German political philosophy

Let me bring some extension to a previous post. When I think of the political and philosophical tradition of the West, I think in relation to the Anglo-sphere, who run from Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Edmund Burke, David Hume, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Michael Oakeshott and also Roger Scruton, who I will mention just to bring it up to the immediate present. This is the philosophy of freedom of the individual and human rights. It is pretty well unknown everywhere else.

I am less keen on the Continental tradition. In actual fact, I am not keen on the continental tradition at all. Perhaps I don’t know these well enough, since I won’t claim any deep knowledge of any of them. Still, for most people, the most they might know about the German philosophical tradition comes from Monty Python’s Australian Philosophy Department.

Immanuel Kant was a real pissant
Who was very rarely stable

Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar
Who could think you under the table

David Hume could out-consume
Schopenhauer and Hegel

And Wittgenstein was a beery swine
Who was just as schloshed as Schlegel

There’s nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach ya
’bout the raising of the wrist
Socrates, himself, was permanently pissed,

So let’s do a little run-down, starting with Martin Heidegger.

Martin Heidegger (/ˈhdɛɡər,  hdɪɡər/;[12][13] German: [ˈmaʁtiːn ˈhaɪdɛɡɐ];[14][12] 26 September 1889 – 26 May 1976) was a German philosopher and a seminal thinker in the Continental tradition of philosophy. He is “widely acknowledged to be one of the most original and important philosophers of the 20th century.” Heidegger is best known for his contributions to phenomenologyhermeneutics, and existentialism, though, as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy cautions, “his thinking should be identified as part of such philosophical movements only with extreme care and qualification”. Heidegger was a member and public supporter of the Nazi Party. There is controversy over the degree to which his Nazi affiliations influenced his philosophy.

There is, of course, no doubt about the extent to which his philosophy influenced his Nazi affiliation. Not to mention his massive influence on the Green Movement, to this day.

Heidegger’s later work includes criticisms of technology‘s instrumentalist understanding in the Western tradition as “enframing“, treating all of Nature as a “standing reserve” on call for human purposes.

Let me now add Ludwig Wittgenstein to the list. This is from a previous post of mine:

If you are interested in a genuinely plausible fifth (sixth?) Cambridge spy, Wittgenstein who was at Trinity is a better bet. This is discussed in an extraordinarily fascinating book The Jew of Linz published by my fellow Australian, Kim Cornish. The title comes from a phrase in Mein Kampf in which Hitler traces his anti-Semitism to a ‘Jew of Linz’ with whom he had gone to high school. Although the family had converted from Judaism, Ludwig Wittgenstein had, in one of the most amazing coincidences in history, gone to the same high school at the same time as Hitler. The book then argues that Wittgenstein had been the person who had recruited Philby and the others. This is from Kim’s Wikipedia entry:

‘The Jew of Linz (1998) is a controversial book by Australian writer Kimberley Cornish. It alleges that the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein had a profound effect on Adolf Hitler when they were both pupils at the Realschule (high school) in Linz, Austria, in the early 1900s. He also alleges that Wittgenstein was involved in the Cambridge Five Soviet spy ring during the Second World War….

‘Cornish also argues that Wittgenstein is the most likely suspect as recruiter of the “Cambridge Five” spy ring. The author suggests that Wittgenstein was responsible for British decryption technology for the German Enigma code reaching the Red Army and that he thereby enabled the Red Army victories on the Eastern Front that liberated the camps and ultimately overthrew the Reich.

‘He writes that the Soviet government offered Wittgenstein the chair in philosophy at what had been Lenin’s university (Kazan) at a time (during the Great Purge) when ideological conformity was at a premium amongst Soviet academics and enforced by the very harshest penalties. Wittgenstein wanted to emigrate to Russia, first in the twenties, as he wrote in a letter to Paul Engelmann, and again in the thirties, either to work as a labourer or as a philosophy lecturer. Cornish argues that given the nature of the Soviet regime, the possibility that a non-Marxist philosopher (or even one over whom the government could exert no ideological control) would be offered such a post, is unlikely in the extreme.’

Shall we try Hegel?

Hegel’s distinctions as to what he meant by civil society are often unclear. For example, while it seems to be the case that he felt that a civil society such as the German society in which he lived was an inevitable movement of the dialectic, he made way for the crushing of other types of “lesser” and not fully realized types of civil society as these societies were not fully conscious or aware—as it were—as to the lack of progress in their societies. Thus, it was perfectly legitimate in the eyes of Hegel for a conqueror such as Napoleon to come along and destroy that which was not fully realized….

The State is “objective spirit” so “it is only through being a member of the state that the individual himself has objectivity, truth, and ethical life” (section 258). Furthermore, every member both loves the State with genuine patriotism, but has transcended mere “team spirit” by reflectively endorsing their citizenship. Members of a Hegelian State are happy even to sacrifice their lives for the State.

How about Kant. Not that you can make sense of him without a few years of serious application, if even then, but let this be a taste. No natural law in Kant, that’s for sure, and he was certainly not a utilitarian.

In Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, Kant also posited the “counter-utilitarian idea that there is a difference between preferences and values, and that considerations of individual rights temper calculations of aggregate utility”, a concept that is an axiom in economics:

Everything has either a price or a dignity. Whatever has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; on the other hand, whatever is above all price, and therefore admits of no equivalent, has a dignity. But that which constitutes the condition under which alone something can be an end in itself does not have mere relative worth, i.e., price, but an intrinsic worth, i.e., a dignity. (p. 53, italics in original).

A phrase quoted by Kant, which is used to summarize the counter-utilitarian nature of his moral philosophy, is Fiat justitia, pereat mundus, (“Let justice be done, though the world perish”), which he translates loosely as “Let justice reign even if all the rascals in the world should perish from it”.

If there is a more dangerous political-philosophy position anywhere among the supposedly great philosophers than “let justice be done though the world may perish” I have not seen it.

And there is, of course, Nietzsche. He was not an anti-semite, but he was hardly a democratic liberal seeking the greatest good for the greatest number. Since, unlike Heidegger, he didn’t wear a Nazi pin on his collar to the very end of the Third Reich, he is separated as much as possible from having had a direct link to Fascism by all right-thinking individuals who still find his philosophy attractive. Yet between his Will to Power and the search for the Superman, not to forget his disdain for the bourgeoise and the high regard he had among the Nazis, you cannot expect to find in him anything that seeks to create the open society and the largest expanse of personal freedom for the greatest number. From Influence and reception of Friedrich Nietzsche we find this from an American, although there is more there if you would like to look.

American writer H. L. Mencken avidly read and translated Nietzsche’s works and has gained the sobriquet “the American Nietzsche”. In his book on Nietzsche, Mencken portrayed the philosopher as a proponent of anti-egalitarian aristocratic revolution, a depiction in sharp contrast with left-wing interpretations of Nietzsche. Nietzsche was declared an honorary anarchist by Emma Goldman, and he influenced other anarchists such as Guy AldredRudolf RockerMax Cafard and John Moore.

And do I need to enter into a discussion of Marx and Engels, both of whom took their turgid idiocies from Hegel? And just to bring these closer to the present, we must not leave out The Frankfurt School who dominate our universities to this very day.