Beyond Polarization

by Bharath Vallabha
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Our society is becoming more polarized. Nuance and subtlety are marginalized as things are reduced to all-encompassing binaries such as red vs. blue. This is as absurd as sorting items in a house in terms of their color instead of their function. Who in their right mind would give up categories such as silverware and furniture and instead put all red items in the house together and all the blue items together? Yet polarization encourages – and demands – just such bizarre bundling.

The main productive response to polarization is conceptual clarification. Polarization is like a tornado which forces our concepts into two gigantic piles. Yelling that we should stop polarizing is as helpful as yelling at a tornado. Saying we should love the other side is to concede the two piles aren’t haphazard and are in fact well-structured. The main response to a tornado is the unsexy one of cleaning up: the meticulous, patient, laborious task of going into the rubble, dealing with the loss of how things used to be and rebuilding for a new day.

Conceptual clarification begins where one is. After a tornado, I don’t go to a random building on the other side of town and determine which pieces in that building go together. I have to begin where I have a sense for what coherence means. I don’t know much about ballet, anthropology or the history of Eastern Europe. When I think about how polarization is affecting these things, I have little to hold onto because I don’t have a pre-tornado sense for how things were or what needed improving. The sense that I need to have an opinion on everything is itself a form of polarization, as if the only alternatives to having an opinion are stupidity or complicity. Not having an opinion can be a sign of intelligence.

An area I know something about is modern European philosophy, from Descartes to Kant to Wittgenstein to Rorty. I am not an expert on these thinkers, and it’s been a decade since I left academia. But when I think, “Where can I dig in my heels to break through polarization to some extent?” I think about these philosophers.

In twentieth century analytic philosophy, it was taken for granted that modern European philosophy is the pinnacle of philosophy. It was assumed philosophy was essentially European, having begun in Ancient Greece. And that within European philosophy, the tradition from Descartes and Locke on is the cutting edge since it is modern, engaging with the rise of modern science, and with social transformations such as the Protestant Reformation and the rise of liberal democracy.

In the colonial context of the first half of the twentieth century, it went without needing defense that the cutting edge of European philosophy is the cutting edge of philosophy as such. An education in philosophy required Plato and Locke, but not Mencius and Shankara. Any non-Western philosophical tradition, if it was acknowledged, was seen to be catching up to the Western tradition and so didn’t need to be studied.

The end of colonialism and the civil rights movement broke the assumption of the inherent superiority of Western civilization. Yet in the second half of the twentieth century, especially in “top” analytic departments, philosophy continued as if in a social vacuum. Even as the other humanities were grappling with the post-colonial world and the changing student demographics, the philosophy departments of Harvard and Princeton, Berkeley and Michigan continued apace as if the modern European tradition was the essence of philosophy.

In this century, especially in the last decade, the social vacuum of analytic philosophy punctured. The broader fights in the humanities and in the culture at large have broken into the lecture halls and faculty meetings of the old and new centers of analytic philosophy: Oxford and NYU, Pittsburgh and Rutgers. It is exactly at such moments of the disruption of old structures that the tornado of polarization gathers force. As an era ends, the conversation space becomes dominated by the loudest voices battling for position, as if a range of possibilities has dwindled down to just one existential choice of the old or the new.

Extreme critics of modern European philosophy focus on the racism of Hume and Kant, or the fact that most analytic philosophers spent more time debating the meaning of “good” or “the King of France” than opposing colonialism, as showing it’s all “just” an extension of white supremacy. That by not questioning white supremacy in philosophy, modern European philosophers were complicit in white supremacy, and so were an implicit version of the KKK and Nazis.

Stated bluntly like this, this view is absurd. Like a lot of students, I spent many stimulating hours trying to determine the validity of Descartes’ ontological argument or Kant’s transcendental deduction. If these thinkers were proto-Nazis, how do I make sense of the joy and intellectual excitement I felt when reading them? Besides, what do these arguments about the existence of God or the structure of self-consciousness have to do with white supremacy?

Then again, I spent many productive hours reading Heidegger’s Being and Time and in that text there is no mention of white supremacy. Yet, it’s not absurd to wonder about the relation of Being and Time, published in 1927, to Heidegger’s embrace of Nazism in 1933. Some great interpreters of Heidegger, such as Hubert Dreyfus, treat Heidegger’s Nazism as entirely disconnected from his philosophy. This was not at all obvious to positivists such as Carnap, who believed the meaninglessness of Heideggerian metaphysics encourages fascist group think. If as analytic a thinker as Carnap believed that Heidegger’s cultural context can’t be separated from his philosophy, is it strange to wonder if the context of colonialism can be separated from Kant’s philosophy?

An easy way to separate Kant’s texts from worries of white supremacy is to treat the texts as just texts – a string of sentences articulating abstract arguments, to which any biographical facts about Kant are entirely irrelevant. But even for the most logic chopping, analytic philosophers, this is impossible. After all, some cultural context is crucial for understanding why these strings of sentences and these arguments are worth thinking about. The context of the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution is crucial for understanding Kant. Given that colonialism and racism were also a part of Kant’s cultural context, why should those specifically and obviously be irrelevant to his philosophy?

In fact, the Enlightenment and colonialism aren’t different contexts, but the same context seen from different angles. In 1500, Europe was a backwater compared to the Islamic and Chinese empires. European colonization of the Americas and the access to its resources made possible by slavery turned Europe into an economic powerhouse and supercharged its intellectual and social innovations.

The worry about modern European philosophers and racism isn’t primarily one of morality, as if complicity in colonialism makes them irredeemably bad. Kant and Hegel were racist, but only someone itching to dismiss them makes that the bottom line of the conversation. If the issue is framed in terms of moral judgments, we are already well into polarization.

The deeper issue is actually one of self-knowledge. When Kant and Hegel, and their followers, treated their ideas as pertaining to the Enlightenment and not to colonialism, how much was insight and how much was lack of self-awareness? This is a familiar form of criticism within modern European philosophy itself. Marx argued philosophers who claim their ideas belong to the realm of reason beyond economic forces were in the grips of bourgeois ideology. Nietzsche ridiculed Kant’s transcendental claims as the philosopher’s sin of ignoring actual historical processes. Similarly, when one wonders about the relation of colonialism to modern European philosophers, it needn’t be to determine whether their statues should be removed. We can keep the statues and the admiration, but seek greater contextual understanding than was achieved in their time.

The importance of context cuts both ways. On the one hand, it helps to place familiar debates of knowledge, consciousness and morality within the social and material conditions of their time, and so blurs the line between philosophy and politics. But on the other hand, sensitivity to context means being open to the actual conditions of the thinkers in their time, and not reading back with smug certitude current moral ideas. In one way context brings us closer to thinkers of the past, helping us see them struggling with similar issues to us. In another way context places them further away, helping us see how they lived in a different age. This kind of dual vision is the price of understanding.

A nonpolitical example can bring this out. Descartes was a dualist who believed the mind was distinct from the body. Sometimes people associate this dualism with an even broader idea called “Cartesianism” in which reason is privileged over our material nature. In thinkers as different as Heidegger and Ryle, Rorty and Dreyfus, Cartesianism is the great bugaboo, the original sin of modernity which created a fundamental schism in our self-understanding. And because Descartes combined dualism with arguments for the existence of God, it has been natural for some to think Descartes’ concept of the mind is the same as a religious idea of the soul.

Some early modern scholars have argued in recent decades that these interpretations have little to do with the historical Descartes. A historically contextual reading suggests that far from focusing on the mind over the body, Descartes’ dualism was driven by his new mechanistic conception of matter. Descartes, a mathematician and scientist, was seeking to overturn Scholastic science without running afoul of the Church, and in the process had to rethink the sources of knowledge, the nature of the mind and the existence of God. In fact, according to scholars such as Alison Simmons, Descartes’ views of body and perception are much closer to the embodied cognition views of Ryle and Heidegger than the Cartesianism they inveighed against. If this is right, Descartes becomes both more and less familiar to us. More familiar because seeing Descartes firstly as someone who couldn’t just write openly about his scientific views makes him come alive more as a person. The Meditations isn’t just a bunch of arguments, but Descartes’ attempt at a complex negotiation of his social conditions, many of which aren’t, and couldn’t have been, made explicit in the text. This makes Descartes also less familiar because the modern science he was defending is now so in the air for us that we have to work to appreciate his break from the social and intellectual framework of his time.

Polarization requires taking for granted familiar images of past thinkers. Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, published in 1979, became a lightning rod in philosophy and the broader humanities because it was about Cartesianism and its influence on philosophy departments in modern academia. Rorty treated individual thinkers and the conceptual bug bears of modernity – Descartes and Cartesianism, Kant and Representationalism – as if they are the same. While I greatly admire Rorty’ book, this conflation of history and conceptual narratives has reenforced divides rather help find common ground. Speaking only at the abstract level of Representationalism versus Pragmatism, and fitting historical figures into those categories, forces a binary choice at every turn, in the present and in the reading of the past. There is then no way to rethink the terms of the debate. However, if one sees historical figures with new eyes and with greater openness to historical context, new, more productive conversations are possible.

Similarly, debates about modern European philosophy and colonialism run into the ground when the past is seen only through familiar categories of the present. Locke, Hume and Kant are neither just paragons of Reason nor perpetuators of Racism. As human beings and thinkers they are not reducible to either their famous arguments or to the sentences in which they expressed racist views. When purely lionized or demonized, the thinkers as people are made secondary to abstractions of Western Philosophy or White Supremacy, and the illusion is fostered that the hardened concepts of our time reflect historical truth. The past becomes just another area into which our current fights spill over. Avoiding polarization requires a genuine openness to the past so that its complexity can shed light on the complexity of our time and shake up current pieties.

Sometimes people try to avoid polarization by simply suggesting that each side makes good points and hoping good will can stop the nastiness. But such both side-ism usually ends up being passive because it doesn’t go to heart of polarization. What forces people into extreme positions isn’t primarily ill will or cantankerousness; those traits develop and harden as a result of becoming habituated to fighting. The driving force is conceptual. Wittgenstein said of most philosophy: “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.” Polarization is driven by concepts we take so much for granted that we see them reflected everywhere and hardly realize they are optional and that we can get outside them. Moving beyond polarization then isn’t a special task set apart from the normal task of reflection. It is the perennial work of thinking and seeing the world afresh.

Bharath Vallabha was born in India and moved to New York when he was eleven. He has a BA in philosophy from Cornell, a PhD from Harvard and taught at Bryn Mawr for a few years before leaving academia. He blogs at https://bvphilosophy.wordpress.com/

38 comments

  1. Hello Bharath,

    Good to see you writing here again.

    I don’t see the analogy between Hume and Kant’s racism and silence about colonialism and Heidegger joining the Nazi Party.

    Hume and Kant were men of their time, had the prejudices and limited vision of almost everyone at that time. How many 18th century European thinkers can you come up with who were not racist and who clearly condemned colonialism? We’re all products of the zeitgeist.

    Heidegger joined the Nazi Party at time where there were clearly other options. I believe that his colleague Karl Jaspers left Germany as did his ex-lover Hannah Arendt. Heidegger was completely aware that there were democratic countries where he would have been welcomed as a distinguished refugee philosopher as were Arendt,
    Jaspers, Adorno, Marcuse and so many others. He opted for staying in Germany and joining the Nazi Party.

    1. Stating it as Kant’s silence vs Heidegger’s joining suggests a clear disanalogy that one is passive and the other active, involving choice. Kant’s side has more choice as well. As Park argues in the book mentioned in Matthew’s comment below, before Kant it was more generally assumed philosophy began in multiple parts of the world and wasn’t unique to Europeans. Leibniz engaged with Chinese philosophy, for example. This shifted with Kant and Hegel, both of whom imposed a racialized picture of European superiority onto the history of philosophy. They were not just men of their time; they were choosing how to shape it. Contrast Hegel with his contemporary Schopenhauer, who had a robust appreciation of Indian philosophies.

      Whether this makes them like Heidegger, I have no idea. The situations in 1790 and 1930 are very different. We are more familiar with the situation of the 1930s. Scholarship like Park’s is great because it helps illuminate more of the situation in 1790, where it’s not just that there is Kant’s first Critique over here and colonialism over there, and Kant passively went along with colonialism. As academics, Kant and Hegel weren’t just writing their classic books. They were also creating new conceptions of what academia is, how philosophy fit into it, who can do philosophy, and a lot of that institutional work is very much rooted in the setting of colonialism – and which some of their contemporaries were resisting. None of this devalues Kant’s great works, but it complicates it in interesting ways. Here there is an analogy to Heidegger. One can read Being and Time and totally ignore the fact that Heidegger had a choice to not link his ideas with Nazism. But thinking about Heidegger’s choice opens up how he thought of philosophy. Similarly, Kant made choices about how to link his philosophy with the then developing racialized picture of human beings.

      1. I’m fairly familiar with Schopenhauer’s work and while he did value Indian philosophy, nowhere does he condemn colonialism and racism as far as I know.

        Since Europeans in the 19th century generally thought in racial terms, it may very well be that part of Schopenhauer’s
        attraction to Indian philosophy was that he saw those Indians who created the works he read as Arians. I believe that Nietzsche, for example, who was a disciple of Schopenhauer, saw Indian philosophy as an Arian philosophy.

        However, yes, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche constitute the beginning of a counter-culture within Western philosophy, which functions outside academia and which in general is more open to exploring new ideas than academic philosophy.

        Nietzsche titles one of his chief works, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, not Thus Spoke Aristotle or Aquinas, that is, he takes the Persian thinkers as an outsider figure whom he readapts according to his own purposes and uses as a literary persona.

        1. Heidegger’s Black Notebooks pretty much confirm that Nazism/anti-Semitism is inseparable from his philosophy. And he was writing in the 20th century — post industrialization — not three or four hundred years ago. And of course, he was an active member of the Nazi party as well.

          Heidegger wearing the Nazi insignia.

          https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/13/martin-heidegger-black-notebooks-reveal-nazi-ideology-antisemitism

          https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2014/10/09/heidegger-in-black/?insrc=hpma

          I don’t find the comparison with Hume and Kant apt, which is why I haven’t weighed in.

          1. There’s a book by Pierre Bourdieu, the French thinker (a sociologist, but also with philosophical training), entitled
            The Political Ontology of Martin Heidegger, where he analyzes Heidegger’s thought, including Being and Time and shows how many of his “metaphysical” concepts are code words for an extreme rightwing or fascist ideology.

            When Heidegger talks about, say, “resolution”, German readers in 1930 would perceive that that had a very political connotation and a very rightwing one.

          2. Heidegger is in a class all his own for villainy. No one in philosophy even comes even close. Certainly not people from 3-400 years ago.

          3. To clarify, I am not putting Kant and Heidegger in same class. I love a lot of Heidegger’s philosophy, but both his actions and some of his philosophy as he interpreted it in line with Nazism are horrible. What Park argues and what I am saying about Kant is nowhere in this category. After all, politically Kant’s philosophy is central to liberal democracy and human rights in a way Heidegger’s just isn’t. Still, there is a separate issue of Kant’s own views and actions in terms of how he reconceived philosophy as institutionally essentially European. That can be discussed independent of any comparisons to Heidegger.

          4. Yes, of course. Kant’s views as to the origins of philosophy or his feelings about colonialism — or Locke’s or Hume’s or anyone else’s — can be discussed separately from any discussion of Heidegger, though it’s not something I’m interested in, which is why I didn’t comment before. I only weighed in when you said you had “no idea” whether these much older historical figures are like Heidegger in their villainy. They are not.

          5. I don’t know how we compare “villainy”. I was trying to get away from making any of these thinker villains, not to say they are equal villains. How do we compare Heidegger’s antisemitism and then silence post WWII with the vast influence of Kant’s racialized hierarchy? Kant’s influence is still evident in how philosophy departments teach history. Not saying that makes it more pernicious than Heidegger. Not trying to disagree, which I think isn’t fruitful re villainy. There are of course long term effects as well of Heidegger, and on a larger scale than academic depts, such as his influence on far right thinkers even now.

          6. You’re probably right that there’s little use for a villainy competition. I tend to think of people like de Maistre, Schmitt, and Heidegger as the worst, but 🤷‍♂️

          7. I am aware of the Black Notebook controversy. I stand by my analysis, https://theelectricagora.com/2020/09/12/heideggers-illusions/

            The historical facts,which most people would prefer to ignore, are:
            Most Germans at the time were anti-Semitic
            Once the economy took off due to re-militarization, most Germans were supportive of the Nazi Party..
            Most Germans supported the war against Poland, against France, and the annexations to the south, and only suffered doubt when Hitler invaded Russia.
            Most Germans liked and admired Hitler and tolerated or participated in anti-Semitic activism, both in law and in the streets.
            Hitler did not “fool” the Germans into trusting him. His speeches and his main text (Mein Kampf) were quite frank about his intent.
            Hitler was not an historical aberration..
            Most Germans were complicit in the Holocaust.
            Nazi-instituted laws remained on Germany’s books well into the 1990s.
            Medical personnel participating in genocidal behavior, or tolerating it were many and wide-spread.
            The German states (primarily Prussia) had been developing a culture of militarism and potentially genocidal anti-Semitism, in Modern terms, since the 18th Century, and of course anti-Semitism in other forms had been recurrently virulent throughout the history of post-Roman Europe.

            The question about Heidegger has usually really been about whether his philosophy is embedded with Nazi – or at least right-wing or fascist – ideation if not out-right ideology (as s. wallerstein remarks).

            Outside of a few scattered texts by Nietzsche, is there any evidence that any non-Jewish German philosopher (or European philosopher, for that matter) before the 20th century was *not* anti-Semitic? Frege was a fascistic anti-Semite, and unlike Heidegger had no later second thoughts about it; should logico-positivism be held accountable?

            But this can certainly open the door to the kind of thinking we find in the Aeon article Matthew Aiello links to, and I just think there ought to be other ways of dealing with such issues than painting schools of philosophy with broad brush strokes. There are more openly fascistic, more openly racist, and more openly anti-Semitic, writers and thinkers to be concerned about without having to engage in a hermeneutics of suspicion with every writer whose ideas we dislike..

            Racism and fascism are recurrent and recurrently popular, across cultures – East as well as West. Humans do not like each other; they especially don’t like those who don’t look like them, don’t speak like them, don’t worship the same god(s), don’t engage in the same business practices… This is exactly what makes the liberal state important, with its social contract committing us to a rule of law despite differences, so we don’t need to go around armed as enemies, or submissive to the whims of “strongmen.” There is no “good and evil,” there are only men and women who make choices, some that work, some horrifying and destructive and self-destructive. Reason is the servant of the passions, but it must also prioritize those passions and negotiate between them without harm to others. Germany has already shown us what the world looks like when this fails.

          8. I should say also that I entirely agree with your list of uncomfortable facts about the Germany of the time. My father said exactly the same. And I very much dislike Nietzsche. He says some of the ugliest things I’ve read in philosophy.

        2. Condemning colonialism is a bit of a red herring I think in this context – or rather I agree it’s too much to ask. One difference between Schopenhauer and Hegel is that Schopenhauer could see some non-European philosophers as intellectual equals whereas Hegel imposed a racial hierarchy which made that impossible. And that racialized conception had a big impact in how philosophy as an academic discipline. Whether Schopenhauer could do this because he saw Indians as Aryans whereas Hegel didn’t, I don’t know.

    2. Very interesting discussion! I’d like to weight in with a few observations about Hume. I’m not sure if Hume is on the same level of villainy as Heidegger, but I don’t think it is correct to say that Hume was a ‘man of his time’. There is a fairly broad consensus that Hume was a polygenicist and that his racism was extreme even in his own time, and that he held these views against commonly available empirical evidence (Popkin 1992: 65, Garrett and Sebastiani 2017: 39ff). A considerable part of the Scottish intelligentsia, such as Beattie, Reid and the other members of the Aberdeen Philosophical Society, forcefully sought to distance themselves from his views.

      I am working on a project on Hume’s view of the Irish, which I argue is his ‘other racism’. In his ‘History of England’, Hume purports that “The Irish, from the beginning of time, had been buried in the most profound barbarism and ignorance” (1:234). He then states that the Irish degenerated in 1100-1600, being now “a people, whose customs and manners approached nearer those of savages than of barbarians.” (4: 202). Here he relies on the proto-racialist work by Edmund Spencer ‘A view of the present state of Ireland’, in which Spencer might be suggesting Irish genocide as the preferred policy. Finally, Hume argued that by 1641 the Irish had shown themselves to be a dangerous and urgent political threat (5: 225). Hume’s highly exaggerated account of the events of 1641 has been seen to justify the continued existence of the Penal Laws; a legal system described as a form of apartheid against the Irish by proxy of religion (Bradshaw 1978: 502).

      All of Hume’s historical evidence in this context are, again, highly dubious, and often false and should have been know by Hume to be false. On this account, Daniel O’Connell, the Irish political leader who was instrumental in revoking the Penal Laws by peaceful protest in 1829 (apparently acknowledged as an inspiration for Gandhi’s tactics), stated: “The arch liar, Hume, the man who of all historians is least to be relied on” (1843: 328).

      Is Hume not codifying colonialism and racism into his grand narrative of over 1700 years of ‘historical facts’? Is it not therefore reasonable to further consider whether Hume was not at least an inspiration for later colonial and racist ideology and to consider his possible complicity in these enterprises, including British fascism? To just take one example – Scottish anatomist Robert Knox. When he was not busy egging on murders to acquire more corpses for his research (see the Burke and Hare murders), he was agitating for ‘Celtic’ genocide. He states that “the source of all evil lies in the race, the Celtic race of Ireland. There is no getting over historical facts.” (1850: 253) What ‘historical facts’ are he relying on? Most probably those presented by his favorite historian (and favorite philosopher) David Hume.

      1. You obviously know much more about the subject than I do and thank you for the correction.

  2. I am curious if anyone here has read the book Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy by Peter K.J. Park.

    https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/143844642X/ref=dbs_a_w_dp_143844642x

    I haven’t, but I came across a couple of articles discussing it recently, and wondered if it fell into both the “Greece stole from Egypt” and “everything in Western history is white supremacist” category or if the author was really describing a transformation in the history of philosophy that took place in the 18th century.

    https://www.academia.edu/11294350/Review_of_Peter_Parks_Africa_Asia_and_the_History_of_Philosophy_Racism_in_the_Formation_of_the_Philosophical_Canon_1780-1830_

    https://aeon.co/essays/how-academic-philosophy-can-become-truly-diverse-and-global

    1. Park’s book is great. It’s not at all “Western philosophy is white supremacist” type of stuff. It’s very focused on a few decades around 1800 in Germany and that too on how the history of philosophy was conceived and taught. As Europeans were starting to learn about non-Europeans traditions in the late 1700s, there was a choice of how to engage with them: to create a global sense of philosophy, or to put European philosophy at the top and treat others as pre-philosophical. Park’s book suggests this was an active debate at the time, and Kant and Hegel, and their followers, chose the latter, with important consequences for how academic philosophy developed in the last 200 years in Europe and America. Park’s book isn’t a general rant about Western philosophy, because he is not talking about ancient philosophers, or even pre-Kantian moderns like Locke. It’s about a particular moment in the development of German academia in Kant’s time which was to be fateful.

      The book can be read without any moralizing, though Park sometimes falls into it (but not often and certainly not like social justice warrior types). It’s a question of the choice Kant and Hegel made in how to think of the history of philosophy, and whether it would be better to make a different choice.

  3. The WordPress blog link takes me to a sign in page for Outlook.com. Is this the correct link?

  4. There should always be polarization between good and evil unless you are happy to be rolled over by malign forces. What divides people are not just matters of practical policy rather they are deeply felt moral issues which are impossible to go along with. You seem very concerned with Western use in the past of slave labour to enrich themselves. You must know that India is a world leader in bond slavery.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Debt_bondage_in_India

    Today I bought a second hand copy of ‘Man and the State’ by Jacques Maritain. Flipping it open I read the following:

    People who remember the lessons of history know that a democratic society should not be an unarmed society, which the enemies of liberty may calmly lead to the slaughterhouse in the name of liberty.

    That’s topical enough. But yes I agree that it’s not nice that people are cross with each other.

  5. If I might add to my previous remarks which may have the what-about flavour. Recrimination is fine as long as it is accompanied by self-recrimination. That is what takes the heat out of the interaction. Let accusation be followed by self-accusation. We need to cultivate our (own) gardens.

    1. Agree re cultivating our own gardens. And yes, when it’s matter of good vs evil, of course no middle ground. Polarization as I am thinking of it is the impulse to jump to treating most everything as good vs evil, and missing vast middle regions which can be explored.

      I am not concerned in a moral sense about the West’s past and I am not that interested in castigating anyone from the past. I like Kant and Hegel’s philosophies, as I do Locke and Hume’s. I have spent most of my life with them as conversation partners who have helped me grow. So when I used to think about their relation to colonialism, I felt torn in myself. My interest is in cultivating my own garden to balance my admiration for these thinkers with seeing more clearly social and institutional changes they contributed to which were problematic. If my thinking out loud is helpful to others, great. If others don’t feel the kind of inner tension I feel sometimes, no problem. I am not interested in using moral judgments to guilt others to care about issues I care about. That’s where I differ from the activist crowd.

      1. “So when I used to think about their relation to colonialism …”

        My knowledge of Kant is very superficial, but didn’t he condemn colonialism and slavery in his later works?
        If I remember correctly, he did it in pretty racist terms (“savages” etc.) and his argument was basically “they are bad, but we are equally bad or even worse”, but still, the condemnation was there.

      2. I found a nice quote in a 2019 article by Pauline Kleingeld, a Kant expert from the University of Groningen.

        “Late in life, around his 70th birthday, Kant dropped the thesis of racial hierarchy and began to criticize European colonialism, but he never made parallel revisions to his account of the status of women.”

        Moral progress is made step-by-step, I guess.

  6. I guess the term, polarization, has been around for some time. Insofar as people adopt beliefs that suit their needs—whatever those may be—and, world views, ditto, we all go separate ways. And thereby become polarized. I began thinking about the world, ‘afresh’, around twenty years ago: recently attempting to rewind ancient concepts such as reality and truth. These conceptual entities are closely aligned. They are both altered by belief, circumstance, context, and contingency, making definitions hard to pin down. As some of us learned in introductory sociology, societies are stratified. And that is another piece of a larger puzzle. Lots of work yet to do…

  7. To reply to EJ’s query if there was any German or European 19th century philosopher besides Nietzsche who condemned anti-semitism, you’d have to go to the socialist tradition, for example, to the Austrian left-liberal politician and thinker, Ferdinand Kronawetter, who coined the famous phrase: “anti-semitism is the socialism of fools”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ferdinand_Kronawetter

  8. A very lively debate! I’m as much against polarisation as any believer in a liberal democracy. However, what does still seem over-riding, especially now, is clearly getting through the fog of fake news to the truth. There is no simple answer to the famous comment, once attributed to Bismark of all people, that ‘those who love justice and sausages should not inquire too closely, into the origins of either!’

  9. For those concerned about polarization and its effect on our politics, I think Robert Talisse has done the best work in this area. His two books on the subject:

    https://global.oup.com/academic/product/overdoing-democracy-9780190924195?cc=us&lang=en&

    https://global.oup.com/academic/product/sustaining-democracy-9780197556450?cc=us&lang=en&

    I did dialogues with him on both.

    https://meaningoflife.tv/videos/42665

    https://theelectricagora.com/2021/09/25/robert-talisse-on-sustaining-democracy/

    One of the core threads that runs throughout is that we do politics far too much and in too many places. Consequently, the only way to roll back the current polarization is just to do much less politics and to bring it into fewer domains.

  10. I must admit to not understanding the critique of Rorty’s book. *In the senses he was interested in exploring*, these thinkers *were* fundamentally the same. I don’t see what’s wrong with that, nor can I see how scholarship could be done without doing things like that. I certainly don’t see any relationship with polarization.

    1. I talk about Rorty because I think he is a good example of a polarizing figure. He went from being a Princeton philosophy professor and president of the APA to basically decamping to literature departments. He was right about problems with the direction of analytic philosophy, but it was a mistake to connect that criticism to Descartes et al. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature is no more a careful study of Descartes than Ryle’s Concept of Mind was (another book I like a lot). I think Rorty was reading a lot of what was wrong with analytic philosophy back into early modern philosophers. This kind of reading back led to Rorty being polarizing, because he was lumping together 300 years of thinkers in a way that divorced them from their historical context.

      To be honest this is a new thought for me. For longest time I was on the side of Rorty and Ryle against early modern philosophy of mind and as it carried over into analytic philosophy. But now this seems to me no different than being against early modern philosophers because they were part of racist society. If in order to appreciate Locke inspite of his racism, I should think about Locke in his historical context, then perhaps something similar holds in thinking about Locke’s theory of sensations or identity.

      This connects I think to Kevin’s essay about psychologizing philosophy. Rorty’s book says more about Rorty’s struggle with professional philosophy than it does about Descartes and Kant. It seems strange to me now that there is some special conception of mind common to Descartes to Nagel even given the vast differences in context of what being a philosopher is between them. My thought is if we let go of this kind of generalizing over centuries to tell who the good guys are and who the bad guys, would be easier to listen to each other – in ways for example Rorty and his Princeton colleagues couldn’t do. And in ways current traditionalists and social justice warriors now can’t, because both are wedded to historical generalizations.

      1. This is substantial and will require me to write a substantial reply. I am driving to NY tomorrow and it will take me until Sunday night to get there, so the soonest I can reply will be Monday.

  11. “Representationalism versus Pragmatism, and fitting historical figures into those categories, forces a binary choice at every turn, in the present and in the reading of the past. There is then no way to rethink the terms of the debate. However, if one sees historical figures with new eyes and with greater openness to historical context, new, more productive conversations are possible.”

    I agree with this entirely. Like Bharath, I favour more historically-oriented approaches. And I too have only recently come to realize the extent to which Ryle was misrepresenting Descartes. Rorty distorted history also. He was worse than Ryle, in my opinion, because he let politics intrude into his professional work, and also because of his anti-science bias. (Just my take…)

    I give Rorty credit, however, for being a gifted writer and an original and genuinely passionate thinker. I am also sympathetic to his drift away from philosophy. His roots were in literature (his father was a poet, I think) and I understand that he took comfort in his final illness reading the likes of Swinburne rather than philosophical works. (Heidegger took a similar trajectory, did he not? And he too was a past master at historical distortion!)

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