Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 1, 2008

Studying philosophy at the New School

Filed under: Academia,philosophy — louisproyect @ 8:12 pm

Hans Jonas

Aron Gurwitsch

A couple of items that I stumbled across on the net lately have gotten me thinking about time spent as a graduate student in the philosophy department of the New School back in 1965 to 1967.

The first was an article titled “Why are some of the greatest thinkers being expelled from their disciplines?” that appeared in the July 25th Chronicle of Higher Education. Written by UCLA professor and long-time semi-Marxist social commentator Russell Jacoby, it called attention to the disappearance of Freud, Marx and Hegel from academia:

How is it that Freud is not taught in psychology departments, Marx is not taught in economics, and Hegel is hardly taught in philosophy? Instead these masters of Western thought are taught in fields far from their own. Nowadays Freud is found in literature departments, Marx in film studies, and Hegel in German. But have they migrated, or have they been expelled? Perhaps the home fields of Freud, Marx, and Hegel have turned arid. Perhaps those disciplines have come to prize a scientistic ethos that drives away unruly thinkers. Or maybe they simply progress by sloughing off the past.

I was fortunate to study at the New School long before this trend set in. But I am afraid that Jacoby is not that attuned to the philosophy scene on campus if he thought that Hegel was ever some hot commodity for the sad fact is that academia has been Hegel-free (and Descarte-free, etc.) for an entire generation except as examples of how not to “do” philosophy. The so-called Continental philosophy that traces its lineage back to Descartes is for the most part not practiced nowadays. And if it is taught, it is taught as a part of true philosophy’s prehistory. This school, descended from Logical Positivism, has also been described as linguistic analysis. Much of its effort was directed at debunking the classic “problems” of Continental philosophy in the style of A.J. Ayer, one of the leading figures who focused on the “verification principle”, which means that a proposition can only be true if it can stand up to empirical testing. As such, all philosophy that derives from Descartes cannot be “verified”.

Parenthetically, I must admit a certain admiration for Ayer based on a wiki article that reveals among other things that he put in a stint at Bard College in 1987, my alma mater. That year, he had a run-in with boxer Mike Tyson that ended well apparently:

At a party that same year held by fashion designer Fernando Sanchez, Ayer, then 77, confronted Mike Tyson harassing the (then little-known) model Naomi Campbell. When Ayer demanded that Tyson stop, the boxer said: “Do you know who the fuck I am? I’m the heavyweight champion of the world,” to which Ayer replied: “And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both pre-eminent in our field. I suggest that we talk about this like rational men.” Ayer and Tyson then began to talk, while Naomi Campbell slipped out.

Now in my 63rd year, I am old enough to have been educated by a couple of philosophers whose propositions might not have stood up to the “verification principle”. Even though I came to reject the kind of philosophical idealism whose traditions they identified with (although from the standpoint of historical materialism rather than logical positivism), I remain grateful for the opportunity to have studied with them. As prototypical German-Jewish intellectuals of the type that found refuge at the New School (at one time called the University in Exile), they were a cut above the kind of sterile linguistic “debunking” that succeeded them in philosophy departments around the U.S.

The first of these was Aron Gurwitsch (1901-1973), who has been honored in a website that I happened upon the other week. http://www.gurwitsch.net/. When I was at the New School, Gurwitsch was one of the two most important figures (Hans Jonas was the other, who I will speak about momentarily.) His claim to fame was being one of the leading exponents of Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology in the U.S. Husserl was a major influence on German and French existentialism, although Gurwitsch seemed to have no connection or interest in what people like Heidegger, Merlau-Ponty and Sartre were up to. Mainly, Gurwitsch saw the “theory of intentionality” as a kind of silver bullet that could resolve some of the outstanding problems of Continental philosophy going back to Descartes. These problems fundamentally revolved around the dualism incorporated in Descartes famous dictum: “I think, therefore I am.”

In a survey of European philosophy that had well over 100 registered students in attendance and which consisted solely of a 90 minute lecture by Gurwitsch given entirely without notes and that only permitted questions from students after he was finished, he demonstrated how the mind-body contradiction implicit in Descartes dictum invited responses that were never satisfactory, often veering off in the kind of solipsism found in George Berkeley who taking Descartes’s ideas to their logical conclusion questioned whether we could ever perceive reality directly since the mind (cogito) always a mediator that both acted on our behalf and got in the way. In reference to Berkeley’s philosophy, Dr. Samuel Johnson once kicked a heavy stone and exclaimed, “I refute it thus!”

Although Husserl’s writings are terribly complex, Gurwitsch had the knack of making them quite understandable. Basically, phenomenology sidesteps the whole Cartesian conundrum and treats consciousness as a first-person singular act worthy of study but not really applicable to the kinds of epistemological exercises found in Berkeley, Spinoza, Hume et al. Basically, the focus is shifted toward experience in the world rather than beyond it. As such, it is obvious why it would have an influence on existentialism. For Gurwitsch, however, the real affinity was with Gestalt psychology. Having already mastered physics, math and philosophy, he began a study of Piaget’s writings in order to build a bridge between Husserl’s theories and the new field in psychology that approached consciousness “holistically”.

Although I never really kept up with my philosophy studies after receiving a MA in 1967 and embarking on an unpaid career in Marxist politics, I was reminded of how powerful a tool phenomenology can be in the right hands after reviewing Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Coming of Age” for Swans earlier this year. I marveled at her ability to weave together so many disparate strands in trying to explain the problems of aging in the ancient and modern worlds, especially in her treatment of some notable figures such as Leon Trotsky:

Even if the body does send us signals, they are ambiguous. There is a temptation to confuse some curable disease with irreversible old age. Trotsky lived only for working and fighting, and he dreaded growing old: he was filled with anxiety when he remembered Turgenev’s remark, one that Lenin often quoted – “Do you know the worst of all vices? It is being over fifty-five.” And in 1933, when he was exactly fifty-five himself, he wrote a letter to his wife, complaining of tiredness, lack of sleep, a failing memory; it seemed to him that his strength was going, and it worried him. “Can this be age that has come for good, or is it no more than a temporary, though sudden, decline that I shall recover from? We shall see.” Sadly he called the past to mind: “I have a painful longing for your old photograph, the picture that shows us both when we were so young.” He did get better and he took up all his activities again.

The biographical sketch at http://www.gurwitsch.net/ was a real eye-opener. I knew practically nothing about my professor except that he was an expert on Husserl. It turns out that his original training was as a mathematician and physicist, studying under Max Planck in the University of Berlin. Long after he had made his mark in philosophy, Gurwitsch remained fluent in the sciences so much so that he was able to teach Physics at Harvard University during WWII and Mathematics at Brandeis University afterwards.

I also found out about how Gurwitsch ended up at the New School:

The last dozen years of teaching at the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research in New York City have been the happiest. Originally the University in Exile and a haven for emigré scholars, some of whom remained while; others went on to other schools, this institution has been unique. Its original faculty and orientation stemmed from pre-Nazi Europe. Alfred Schutz joined the Graduate Faculty in 1943 and became professor of philosophy and sociology .He had the idea of making the philosophy department a center for phenomenology . Dorion Cairns had been added to the department by 1956, and plans were well advanced to add a chair in 1960 for Gurwitsch. Then Schutz died suddenly, and Gurwitsch was called to replace him as professor of philosophy.

I was not that surprised to discover that according Gurwitsch once expressed “concern to a colleague that politicized students might destroy the university.” If somebody like Theodor Adorno would express similar worries, we could hardly expect Gurwitsch to be more understanding.

Although I admired Gurwitsch, I found him a remote and intimidating figure. He could always be found in the New School cafeteria before class surrounded by sycophantic graduate students in tweed jackets. These were the same students who often put tape recorders in front of his lectern. With the bank of microphones and his German accent, he came across like Henry Kissinger at a press conference.

Hans Jonas (1903-1993) was a horse of another color. Also a student of Husserl, as well as part of a circle that included Paul Tillich, Hannah Arendt and her husband Heinrich Blucher with whom I studied at Bard College, Jonas tried to apply phenomenology to the problems of life and ethics.

Although I had no particular interest in studying philosophy except as a way to maintain a student deferment during the Vietnam War. The closest I came to feeling the kind of passion that I felt studying literature or Greek fertility cults at Bard College or Marxism later on with veterans of the 1930s labor movement came with a seminar on Kant with Jonas. I wrote a paper on Kant’s ethics that tried to integrate it with his epistemology-all operating on the basis of subjectivity-that received an A. Grades never meant very much to me but I felt very flattered to get that kind of recognition. Jonas invited all his students up to a Sunday afternoon tea at his house in New Rochelle one Sunday. He took me aside that afternoon and strongly encouraged me to continue with my studies.

Six months later I was in the SWP and ready to put philosophy behind me. At the time, I tried to explain my intellectual evolution as consistent with the upward march of homo sapiens. I began as a religion major at Bard, in keeping with mankind’s superstitious origins. Then I progressed to philosophy at the New School, operating on the basis of Pure Reason. And finally I became a Trotskyist, fully cognizant that it was only by abolishing class society that human freedom-including my own-could be realized.

Years later, I discovered that our paths had crossed once again. After leaving the Trotskyist movement and seeking to re-invent myself as a non-dogmatic Marxist, I found myself strongly attracted to the burgeoning environmental movement. So had Hans Jonas, on his own phenomenological basis.

He had written a book titled “The Imperative of Responsibility” in 1979 (the year after I had dropped out of the SWP) that made a deep impact on the Green movement in Germany. He wrote in the preface to the English edition:

Modern technology, informed by an ever deeper penetration of nature and propelled by the forces of market and politics, has enhanced human power beyond anything known or even dreamt of before. It is a power over matter, over life on earth, and over man himself; and it keeps growing at an accelerated pace.

Care for the future of mankind is the overruling duty of collective human action in the age of a technical civilization that has become ‘almighty’, if not in its productive then at least in its destructive potential. This care must obviously include care for the future of all nature on this planet as a necessary condition of man’s own. … We live in an apocalyptic situation, that is, under the threat of a universal catastrophe if we let things take their present course. … The danger derives from the excessive dimensions of the scientific-technological-industrial civilization. … The danger of disaster through scientific technology arises not so much from any shortcomings of its performance as from the magnitude of its success. This success is in the main of two kinds: economic and biological.

Jonas’s deep ecology came as a complete surprise to me. Although I rejected the semi-Heideggerian philosophical basis for both his book and much of the movement, I respect any initiative taken to defend flora and fauna.

Both Gurwitsch and Jonas remain important influences on my intellectual make-up even though it is obvious that we were worlds apart philosophically. Returning to the issue raised by Russell Jacoby, I find myself agreeing with him completely even though I am not on record as being a devotee of Sigmund Freud to put it mildly:

Culture is not like an automobile that should be junked when old and decrepit. I don’t see how we can be educated – or consider ourselves educators – if we consign to the dustbin, say, Freud’s exchange with Einstein on war, Marx’s description of “the cheap price of commodities” that batters down national boundaries, or Hegel’s notion of the master/slave relationship. Those ideas should be addressed, not parried; taught, not dismissed.

With the steady erosion of culture in the U.S., as the university system suffers from ever-increasing corporatization, the rigor and intellectual passion of a Gurwitsch or a Jonas is surely missed. If the long, great crisis of the period starting with WWI and lasting through the end of WWII could produce such great thinkers, perhaps the one thing that we can look forward to during the great and perhaps terminal crisis of bourgeois society is the reemergence of a new generation of thinkers inspired to penetrate to the root causes of the impending disaster.


  1. hi louis proyect,

    this is a great post, and very interesting to hear of the new school’s history in the 60s.

    don’t give up hope, yet, though — hegel is still being taught there, and certainly as an example of how to do philosophy. the great jay bernstein has giving hegel seminars for many years, and just last year, a course on hegel’s logic was offered in the department.

    i don’t know if hegel is taught elsewhere outside of the new school, or bc, or depaul…but you can still find quite a contingent of hegelians in nyc.

    Comment by orenda — August 1, 2008 @ 10:36 pm

  2. There is a detailed response to the Russell Jacoby article’s claims about philosophy here: http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2008/07/an-open-letter.html. Here’s what Jacoby says:

    “A search through the philosophy-course descriptions at the University of Kansas yields a single 19th-century-survey lecture that mentions Hegel. Marx receives a passing citation in an economics class on income inequality. Freud scores zero in psychology. At the University of Arizona, Hegel again pops up in a survey course on 19th-century philosophy; Marx is shut out of economics; and, as usual, Freud has disappeared. And at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Hegel does not appear in philosophy courses, Marx does not turn up in economics, and Freud is bypassed in psychology.”

    Here’s the response:

    “I assume that most historians have more regard for the use of evidence than is evident in Mr. Jacoby’s completely absurd sampling method, one made even more suspect by facts that are quite easy to confirm on-line but omitted by Mr. Jacoby. The Department of Philosophy at the University of Kansas, for example, has a full-time, tenure-stream young scholar who wrote his PhD thesis on Hegel, and who teaches and writes regularly (and intelligently) about both Hegel and Nietzsche. (Did it occur to Mr. Jacoby that the on-line course descriptions might be outdated?) This is all the more notable given that the Kansas department is relatively small. The University of Wisconsin at Madison also has a full-time, tenured member of the faculty (Ivan Soll), who has written one book on Hegel, and many articles on Hegel, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, among others. So much for Mr. Jacoby’s report of his random sampling.

    “Here, off the top of my head, is a list of tenure-stream faculty who teach and write about Hegel in just the top 20 philosophy departments in the U.S. (I assume that will qualify as the “scientistic” mainstream for Mr. Jacoby’s purposes): Beatrice Longuenesse at NYU; Robert Brandom at Pittsburgh; Allen Wood at Stanford; Frederick Neuhouser at Columbia; Karl Ameriks at Notre Dame; Michelle Kosch at Cornell; Michael Forster and Robert Pippin at Chicago; Kathleen Higgins at Texas; Michael Hardimon at UC San Diego. That’s not to mention, of course, all the faculty at these departments who regularly teach and write about Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, among others.”

    The problem is not so much that Hegel has been forgotten, but that the scholars who write about him are isolated in an academic environment that has almost no connection with any broader public discourse, let alone any kind of progressive political movement, even though almost all the Hegel scholars listed above would identify themselves as political progressives of one kind or another.

    The best of them is my former professor, Allen Wood (who has just moved from Stanford to Indiana). Wood is the leading authority in the US on Kant, Hegel and Marx, and has written excellent books on all of them. (My review of Wood’s book on Marx, recently reissued in a second edition, is here: http://www.isreview.org/issues/44/reviews44.shtml.) Here is what Wood writes in the Preface to his new book on *Kantian Ethics*:

    “This book was written mainly in the United States, between 2004 and 2006. The history of this period is a disgraceful one. It feels as if we have been living under a malignant alien occupation. An unelected political regime, representing everything that is worst about American culture, compiled a record of injustice, corruption, and gross incompetence at home, and of numerous and aggravated war crimes abroad. Then it was confirmed in office by another election of dubious legitimacy so that it might continue unrelentingly its monstrous wrongfulness and stupidity. Those with the power to oppose its crimes instead acquiesced in them, or else resisted too late, and too feebly. The very ideas of democracy, community, and human rights are in the process of dying in our civilization – or they are being willfully murdered by those in power and by that segment of the population which supports this regime. All they give us in place of these ideas is the empty words (and plenty of those). People have now perhaps begun to awaken to the situation, but the historical roots of what has happened are sunk deep in political trends of the previous century, and I fear these trends will not be reversed soon or easily. There are references here and there in the book to this dismal history, usually to illustrate arrogance, lying, and egregious violations of right. A few readers of my earlier work have told me they think this sort of thing is inappropriate in a scholarly book. But my worries about appearing ‘unscholarly’ pale next to my shame, which all Americans should feel at having failed to prevent the disastrous course of events.”

    Fine words, which will mainly gather dust on the library shelf until significant political movements reemerge outside the academy.

    Comment by Phil Gasper — August 2, 2008 @ 3:49 am

  3. Someone I know who used to be an academic philosopher, does think that academic philosophy in the US is currently in a bad way. His comments are as follows (BTW, AP is analytical philosophy, and CP is continental philosophy:

    “The rottenness, if any, is in the continental philosophers who have run out of things to say in their own idioms, adopt ours. I hold no particular brief for analytical philosophy, the tradition in which I was trained, I’m certainly not an AP snob though I think the approach has its virtues as well as its problems.

    “AP has also sort of run out of things to say, at least compared with the 1970s and early 80s when I was in grad school and Kripke, Fodor, Brandom etc. fresh and Putnam still creative, Kuhn active and Davidson and Sellars full of ideas, and Rawls and Nozick were newish. But as I have said here before AP has this feature of being set up to produce competent writing even if it is dull, and honestly it has been a long time since I have seen a paper posted at the APA that sounded interesting.

    “The quasi-Rorty-inspired (in part, the Analytical Marxists were not) appropriation” of continental phil by otherwise bored AP is a mixed bag, what isn’t. At its worst it can lose everything interesting in the CP. At its best — Larmore or Sluga on Heidegger, Nehemas or Clark on Nietzsche, Harris, Westfall or Forster on Hegel, Brudney or Fisk or Snith on Marx, it can be great. I think Brian Leiter makes Nietzsche uninteresting even though I think everything he says about Nietzsche is true. I told him that. But sweeping generalizations such as the ones you have been making lately are not constructive. Or interesting.”

    Comment by Jim Farmelant — August 2, 2008 @ 11:13 pm

  4. I leafed through Allen Wood’s book on Marx again this evening. The preface to the new edition gives some insight into what motivates his scholarship:

    “Capitalism exploits and oppresses most of the world’s population at the beginning of the twenty-first century in very much the same way Marx described it as doing in the middle of the nineteenth century. A great many more people now than in the past have good reasons to seek a better way for the human race to live and labor together. That is fundamentally why another world is still possible…

    “Only a worldwide movement of people who think about the world roughly as Marx did will be capable of reversing the present downward spiral in the affairs of humankind. It makes no difference whether such a movement calls itself ‘Marxist’ (just as Marx himself never thought that the working class movement had to bear his name, like a corporate logo). As things presently stand, it would be immediately fatal to any movement in this direction if it identified itself dogmatically with some self-appointed ‘Marxist’ faction out of the past. But it can only increase the chances of such a movement if more people reacquaint themselves with what Marx wrote and begin to think both sympathetically and critically about it, correcting the many misunderstandings that have long been perpetrated by enthusiasts and detractors alike.”

    Comment by Phil Gasper — August 4, 2008 @ 6:23 am

  5. James Lawler at Buffalo may teach Hegel.

    I bet there is a lot of teaching of Nietszche n the philosophy departments. Is that good ? ( or beyond good and evil ). Why note that N is taught in response to a question as to whether Hegel is taught ? They are different fundamentally, no ?

    Hegel can tend to lead to Marx, which the powers-that-be don’t want. N. leads you astray.

    Comment by Charles — August 6, 2008 @ 9:29 pm

  6. […] public links >> schutz Studying philosophy at the New School Saved by madman12221 on Tue 28-10-2008 Vampyr (1932, Carl Th. Dreyer) Saved by dansan101 on Tue […]

    Pingback by Recent Links Tagged With "schutz" - JabberTags — October 29, 2008 @ 5:04 pm

  7. I’m finishing my last year of undergraduate work (in philosophy) at Hastings College, a small liberal arts college in the middle of Nebraska. The head of the philosophy department, David Lovekin, thinks the world of Hegel. We devoted an entire semester to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, alone. I loved it.

    We’ve also talked quite a bit about Marx.

    And my psych courses (I’m also a psych major) all covered Freud, as well as my philosophy courses.

    So, do not despair! If tiny colleges in the middle of Nebraska are covering these areas in their undergraduate programs, it stands to reason that other schools are covering them, as well.

    Comment by Melanie Hiatt — January 5, 2009 @ 2:26 am

  8. Weird. I am at the same college (Hastings). I do agree with you as far as the topics of this discussion being covered. Good or bad, is up for debate.

    Comment by Hastings NE — August 6, 2009 @ 1:59 pm

  9. Hi Lousi,

    Nice reading about the student parties in New Rochelle. Hans Jonas was my father and my mother Eleonore jonas, who arranged those lovely parties, my mother, just passed away with all her wits about her at age 96 in January.


    Comment by Gabrielle Jonas-Bloom — September 28, 2012 @ 3:48 am

  10. […] Louis Proyect recalls Gurwitsch’s lectures style in the mid-1960s: […]

    Pingback by aron gurwitsch | NSSR Philosophy — November 8, 2017 @ 8:39 pm

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