The morning of 9/11, I was walking through Harvard Yard. I was on my way to an event for new teaching assistants when I was handed a large, freshly printed sheet which said, “America under attack!” I don’t remember any more what happened to the event I was going to. I remember spending the rest of the day in the university’s Graduate Student Center watching the events unfold on TV.
The next day the classes began, and I began my dual life for that semester. Half my time was spent on Wittgenstein (the class I was a TA for), philosophy of mind (my area of focus) and the general activities of a philosophy graduate student. The rest of my time was spent going to rallies, public lectures and in general trying to understand what 9/11 meant and what a justified American response could be. During the day I would think about the private language argument or qualia or the nature of philosophy, and during the evenings I would go to talks by people like Chomsky or Zinn, and think about how I could make a difference.
At the time it seemed natural to me that the two halves of my life were separate and distinct. The day time activities were philosophy, and the evening activities politics. I assumed 9/11 was mainly a political event, as if that meant it was not a philosophical event.
I was wrong.
Given the nature of philosophy, every event is a philosophy event. John sees a red apple – there are questions of epistemology, metaphysics, and philosophy of mind all right there in that one event. Shankar makes a promise to Jane – nothing could be simpler as an everyday event, and it raises questions of ethics, freedom, community and identity.
This is no less true of the event of 10 hijackers flying 2 planes into skyscrapers. Of course there are many philosophical issues at play here: What should a secular society look like? How are religion, philosophy and science related? Does might make right? Are norms culturally relative? Were the terrorists free to act otherwise? Is European, Enlightenment philosophy more universal than Islamic philosophy?
Once one thinks about it, 9/11 not only seems like a philosophical event, but in fact like a world-historical one. An event which is at the center of so many interesting and pressing philosophical issues that a philosophical understanding of it could shed light on a great many issues at once.
Why then was I so convinced fifteen years ago that it is philosophically not interesting? And not just me. After 9/11, I hardly heard any one in my graduate department, or when I was a professor, speak of 9/11 in classrooms or philosophy talks. What gives?
It’s because I, like everyone else in our society, was conditioned to not see the terrorists as thinkers. To say that 9/11 is a philosophical event is to see the terrorists as people whose views can be philosophically debated.
Of course, this is not to agree with their ideas, let alone agree with their actions. I certainly don’t agree with them. Perhaps I should say that again: I definitely don’t agree with the terrorists or with their actions.
But to see the terrorists as thinkers is to humanize them. To see them not just as agents of envy or hatred, or even as political opponents of American imperialism, but as people with opinions about modernity, democracy and what it means to live a flourishing life. As people who struggled with some of the same issues of modernity that Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Wittgenstein did, but who were not able to transform that struggle into a positive affirmation of life for everyone.
Was Heidegger’s philosophy connected to his Nazism? Of course. But that does not render all of Heidegger’s philosophy moot. What it shows instead is that one can act cruelly based on misunderstanding philosophical ideas. I suspect the same is true of the terrorists. These are people struggling with modernity, but who are unable to transform that struggle into something positive for the world as a whole.
To see 9/11 as a philosophical event is to see the terrorists as philosophers – people guided by philosophical ideas which they could not harness or properly understand. To combat terrorism, then, what is needed is to have public dialogue about the merits and pitfalls of modernity openly and honestly so that no one will feel trapped in the dichotomy of modernity vs. fundamentalism. To get beyond the sense that the only way to be critical of modernity is to be a fundamentalist.
Of course there is no hope of philosophical dialogue with someone intent on blowing themselves up. But if public philosophy which genuinely engages with issues of modernity gains traction and becomes a part of our shared lives, then perhaps such philosophy can reach someone before they get pulled into fundamentalism. Such philosophy can give them an alternate way to understand their frustrations, and a chance to transform their frustrations into something positive and life affirming.