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Wednesday, May 12, 2021


This is a true story from 60 years ago that bears indirectly on the question of the connection between analytic philosophy and conservative politics. In 1961 I left my instructorship at Harvard (long story, told before on this blog, if I am not mistaken) to take up an assistant professorship at the University of Chicago. There I met a well-known anthropologist named Sol Tax.  Sol had a grant from the Wenner Gren Foundation to study the political leanings of academics and departments across the curriculum, and he recruited me to tabulate the results and write up a draft of the report. The results were pretty much what one might have expected. The humanists were more left-wing than the social scientists, the social scientists were more left-wing than the natural scientists, and everybody was more left-wing than the engineers. Within these groupings, the literary critics were the most left-wing, the anthropologists were further left than the political scientists and the political scientists were further left than the economists, the theoretical physicists were more left-wing than the experimental physicists and the experimental physicists were more left-wing than the chemists.


The next decade saw a good deal of turmoil in the Academy as opposition to the Vietnam war and other governmental policies brought about splits in the professional associations. There were reports in the newspapers about fights in the MLA, the APSA, and the American Economic Association. 


The American Philosophical Association had its own version of these fights but the lines were not drawn in ways that one might have expected. The hardassed no-nonsense logicians and analytic philosophers were not further to the right. In fact, the political splits did not line up along any methodological or sub disciplinary lines that anyone could see. Some of the analytic philosophers were quite left-wing, others not so much. Quine was, so far as I could make out, not very progressive politically but Hilary Putnam, if my memory is correct, spent some time living in a commune and at least for a while identified himself as a Maoist.


Herbert Marcuse got this wrong because he made the mistake of transferring his experience with European intellectuals to the American scene. Unfamiliar with the peculiarities of intellectual work in America, he tended to confuse analytic philosophers with behavioral social scientists.


It never seemed to me that the emphasis on analytic philosophy and formal logic was any sort of flight to political safety in the philosophical profession.


By the way, apropos TJ’s correction of my last post, I think my memory played tricks with me when I wrote it and what was written on the side of the moving van was actually “metaphora.” I hope I am right that my memory was fallacious. It would make it a much nicer story.


s. wallerstein said...

Yesterday in a previous post I asked whether McCarthyism wasn't a factor in the turn in U.S. philosophy towards logical questions.

The fact that some analytical philosophers were leftwing does not answer that question, since my question was about the philosophy they produced, not their personal political postures.

So I'm not so sure that Marcuse got it so wrong, as is claimed above. Yes, his experience of European intellectuals was different, but why?

Intellectual climates do not arise by chance or because the stars decree it, but because of social and political conditions. What were the social and political conditions in the U.S. in the 1950's that led academic philosophy to concentrate its energy and its undoubted
intellectual brilliance on abstruse questions of logic, while in Europe for example politically committed leftwing philosophers such as Sartre, Simone De Beauvoir and then Foucault and Deleuze became hegemonic?

Jordan said...

I've never read it (I mean to sometime), but I think John McCumber's "Time in the Ditch" would tend to confirm your suspicions, S. Wallerstein.

T.J. said...

S. Wallerstein,

I'm not sure there ever was a turn to logical questions. Philosophers have always studied logic, Aristotle, the scholastics, etc. In the 20th century, philosophers continued to work on metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, etc. If there's any change to identify, it's in the methods, not the substance. The revolution in mathematical logic that followed Frege provided a whole new set of analytical tools. The sorts of tools that some philosophers thought could be put to use in solving, once and for all, the traditional problems of philosophy (Russell, Wittgenstein, Carnap, Ayer, etc.). Their critics, who showed that their solutions oftentimes didn't work, also used the tools of logic and analysis developed around the turn of the 20th century (Kripke, Putnam, Wittgenstein again, etc.).

s. wallerstein said...

Let me speak from personal experience.

I studied English and comparative literature from 1964 to 1968, then to get an MA from 1969 to 1970.

All of the English department, as Professor Wolff points out above, were progressive or even radical. The younger professors grew their hair long, smoked pot and listened to rock music.

You would suppose that that radicalism would have entered the class-room but it didn't. For example, we studied Conrad's Heart of Darkness as a pioneering narrative technique, not as a denunciation of colonialism. I did one paper for my master's degree (we had the option of doing three papers instead of a longer thesis) on Andrew Marvel's poem, A Horatian Ode on Cromwell's Return from Ireland. I never thought to inquire nor did the secondary literature I read take up what Cromwell was doing in Ireland. A few years ago someone from Ireland began to talk in a blog about the imperialist massacres carried out by
Cromwell in Ireland and I realized that Cromwell hadn't traveled to Ireland to sun bathe at the beach.

We read Proust, but the subject of homosexuality was never mentioned nor was it when we read Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. No Professor would have been fired on the spot for mentioning that the authors were gay, but you just didn't do that.

So it's not that there was some evil Pinochet repressive figure that kept academia in the 50's and much of the 60's from exploring certain subjects, but that "everyone" learned certain rules of the game and those rules dictated that certain subjects were taboo. After a while, habit sets in and "one" no longer even asks "bothersome"

Those rules had to do with the general repressive climate in the U.S. known as McCarthyism that were challenged in the 60's and gradually lost their hegemony.

LFC said...

In the second paragraph of this post, the reference should be to the Vietnam War, not the Iraq War.

Matt said...

S Wallerstein: You might find some interest in George Reisch's book _How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science: To the Icy Slopes of Logic_.

It is much better than the book by John McCumber's book _time in the ditch_, noted above, in the Reisch actually understands the philosophy much better and is not inherently hostile to his subjects, as McCumber is. (McCumber is "continental" philosopher of the sort who thinks "analytic" philosophy is inherently bad, and who generally just doesn't understand it well. He's a hostile narrator writing a brief for the prosecution, not, in my opinion, an honest historian.)

That said, I think Reisch's account is largely wrong. The real changes in politics that he describes among his subjects (largely, but not only, members of the Vienna Circle who moved to the US before WWII) can be largely accounted for by other very common and easy to understand means, I think - the way most people tend to become, at least in some ways, more "conservative" as they get older, the fact that these figures largely were able to make comfortable lives in the "capitalist" US, and the unpleasant face of "actually existing" socialism after WWII seem to me to be sufficient reason to explain why people like Carnap would move from being heavily involved in socialist politics in his younger days in inter-war Austria, but largely a-political in his late middle to old age in the US. Similar (if sometimes more dramatic) stories can be told about people like Imre Lakatos in the UK, after fleeing Hungary in the 1950s. So, Reisch is worth reading, but I think he is over-explaining, among other things.

As noted, Quine was a right-winger from early on (he wrote a blurb for Nozick's _Anarchy, State, and Utopia_ in his old age, but was essentially a John Birch Society sort from early on) and Putnam was a Maoist in the late 60s (but became a sort of semi-communitarian liberal by the end of his life.) In the UK, "ordinary language" philosophy got started and became a big deal before the cold war could explain it. My own view is that, while there is no doubt lots of individual variation, and while it likely made some differences at the margins, developments in philosophy, at least in the English speaking world, were largely not closely connected with politics, for good or ill.

s. wallerstein said...


First of all, thanks for the bibliographical references.

I'm not really claiming that developments in philosophy in the English speaking world were closely connected to politics, but that they were closely connected to the zeitgeist, which was the result of political and social factors, one of the most important being McCarthyism.

I don't know how old you are, but those of us who grew up in the 1950's or lived through them as a young adult as Professor Wolff did can recall how totalitarian the conservative zeitgeit, which can be called "McCarthyism", was. A zeitgeist affects you consciously and unconsciously: most of the time you don't even notice that you're a product of it.

Let me link to Allen Ginsberg's poem, America, which read now seems a bit dated, but in its very conscious rebellion against the prevailing McCarthyist zeitgeist best presents that zeitgeist.

DDA said...

One thing to pay attention to is the class background of those who went into philosophy in the US in the fifities/sixties/seventies. And one thing I noticed in my days is that while English department people postured very left, it was my colleagues in philosophy who showed up at demos, signed trouble-making petitions and generally put themselves out.

Warren Goldfarb said...

@Matt: the statement "Quine was...essentially a John Birch Society sort from early on" displays astonishing ignorance both of the John Birch Society and of Quine. The Birch Society was an extreme right-wing group, which believed that most U.S. elected officials, up to and including President Eisenhower, were part of an international Communist conspiracy to enslave the U.S. It was loony enough to garner repudiation even from William Buckley and the National Review. Quine was essentially an Eisenhower Republican, internationalist in a pro-NATO way and moderate on civil rights.

David Zimmerman said...

A personal note on Quine's politics.

When I was a draft resister in NYC in 1967-8 [and an organizer for a group of draft non-cooperators called The Resistance] one of our supporters [from a group of non-draft-age people called Resist] was John Dolan, a philosopher of science who then was at The Rockefeller University.

He was a sweet man and very supportive of our efforts. But he did make a serious error of judgement by inviting me to a lunch at Rockefeller with him and Quine [and one other philosopher, whose name I forget].

For some reason, John thought that Quine would be sympathetic to my anti-war efforts... but was he ever wrong! It was one of the most uncomfortable social occasions I have ever suffered.

When John introduced me to the others, I could see Quine freeze with distaste. The conversation then meandered through topics such as Quine's passion for maps, and other such non-political matters, with nary a mention of the war, and with Quine studiously ignoring my presence at the table [thankfully!].

He was a great philosopher, but could be cold, cold, cold.

Matt said...

Warren Goldfarb - thanks for your comment. You obviously knew Quine much better than me (I know only his writings and his reputation through talking to people who knew him) though "Eisenhower Republican" is hard to square with his endorsement of Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia, and since he obviously didn't agree with Nozick's meta-ethics, it's hard to not think it was the substance of his view he was endorsing. But in any case, it's certain that you know more about the man than me.

S Wallerstein - Thanks. I know the Ginsberg poem well. I was lucky enough, when I was an undergrad, to get to spend a couple of days sharing a lot of time w/ Ginsberg. (He even wrote a little impromptu poem for me and my friends.) No doubt the zeitgeist of a time influences what happens in it, but the claims made by Reisch (and, much less plausibly, by McCumber) are more direct than that, and that's what doesn't seem born out to me.

Ed Barreras said...

Bertrand Russell shifted in his politics throughout his long life, but he was always a man of the Left. Around the time fo the First World War he was even a pretty vehement socialist.

Insofar as there’s a vague notion that analytic philosophy must imply (at least) right-of-center political views, I would think it is an artifact of recent history. Simply, Continental philosophers like Foucault and Sartre and Marcuse are thought of as belonging to the Left and therefore, we think, their analytic opponents must be on the Right.

However, I think a more instructive case would be that of Carnap vs. Heidegger. Carnap was always fiercely committed to liberal democracy — which is only natural given the alternative of fascism and Nazism, from which he fled. Indeed Carnap even writes in various places about how the spirit of analytic philosophy (rational, analytical, dispassionate) might serve as a handmaiden to liberalism. In that sense Carnap is representative of the generation of analytic philosophers who preceded Quine. We could draw the same sort of contrast using the examples of Russell and his one-time friend D.H. Lawrence, who sort of flirted with fascism (although he did at one point speak out explicitly against Hitler and Mussolini). Although the arts today are associated with the liberal Left, it was in many cases the opposite during the first few decades of the 20th century.

Warren Goldfarb said...

Sorry for protracting this micro-topic, but I don't see what Matt means by Quine's "endorsement" of Nozick's book. He blurbed the book. It's standard to blurb a colleague's book. He called it "brilliant and important", a view that was widely shared across the political spectrum at the time. (I don't think Nozick's arguments have aged well, but at the time they were thought to be quite sensational.). Nothing Quine ever wrote indicated he held a position at all like Nozick's minimal-state-libertarianism, and in fact Quine's all-too-wholehearted support for the Vietnam War shows quite the opposite.

Matt said...

Replying to Warren Goldfarb:
1) Here's the full blurb from Quine on the back of Anarchy, State, and Utopia: "A brilliant and important book, bound to contribute notably both to the theory and, in time, to the good of society" (emphasis added). The part at the end, left out of the above mention, certainly sounds like an endorsement to me.

2) My impression is that Quine's actual politics were an unstable mix of libertarianism (mostly, a hatred of the welfare state and "government intervention") and nationalism and nativism of the sort that is very common among (far) right-wing people in the US and Europe. This would of course fit his thinking that Nozick's views would be "to the good of society", and his support of the Vietnam war. He's a Goldwater, or more recently, a Rand Paul, Republican, not an Eisenhower Republican, in that sense. This position really is unstable, but also completely banal in both the US and Europe (and Australia, where I live these days.)

3) While it might well be the case that A,S,&U was "widely" seen as "brilliant", quite a few people saw it as glib and fascicle. The best example is Brian Barry's excellent review, which starts thus: "The book's conclusions are not in the least unusual. They articulate the prejudices of the average owner of a filling station in a small town in the Midwest who enjoys grousing about paying taxes and having to contribute to "welfare scroungers" and who regards as wicked any attempts to interfere with contracts in the interest, for example, of equal opportunity or antidiscrimination." It gets better from there. (It's also again pretty damning of anyone who thinks that the book will be "for the good of society".) Similarly, Thomas Nagel's long review, "Libertarianism without Foundations", while less aggressive than Barry's, is equally devastating, showing it to be a house of cards, not "brilliant and important". It's perhaps also worth nothing that Rawls never thought it was worth replying to.

So, over all, this seems to me to not paint Quine's politics in a good light. I'll leave it at that.

David Palmeter said...

I recall reading somewhere that Nozick himself disowned it. Does that ring a bell with anyone?

LFC said...

I don't want to get into the middle of the discussion between Matt and Warren Goldfarb. But did Quine ever write anything directly about his politics, say in his autobiography? I also will say that I remember the Quine blurb on Nozick's book bc I used to own a pb copy. While I understand Matt's point about the blurb's wording, I'm not sure how much shd be read into it. Btw as I recall, George Kateb also blurbed AS&U, admittedly just praising Nozick's argumentative skill, not his conclusions. My impression is that a fair number of people, such as Kateb, who did not agree w Nozick's conclusions admired the way Nozick argued for them.

LFC said...

P.s. at least I assume that Kateb did not agree w the conclusions. I have only read a small bit of Kateb's work, an essay he wrote on Arendt, but I'm pretty sure he's not a libertarian, or even anything too close to it.

Nick Pappas said...

I trust Warren Goldfarb's take on Quine and politics, given his knowledge of Quine.

I read the autobiography when it came out, back in the 80s, so my memory is unreliable, but my sense is that it didn't have much politics in it. Quine commented on his military service and the code-breaking he did for the Allies. (As I remember he disapproved of other people's telling what they had done, when everyone was sworn to silence.)

For remarks on political figures you have to look for the occasional references to e.g. Al Haig, with whom Quine once shared a commencement stage when they both got honorary degrees.

Quine did write a short piece on ethics in the early 80s, and for those who would call him "right-wing" in the sense that that phrase applies today, Quine's choice of examples to elucidate is telling. He makes the general point that sometimes critical clarification can help us understand similarities and differences between values. For example, he says, some people equate a concern for future generations (in care for the environment) with responsibility to unborn infants. In other words, the idea goes, anyone who cares about the environment and later generations should be anti-abortion. Quine argues that it doesn't follow. Environmental concern, he says, is a matter of future actual persons, while opposition to abortion is about present potential persons.

You can think what you like of the argument. My point is that Quine is saying: One can care for the environment without having to be pro-life. That doesn't sound like the kind of right-winger we know today.

LFC said...

@ Nick Pappas
Interesting, thanks.

Charles Pigden said...

I am re-p0stign here a comment I have made on two other blogs. McCumber's book is trash. . He argues that the triumph of the unduly disengaged school of analytic philosophy in the USA was due to McCarthyism. It is a moot point whether analytic philosophy IS unduly disengaged (Russell, Ayer and Hart, for example, were notable as as public intellectuals and one reason that so many logical empiricists had to flee to America was because of the anti-fascist tendencies of their thought) , but whether it is or not, McCarthyism can't be the chief explanation of its triumph in America since analytic philosophy *also* triumphed in other Anglophone countries where McCarthyism was either muted or non-existent. The book is typical of one of the two ways in which American scholars tend to go astray. Because America is such a big, powerful and important country, they find it hard to keep the rest of the world in focus. As a result they are prone to two opposing errors: seeking a global explanation for what is mainly an American phenomenon or seeking a specifically American explanation for what is a global phenomenon. McCumber gives an American explanation for the triumph of analytic philosophy which is global or at least a pan-Anglophone phenomenon (though one should not forget the triumph of analytic philosophy in countries such as Sweden and Finland). There is the further problem that analytic philosophy had largely triumphed in America BEFORE the political advent of McCarthy whose glory days were from 1950-1954. Now you can get around this difficulty by defining McCarthyism more broadly to encompass the red-baiting anti-radical and anti-Communist hysteria (often with an anti-New Deal agenda) that began in the nineteen-thirties and found institutional expression in the House Un-American Activities Committee which began its sessions in 1938 as well as the its predecessors such as the McCormack-Dickstein Committee whose co-chair, Dickstein, turns out (hilariously) to have been in the pay of the NKVD. But in that case the theory becomes even more bizarre as the most high-profile victim of this kind of proto-McCarthyism was Bertrand Russell, one of the founding fathers of analytical philosophy, who was blocked from a job at CUNY in 1940 because of his social and sexual radicalism and his anti-religious writings, reducing him temporarily, to near destitution. So McCumber’s thesis metamorphoses into the claim that philosophers sought to avoid the fate of Bertrand Russell by philosophizing in the style pioneered by, well, ….Bertrand Russell. Well that’s not quite right (someone might reply); the point is that the triumph of analytical philosophy is to be explained by the fact that philosophers sought to avoid the fate of Bertrand Russell a) by philosophizing in the style of Bertrand Russell whilst b) *eschewing the public role that Russell had played for so many years as an activist for left-wing causes*. But then it seems that what McCarthyism (in this extended sense) explains is not the triumph of analytic philosophy (which was well on the way by 1940 and which happened elsewhere without the aid of McCarthyism) but the relative silence of left-leaning philosophers on social issues that was characteristic of American philosophy in the forties and fifties. In other words, what McCarthyism explains is not the triumph of analytic philosophy in America but the retreat of those triumphant analytic philosophers to the ‘icy slopes of logic’ . (This is confirmed by the fact that in other countries, where McCarthyite tendencies were relatively weak, you get the triumph of analytic philosophy without the retreat to the icy slopes: Russell, Ayer and Hart were all pretty vocal on social issues in the forties, fifties and sixties.) But this is Reisch’s thesis as developed in ‘How the Cold War Transformed the Philosophy of Scince’. I have reservations about Reisch’s book but at least it isn’t as obviously silly as McCumber’s.

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