Analytical philosophers and the witch-hunt

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Apr 4 16:09:19 MDT 2001

[A long excerpt from another interesting article in the latest Lingua
Franca that is unfortunately not on their website.]


by James Ryerson

MANY PEOPLE REGRET THAT THEY NEVER HAD a chance to debate W.V.O. Quine, who
died last Christmas at the age of ninety-two. But surely John McCumber is
the only one who wishes he could have grilled the famous American
philosopher about McCarthyism, which he believes jump-started Quine’s
career: "I would have asked him, How did you manage to win all those
battles in the Harvard philosophy department?" After all, McCumber
explains, "Quine was an embattled figure for a while, and then sometime
after World War II suddenly he won all the battles. I’m not saying that
there was necessarily anything nefarious about it. But he was saying the
things that the times demanded, and it was not for philosophical reasons
that they demanded it."

McCumber, a professor of German at Northwestern University, suspects that
American philosophy is harboring a dark secret about its past. In his new
book, Time in the Ditch: American Philosophy and the McCarthy Era
(Northwestern), he argues that American philosophy, having borne the brunt
of the anti-communist purges of the academy in the 1950s, "largely remains,
even today, what Joe McCarthy’s academic henchmen would have wanted it to
be." Specifically, he suspects that the pressures of McCarthyism helped to
turn American philosophers away from broad social and cultural reflection
and toward analytic philosophy—the highly technical and specialized
discipline concerned with logic, language, and the exact sciences.

 Analytic philosophers are often criticized today for producing apolitical,
detached, and naively "objective" work. But McCumber contends that these
very qualities safeguarded them during the 1950s. Philosophers like Quine,
he feels, were fortunate that their rigorous, scientific approach did not
raise suspicion among "right-wing vigilantes." Thinkers of a different bent
were not so lucky: Only by "adopting the mantle of science," he writes,
could they "find their way through the paranoid jumble of McCarthyism."
Some aspects of analytic philosophy, McCumber adds, even served to maintain
the status quo— as when C.L. Stevenson encouraged fellow philosophers not
to "take ethical stands" but merely to reflect "on the meaning of ethical
terms." The result was the "undeserved dominance" of analytic philosophy
and the marginalization of those philosophers, often influenced by Hegel
and Heidegger, who work in the so-called Continental tradition.

"There are some possible scandals out there," McCumber says ominously,
though he declines to divulge the names of philosophers who might testify
to the effect that hostile political conditions had on their discipline.
"There are some people who have been sitting around for fifty years hoping
somebody would figure this out. For one reason or another, they couldn’t
raise the issue themselves."

The evidence for McCumber’s charges is not, by his own admission,
"definitive." Still, he emphasizes the difficult conditions under which
philosophers in the 1950s worked. Drawing on the historian Ellen
Schrecker’s book, No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities (1986),
he notes that philosophers attracted "more than their share of
anti-intellectual wrath." Indeed, in his tabulation, statistics from
Schrecker and the Bulletin of the American Association of University
Professors seem to indicate that philosophy had the largest proportion of
professors who were either targets of investigations or hostile witnesses
at government hearings. In 1950, for instance, Communist Party member
Herbert Phillips was fired from the University of Washington philosophy
department after the university’s president, Raymond B. Allen, charged him
and other party-affiliated professors with being "derelict in their duty to
find and teach the truth." (Thus it is hardly surprising, McCumber reasons,
that analytic philosophy was able to provide a safe haven, given its stated
commitment to "timeless truths.")

McCumber has been mulling this thesis over since the late 1970s. Fearful of
the repercussions of expounding his views, "I waited until I had tenure,"
he explains, "and then I did much of the research, and these numbers came
leaping out." His own "weird interactions" with the American Philosophical
Association (APA) further fueled his suspicions, as he failed repeatedly
over eight years to convince APA authorities to publish his conjectures in
its Proceedings & Addresses. McCumber finds it "depressing and dispiriting"
that no one else has pursued this topic. "I think it’s quite shocking," he
says, "that I should have to be the one to figure it out."

Louis Proyect
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