51b5za3qkpl_sl500_aa240_6I recently read the good news that Franz Neumann’s 1944 classic, Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism 1933-1944, will finally be reprinted in English (by Ivan R. Dee Publishers).   In a previous blog entry (German Lessons for Americans), I  already commented on the importance of this work whose Harper Torchbook edition dates back to the 1960’s.  Behemoth is required reading for anyone interested in trying to understand the phenomenon of National Socialism and certain of its homologous relations with the current political and economic situation in the Western world.

I believe that in many respects we have more to learn from German thought of the period between the two World Wars than we have from what passes for philosophy and theory in our present time.   There are certainly  issues, for example those dealing with globalization and environmental concerns, that were less obtrusive in that period.  Yet our understanding of fundamental economic and political concerns in the Occident can only be enhanced by the reading of  Franz Neumann’s impressive study of National Socialism.   (In this sense, there is a kind of parallelism with what I’ve previously written about the sciences.  In a certain way, Neumann plays the same  role here that Husserl played in my blog entry on philosophy and science.)

The euphoria in North America surrounding the election of a new president may very well lead to deception and disappointment.  It is unlikely that the fundamental parameters of economic and political life will undergo radical modification once Western societies have weathered the current economic “correction”.  Memories in North America are short.  We tend to forget how far America has departed from its post World War II liberal capitalist course.  If the Obama presidency succeeds in coming close to reversing some of  the political and economic deviation of the Reagan years, it will have accomplished a major task.  However, even such a reversal is not equivalent to structural change.

It is not my intention to examine Behemoth in detail: not only does the book contain a wealth of details on many aspects of the NS regime, but it also opens up many possible topics for detailed discussion.  It demands a more systematic study.  My intention is rather to make a few simple observations about certain aspects of the book.

The most important service that we obtain from  Franz Neumann is the dissipation of many of the myths concerning the rise and practice of fascism in Germany.  Post-structuralist acolytes have too often fostered the simpleminded dictum that Western rationalism leads directly to Auschwitz.   Behemoth‘s strength lies in its detailed description of  the  situation in which National Socialism seized power and in its painstaking elaboration of the relations between power, politics and economics during its control of the German state.  Neumann’s  careful exegesis of the elements woven together in that complexity is exemplary.

It is possible to shortcut the description of the development of  fascism by borrowing from Adorno/Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment:  in fascism Myth takes its revenge against Enlightenment.  Or, to put this in Neumann’s terms,  a rational state (say in the sense of Hegel) is not compatible with the (racial) movement state espoused by National Socialism.  But Behemoth corrects the abstract character of this type of observation.  Neumann shows that National Socialism had no real theory of society, no real philosophy beyond the promotion of a type of citizen activism that hardly left room for thought.  Non-rational concepts derived from bogus racial theory and questionable geopolitical considerations were useful in hiding the real structure of power and  in manipulating the masses (helped, of course,  by the threat of terror).  German society was structured by the dynamic of  four groups (party, army, industry, bureaucracy),  each organized according to the “leadership principle”.  NS Germany was not really a state in any classical sense:  it was not ruled by law, but rather by a series of technical rules whose foundation rested on a sort of arbitrariness. This is the sense in which Myth takes its revenge.

From my personal ethnic standpoint ( given that I am of Polish descent), it is somewhat chilling to read the details of the structure which was to govern a European continent ruled by National Socialism.  Also, from the standpoint of  someone who has been involved in education, it  is  particularly sad to read the disappointment that Neumann expresses in the “almost complete moral corruption of the German intelligentsia, especially of the academic world”.  Even more damning to the educational system is his  note that statistics showed that 23% of all party political functionaries came from the teaching professions, primarily from the ranks of  elementary school teachers.

This sort of  account echoes the description that Karl Löwith gives of his experience in the German universities of the time (in My Life in Germany Before and After 1933).  Unfortunately, our experience with the character of academics since the Reagan years is not much different.  Following years of flirtation with philosophical tendencies (commonly grouped under rubrics  such as post-modernism or post-structuralism) most compatible with globalism  (in the sense this term is used by Ulrich Beck) and least  conducive to critical examination of the  unfettered reign of transnational corporations, current philosophy has more or less loss its credibility, its moral authority and its critical function.

Finally, it is evident that the most crucial element in understanding the Germany of this period is the role of the cartels and the manner in which the cartellization of the German economy depended on totalitarian political power to help it avoid any perturbation.  Neumann insists on the importance of the profit motive and the creation and maintenance of a political and social climate in which empire builders such as Flick, Wolff, Mannesmann, and Krupp could prosper.  It was the role of National Socialism to provide the power necessary to support this monopolistic system.  The aims of the German cartels could not be carried out in a political democracy.  The accomplishments of the goals of  German monopolistic capitalism demanded the state control of labor.

Imperialism was a product of  this monopolistic capitalism, of  industrial leadership backed by the NS controlled government.  Strict control of  raw materials markets, systematic dumping and currency manipulation were tools  for the subjugation of  foreign economies.  Neumann claims that even the war itself can be partially viewed as  resulting from a set of  internal contradictions in the German economy.

Helmut Dubiel (in Theory and Politics) describes the assessment of the relation between fascism and capitalism as a point of division in the Frankfurt School  of the years 1940-41.  Neumann’s group  ( Neumann, Marcuse, Kirchheimer, Gurland ),  insisted  on the primacy of the economic sphere, on the proposition that fascism is the form of political organization most appropriate to monopoly capitalism.  The group consisting of Pollock, Adorno and Horkheimer, basing themselves on Pollock’s theory of state capitalism, believed that a developed fascist system , such as National Socialism, reversed the classical Marxist view by establishing complete political control over economic processes.  Adorno and Horkheimer ‘s subsequent version of Critical Theory favored the thesis which considers domination in highly developed industrial societies as  founded in more immediate political forms  (see, for example,  the well-known case of Adorno’s  treatment of the  Kulturindustrie).

It is certainly incontestable that the painstakingly rigorous and richly detailed analysis of NS in Behemoth is exemplary.  It is a necessary task for philosophers and social theorists today to carefully analyze the homologies of our current situation with what prevailed in Germany in that epoch.  As much as I was taken with Adorno and Horheimer’s elaboration of  the dialectic between Reason and Myth and the realization that the very act of writing that text allows Reason to dialectically reposition itself against Myth, I am even more convinced that we now need to rely on philosophically guided analyses  such as  Behemoth to counteract the complacent and cynical position which substitutes narrative and cultural artifices  for politics.  By denigrating politics and refusing it a legitimate  place in public life,  by acquiescing in the control that economic power has accumulated, certain contemporary philosophical tendencies  facilitate the return of fascism.  The new appearance of Behemoth should remind us of what is at stake in today’s politics and remind theorists that it is time to revisit some basic questions about the relation of man, society and economy.                                                            karl-mannheim-3-sized4

Maybe my next question should be:  who also remembers Karl Mannheim?


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Mathematics and Culture

March 6, 2009

This post  is actually a slightly revised version of a short article written years ago.  It originally appeared on the Vanier College  Mathematics Department website.  Its purpose was polemical. I include it here because it is, in some sense, complementary to the previous post.

A somewhat prevalent image of mathematics relates it to calculation and situates it against a purely empirical background. There is a certain orthodoxy dominant in some academic circles,  an orthodoxy which insists that mathematical conceptualization must be linked uniquely to modeling  and problem solving.  But this orthodoxy, by placing maximum value on performance with respect to technology and economics, itself confirms the hypothesis that mathematics is deeply linked to culture  and that this link cannot be considered in isolation from the factors which determine the evolution of thought in general.

It is undoubtedly possible to anchor the point of view which places prime importance on the integration of mathematics into general culture by going back to Pythagoras to demonstrate how mathematics was once long ago a vibrant part of an inclusive world view.  It is also commonplace to underline the importance of Descartes in the articulation of  the fundamental relation between mathematics and the rationalism which many see as the defining property of Western civilization.  Philosophers also understand how Leibniz’s thought was integrated into a complex philosophical system which has a significance rarely captured by cute biographical notes found in collegiate level mathematical textbooks.  These three well-known examples indicate that it is possible to believe that mathematics could be related to world view and not simply confined (as it often is now) to a narrowly defined realm of  “mathematical science”.

There is also a relation between mathematics and certain types of  literature.  The mathematical appropriation of Pascal often ignores that he is equally the author of Les Pensées. Yet writers such as Borges and M. Serres have led us to re-think Pascal in a way that emphasizes the practice of metaphorization based on mathematics.  For example, Pascal resurrected the ancient metaphor of God as a sphere whose center is everywhere but whose circumference is nowhere.  M. Serres has shown the exact manner in which this metaphor is incorporated into the logical structure of Pascal’s writings.  Borges, whose literary universe is in part structured around a constellation of these kinds of  “metaphors”, conjectures that universal history may perhaps be conceived as a juxtaposition of metaphors whose natures  resemble that of the “frightful sphere of Pascal”.   In a more contemporary example , the reading of  Gravity’s Rainbow demands a certain familiarity with a number of mathematical concepts which are integrated into the text as metaphors and assumed to be recognized as common culture by the reader.  Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon is even more demanding in terms of  what it assumes in terms of the knowledge of mathematical ideas.

Post-modernism has also incorporated (sometimes poorly as in the case of Jean-François Lyotard) mathematical conceptualization in its preferred topoi. Catastrophe theory and fractal geometry have already been interpreted as fundamental structural models with the same reverence  that older generations of scholars reserved for the supposed purity of Euclidean geometry.  Post-modernism has also led us to re-think mathematics in terms of the relation of logic and rhetoric, thus causing a certain unhappiness among practitioners of mathematics who feel uncomfortable with the idea that their “science” could have a strong rhetorical component.

It would then be futile to ignore the complex relations that mathematics has with “non-scientific” disciplines.  To do so would not only deny the evolution of general culture, but also reduce mathematical thought to a commodity status in which knowledge of techniques and algorithms would be brokered like any other consumer good.  The foundation for the authentic reception and appropriation of mathematics obviously begins with those of us who teach the basics of the discipline.

“… quizzin’ me what it was like before everybody tried to be like Mike”  (The Pride, Chuck D)

warpedpassages

A minor annoyance in Lisa Randall’s excellent book on contemporary theoretical physics, Warped Passages, is the choice of song lyrics used as epigraphs for each chapter.  But her use of those lyrics, apart from once again confirming that physicists often have a strange sense of aesthetics,   gives me a dispensation to engage in a writing practice that usually bodes no good:  hence the  poorly and shamefully paraphrased title of this blog entry and reference to an outstanding old school hiphop album, Mistachuck (1996).

It would be tempting to say that this entry is about a sort of deontology:  how philosophers and social theorists should deal with science.  Randall refers to a well-known example:

“Radical as the fundamentals of quantum mechanics were, it’s easy to overreach when applying them to nonscientific contexts.  I find the most bothersome example to be the frequently abused uncertainty principle…”(Warped Passages, p.117).

René Thom, most commonly identified with his work on Catastrophe Theory,  provides us with another example.  In Stop Chance! Silence Noise!, which appeared in the journal SubStance in 1983, Thom discusses many contemporary epistemologists’ misuse of the mathematical notion of  randomness.  He attributes this practice to “deliberate mental confusion” and condemns the culture of  “artistic fuzziness”.

In the third chapter of my doctoral thesis (Les Antinomies de la critique, Université de Montréal, 1991), I examine the misuse of mathematical metaphors in Jean-François Lyotard’s description of post-modernity.  In particular, I show how Lyotard exercised a serious lack of caution in dealing with Kurt Gödel’s work on completeness.

So here we have a triad of concepts popularly used by philosophy to describe our contemporary (post-modern) situation:  uncertainty, randomness, undecidability.  Each of these concepts is in fact metaphorically borrowed from mathematics or the physical sciences.  I would suggest that the questionable use of this type of metaphorical appropriation of complex scientific ideas is surely the result of  a combination of poor science education and deliberate attempts at obfuscation.  Yet these two elements are not completely sufficient to explain this sort of intellectual shoddiness.

Of course, as banal as it seems to say this, poor science education is indeed part of the problem.  Former Caltech president (and Nobel Prize winner) David Baltimore has convincingly spoken and written about (the lack of) science education in the United States.  In a time when familiarity with basic scientific concepts seems increasingly necessary, it appears that North American society has actually taken a step backwards.  Although they should know better, professional academics in the humanities and social sciences can actually exacerbate the problem.  Most often they  either avoid confronting complex problems (because of  a mistrust of scientific logic) or apply comic book style simplification to difficult ideas.  Of course, it is true  that the complexity of  many scientific concepts (say in 20th century theoretical physics) makes these concepts difficult to popularize.  For example,  a person with no experience of  elementary  physics could find the reading of even the best popularizing authors, such as  Lisa Randall or  Brian Greene, a challenge.  (It’s not that good material which can help educated individuals understand trends in contemporary science doesn’t exist; in this regard,  I have to mention my favorite science series , Berkeley Groks, available on the internet at U Cal Berkeley.)  However, not even poor science education can excuse what Thom referred to as deliberate obfuscation.  Lack of understanding does not have to translate into lack of respect of ideas.  Some of this type of disrespect can simply be attributed to certain very poor choices.

A possible precursor to these “poor choices” may be found in  the famous Davos conference of 1929, which cultural historians tend to interpret as a  sign of the beginning of  Heideggerean ascendancy in Western philosophy.  While we can perhaps understand the attraction that the developing thought of  Heidegger  may have exercised in segments of the German academic milieu of the period, it is difficult to sustain the idea that his understanding of philosophy and culture was superior to Cassirer’s.  For example, although they somehow fell out of fashion in the Saussurean  inspired  structuralist and semiological boom of the the 60’s and 70’s , Cassirer’s three volumes on symbolic forms must be judged  an outstanding contribution to Western thought.  And, in the context of our discussion here, I would point out that  Cassirer’s section  dealing with mathematics in volume 3 of that series is an exemplary treatment of that subject and is truly a standard by which we can judge subsequent philosophical writing on mathematical thought.  When we think of the advances in the sciences at the time of the Davos meeting (e.g. the work then being done on Quantum Theory), it is somewhat surprising that a style of thought which fails to confront scientific logic could be preferred over the sophisticated thought of Ernst Cassirer.

We could also measure Heidegger against his mentor Husserl.  With respect to our problematic here, does not Husserl’s The Crisis of  European Sciences (1935) contain certain exemplary texts (such as his essay on the origins of geometry)?  We can certainly retain two very fundamental ideas from Husserl.  First, to understand and practice a science, we need to somehow get back to the problems, logic and spirit out of which it developed.  (Here science is understood as a theoretical endeavor based on mathematical logic and not a practice of simple collection and classification of data).  Secondly, we have to critically examine the relation of science and technology (applied science) in order to prevent the denaturing of science by its reduction (and transformation) to simply a source of technological advancement.  In the understanding of these types of questions,  Heidegger (the pupil) was certainly not up to the standards of Husserl (the teacher).  Given the current consensus that the amazing development of the sciences was probably the determining factor in the evolution of Western civilization in the last century, it is difficult to understand how so many philosophy departments have preferred to give special status to trends of thought which derive from the linguistic and ontological based thinking of Heidegger.  The consequence of this is not only the subsequent formation of a contingent of academics unable to properly deal with scientific thinking, but also the abandoning of a whole range of philosophical domains to scientists  and “analytical experts” who are now the only academics adequately prepared to deal with questions that were traditionally also the domain of philosophers.  For example, although Derrida wrote an excellent thesis on Husserl’s The Origins of Geometry, it would be difficult to build on his writings (or the writings of a once popular lesser thinker like Lyotard) to construct a position from which we could hope to adequately confront the type of questions that contemporary scientific thinking poses.  This is not to ignore  a certain merit in (especially) the early writings of  Derrida or to naïvely underestimate the contributions of Heidegger to the “science” of the lifeworld  which Husserl wished to develop, but rather to affirm the inadequate nature of those lines of thinking in the context of the problematic discussed here.

The literary theorist  Wlad Godzich, one of whose doctoral seminars I was fortunate to have attended,  once remarked that philosophical theorists  must essentially start by privileging one principal element;  History, Logic, Language  are three of the obvious choices.  Has not the priority given to Heideggerean based philosophy (especially his writings after die Kehre) not led us to badly relate to science , a domain where logic is the prime element?

Do we not find a similar type of difficulty in Adorno, probably the most important philosopher since the Weimar years?  Dialectic of Enlightenment was the centerpiece of my doctoral thesis and it would be on the short list of the most important philosophical texts of the last century.  Its logic is implacable and its power is unquestionable. Yet, is it not possible that Adorno also jumped too quickly to characterizing science’s essence as immediately defined by manipulation, domination and exploitation  of Nature (here understanding Nature as a Subject)?  Does mathematical logic necessarily subordinate life to the concept of equivalence?  In Adorno and Horkheimer’s construction of the dialectic of  Myth and Reason, science gets assimilated  by technology and capitalism in Myth’s revenge against Enlightenment.  There can be none of the classical “disinterested” pleasure in science or mathematical logic.

Of course, given their Marxian perspective, Adorno and Horkheimer’s writings operate on a more comprehensive level than that occupied by the other philosophers mentioned here.  They refer back to the meaning of  “bein’ like Mike”, being assimilated in the world capitalist system and, of course, the concomitant Kulturindustrie.  Science certainly operates in ignorance of economic determinism at its own peril.  Like  Michael Jordan, it can leave itself open to critique on how it relates to society.  But when we look at how we ourselves deal with science, Heidegger and Adorno, probably the dominant thinkers of the last century, leave us no room to adequately confront the question.  Heidegger is not up to task;  Adorno leaves us no room to do it.  We do get more from Adorno because he does not ignore the relation between science and capitalism.  However, it is undoubtedly time to return to the the problematic of the epoch that parented these thinkers and take another, longer and less naïve look at how, from our “post-modern” perspective, we can avoid the current unacceptable situation.  But we must not forget that it is necessary to have a modicum of understanding of how science works before trying to place it in an appropriate philosophical context.

heidegger

Heidegger

adorno

Adorno

The title of this post is, of course, deliberately misleading.  The post is certainly not about lessons in the learning of the German language.  For some years now, I have been convinced that one of the best ways to think about almost all aspects of contemporary philosophy is to return to the questions that occupied certain German philosophers in the 1920’s and 1930’s.  I believe that there is much to learn about fundamental philosophy by re-examining that era (and perhaps jettisoning some of the derivative questions that have characterized later 20th century thought).

But fundamental philosophy cannot be separated from social and political philosophy.  So it would indeed be an interesting intellectual exercise to examine a number of pertinent social, political and (more strictly) philosophical questions in the light of certain texts from that period in Germany.  We could also include a few important texts written later, but dealing with that period.  If, at this moment, I were an academic with a captive audience, I would say that there is a way to structure a meaningful course around a well chosen set of these writings.  By presenting this reading list, I wish to suggest a few books that have something to say about certain aspects of the current context.  Three of these recommendations may be more of interest to students of philosophy.  The first (and most important) entry should be of interest to anyone concerned about better evaluating the current social/political/economic crisis.

It is my intention to use the latitude and the informality that a blog permits to write more detailed entries concerning these types of topics in the future.  I would like to remind the reader that it is a lesson learned from the Marxist current in western thought that we cannot draw lines which clearly limit philosophy to what are often referred to as questions of technique.   So, in light of the coming American elections and the social controversy that this election year has used as its backdrop, here are a the first few entries for our reading list:

Franz Neumann, Behemoth (The Structure and Practice of National Socialism 1933-1944), Oxford University Press, 1944 (reprinted in 1966 by Harper&Row).  This work has virtually disappeared from circulation , yet it may in many ways be the most important text produced by the thinkers that are commonly identified as the Frankfurt School. (On a more deeply philosophical level, that distinction surely belongs to Adorno & Horkheimer’s  Dialectic of Enlightenment).  Neumann’s description of the social structure of Germany and its adaptation to National Socialist rule is insightful.  His analysis of the structure and aims of the cartels is detailed.  I do not know of any writing which gives a better picture of the Germany of that period.  This book should be required reading for anyone who is serious about understanding how NS worked and who is interested in a certain homology between it and the contemporary situation.

Karl Löwith, My Life in Germany Before and After 1933, University of Illinois Press, 1994 (original German text published in 1933).  The great philosopher Löwith’s “record” of his life is notable for what we learn of the difficulties of assimilated Jews in the changing German society leading to National Socialism and for what we see of the reaction/adaptation of academics to political change in the universities in that era.

Leo Löwenthal, An Unmastered Past, University of California Press, 1987. We all owe respect to Löwenthal’s reflections on the Weimar Republic, Adorno , Benjamin,  post-modernism, etc.

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, In 1926 : Living at the Edge of Time, Harvard University Press, 1997.  I had the privilege of being a student in a seminar Gumbrecht gave at l’Université de Montréal years ago.  Students of German thought will understand the tradition from which Gumbrecht works.  A book of this type is a sort of first step in Husserl’s project of a true science of the Lebenswelt (although the author would undoubtedly not characterize his work that crudely). The reader will get a surprisingly vivid idea of life in 1926 and also benefit from the thought of one of America’s leading intellectuals.