Richard Wolin is a professor of history and comparative literature at the City University of New York. In The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism, he explores the paradoxically intimate relationship between ideas fashionable in leftist circles today and the insights of extremist right-wing philosophers of the early twentieth century. What unites these wildly disparate bodies of thinkers is a vehement rejection of the intellectual legacy of the eighteenth century Enlightenment, expressing itself in a radical distrust of reason and a scornful dismissal of universal humanist rights and values.
This sinister synergy of ideas, the proverbial meeting of the far Left and Right, is what animates Wolin's analysis. This is an angry book. Though solidly buttressed by an impeccable scholarly apparatus, it is also a very political book. Wolin makes no secret that he is a committed man of the Left. He is dismayed, however, by the attraction of many on the Left to postmodern ideas that he regards as morally suspect and politically self-defeating. By exploring the intellectual genealogy of postmodernism, and redeeming the philosophical legacy of the eighteenth century, Wolin self-consciously hopes to point the way to a more rational and enlightened future.
Wolin has long believed that postmodernism is an intellectual movement with feet of clay. He is the author of volumes exploring the long and often intimate association between the hugely influential German philosopher Martin Heidegger and National Socialism. At the same time that Heidegger's Nazi affinities became a cause célèbre, it was learned that Paul de Man, popularly known as the ambassador of postmodernism to the United States, and before his death a professor of philosophy at Yale University, also had Nazi skeletons in his closet. The research that resulted inThe Seduction of Unreason flowed naturally from these revelations.
In an irony that exasperates Wolin, ideas tainted by these dubious connections took American universities by storm in the last two decades of the twentieth century. Philosophers such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jean Baudrillard became intellectual icons, exerting enormous influence. These thinkers pursued a variety of philosophical agendas. They were united in their intellectual debt to Friedrich Nietzsche and Heidegger, whose powerful critiques of modernity inspired and framed the boundaries of postmodern philosophy. Nietzsche and Heidegger launched a massive assault on society as they found it. They deplored the effects that democracy and capitalism had on the human spirit. They attacked the philosophical tradition that underpinned these developments. To borrow a postmodernist term, they deconstructed modern life, finding it shallow and obsessed with ephemera, with the people lost in it alienated and adrift.
Nietzsche and Heidegger provided a philosophic rationale for the post-World War I world T. S. Eliot described in his poetry as a wasteland inhabited by hollow men. In doing this, Nietzsche and Heidegger laid the foundations for twentieth century existentialism. They also upended traditional conceptions of reason and truth, casting both loose from any mooring in a metaphysical absolute. Dissociated from any absolute, as Nietzsche famously put it, in a world where God was dead, truth and value became relative. Nietzsche and Heidegger thus gave a powerful intellectual impulse to cultural relativism.
In the hands of their postmodern progeny, the profound insights of Nietzsche and Heidegger, suitably elaborated, have launched a thousand academic ships. Their dethroning of reason and truth has led to the textual acrobatics of literary deconstructionism. Their relativism has spawned modern multiculturalism. Thus, in an irony Nietzsche certainly would have appreciated, the universities that many Americans regard as temples of reason are often strongholds of philosophical ideals resolutely hostile to the purposes for which these institutions were founded.
Although Wolin would probably not appreciate the comparison, his analysis bears striking similarities to that of the conservative scholar Allan Bloom in his best-selling The Closing of the American Mind (1987). Bloom was concerned about the coruscating effects of cultural relativism on American education and, by extension, on the American character. Both Nietzsche and Heidegger figured prominently in his book as sources of relativism. Bloom described in detail how their ideas migrated to the United States with Central European refugees from the National Socialists in the 1930's and 1940's.
From an initial vantage point in the universities, the relativistic vision spread across the country, getting an added impetus from the social disruptions of the 1960's. The...
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