Savitri Era of those who adore, Om Sri Aurobindo and The Mother.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

They closed their eyes to brutality, coercion, and state-sponsored terror

Engaging biographies of 20th Century European Intellectuals, May 13, 2002
Mark Lilla's book aims to be both a collection of biographical sketches of influential European intellectuals of the 20th Century and a study of the disastrous attraction political power can have on on the minds of philosophers. In six chapters, each running 30-40 pages, Lilla casts the lives of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Alexandre Kojeve, Walter Benjamin, Carl Schmitt, and Martin Heidegger. Each of these thinkers, according to Lilla, at some point in their intellectual life, went astray turning from the well lit path of reason and taking up the route of "philotyranny".
Lilla's book succeeds most in giving us concise, well researched, and engagingly told stories of the thinking lives of these European intellectuals. His gift for biographical narrative rivals the best profiles of the New Yorker. But Lilla succeeds less well at demonstrating the habits of thought that attract certain intellectuals to politics or making the case for the necessarily disastrous consequences of mixing political power with philosophical thinking. Nevertheless, perhaps precisely because these biographical narratives are told with Lilla's one-sided but engaging tale of "recklessness", his book serves as a good introduction to readers familiar with the names of these revered European intellectuals who have been put off by the often ponderous (and prodigious) prose describing their work.
Lastly, haunting this text, but unfortunately never stepping forward as subject, is the ghost of Leo Strauss. He makes appearances in almost every chapter, as commentator or interlocutor, but the reader never benefits from Lilla's "open" and "clear" descriptive style in order to learn of this other important European emigre whose life and work parallels so many of Lilla's subjects. For an American writer ensconced at the University of Chicago, to avoid an exoteric treatment of the tutor of so many American public intellectuals (from Allan Bloom, Harry Jaffa, Joseph Cropsey, to Clarence Thomas, William Bennett and Irving Kristol) seems to deprive us of a fuller account of the attraction of intellectuals to public life. ~ J. D. Petersen Comment Comment | Permalink

Deep Thinkers in Trouble: Lilla's Lightweight Account,August 10, 2002 By Bill Corporandy (Yuba City, CA) - See all my reviews This review is from: The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics (Hardcover)
Lilla's account of various philosophers and their disastrous forays into the world of politics is interesting but rather unfocused and often superficial. I enjoyed his opening chapter of the relationships between Jaspers, Heidegger, and Arendt. I gained some insight into how an intelligent Jewish woman like Arendt could have fallen in love with Nazi apologist Heidegger. I remain somewhat baffled by Heidegger's love affair with Nazism except that his philosophical speculations were so abstract that they seem to have become attenuated from a realistic asssessment of politics in the real world. The next chapter on Nazi supporter Carl Schmitt was also interesting. His theologically inspired but militantly unsentimental critique of liberalism as an unrealistic vision in a harsh Hobbesian world of power politics has since gained the attention of leftist thinkers. (Schmitt first came to my attention in the early 1980s when his name began to be frequently mentioned in Telos, a leftist periodical that was in transition to a more conservative political outlook.) 
Lilla's chapter on Walter Benjamin fails to capture the complexity and originality of his thought. Chapter 4 concerns Alexandre Kojeve, the least well known of the theorists featured in Lilla's book, an apologist for Stalin who reintroduced Hegel into philosophical and political discussion. Lilla does not succeed in informing us of any new ideas that Kojeve contributed yet tells us that many more prominent thinkers made extravagant claims about his absolutely extraordinary importance and influence. Lilla's chapter on the notoriously irresponsible and popular Michel Foucault is a bit more informative and interesting but again somewhat superficial, especially compared to the excellent biography of Foucault by James Miller. The chapter on Derrida gives us some idea of the unreliability of deconstructionism as a tool of analysis. Its American appeal is explained by the fact that both democracy and deconstruction have the tendency to decenter reality. Lilla does succeed in showing us that Derrida's utopian wishful thinking relies on dark and irrational notions that ultimately are incompatible with a just and democratic society. 
The last chapter is strange--it is meant to be a summing up of the previous chapters through a discussion of the insights of Plato and a warning about the temptations of Dionysian totalitarianism. It seems to me that totalitarianism can also be Appollonian to use Nietzsche's terminology. Despite some interesting observations and comparisons, this final chapter is generally too abstract and mundane to offer much insight into contemporary philosophy's problematic relationship with politics.
I would recommend the following books on the same subject as a better investment of time: Three Intellectuals in Politics--James Joll; The Betrayal of The Intellectuals-Julien Benda (one of the earliest modern discussions of the problem--but overly conservative in that it seems to disapprove of the relationship of politics and philosophy altogether.); The Burden of Responsibility-Tony Judt, a scathing account of French intellectual subservience to Soviet Communism that makes Lilla's book seem very bland in comparison. Recent books by Russell Jacoby and Todd Gitlin (whose titles I have forgotten) offer a corrective view to Benda in which they bemoan the decline of public intellectuals and reassert the need for their ethical and progressive involvement in politics. Comment Comments (2) | Permalink

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