A review of The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism From Nietzsche to Postmodernism, by Richard Wolin

The Seduction of Unreason may be described as a defense of the French and English Enlightenment against the attacks of a variety of intellectual movements that are too often blended together under the portmanteau terms "postmodernism" and, more narrowly, "deconstruction." As his title suggests, Wolin means by "anti-Enlightenment" a fuzzy set of properties, predominant among them a distrust, even a hatred, of reason. This raises a big question that he does not adequately face—the meaning of "reason." There is only one reference to reason in the index; the passage in question refers to Foucault's conception of reason as a mechanism of oppression as well as to Derrida's critique of logocentrism and Lyotard's view that rational accord is in fact an exercise of force.

This is not to deny that Wolin uses the words "reason" and "rational" with great frequency, but to note that in doing so, he seldom gets beyond platitudes, and what is worse, he identifies being reasonable with being a political liberal. The meaning of the latter term is likewise taken for granted; it refers to persons who endorse empiricism, science, and logical deduction, but who also favor the rule of law, historical progress, and egalitarianism. It is difficult to find a straightforward defense of these properties in Wolin's book; they function as signposts that guide the discussion but do not deepen it. He plainly assumes that everyone knows what it is to be reasonable, and that reasonableness is synonymous with political liberalism. 

To use another of Wolin's inadequately defined terms, the anti-rationalist is a fascist, of which there are left- as well as right-wing versions. It might be held that fascism is connected with the Right, not the Left, but this goes contrary to Wolin's (I think correct) argument. My problem is rather with his taking for granted that rationalism is what pro-Enlightenment partisans of extreme scientific reasoning say it is. What's more, Wolin's portrait of the Enlightenment is much too narrow. All too typical is his concluding passage in which he paraphrases approvingly the assertion of the Italian political philosopher, Norberto Bobbio, that political liberalism "has become the unsurpassable political horizon of our time." This may be true, but not all the major figures of the Enlightenment were partisans of science in the style of, say, Condorcet, nor were they all political liberals of the contemporary sort. Equally important, not all those who share some important values with Wolin are "liberals" in his sense of the term. I happen to know of many conservatives who also endorse the rule of law, human rights, and popular sovereignty. Conservatism of this sort is not to be found in Wolin's book. Although Wolin does not explicitly make the egregious error of associating conservatism with fascism, he comes dangerously close to it.

Let me cite a passage all too illustrative of his style of reasoning: 


Much has been written about the corollaries between fascism and "irrationalism" that remains conjectural and superficial. It would be foolish to assert that all doctrines that radically question the primacy of reason exist in a symbiotic relation with forces of political reaction, let alone fascism. Nevertheless, it would be equally misleading to deny that one of fascism's central ideological tenets entails a rejection of reason and all that it historically represents.


The passage is quite correct, as far as it goes. But in the context of Wolin's overall argument, the rejection of reason is equivalent to the rejection of Enlightenment liberalism and progressivism; or in other words, it is equivalent to political reaction, which is replaced in the next sentence by "fascism."

Differently stated, there is no room in Wolin's argument for the thesis that modern scientific and empiricist conceptions of reason are neither exhaustive nor self-evidently consistent with one another. I could find no treatment of this problem in his account beyond a phrase here and a term there. As is obvious from his sound critique of Derridean deconstruction, Wolin recognizes the need for value judgments and he sees that deconstruction makes such judgments impossible. But his perfunctory defense of the need to use reason to obtain such judgments overlooks the fact that scientific rationalism and logical argumentation cannot supply them. He offers nothing to defend against the dissolution of ethical and political rationalism, or against the charge that his entire book constitutes, not an exercise of reason, but a rhetorical concatenation of the typical prejudices of contemporary liberal academicians.

* * *

Wolin castigates the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer for his attempt to give a reasonable account of prejudice as a structural feature of man's historical situatedness; but he does not notice his blindness to the problem in respect of his own opinions. Still, the criticism has some weight, though not enough to justify Wolin's classification of Gadamer among the enemies of reason. Gadamer's conception of prejudice and tradition may be wrong, but it is certainly susceptible of a rational defense. "Unreason," I would argue, should be reserved for doctrines that are intrinsically unintelligible, or that assert their own unintelligibility; the charge could very reasonably be directed against Derrida, on the basis of Wolin's own criticisms of him.

As a further illustration of Wolin's prejudices and polemics, consider this quotation from Stephen Holmes, which Wolin deploys in a complicated footnote:


'Why would some of America's leading intellects revile a tradition devoted, among other things, to freedom of thought? A generation ago, Martin Heidegger's subterranean but hypnotic influence prepared the way for this odd development. His harsh indictment of "modernity" was adapted to the mental horizon of their new American audience by Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss.'

This passage can only mean that Strauss and Arendt were fascists and enemies of reason who in the U.S. promulgated Heidegger's doctrine of the restriction of freedom of thought. Despite his discretion in hiding behind Holmes, Wolin clearly endorses this view. There is no sign of anything but approval on Wolin's part, nor is there any other reference to Strauss or Arendt in his book. 

Though I am hardly an admirer of Heidegger's character, I have to say that in many decades of reading his books, I have never found an argument against freedom of thought. It is true that Heidegger's conception of authentic Denken is quite different from Wolin's understanding of thinking. But neither Wolin nor Holmes succeeds in confining the defense of human freedom to a narrow loyalty to Enlightenment rationalism. Let us, however, suppose that Heidegger was an enemy, not of thinking but of freedom of speech. How does this enmity show itself in Leo Strauss, who, if anything, spent his career in the U.S. revealing with much freedom, and to his own professional detriment, the "secret teaching" of the great thinkers of the philosophical tradition? And in what way was Strauss more unreasonable than Wolin or Holmes? I have to say that I was offended by this evasive, even cowardly footnote.

Wolin is primarily a historian of late modern and contemporary European political thought. He is not a philosopher, and presumably would not claim to be. His intention in this book is to place poststructuralism in historical context. Somewhat more inclusively, he explores the fate of the Enlightenment and its dominant ethical and political paradigm by studying a handful of seemingly disparate thinkers, among them Nietzsche, Jung, Gadamer, Bataille, Derrida, and Blanchot, as well as a multitude of secondary and tertiary figures. These thinkers share one version or another of the spirit of Counter-Enlightenment—namely, an enmity toward rationalism in Wolin's rather vague sense of the term, plus a reactionary political bent that leads them, from both the left and the right extremes of the spectrum, toward fascism. 

I liked especially in Wolin's account the recognition that Nietzsche was a political thinker, not an aesthete; and I am grateful to him for calling attention to the equivocations that marked Gadamer's relations with the political and academic apparatus of the Third Reich. Wolin seems to me to go too far in his treatment of Gadamer, and to be unfair in his criticism of Jean Grondin's mammoth biography of the German thinker. I would say here only that I know of no competent accusation to the effect that Gadamer was a racist or a fascist. His greatest defect seems to have been opportunism.

* * *

Despite Stephen Holmes's innuendo, Leo Strauss was hyper-sensitive on the issue of the Nazis, and once made me swear to him that I would never shake Heidegger's hand. I was about to leave for Europe, and to meet several of Strauss's friends and friendly acquaintances, one of whom was Gadamer. Strauss took it for granted that I would be shaking Gadamer's hand. This is not proof, but it goes a long way with me. Nonetheless, Wolin assembles some damning evidence. Especially difficult to explain on grounds other than opportunism is Gadamer's famous lecture, during the occupation of France, on Herder and racism. I am, however, most depressed by the anecdote of how Gadamer benefited from his friend Richard Kroner's loss of his professorship in 1934, and Gadamer's callousness about the episode. In any event, even watertight proof that someone was a Nazi supporter does not necessarily invalidate his (or her) intellectual work. Central to the book's treatment of Gadamer is Wolin's criticism of the doctrine of prejudice, or what comes perhaps to the same thing, the veneration of tradition. This is a curious criticism for a historian to make, especially because Wolin (again) seems not to notice that the doctrine applies to him as a spokesman for the liberal scientific Enlightenment.

Wolin is very good on the foolish "political" thinking of the postmodern French anti-philosophes, as well as on the general anti-Americanism of advanced continental thinkers. He deserves praise for his emphasis on the fact that fascism can come from the Left as well as the Right. And it has to be said that Wolin's erudition with respect to the late-modern scene of largely second-rate artists and ideologues is quite impressive. One should know these things, however boring they may be, and Wolin helps us here; at least he helped me.

To be sure, there are some defects in his erudition, particularly with respect to the ancient Greeks. Wolin incorrectly states that the Weimar Republic is a version of what Glaucon in Plato's Republic calls the city of pigs; the city of pigs, actually, is a primitive society lacking in luxuries of every kind, especially including philosophy. Similarly, Wolin characterizes Plato's Seventh Letter, the philosopher's account of his failed intervention into practical politics, as an invocation to give up philosophy for politics! He refers to "first philosophy" (an Aristotelian term) as "an a priori and speculative approach to history and politics," a strange way to characterize the thought of the man who first separated "first philosophy" from ethics and politics. Wolin's almost complete silence concerning Leo Strauss is, probably, a reflection of his apparent inacquaintance with Greek thought. Most if not all of the "anti-rationalists" discussed in the book were either Greek scholars (Nietzsche, Gadamer) or well trained in the classics. The ostensibly reactionary return to the Greeks that Wolin discerns is, in fact, a clue to the development of a richer, more reasonable conception of reason.

This leads me to a final criticism. In order to get back to the Greeks in a fruitful way, one must first come to terms with Heidegger. I mean by this that Heidegger both brings the Greeks to life and distorts them. To study Heidegger is thus like walking a tight-rope. What needs to be said is that Wolin is not good at taking seriously the people he dislikes. He seems to lack the ability, or in any event the will, to think through the ways in which the representatives of anti-Enlightenment were correct. For example, there can be no doubt that humanism, liberalism, and a rational democracy are endangered by the uncontrollable aspects of technology. That Heidegger links his critique of technology to a peculiarly romantic form of religion and a denunciation of the Enlightenment does not invalidate the force of the critique itself. Nevertheless, I want to insist that there are very good things in Wolin's book, and indeed, that it is often politically sound in a way that conservatives should take more seriously than I suspect they do. But it is not sufficiently penetrating or—dare I say it?—radical.