Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Heidegger and Ryle's Dictum

Reading Richard Polt's Heidegger I was interested to read his discussion of Heidegger's Nazism and the shadow it casts over his work. Actually, that is to minimize what is far more serious: Heidegger's philosophy was the philosophy of a man who was a Nazi; it's not the sort of thing that merely casts a shadow. And, of course, people with a taste for Heidegger are often willing to defend the philosophy; in general, their reasoning tends to continue Heidegger's own dishonesty, evasion, and bad faith on the subject. But some points are often right; and since arguments on the subject are by the nature of the subject arguments that one can use Heidegger's ideas without going back to the beginning and building them again on independent grounds, it is always interesting to see what they are.

In any case, Polt considers the famous saying about Heidegger attributed to Gilbert Ryle: "Bad man; must be a bad philosopher." And his response to it involves four arguments:

(1) The dictum assumes that what philosophers think is completely harmonious with what they do, which is false. Polt, however, massively overstates things here; nothing of the sort is required for Ryle's Dictum, which only indicates that bad character makes for bad philosophy, not that character and philosophy are completely harmonious.

(2) The dictum simplistically assumes that a philosophy correct on any point is correct on all points, and that philosophies are merely correct or incorrect, end of story. But again, Polt overstates things: Ryle's Dictum does not require that philosophies are merely correct or incorrect, nor does it assume that philosophies correct on one point are correct on all of them. Ryle's view of philosophy is far from simplistic; Mabbott said of him that philosophy irradiated his whole life, and the reason for it is that Ryle did not regard philosophy as some little department of life, some modular technology to be used or not used, applied or not applied, applied well or applied badly. Philosophy is not a machine; it is not constructed of interchangeable, replaceable parts, but grows out of a reflective life. To be sure, the philosopher has in his view a special cartographical task -- he charts the lay of the land, by walking through it, by surveying it, by looking around, by talking to natives. But it's the whole lay of the land, and doing it requires having a particular kind of character, one out of which it grows. It doesn't require perfection; but it does require some virtues.

Likewise, just as philosophy is not a detached mechanization of thought for Ryle, so too it is unlikely that he would think that Nazism is a matter of a few points. Indeed, even under Heidegger's later characterizations of the problems with Nazism, in terms of the technological response to Being seems to make it impossible to see it as merely an occasional foible in the system.

(3) The dictum is usually used simply as an excuse for not reading Heidegger, but if we only read books with which we agree and which are written by people "with impeccable moral judgment" we will read little and learn little. Again, Polt overstates matters; even if Ryle's Dictum is taken as an excuse not to read Heidegger (it need not be), it doesn't require reading only people with whom one agrees (indeed, doesn't come close to it; and, in any case, disagreeing with Heidegger's Nazism is not like disagreeing with Sartre's characterization of the gaze -- disagreements are simply not all level like that). It likewise doesn't require anything about impeccable moral judgment; for one thing, this does not logically follow, as noted with (1), and for another, it's not like we are talking about a limited failure of moral judgment, as with someone who thinks lying can be virtuous if it's in a good cause.

(4) We could use Heidegger's politics as a reason for suspicion of his philosophy, and thus read him critically and carefully, but this is how one should read all philosophers. The description of it as "Heidegger's politics" is interesting, because it again flattens what's actually going on. Nazism isn't politics in the sense that your politics might be trying outmaneuver the other party on the Water Commission Board, and it isn't politics in the sense of trying to get more funding for your department. We are talking about an entire ideology, a way of looking at the world; and if you are going to claim that your way of looking at the world is irrelevant to your philosophy, I am simply going to scoff at your stupidity. It's not his voting record that's the sore point here; it's his explicit identifications with Nazi ideals. To be sure, Heidegger was no Hitlerite; but few academic Nazis were. Some academic Nazis, of whom Kurt Huber is the most famous, even became well-known for opposition to Hitler. But no one who joined the Nazi party saw it as something that only mattered in the voting booth.

The critical thought that goes into, say, Saint Augustine, is simply not the same that goes into reading Heidegger; Augustine can in general be taken or left, but Heidegger can never merely be taken without first being unwound and then rewound; anything that has to do with technology or Being in his philosophy is something that by his own admission is relevant to his support for Nazism -- which goes well beyond, again, mere association with Nazi politicians. He can, of course, be simply left. Which is better will depend on the person doing the taking or leaving. I have seen Heidegger's defenders compare his philosophy to von Rad's rocketry; but, besides the fact that we are again at the entirely mechanized neutrality Heidegger's defenders often attribute to philosophy, von Rad's rocketry can be demonstrably duplicated on non-Nazi principles that have nothing to do with von Rad's life. No one, for instance, would say that cavalierly that Nazism was no more a reason to reject Heidegger's philosophy than it was a reason to reject Mengele's medical research; the example is being quite clearly cherry-picked. Unwinding von Rad's rocketry takes relatively little; unwinding Mengele's medicine is a fearsome task. Heidegger is not anywhere near Mengele, but it is absurd to say that his philosophy has no more to do with his Nazism than von Rad's physics.

To his credit, Polt rejects the position opposite to Ryle's dictum, saying, "It is foolish to insist that someone who is good at philosophizing has to be good at making moral choices -- but it is also foolish to insist that there can never be any relation between thought and action" (p. 160). But, of course, Ryle's Dictum doesn't really imply that someone good at philosophizing has to be good at making moral choices; only that you need a certain kind of good character to philosophize well. Polt also considers the Hiedegger-was-naive response (or, as I like to call it, the Heidegger-was-a-complete-idiot defense, because that's about what it amounts) and rightly rejects it; and the he-was-like-a-lot-of-others evasion, and rightly rejects it. He also considers the Heidegger-was-inconsistent response, which in general is the most respectable of the defenses of Heidegger, in the sense that one can actually respect such an argument, and considers the possibility that Heidegger's philosophy was proto-Nazi through-and-through, and rejects them both. And he rightly points out that the upshot of this whole discussion is that you can't evade the problem. So I don't want this all to sound like an attack on Polt, whose discussion is largely quite reasonable. But he simply hasn't done justice to the thought behind Ryle's Dictum. As with all sayings of Ryle, there's a lot packed into a little space, and it should never be dismissed lightly.


  1. Daniel Lindquist9:16 PM

    I have a hard time buying this sentiment as authentically Ryle's (and Google doesn't show anything substantiating it). Ryle wrote a generally positive review of "Being and Time", and when asked about SuZ later he didn't have much to say other than "Oh, yeah, I read that a long time ago and wrote a book review, which I worked hard on but no one ever asked me about. Haven't really thought of it since. Dunno whether it influenced me or not. I liked logical positivism more, at the time, but I might've found appealing anti-Cartesian/proto-behaviorist stuff in SuZ." (I paraphrase; the full quote is in the appendix on p. 290 of Heidegger and Modern Philosophy, which also reprints Ryle's book review from Mind.)

    I also don't see what's wrong with the sentiment Ryle genuinely had about SuZ: There're helpful things to be gleaned from it, but the project as a whole isn't the way to go.

    I don't know what his character has to do with whether, say, his criticisms of Husserl hit their mark, despite the fact that Being is all over the place in a lot of those; the fact that a Nazi says that everything he's done with his work had to do with his Nazism doesn't make it so. I've never seen a defense of Husserl which takes the form "But this criticism only holds water if you're a Nazi, ergo Husserl escapes the charge."

  2. branemrys10:02 PM

    I doubt it's Ryle's, as well; it's a Rylean-like summation, though, even if it's not Ryle's own opinion. But Polt doesn't get into questions of provenance.

    Since Ryle's sentiment in the review really doesn't tell us anything about how to handle the question of Heidegger's Nazism, I'm not sure how it's relevant. Likewise, whether or not Heidegger's criticisms of Husserl are untowardly connected is something that has to be determined, not assumed. The fact that a Nazi says something doesn't make it false, true, but it also doesn't make it non-Nazi in attitude, formulation, or substance; given that we are quite literally talking about a Nazi, that there is nothing about it that is Nazi has to be shown, not insisted upon a priori. As I say, it has to be unwound and then rewound in such a way as to show that there is no Nazi distortion in it. If we can do that, fine and dandy; before we do it, though, we have no license to pretend that all is obviously safe.

    Much of the problem lies precisely in reasoning by analogy here, which generally involves merely fooling ourselves by glossing over obviously significant differences. Nazism isn't a limited foible like drinking too much or sexual perversion, that might affect some philosophical fringes here and there but no more. It is a large-scale commitment; and, contrary to the tendency to insist on it as 'politics', it's not a merely political commitment like deciding one will support the Green Party in local elections. It carries a vision of technology, society, humanity. And this is undeniably so in Heidegger's case; Heidegger's own characterizations of his involvement, vague and weasely though they often are, links it with some of this major philosophical concerns. We should not fall into the hubris of pretending to know prior to all evidence what distortions such a commitment may or may not introduce into a philosophical approach, method, position, or system.


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