Bruce Kuklick’s history of American philosophy (6)

Kuklick, Bruce. A History of Philosophy in America 1720-2000. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001. 346 pp. $19.95 (pbk), ISBN 0199260168.

Part III: Professional Philosophy, 1912-2000

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12. Europe’s Impact on the United States
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So now we are up to chapter 12: Europe’s Impact on the United States. Kuklick begins with what American philosophy looks like in the 1930s. First, there is Alfred North Whitehead, whom Harvard hired for logic but who then elaborated his grand scheme of metaphysics, process philosophy. George Herbert Mead had carried on in Chicago (he dies in 1931), but the University of Chicago became dominated by the retrograde program of Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler of Great Books fame (infamy). Richard McKeon and Charles Hartshorne carried on speculative metaphysics at Chicago. Yale became a haven for metaphysics, with Brand Blanshard and Paul Weiss. Weiss prevailed in the face of anti-semitism. In the Catholic universities the Neo-Thomists were out to vanquish Dewey, but most of them would not read Dewey, and the mainstream philosophical profession denounced and excluded them. Meanwhile, the popularization of the history of thought was taken up by Will Durant. (227)

The civilizational crisis engendered by fascism and war compelled a response from philosophers. In 1940 a Conference on Science, Philosophy, and Religion in their Relation to the Democratic Way of Life (which became an annual conference), was held. It was open to all schools, with religious Deweyism at the center, but weighted towards the metaphysicians. Quine complained about the religious tone. (230) The APA organized several conferences during the war, summed up in the 1945 publication Philosophy in American Education. With European refugee philosophers two schools came to have an impact in the USA: the Frankfurt School’s critical theory and the Vienna Circle’s logical positivism.

Curiously, Kuklick chooses to emphasize the privileged status and elitist character of the lifestyle and work of Horkheimer and Adorno, their alleged anti-Americanism and disdain for popular culture and their haste to return to Germany after the war, these  presumably being consonant with this elitism. (230) Kuklick characterizes them as European conservatives. (He does acknowledge The Authoritarian Personality, however.) This, however, is a distorted presentation of Adorno’s conception of the culture industry. Furthermore, Adorno was to publicize the positive aspects of his experience in America when back in Germany, and he likely emphasized it given the anti-American prejudice of Nazi/fascist ideologues.  One wonders why Kuklick slanted his presentation in this fashion, which doesn’t quite do justice to the ideas or motivations of the parties concerned.

While Horkheimer’s Institute for Social Research itself did not have a great impact in the USA, Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse did. Kuklick makes some odd statements about Fromm. Fromm was less anti-American, and “picked up the benign American view of Freud.” “A moldable human nature and not entrenched class interest became the central problem in the reconstruction of the social order.” (231) Say what? Perhaps Kuklick was not sufficiently interested in any of these people to delve into their work? He does better with Marcuse, but very briefly. As Fromm was not a philosopher per se, other members of the Frankfurt School and related figures in exile in the USA might have been mentioned as well. It is the case, though that Fromm functioned as a public intellectual, as Marcuse would in the radical ‘60s.

Unlike the Frankfurt School, logical positivism made huge inroads into academic philosophy.  Its rigorous emphasis on logic had a great appeal. The principle of verification was also a central principle, but it ran into stumbling blocks. The ideas of Carnap and Hempel are summarized, as well as criticism of them. Interestingly, the defection of Charles L. Stevenson from moral philosophy is mentioned; his “positivist” turn cost him tenure at Yale. Stevenson’s position was actually ambiguous, but younger philosophers were inclined to accept the rigid separation of fact and value. (236) Ethical discourse was demoted to emotivism.

At the beginning, Kuklick labels logical positivism apolitical, which it certainly became in time, but that is not quite the case as far as the émigrés are concerned. Most of the original Vienna Circle were leftists, especially Otto Neurath, and their positivist program was meant to have social relevance: clearing away metaphysical obscurantism was tied to progressive politics. And then there were efforts at popularization, notably Philipp Frank. See extracts on my web site:

Modern Science and Its Philosophy by Philipp Frank

The third foreign import came after the war, namely existentialism, in the person of Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre became a part of popular culture. Only later did scholars discover his indebtedness to Heidegger, whose religiosity and conservatism did not transfer to Sartre. Religion was becoming intellectually respectable in the United States again, a trend vigorously opposed by Sidney Hook. While academia did not return to religion, given the sense of social crisis, the ground was prepared for Sartre. One important conduit was William Barrett, publishing in Partisan Review. Sartre himself lectured at Yale in 1945 and 1946, thereby also becoming an influence for Catholic thinkers. Thanks to existentialism, opportunities hitherto closed for women philosophers opened up. Two influential texts for postwar students were Walter Kaufman’s The Portable Nietzsche and Barrett’s Irrational Man; add to these Kaufman’s Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre.

Kuklick finds that logical positivism and existentialism had much in common. Marcuse disdained both. The positivists and the existentialists parted company politically. Kuklick’s account is rather confused. (239-40) As the positivists were put off by the existentialists for a variety of reasons disdained the positivists. In the United States the positivists did not foreground their leftish political leanings, thus lending force to the perception that they were socially irrelevant. Kaufman and Barrett wished that the deep questions, and the dark side of human nature, could be explored in the American setting, in the hopes of overcoming the allegedly superficial rationalism of the positivists, and for Barrett, even of the Marxists. John Wild left Harvard after being discouraged about prospects for existentialism there and established a center for phenomenology at Northwestern University, where William Earle, who had visited Harvard, was located. Wild relocated to Yale, where scientifically oriented philosophers did not fare well.

Here is Kuklick’s conclusion:

From a wider perspective, however, the fight was not between Harvard and Yale. Positivism and existentialism were the intellectual products of a Europe that, in politics, thought in destructive extremes. European ideas and ideologies had begun to provoke a contest among American scholars who had shortly before been devotees of compromising pragmatism. Between the two extremes, such naturalists as Sidney Hook and were unable to keep alive the legacy of John Dewey. (242)

The banality and bias of this judgment and the lapses in this chapter mark the first period in which Kuklick’s perspective falters. The notion that pragmatism or American naturalism in the person of Hook should have prevailed, and the notion that Europeans were extremists (bad) and that positivism and existentialism essentially covered the philosophical map of Europe, show up a certain ideological provincialism in Kuklick, as do his mischaracterizations of the Frankfurt School.

Aside from the section on the Frankfurt School, there is no discussion at all of Marxism. There is not even mention of Sidney Hook’s erstwhile Marxism, which was arguably the most important philosophical contribution to Marxist philosophy in the English language, certainly in the United States. (There were a number of significant British Marxist thinkers, including the Australian Jack Lindsay, in the Communist Party. There were also to be, outside of academe and under the radar, groundbreaking contributions from erstwhile Trotskyists C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya and their Tendency in the United States.) And of course, outside of academia altogether Marxism was flourishing in the “Red Decade” of the ‘30s, just as was the middlebrow culture to which Durant and Adler contributed.

Furthermore, there is no mention of the influence of McCarthyism on American philosophy or philosophers. In addition to the persecution and purges of left wing philosophers in academia, J. Edgar Hoover had designated materialism Un-American, as he did atheistic communism. The monumental volume Philosophy for the Future: The Quest of Modern Materialism edited by Roy Wood Sellars, V.J. McGill, and Marvin Farber (1949) sank like a stone. Note also that Marvin Farber was the conduit for Husserl’s phenomenology in the United States and that the journal he edited, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, was hospitable to a variety of philosophical trends. Farber, like the other two, was a man of the left and resisted McCarthyism at the University of Buffalo. While Kuklick does not pretend to present the entire history of American philosophy, these matters are institutionally significant enough to warrant mention.

For a more detailed account of the impact of existentialism, see George Cotkin’s Existential America, some of which I have already blogged about. (I have not yet covered the section on the American appropriation of French existentialism.) Note also that prior to the importation of French existentialism, Kierkegaard was in vogue in the 1940s, not due to émigré influence, but generated within the United States itself. The proponents of Kierkegaard tended to be conservative in a way that the adepts of French existentialism usually were not.