Croatian philosopher of science and politics Neven Sesardic (b. 1949) retired from Lingnan University, Hong Kong, in 2015. He wrote a book shortly thereafter, When Reason Goes on Holiday: Philosophers in Politics (Encounter Books, 2016). He was wise to wait till he had his pension…
He chronicles the way in which 20th Century luminaries in science, philosophy, and their mutual colleagues excused and aided totalitarian rule. As a survivor of totalitarian rule himself, Sesardic does not focus on acknowledged racists or Nazi Party members in science, the ones that we are all taught to reject by popular science journalism. He spotlights brilliant thinkers we are encouraged to look up to as enlightened and humane, such as Einstein, Godel, and Lakatos.
First, Einstein. His cautious sympathy for Stalin comes as a surprise. Einstein seemed over-anxious to discount the obvious, as when, for example, 48 scientists were shot within a couple of days without even a show trial. He ended his friendship with Don Levine over the latter’s insistence that the mass starvation of the Ukraine (the Holodomor) was real. Einstein regretted his silence later but, Sesardiç notes, he never publicized his regret. He clashed with anti-totalitarian secularist Sidney Hook over similar issues. Arthur Miller called that pattern of behaviour, which he shared, “a special kind of obtuseness.” Saul Bellow called it a “deep and perverse stupidity.”
It was no different in biology. The journal Philosophy of Science largely supported the cranky, state-enforced theories of Stalin’s favourite, Lysenko, and downplayed the murders of dissenting biologists. But then editor Malisoff was a KGB agent.
Similarly, Austrian-American Kurt Gödel (1906–1978), the logic genius, had remained on good terms with Nazi Germany during the Anschluss (the takeover by Hitler’s Germany in 1938). He claimed that the United States in 1951 was worse than Germany under Hitler, that post-World War II French president Charles de Gaulle was similar to Hitler, and later that Kennedy (1961) encouraged Nazis . He justified the Berlin Wall (1965).
Imre Lakatos (1922–1974) after whom a prestigious philosophy of science award is named, worked hard to demolish intellectual freedom in his native Hungary. As an agent with a Party code name, he informed on his own mentor and searched his wastebasket. Much is made of his time in a labour camp but he was put there for being too Stalinist. Then there was the unpleasant business of forcing a girl to commit suicide. Moral philosopher Bernard Williams considered him “kind of a thug” and a “psychopath.”
The fact that these eminent thinkers ended up in the United States is sometimes taken to imply that they were resolutely anti-totalitarian. But in the digital age, we might best describe their biographers’ art as reputation management. Biographers go to great lengths to protect their subjects’ reputations, creating ambiguity, casting doubt on their support for totalitarianism, and offering distractions. For example, we are told by elite philosophy source Stanford Plato that Lakatos was a “warm and witty friend” as well as an inspiring teacher.
The reader is left wondering why training in the philosophy of science proved to be no defence against the mental attitudes required of totalitarian life: contradictory, irrational views that require ignoring empirical evidence (their specialty) and desperate denials of fact. Sesardiç offers no answer but his testimony is worth hearing. Put simply, the logical positivists, presented as heroes of generations of university students, were comfortable with and supportive of “vicious, totalitarian politics.” When Reason Goes on Holiday is a troubling book to read, but the lessons are stark and plain, in the age of Marching for Science Allegiance to “Science” is no substitute for critical thinking.
Note: Sesardic has written academic material on heritability of intelligence which makes him a pariah in some quarters. I hope that that controversy does not detract from the usefulness of his detailed examination of the way in which major science thinkers of the 20th Century were cozy with totalitarian government. In the long run, that matters far more for everyone, of whatever ethnicity.
See also: The war on intellectual freedom How political correctness morphed into a monster.
Denyse O’Leary is an Ottawa-based author, blogger, and journalist.