How do we deal with anti-Semitic philosophers of past centuries?

March 21, 2019 • 11:45 am

Here is a strange but timely article from the New York Times‘s philosophy column, “The Stone.” Laurie Shrage, a professor of philosophy at Florida International University, asks how we should deal with the palpable anti-Semitism of early philosophers. But in the course of her lucubrations, she conflates four distinct questions. Read the piece by clicking on the screenshot:

Here are the four questions conflated in the article which purports to deal with a simple yes or no question: “Should we continue to teach thinkers like Kant, Voltaire, and Hume without mention of the harmful prejudices they helped legitimize?

1.) Do we mention the anti-Semitism of European philosophers as part of their character when we teach their work?

2.) Do we investigate and teach how we think their anti-Semitism permeated their work—if it did?

3.) Do we teach philosophers outside the Western “canon”—people like Maimonides, Philo, or Confucius, rather than adhere to a philosophical “image of the West as racist thinkers have fashioned it?”

And there’s an unspoken question:

4.) Should we marginalize or even not teach the work of Western philosophers who were anti-Semites?

Shrage also spends a bit of time indicting the teaching of philosophy because, in the last hundred years, Jews weren’t hired to teach philosophy because they weren’t really regarded as “Western”. Well, that problem no longer exists, so I’m not sure what this potted history reveals. It certainly sheds no light on the questions above.

My answers are as follows:

1.) We should mention the anti-Semitism of ancient philosophers only insofar as it affected or informed their philosophy. After all, almost everyone in Europe before the 19th century, including (or maybe especially) educated folk, were not only anti-Semitic, but racist, homophobic, and misogynistic. Our change in morality should certainly be studied in history or sociology classes, but something sticks in my craw when people demand that long-dead people who lived in bigoted milieu be constantly indicted for bigotry. I don’t mention Darwin’s own bigotry in my evolution class (he was an abolitionist but also denigrated black people), but I would if I were teaching the parts of his work in which he speculated about racial hierarchies.

2.) As for Kant, Hume, and Voltaire, I’m not sure how much of the philosophy taught as “theirs” is affected by bigotry. That would be up to individual teachers. It’s clear from what Shrage said that these people did publish anti-Semitic stuff, but it’s not clear to me that this is the stuff taught in philosophy classes.

3.) Of course we should teach non-Western philosophers; I’m sure there is a lot of good thought there that deserves airing. Because most academic philosophers are taught the Western canon, and teach it themselves, this may require “non-Western philosophy” courses, but I’m all in favor of that.

As for religious philosophers, I’m a bit more dubious. How much real philosophy is there in religious philosophy, given that lots of it involves assuming gods for which there is no evidence? Do we really want to ask why God would permit the existence of evil if we don’t think there’s a god? This is why, when founding the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson stipulated that it would have no theology department or divinity school.

On the other hand, it may be useful to acquaint people with some of the arguments used by religious philosophers, like the First Cause argument, simply because we live in a religious society and those arguments are not only part of history, but are ongoing now. But if we teach those, and the ancient Greeks, we have to be aware that philosophers like Plato, Aquinas, and St. Augustine justified slavery.

4.) No. If we sidelined every academic throughout history who was bigoted, we wouldn’t be teaching anything.

Curiously, Shrage doesn’t “unpack” (to use the argot) these questions, and winds up assuming that their work does reflect their bigotry, with the implicit view that we need to teach that. Here’s her last paragraph, which conflates three questions at once:

With the resurgence of old hatreds in the 21st century, philosophers are challenged to think about the ways we trace the history of our discipline and teach our major figures, and whether our professional habits and pieties have been shaped by religious intolerance and other forms of bigotry. For example, why not emphasize how philosophy emerged from schools of thought around the world? In the fields of history and literature, introductory courses that focus on European studies are being replaced by courses in world history and comparative literature.

There has not been a similar widespread movement to rethink the standard introduction to philosophy in terms of world philosophy. There are philosophers who contend that such projects inappropriately politicize our truth-seeking endeavors, but, as some philosophers of science have shown, objective truth involves the convergence of multiple observations and perspectives. Moreover, the anti-Semitic theories of Hume, Voltaire and Kant show that philosophy has rarely, if ever, been insulated from politics.

But the question is whether the philosophy has been affected by bigotry. 

Maybe students would be better served by teaching them philosophy then by minutely scrutinizing every philosopher in history (and artists and writers and scientists) for ideological impurities.


45 thoughts on “How do we deal with anti-Semitic philosophers of past centuries?

  1. I think it’s important to teach about the broader views of Hume Voltaire etc, even if it didn’t significant affect their epistemology, political philosophy, or other ideas they are best known for. If nothing else, it situates them in their time, and reminds students just how weird the ideas of the time were.

    1. Ideas were not “weird”. They were the product of their time, from the evolution of thinking and the sometimes convoluted paths History took.

      They need to be understood, and taught along the philosophies of the thinkers.

  2. I really don’t understand this obsession. Who cares what they have to say about any number of stupid things. Newton’s belief in alchemy takes away nothing from Calculus. These people aren’t prophets. The work is what matters, not the man.

    1. Correct me if I’m wrong here, but I seem to get the impression that (undergrad) philosophy is excessively focused on philosophers rather than the philosophy. The person shouldn’t matter, but it seems to me that philosophy departments think it does.


    2. Jerry unless my memory is mistaken, I believe you mentioned a while back that you were going to read Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Did you get around to it? I’m very curious about your thoughts on that book!

  3. We dont teach Hume, Voiltaire and Kant. We teach some of their ideas. We don’t, and can’t (and wouldn’t want to) teach “a person”. What an absurd and ridiculous idea. If I were her employer I’d sack her for incompetence

    1. I agree. It’s like this person is trying to please The Woke, who in turn think the only opinions that matter are their own and fail to recognize the evolution of thought including how their own group-think came to be.

  4. Yes, philosophy is not my area but this problem exist for the study of history as well. I noticed the other day when referring to Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Stowe as abolishonest but that refers to wanting to end slavery. It does specifically give the negro anything like equality. In fact Stowe like Lincoln was a believer in shipping the race out to Africa or someplace else. This does not make them absolute racist in their time because they still wanted slavery gone.

  5. I think the key point is, as mentioned above, the effect the bigotry had on the work, which makes this a matter of taking things in context case-by-case. Frege, for example, was a virulent anti-Semite, but it is difficult to conceive this having any effect on his work in logic, linguistic analysis or the philosophy of mathematics. Heidegger’s connection with Nazism, however, is another story and demands continual examination of its effects upon his work, which was much more broad-ranging across human experience than that of someone like Frege.

    1. Heidegger joined the Nazi Party, and certainly did his part to placate the Nazi powers that be, out of careerist motives — and his treatment of Edmund Husserl was nothing if not shoddy. Those actions had a major (and opprobrious) impact on his post-War reputation and career. But I’m not so sure that the tenets of National Socialism ever played much of a role in his actual philosophical work, especially in fields such as hermeneutics and phenomenology where he made his major mark.

      1. It’s the “not so sure” part that keeps — and I think should — this case one that will be continually reconsidered. Phrasing it, as I did, as the effect of Nazism on his work, might not be so much the way to put it as to ask how to consider his philosophy in light of Nazism. (A question raised by what we know about him.) At the least I think it’s reasonable to ask whether his philosophy was incapable of raising a criticism of Nazism. More strongly, does such a philosophy actually undermine the attitude of rational, critical thinking necessary in the face of something like Nazism?
        In the interest of fairness, I should admit that I’m pretty allergic to Heidegger. But I don’t want to take a simple “he was a Nazi so the hell with his philosophy” attitude. I think there are some genuine concerns here.

        1. Yes, regardless of his Nazi sympathies, Heideggers work always appears somewhat r e t a r d e d and s t u p i d to me, and I positively hate this fondness for spacing of words he wanted to stress. When I read that it resonates ‘i m b e c i l e’ inside my head.

          1. I’m not a fan of idiosyncratic orthography myself, though I’m not sure one’s intellectual reputation should rise or fall on that element alone. 🙂

        2. Fair enough, freiner. I’m no Heidegger maven, and I’ve never found him a convivial read. But his ideas seem prevalent enough to be generally conversant with. And his story, and Hanna Arendt’s, form an interesting chapter in 20th century intellectual history.

      2. Recommended reading: J. Fritsche’s _Historical Destiny and National Socialism in Heidegger’s Being and Time_, which comes to two conclusions (which IMO are understated, but start there): (1) B&T’s ethics (yes, ethics) and political philosophy are hard right and would have been seen as such at the time (2) include a critique, that if taken seriously, gives no resources to criticize Nazism or other similar movements.

        It was also not just careerism: Lowith reports that Heidegger said (in 1936) that he had joined the Nazi party because of his philosophy.

        Bunge used to also report that the students at his (Argentinian) university in the 1940s who were pro-Nazi were being told to and were reading Heidegger. (Not conclusive, but suggestive.)

        Finally, H. was also clearly an antisemite – this part has been missed a lot, but it wasn’t just “intellectual Nazism” for him. (He protested in a letter to a newspaper the “jewification of the german spirit” in the 1920s if I recall and the recently available “black notebooks are apparently as bad.)

  6. Rene Descartes frankly acknowledges in “Meditation on the First Philosophy” that publication was delayed because he received news of the Catholic Church’s persecution of Galileo. And, in another work, after he has painted himself into a corner with radical skepticism, he gets out by summarily declaring that “God is not a deceiver.”

    The point being that, until relatively recent time, tippy-toeing around, and sucking-up to, religion was an inescapable part of a philosopher’s life.

    I doubt very much that we can accurately parse out how much antisemitism was sincere, and how much was rote accommodation to the powers-that-be.

  7. When I first read Hume in college I was amazed that an eighteenth century philosopher could have such modern thoughts. He became an intellectual hero. When I learned of his prejudices, I was depressed. Later I learned to separate a work from its creator. I think it relevant to discuss authors’ prejudices only as it might relate to their work. I detect a tendency to use the shortcomings of enlightenment thinkers to demean their ideas.

  8. “Maybe students would be better served by teaching them philosophy then by minutely scrutinizing every philosopher in history (and artists and writers and scientists) for ideological impurities.”

    I agree with you on this completely. What matters is the what’s in the philosophy, not whether the person was some imaginary, idealized specimen. I sometimes post quotes on Facebook or Twitter without attribution, because I know that many readers will otherwise react to the source of the quote rather than to the ideas.

  9. After all, almost everyone in Europe before the 19th century, … were not only anti-Semitic, but racist, homophobic, and misogynistic

    Being a little pedantic, they would have been sexist, yes, but not really misogynistic (= disliking or hating women).

    That the charge of sexism is routinely inflated into “misogyny” is another example of the concept inflation that sees speech getting labelled as “violence” while disagreeing with someone amounts to “invalidating my very existence”.

  10. “Curiously, Shrage doesn’t “unpack” (to use the argot) these questions,…”

    Shrage’s dropped the ball. Her obligation, it seems to me, is to unpack. What else is a philosophical essay supposed to do? I feel like Charley Brown missing the football.

    1. Later at the pub, around the honky-tonk Peano :-
      “Can you play Voltaire On A G-String?”
      “No I Kant, but if you Hume me a few bars … ”

      And speaking of tippling philosophers, this is well worth a read
      Here’s an extract.

      Trump lacks certain qualities which the British traditionally esteem.

      For instance, he has no class, no charm, no coolness, no credibility, no compassion, no wit, no warmth, no wisdom, no subtlety, no sensitivity, no self-awareness, no humility, no honour and no grace – all qualities, funnily enough, with which his predecessor Mr. Obama was generously blessed.

      (Note that the website didn’t originate the piece.)

      1. Yeah, I read Nate White’s piece on what the Brits think of Trump on Quora a couple weeks ago. It’s scrumptiously mordant.

      2. Some Americans may see this as refreshingly upfront.

        Says the man who says English gentlemen never swing down or hit below the belt.

  11. Running away from racist, sexist, anti Semitic and imperialist Western philosophers in order to learn the teachings of non western philosophers is likely to run into the same problem. All cultures had racist and nationalist assumptions, and I suspect a deeper study of Chinese or Indian deep thinkers would wade into similar muck — ideas and criticisms not always punching up, or embracing the values of diversity and tolerance. In some cases, I think, more rigid hierarchies than in Europe.

    No reason not to study them or appreciate what’s of value, of course but those who advocate abandoning the West to avoid bigotry ought to be realistic.

    1. I was particularly struck by

      Should we construct Jewish, Islamic and Buddhist philosophy in our curriculums as “non-Western,” or does that reinscribe a fundamental divide between the West and the rest, where the West is portrayed as the major agent of human advancement?

      Surely the main issue should be whether the distinction is a historically meaningful one? Strange that the author doesn’t mention Shopenhauer in this context…

      1. Surely at least one of the main issues should be whether their philosophy actually addresses questions or problems in the real, human world? There are plenty of philosophies, in both the West and the rest of the world, that fail to do this.

  12. Thumbs up on your answers, I’d say basically something similar:

    1. Yes continue to teach them.

    2. Yes don’t hide their anti-semitism. Mention it in relevant context.

    3. Yes teach non-western philosophy relevant to the subject. And here, it’s probably also worth a mention if some philosopher (or natural philosopher…aka scientist) was ignored in their time because of social bigotries – racism, sexism, anti-semitism, etc. I’m sure that happened, and it’s worth teaching about as a way to guard against it happening in the future.

    4. No don’t embargo them because they were anti-semites. Instead, when it’s relevant to discuss their bigotries, use it to point out that good and smart people can have irrational and bigoted biases. This lesson is so easy to grasp in principle that students will probably wonder why you bother mentioning it…but in practice, we seem to have a really hard time accepting that our role models and ‘great accomplishers’ may have also done or believed very bad things. Newton had his kook side. Pauling did too. So did Watson. So (dear student…), as you are studying today’s great, scientists and thinkers, keep in mind that they likely have their flaws too – and yet, produce great work while having them.

  13. I agree with the post and the comments. Though I admit I am always interested in the personalities and biographies of scholars, and I am glad when someone whose work I like has been ethically above the standards of his time, and vice versa.

  14. Plato didn’t mind slavery, see his Republic. Should he too be banned?

    Modern philosophers probably hold opinions that in a century or two will be seen as abhorrent. That does not matter, what matters is what good ideas can we glean from them.

  15. And, once again, someone wants to go down the 90 degree slope of “should we really be teaching things written by people who we no longer agree with on other subjects? Should we really be teaching anything from anyone but people we agree with on everything?” It’s preposterous.

    Teach away. Unless their antisemitism is represented in their work, I see no need to even mention it.

  16. Well said Jerry, I think your Point 1 puts it admirably.

    Short answer to the headline question how to deal with them: The same as any other philosopher.

    Your point 1 works equally well for racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, or anything else which we now regard as an unacceptable prejudice.


  17. If I’m studying someone’s thought, most of the time I want to know as much as I can about that person, positive and negative, whether or not any of it directly influences their work, and unless it’s something so recondite and abstract, their attitudes toward race/cultural identity, sex,. might well influence their work. I do agree with Eric, who says that he agrees with PCC(E), but PCC(E) states that one should bring up these unpleasantries ” only insofar as it affected or informed their philosophy.”​ I disagree, and certainly with people like Darwin; I want to know about his abolitionism, too. It’s important to know that Aggasiz was a racist. My (not very extensive) knowledge of Heidegger’s work was certainly changed when I learned about his antisemitism. Such knowledge didn’t stop me from reading them, or Voltaire or Plato or any of the others mentioned in this post, but it changed my appreciation of them and I became more attuned to various nuances in their work.

    That said, I condemn those who say that the works of influential thinkers, etc., should not be be studied or read if they’re offensive or politically incorrect in some manner. This ties in with a disturbing trend developing — to censor news about and knowledge of reprehensible people and the acts they commit, such as the Christchurch terrorist, whose name the Prime Minister refuses to mention. While I understand the sentiment, I think it’s ultimately far more dangerous to censor information about such people than to have it in the public domain. This goes hand-in-hand with the woke folk demanding to censor and extirpate anything or person that doesn’t share their values and concerns. This is nothing but a pathway to profound ignorance and disaster; banning and closing our eyes to something unpleasant doesn’t make it vanish. We’ll soon be a society of Three Wise Monkeys — see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. Furthermore, it privileges such knowledge — only ‘professionals’ and such are entitled to know and study such things. That ain’t a free society, but the same people yakkety yack about freedom of speech and the democritization of knowledge — so Orwellian. There’s already a “Good news network” and an “Only good news network”– pretty dull stuff if you ask me, but I’m a cynic and a nihilist.

    1. “to censor news about and knowledge of reprehensible people and the acts they commit, such as the Christchurch terrorist, whose name the Prime Minister refuses to mention.”

      That’s a quite different circumstance and is NOT censorship. The name of the terrorist is known, and so are the detils of his crimes. Our Prime Minister simply refuses to publicise his name. I fully support that. Insofar as he (presumably) wanted notoriety for himself, he should be denied that as far as possible.


  18. It is folly to expect long dead writers to be able to keep up with modern moral sentiments. Besides which, those are changing all the time.

    All of the people discussed believed things that we now consider absurd. And it is entirely possible that some of what we now dismiss will someday be back in favor.

    Many ancients wrote about marvelously diverse subjects. I can learn from their works, but still not accept their theories on the nature of infectious disease, for example. If Kant wrote an essay on “The Nature of Jewish Covetousness”, we would best view it as an illustration of how far we have progressed.

    I knew some people who actually joined the Nazi party in the early thirties. It is pretty easy to judge them for that, as someone with the hindsight to know how the Shoah will unfold, what the end of the war will bring to Germany, and having watched films from the Sound of Music to Schindler’s List. Without exception, they are horrified by the Antisemitism of that time and place. They were generally motivated not by antisemitism, but by fear of communism, although there was certainly some overlap there. (I am speaking of the specific people I interviewed, not broadly of all or most NSDAP members) But the motivations of a person joining in 1934 should be seen very differently than a person who supports Nazism today.

    Finally, It is those Western philosophers whose writings led to the enlightened age we now live in. Without the foundation that they built, we would not hold the beliefs we criticize them for not holding.

    1. All of the people discussed believed things that we now consider absurd.

      QFT. Platonic Realism springs to mind.

      As an aside, folks consider Goethe a great mind. But he devised a complex theory of color that’s complete garbage.

      1. My academic career, what there was of it, was about advances in and exchanges in mechanical technology. When I see a modern piece of complicated machinery, I see all the older technologies that came together to enable the new machine to be possible, and how raw materials are processed into materials like steel and bleach and rocket fuel.
        The point is that understanding the whole process is best done when one understands how various innovations led incrementally to that modern technology.
        I think philosophy works the same way. Full understanding has to include the less perfect steps that led to the modern conception.

        We even have physical technologies that are now rejected as dangerous or immoral, but were important steps towards our safer, more sustainable technologies of today.

  19. Philo’s philosophy was a syncretism of judaic & hellenic thought, so I’d classify it as ‘Western.’ While Philo is of considerable interest to the history of philosophy, his ideas, with their narrow, archaic purpose, are not of much use to the modern world.

  20. I don’t know if it’s possible to really suss out the degree to which tribalism and bigotry impacted philosophy. For example, I think you could make a case that anything involving moral realism, objective morality, or dualistic thinking likely reflect a mindset wherein the world is divided more sharply into Us / Them. That said, one can never be totally sure where the Us / Them boundaries come from – they could reflect bigotry, but they could reflect egocentrism or mind body dualism (I hope that makes sense – just saying that any time the world is sharply divided into categories of Good and Bad, you’re likely looking at some type of dualistic, in-group out-group thought, but the ‘in’ group could be one’s tribe, one’s sense of self, one’s body, etc.)

    I think it’s the same with theology – for hundreds of years philosophy and theology were so intertwined that it would be hard to neatly separate one out from the other. And it would probably be difficult to even comprehend why some philosophers concluded what they concluded without looking at metaphysical assumptions like Platonic forms.

  21. I would also 5. Introduce ways that the philosopher on his (or rarely, her) own terms could have realized his mistakes in these ways. Heidegger is an example where this is, IMO, impossible. (See above.) On the other hand, Hume, and even my “arch enemy”, Kant, have the resources to become more consistently less racist, antisemitic, sexist, etc.

    (Kant was hero-worshipped by a lot of people from my undergraduate days. I find his philosophy confused and antiscientific, despite his and his followers protests.)

  22. As usual, spot on. There are even aperiodic paroxysms of Woke purity which demand Mark Twain’s books be banned from public schools because of use of the n-word in contexts which clearly are anti-racist. BTW, I sent an email regarding a possible future WEIT blog post to j-coyne… .edu at the university of Chicago. If you see this first, maybe have a look for my email address in your doubtless vast pile of unread email.

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