The Deflationary Mind
Mark Lilla’s prosecution of radical thinkers in the name of intellectual seriousness can only lead to a flat and lifeless politics.
by David Sessions, Jacobin, 27 October 2016
During the 1990s, some of the most prominent Anglo-American interpreters of European intellectual history decided it was time to settle accounts. They brought important thinkers of the past two centuries — Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Georges Bataille, Jean-Paul Sartre, Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, just to name a few — before end-of-history tribunals, and, more often than not, declared them guilty of intellectual irresponsibility, a weakness for tyranny or mythology (or both), and crazed utopianism.
The liberal reading public was delighted to read these verdicts, which convicted twentieth-century European philosophy of failing to submit to the global triumph of English-speaking liberal capitalism. The idea of “intellectual responsibility” guided both the late British historian Tony Judt’s excoriation of French intellectuals’ postwar communism, and Mark Lilla’s portrait-essays of European theorists who looked beyond the pragmatic, deflated liberal politics he presented as the exclusive terrain of legitimate intellectual engagement.
Things look different now. The limits of American power, as well as the strength of recent resistance to the global neoliberal order, have come into clearer view, making the questions Europeans faced in the first half of the twentieth century — and some of the answers they proposed — seem more current. Less prosecutorial scholars have approached the difficult ideas of European thinkers with greater theoretical subtlety, intellectual empathy, and political open-mindedness, grounding their work in its historical context.
From this vantage point, the “realism” of the fin-de-siècle American elite looks more like myopic hubris than sober responsibility. Its assessment of twentieth-century theory looks less like a reckoning with the past and more like the euphoric sanctification of what they allowed themselves to believe was the permanent overcoming of history.