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dangerous ideas

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Nov 10, 2009

A New York Times report calls our attention to the campaign by Emmanuel Faye, a philosophy professor at the University of Paris, who wants the works of Martin Heidegger removed from the curriculum-- or, at a minimum, tagged with a warning label-- because of Heidegger's sympathy for Nazi ideology. 

If a conservative made this argument, he'd be condemned as a book-burner and enemy of free speech. But Fay's credentials are apparently in order and the argument is taken seriously in polite academic circles. Let's take a look.

Are Heidegger's ideas dangerous? Could they entice someone to accept the lures of fascism? I think so. But that's not a reason to ban his books.

If you ask me, the works of Nietzsche are potentially as toxic as those of Heidegger-- more so, really, because Nietzsche is such a good writer, and presents those ideas in such compelling form. Personally I think Descartes, with his introduction of philosophical dualism, did more damage to Western society than any other major thinker. Should their works be pruned out of the curriculum, too, so that we're left with only the "nice" philosophers? No.

Many philosophers have dangerous ideas. Since the trial of Socrates, influential men have debated the wisdom of repressing unpopular lines of thought, and silencing those who question prevailing norms. Christianity rejects that approach. Confident that "the truth will set you free," the Church encourages philosophical speculation. 

Moreover, the study of philosophical ideas-- even bad philosophical ideas-- helps us to recognize the patrimony of the popular notions that surround us. If we are acquainted with the thought of Descartes, we are better equipped to see how his errors have infected modern science. If we know where Nietzsche went wrong, we realize why we're standing on a slippery slope every time we speak about "values" instead of moral principles. A capable teacher helps his students to understand the consequences of philosophical error, and be on guard against them.

Or to put it differently: Philosophers try to correct the errors in the thinking of others. Ideologues try, instead, to suppress those thoughts. The one relies on reason, the other on power. Philosophers may lead people astray, but ideologues are the greater threat to freedom. 




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  • Posted by: Eagle - Nov. 11, 2009 7:50 AM ET USA

    Respectfully, I disagree. Other than behavior caused by biological, emotional, or behaviorally modified stimuli, a human being acts on what he or she thinks. A call to conversion is a call to think about one's choices, then choose to repent; a call to Jihad works similarly. Those who have, and abuse, power, in the name of secularism, or any other "ism", do so based on what they think. Philosophers shape thought; those in power act on those thoughts. Who was Lenin without Hegel and Marx?

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