public intellectuals

THE MODERN SCENE TESTIFIES: GILBERT CHINARD AND THE HUMANITIES IN WARTIME

by guest contributor Benjamin Bernard

Editors’ Note: given the summer holidays, for the month of August JHIBlog will publish one piece a week, together with our regular What We’re Reading feature on Fridays. 

The mood was grim when literary historian Gilbert Chinard delivered one of five Trask Lectures at Princeton University. With sentiments similar to much of the hand-wringing of today, his colleague, philosopher Theodore Meyer Greene explained: “the whole world is drifting or being driven with ever greater acceleration into a state profoundly antagonistic to the values which the humanist method most sincerely cherishes.” Greene warned that this was due in part to “the deliberate activities of certain individuals and groups whose ideologies are monopolistic and totalitarian and who, in one way or another, have acquired autocratic power in our society.” Prefacing the edited collection of these lectures, Greene insisted that such men had “succeeded in arousing in their supporters a passionate and uncritical devotion to a ‘common’ cause. The modern scene testifies with tragic eloquence to the immediate effectiveness of this anti-humanistic strategy.”

That spring, Hitler annexed Austria.

Gilbert Chinard’s own transatlantic trajectory—born in France, he spent his career in America—mirrors the content of his scholarly work in a field he dubbed “Franco-American relations.” In what we might today recognize as an amalgam of literature, history, and international relations, he studied flows of ideas across space and time; but, alongside European intellectuals like his Mercer Street neighbor Albert Einstein, he also participated in a migration of his own. Upon Chinard’s hiring in 1937, after nearly two decades in America, The Daily Princetonian remarked on his “Franco-American accent.”

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Princeton bustled with martial activity. Some students and even faculty advocated that professors teach technical skills like engineering and military tactics in order to better prepare student-officers for war. Walter “Buzzer” Phelps Hall, the popular Dodge Professor of History and expert on Britain, advocated this position in The Daily Princetonian: “The war will not be won by propaganda; no wars are,” he wrote. History could only help “to a minor degree” in a war; he lamented that “those of us on the Faculty untrained in science and too old to act” were relegated to “guarding the treasured culture of the past.” The university surveyed professors in other departments to determine what war-related courses they might be qualified to teach. Many undergraduates opted for technical studies electives, like Professor Kissam’s popular aerial photogrammetry course, over humanities ones. Chinard’s department, Modern Languages, made a minor capitulation in order to resist more extreme changes. Around 1941-42, Princeton added a vocational French class that, even if only a summer crash course, was unprecedented. It taught a skill needed to prepare students for possible deployment to Europe: French conversation.

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Princeton in wartime. Princeton University Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box MP208, Image No. 5496. From the Mudd Manuscript Library Blog.

Not all faculty and students, though, agreed with such changes. Chinard defended arts and letters on surprising grounds: their utility. He took to the pages of the campus newspaper on February 2, 1942 to respond to Buzzer Hall, to defend the humanities against practical pre-military courses. He argued that Americans needed critique in order to combat propaganda; without such skills, America could collapse just as France had. “Men can be well shod, clad and fed,” he wrote, but “unless they can analyze and disbelieve, in a crisis, rumors spreading like grass fire, unless they have developed what I would call a healthy Missourian attitude, they will rapidly change a partial setback into a total rout.” Old frontier skepticism serves here as a foil for a passive French imagination occupied by German political ideology. Rather than memorizing facts about the past, students should adopt a critical posture. Than the sword, he might have said, the typewriter is mightier. With wry understatement, he noted, “When Hitler’s mind seems to be obsessed by the memory of Napoleon, it may not be entirely out of time and out of place for the men who fight Hitlerism to know something about the French emperor.” Chinard’s colleague Americo Castro supported him, invoking a conceptual framework central to Chinard’s writings. “The war happens to be between two forms of civilization,” he wrote, “and people are going to kill or to be killed because they are fighting on behalf of a certain form of civilization. I do not think that there is any other place to learn what a civilization is except a school of Humanities.”

Chinard understood the process of humanist scholarship, “traditional” French culture, and the war itself via a common metaphor: as the slow accumulation and rarefication of virtue over time, leaving a stable precipitate. In 1940, Chinard had received a form letter questionnaire from Rene Taupin, secretary of La France en Liberté, a new quarterly of French refugee writers whose advisory board included Princeton’s Christian Gauss as well as Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, and William Carlos Williams. Taupin asked: “Do you think that French culture can live under a Totalitarian regime?” Chinard replied in French on October 15, 1940, and took care to preserve a copy of his outgoing message:

Yes, without any doubt. All of history is there to prove to us that in a country with an old civilization, political vicissitudes cannot in any fundamental way affect the culture of the country. A political regime can snuff out a culture being born, or can prevent a still barbarous country from developing; it can make the superstructure disappear, or constitute an obstacle to the expression of certain ideologies. But what Louis XIV, the Jacobins, Napoleon I, and the none-too-liberal December 2 government all failed to do cannot be accomplished by repressive measures which, moreover, can only be temporary (Gilbert Chinard Papers [C0671], Box 12, Princeton University Library).

In Scènes de la vie française, his French culture reader for intermediate university classes, Chinard described his fictionalized, composite hometown in similar terms: “[My village today] represents the continuous effort of successive generations, tweaking themselves according to the era, but who always retained their essential traits.” Yet, turn Chinard’s historical tapestry upside down and it would tell a different, yet still intelligible, story: those same high-water marks of French culture—resistance to the baroque court, to the Revolutionary tribunal, and so forth—that Chinard interpreted as evidence for a liberal tradition could instead argue for an ancient French tradition of concentrated authoritarian power.

In light of this contradiction, I suggest that this intellectual and rhetorical position was fundamentally political. Chinard sought to understand this culture, how it developed, and how it interacted with American culture. His essay in the inaugural issue of the journal he co-founded, the Journal of the History of Ideas, serves as a useful exemplar for approaching the history of ideas in this political context. Social media-adept readers may recognize Chinard’s article from JHIBlog‘s Facebook cover photo. In “Polybius and the American Constitution,” he argued that while scholars rightly apprehended an intellectual link between French Enlightenment thinkers like Montesquieu and scholar-politicians like Thomas Jefferson, too little attention had been paid to the fact that the ideas thus transmitted originated in classical antiquity, for which Polybius and the notion of the separation of powers served as a convenient synecdoche. Chinard hoped that studying literature through the framework of the history of ideas could help make the case that, rather than the “dilettantism” of “mere questions of form… the framework of literary works… [or] the noxious and convenient divisions into genres,” studying literature could provide important raw material for understanding “the larger body of human intellectual activities.” His article underscores a particular vision of a politico-cultural heritage—in other words, a definition for true France, a concept over which French intellectuals with political clout sparred from exile in New York.

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Chinard’s France Forever membership card

The war reached him in many more ways, even in the relative haven of verdant suburban New Jersey. Chinard sounds indignant but matter-of-fact in his letters that allude these years. He resigned himself to never again seeing his in-laws: the Blanchard family remained in occupied territory. It would take him years to recover and renovate his country house in Châtellerault, where he had previously taken his family each summer. Although he did support the American Field Service and help find job placements for some French expatriate academics, these were not the primary target of his energies. He did engage in lecturing for elite east coast audiences and mobilized his political expertise to advise non-governmental advocacy groups like France Forever, a New York-based Gaullist organization presided over by industrial engineer Eugène Houdry.

Chinard seemed more troubled by broad political changes than by humanitarian concerns of refugee subsistence. Most distressing was the perception that an international disregard for Western values enabled authoritarian powers to trample on endogenous liberties. In one characteristic letter, he opined: “The Vichy government has allowed neither any journalist nor any neutral investigator to make a thorough investigation of the situation.” His disdain for Communism, organized labor, and a new, insular coterie of “depressives” coming to be known as “existentialists” is palpable. Instead, he located true Frenchness, in his advocacy for De Gaulle just as in his scholarship, in a particular constellation of ideas.

During the war, Chinard had the chance to implement his earlier writings about humanism’s instrumentality, which nonetheless met certain limits. As far as I know, Chinard never published an op-ed explaining how the reception of the image of Napoleon contained the key for defeating masculine authoritarianism. Yet I suspect Chinard’s pre-war sentiments about the value of studying the humanities, from his Trask Lecture of 1937-38, did not change much: that training in the “careful analysis of the elusive meaning of words… is an absolute necessity in a democracy.” Chinard’s individual influence is difficult to assess. What is clear, however, is that he contributed to a postwar liberal discourse that relied on a narrative of an ancient and Revolutionary political heritage. Wartime resistance and academic life found common cause under this banner.

A strategic dilemma for intellectuals emerges out of considering this historical moment. What if, by pursuing sweeping research into phenomena that we might take decades or centuries to influence, scholars inadvertently neglect present-day politics such that anti-humanist forces destroy the very institutions that enable their work? Theodore Greene remained at once resigned and optimistic on this point.

[Humanists] cannot, however, hope for immediate or spectacular success; they cannot avert a sudden social cataclysm, if that is the fate presently in store for us…. Now, as ever, our chief concern must be not the changing scene or the passing crisis but rather the nature of the human spirit in its eternal quest for enduring values.

For Chinard, at least, these words fell short of the role he would eventually play. He struck a balance between pursuing an ambitious intellectual research agenda and speaking to the urgent political issues of his day, engaging in work on multiple time scales.

Benjamin Bernard is a Ph.D candidate in the History Department at Princeton University, where he studies early modern European history. His dissertation investigates moral reform in France circa 1700. Elements of this research were first presented at the “So Well Remembered” conference organized by Neil Safier at the John Carter Brown Library in April 2017. All translations are the author’s.

The Interwar, Ourselves

by contributing editor Disha Karnad Jani

The period in between the First and Second World Wars yields fertile ground for reflection by many of our public intellectuals. Much of this resonance comes from the fact that historians have typically understood the 1920s and 1930s in one of three ways. The period can be understood as the aftermath of the First World War and the lost peace. It can be understood as the lead-up to the Second World War. And the contrarian’s response to these gloomy retellings: it was the culturally vibrant period that birthed the Jazz Age, talkies, advances in technology, and shifts in the restrictive social mores of the Long Nineteenth Century. But to hear it told as a single European story, the history of the interwar years reads first and foremost as warning. The period-after-the-war and the period-before-war are one and the same, as the post bleeds into the pre. The years between the First and Second World Wars become a cautionary tale for foreign policy experts, a lesson for those who tinker with the economy, and a time of warnings unheeded.

There are three sets of assumptions attached to most renderings of this period. First, that ‘war’ is defined as the armed conflict carried out between state actors and bound by official declarations that mark the beginning and end of fighting. Second, that ‘peace’ is merely the absence of war, meaning that the period between 1918 and 1939 was one of relative, if not absolute stability – the ‘inter’ in ‘interwar.’ And finally, that the First World War was a signal and symbol of the breakdown of a particular European civilizational identity. The Allied victory in 1945 was consequently a triumph in the wake of which a peaceful liberal order for Europe was built in the shadow of Soviet Russia and the encroaching illiberal mirror-image it represented.

In our moment, it has become customary to draw comparisons between the contemporary world and the world of the 1920s and 1930s. I invite readers to search Twitter for the phrase “and what rough beast its hour come round at last slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” The overwhelming result will be a piece of news or photograph with Yeats’ ominous query quoted without comment. In an era apparently marked by the crumbling of the postwar liberal order (if our public intellectuals are to be believed) it makes sense that we look to the last time that happened. Pankaj Mishra, for instance, has characterized our moment as an “age of anger” that liberal rationalism is incapable of explaining away. Instead, Mishra proposes considering democracy as a “profoundly fraught emotional and social condition” rather than one side of the liberal-illiberal binary. Commentators have framed and re-framed the first decades of the twentieth century in The London Review of Books, Foreign Affairs, The New York Times, Dissent, and The New Republic, among others. Arguments against comparing our moment to the Weimar Republic were published last month in Jacobin by way of a Weimar historian. In this vein, Mark Mazower’s 1998 book Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century remains an early example of the reevaluation of the cradle of post-1945 stability, years before the oft-referenced ‘de-stabilizers’ occurred – 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis, the rise of the far-right in Europe, and the Syrian civil war.

Alternatively warning away from or advocating for the use of the past as a lesson, writers nonetheless have found it powerful to compare and contrast century-old developments and the present. It is not difficult to understand why these lessons resonate. Much of this conversation has to do with the simple act of naming: what is a fascist? What is a liberal? What is a populist? It is not for me to say here whether these parallels should or shouldn’t resonate, or what kind of value these comparisons may hold, either for our understanding or for productive political action. I am merely inviting an examination of the assumptions contained within our treatment of the interwar period, and what happens to this period in our collective memory if those assumptions’ legacies are dismantled by some, and upheld by others. The distinction is stark if we compare two kinds of reflections on the resonance of the interwar period. If the comparison is made in order to demonstrate the dangers of ignoring or abetting a threat to liberalism or social good, then the interwar stands as a warning. If, however, the parallel is not a call to preserve or guard against a threat, but rather to reexamine the usefulness of the very thing in need of preservation – NATO, the Democratic Party, or a ‘free press’ for example – then the critical intervention necessarily involves an adjustment of the lessons of the 1920s and 1930s. Such an intervention requires at least a partial rejection of the notion that the twentieth century’s greatest triumph was the spread of liberal democracy.

The interwar period has also been framed as a simultaneous genesis and telos of our narrative understandings of the past. 1914 was the year our present began, and it was the year the world ended. Playing with these starts and stops forms the substance of many, if not all, historiographical interventions in the study of the interwar period. And because this period is also considered the genesis of many of our paradigmatic and normative categories for political life, a re-orientation of the narrative has implications for the foundational assumptions of our notions of governmentality, order, and social good, as gathered – as though for ease of access – in the term “liberal democracy.” Two historians who have recently grappled with these questions are Robert Gerwarth and Enzo Traverso.

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Robert Gerwarth shifts the center of the violence of the war towards the defeated states in his recent book, The Vanquished: Why The First World War Failed to End.  Gerwarth’s aim with this book is to move eastward, away from victory and ‘strength amid chaos’ narratives, and to those places with chaos as the main character. The shift is simultaneously geographical and chronological. Gerwarth encourages us to extend the “end” of the period of European violence called the First World War from 1918 to 1923, because, as he argues, “in order to understand the violent trajectories that Europe – including Russia and the former Ottoman lands in the Middle East – followed throughout the twentieth century, we must look not so much at the war experiences between 1914 and 1917 but at the way in which the war ended for the vanquished states of the Great War” (13). Gerwarth does not concern himself much with explaining why tensions arose between particular ethnic groups or political opponents in the period following the armistice, which he tends to see as older antagonisms coupled with new national struggles (214). Rather, he is interested in how and why such violence became so pronounced in the defeated states. The aftermath of the First World War, or rather, the extended European war, changed the course of the twentieth century because it altered the “logic of violence” (254). Even as he describes the moments of success for democracy and stable government, Gerwarth is sure to emphasize the hubris of such moments of triumph: “many policymakers in the vanquished states, and notably in central Europe, firmly believed that they had delivered where the liberal revolutionaries of 1848 had failed…. Liberal democracy, which had failed to come into existence then, had finally emerged triumphant” (116-117). Thus the foundation of whatever ‘peace’ that existed after 1918 is cast as misguided and naïve.

fireandbloodA similar shift takes place in Enzo Traverso’s Fire and Blood: the European Civil War, 1914-1945, which was translated from the French last year. Traverso extends the period of violence even further than Gerwarth does, as he examines the years between the start of the First World War and the end of the Second World War as a single historical event. The characterization of the conflict as a civil war frames the European continent as a single polity tearing itself to shreds, with a shifting roster of combatants. At the beginning, the war emerges as typically as conflicts had for hundreds of years with a formal declaration of war and the mobilization of troops. It turns into a total war, in which civilians are fodder for the war machines of various state and non-state actors. Traverso notes that the norms of liberal democracy become subsumed under the conditions of civil war, which takes on its own horrible logic. He considers the Holocaust, the anti-fascist resistance, and the deaths of civilians on both sides of the wartime and interwar fronts as part of a single global epoch one in which the scale and chaos of violence was unmatched.

Fire and Blood also dislocates two of the most persistent assumptions of older accounts of the interwar period. One of these assumptions is the “anachronism so widespread today that projects onto the Europe of the interwar years the categories of our liberal democracy as if these were timeless norms and values” (2). The second incorrect assumption is that the Allied victory over the Nazis proved itself a “new triumph of Enlightenment…a victorious epic of progress” (276). Sandwiched between these moments is an account of resistance and violence with an almost aggressive refutation of teleology or a progress narrative. Thus, contained within what appears to be merely a chronological and geographic widening, Fire and Blood furnishes an overtly political refusal to celebrate what are meant to be the triumphs of liberal democracy and humanitarianism post-1945. Traverso demonstrates the profound impact a little rearrangement can have.

Indeed, the study of the interwar period has been until recently an investigation into what went wrong and then what went wrong a second time. This sort of narrative is necessarily based on an assumption that things were going right when they were not going wrong. The break between the old world order that existed before 1914 and the subsequent “self-immolation of bourgeois Europe” – to borrow a phrase from Tony Judt – had to be explained. Any discussion of the cultural production, social advances, scientific breakthroughs, moments of hope, or signals of progress had to be mitigated by the epilogue: “little did they know….” Attached to the study of the interwar period then, are the particular methodological and epistemic implications of studying something for its very failure. The historian knows what is to come, but no one else does. Melancholy saturates the prose of such works, and if not that, then a slightly smug dramatic irony.

We are far enough away from the interwar period that it has nearly lapsed out of living memory – the experience of the Great War almost completely gone. Despite this, as Traverso in particular has shown, the period carries meaning for our understandings of violence and collapse. The interwar years remain both near and far. There is continuity in our political lexicon, but many of the categories and their potency have shifted in the ensuing century. Old vocabularies are often deployed to refer to shifting phenomena. If the period is upheld in historians’ understanding as the non-violent (yet markedly uneasy) interlude between the collapse of European order on the one hand, and the triumph of the West and liberal democracy over the evils of fascism on another, then we are left with a very brittle image of what it feels like to endure violence. As Nitzan Lebovic notes in his review of Traverso’s book: “If the polis has been stained since its earliest days by the crimson tide of internal conflicts, its constitutive order should be seen in a different light.” What experiences of suffering sit just off-center, obscured by the stark periodization of war and peace and its accompanying narrative of progress? We are left with a story that marks crisis via formal declarations of war, and the cessation of formal conflict becomes synonymous with peace. The continuation of violence in the lands of the vanquished and the prolonged civil war with its own logic are two spatial-temporal re-orientations that serve to destabilize the creation myth of the order of global liberalism which we are meant to just now evaluate as “in crisis.” And so, as if historians ever needed a reminder: periodization matters. Scale matters. The interwar period is unique because we made it so – it has become in the historical profession and in the public imagination an epoch saturated with poignancy and foreboding, of possibility and thwarted progress. Our moment and the interwar period have been mutually constituted as interstices of chaos. Moving a few things around can have consequences.

Reflection without Retreat: Brooke Palmieri interviews Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft on “Thinking in Public” and the role intellectuals play in politics.

Interview conducted by contributing editor Brooke Palmieri

The longer you stare at the words “public intellectual” the harder they are to decipher. They imply the application of thought to everyday life, they imply that the “intellectual” has something of value to give to a public.” But they are also so grand as to push their own ambitions into the realm of pure fantasy: who counts as an intellectual,” and how are they supposedly improving a public” with their opinions? At least, difficulty grappling with the gap between what a public intellectual is and ought to be is a symptom of reading Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft’s new book, Thinking in Public: Strauss, Levinas, Arendt (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

Wurgaft shows just how young the word “intellectual” is— it arises as a description of a type of person in France during the Dreyfus Affair — yet it is powerful enough to influence our evaluation, and exaltation, of thinkers long dead and into the present. Wurgaft considers Strauss, Levinas, and Arendt’s relationship to the practice of philosophy in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair, and their studies under Martin Heidegger. But in covering “the intellectual question” at the heart of their works, Thinking in Public is as much about how we write intellectual history as it is about how we might live as intellectual historians. He urges us not to take for granted the value, nor the authority, of “intellectuals”. Instead, the tension between theory and practice, philosophy and politics, must be constantly re-evaluated, and while Wurgaft shows how that process of re-evaluation is the premier question in the writings of Strauss, Levinas, and Arendt alike, Thinking in Public also reads as a provocation to scholars today, creating space to reflect on the value of public engagement in a world where ignoring it is no longer possible.

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Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft, author of Thinking in Public: Strauss, Arendt, Levinas (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016)

JHI: I don’t think you could bring the level of energy and thoroughness to “the intellectual question” that you do if there weren’t some personal ghosts haunting you on the subject of intellectual accountability. How did the topic of Thinking in Public come about? What is your investment in the subject?

BAW: Although I think of it as a traditional work of intellectual history, moving between close readings of texts, contextualization, and interpretation, Thinking in Public is also a counterintuitive book. Where many books about the figure of “the intellectual” advocate for the importance of such persons, or provide a theoretical account of their social or political role, Thinking in Public examines the meaning of discourse about “intellectuals,” especially for a generation of European Jewish thinkers for whom such figures had a particular resonance. Ever since it appeared during the Dreyfus Affair, the figure of “the intellectual” has served as a screen onto which we project our longings, including longings for the life of the mind to influence the political world. Thinking in Public is a book about how Leo Strauss, Emmanuel Levinas and Hannah Arendt understood the connections and gulfs between philosophy and politics, and it’s the first full-length comparative study of these three thinkers.

Screen Shot 2016-06-26 at 20.47.45More personally, Thinking in Public is my first book-length work in intellectual history. Thus it’s the book of a writer trying to synthesize and respond to years of education, and to express a set of mature new thoughts. And of course I’m trying to deal with the conceptual errors of my younger self! I arrived at Berkeley to study intellectual history and modern Jewish thought, thinking of writing on the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), on whom I had written an undergraduate thesis at Swarthmore, with the wonderful guidance of Nathaniel Deutsch. At Berkeley, under the mentorship of Martin Jay, I emerged as a scholar of modern European intellectual history more primarily, but many of questions remained from my earlier work on Levinas, and my studies in modern Jewish history with John Efron. I started off wanting to write about efforts to “correct” philosophy in the wake of the Holocaust, which is certainly one way to summarize Levinas’s mature project, but I grew skeptical about Levinas on several levels. For one, his idea of “ethics as first philosophy” began to seem weak to me, and then there was his seeming elision between philosophy and politics – between the ideas of “totality” and “totalitarianism,” you might say. I reached for Arendt and Strauss because, like Levinas, they had studied with Martin Heidegger in their twenties, and, also like Levinas, they made either direct or indirect claims about the way the life of the mind was implicated in the political disasters of the twentieth century. I discovered that the figure of “the intellectual” served all three as a means by which to describe the relationship between philosophy and politics. And the impulse to describe that relationship stemmed not only from political crisis, but also from a sense that philosophy had somehow gone astray. The idea of comparing their views on intellectuals, on the predicaments of modern Jewish identity and history, and on the philosophy-politics dyad, flowed from there fairly naturally.

As your question anticipates, Thinking in Public reflects the quirks of its author, in particular my love of puzzles, paradoxes and contradictions in the life of the mind. Because that’s precisely what the figure of “the intellectual” presents us with. Allowing myself to backtrack for a moment, one of the reasons I practice intellectual history is because I want to understand the way ideas change over time, and to understand the reasons for those changes. Often the ideas in question are crafted by philosophers or social theorists, but here “ideas” could refer to the conceptual infrastructure that guides and supports intellectual life, and the idea of a social type called “intellectuals” or, in the Anglophone world, “public intellectuals,” is one part of that infrastructure, just as institutions such as journals, magazines, and academic departments are practical forms of infrastructure. But some concepts produce more confusion than others, and discussions of “intellectuals” or “public intellectuals” strike me as quite complex and messy, and in a way that apparently attracted me.

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Leo Strauss (1899-1973)

I didn’t want to write a book about intellectuals that would celebrate the social role of such persons, try to map their development historically, or tie a basically functionalist account of intellectuals to a basically functionalist account of public political life. Many such books already exist, and it seems to me that their real function is one of ideological contestation rather than scholarship—praising heroes or damning villains, depending on the politics of the author. I wanted to understand how a series of crises, ranging from the apparent weakness of liberal democracy in the Interwar years all the way through the rise of totalitarian governments through a growing awareness of the Holocaust, made philosophers and political theorists reconsider what it meant to practice their crafts, and even reconsider the substance of intellectual life itself.

JHI: There’s a lot to disentangle about the idea of an “intellectual.” In the book it emerges as a noun that is incredibly relational—giving a name and a location to clashes between philosophy and politics above all, but from there between the private and the public, the individual and society. You show how Arendt, Levinas, and Strauss alike think that philosophy and politics are “basically incompatible” on the one hand, but on the other, that incompatibility doesn’t stop them (especially Arendt) from embodying the role in certain circumstances. What do you think causes them to suspend their logic for the sake of action?

BAW: The book has two parts: in the first, I examine Strauss, Levinas and Arendt’s intellectual biographies with a special focus on their discussions of “intellectuals” and their shifting understandings of how philosophy relates to politics. Those are two very different issues, but sometimes complaints about “intellectuals” become surrogates for complaints about the fate of philosophy on the contemporary European scene – or the American one, because both Arendt and Strauss take refuge in the U.S. and ultimately take citizenship. In the second part, I compare their views, and also explore the senses in which their views were influenced by their varied receptions of modern Jewish history. So, on the one hand the book contributes to ongoing conversations about intellectuals, and on the other it’s definitely part of the sub-genres of books on German Jewish thought and on the wave of intellectual émigrés who reached America in the middle of the twentieth century. But I don’t want to appear to believe that there’s a “core” to Arendt, Levinas or Strauss. Intellectual historians may inevitably engage in synopsis and paraphrase as we conduct our work, but I think we need to be careful to show that a thinker’s views do change over time, and that most writers display the all-too-human feature of inconsistency.

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Hannah Arendt (1906-1975)

As you say, Hannah Arendt certainlydisplays some of the features we commonly associate with the “intellectual” or “public intellectual,” writing on everything from the rise of totalitarianism to the aftermath of the Holocaust to the Pentagon Papers. But what’s really interesting is that Arendt’s greatest apparent failures to understand her audiences, the times when she genuinely offended the sensibilities of people whose agreement she might have sought, occur in cases when she most badly wants to maintain her right to judge by the most stringent standards of detachment – you might say that these are cases in which she refuses to suspend her logic for the sake of action. And I don’t think she ever saw herself as abandoning her sense of the tension between philosophy and politics, when she wrote for wide audiences; after all, the philosophically-trained Arendt disavowed the identity of “philosopher” in her maturity. She seems to have thought that the sheer importance of the public events she wrote about, demanded the full severity of her method. She was no rhetorician, trying to craft her work to persuade her audience. Instead she invited them to think with her. I suppose this is one reason she’s been criticized as an elitist, but I find her insistence on principles very admirable.

But this leads me to one central theme in Thinking in Public: publicness and the figure of the intellectual don’t produce simple antipathy and rejection, for Arendt, Strauss and Levinas. There’s a real ambivalence, a push and pull. Even Leo Strauss, who took the idea of a philosophy-politics incompatibility further than either Arendt or Levinas, felt that he had to respond to the predicaments presented by publicness in the twentieth century; he just chose to do so as a scholar rather than as a writer for popular audiences. Incidentally, Thinking in Public’s main provocation may be to enthusiastic readers of Arendt and Strauss, because I argue that they shared a view of the incompatibility of the vita contemplativa and the vita activa (to use Arendt’s terms) usually attributed to Strauss; their real difference is that Strauss found a basically non-worldly version of philosophy worthy of endorsement, and Arendt did not.

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Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995)

But, along with Levinas, Arendt and Strauss understood that in the twentieth century publicness becomes a kind of unavoidable condition, in Heidegger’s terms something into which we find ourselves “thrown.” What I find especially suggestive is that all three thinkers find ways, ranging from Levinas’s “ethics as first philosophy” to Strauss’s picture of the philosopher in the city to Arendt’s late meditations on internal dialogue, to understand how certain kinds of interpersonal encounter are there at the very beginning, coeval with the practice of philosophy and in some cases prior to it. Philosophy may not be a sociable practice, but for all three it is always conditioned by the possibility of interpersonal encounter. Indeed, Strauss thought that political philosophy was developed in order to protect philosophy proper from the chaos and danger to which the political life of the city was vulnerable.

JHI: I realize you’re not trying to argue for the social importance of intellectuals. But, since you wrote Thinking in Public at a time when the humanities are under attack and regularly dismissed, do you think there’s a need to do more than retreat from public life? Wouldn’t that be a form of abjection? It might even mean abandoning the premise that the humanities improve us – and improve the publics through which they circulate.

BAW: I’m really glad you brought this up. I’m not suggesting retreat, I’m trying to describe some of the complexities of the inevitably public life of the mind. In the early twenty-first century attacks on the humanities occur, ironically enough, at a moment when the Internet makes our intellectual lives increasingly public, whether this is through magazines like the Los Angeles Review of Books (for which I often write, these days), or through the circulation of lectures via YouTube, or through all the other forms of intellectual life that make sophisticated scholarship available beyond the colleges and universities. We obviously have to fight to defend the humanities and social sciences within our educational institutions, and this entails public speech. But what kind? What sort of authority or legitimacy do we wish to claim for the humanities, and to which arguments about their power to improve us, via education, do we want to commit ourselves? That’s the kind of conversation Thinking in Public might point towards. After all, Arendt and Strauss both placed special stress on the civic importance of education, and Levinas spent much of his career as a school administrator.

JHI: Wittgenstein’s concept of “family affinities” is a lovely methodological alternative that you draw from to justify the selection of Arendt, Levinas and Strauss. Who do you have family affinities with?

BAW: You have me feeling even more self-conscious than usual! Bluntly put, “family resemblance,” Wittgenstein’s concept, may appeal to me because I have an anthropologist’s appreciation of the subfield of European intellectual history as a kinship network. That network has been shaped not only by the bonds (and the squabbles) between students and teachers, but by all kinds of other ties as well. It would be very funny to try to construct a kinship chart for the subfield, and maybe I will someday. I’m obviously Martin Jay’s student, and while he doesn’t try to shape his students into a “school” I was certainly influenced by the “paraphrastic” or “synoptic” style of intellectual history associated with him – see, for example, his wonderful essay “Two Cheers for Paraphrase: The Confessions of an Synoptic Intellectual Historian.” And I’ve been the beneficiary of a supportive network of his former students, who were becoming established in the field just as I was working on my doctorate.

But “resemblance” conjures more than direct relation, and your question reminds me of my debts outside my own field. This is a point that has been widely appreciated by others, but I’ve long thought most intellectual historians have an elective affinity for the figures they write about. Thus someone writing about economists or art historians or modernization theorists or phenomenologists needs not just technical vocabulary and inside knowledge of these fields, but also a sympathy for their subjects, even to the point of wishing, on some level, to be one of them. When I write about the history of philosophy it’s partly out of my conviction that philosophical questions and propositions are best understood in light of their times, and in light of the prejudices, fortunes and cultural surround of those who posed them. But it’s also because I want to try to pose those questions and propositions anew. My own short list of influences beyond intellectual history, people whose works influenced me greatly, would include Judith Butler (whom I was lucky to work with at Berkeley), Stanley Cavell, James Clifford, Stefan Helmreich (I’ve benefited from his guidance at MIT), and Steven Shapin.

JHI: What is your next project and do you see it relating to Thinking in Public?

BAW: My next or, I suppose, current project is about biotechnology and the future of food, but it’s also a work of intellectual history with a few connecting threads back to Thinking in Public. As I completed the dissertation out of which Thinking in Public eventually grew, I was intrigued by Arendt and Strauss’s shared antipathy towards the idea of progress, especially progress made possible by technology; in the Prologue to The Human Condition, which was published in 1958, Arendt is especially upset about dreams of transforming the human condition by, variously, leaving the Earth for a life on other worlds, or of modifying our own biology in order to transcend such fetters as the human lifespan. Such doubts about the idea of “progress” certainly aren’t unique to Arendt and they bear at least some comparison to criticisms of the idea of progress made by her co-generationists in the Frankfurt School. Both the idea of progress and its critique were striking for me as a graduate student in the Bay Area, which was ground zero for techno-utopianism as I was finishing my doctorate. I became interested in the history of science and technology, but graduate school didn’t afford much time for them.

But it was my good luck that, in 2013, after my first postdoctoral fellowship at the New School had ended, I received a grant from the National Science Foundation, intended for post-Ph.D. scholars who want to add the history and anthropology of science, or other science studies fields, to their areas of competency. The grant funded a second postdoctoral fellowship, in Anthropology at MIT, and it was an incredible gift to have those additional years of study. My new book project, drawing on several years of ethnographic work conducted during that fellowship, focused on precisely the ideas of progress that Arendt once criticized. I’m writing about contemporary efforts to grow meat in laboratories via cell culture techniques, an effort designed to fix the massive problems in our system of animal agriculture and meat production. The resulting book will weave together the anthropology and history of science, intellectual history and food studies, and I hope to make some contributions to the history of the future of food, as well as to the history of the philosophy of life – Arendt’s friend Hans Jonas will be a major figure for me in this book, as will Hans Blumenberg, for whom the categories of the “organism” and “the artifact,” and the tension between them, determine much about modern intellectual history. But if Thinking in Public is a traditional work of European intellectual history, I’m now interested in writing something that feels genuinely new in both method and content.

Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft lives in Oakland, and is a visiting researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he writes about laboratory-grown meat and the futures of food. A native of Cambridge, Massachusetts, he studied at Swarthmore College and did his graduate work in European intellectual history at Berkeley. In addition to his scholarly work, he regularly writes on contemporary food culture.  He is @benwurgaft on Twitter. The editors thank him for very kindly agreeing to be interviewed for the JHI Blog.