Monday, November 23, 2020

Nazi Philosophers, World War I, and the Grand Wisdom Hypothesis

A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures is now out in paperback. Yay!

I'll celebrate by sharing a sample chapter here.

Chapter 53: Nazi Philosophers, World War I, and the Grand Wisdom Hypothesis

As described in chapter 4, I’ve done a fair bit of empirical research on the moral behavior of ethics professors. My collaborators and I have consistently found that ethicists behave no better than socially comparable nonethicists. However, the moral violations that we’ve examined have mostly been minor: stealing library books, neglecting student emails, littering, forgetting to call mom. Some behaviors are arguably much more significant -- donating large amounts to charity, vegetarianism -- but there’s certainly no consensus about the moral importance of those things. Sometimes I hear the objection that the moral behavior I’ve studied is all trivial stuff: that even if ethicists behave no better in day-to-day ways, on issues of great moral importance -- decisions that reflect on one’s overarching worldview, one’s broad concern for humanity, one’s general moral vision -- professional ethicists, and professional philosophers in general, might show greater wisdom. Call this the Grand Wisdom Hypothesis.

Now let’s think about Nazis. Nazism is an excellent test case of the Grand Wisdom Hypothesis, since pretty much everyone now agrees that Nazism is extremely morally odious. 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” help philosophers better see the errors of Nazism, or did philosophers instead tend to appropriate Kant for anti-Semitic and expansionist purposes?

Heidegger’s involvement with Nazism is famous and much discussed, but he’s only one data point. There were also, of course, German philosophers who opposed Nazism, possibly partly—if the Grand Wisdom Hypothesis is correct—because of their familiarity with theoretical ethics. My question is quantitative: Were philosophers as a group any more likely than other academics to oppose Nazism or any less likely to be enthusiastic supporters? I am not aware of any careful quantitative attempts to address this question.

There’s a terrific resource on ordinary German philosophers’ engagement with Nazism: George Leaman’s (1993) Heidegger im Kontext, which includes a complete list of all German philosophy professors from 1932 to 1945 and provides summary data on their involvement with or resistance to Nazism. In Leaman’s data set, I count 179 philosophers with habilitation in 1932 when the Nazis started to ascend to power, including dozents and ausserordentlichers but not assistants. (Habilitation is an academic achievement beyond the doctorate, with no equivalent in the Anglophone world, but roughly comparable in its requirements to gaining tenure in the US.) I haven’t attempted to divide these philosophers into ethicists and nonethicists, since the ethics/nonethics division wasn’t as sharp then as it is now in twenty-first century Anglophone philosophy. (Consider Heidegger again. In a sense he’s an ethicist, since he writes among other things on the question of how one should live, but his interests range broadly.) Of these 179 philosophers, 58 (32 percent) joined the Nazi Party.[28] This compares with estimates of about 21–25 percent Nazi Party membership among German professors as a whole.[29] Philosophers were thus not underrepresented in the Nazi Party.

To what extent did joining the Nazi Party reflect enthusiasm for its goals versus opportunism versus a reluctant decision under pressure? I think we can assume that membership in either of the two notorious Nazi paramilitary organizations, the Sturmabteilung (Storm Detachment, SA) or the Schutzstaffel (Protection Squadron, SS), reflects either enthusiastic Nazism or an unusual degree of self-serving opportunism: Membership in these organizations was by no means required for continuation in a university position. Among philosophers with habilitation in 1932, 2 (1 percent) joined the SS and another 20 (11 percent) joined (or were already in) the SA (one philosopher joined both), percentages approximately similar to the overall academic participation in these organizations.

I suspect that 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 and other academic activities, despite not joining the SA or SS. One further possible measure is involvement with Alfred Rosenberg, the notorious Nazi racial theorist. Combining SA and SS members and Rosenberg associates yields a minimum of 30 philosophers (17 percent) on the far right side of Nazism—not even including those who received their posts or habilitation after the Nazis rose to power (and thus perhaps partly because of their Nazism). By 1932, Hitler’s Mein Kampf was widely known and widely circulated, proudly proclaiming Hitler’s genocidal aims. Almost a fifth of professional philosophers thus embraced a political worldview that is now rightly regarded by most as a paradigm example of evil.

Among philosophers who were not party members, 22 (12 percent) were “Jewish” (by the broad Nazi definition) and thus automatically excluded from party membership. Excluding these from the total leaves 157 non-Jewish philosophers with habilitation before 1933. The 58 Nazis thus constituted 37 percent of established philosophers who had the opportunity to join the party. Of the remainder, 47 (30 percent) were deprived of the right to teach, imprisoned, or otherwise severely punished by the Nazis for Jewish family connections or political unreliability. (This second number does not include five philosophers who were Nazi Party members but also later severely penalized.) It’s difficult to know how many of this group took courageous stands versus found themselves intolerable for reasons outside of their control. The remaining 33 percent we might think of as “coasters”—those who neither joined the party nor incurred severe penalty. Most of these coasters had at least token Nazi affiliations, especially with the Nationalsozialistische Lehrerbund (NSLB, the Nazi organization of teachers), but NSLB affiliation alone probably did not reflect much commitment to the Nazi cause.

If joining the Nazi Party were necessary for simply getting along as a professor, membership in the Nazi Party would not reflect much commitment to Nazism. The fact that about a third of professors could be coasters suggests that token gestures of Nazism, rather than actual party membership, were sufficient, 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, received habilitation before 1933, and continued to teach past 1940, we still find 30 percent coasters (or 28 percent, excluding two emigrants).

The existence of unpunished coasters shows that philosophy professors were not forced to join the Nazi Party. Nevertheless, a substantial proportion did so voluntarily, either out of enthusiasm or opportunistically for the sake of career advancement. A substantial minority, at least 19 percent of the non-Jews, occupied the far right of the Nazi Party, as reflected by membership in the SS or SA or association with Rosenberg. It is unclear whether pressures might have been greater on philosophers than on those in other disciplines, but there was substantial ideological pressure in many disciplines: There was also Nazi physics (no Jewish relativity theory, for example), Nazi biology, Nazi history, and so on. Given the possible differences in pressure and the lack of a data set strictly comparable to Leaman’s for the professoriate as a whole, I don’t think we can conclude that philosophers were especially more likely to endorse Nazism than were other professors. However, I do think it is reasonable to conclude that they were not especially less likely.

Nonetheless, given that about a third 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. I have not seen quantitative data that bear on this question.


In doing background reading for the analysis I’ve just presented, I was struck by the following passage from Fritz Ringer’s 1969 classic Decline of the German Mandarins:

Early in August of 1914, the war finally came. One imagines that at least a few educated Germans had private moments of horror at the slaughter which was about to commence. In public, however, German academics of all political persuasions spoke almost exclusively of their optimism and enthusiasm. Indeed, they greeted the war with a sense of relief. Party differences and class antagonisms seemed to evaporate at the call of national duty … intellectuals rejoiced at the apparent rebirth of “idealism” in Germany. They celebrated the death of politics, the triumph of ultimate, apolitical objectives over short-range interests, and the resurgence of those moral and irrational sources of social cohesion that had been threatened by the “materialistic” calculation of Wilhelmian modernity.

On August 2, the day after the German mobilization order, the modernist [theologian] Ernst Troeltsch spoke at a public rally. Early in his address, he hinted that “criminal elements” might try to attack property and order, now that the army had been moved from the German cities to the front. This is the only overt reference to fear of social disturbance that I have been able to discover in the academic literature of the years 1914–1916 … the German university professors sang hymns of praise to the “voluntary submission of all individuals and social groups to this army.” They were almost grateful that the outbreak of war had given them the chance to experience the national enthusiasm of those heady weeks in August. (180–81)

With the notable exception of Bertrand Russell (who lost his academic post and was imprisoned for his pacifism), philosophers in England appear to have been similarly enthusiastic. Ludwig Wittgenstein never did anything so cheerily, it seems, as head off to fight as an Austrian foot soldier. Alfred North Whitehead rebuked his friend and coauthor Russell for his opposition to the war and eagerly sent off his sons North and Eric. (Eric Whitehead died.) French philosophers appear to have been similarly enthusiastic. It’s as though, in 1914, European philosophers rose as one to join the general chorus of people proudly declaring, “Yay! World war is a great idea!”

If there is anything that seems, in retrospect, plainly, head-smackingly obviously not to have been a great idea, it was World War I, which destroyed millions of lives to no purpose. At best, it should have been viewed as a regrettable, painful necessity in the face of foreign aggression that hopefully could soon be diplomatically resolved, yet that seems rarely to have been the mood of academic thought about war in 1914. Philosophers at the time were evidently no more capable of seeing the downsides of world war than was anyone else. Even if those downsides were, in the period, not entirely obvious upon careful reflection—the glory of Bismarck and all that?—with a few rare and ostracized exceptions, philosophers and other academics showed little of the special foresight and broad vision required by the Grand Wisdom Hypothesis.

Here’s a model of philosophical reflection on which philosophers’ enthusiasm for World War I is unsurprising: Philosophers -- and everyone else -- possess their views about the big questions of life for emotional and sociological reasons that have little to do with their philosophical theories and academic research. They recruit Kant, Mill, Locke, Rousseau, and Aristotle only after the fact to justify what they would have believed anyway. Moral and political philosophy is nothing but post hoc rationalization.

Here’s a model of philosophical reflection on which philosophers’ enthusiasm for World War I is, in contrast, surprising: Reading Kant, Mill, Locke, Rousseau, Aristotle, and so on helps induce a broadly humanitarian view, helps you see that people everywhere deserve respect and self-determination, moves you toward a more cosmopolitan worldview that doesn’t overvalue national borders, helps you gain critical perspective on the political currents of your own time and country, and helps you better see through the rhetoric of demagogues and narrow-minded politicians.

Both models are of course too simple.


When I was in Berlin in 2010, I spent some time in the Humboldt University library, browsing philosophy journals from the Nazi era. The journals differed in their degree of alignment with the Nazi worldview. Perhaps the most Nazified was Kant-Studien, which at the time was one of the leading German-language journals of general philosophy (not just a journal for Kant scholarship). The old issues of Kant-Studien aren’t widely available, but I took some photos. Below, Sascha Fink and I have translated the preface to Kant-Studien volume 40 (1935):

Kant-Studien, now under its new leadership that begins with this first issue of the fortieth volume, sets itself a new task: to bring the new will, in which the deeper essence of the German life and the German mind is powerfully realized, to a breakthrough in the fundamental questions as well as the individual questions of philosophy and science.

Guiding us is the conviction that the German Revolution is a unified metaphysical act of German life, which expresses itself in all areas of German existence, and which will therefore—with irresistible necessity—put philosophy and science under its spell.

But is this not—as is so often said—to snatch away the autonomy of philosophy and science and give it over to a law alien to them?

Against all such questions and concerns, we offer the insight that moves our innermost being: that the reality of our life, that shapes itself and will shape itself, is deeper, more fundamental, and more true than that of our modern era as a whole—that philosophy and science, which compete for it, will in a radical sense become liberated to their own essence, to their own truth. Precisely for the sake of truth, the struggle with modernity—maybe with the basic norms and basic forms of the time in which we live—is necessary. It is—in a sense that is alien and outrageous to modern thinking—to recapture the form in which the untrue and fundamentally destroyed life can win back its innermost truth—its rescue and salvation. This connection of the German life to fundamental forces and to the original truth of Being and its order—as has never been attempted in the same depth in our entire history—is what we think of when we hear that word of destiny: a new Reich.

If on the basis of German life German philosophy struggles for this truly Platonic unity of truth with historical-political life, then it takes up a European duty. Because it poses the problem that each European people must solve, as a necessity of life, from its own individual powers and freedoms.

Again, one must—and now in a new and unexpected sense, in the spirit of Kant’s term, “bracket knowledge” [das Wissen aufzuheben]. Not for the sake of negation: but to gain space for a more fundamental form of philosophy and science, for the new form of spirit and life [für die neue Form … des Lebens Raum zu gewinnen]. In this living and creative sense is Kant-Studien connected to the true spirit of Kantian philosophy.

So we call on the productive forces of German philosophy and science to collaborate in these new tasks. We also turn especially to foreign friends, confident that in this joint struggle with the fundamental questions of philosophy and science, concerning the truth of Being and life, we will not only gain a deeper understanding of each other, but also develop an awareness of our joint responsibility for the cultural community of peoples.

—H. Heyse, Professor of Philosophy, University of Königsberg


Is it just good cultural luck -- the luck of having been born into the right kind of society -- that explains why twenty-first-century Anglophone philosophers reject such loathsome worldviews? Or is it more than luck? Have we somehow acquired better tools for rising above our cultural prejudices?

Or -- as I’ll suggest in chapter 58 -- ought we to entirely refrain from self-congratulation, whether for our luck or our skill? Maybe we aren’t so different, after all, from the early-twentieth-century Germans. Maybe we have our own suite of culturally shared, heinous moral defects, invisible to us or obscured by a fog of bad philosophy.



[28] A few joined the SA or SS but not the Nazi Party, but since involvement in one of these dedicated Nazi organizations reflects at least as much involvement in Nazism as does Nazi Party membership alone, I have included them in the total.

[29] Jarausch and Arminger 1989.


Howie said...

I am of Jewish heritage and Nietzsche commented on how my people were considered standard bearers of Plato. Or something like that. So consider Judaism or Christianity or Islam or maybe eastern religions as schools of philosophy focused on justice and ethics but with odd metaphysics. The Rabbis are philosophers and the martyrs of the Warsaw ghetto had two thousand years behind them and the Germans who resisted Hitler (correct me if I'm wrong) were inspired by Christianity's finer moments.
The problem as I see it is that having a moral belief will not lead to right conduct unless it is embedded in a community and a tradition of action. Take Buddhism, I think it's called the eightfoid path: not just right thinking is required but right action.
Being a Kantian and knowing his system's ethics does not commit you to be an ethical person- knowing that you should treat people as an end and not a means is not enough and professors aren't Rabbis or Priests or monks or imams. Because of how the world is set up and because of how the resistances and the inertia in human beings, belief is not enough or ought to be, as per your theorizing measured by action in the real world- those Nazi Kantians and so on, didn't really know Kant- Whitehead and Wittgenstein really didn't understand Plato or logic if it led them to be bellicose.
There is some room for ambiguity, but philosophy in itself doesn't make one ethical, rather being part of a community and a tradition does that- knowledge in this case should require (and this is added to my argument) wisdom- those ethicists who balk at ethics are at the very least not wise, while those Rabbis and Priests and Monks and Imams, are

Arnold said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Philosopher Eric said...

I’m not much for the institution of “morality”, since I see it essentially as an evolved social tool from which to cause creatures that are fundamentally self interested but highly social, to form more effective societies given theory of mind based influences. Essentially if evolution hadn’t cause us to care about what others think of us, then our species shouldn’t survive as well as it does. I guess I’m a moral relativist in the sense that I consider “the ought” to be defined entirely by society, though the welfare of any given subject (or “the is”), to instead be determined through a subject’s sentience itself (or phenomenal experience, qualia, etc…).

Furthermore it makes sense to me that our mental and behavioral sciences would remain as soft as they do given this tool. Notice that the physicist will not be socially penalized for effectively describing gravity, though the psychologist should be whenever various moral notions get in the way of their work. Thus if we’re ultimately self interested products of our circumstances (a stance sometimes referred to as “psychological egoism”), then the social tool of morality should hinder our ability to develop effective general theory regarding our nature.

Whenever you discuss this book of yours professor, I’ve noticed that you also tend to validate my own position. I guess I should finally read it.

Arnold said...

My father was 20 years old in 1928 Germany...
...Was then the right time, after 400 yrs of science, optics, philosophy, religion and enlightenment-in part-ending in World War I...

For he and anyone with the slightest feel for their own individuality...
...then to have left it all, go to America and begin 'Paying For Their Own Existence'...

Academia, professors and teachers, please, "teach your children well"...thanks

Luke Roelofs said...

A somewhat related data point, not for the ethics of philosophy professors but for the role of theoretical ideals in ethical practice, is the collapse of the Second International: a worldwide association of socialist parties, loudly dedicated to internationalism and opposition to war, basically rendered itself irrelevant because most of the major parties decided to back their respective national governments in WWI.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone!

Howie: Yes, I agree that studying ethics won't by itself make one ethical.

P Eric: I'm inclined to think there's a way to thread the needle -- allowing moral judgments to be an evolved reaction to demands on our species while also being a certain type of realist about those judgments -- something in the direction of Owen Flanagan or Peter Railton, maybe.

Luke: Yes, the terrible history of socialism in the 20th century is testimony of the huge gaps that it's possible to create between slogan and practice. Religions also provide plenty of astoundingly painful examples, of course.

Howie said...


Philosophers are interested in winning arguments not being good people. That's my educated guess- perhaps psychologists would fare better, because the nature of their work involves benevolence.
We can discuss more deeply the reasons- but philosophers seek truth not goodness

Howie said...

Plus, philosophers are professors, situated in a given context and set of social roles- challenging ethical situations are novel and people in novel situations react cautiously if not defensively- unless they are take charge and worldly people they won't really know how to act, even if they intellectually do

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yeah, there's some truth in all that -- but I wouldn't bet on psychologists being any better either, on average, or even clergy.

Howie said...

So what group of people will behave ethically? How would you test such a thing?

Arnold said...

I think you could-be talking about the difficulty of remembering/including oneself as part of, in face of the necessities of life, like what 'racial stats reveal', and in my case my grandchildren just now arriving for on line grade school education this morning, and now returning to writing this comment...that ethics and morality should begin with ones own experience as a foundation then...thanks

chinaphil said...

This is pretty damning evidence, I think, and philosophers/ethicists don't come out of it looking good.
But I wonder if there is one model of teaching that we could apply that might allow this data to make more sense. That is the model of the professional sports coach.
A professional sports coach coaches people who are better at the sport than she is. That is to say, her role as a teacher does *not* depend on superior ability to do the thing she teaches. Rather, she knows the ways in which anyone - including those of very superior ability - can improve still further.
If we take this model and apply it to professors of ethics, perhaps we can find a role for them, without demanding that they possess superior ethical abilities. In this analogy the person being coached may be either the students, or society as a whole. And the professors' role is not to be better at morality than the people they teach; rather it is to provide ways in which the learners can improve.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hi all:

Howie: Based on my empirical research, I wouldn't expect it to be specialists in ethical reasoning, but I don't have a solid positive prediction.

Arnold: Yes, starting with one's own experience sounds right.

Chinaphil: It's an intriguing analogy, but I don't think it quite works. Here's why. Although we don't expect coaches to be the very best athletes, I do think it's reasonable to expect coaches to be on average better athletes than comparison groups of non-athletically-involved people of similar age and body type. If I were choosing players for a baseball team of 50-year-olds and I learned that one person was a baseball coach, not knowing anything else, I'd expect that person to be a better player than the other 50-year-olds. The claim is not that ethicists aren't saints (that would be like complaining that coaches aren't athletic stars) but rather that ethicists aren't better on average than others of their social group.