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What has the cautionary tale of Ernst Nolte to do with the study of philosophy? It suggests to me that a thorough training in philosophy does not necessarily inoculate a student from holding false and even dangerous views. Nolte was well-versed in ancient and modern philosophy, read several languages and wrote his PhD thesis on Marx. His philosophical background was reflected in the self-consciously obscure language of “transcendence” in which he cloaked what proved to be unsavoury ideas and prejudices. He applied Hegelian dialectics to the study of fascism: the Action Française was the thesis, Italian Fascism the antithesis, and German National Socialism the synthesis; the result, Three Faces of Fascism, was for many years a standard text on student reading lists. His interpretation of the first half of the 20th century as “the European Civil War” has also found echoes. Nolte may have been as bad a philosopher as he was an historian, but he mastered the power of both professions to dominate our consciousness.

Philosophy, then, is not some kind of moral panacea. Its influence can be bad as well as good. Of course, Nolte might have become a Nazi apologist even without Heidegger’s indoctrination. In any case, people disagree about the whether such influences amount to “corruption of youth”: few would now defend the decision of the citizens of Athens to put Socrates to death. My daughter does not need Peter Singer to teach her the virtues of veganism, because she has already reached the conclusion that farming and killing animals for food cannot be ethically justified. But if she had not previously taken this view, and Singer had persuaded her to be a vegan, we as her parents might have worried about whether she was safe under his tutelage. In his new book, clearly aimed at a lay readership including students, he defends adult sibling incest, the cloning of human beings, and the euthanasia of disabled infants. All Singer’s arguments about bioethics may be summed up in one sentence: “We have no obligation to allow every being with the potential to become a rational being to realise that potential.” Yet elsewhere in the book, he argues against allowing the extinction of our species because if we do, “we will have blown the opportunity to create something truly wonderful: an astronomically large number of generations of human beings living rich and fulfilling lives, and reaching heights of knowledge and civilisation that are beyond the limits of our imagination.” Only a few rigorous pessimists, such as Arthur Schopenhauer or his South African disciple David Benatar, could disagree. Yet these future generations are only potential human beings, towards whom, according to Singer, we have no obligations. Why should we care about the future of our civilisation if we don’t think human life here and now necessarily matters? And what does it say about the philosophical community that Singer is now its most popular representative?

Despite all these doubts about whether philosophers really are fit guardians of posterity, I’m quite sanguine about placing my daughter in their hands for the next three years. You can’t beat seeing how philosophy is done — let alone doing it yourself. I have never forgotten the thrill of giving a paper to A.J. “Freddie” Ayer’s seminar at Oxford. I also enjoyed chairing a Standpoint Dialogue between Peter Singer — who is personally likeable, however outré some of his views — and the theologian Nigel Biggar. Intelligent students can decide for themselves whether their minds are being opened or closed by what they hear in the lecture hall and seminar room. A little modesty from the professors, though, would not come amiss. Philosophers today want to change the world; the point of them, though, is to try to understand it.
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nepomuk onderdonk
December 22nd, 2016
6:12 PM
--- it's the profession of finding meaning, it's for the shaman in the marketplace, rising up out of the established pattern to find a new way, to be the shepherd rather than the sheep; I’ve heard the college students laugh at the major that leads to a night job at the warehouse, but I like to point out that my mom majored in philosophy, and started a market research business that led to doing focus groups for the government in foreign countries, and of the many stories she tells is one where she credits herself with the freedom of Chile from Pinochet, called a 'national treasure' by her employers, the original character behind the movie "no!"; it was the innovative and skilled thinking around problems that others had not been able to solve, skills she may have always had, but were surely nurtured by her college philosophy degree, that carried her through her satisfying and meaningful life.

ted schrey montreal
December 16th, 2016
10:12 PM
Oops. Response to a comment made on Oct 1. Space, time and causality have no role in existential philosophy. And why should they? The only sensible definition of consciousness is that the word stands for the absence of all that is, which means that it indicates the potential of all that is. I get very tired of the term being used in a meaningless fashion.

Alicia Sinclair
December 15th, 2016
9:12 PM
A great read-that the Left have had the self-righteous machinations of language and culture to themselves these last forty years or so now means we have two generations of lily-livered relativist and godless snowflakes to deal with. They are not democratic, have not been taught respect or how to argue a case, Because they`ve had no need to. Running to law, censorship or banning if not violence itself. But in 2016, the worms have turned, they do not like it one bit. Ah well, all to the good.

November 15th, 2016
2:11 PM
'Jon' has a non-philosophic notion of what philosophy is. Language is the tool and the means, not the end. And arguably, philosophy that is not political philosophy -- the exploration of what we live for and the discussion of who should rule -- is not philosophy at all.

October 15th, 2016
5:10 PM
There`s more philosophy in 24 hours of anyone`s life than in all the philosophies. The 21st century expression of this is the 17.4 million people who voted for Brexit. Remainia has 16.1 million anti-philosophers regarding "the quiet revolution" (Theresa May) Take the proposition " Islam is not to be mocked.Islam is to be celebrated" (a Ramadan official quoted in the Spectator) and the proposition " Islam is to be mocked not celebrated". Only the latter is true. What is being mocked is stupidity and anti-democracy. Perhaps it`s necessary foe May and Gove etc to say Islam is a religion of peace and a source of spiritual sustenance. For diplomatic reasons. But Islam is neither. It`s not a religion at all. Wittgenstein proposed that a philosophy could consist entirely of a series of jokes. Not in Islam it couldn`t. Wittgenstein was a Christian. The full name of the gorilla that smashed it`s way out of it`s enclosure in London Zoo is Kumbuka Mohamud Islam. It`s keeper says it likes to show who`s boss. So Zizek is right in claiming philosophy/philosophising is more important than ever. Unfortunately he was for Remainia but has partially changed his mind in favour of Brexit. We have outlived the Gods. We breathe life into them not the other way round. Out of 1000 men only one will be a Leader of Men. The other 999 are following women.

October 8th, 2016
7:10 PM
Young artist Akiane Kramarik is on the Oprah Winfrey Show again today. What`s it got to do with philosophy? Everything. But the feminist Guerilla Girls at the Whitechapel and Tate Gallery are still silent about her. As are Trump and Clinton and Zizek and Paglia. And all the brit philosophers , the BBC and Royal Academy.

Frank Williams
October 5th, 2016
2:10 AM
This is not just a philosophers' problem - a good many academic fields have the same problems.

Klaus Rohde
October 1st, 2016
11:10 PM
I disagree with Ted Schrey's comment that "I can really and honestly only recommend reading existential philosophy; anything else that purports to go by the name of philosophy is either entirely outdated or boring beyond belief in addition to being blatant nonsense." See Space, time and causality in Kant’s and Schopenhauer’s philosophy, and in physics. The role of our consciousness" in These are the central problems in philosophy and what has Sartre to say about it?

October 1st, 2016
11:10 AM
@Jon “Philosophy … is the study of language -- what we can and cannot say. … [Dispense with] thinking that what [there is] to say about words reflects … on the nature of reality … and philosophy can be a discipline of great value.” Except that those words, too, are subject to interpretation. As soon as the sentence begins with “[the subject] is”, the lens – being indispensable – becomes foggy. In my neck of the woods, this article could be construed as ‘having two bob each way’. First, there is much talk here of ‘philosophers’ having an obligation to explain ‘The Meaning of Life’ [properly the estate of religion]. Only to finally insist that philosophy cannot deliver the universal panacea for solving ‘the human dilemma’. Daniel Johnson is an accomplished journalist. With no professed pretensions to ‘having done Philosophy’. [The essential First Amendment obligation to manufacture consent is encumbered enough with its own kitbag of conceits.] To declare that “Philosophy is the study of language” [even when “properly conceived”] cannot escape the inherent ‘Liar’s Paradox’. If one thing is really something else, why not ‘call a spade a spade’? [“That’s no lady, that’s my wife.”] What is Architecture? What is Making Love? What is Faith? To offer a convenient ‘definition’ to ‘represent’ [stand instead of] the universal market-place rubric may lightly be perceived as little removed from frankly admitting that every shop-front shingle is subject to mis-apprehension. Is a hairdresser really a psychoanalyst? If, however, philosophy is what you make it [because the sense one makes of the words in common circulation is each one’s own], then philosophy can have no truck with ‘morality’ – universal questions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. If philosophy is indeed the ‘love of reason’, then it ought to matter less what one ought to think, than how. Which is, true to the paradox inherent to all attempts at ‘telling it like it is’, all the same, still nothing less than didactic dogma. Consider – Time is an illusion. Data is not information. Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not understanding. Understanding is not wisdom. Evidence is not proof and experience is not reality. Proof is the solitary reassuring province of mathematics. Experience is confined to what is called ‘the here and now’. Which has no discernible dimension. As such, experience is not accessible to language. All we can ever talk about is the strictly formalised narrative. About ‘the past’. That is then marketed as ‘what really happened’. Even as ’the present moment’ recedes rapidly into the shadows of intensely private, individual memory. And that is as good as ‘reality’ gets. To speak of an illusion as anathema to reality, is to treat reality as a given – potentially another illusion. History and Reality are manufactured. By means of the words that enjoy contemporary currency. And no less real, for all that. The self-styled philosopher and the renowned physicist fossick alike for temporarily appropriate questions. The answers rely for integrity on blind faith. Truth is moot.

September 30th, 2016
6:09 PM
Two other students of Heidegger, Jacob Klein and Leo Strauss, were formative influences on the "New" program at St. John's College. I heard them together in a Friday lecture at the College agree that one of the great tragedies of their time was that Heidegger's intellectual virtue was not matched by moral virtue. The importance of keeping that distinction in mind has stayed with me lo these nearly fifty years. That is a gift of philosophy.

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