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  • Time in the Ditch: American Philosophy and the Mccarthy Era
  • John McCumber (bio)

Philosophers like to think of themselves as engaged in what one thinker to be discussed in this paper calls a “timeless, selfless quest of truth”: as seeking, if not necessarily gaining, access to truths which are universal and atemporal and which, therefore, hold independently of the conditions under which they are arrived at. The conceit is not new, for philosophy began when Thales of Miletus dared to look up from the path of his own feet to the stars which shine forever on everyone. But Thales paid a price for his disinterest: he lost his footing and fell into a ditch. An old woman accompanying him wondered aloud how he could expect to understand the heavens when he knew nothing about what lay at his own feet. 1 Thales’s pride, perhaps, was hurt more than his body; but most injured of all, I suspect, would have been his investigation of the cosmic order. Few stars are visible from the bottom of a ditch.

Thales has not been the only philosopher to lose his footing so badly that his quest for truth was impeded or even ended. Most of the time, the footing involved is political. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Kant, and Hegel, to name a few, all at one time or another fell afoul of the social and political powers in their respective societies. 2 Moreover, as any work of Foucault will suggest, the effects of politics on philosophy may not always be limited to interference with individual philosophers; politics may go on to influence the nature of philosophy itself. In Germany after 1830, for example, reactionary forces purged the Young Hegelians—including such able thinkers as Feuerbach, Marx, Max Stirner, and David Strauss—from academic positions, consigning the country’s universities to a generation and more of the kind of egoistic charlatanry described by Lewis White Beck:

. . . men entered and left the [neo-Kantian] movement as if it were a church or political party; members of one school blocked the appointments and promotions of members of the others; eminent Kant scholars and philosophers who did not found their own schools or accommodate themselves to one of the established schools tended to be neglected as outsiders and contemned as amateurs. 3

Political interference with philosophers did not end with the nineteenth century, of course. Many Anglo-American philosophers, if they thought about it at all, would say that the [End Page 33] debacle of 1968 in France called forth irrationalism in the thought of Derrida and Foucault, while the rise of the Nazis in Germany allowed Heidegger to claw his way to the top of the philosophical heap. England’s Thatcher, apparently unwilling to tolerate philosophy at all, instigated the greatest academic exodus since Hitler.

But such things—we Americans like to tell ourselves—do not happen around here. Though politics may influence philosophy in the Old World, American philosophy is an autonomous, indeed overwhelmingly tenured, discipline in the freest country on earth. The only important force shaping it has, it appears, been reason itself: the ongoing process of argument and evaluation in which American philosophers excel.

This exemption from politics may, however, be more spurious than real; certainly it cannot be taken for granted. The United States, the first country to be founded on a philosophy, has (perhaps for that reason) never been friendly to philosophers. Bertrand Russell ran up against American intolerance for the intellect and its life in 1940, when his attempt to teach in the US was pronounced by a judge to be dangerous to the “public health, safety, and morals” [Edwards 7: 235, 238]. World War II made a cold climate harsher, and five years later Brand Blanshard could write: “mathematics, physics, engineering, medicine—all the sciences, theoretic and applied, that have to do with the art of war are riding high; the humanities, including philosophy, have gone into temporary eclipse” [8]. The Cold War, extending militaristic practices into peacetime, made the “temporary” in Blanshard’s judgment sound naively optimistic. When, as an undergraduate in the sixties, I took a course in journalism, “philosopher” was on the list of pejorative terms...