Saturday, February 04, 2006
A couple days ago I remarked on Richard Wolin's review in the current Nation. In a review of Wolin's own book The Seduction of Unreason last year, Stanley Rosen made a few of observations that are worth repeating in the current context.
Though I am hardly an admirer of Heidegger's character, I have to say that in many decades of reading his books, I have never found an argument against freedom of thought. It is true that Heidegger's conception of authentic Denken is quite different from Wolin's understanding of thinking. But neither Wolin nor Holmes succeeds in confining the defense of human freedom to a narrow loyalty to Enlightenment rationalism. Let us, however, suppose that Heidegger was an enemy, not of thinking but of freedom of speech. How does this enmity show itself in Leo Strauss, who, if anything, spent his career in the U.S. revealing with much freedom, and to his own professional detriment, the "secret teaching" of the great thinkers of the philosophical tradition? And in what way was Strauss more unreasonable than Wolin or Holmes? I have to say that I was offended by this evasive, even cowardly footnote.
The footnote the sets off Rosen's gander detector to is a quote from Stephen Holmes.

The other passage from Rosen's review indicates that to advance a discussion of Western politics, philosophy, or both, in a meaningful way, it is necessary to undertand both the Greek origins and to understand those one disagrees with.
To be sure, there are some defects in his erudition, particularly with respect to the ancient Greeks. Wolin incorrectly states that the Weimar Republic is a version of what Glaucon in Plato's Republic calls the city of pigs; the city of pigs, actually, is a primitive society lacking in luxuries of every kind, especially including philosophy. Similarly, Wolin characterizes Plato's Seventh Letter, the philosopher's account of his failed intervention into practical politics, as an invocation to give up philosophy for politics! He refers to "first philosophy" (an Aristotelian term) as "an a priori and speculative approach to history and politics," a strange way to characterize the thought of the man who first separated "first philosophy" from ethics and politics. Wolin's almost complete silence concerning Leo Strauss is, probably, a reflection of his apparent inacquaintance with Greek thought. Most if not all of the "anti-rationalists" discussed in the book were either Greek scholars (Nietzsche, Gadamer) or well trained in the classics. The ostensibly reactionary return to the Greeks that Wolin discerns is, in fact, a clue to the development of a richer, more reasonable conception of reason.

This leads me to a final criticism. In order to get back to the Greeks in a fruitful way, one must first come to terms with Heidegger. I mean by this that Heidegger both brings the Greeks to life and distorts them. To study Heidegger is thus like walking a tight-rope. What needs to be said is that Wolin is not good at taking seriously the people he dislikes. He seems to lack the ability, or in any event the will, to think through the ways in which the representatives of anti-Enlightenment were correct. For example, there can be no doubt that humanism, liberalism, and a rational democracy are endangered by the uncontrollable aspects of technology. That Heidegger links his critique of technology to a peculiarly romantic form of religion and a denunciation of the Enlightenment does not invalidate the force of the critique itself.
Coming soon: Heidegger and the critique of the Enlightnment in John Gray's Straw Dogs.
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