Thursday, December 30, 2010

Nazi Philosophers

Recently, I've done a fair bit of work on the moral behavior of ethics professors (mostly with Josh Rust). We consistently find that ethics professors behave no better than socially comparable non-ethicists. So far, the moral violations we've examined are mostly minor: stealing library books, not voting in public elections, neglecting student emails. One might argue that even if ethicists behave no better in such day-to-day ways, on grand issues of moral importance -- decisions that reflect one's overarching worldview, one's broad concern for humanity, one's general moral vision -- they show greater wisdom.

Enter the Nazis.

Nazism is an excellent test case of the grand-wisdom hypothesis for several reasons: For one thing, everyone now agrees that Nazism is extremely morally odious; for another, Germany had a robust philosophical tradition in the 1930s and excellent records are available on individual professors' participation in or resistance to the Nazi movement. So we can ask: Did a background in philosophical ethics serve as any kind of protection against the moral delusions of Nazism? Or were ethicists just as likely to be swept up in noxious German nationalism as were others of their social class? Did reading Kant on the importance of treating all people as "ends in themselves" (and the like) help philosophers better see the errors of Nazism or, instead, did philosophers tend to appropriate Kant for anti-Semitic and expansionist ends?

Heidegger's involvement with Nazism is famous and much discussed, but as I see him as a single data point. There were, of course, also German philosophers who opposed Nazism. My question is quantitative: Were philosophers any more likely than other academics to oppose Nazism -- or any less likely to be enthusiastic supporters -- than were other academics? I'm not aware of any careful, quantitative attempts to address this question (please do let me know if I'm missing something). It can't be an entirely straightforward bean count because dissent was dangerous and the pressures on philosophers were surely not the same as the pressures on academics in other departments -- probably the pressures were greater than on fields less obviously connected to political issues -- but we can at least start with a bean count.

There's a terrific resource on philosophers' involvement with Nazism: George Leaman's Heidegger im Kontext, which contains a complete list of all German philosophy professors from 1932 to 1945 and provides summary data on their involvement with or resistance to Nazism. I haven't yet found a similar resource for comparison groups of other professors, but Leaman's data are nonetheless interesting.

In Leaman's data set, I count 179 professors with "habilitation" in 1932 when the Nazis started to ascend to power (including Dozents and ausserordentlichers but not assistants). (Habilitation is an academic achievement after the Ph.D., without an equivalent in Britain or the U.S., with requirements roughly comparable to gaining tenure in the U.S.) I haven't attempted to divide these professors, yet, into ethicists vs. non-ethicists, so the rest of this post will just look at philosophers as a group. Of these, 58 (32%) joined the Nazi Party, the SA, or the SS. Jarausch and Arminger (1989) estimate that the percentage of university faculty in the Nazi party was between 21% and 25%. Philosophers were thus not underrepresented in the Nazi party.

The tricky questions come after this first breakdown: To what extent did joining the party reflect enthusiasm for its goals vs. opportunism vs. a reluctant decision under pressure?

I think we can assume that membership in the SA or SS reflects either enthusiastic Nazism or an unusual degree of self-serving opportunism: Membership in these organizations reflected considerable Nazi involvement and was by no means required for continuation in a university position. Among philosophers with habilitation in 1932, two (1%) joined the SS and another 20 (11%) joined (or were already in) the SA (one philosopher joined both), percentages approximately similar to the overall academic participation in those organizations. However, I suspect this estimate substantially undercounts enthusiastic Nazis, since a number of philosophers (including briefly Heidegger) appear to have gone beyond mere membership to enthusiastic support through their writings. I haven't yet attempted to quantify this -- though one further possible measure is involvement with Alfred Rosenberg the notorious Nazi racial theorist. Combining the SA, SS, and Rosenberg associates yields a minimum of 30 philosophers (17%) on the far right side of Nazism, not even including those who received their university posts after the Nazis rose to power (and thus perhaps partly because of their Nazism).

What can we say about the philosophers who were not party members? Well, 22 (12% of the 179 habilitated philosophers) were Jewish. Another 52 (29%) were deprived of the right to teach, imprisoned, or otherwise severely penalized by the Nazis for Jewish family connections or political unreliability (often both). It's somewhat difficult to tease apart how many of this latter group took courageous stands vs. found themselves insufferable to the Nazis due to family connections or previous political commitments outside of their control. One way to look at the data are these: Among the 157 non-Jewish habilitated philosophy professors, 37% joined the Nazi party and 30% were severely penalized by the Nazis (this second number excludes 5 people who were Nazi party members and also severely penalized), leaving 33% as what we might call "coasters" -- those who neither joined the party nor incurred severe penalty. Most of these coasters had at least token Nazi affiliations, especially with the NSLB (the Nazi organization of teachers), but probably NSLB affiliation alone did not reflect much commitment to the Nazi cause.

Membership in the Nazi party would not reflect a commitment to Nazism (or, also problematic, an unusually strong opportunistic willingness to fake commitment to further one's career) if joining the Nazi party was necessary simply to getting along as a professor. The fact that about a third of professors could be "coasters" suggests that token gestures of Nazism, rather than actual Nazi party membership, were sufficient for getting along, as long as one did not actively protest or have Jewish affiliations. Nor were the coasters mostly old men on the verge of retirement (though there was a wave of retirements in 1933, the year the Nazis assumed power). If we include only the subset of 107 professors who were not Jewish, habilitated by 1932, and continuing to teach past 1940, we still find 30% coasters (28% if we exclude two emigrants).

Here's what I tentatively conclude from this evidence: Philosophy professors were not forced to join the Nazi party. However, a substantial proportion did so voluntarily, either out of enthusiasm or opportunistically for the sake of career advancement. A substantial minority, at least 19% of the non-Jews, occupied the far right of the Nazi party, as reflected by membership in the SS, SA, or association with Rosenberg. Regardless of how the data look for other academic disciplines, it seems unlikely that we will be able to conclude that philosophers tended to avoid Nazism. Nonetheless, given that 30% of non-Jewish philosophers were severely penalized by the Nazis (including one executed for resistance and two who died in concentration camps), it remains possible that philosophers are overrepresented among those who resisted or were ejected.

Monday, December 27, 2010

My Forthcoming Book

... is at a discount for Jan. 1 release, quoted at $18.45 here at Amazon and $19.10 here at Barnes & Noble. (List price $27.95.) Get 'em while they're hot!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Friday, December 17, 2010

Philosophers Buying Into Nazi Censorship?

This, from a recent article in Science, examining word usage frequencies using Google's huge corpus of books:

We probed the impact of censorship on a person’s cultural influence in Nazi Germany. Led by such figures as the librarian Wolfgang Hermann, the Nazis created lists of authors and artists whose “undesirable”, “degenerate” work was banned from libraries and museums and publicly burned (26-28). We plotted median usage in German for five such lists: artists (100 names), as well as writers of Literature (147), Politics (117), History (53), and Philosophy (35) (Fig 4E). We also included a collection of Nazi party members [547 names, ref (7)]. The five suppressed groups exhibited a decline. This decline was modest for writers of history (9%) and literature (27%), but pronounced in politics (60%), philosophy (76%), and art (56%). The only group whose signal increased during the Third Reich was the Nazi party members [a 500% increase; ref (7)].
One interpretation, perhaps, is that philosophers socked it to Hitler and suffered most. However, given the rate at which philosophers appear to have co-operated with the Nazis (explored by George Leaman in Heidegger im Kontext and hopefully subject of a future post), I don't think we should rule out another interpretation: Philosophers tended to accept the Nazi censorship and stopped referring to the censored authors, more so than academics in other fields.

I wonder if there is a way to tease these hypotheses apart....

HT: Bernie Kobes.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

German Tour in January

I will be in Germany from January 18-28. Here's the schedule of talks, plus one graduate student conference. There are also a few less formal events (seminar discussions and the like). Please feel free to contact me or the host departments if you'll be in the area and interested.

Jan. 20: Osnabrueck: "Shards of Self-Knowledge" (6 p.m. start)

Jan. 21-22: Osnabrueck: Post-graduate conference on "the Work of Eric Schwitzgebel, the Epistemological Status of First-Person Methodology in Science, and the Metaphysics of Belief"; I will present "The Problem of Known Illusion and the Problem of Undetectable Illusion" and "The Moral Behavior of Ethics Professors"

Jan. 24: Berlin: "Knowing What You Believe" (6 p.m. start)

Jan. 26: Bochum: "Knowing What You Believe" (6 p.m. start)

Jan. 27: Mainz: "Shards of Self-Knowledge" (6 p.m. start)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Luke Muehlhauser Interviews Me about Self-Knowledge of Conscious Experience and about the Moral Behavior of Ethics Professors

... here. Self-knowledge of conscious experience is the topic until 57:12, and then there's about twenty minutes on ethics professors.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

"Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear"

... so it says, at least, on my passenger side mirror.

(image from

I've been worrying though, are they closer than they appear?  This might seem a strange thing to worry about, but I refuse to be thus consoled.

Here's a case for saying that objects in the mirror are closer than they appear: The mirror is slightly convex so as to give the driver a wider field of view.  As a result, the expanse of mirror reflecting light from the object into my eye is smaller than the expanse would be if the mirror were flat.  Thus, the size of the object "in the mirror" is smaller than it would be in a flat mirror.  If we assume that flat mirrors accurately convey size, it seems to follow that the size of the object in the mirror is inaccurately small.  Finally, apparent distance in a mirror is determined by apparent size in a mirror, smaller being farther away.

The argument for the other side is, at first blush, much simpler: Objects in the mirror are no closer than they appear, at least for me, because as an experienced driver I never misjudge, or am even tempted to misjudge, their distance.

Now both of these arguments are gappy and problematic.  For example, on the first argument: Why should flat mirrors be normative of apparent size?  And why shouldn't we say that the object is larger than it appears (but appearing the right distance away), rather than closer than it appears (but perhaps appearing the right size)? That is, why does it look like a distant, full-sized car rather than a nearby, smallish car?

You might be tempted to mount a simpler argument for the "closer than they appear" claim: A naive mirror-user will misjudge the distance of objects seen in a slightly convex mirror.  The naive mirror-user's misjudgments are diagnostic of apparent size -- perhaps they are based primarily on "appearances"? -- and this apparent size does not change with experience.  The experienced mirror-user, in contrast, makes no mistakes because she learns to compensate for apparent size.  But this argument is based on the dubious claim that the experience of a novice perceiver is qualitatively the same as the experience of an expert perceiver -- a claim almost universally rejected by contemporary philosophers and psychologists.  It's also unclear whether the naive mirror-viewer would make the mistake if warned that the mirror is convex.  (Can apparent size in a mirror be contingent upon verbally acquired knowledge of whether the mirror is slightly convex or concave?)

Should we, then, repudiate the manufacturers' claim, at least as it applies to experienced drivers?  Should we, perhaps, recommend that General Motors hire some better phenomenologists?  Well, maybe.  But consider carnival mirrors: My image in a carnival mirror looks stretched out, or compressed, or whatever, even if I am not for a moment deceived.  Likewise, the lines in the Poggendorff Illusion look misaligned, even if I have seen the illusion a thousand times and know exactly what is going on.  Things look rippled through a warped window, no matter how often I look through that window.  Perhaps you, too, want to say such things about your experience.  If so, how is the passenger-side mirror case different?

Here is one way it might be different: It takes a certain amount of intellectual stepping back to not be taken in by the carnival mirror or the Poggendorff Illusion or the warped window.  The visual system, considered as a subset of my whole cognitive system, is still fooled.  And maybe this isn't so for the passenger-side mirror case.  But why not?  And does it really take such intellectual stepping back not to be fooled in the other cases?  Perhaps there's a glass of water on my table and the table looks warped through it.  I'm not paying any particular attention to it.  Is my visual system taken in?  Am I stepping back from that experience somehow?  It's not like I just ignore visual input from that area: If the table were to turn bright green in that spot or wiggle strangely, I would presumably notice.  Is my father's visual system fooled by the discontinuity between the two parts of his bifocals?  Is mine fooled by the discontinuities at the edge of my rather strong monofocals as they perch at the end of my nose?  And what if, as Dan Dennett and Mel Goodale others have suggested, there are multiple and possibly conflicting outputs from the visual system, some fooled and some not?

Can we say both that objects are farther than they appear in passenger-side mirror (in one sense) and that they aren't (in some other sense)?  I'm inclined to think that such a "dual aspect" view in this case only doubles our problems, for it's not at all clear what these two senses would be: They can't be the same two senses, it seems, in which a tilted penny is sometimes said to look in one way round and in another way elliptical -- for what would we then say about the tilted penny viewed in a convex mirror?  We would seem to need three answers.

Hey, wait, don't drive off now -- we've only started!

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Not in JFP: Tenure-track Position at UCR in History of Philosophy

Normally, I would just let Jobs for Philosophers carry the U.C. Riverside Philosophy Department ads, but for whatever reason, this ad still isn't posted over there -- which explains, perhaps, why our applicant pool is looking a little thin!

University of California, Riverside, CA. Asst Prof., tenure-track, available July 1, 2011. 4 courses/year on the quarter system, graduate and undergraduate teaching. Thesis supervision and standard non-teaching duties. AOS: History of Philosophy, with particular interests in Ancient, Early Modern, and/or 19th/20th Century European Philosophy. Requires ABD or Ph.D., and compelling evidence of achievement in and commitment to research and publication. In addition, the successful candidate must be committed to teaching effectively at all levels, including graduate mentoring. Furthermore, he or she will be expected to enhance connections among research groups in the department and, where applicable, within the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences. Salary commensurate with education and experience. Position available July 1, 2011. Submit a current CV, writing sample, at least three letters of reference, evidence of teaching excellence and a letter of application by January 3, 2011 to: Professor Mark Wrathall,Chair, Search Committee, Department of Philosophy, University of California, Riverside, CA 92521-0201. Review of applications begins on January 3, 2011 and continues until the position is filled. UC Riverside is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer committed to excellence through diversity.
Please spread the word to relevant parties!

Yes, I did say "Jobs for Philosophers". Every year in North America there are a few hundred exceptions to this apparent oxymoron.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Some Awesomely Beautiful Pictures of Structures in the Brain


Unfortunately, the immaterial soul continues to elude photographic capture.

(HT: Theresa Cook.)