Edward G. Nilges
Where is the Love of Wisdom?
A review of Richard H. Popkin (ed.): The Columbia History
of Western Philosophy
The Columbia History of Western Philosophy (2000) narrates western philosophy in a more collective way than traditional histories of philosophy, and, for related reasons, its editor, Richard H. Popkin, has called upon a diverse group of specialists to edit the chapters.
is both Politically Correct and academically conventional, but it means that
the Columbia history is not a good introduction to philosophy for the general
reader: instead it is an excellent reference book for someone already versed in
former days, the history of philosophy was biographical, and focused on the
thought of the major dead white males. The
17th century was narrated as the
philosophical biographies of Descartes, Leibnitz, and Spinoza.
The 18th century was Hume and Kant, and so on.
The best example of this is Bertrand Russell’s History of Western
Russellian way of narrating the history of philosophy is nothing special, for
like the current Political Correctness, the Dead White Male narrative itself
has a history and an archeology: it dates from Hegel’s project, which was,
with no false humility and a peasant-like directness that Theodore Adorno has
identified, to narrate the history of philosophy culminating in the philosopher
narrator himself. Despite his
attractive and English wit and diffidence as contrasted with Hegel’s
ponderous self-importance, Lord Russell wrote in this tradition…of the
are aporias in both styles. The
defining vice of the Hegel and Russell narrative is the way in which it ignores
the contribution of groups, women and minorities. The defining vice of the Politically Correct style found in
Popkin is the way in which authoritarianism creeps in unchallenged, and, at
worst, the death of laughter and surprise.
the interest of fairness and Political Correctness, we can indeed narrate (for
example) Spinoza in context rather than as sui
generis and sub specie aeternitatis.
The Cambridge History of 17th Century Philosophy,
edited by Garber Ayers, does this even more than Popkin’s book, because its
very chapter headings are no longer the names of the big guys, they are instead
in correspondence with the major intellectual themes and concerns of the 17th
does not seem “authoritarian.” But
this neglects the fundamental fact about the thought of both ancient and modern
philosophers: the anti-authoritarianism that defines philosophy.
that in the modern American university, with its exploited students majoring in
what Lawrence Grossberg has called “pre-wealth” out of naked fear of
corporate hegemony, to major in philosophy is to be coded as a slacker.
It seems, in this environment, not possible to imagine that despite the
contraction in opportunities to teach philosophy that first-tier universities
still need to staff their faculties in philosophy.
The pre-wealth major is instead encouraged to imagine herself as a
“marketable” (or not) commodity, intrinsically shop-soiled, who must
perforce major in computer studies as a “practical” matter.
Gone is any traditional notion of vocation, and a nasty quantitiative
spirit (whose ultimate monument is Las Vegas and not Chartres) takes its place.
there is a deeper reason why to take an interest in philosophy is to be coded
as a slacker. If philosophy has
any core, any essence, any final narrative at all, it is “ye shall know the
truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
It is Socrates encouraging the young fellows of Athens to think for
themselves. It is Ludwig
Wittgenstein writing in an Italian POW camp (at the close of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus
Logico Philosophicus) that the reader should use his book not with
reverence or with awe, but as a sort of metaphysical toilet paper, to be
discarded once the reader has seen the world alright.
Rorty may characterize the philosopher as a tyrant, with a grand narrative the
philosopher would like to ram down our gullet at the point of the gun, and
there is some truth in Rorty’s picture.
But Rorty’s picture ignores the ways in which philosophical ideas are
distorted in transmission: it now appears, for example, that the entire tragedy
of the former Soviet Union may have been based on a failure to read Marx’s
incomplete Grundrisse and Marx’s Economic
and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. Socialism plus electricity may be only electricity if a
technocratic narrative discounts the effect of political economy on the human
provide equal time in the interest of Political Correctness to the context in
which a philosopher must work is to relate in tedious fashion an intellectual
climate informed throughout history by fear and repression.
The critics of Baruch Spinoza were not like Spinoza: they were unwilling
to forego place and position in 17th century Holland for a mere
idea, and they were not in love with wisdom.
It is worthwhile from a purely academic standpoint to show how Spinoza
worked in a Rabbinical and Scholastic matrix but (reading Popkin, and also
Wolfson 1983) we find that this was a damaged world: the Jews of Holland,
courtesy of their expulsion from their ancient place in Spain by Ferdinand and
Isabella at the close of the 15th century, had only a dim
understanding of their own Talmud. Spinoza's insights are, if anything can be, the exception
that proves the rule.
his book, Popkin’s authors provide this Politically Correct equal time and
the general reader already well-versed in philosophy can learn much.
But Popkin, in the selfsame interests of Political Correctness, fails to
have his team judge, and for that matter, the judgments of a team are almost
guaranteed to be a least common denominator.
Adorno's acidic comments on industrial specialization are a reminder of
a result, the sophisticated and academic reader can be left with more questions
than answers, but the general reader is, I think, ultimately confused: did
Plato mean what Plato said or was Plato messing with our minds?
Should Spinoza have gotten married and settled down?
Was Theodore Adorno a schnook or a good guy?
unread student of philosophy is like Dante who needs a singular guide:
Popkin’s stable does not provide this and Popkin himself is no Mantuan.
Our times seem to have seen a deconstruction of the personality in which
whatever we are, we are no Jack Kennedy, we are not Prince Hamlet, we are not
Virgil: our humility decomposes into low self-esteem.
The students are left to fend for themselves and to form their own
series of facts without judgment defines boredom. If it is not possible any more to tell the story of Western
philosophy as a triumphal march, it would be better to connect the tale with
scandalous details on the ways in which interpretations, and
misinterpretations, of Western philosophy have caused human suffering.
Tell us, then, that René Descartes carried with himself a 17th
century love doll, a female automaton and tell us if this relates at all to
because corporate hegemony biases the universities toward the right, to be
even-handed is to let the retrograde slip through: at one point, The
Cambridge History of 17th Century Philosophy (Garber 1998)
recounts a syllogism without comment to the effect that because all men are
white and Africans are not white, Africans are not men.
Such nonsense does not, fortunately, evade Popkin’s sharp editorial
eye, but it remains that failure to judge allows other players to judge.
volume could be written on the way in which vernacular Cartesianism creates the
personality known in America as the “creep” or in the UK as the
"bounder." People laugh
nowadays, here in America, at classes like “the philosophy of sports”
(although Bourdieu 1990 has taken this seriously) or the critical
theory of data processing (although I take this seriously), but to me
this is the laughter of lost and anxious children who simply do not know that
the body of the out of shape is as much constructed by vernacular Cartesianism
as by idiot coaches, and who simply haven’t addressed how the agenda of
computer science is set by corporate hegemony.
Nye of the University of Wisconsin has written Words of Power (Nye
1990), a volume on the way in which male domination of the field of logic has
replaced logic with a Nietzschean power struggle that does not speak its name.
This is a political correctness that takes risks but it has been drained
out of Popkin’s history.
academic anxiety is being wrong on significant new "facts" and more
generally not being au fait.
This anxiety leads to a reluctance to engage in "grand"
narratives, which is praiseworthy but also a disservice to the next generation.
generation should learn a story, even if it's wrong. For this reason, the philosophical novel Sophie's World
(which I have not read) might be a better starting point.
is said that in today’s university, with its growing corporate domination,
its Political Correctness, and its students majoring in pre-wealth, that the
students are alienated. The real
alienation is that of the teachers who no longer deliver a coherent narrative.
Why does the truth make us free? Why
not sit back and let kings, priests and now CEOs do all our thinking for us? Was Theodore Adorno a schnook or a good guy?
alienation of the teachers is a clear message in the Columbia history.
This is a growing phenomenon in books and in multivolume series which,
primarily to increase sales, use the imprimatur of a respected university as
their unifying semiotic. The alienation is in a reluctance to interfere with another
discipline’s rice bowl.
long for a somewhat earlier point in time when individual genius slipped
through the cracks in hegemony. In
the 1950s, books were already coming out in series or with the name of a
respected university in part as a marketing tool: East Jesus Technical School
can’t publish books, but Columbia and Princeton can, and by releasing books
in series with a consistent look and feel the marketing costs are amortized.
All this was benign, but not when it infected editing.
However, in the 1950s, some writers were able to slip through the
out of print volume in The Cambridge History of English Literature on 16th
Century Literature (excluding Drama) was written by Clive Staples Lewis, and
every page is a joy to read…precisely because Lewis swam against the tide and
foregrounded his favorite Celts (such as William Dunbar of Lament for the
Makarys and “Timor Mors Conturbat Me” fame.)
Lewis did not do so to be Politically Correct in an alienated fashion,
he did so because he liked the jingle jangle of the verse.
None of the author’s in Popkin’s stable seems to have fallen in love
seems to be a meal ticket in academe. C.
S. Lewis very appreciation of verse is now the sign of the not-serious, the naïve.
Recently, Stanley Fish (on his accession to an overpaid administrative
position at the University of Illinois) said “I won’t read a poem unless
Hugh Auden, years ago, exhibited unfashionable hedonia when he wrote an
introduction to the Portable Greek Reader.
Auden may have been wrong on the details but he left the reader with an
insight: that the Greeks were probably as crazy as we are today.
Popkin’s authors on the Greeks do not leave us with this positive
insight they leave us instead with more questions.
That is, Auden clearly thought it was a good thing that the Greeks were
not as the Germans fancied them during the German Biedermeyer period, serene
and above it all as the Germans wanted to be.
Writing in the immediate postwar context Auden was concerned to make an
anti-Fascist value judgment, did so in his introduction, and got paid for it:
this probably couldn’t happened today unless authorized top-down.
And, the contemporary problem with strong anti-Fascism is precisely its
questioning of non-Fascist authority.
because the history of philosophy was in former times Eurocentric and male
chauvinist should not make teachers of philosophy reluctant to make value judgments,
and making value judgments is a key to telling a story.
Refusing to judge is not fairness:
it can be a form of cowardice. Hegel
produced much evil by subordinating the individual to the collective: Hegel
also can be opened, more or less at random, to find sentences that speak
directly to our loneliness when it is based on our failure to acknowledge
another’s subjectivity. Marx
produced much more evil but Marx shows precisely the hypocrisy of English
mill-owners who decried government regulation of hours but used those selfsame
regulations as incentive to automate, and grow wealthy beyond the dreams of the
older mill owners. West African
philosophers, we learn from being multiculturally correct, generalized the thin
Eurocentric concept of “truth” to one of life-force which overcomes
dualism, and could ground a philosophy of sports were we to overcome both our
racism (silenced but not eradicated by the Politically Correct.)
can spark the student’s interest by relating philosophy to human freedom, but
this Popkin does not do. We can
tell the student that the best philosophy, like the best music, has at times
been made in times of war, whether it was Hegel writing the last words of the
Phenomenology of Mind as Bonaparte’s guns spoke at Jena, Descartes’ service
in the Thirty Years War, or Wittgenstein in camp: but this would not be
politically correct because this speaks to the needs of the boys (although
contemporary philosopher Martha Nussbaum has spoke to the boys at West Point.)
paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, and if this history is evidence of the soul of the
modern university, gone is the capacity for laughter and surprise.
1990: Pierre Bourdieu, In
Other Words : Essays Towards a Reflexive Sociology.
Palo Alto, CA, Stanford University Press.
et al. 1998: Daniel Garber and Michael Ayers, ed., The
Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Philosophy.
Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
1990: Andrea Nye, Words
of Power: a Feminist Reading of the History of Logic.
2000: Richard H. Popkin, ed., The
Columbia History of Western Philosophy.
New York: Columbia University Press
1983: Harry Austryn Wolfson, The
Philosophy of Spinoza: Unfolding the Latent Processes of his Reasoning.
Cambridge, MA, 1983: Harvard University Press.