(Reckless Mind) Philosophers & Politics (Mark Lilla)


The distinctly unkind pleasure reading through Mark Lilla’s The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics belongs to liberal skeptics who would concur with Lilla that the combination of philosophy and politics would seem, at least in the twentieth century, to be invariably a botched relation. But handle this book with a certain care. Not intended for specialists, like its 2016 companion The Shipwrecked Mind, this is an easy quick read. Published in 2003, The Reckless Mind is a New York Review of Books book assembled mostly from individual essays published in that august journal of intellectual opinion. While each individual stands on its own relative merits and considerable insight, it’s not clear if all the philosophers assembled in this rogue’s gallery represent the same thing to the same extent –i.e. the recklessness of philosophers in the politics of the last century.

With separate chapters for each, Martin Heidegger (along with Arendt and Jaspers) gets the ball rolling along with other Weimar catastrophists, Carl Schmitt and Walter Benjamin. The French connection is established by Kojève, Foucault and Derrida. These three reflections are followed by “The Lure of Syracuse” and “Sola Fide,” being an epilogue and an afterword.

A great deal commends attention to these essays in the form of its outline of taxa. What constitutes “the reckless philosophical mind” are chalked up to anti-humanism, the uncompromising revolt against liberal society and culture, and the play of religion, myth, and mysticism (the fascination with limit experience like violence and death) as a form of intellectual habit that lends itself to what Lilla calls “philo-tyranny,” a toxic combination of ideas and passion (pp.208-216). Does everyone fit the bill and do they do so to the same order? Heidegger and Schmitt align obviously with Nazism, the engaged intellectual with Sartre and after with communist totalitarianism and then, with Foucault tellingly but, to this reader, ultimately inconsequential flirtations with revolutionary violence in 1968, and then briefly in response to the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Rightly or wrongly, Derridean political philosophy is reduced to something of a non-serious and desperate joke (cf. p.189).

Is Lilla right? Can anyone take any of this seriously? Lilla writes abouth the challenge of teaching this material to students today who simply do not know the traumatic memory of mass death in the twentieth century. This being a blogpost, I’ll allow myself the confession that I like the animus directed at this particular grouping of thinkers, the impossibility for politics of thinkers who celebrate impossibility itself as a first, ontological principle. It’s not my intention here to suss out the degree to which Lilla’s punch either lands or misses its mark. I say this despite my own sympathy for the suspicion that philosophy, whose ultimate stock and trade is a mix of skepticism and ideas, does not mix well with the cynical arts of politics, which operate within while pushing the limits of conventional thinking.

I will submit that, making a brief appearance, Raymond Aron, the author of L’Opium des intellectuels (1955) is the hero of The Reckless Mind for understanding in Lilla’s view the distinction and proper boundary between politics and philosophy. “In his view, the real responsibility of European intellectuals after the war was to bring whatever expertise they had to bear on liberal-democratic politics and to maintain a sense of moral proportion in judging the relative injustices of different political systems –in short, to be independent spectators with a modest sense of their roles as citizens and opinion-makers. Sartre and his follower accepted no such responsibilities” (p.204, emphasis added).

I am tempted to agree that Lilla is right, that Aron was right, as Lilla says he was (ibid.). Ideally, the position outlined here makes a certain amount of limited sense about which one can agree or disagree. But as an intellectual historian, Lilla should have known better, namely that the experience of the twentieth century, a century of mass death and murder, and disruptive moral dislocations was not going to be conducive to the philosophical equanimity, the aesthetic values of right and proportion, recommended by Lilla, as if from some privileged political height or habitat.

There is reason enough to be cautious and critical about the “blurring of boundaries between pure philosophical inquiry, political philosophy, and political engagement” (pp.161, 187). Indeed, one might reasonably suspect that philosophers bring no extraordinary capacities by nature of their peculiar genius to the practical genius of political judgment in actual situations. Philosophy on a soapbox can cut a foolish figure. But the problem might not have anything to do with the relationship between philosophy and politics tout court when it might rather be the case that the philosophy was somewhat rancid in the first place or that there was something amiss about the philosopher’s political capacity to begin with.

More generally, the confusion might relate to problems concerning imagination and empathy. Not getting this right is a basic human incapacity to which philosophers might be especially prone, inclined as they tend to be towards a hermeneutics of suspicion, as opposed to a hermeneutics of charity. Skepticism may go only so far, but that would have to include the liberal skepticism shared by this particular reader with Mark Lilla.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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