September 26, 2020

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How to deal with antisemitic philosophers?

In the New York Times’ philosophy column, Laurie Shrage points out a provocative point: Most major Western philosophers were antisemites.

We commonly assume that anti-Semitism and related attitudes are a product of ignorance and fear, or fanatical beliefs, or some other irrational force. But it is by now well known that some of the most accomplished thinkers in modern societies have defended anti-Semitic views. For instance, several of the major Enlightenment philosophers — including Hume, Voltaire and Kant — developed elaborate justifications for anti-Semitic views. One common thread running through the work of these philosophers is an attempt to diminish the influence of Judaism or the Jewish people on European history….

When the anti-Semitic views of great thinkers such as Kant, Voltaire or Hume (or Hegel, Schopenhauer, Heidegger and Wittgenstein, for that matter) are exposed, one typical response is to question whether these prejudices are integral to their important works and ideas. But this may be the wrong question. A better question is: Should those who teach their works and ideas in the 21st century share them without mentioning the harmful stereotypes these thinkers helped to legitimize?

Shrage then goes on to point out that Western philosophy classes still generally favor Christian philosophers over “non-Western” philosophers and that this bias needs to be corrected.

This is undoubtedly true, but she misses the point as well. Saying “All Philosophers Matter” is as unsatisfying a response to antisemitism in philosophy as “All Lives Matter” is as a response to antisemitic attacks.

For better or for worse, people who are regarded as being at the pinnacle of human knowledge have too often fallen prey to the lowest form or prejudice. How can that be?

Shrage minimizes the problem by calling it mere politics: “The anti-Semitic theories of Hume, Voltaire and Kant show that philosophy has rarely, if ever, been insulated from politics,” she concludes.

Hate is much more than politics and Shrage is avoiding the real question.

My guess as to how philosophers could so easily justify antisemitism is related to Plato’s famous Allegory of the Cave, something taught to all first year philosophy students.

Briefly, the allegory goes like this: Most of humanity are chained into a cave where they face a wall and there is a fire behind them that they cannot see. Sometimes people pass between the fire and the wall, casting shadows, and the people see those shadows and assume that they reflect reality – they make up theories based on the shadows and they are comfortable with their limited knowledge. A philosopher is the only one who sees the truth, who knows that there is a fire and an entire world out there – the only one who sees reality.

It is a very nice allegory. But that doesn’t mean that it reflects the truth.

However, built in to this allegory is the hubris that philosophers are uniquely wise and anyone who disagrees with their words are simple and dumb, people who insist that the shadows are reality. When your entire self-perception is one where you are gifted and others are too stupid to see, then you gain a very large blind spot in your thinking. You start to think that everything you say is uniquely brilliant and that those who don’t “get it” are inferior anyway and their opinions don’t matter.

Bigotry goes hand in hand with egoism. The better you think you are, the bigger the blind spots you have to your own shortcomings – including bigotry.

We see the same thing with academics who spew the most ridiculous garbage freely and public it at will and who don’t deign to consider the opinions of those who disagree as not being the “experts” they think they are.  We see it with self-proclaimed “progressives” who are so certain that their moral sensitivities towards some forms of racism do not allow them to possibly hold antisemitic attitudes – and they deride those who point them out as being racists themselves.

One gets the impression that the professor of philosophy who wrote this column is not willing to think about the idea that perhaps a Hume or a Kant’s philosophy that includes and justifies hatred of Jews could be entirely wrong in their methodology or their thinking. Or it could be a huge blind spot. Either way, the issue that these philosophers created elaborate justifications for hating Jews, and that these justifications can be seen today to be completely wrong, should take the air out of the balloon of philosophers as wise and beyond reproof.

If institutions of higher learning are interested in their members pursuing the truth without blind spots, perhaps they should invest in courses in humility. These classes that teach how the top people in each field (including hard sciences) have fallen to bias, bias that they were too blind to see because of their hubris and the lack of willingness to listen to other points of view.  If we want to do better we need to learn from the mistakes of those who came before us.

If Kant can screw up so badly, then we all can. But if we know how badly our role models have screwed up, we are closer to knowing how to avoid those mistakes in our own lives and careers. That is the lesson to be learned from the antisemitic philosophers – and from the haters who hide behind morality or “expertise” today.

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