (and I would say also in those attaining to become rich) suffer. As a refugee of the nazi regime Marcuse is of the opinion that fascism has not dissapeared in the aftermath of the allied victory in 1945. And he doesn’t refer to the odd neonazi group which would want to destabilize society. He refers to the ‘advertising and indoctrination’ which were, combined with terror, after all also the ground upon which the nazi regime built its continued acceptance among German citizens while they led their country into the abyss.

A second step that Marcuse takes, after having shown that analysis of society is the groundwork for doing ethics, is showing that philosophy therefore has to be political, and not just academic: ‘the therapeutic task of philosophy would be a political task, since the established universe of ordinary language tends to coagulate into a totally manipulated and indoctrinated universe. Then politics would appear in philosophy, not as a special discipline or object of analysis, nor as a special political philosophy, but as the intent of its concepts to comprehend the unmutilated reality.’ So to critically reflect on reality, to speak truth, philosophy has to avoid to ‘escape into the non-controversial, the unreal, into that which is only academically controversial.’ And what is that reality one should to try to see? It is precisely the unsustainability of a society in which the mass of people are being lulled into believing that wealth and justice is coming into reach for more and more people when one only trusts the workings of the market economy and the pluralist democracy that protects it.

His conclusion is not that we should abolish democracy, hell no, not even if it were only the best of several problematic alternatives. What should be done, and can only be done if one removes part of the repressive blanket, is to see democracy in it’s present state for what it is: a protection of a herd against those which are outside: ‘the substratum of the outcasts and the outsiders, the exploited and persecuted of other races and other colors, the unemployed and the unemployable. They exist outside the democratic process […] their opposition is revolutionary even if their consciousness is not. Their opposition hits the system from without and is therefore not deflected by the system; it is an elementary force which violates the rules of the game and, in doing so, reveals it as a rigged game.’ Declining the seduction to prophecy, Marcuse does not see a positive solution, his work remains critical. The only positive thing he deems possible is seen by him as a chance: that the most advanced consciousness and its most exploited force meet. Ironically this happens here and there in our times through one of the very ‘repressive’ gadgets the rich world has produced: the internet. It already creates changes, revolutions even – but our only chance at a humane outcome lies in trying our best to scrutinize the process constantly – preventing that it will reproduce the very repression which it is aiming at to repress.

I cited from Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man in the Routledge edition of 1991. The original work was published in 1964. The book bears the subtitle: Studies in the ideology of advanced industrial society.

The ethics conference which I hope to visit in August has in it’s title ‘Ethics of an Open Future’. And furher it is on Climate Change and Sustainability. It should be on the major problems which face humanity, therefore (although one never knows whether this will remain so when academics start to talk shop). I chose to discuss there in my paper two rather radical books – Derrida’s 1993 study Specters of Marx and Marcuse’s 1964 work on One Dimensional Man. Both philosophers explicitly draw (among so many other sources) on the thought of Karl Marx, but do so in the most original manner, writing not as followers or disciples of the great nineteenth century analyst of his times, but as analysts of their own times, searching for tools to unhinge the silence that hides the current power structures. Should I write ‘silence’, or ‘innocence’?

Heidegger coined the word ‘Seinsvergessenheit’  which should mean a having-forgotten about being to such a degree that one has even forgotten the forgetfulness. To many a reader this will be vague, as it is hard to understand why we should be aware of ‘being’. Heidegger’s most original pupil, Hannah Arendt, used this idea of something lost and out of sight, and stuck it on a more urgent matter – the forgetting of politics, as a critical exchange between free human beings. As politics became, in the twentieth century, management of society instead of this critical exchange, she named this ‘Weltverlust’, loss of world. World meaning for her the public space which human beings create with each other when they exchange their different, perspectivated views. Differing, daring to discuss and criticize creates the ‘room to move’ for the human spirit, individually as well as in community.

Marcuse must have been inspired by her work when he titled the second chapter of his book ‘The Closing of the Political Universe’. Modern society, which measures it’s succes with an eye to it’s technological progress, blinds itself to this goal – ‘progress’. When technological progress is the ultimate goal, in industry, in consumption, as well as in scientific research and argumentation, society goes blind to the quality of human life – that is – to the idea that first fired the struggle for modernity: freedom. We have lost public space (to a great extent), as we live in a closed political universe. That is, when we have lost the possibility to criticize the principles by which our society propells itself into the future. One could also say that we live in a situation of a closed future. Slaves of progress, without any thought in our minds on where this should lead us…

And here comes the relationship with ethics: when we cannot criticize society for it’s goals, when we cannot discuss what we want in life as human beings, when we are, therefore, not free – we can neither be moral. A moral agent is supposed to be a free agent, and both Derrida in his mentioned work and Marcuse, have tried to show their contemporaries that we loose our morality when the political universe is closed. Their work is a work of titanic proportions, as they had to do away with the ideology of the Cold War (and it’s supposed ending in Derrida’s case) that had stifled the thought of an entire era. Re-opening the political universe is not an easy thing, and the majority of the work still has to be done. It means we have to disengage ourselves of the society of needs – of the economy of scarcity, that is, and of the metaphors of war which are used to support it. It is understandable that they went back to Marx, as his analysis of the economical universe is still worthy of further interpretation. Their search for words to articulate the hinge that decides on openness/freedom over against closure/repression – living our difference, our multi-dimensionality, our plurality – owes to my view more than said to that great twentieth century analyst of the political: Hannah Arendt. But that is not the point here – the point is that we can not reclaim our status of moral agents unless we decide to dare to be political once more.

Hannah Arendt The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press 1998 [originally published in 1958]

Jacques Derrida Specters of Marx. The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, Routledge 1994 [original French edition 1993]

Herbert Marcuse One Dimensional Man. Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, Routledge 2002 [first edition 1964, second edition 1991]

When I read the opening lines of Levinas’ Totality and Infinity for the first time, about thirty years ago, I felt overwhelmed. They moved me, before I had tried to understand them: ‘Does not lucidity, the mind’s openness upon the true, consist in catching sight of the permanent possibility of war? The state of war suspends morality; it divests the eternal institutions and obligations of their eternity and rescinds ad interim the unconditional imperatives.’ At this moment (after having made a study of the entire work with my class in the year before last) I am ready to make an attempt at an interpretation. The first sentence expresses in my opinion: human cleverness, it’s talent at working out ever new ways of tackling the problems of life by means of understanding, is fired by this mind-set: there is a scarcity of goods; we are, in our endeavours to harvest them, constantly threatened by enemies who want to take them first and who will, if necessary, destroy us in the process. The second sentence then says: alas, in order to win, or to not lose the war, we have to pass by, if necessary, our obligations to others (and to ourselves, perhaps, as subjectivity springs from moral awareness) – because this war has made all morality provisional.

The troubling point in these sentences is not so much that in a real war we may be forced to suspend our moral obligations towards others (although that is troubling enough!), but that Levinas suggests that all human research, all gathering of knowledge, in it’s normal, non-war condition, springs from a war-like matrix. One is tempted to say: it is executed under the reign of the metaphor of war. And one is also tempted to acknowledge this to be a fair description of much twentieth century and present day research. Adolf Hitler pushed German scientists (that is, those that he had not expelled from their jobs for being of Jewish descent) to be the first to improve human understanding of genetics, of rocket-science, of mass psychology and other subjects useful for extending German domination, by marketing his idea that Germany was drawn into war unwillingly – because of all kinds of threatening powers, external and internal. After having defeated the dictator, the mightiest victors, the USA and the USSR, adopted and expanded his system of pushing scientists forward by making use of the metaphor of war, spreading the idea of being under constant mortal threat by the other power.

It is not strange that since the days of the Cold War the metaphor of war has been nesting inside the institutional sphere of science itself: universities, research institutes, and funding organizatons all tell their researchers to compete as if the enemy was right behind them – they have to ‘publish or perish’, their work has to be innovative, excellent, and useful too, be it in the fight against climate change, disease, hunger, poverty, illiteracy, etc. etc. etc. Under ever growing pressures to perform (or else! Or what else?) we see the tendency to commit fraud in research also grow, as well as the tendency to produce sloppy research. There is no time to do it better, it is felt by a lot of researchers, since… we are in a war? With whom?

It has not always been like this, of course, and Levinas’ words do not describe ‘the mind’s openness to truth’ as such, at least I do not think so. They moved me so much because I grew up in the long shadows of World War II (shadows which have not cleared away completely up till now), and they described the reality I lived in. It does not make sense, however, to understand understanding as being always and inevitably produced under the banner of war. Understanding can be moral, in Levinas’ sense – motivated by seeing the fear and suffering of the other. Moved by eternal obligations and unconditional imperatives (not to kill, not to cheat, not to rob others from what they need to survive). It is not so much a choice for another kind of scientific research, but a refusal to work under the reign of the metaphor of war. If I do not let myself be frightened that others might get there before me, or will take it from me, I might also refuse the seduction to cheat, to be sloppy, or to accept injustices in academic working conditions. Levinas’ opening lines hopefully make academics think again if they push themselves and their junior research assistants to produce more and more results, against the common sense insight that ‘more’ is nothing once we have denied the supposed wars which are pushed upon us.

Emanuel Levinas lived from 1906-1995. I cited from the 1979 edition of his Totality and Infinity. An Essay on Exteriority, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. The original French edition appeared with the same publisher in 1961.

When I was a student, in the eighties of the twentieth century, Karl Popper’s Open Society was considered not quite okay to read – at least when one considered oneself to be on the critical and leftish side of the political arena. As incomprehensible as this now seems to me – well, there were more strange things going on in that stifled age of what is called ‘Cold War’. In those polarized circumstances anyone who was not for Marx, was definitely thought to be against him, and, more, under suspicion of propagating Capitalism and its wrongs.

Popper, who had been a Marxist in his own younger days, left the movement when in a protest rally some individuals were shot dead by the police. It opened his eyes to the moral principle that no ideology justified people dying for it – which made him leave the movement. But worse, he criticized Marx to the core in the book which he considered to be his ‘War effort’ (while living peacefully in New Zealand, which he had reached in time before the Nazi’s could have hunted him in his native Austria for being of jewish decent). His criticism centered on Marx’ idea of history: that one could project into the future a blueprint of a just society, for which then, sacrifices were acceptable.

Of course he was right about this core point in Marx, which was borrowed from Hegel, and we know how it worked out in Communist countries, where the destruction of families, of personal privacy, and of lives were condoned by this idea of rightful sacrifice. Instead one should hold, Popper wrote, that history cannot progress, cannot move towards a (somehow already existing) end: ‘only we, the human individuals can do it; […] by defending and strenghtening those democratic insitutions upon which freedom, and with it progress, depends.’ Democratic institutions, because they garantuee that we can always take new courses when tried ones fail, instead of having to keep steering toward the one ideal society once thought out. And then he wrote those compelling concluding words: ‘Instead of posing as prophets we must become the makers of our fate.’

Another philosophical writer on society (who had fled Germany for similar reasons in that same period, but then to that other haven, the USA) – a writer with similar views on history – was considered to be okay for the left-wing student, since he rather revised Marxist theory from within, instead of rejecting it. I mean Herbert Marcuse, whom I mentioned earlier (in ‘Difficult Freedom’) and to whom I will probably return another time. The interesting fact is that he does not reject absolutist tendencies in theory only, but that he sees them at work also in the so-called ‘free’ world of those days. Because we have separated ideologically politics from technology, says Marcuse, we have lost a real freedom of thought. Thinking that our technological progress is a politically neutral development, we can no longer criticize the economic, ecological and humanitarian injustices that are inescapable when we let it dominate our goals. Food for thought, really, in our present days of ecological and economic (and humanitarian…) crisis!

Marcuse dares to criticize a naive faith in a certain type of democracy (which he calls ‘mass democracy’) – the kind that grants liberties, while at the same time denying freedom. Liberties for some, that is, because they are denied to ‘the exploited and persecuted of other races and colors, the unemployed and the unemployable. They exist outside of the democratic process […].’ This sounds still relevant, watching today’s world – with its masses of poor people living on the verge of subsistence, working in situations which are not officially, but actually situations of slave labour, who lack democratic institutions, or the knowledge, money and power to make use of them; more, our world with it’s large amounts of undocumented migrant workers living in the heart of ‘democratic’ nations without full citizen’s rights. They are named ‘illegal’, and my own government now wants to upgrade this downgrading by declaring illegality a penal offence.

In these conditions it is necessary to make use of any theory which will work for a better world – so forget right or left, love Marcuse’s critical analysis of false freedom, and stress at the same time that we, individuals, are the makers of our shared fate. Love Popper for rejecting so strongly the idea of rightful sacrifice, since it stresses the provisional character of any blueprint and it’s subordination to the worth of every individual life.

Karl Popper lived from 1902-1994, Herbert Marcuse from 1898-1979.

Citations are from Karl Popper The Open Society and its Enemies, Routledge, 2002 [original edition 1945] and Herbert Marcuse One Dimension Man. Studies in the Ideology of advanced industrial society, Routledge Classics, 1991 [original edition 1964].