All Commentary
Wednesday, January 29, 2003

Book Review: The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics, by Mark Lilla

The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics

by Mark Lilla

TNRB Press • 2001 • 230 pages • $24.95

Reviewed by Tibor R. Machan

Mark Lilla’s book The Reckless Mind chronicles some of the most egregious corruptions of philosophy. The life and thought of Martin Heidegger (along with Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers), Carl Schmitt, Walter Benjamin, Alexander Kojeve, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida are Lilla’s topics. Those luminaries of European philosophy managed to aid and abet some of the worst tyrants in human history, producing some of the most pompous, highfalutin, and convoluted — as well as brilliant — ideas in history.

Lilla, a professor at the University of Chicago, has given us a book that is informative and exciting, despite his subjects’ complicity in history’s worst crimes against humanity. Lilla notes, charitably, that there is some worthy insight and speculation in the work of his subjects. Yet what he says of Foucault is true of all: “One might choose to follow Foucault on his inner journey, or set out on one’s own, but it is dangerous and absurd to think that such spiritual exercises could reveal anything about the shared political world we live in. Understanding that world would require an altogether different sort of self-discipline.”

The philosophers Lilla studies veer off into grotesque intellectual indulgence and rationalizations — claiming it is all for a higher good, of course. Hence the book’s title.

Walter Benjamin, for example, tells us that to strive for the passing away of the natural world is “the task of world politics, whose method must be called nihilism.” How convenient for a tyrant to hear that politics must be employed to annihilate “the natural world.”

Lilla shows that Jacques Derrida’s writings cannot but contribute to irrationalism in politics. Derrida states, for example, “What I try to do through the neutralization of communications, theses, and stability of content, through a microstructure of signification, is to provoke, not only in the reader but also in oneself, a new tremor or a new shock of the body that opens a new space of experience.” As Lilla notes, this explains “the reaction of those readers who suspect that the neutralization of communication means the neutralization of all standards of judgment — logical, scientific, aesthetic, moral, political.”

Philosophers have often been tempted to contribute to politics in ways that are hazardous to both the public and their own craft. When a discipline that ought to aim for truth free of bias and hidden agendas instead serves community regimentation, it will fall prey to corruption. That is the problem with the philosophers Lilla discusses here.

In some ways, of course, all disciplines require freedom from bias. But the temptation to stray is great for those who are committed to seeking (and have found what they take to be) the right answers, especially about political matters. Partisanship is unavoidable, even when one seeks to be nonpartisan. But there is a way, albeit difficult, to be partisan and also philosophical — relentless self-scrutiny by squarely facing facts. Alas, the thinkers Lilla studies have uniformly failed to maintain the needed balance between being responsible citizens and responsible philosophers.

Lilla’s concluding chapter deals with the issue of just why philosophers are tempted to provide respectability to some of the worst regimes in history — Hitler, Stalin, Mao, et al. He provides some fine analysis, drawing on the work of Socrates and Plato, who grappled with these matters centuries ago.

Another point may be of some help in understanding what Lilla identifies as the “philo-tyrannical temptation.” It is the misguided conviction that just by being philosophers, some have earned the authority to have their ideas imposed on everyone else. Karl Popper, in The Open Society and Its Enemies, makes allusions to this mistaken way of thinking. Socrates, Plato, even Aristotle, whatever the merits of their work, embraced versions of it when they insisted that the philosophic life is superior to all others. So those not living that life are inferior. It is a short distance from that to embracing authoritarianism.

We still see this attitude, as when professors deem themselves to be the conscience of the culture, when commerce is denied an honorable standing, and when the practical sciences are thought of as inferior to the pure ones, thereby conferring a lower status to hose who study them.

Lilla’s is an instructive book. It is encouriging also that most of its content came xom the New York Review of Books though, ironically, the editors of that magazine have their own unrelenting elitism). Though a bit hard going in spots, it’s very rewarding.

  • Tibor R. Machan is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University and formerly held the R. C. Hoiles Chair of Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics at Chapman University.