heroes & villains

We read about most of these guys for Monday’s class…

Edmund Husserl, besides being the founding phenomenologist— a radical empiricist on steroids, I called him on Monday– was also Heidegger’s teacher. The contrast between them couldn’t be sharper. Heidegger, succeeding Husserl at Freiburg, denied his former mentor library privileges. That’s low!

For Husserl, philosophy is the freedom of absolute self-responsibility and the philosopher is “the civil servant of humanity.” That first phrase sounds Sartrean. The second doesn’t at all, to Husserl’s credit. He “died as a philosopher”– no foxhole conversions for him.

George Santayana, James’s student and then colleague in the glory days of Harvard philosophy, died in a convent during the Second World War. He professed to take no interest in the event (of the war), however. “I know nothing, I live in the Eternal.”  But he was no Roman Catholic, either.  Mostly he was a man of the margins, a keen spectator of the passing “genteel” American scene but not an active participant. American philosophers sometimes lay claim to some aspects of his elegantly-composed philosophy as representative of the American grain, but he was no pragmatist. He was an inspiration to his students, some of whom– Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens– became our greatest poets. As Stevens would write, he did indeed live in two worlds… but mostly, as time went by, in the eternity of his own mind.  He was a wise man by any measure. My favorite Santayana line: “To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.” These last several glorious spring days in middle Tennessee remind me that I’m hopeless, in these terms. But as Older Daughter likes to say, I’m working on it.

Despite a reputation for austerity, there was a strong Epicurean side to him, too. He said “there’s no cure for birth and death, save to enjoy the interval.” And I love Critchley’s wine anecdote, next time I have more than I can swallow, I’ll douse my cake just like George.

I think my favorite Santayana book, and the one that brings him closest to the American tradition in philosophy, is Scepticism & Animal Faith. How wonderfully it begins

A recent reviewer notes:

Santayana is most remembered today for a single, painfully overquoted sentence: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But in his lifetime he achieved stature as a philosopher for a whole series of books about the nature of human reason, the sense of beauty and the value of religion. His greatest subject was perhaps his adopted homeland. His writings about America still have the freshness of new discoveries, and they are enlivened—like nearly everything he wrote—by sharp turns of phrase and pungent judgments.

And he thought his adopted homeland was full of secretly-unhappy people whose false cheer made them superficial and unserious. But he seems to have liked it here well enough. I recall reading somewhere that one of his favorite diversions was to take in a Harvard baseball game from time to time. He enjoyed being an observer of spectators, even further removed from the action.

Antonio Gramsci, the greatest communist philosopher in Italy or arguably anywhere (aren’t you embarrassed to know so little of him?), is important if only because he shows that a Marxist does not have to be a narrow historical determinist, explaining all events strictly in terms of their economic causes.

Bertrand Russell we already know a lot about. His words as he approached the end of a very long, very un-religious road that spurned the solace of any “divine plan,” are spine-stiffening:

I am not young and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to and end…

I cringe to speak of Moritz Schlick, he reminds me of the crazed woman in Huntsville who couldn’t handle not being tenured a few weeks ago. The Vienna Circle positivist was murdered by a mentally deranged student… Serious stuff, but Critchley still finds a funny angle. Schlick said, before he died (as Yogi Berra might point out), that he could imagine witnessing his own funeral. It is not known whether Schlick was able to empirically verify this remark. Ha! So it might be meaningless.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (who didn’t really look this much like Lyle Lovett) famously echoed Epicurus’ view that “death is not an event in life.” Sounds good, doesn’t play so well in practice for most of us. But it’s not a bad place to set the bar, most of the time.

Same for his statement, when he knew his cancer had  nearly run its course, that my interest is still all in this life. Critchley may be thinking of William Blake when he says this attitude bought Wittgenstein an eternity in those waning days:

To see a world in a grain of sand

And a heaven in a wild flower

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand

And eternity in an hour

Reminds me of the late sci-fi author Isaac Asimov, who said if he was told he had an hour to live he’d “just type faster.” Me too, I hope. (Unless the loved ones were less than an hour away, of course.)

Wittgenstein was a model conversationalist, to judge from his view that a discussion shoyuld not be broken off until it had reached its proper end. “Model” for philosophers, anyway. Socrates felt the same way, and many of his interlocutors were only too happy to break it off.

The single factoid I’ve learned from Critchley that I love the most: Wittgenstein’s alleged last (or nearly last) words, “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.” May we all have the opportunity and the impulse to make that our parting instruction too.

When Wittgenstein survived Russian attack in the First World War it left him with such a desire to live.

Heidegger, by contrast, steered clear of the shooting but thought a lot about death. Being and Time is a meditation on death, and time. Authentic living requires us to project our lives onto the horizon of our death. Grasp your finitude, consider your own life-and-death more important than others’. But this is “morally pernicious.” Insulating oneself from grief and mourning for the loss of others is inhuman. [A pilgrimage to Heidegger’s hutHeil HeideggerDoes A Nazi deserve a place?]

A recent review notes: Emmanuel Faye has done both history and philosophy a valuable service, digging up documentary proof of Heidegger’s real sympathies: “Only where leader and led together bind each other in one destiny, and fight for the realisation of one idea, does true order grow. Then spiritual superiority and freedom respond in the form of deep dedication of all powers to the people, to the state, in the form of the most rigid training, as commitment, resistance, solitude, and love. The existence and the superiority of the Fuhrer sink down into being, into the soul of the people and thus bind it authentically and passionately to the task.”

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