Trust the Experts
A review of When Reason Goes on Holiday: Philosophers in Politics, by Neven Sesardic
This post begins with two epigrams from Noam Chomsky on the right-wing carceral state and the possibility of criminal redemption.
“Like all of those in Cambridge who met and knew [Jeffrey Epstein], we knew that he had been convicted and served his time, which means that he re-enters society under prevailing norms — which, it is true, are rejected by the far right in the US and sometimes by unscrupulous employers,” Chomsky wrote. “I’ve had no pause about close friends who spent many years in prison, and were released. That's quite normal in free societies.”
“I’ve often attended meetings and had close interactions with colleagues and friends on Harvard and MIT campuses, often in labs and other facilities built with donations from some of the worst criminals of the modern world,” Chomsky wrote. “People whose crimes are well known, and who are, furthermore, honored by naming the buildings in their honor and lavishly praised in other ways. That’s far more serious than accepting donations, obviously — and these are huge donations.”
“I’ve met [all] sorts of people, including major war criminals. I don’t regret having met any of them.” - https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2023/5/3/epstein-nowak-chomsky-meeting-2015/
“[Donald Trump is] the worst criminal in human history” -https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/noam-chomsky-believes-trump-is-the-worst-criminal-in-human-history
Everyone is familiar with the folk wisdom that academics tend to adopt boneheaded ideologies, with William F. Buckley’s famous statement that it would be better to be ruled by the first 2,000 people in the phone book than a philosopher being just one well-known example.
Further, everyone is probably familiar with at least one such instance supporting this folk wisdom. For example, I’ve long been aware of the delusional views of Bertrand Russell, which even the New York Times lampooned with editorial appendages to his op-eds about American imperialism. More recently, we can all look to the revelations about Noam Chomsky’s prudent embrace of Jeffrey Epstein in 2015 and the great linguistics professor’s subsequent casual reticence on the topic.
This folk wisdom is tied to a widely shared political supposition. If there’s one thing that’s consistent across the political spectrum, it’s that people believe the best or most qualified should be in charge. The criteria of best varies, and the conviction can be more unconscious or implicit than explicit, as in the case of the democrat (progressive or conservative) who just assumes their opinions will be given prominence; but the principle that the best should rule is always there.
Today we believe in the rule of the expert, defined as the person possessed of exceptional natural cognitive ability as well as the self-discipline necessary to acquire relevant knowledge and wisdom. This was starkly illustrated by the “crisis” of disinformation necessitating expert assessments of public discourse since 2016, which culminated in the mindless Fauci cult of personality during the Covid pandemic.
In When Reason Goes on Holiday: Philosophers in Politics, Neven Sesardic writes about the political opinions and activities of some of the most intelligent and transformative academics of the 20th century. While the book focuses upon many academics known only within Sesardic’s own field of analytic philosophy, his case studies include giants of modern physics, logic, and economics, like Albert Einstein, Kurt Goedel, and John Maynard Keynes. Beyond the big personalities of the analytic tradition, Sesardic scrutinizes the political activism of philosophical publications and institutions.
What’s great about Sesardic’s book is that he doesn’t just expose provocative quotes, positions, and actions of academics under the assumption that the reader will intuit their absurdity, but rather demonstrates why the quotes, positions, and actions were irrational or intentionally immoral and misleading.
A general example of Sesardic’s approach can be seen in the non-political case with which he opens the book, exposing that the outlandish marketing claims of the American Philosophical Association (APA) – that philosophy boosts IQ and provides students with other professional advantages -- violate basic principles of scientific reasoning developed and taught by the very philosophers of science who authorized publication of the APA claims in the first place.
Sesardic’s unique analytical-empirical scrutiny is important in another way because it usually succeeds in refuting a crucial defensive assumption about boneheaded academic political positions: that the academic in question should be forgiven because he lacked perfect knowledge of the applicable political context.
Setting aside the fact that such a defense, even if true, is self-defeating, since the smartest people in the world should be aware of what’s going on if they want to make authoritative pronouncements on a topic, Sesardic artfully demonstrates the unlikelihood of such forgivable ignorance in his case studies. He further emphasizes that such excuses are clearly opportunistic, as they’re almost never offered on behalf of academics who supported or collaborated with reactionary regimes.
Sesardic’s approach is therefore charitable toward his targets. He rarely takes claims at face value and seeks instead to validate accounts of academic behavior through research and journalistic inquiries.
For example, rather than take Philosopher Richard Rorty’s claim that many philosophers agreed to vote for Eldridge Cleaver for president as proof of stupid political behavior by Ivy academics, Sesardic first authenticates the claim by contacting other philosophers present at the meeting, and then illustrates the stupidity of the protest vote by showing that the philosophers had to have known that Cleaver was a violent felon who had recently published a book admitting to engaging in the politically motivated rape of white women.
Throughout the book Sesardic offers hypotheses about the causes of such academic political stupidity. Sesardic clearly believes that a sociological phenomenon is at work but refrains from engaging in wild sociological speculation, much to my chagrin. He also offers an intriguing philosophical cause based upon an opaque insight from Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan.
In this review I’ll survey some of Sesardic’s cases and analyses and conclude with a few of my own observations on the stupidity of intelligence. Overall, I finished the book with the impression that Sesardic has done a great service to his profession and that he has in fact produced a book that embodies the best of the intellectual tradition his case studies indirectly lampoon.
Marxism and Cooperation with Communist Countries
The bulk of Sesardic’s profiled philosophers either directly supported Marxist philosophy in contradiction with the quantitative-analytic methods they espoused in their academic work, or at a minimum supported the Soviet Union and other Communist countries, both through public and private statements and direct collaboration.
Logical Positivists and the Vienna Circle
The Vienna Circle is famous for popularizing a philosophy that eschewed the metaphysical abstractions of continental philosophy, especially German idealism, in favor of empiricism and the logical analysis of language. A good analogy to their general attitude would be the current arrogance of so-called STEM majors toward “liberal arts” majors, such as group narcissism studies or English.
While Sesardic focuses larger sections of his analysis upon logical positivism’s bigger names, such as Otto Neurath, Rudolph Carnap, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, he doesn’t overlook more minor figures. For example, he shows that the man who coined the term “Logical Positivism”, Albert Blumberg, emigrated to the United States and promptly began advising that political change could only occur in Baltimore by activists taking up arms against the state.