Author: jamesumross

Great Public Intellectuals and Philosophers, Part II

The concluding part to a previous post, below I lay out five(-ish) figures worth examining if you are interested in public policy, politics and philosophy. Like the previous post, these figures do not necessarily agree with each other in all respects, and I do not totally agree with any of them across all their positions. If education is about anything, it is about critically examining viewpoints with which you do not agree, and thinking hard about our own beliefs.

Camille Paglia
A self-described “Amazon Feminist” who has long courted controversy, Pagila is often alone in her beliefs but is as happy in being solo and she is fierce. After a half-dozen other publishers passed on her first book, she finally had success in 1991 in publishing Sexual Persona. Since then she has been a cornerstone of dissident feminism, decrying Gloria Steinem as a Stalinist and highlighting the biological foundation of gender roles. Later that decade she helped launch Salon.com, which she laments has lost its way since her departure. While her books are thick and dig deep into subjects as diverse as the last thousand years of art and the best forty-odd poems in the west, she still finds time to write frequently about everything from Angela Merkel’s rise to why Lady Gaga marked the death of sex. Like most people on this list she holds positions usually seen as untenable; atheist but fond of religion, a sixties radical who likes the family unit, a gender ‘transgressive’ who sees current gender politics as a mark of civilizational decline. Unlike many self-described intellectuals, Pagila still has a day job teaching fulltime at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Based on her ability to rapidly speak her mind and her insatiable curiosity, one wonders if she bothers with a syllabus.

Related: Fellow Democrat Christina Hoff Sommers comes close to Pagila in range of interests and tenacity. The French revolutionary figure Marquis de Sade has had a great influence on Pagila, both in the dizziness of freedom but also the need for tradition and society to place checks and level expectations upon its citizens. Oh and here’s Pagila getting mad at Christopher Hitchens.

Karl Popper
The late Karl Popper was born in Austo-Hungarian Vienna and passed away in the mid-nineties, but in-between had a profound effect on science, history and philosophy. After groundbreaking research in logic and scientific discovery, Popper’s reputation grew as a political thinker in the postwar period as his books The Poverty of Historicism and The Open Society and Its Enemies provided a robust intellectual defense of liberalism. The former book a critique of the totalitarian view of history of having a destination and the latter an examination of how the views of Plato, Hegel and Marx constitute an illiberal ideology at odds with Popper’s idea of the open society. Such a society is described as the only kind that can make substantive improvements to itself without violence by having liberal democratic institutions and a pluralistic society. In the world of listicles that tell us there’s only four (or five or six) things we “need to know” in order to understand complex political events and books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers argue that individuals simply exist to be acted upon by historical trends, Popper’s thought is at once refreshingly new and immediately intuitive.

Related: Popper had an antagonistic relationship with Ludwig Wittgenstein, a more positive one with Bertrand Russell and was a friend to Friedrich Hayek.

Thomas Sowell
Recently retired from his weekly column, Thomas Sowell may be the most prolific author on this list. Writing over thirty books and hundreds of columns, Sowell began his career as a Marxist in his 20s, only to lose his faith when his academic work forced an encounter with US federal bureaucrats. After receiving his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago, he took several academic jobs in the late 1960s and through the 1970s. At the onset of the Reagan Administration he joined Stanford’ Hoover Institution and has been there ever since. Sowell’s work is characterized by its straightforward prose that makes complicated concepts easy to understand for the economic layman. In his seminal Basic Economics, his simple explanation of the inescapable reality of scarcity requiring economic systems that ration resources is one of the most straight-forward arguments for capitalism. His tome Intellectuals and Society presaged the current populist moment and the growing sense that perhaps our elites are not as elite as they portend.

Related: Sowell was a friend of William Buckley, whose show Firing Line was a great piece of televised politics that has not been surpassed. Josef Joffe, another fellow at the Hoover Institution is also worthy of attention.

Richard John Neuhaus
Like others on this list, the late Neuhaus had a long intellectual journey in his life. Born in Canada in the mid-1930s, he became a prominent liberal Lutheran preacher in impoverished Brooklyn during the turbulent 1960s. Preaching against the Vietnam War and marching with civil rights leaders, he was one of the most well-known religious figures of the period. His revulsion at the Roe v. Wade decision was the start of his journey toward political conservatism. After establishing several institutes and centers in the 1980s, his Institute on Religion and Public Life in 1990 founded First Things, a magazine focused on public policy informed by religion. The monthly magazine featured writings from across the political and ecumenical spectrum, but more than any other magazine helped create an intellectually strong social conservative community within the United States. In the midst of this, Neuhaus converted to Roman Catholicism and later joined the priesthood. Neuhaus passed on in 2009 at the onset of the Obama Administration, and one wonders what he would have made of that false dawn, the populist revolt it preceded, and the turbulent period in which we find ourselves.

Related: George Weigel was a good friend of Neuhaus and continues to write about public policy and philosophy. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat was greatly influenced by Neuhaus’ writings.

The politicians
There is not much to like about most politicians. Beyond the typical deception and power hungry machinations, most of them are simply boring. Talking points and stock answers are always much safer than standing out–something true for the common person and especially true for politicians. At the moment, there are a handful that bring intellectual rigor and contrarian thinking to the political arena. The leftist Democratic Congressman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii is a figure with whom I mostly disagree, but her full-throated arguments against the conventional wisdom in her party and unrelenting stances on foreign policy stand out. The libertarian Republican Congressman Justin Amash from western Michigan is the head of the House Liberty Caucus and is often a lone voice for constitutional principles. Another Republican, Senator Ben Sasse, is more conventional but still stands out in his robust and well-considered defense of limited government and a concise diagnosis of the institutional decay in his chamber. At this rate he may very well surpass the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose old desk Sasse now occupies. Across the pond, the Tory MP Rory Stewart is among the most interesting people in politics. The rights to his biography already purchased by Brad Pitt, his understanding of the United Kingdom’s security threats as well as the nature of modern democracy are worth considering. Finally, the retiring Independent MP Douglas Carswell may be one of the most successful politicians to never hold ministerial office. By leaving the Conservative Party for UKIP and standing with the Vote Leave campaign, he helped mainstream a position that had lingered on the fringes of British politics for decades. As he leaves politics, he leaves with his fundamental purpose accomplished and his nation transformed.

Related: The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was a towering intellect and a controversial figure despite his patrician tone. Tory Member of the European Parliament Daniel Hannan is also worth examining, not least because of his excitement of finally being fired from his job, come 2019.

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Great Public Intellectuals and Philosophers, Part I

If you are reading this you are probably interested not just in free market advocacy but also the moral, social and economic philosophies in the public square. Below, I share my current favorite thinkers worth examining. As a number of these thinkers are in opposition to one another, I hope it will be clear I do not fully agree with any single entry below. Further, my attempt to reduce what is often a lifetime’s worth of work to a listicle paragraph will fall short in capturing each person, so I encourage anyone who finds any of these people interesting to reach out or to embark on your own search for more on these great figures.

Rene Girard
The recently deceased father of mimetic theory was one of the foremost philosophers of the twentieth century. A man whose thoughts went beyond any simple classification, he began his work as a literary critic with an eye toward psychology and anthropology. In his observations of Dostoevsky, Shakespeare and others, he came to develop his theory that human conflict does not arise from our differences but from our similarities. He came to see the only way societies deal with the problem of mimesis was to use a scapegoat mechanism, but his thoughts went from academic to apocalyptic when he turned back to the Catholic religion of his youth. In rediscovering the cultural roots of his native France (and adopted American homeland) and taking the Christian religion literally and seriously, he became gripped with the fear that the foundations of Christianity lay bare the essential myth required for societies to hold together. In his final years, he explored these themes as they play out in a globalization that wipes away differences and the nature of the violence of modern terrorism. While not clear from the outset, MBA students can learn a great deal from Girard- his thoughts help explain why we tend to gravitate toward the last big trend in business and why some companies on campus get hundreds of students for a handful of internship spots.

Related: There are a number of figures who influenced Girard, including Leo Strauss, Carl Schmitt and Jacques Lacan. Interestingly, Girardian thought, broadly applied, may inform the strategists of the current White House, as remarks by Steve Bannon and Peter Thiel have shown. Thiel, of course, was an undergraduate philosophy student of Rene Girard at Stanford. An author who seems to operate in the same world of mimetic violence would be Don DeLillo, whose books Point Omega, White Noise and most recently, Zero-K explore ennui and the post-modern condition.

Peter Thiel
The co-founder of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook, Peter Thiel’s business success needs little introduction to a business school student. His Zero to One dominated the New York Times bestseller list, adopted from publicly available notes on a course he taught at Stanford. His politics has been long-informed by his former professor, Rene Girard, especially in diagnosing the problems the world has encountered since 1973. It was after that year, Thiel has often said, in which we essentially gave up on the future and put ourselves on a path in which 140 characters were more valuable than flying cars. For Thiel, it is no accident that was the last year that saw gains in median income in the United States. For years, he evangelized this unpopular notion that we are not in an enchanted forest of technological wonder but in fact a bare desert, leading him to lambast Eric Schmidt as being “the chief propogandist of Google.” Politically, Thiel has drifted from supporting libertarian candidates like Ron Paul to forcefully supporting fellow billionaire Donald Trump in a primetime speech at the Republican National Convention and at the Washington Press Club. Long a supporter of technologies with long development pipelines (like life extension and building floating cities in the ocean) and completely new endeavors (like Palantir and the Thiel Fellow program that pays students to drop out of college), his investment in the Trump campaign has paid dividends as he now serves as an informal advisor to the White House. Not known for pronunciations of optimism for the modern state of politics, it is likely he holds the current moment as having the most promise in decades.

Related: His friends Elon Musk, Reid Hoffman, Max Levchin are all worth following for their insights into business and society. Thiel’s friend Garry Kasparov co-starred in an obscure documentary about them both.

Soren Kierkegaard
The father of existentialism, this once-obscure 19th century Danish philosopher proposed a radical interpretation of Christianity that makes much of modern commentary almost impossible to take seriously. Observing that “Subjectivity as Truth”, in that subjectivity is that which emerges from the relationship between the individual and the object in question. While not discounting entirely the role of science, this assertion had implications for how the natural world was being observed, not to mention the obvious problems that arise from the study of history. Helpfully for MBA students going struggling through substantial life decisions, he also reflected that “Anxiety precedes sin”, in that the former is one of the oldest states of human experience and is the product of facing the immense freedom humans have over their own lives. Reflecting his philosophy, Kierkegaard’s thoughts were dispersed in a disorganized fashion across pseudonyms, short stories, letters, plays and books, often taking different sides of an argument to make a wider point. Unlike Nietzsche, Sartre, and the endless line of existentialists that came after him, Kierkegaard saw Christianity’s central paradoxes and promise of personal revelation as showing a way out of the despair of a world without meaning.

Related: Much of what Kierkegaard protested in his writings was the prevalent Hegelism of his time, and as such Hegel comes as a related recommendation. Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote comes recommended as a full-length novel that anticipated Kierkegaardian thought. And not actually related philosophically, but Friedrich Engels once attended a lecture by Kierkegaard late in the Dane’s life.

Slavoj Zizek
The “Elvis of Cultural Theory”, Zizek may very well be the last well-known communist philosopher active in the west. Born in Yugoslavia at the dawn of the Cold War, his obscure work turned more toward popular culture analysis and an ever-more eclectic critique of global capitalism. Thus, he is known to attack German bondholders of Greek debt in one breath and DreamWorks pictures for Kung-Fu Panda in the next. His value to those of us who could do without Marx is not just in his push against political correctness but in dismembering the banal assertions of mainstream cultural and political commentators. For Zizek, the assertion of “unbiased” news is an obvious lie- rather, there are “unknown knowns”, those things we do not know we know, i.e. ideology. An example of this would be that you are reading this extended listicle because you do not consciously think this is worth your time- you do not know that you know it is worth it.

Related: Zizek is possibly most important due to his outsized influence on the modern left. He wrote one of the opening editorials in The Jacobin, one of the most important magazines for leftist thought today.

Christopher Hitchens
The late Christopher Hitchens is famous for many things, including his conversion from Trotskyist to neoconservative during the 2000s. A contrarian who literally wrote the book, he attacked a number of sacred cows, from Princess Diana to Mother Theresa to the idea of the sacred itself. Never one to shy away from a debate, his “Debate of the Decade” with George Galloway regarding the Iraq War still stands as a convincing argument for liberal interventionism, as does his unrelenting defense of enlightenment values of free speech and inquiry. While on the record on doubting the current President’s political offer and the appropriateness of having a supposedly unideological figure in charge, there was no doubt how he felt about the Clintons. His definition of public intellectual helped inform this list, and while there is likely not a single person in the world that agrees with all his views, the world would be a better place if we had more journalists like him.

Related: The journalist Michael Tracey is the closest thing we have right now to the idiosyncratic Hitchens. The “other Hitchens”, Peter, is a paleoconservative who, after being profoundly unhappy with politics in both sides of the Atlantic, is finally seeming to be a bit more cheerful. An interview between these two figures was just posted and worth thirty minutes of your time.

-James McKinney, outgoing VP of Programming