I am realizing more and more that my interest in politics is fueled by a question which is not discussed in the media or is much in the public consciousness. And that is the question: What is the relation between politics and critical philosophy?
By “critical philosophy” I mean 19th and 20th thinkers such as Kierkegaard, Marx, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Dewey, Foucault and so on (a motley crew, no doubt) who were critical of modern, Enlightenment philosophy of the 17th and 18th centuries (I am avoiding “post-modern,” since it means so many different things at this point).
Modern philosophy is tied together with achievements such as the rise of democracy, modern science, capitalism and secularism. Thinkers like Descartes, Locke, Hume and Kant were philosophers who created conceptual frameworks to make sense of, strengthen and defend these achievements. And yet, as the critical philosophers suggested, there are deep problems and internal tensions within the conceptual frameworks of modern philosophy.
The question then is: Can the achievements of modernity such as democracy and secularism survive whatever flaws there are within the frameworks of modern philosophy? If so, how?
The clearest example in the 20th century of connecting critical philosophy to politics is communism. Marx’s argument was that it is not possible to retain capitalism once the alienated conceptions of freedom and individuality inherent in modern philosophy were discarded – that true freedom required that workers overthrow the capitalist system. In the Russian and Chinese revolutions, as these ideas were being implemented, it seemed that democracy and secularism as well would have to be discarded.
The most notorious example of an individual philosopher in the 20th century trying to connect critical philosophy to politics is Heidegger. His affiliation with Nazism, and his antisemitism, became inseparable for Heidegger from his philosophy, and from the sense that Western society had to break from, as he saw it, the technological and individualized alienation of modernity. Though many Heidegger scholars have worked hard to separate Heidegger’s philosophy from his Nazism (and I think a good deal of what is great in Heidegger’s thought can be conceptually separated from Nazism), nonetheless it cannot be denied that the coming together of politics and critical philosophy was what gave Heidegger himself a messianic feeling. And he falsely assumed that the Nazis would share such a feeling and treat Heidegger as its main philosophical voice. He failed to take into account that the Nazis could be satisfied with a much cruder version of critical philosophy, one which treated only Hitler as the main prophet.