Philosophy and the Gods of the City: Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft’s “Thinking in Public”

By Jon BaskinSeptember 10, 2017

Philosophy and the Gods of the City: Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft’s “Thinking in Public”

Thinking in Public by Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft

IN AN article published earlier this summer in The Revealer, the intellectual historian Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft identifies a recent hunger in the United States for “public intellectuals.” As he amply documents, different people mean different things by the term. Predominantly, though, it is used to signify a desire for a more thoughtful and informed public conversation, bolstered by the input of those educated in the humanities. Most of us assume, in other words, that having more “intellectuals” engage in public life would be a good thing, probably for intellectuals themselves and certainly for the rest of society. (Having spent nearly a decade in graduate school, during which I helped start a magazine based on the idea of public philosophy, I’d count myself among those who have staked this claim.)

Wurgaft’s article gently lays out some of the contradictions inherent in our demand for the public intellectual at a time when we can agree neither on what constitutes the public, nor on what qualifies anyone to speak to it as an intellectual. Yet in his deeply researched book on the same subject, Thinking in Public, Wurgaft reminds us that such questions, although they take on different valences today than they did in the middle of the last century, have long histories. The book is devoted to three philosophers — Leo Strauss, Emmanuel Levinas, and Hannah Arendt — who both theorized about, and exemplified the difficulties of, thinking in public. Of the three, Arendt is the most recognizable as a “public intellectual” (Wurgaft will teach you to keep the term in scare quotes), but they all, in Wurgaft’s words, “displayed a common preoccupation with the question of philosophy’s place in public life, a question for which ‘the intellectual’ sometimes served as shorthand.”

Wurgaft’s study is informative to the point of embarrassment. Following him as he tracks the thought of the three figures reveals the shallowness of our own conversation about such matters. Today we speak about funding for the humanities, how scholars communicate online, and whether academics can learn to write for general audiences, as if these were the fundamental questions. But these are only tiny tributaries of the fundamental question: what good does the intellectual do in public? Strauss, Levinas, and Arendt were all skeptical of what Wurgaft calls the “pan-European enthusiasm for ‘intellectuals,’ which imagined intellectuals as public guardians of truth and justice and opponents of political corruption.” To the extent that today’s calls for intellectual engagement reflect a version of this enthusiasm, Wurgaft has furnished us with a reminder and a challenge. It is not only the public that can succumb to corruption; the intellectual wishing to think in public will first have to learn how to be truthful with herself.


Of course, it is not just Strauss, Levinas, and Arendt who have thought about the relationship between the philosopher, the intellectual, and the public. Wurgaft might have focused on Jean-Paul Sartre, or Alexandre Kojève, or Karl Jaspers, to name just a few 20th-century thinkers who come up repeatedly in the course of his story. Yet his choice is not arbitrary. What makes Strauss, Levinas, and Arendt such fruitful objects of comparison is that their differences emerge against a background of similarity. Strauss, Levinas, and Arendt were all European Jews, born within 10 years of each other and educated in Weimar Germany. All three studied with Heidegger, and all three were personally and intellectually impacted by the rise of Nazism that Heidegger endorsed and supported, above all in his speech accepting the Rectorship at Freiburg University, in 1933. Levinas, after gaining French citizenship in 1931, was conscripted to the French army and spent four years as a German prisoner of war. Arendt left Germany in 1937, first for France and then, after a spending month in Camp Gurs in 1941, for the United States. Strauss left Berlin for Paris in 1931, and eventually settled in the United States in 1937, first at The New School for Social Research in New York, and later at the University of Chicago.

Wurgaft recognizes that to explain the attitudes of Arendt, Levinas, and Strauss toward thinking in public, it is necessary to describe their philosophy more generally. Devoting three chapters to each, he offers less a summary of their positions than a chart of their shifting positions across time of their thought on the relationship between thinking and political life. Still, a reader of Thinking in Public will come away with a definite sense of how each conceived of that relationship. One way in which Wurgaft crystallizes their similarities and differences is by comparing their writing on two famous touchstones for thinking in public: Heidegger and Socrates.

Strauss, who Wurgaft treats first, wrote voluminously about Socrates, and only occasionally about Heidegger. Gathering comments scattered throughout his writings, as well as a lecture on Heideggarian Existentialism delivered in the mid-1950s, Wurgaft suggests that although Strauss was drawn to Heidegger’s description of the “crisis of the west,” he disapproved of his teacher’s apparent belief that the philosopher could play a pivotal role in addressing that crisis by intervening in public politics. In attempting to yoke his philosophical teaching to a political movement, Heidegger neglected the ancient distinction between political life, which “if taken seriously,” Strauss wrote, “meant belief in the gods of the city,” and philosophy, which necessitated the “denial of the gods of the city.” Socrates, according to Strauss, knew that philosophy was incompatible with the life of the polis; hence the care he took to always endorse the city’s gods in the marketplace. And his death demonstrated in the starkest terms the fundamental antagonism between the philosopher and the public. It was this antagonism that the moderns had forgotten in their fawning over “intellectuals,” which Strauss counted as a term of approbation. For Strauss, Wurgaft writes, the “intellectual” was a “modern dodge by which one could pretend that the practices of reason not only did not conflict with political life, but could guide it.”

Levinas was, of Wurgaft’s three figures, the most deeply attached to Heidegger’s philosophy, and therefore the most deeply affected by his teacher’s endorsement of (what he called) “Hitlerism.” In the early 1930s, Levinas was in the process of writing a book about Heidegger, whom he praised as the “glory of Germany.” Later, he would recall how Heidegger’s “firm and categorical voice came back to me frequently when I listened to Hitler on the radio.” Even after the war, Levinas remained faithful to Heidegger’s disavowal of Western metaphysics, and especially to his criticism of the Western humanist idea of subjectivity, according to which man could be understood transcendentally — that is, independent of his context or history. But whereas Strauss had accused Heidegger of being “blind to politics,” Wurgaft writes, the mature Levinas emphasized his former teacher’s “inattention to ethics.” For Levinas, Heidegger’s complicity with the racial politics of Nazism could be attributed to the lack of a place for the “other” in his philosophy. Heidegger had successfully deposed Western universalism, but in its place his philosophy seemed to vacillate between a lonely solipsism and the possibility of exclusive communities predicated on historical contingencies like blood and soil.

Levinas did not write as much about ancient philosophy as either Strauss or Arendt, but in a passage from his 1961 essay, “Heidegger, Gagarin and Us,” quoted by Wurgaft, he evokes Socrates as the figure of a philosopher who, in contrast to Heidegger, “exemplified an interest in the experiences of others in all their uniqueness.” It is telling, says Levinas, that whereas Heidegger preferred “the countryside and trees,” Socrates preferred “the town, in which one meets people”: his dialogues with fellow-citizens represent the intellectual not only as a thinker but also as an ethical actor who in his public speech both acknowledges and takes responsibility for the flourishing of the “other.” Levinas thus proposes, in place of Western humanism, a secularized version of a universalistic religious ethic, according to which the “mere human” has intrinsic value. If Heidegger’s philosophy suggested that our responsibility could be limited by geographical or temporal communities, Levinas argued that “the very infinitude of the other person that we see in his face is, effectively, ‘the first word: you shall not commit murder.’”

Admittedly, there is no simple way of translating this Old Testament commandment into political action, and Levinas resisted the notion — popular with Sartre and other French thinkers in his generation — that intellectuals should perforce be political activists. In its place, he proposed the idea of the intellectual as the “prophetic witness” to the suffering of those who cannot speak for themselves. Although he appeared more optimistic than Strauss or Arendt about the ability of intellectuals to influence political life, Wurgaft argues, Levinas was also the most ambiguous of the three on the question of how exactly this influence should be exerted.

For Arendt, too, Heidegger exemplified a problem to which Socrates supplied an answer. As Wurgaft recounts them, her two main complaints about Heidegger’s relationship to the public can initially appear contradictory. On the one hand, Arendt must have had her former teacher in mind when she complained of the “masculine” desire for public influence among philosophers. On the other hand, she faulted Heidegger for manifesting the “old hostility of the philosopher towards the polis,” which understands public opinion as little more than gossip, and devalues the ability of individuals to make informed political choices. But the two complaints can be seen to complement one another in light of Arendt’s admiration for Socrates, at least in the later phase of her career, to which Wurgaft devotes an important chapter. In her lectures on Kant, Arendt suggested that Socrates’s dialogues were valuable because they “make public, in discourse, the thinking process — that dialogue that goes soundlessly on within me, between me and myself.” The philosopher, that is, did not show her public value by committing, as Heidegger had, to some political or moral cause; but this did not mean she had to retreat or hide her deepest beliefs from the public, as Strauss proposed. The public square, in fact, was important to the philosopher’s own intellectual development, since it exposed her to novel ideas and opinions. By integrating and mediating between these opinions in her own thought, the philosopher could then return the favor by modeling the kind of argument that we should each be having in a free society, first with ourselves and then with one another.

To his credit, Wurgaft does not play favorites, and he remains faithful to his promise at the outset not to extract prescriptive theories from his investigation of the three thinkers. It is nevertheless possible, I think, to sense his admiration for the late Arendt’s statements about thinking in public. While Strauss posits a sharp line separating philosophy and political life, and Levinas blurs the line such that it becomes hard to tell where philosophy ends and politics begins, Arendt accepts a distinction between the philosopher and the public while denying that that distinction can ever be absolute. Returning in his final chapter to the figure of Socrates, Wurgaft summarizes Arendt’s conception of how the philosophical process is itself pervaded by the political or the social:

Arendt’s Socrates internalizes a principle of appearance or publicness even as he also externalizes or makes public the thinking process. This had implications, she noted, for the problem of hidden crimes: Socrates held that each should see himself as a witness to his own actions, and also as a tribunal of judgment for them. Socrates was not only in the polis; the polis was in him.

The key to thinking in public is to remain faithful, in writing and in speech, to the original process of self-reflection, which cannot help but involve the thinker in an argument with opinions she has first encountered in public.


Arendt has special relevance for Wurgaft for another reason, which he indicates both in Thinking in Public and in his Revealer article. That essay begins by rehashing the post-election vogue for Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, as well as the more general call “for intellectuals to speak out against Trump.” Paradoxically, Wurgaft argues, that call hearkens back to a time — the 1950s and ’60s — before figures like Arendt had their authority usurped by that of the scientist or expert. Arendt, Wurgaft suggests, may remain important today less for her writing on totalitarianism than for her warnings about the rise of the “technocrats” — a new breed of “intellectuals” who pictured political life as involving the accomplishment of pre-established tasks, rather than as an ongoing argument involving perennial questions about what we value, and why.

The technocrats, undoubtedly, are still with us. At one point in his article, Wurgaft cites a widely praised review of Daniel Drezner’s recent book, The Ideas Industry, by the intellectual historian David Sessions. Drezner’s book, says Sessions, shows how today’s would-be public intellectuals are being drowned out by the rise of “thought leaders.” Thought leaders are glorified technicians and TED Talk evangelists, like Sheryl Sandberg, Thomas Friedman, and Parag Khanna, who nevertheless are treated by large audiences as emissaries from the world of ideas. Such figures would seem to fulfill Arendt’s prophecy about the danger of a culture coming to revere elite technocratic authority.

Sessions’s article, though, is not just about the superficiality and corruption of thought leaders — a seductively soft target for his New Republic readership. Sessions also hazards a positive description of what makes someone a real or authentic intellectual, and it is in these passages that his article is truly, if unwittingly, revealing. Whereas the thought leaders are guilty of flattering the whims of the superrich, Sessions claims, a group he approvingly calls the “new intellectuals on the left” have demonstrated their independence by being “willing to expose the prattle of thought leaders, to attack the rhetorical smoke screens of the liberal center, and to defend working-class voters.” Later, crediting a cluster of leftist-associated magazines (including this one) with the revival of American intellectual life, Sessions leaves little doubt as to what he considers qualifies someone to be a genuine public intellectual. To be a genuine public intellectual is to agitate for the working class, and against the “liberal center” or the superrich (also, apparently, to reflexively conflate those two terms). To be a genuine public intellectual is to have the “courage,” as he calls it, to speak truth to power.

I mention this view not because it is eccentric, but because it is so common. Indeed, Sessions’s article has inspired an event as part of this week’s Brooklyn Book Festival, where the question, “What happened to the public intellectual?” will be debated by a panel of five “intellectuals on the left.” To the extent that this group deserves to be affiliated with any of the three thinkers that Wurgaft profiles, its picture of thinking in public hews closest to Levinas’s formulation of the intellectual as a “witness” to the suffering of those not able to speak up for themselves. But Levinas himself never stipulates how this ethic was to be translated into a practical politics, perhaps in part for a reason that Wurgaft helpfully specifies:

While Levinas said little about the mechanism by which “witnessing” might have an effect on unnamed politics, there was a deeper problem with his encomium to the intellectuals. For Levinas, such persons (including, presumably, himself) were elites who arrogated to themselves the responsibility to speak on behalf of others. They had the capacity to substitute themselves as hostages for suffering peoples, but such a gesture had to be founded on their judgment of what constituted suffering, and their assessment of the best interests of these “peoples.”

Levinas implied that intellectuals were “chosen” to express the truth of others, but he could not explain how they were supposed to know that truth, or how they could move beyond “witnessing” to endorsing concrete political action, since in practice politics frequently involves a confrontation between different kinds and communities of suffering. This is sometimes perceived as a “gap” in his work, but, as Wurgaft portrays it, Levinas’s hesitancy about bridging that gap was part of what constituted the philosophical dignity of his thinking.

If Levinas was cautious about the prospect of translating philosophical insight into political commitment, Arendt and Strauss were explicitly opposed to it. “Commitment,” Arendt said at a 1972 conference on her work, “can easily carry you to a point where you no longer think.” In this, she was in full agreement with Strauss, who stated succinctly that “[p]hilosophy as such is nothing but genuine awareness of the problems.” It was, Strauss admitted, a perennial temptation for philosophers to become “inclined toward a solution,” and yet “the philosopher ceases to be a philosopher at the moment at which the ‘subjective certainty’ of a solution becomes stronger than his awareness of the problematic character of that solution. At that moment the sectarian is born.”

What does it mean, then, to be an “intellectual on the left”? Although I confess the phrase strikes me as somewhat mysterious, it is not impossible to imagine a definition: an intellectual on the left, having arrived at certainty about the correct direction for society, helps formulate and disseminate arguments for moving society in that direction. But if we accept this definition as meaningful, we are compelled to agree with Strauss and Arendt that the figure of the public intellectual represents a debasement of thinking, rather than a model for it. There are plenty of reasons to commit as citizens to political parties or movements — and there may even be reasons to consider that commitment as partly the product of philosophical reasoning. But someone who speaks as a representative of a fixed ideology or group has subjugated the philosopher within themselves to the partisan.

Thinking in Public goes even further: it offers a provocation not just to partisan intellectuals but to all of us who claim that philosophy or the arts have the potential to enrich public life. True to his promise to avoid normative pronouncements, Wurgaft ultimately leaves open the question of whether thinkers — as philosophers or as public intellectuals — have played anything like the role often claimed for them in the progress of history or the enlightenment of mankind. “After the experience of our generation,” wrote Strauss in 1954, “the burden of proof would seem to rest on those who assert rather than on those who deny that we have progressed beyond the classics.” One could imagine someone plausibly advancing a similar challenge today: how would we thoughtfully respond to it?


Jon Baskin is a founding editor of The Point.

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Jon Baskin is a founding editor of The Point.


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