Thursday, 20 January 2011

Yesterday's Staff-Student Seminar

Hello Everyone

I have just received an e-mail from Dom that raises a few questions about yesterday's staff student seminar. This is what it says:

'I've been thinking about the discussion earlier in your seminar, specifically about the references to viewing a philosopher's life alongside their philosophy and the discussion about Neitzsche and Heidegger.

What I seemed to get from the discussion was that it was stated that we have to view Heidegger's philosophy as fascist and that as proof of this we should consider his life. I'm not sure if I agree with this idea of considering a philosopher alongside their philosophy which seemed to me to be a kind of quick and easy way of evaluating their philosophy. Shouldn't we really just deal with the philosophy itself and, if people believe it is fascist or leads to madness, bring it down on its own weaknesses, not by ad hominem?

Also as far as Neitszche is concerned can't he be viewed as the epitome of non-nihilism? What I get with Neitszche is that he is stating that it is the truth-proofs that societies need that actually brings them into nihilism, whereas his eternal return and affirmation acted as a positive denial of nihilism, such as Deleuze used them. This article I thought was both timely and necessary to defend Nietszche as a positive force from people like Jared Loughner and others who use Neitszche to belittle this type of philosophy, such as Bertrand Russell?

This article ( sums it up here when it says that 'Neitszche saw himself as the scourge of European nihilism, and possibly also its remedy. Nietzsche saw nihilism as a disease, which grows from, in Alexander Nehamas' words, "the assumption that if some single standard is not good for everyone and all time, then no standard is good for anyone at any time."'

So what I'm asking you is do you really think that philosophy has to be considered alongside the philosopher's life? I remember someone in the lecture saying that they won't read Heidegger because he's 'evil' and I've been thinking about this and maybe there's a phil blog discussion to be had? Maybe the question 'Is it right to not read things because they don't adhere to our ideological commitments?' could have some going power?'

To answer Dom's question:

The point being made by Dom here is that in making the link between philosophy and biography we are committing the fallacy of 'argumentum ad hominem'.

However, I am not sure that this fallacy applies in all cases. It might not apply to philosophers and it certainly doenot apply to politicians. For example can we really view Thactherism as somehow divorced from Thatcher's own lower-middle class bellicose personality. Isn't Hitler, in some sense, essential the very meaning of Nazi ideology?

Let's take a less well known case - Richard Nixon. Nixon, we know we a paranoid delusionist, who saw enemies everywhere. He was a compulsive seeker of fame and power’, but like many narcissists waqs much ‘more fragile’ than would initially appear.

Psychanalytic theorists have suggested not only that Nixon’s desire to be a leader figure act was a mask for feelings of dependency, rage and envy, but that many of his policy decisions - such as his tragic decision to escalate the war in Vietnam, stemmed from his ‘projecting’ the ‘unacceptable’ aspects of his character onto the world in a ‘paranoid’ manner.

Is this ad hominem? If so, psychoanalysis itself is clearly ad hominem; because it examines the roots of human thought in the unconscious minds of specific individuals (take a look at Freud's study Leonardo da Vinci - a study, incidentally, where 'narcissism' is first deployed as a critical concept).



  1. Well what I think the argument is then is that there is a direct connection between the person and the theory, something that most wouldn't disagree with. This would state then that a person's opinions, dispositions or even psyche is represented within their philosophy, that a narcissist creates a narcissistic philosophy,and that therefore we have to bring into account the person when assessing their theories. However this is exactly my point; that if people's personalities, dispositions, psycho-pathologies are already contained within the theory, then there is no point in referring to themselves as people, it is already contained within the theory and therefore unnecessary.

    If Heidegger was a fascist then he would have created a fascistic philosophy which must be, and can be, attacked on its own merits. There is no need to bring the person into account as they are already all there in their philosophy and to bring in them as people is at best unnecessary and at worst it weakens your own position. It is wholly unnecessary to have Heidegger the man in mind when considering his philosophy as all of his fascism is contained within the text itself. It may not at first be apparent, but that's the point of criticism, to dig and dig and see if a text is fascist. Just looking at Heidegger and then saying that his philosophy is fascist just seems a bit too easy to me.

    And there is a second point in this, that is if Heidegger's philosophy is inherently fascistic, then we have a duty to bring it down and to stick the knife into his philosophy itself. If you use the argument that Heidegger was a fascist, then all you're doing is killing the man, not the ideas. It seems to me that a more important thing to do is to argue against the ideas themselves, because if we don't do this then Heidegger may become discredited but someone else can pick up aspects of his theories and then carry them on. In fact I'd go so far as to say I don't really care whether Heidegger himself was a fascist, it's his philosophy that's important for me as that is what could 'fascistize' others and therefore it is important to bring the arguments themselves down, not the man.

    I'd actually go so far as to say we should as far as possible not even know who wrote the texts, because that would give us the practice, experience, and skills of being able to detect fascist or authoritarian thinking without the guiding hand of biography.

  2. As far as politicians go then I would say there are different rules. Politics deals with real-time issues in the sense that a politicians whims and opinions are carried out in real-time, something that is not done in philosophy. If politicians gave referendums whenever they made a decision then I would say then that we shouldn't consider the person, however that does not happen. Therefore we are not assessing concrete theories written down, finalised and considering their merit (as we do in philosophy)but trusting people based off of some ideas of theirs that we happen to have heard. Politics is more of a judgement call based off of some things we know, whereas criticizing a philosopher is precisely the opposite in that the philosophy is concrete and finalized in front of you. That is not to say that some philosophies don't have immediate impact on society etc, but that for me is why it is important to become better and quicker at uncovering fascist or authoritarian thinking. It's a question of speed and not of changing the rules of the game.

    So, if I had to say one last thing it would be that I'm not against argumentum ad hominem because it is necessarily fallacious, but that it isn't an effective way of reasoning. By taking down the people and allowing the arguments to live (sometimes very well disguised and under new names) we are not really getting to the root, the truth even, of the problem, we are merely attacking theories because of our ideological commitments and our ideology should be able to be defended consistently against Heidegger's or Hitler's based on their philosophical merit alone.

    Well that's so long I had to write it in two lol.