How To Deal With Fringe Academics

Judith Shulevitz is the New York editor of Slate and writes the “Culturebox” column. John Tooby is a professor of anthropology and co-director of the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Slate has invited them to discuss the academic fringe in general and Kevin MacDonald in particular. Alex Star, the editor of Lingua Franca, is moderating. Click here to read his introduction and recap of the brouhaha over MacDonald.

Dear John,

That was quite a long and complicated letter–2,771 words by my count. That’s much too much for me to take on in a responsible fashion, so I’m going to skip over a number of things. I want to go right to your “gotcha” points: Heidegger and de Man. Heidegger is easy. We agree that he was an unrepentant Nazi and anti-Semite. We disagree about how important this is for his work. You say: Heidegger is the authority on his own philosophy. He praised the Nazi movement, even after the war. Therefore his philosophy must be Nazi philosophy. I say: There’s a lot of debate about this, and only a minority of philosophers believe we have to write off Heidegger’s main ideas about Being, Time, and so forth, because of his Nazism.

De Man is tougher. You accuse me of underplaying de Man’s Nazism, and on reflection, I think you have a point. He wrote several pieces for Le Soir, a collaborationist newspaper, which I should have said, and his ugly declaration about expelling the Jews from Europe, made in service of an argument about the de-Judaification of literature (which I did mention) should have been stressed. Lest your readers think me guilty of deliberate misstatement rather than understatement, here’s a quote from a review by Ze’ev Sternhell in the New Republic, which is not a publication known for making light of Nazi collaboration. (The book under discussion is a collection of de Man’s wartime articles.) Sternhell writes: ” ‘The Jews in Contemporary Literature’ is the only anti-Semitic article by Paul de Man so far known, and it does not really amount to much. The point, however, is that it was just one of a few dozen articles by de Man with which Nazi propaganda could not have failed to be pleased.” (For Sternhell’s summary of the article in question, see. For Sternhell’s assessment of the relative severity of de Man’s collaborationism, see.)

I would never defend (and haven’t defended) de Man’s behavior as a junior intellectual churning out obliquely pro-Nazi–though with one exception, not anti-Semitic–reviews in order to please his Nazi bosses. I just don’t believe you can reduce all of his later and brilliantly argued system of critical thought to a mere rationalization of his earlier behavior. You disagree. You say you see certain key de Manian concepts as self-justifying. You pull out a short passage of Allegories of Reading and interpret it as having a hidden biographical meaning. That’s a legitimate opinion–indeed, it’s the majority opinion. I happen to think it’s wrong.

How are readers to sort all this out? The answer is, on the basis of what we’ve written here, they can’t. We’re having a meta-discussion here. We’ve stated our points without really defending them. We’ve signaled where the actual argument lies, and hinted at what we would say, if only time and space, etc. We haven’t marshaled the relevant philosophical arguments for and against Heidegger. We haven’t worked through the textual evidence upon which de Man’s criticism rests. We’ve staked out our territory and waved some flags around.

I stress this because it goes to the heart of one of the two important claims in your letter–that moral judgment and scientific refutation are mutually incompatible. (The other claim–that silence is the best course of action when dealing with noxious ideas–I addressed in my last letter.) Before considering the implications of this interesting and troubling belief, I can’t resist pointing out an obvious irony: In your letter, you take the side of truth-seeking against the uttering of unjustified pronunciamentos, and yet you begin the letter by denouncing Heideggerian and de Manian thought as morally unsound without mounting a rigorous defense of your point of view.

Back to your point. Is moral judgment really at odds with science? To make this case, you must resort to some fairly extreme rhetoric. First, you divide the world into “the culture of truth-seeking” and “the culture of moralizing.” Then you say (in another footnote): “Denouncing also subverts refutation–since it implies that the real motive for the refutation is not honest evaluation but the pre-rational defense of a foregone conclusion.” In other words, there is truth and there is attitudinizing, and attitudinizing shuts the door on truth.

That’s a pretty dismissive way for an anthropologist to talk about the entire domain of non-empirically-verifiable ethical thought and discourse. I agree that they’re two distinct worlds, but do you really think that science is legitimate and ethics isn’t? That the one cancels the other out? How far would you push this? In your ideal universe, would no one be allowed to express judgments about the ethical implications or relative merits of this or that idea except for people in a position to argue their case before a panel of experts? In other words, no meta-discussions like this one. Nothing but the words of Ph.D.s on subjects they are credentialed to discuss. No comments by anthropologists on Heidegger and de Man, and no journalism, either.

I think what you’re really trying to say is that journalists like me should just shut up, because we’re not qualified to pass judgment on the likes of you or MacDonald. Which brings us to the second irony of the day, because my criticism of you has always been that you and your colleagues are in a better position than I am to refute MacDonald and yet declined to acknowledge the existence of his theories on Jews until two weeks ago. (For the record, I never said his views were false; I’ve said they were ugly, anti-Semitic, and similar to those held by Nazis. I also said in the “Fray” that I thought that the part of his scholarship I knew a little about–his Jewish scholarship–was shoddy and intellectually dishonest.)

As for what you were and were not aware of when you and your colleagues elected MacDonald to be secretary of HBES in 1995, a graduate student in your field has written in to draw my attention to some commentary written by MacDonald and published in 1994. It was part of a round of comments following an article by David Sloan Wilson and Elliott Sober in a prominent journal on the subject of group selection (D.S. Wilson and E. Sober, “Reintroducing group selection to the human and behavioral sciences,” Behavioral & Brain Sciences 17 (1994): 585-684. Click here to read it.) The student writes, “This article has, more than any other, rehabilitated group selection as a legitimate subject of discussion in evolutionary biology; it’s been cited 82 times in the journal literature alone (according to the Science Citation Index). Both Wilson and Sober and several of the commentators cite work by Tooby & Cosmides or Cosmides & Tooby. It is perfectly impossible that John Tooby had not seen it, or that most of the other serious scholars in his organization had not as well.”

The student has requested anonymity for fear of angering a prominent member of his or her field, but we don’t have to take his/her word. If we look up the article for ourselves, we see that among those contributing to the issue were many eminent figures in this field, including Richard Dawkins and Daniel C. Dennett. This supports the contention that the article was an important intervention. In footnote No. 25, Wilson and Sober mention MacDonald in a list they say is of “evolutionary psychologists.” I believe this proves my earlier point that his correct professional identification is a matter of some dispute within the discipline.

The juicy part, though, is this passage by MacDonald:

This facultative response to external threat has often been manipulated by Jewish authorities attempting to inculcate a stronger sense of group identification among Jews by exaggerating the threat of anti-Semitism. Strategizing groups are thus able to manipulate social environments in ways that trigger evolved psychological mechanisms related to group functioning. On the other hand, there are several important historical examples where increased levels of resource competition between Jews and gentiles have triggered reactive processes among gentiles, resulting in gentiles developing highly cohesive anti-Semitic group strategies in opposition to Judaism–what I term ‘reactive racism.’(K. MacDonald, “Group evolutionary strategies: dimensions and mechanisms [commentary on D.S. Wilson & E. Sober, “Group Selection”],” Behavioral & Brain Sciences 17 (1994): 629-630, p. 630.)

It’s all there: those scheming Jews, the evolutionary justification for anti-Semitism. I look forward to reading the refutation forthcoming on your Web site.