by John Zerzan


Theodor Adorno opens his magnum opus Negative Dialectics (1966) with “Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed.” Thus, he goes on to say, philosophy is “obliged ruthlessly to criticize itself.”

Not only has it misfired, but its failure and irrelevance has only worsened over the years, with scant exceptions. Its tedious abstraction means the standard philosophy college survey course easily wins the “most boring” prize.

Cumhaill and Wiseman’s Metaphysical Animals (2022) tells us about post-World War II women philosophers at Oxford, and points out that the “greats” of European philosophy have all been men, and nearly all of them bachelors. They isolated themselves from women and children, so largely from life, love, and loss.

The separation of philosophy from the larger culture goes along with an increasing separation of philosophers from other philosophers. In 1962 Yehoshua Bar-Hillel judged that “communication between philosophers has been deteriorating during the last decades.”

Originally the word meant “love of wisdom,” referring to knowledge in general. Very early on, the senses were ruled out in favor of the cerebral alone. In the past century or two specialization has set in with a vengeance, producing mostly abstruse intellectual puzzles of interest only to professionals.

Meanwhile a new malaise of civilization is the zeitgeist, with news outlets fueling a fast-spreading catastrophic outlook. End times prevail, with new depths of psychological suffering. Technology has triumphed, leaving us feeling lonely and abandoned.

The current period of widespread indifference to politics has seen the end of “every emancipatory adventure,” according to Elizabeth Rondinesco in 2005.

I’d like to back up here, to the 19th century, to take a look at how philosophy’s idols (some of them, anyway) helped bring us to today. Deflate them a bit, bring them down to earth, starting with Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) proclaimed a “life is suffering” doctrine, close to the outlook of Buddhism. In The World as Will and Representation (1818) he saw irrational, unrelenting will as bedeviling the individual, denying personal fulfillment. He was one of a handful of philosophers who addressed suffering, but only in terms of a quasi-religious gesture, quite removed from historical or social reality.

Referred to as the Great Pessimist, he became far less pessimistic when he acquired prestige quite late in life, as a kind of overnight sensation. His was perhaps not as serious a philosophy as he projected, but Schopenhauer had a major influence on Friedrich Nietzsche.

According to Nietzsche, a philosopher should be “a terrible explosive from which nothing is safe.” To many, he was a radical iconoclast, the anti-Christ, his Zarathustra alter ego proclaiming the ubermensch/overman hurling prophetic thunderbolts. Gilles Deleuze judged that “modern philosophy has largely lived off Nietzsche, but not perhaps in the way he would have wished.”

In fact, the image of a peripatetic wild man misses the mark entirely. He wandered, having abandoned his philology professorship early on, but his outlook was conventional at base, at least until he approached a psychotic break at the age of 45.

He rejected antisemitism and German nationalism, boosting Felix Mendelssohn as his favorite composer, and aspiring to the status of “good European.” He would resemble a modern liberal, but for the fact that he was wholly against democracy.

Nietzsche did not deliver a systematic philosophy His outlook was anti-metaphysical, and beginning with The Birth of Tragedy (1872), more of an aesthetic one. His contrast of Dionysian and Apollonian impulses in the arts was meant to revitalize Western civilization, not to combat it. His attention to the dynamics of individual ethics qualify Nietzsche as more of a psychologist than a philosopher. He advocated a more instinctual approach to life, decrying the tame and civilized status of the herd. But at times he undercut this anti-domestication sentiment by urging the subject to transcend his animal nature.

For Nietzsche freedom is the will to power; however, he quite clearly rejected the idea of power as power over others. He meant self-mastery; again, the psychologist, the ethicist. Robert Solomon’s essay, “A More Severe Morality: Nietzsche’s Affirmative Ethics” explores this ably.

His crowning conception was eternal recurrence or amor fati, love of fate: the unreserved embrace and recurrence of all that was and is without change. Conservative conformism on a philosophic level, as I see it.

Nietzsche died in 1900, after a decade of madness following his 1889 breakdown in Turin. Another unsystematic thinker, Henri Bergson, was beginning to emerge into prominence in the years before World War I. He was by far the most well-known philosopher in the interwar years. Since World War II, unlike Nietzsche, he has been forgotten.

Bergson stressed experience and intuition over mediation and abstraction; he wrote of duration as lived time. HIs vitalist outlook fit the pre-World War I zeitgeist of energy and challenge. Nikos Kazantzakis was Bergson’s student; his Zorba the Greek expresses some of that spirit. Bergson’s major works include Time and Free Will and the very popular Creative Evolution.

Coinciding with the heyday of Bergsonism was the arrival of the “linguistic turn,” the major philosophical development of the 20th century. This movement is variously called analytic philosophy, logical positivism, and the Vienna Circle, the last a reference to its proponents. For these philosophers, all philosophical questions are questions of language.

Outspoken philosopher Marjorie Grene trashed this as a move to the “more and more trivial, more and more divorced from anything…you can tell when philosophers start talking. There’s no connection with reality.” Bruce Wilshire put it this way: “Analytic philosophy tends powerfully to put us at a remove from everything, even from our own selves, selves turned ghostly.”

With the likes of Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein, the modern analytic shift was based on logic, specifically mathematical logic, the most formal kind. Thus meaning somehow resides in what is ever more formally abstract, aiming at an utmost precision of language, a purely formal analysis.

Looking for the austere logical skeleton within language is immeasurably remote from actual reality and its challenges. Language is not bodily. It is the missing person. Analytic philosophy is thin and desiccated to the highest degree. Wittgenstein, considered the most brilliant of the analytic practitioners, ended up seeing the folly of the search for the inner meaning of language. His early Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus pursued the party line, but he reversed course with Philosophical Investigations (published posthumously in 1953). He came to the conclusion that the secret of language is a false quest, that the many uses of ordinary language (“language games,” as he called them) work just fine.

Edmund Husserl founded phenomenology at the beginning of the 20th century. He tried to establish a rigorous analysis of consciousness in order to get directly “to the things themselves,” free of preconceptions. Although he failed to reach this goal, Husserl’s brand of theory of knowledge was an influence in many spheres of thought throughout the century. His aim––an unmediated, beyond-the-conceptual connection with “things themselves”––beckons, but cannot be obtained through abstraction. (Which is, after all the hallmark of philosophy.)

Husserl was the mentor of Martin Heidegger, who as the rector of the University of Freiburg banned him from the campus when the Nazis came to power in 1933. (Husserl was retired but had continued to use the university library for his research.)

To many in the philosophy playpen, Heidegger was the most influential thinker of the 20th century. He focused on what it means to be: Dasein, or being in the world, with his declarative Being and Time (1927). He asserted that it is possible “to think being” in separation from beings, a Heideggerian version of existentialism.

Against our “fallenness,” our “forgetfulness of Being” (we’ve been on the wrong path since Plato), Heidegger situates thinking on a deep ontological level. But it’s so much bunkum that links up to nothing. He even attests that all human inquiry is circular. His rhetoric sounds profound and goes nowhere. Adorno’s The Jargon of Authenticity nails it: jargon, not authenticity.

His one actual insight he quickly rendered inconsequential. He saw that technology devours and deforms everything, even thought itself. So he recommended a new Be-ing––but one that would leave technology alone! In 1955 he said, “We can use technical devices and yet with proper use we also keep ourselves free of them.” (!!) This quietism is a total copout, and I think he knew better. “Only a God could save us,” he declared in a 1966 Der Spiegel interview.

There are those who find Heidegger’s thought eminently separable from his identification with Nazism, a deplorable ethical lapse by his partisans. Recent scholarship has made this position even less defensible. Beginning in 2014 his Black Notebooks, covering entries between 1931 and 1969, have been published. Notebooks can consist of undeveloped ephemera, but Heidegger considered the Notebooks his crowning achievement, containing his definitive judgments. As convincingly documented in Richard Wolin’s Heidegger in Ruins (2022), the Notebooks display the depth of his antisemitism, commitment to Nazi ideology, and their connection to his overall philosophy. It’s an extremely ugly and irredeemable collection, reflecting almost forty years of bile and bigotry.

Gilbert Ryle, along with A.J. Ayer, Rudolf Carnap, and of course Wittgenstein, was a mainstay of the logical positivist/analytic school. Ryle summed up Heidegger in earthy terms: “He was a shit from the heels up, and a shit from the heels up can’t do good philosophy.”

Martin Heidegger claimed throughout his career that he was a phenomenologist, no matter how distant his thought was from “the things themselves.” His empty ontology was in no way bodily, for instance.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, on the other hand, was indeed a phenomenologist, the century’s most prominent. Certainly influenced by Heidegger, his emphasis was on perception, consciousness, embodiment. He was a co-editor, with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, of Les Temps Modernes. This collaboration, and further philosophical exploration, were cut short by Merleau-Ponty’s death at age 53.

Sartre was an acclaimed dramatist (e.g. No Exit), and novelist; Nausea was one of the major novels of the 20th century. His Being and Nothingness (1943), proposing that human being is a nothingness that must constitute itself, is a long introduction to a philosophy of freedom. The Nazi occupation forced the question of freedom on Sartre; it was the ground from which existentialism emerged in the postwar West, especially in France.

Sartre’s partner Simone de Beauvoir was strongly influenced by Engels’ The Origins of the Family: Private Property and the State. She saw in women a “new proletariat,” and wrote early feminist classics, notably The Second Sex (1949).

Sartre was a famous partisan of the Left, opposing French colonialism in Algeria and French and American imperialism in Vietnam. In The Critique of Dialectical Reason, he tried to reconcile existentialism and marxism. Despite his cornerstone Rousseauvian emphasis on existential freedom, he joined the French Communist party and praised the regimes of Stalin and Mao Tse-Tung.

Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse were co-members of the radical Frankfurt School. Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) borrowed a leaf from Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, as to the ever-greater instinctual renunciations at the heart of civilization. They give a different spin to the scene in Homer’s Odyssey in which Odysseus and his crew are tempted by the Sirens: “Come ashore and party with us!” His response is to have himself tied to the mast, his crew’s ears blocked with wax. To Homer the Sirens threatened death. To Adorno they represented eros and freedom, an interruption to the voyage to repression/civilization.

Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization (1955) tried (unsuccessfully, I think) to rescue civilization via a middle-ground perspective. Against Freud’s conclusion that repression is the very nature of civilization, he argued that if we could remove excess or “surplus” repression from civilization all would be fine. Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man (1964) despaired of the possibility that people could revolt. With what he termed repressive desublimation, the subject has become too deeply enslaved. “The Sixties” began to explode globally within months of the publication of One-Dimensional Man. Teaching in California, Marcuse joined the movement.  HIs star pupil, Angela Davis, turned out to be a marxist-leninist, sadly enough. Somewhat like the case of Jurgen Habermas, Adorno’s graduate student, a committed proponent of civilization and enlightenment; not a failed, fatal experiment, Habermas claims, but one in need of completion or fulfillment. (!!)

Neo-Freudian Jacques Lacan had–– and still has, in the case of leftist Slavoj Zizek––an influence on philosophy. His most memorable line reminds us of the continuing dominance of the “linguistic turn”: “The Unconscious is structured like a language.”

Postmodernism enters the picture in the 1960s with figures like Jacques Derrida, who also enlisted under the “linguistic turn” banner. And who famously proclaimed, “There is nothing outside the text.” Nothing inside it either, when one applies his deconstruction approach that undermines stable meaning, ultimately reducing text to incoherence when it is shaken or stirred enough. Derrida renounced categories like transparency, presence, origin. Now that Artificial Intelligence can produce the text and the other symbolic products, where does that leave deconstruction?

Jean-François Lyotard was another postmodernist. Like Derrida, he opposed metanarrative, the desire to grasp an overview or the whole. “Let us wage war on totality,” he urged, for the will to totalize is a totalitarian impulse. This was aimed at marxism, but extended to create its own anti-totality totality, a generalized dictum that rules out understanding.

Among those in the postmodern dark in France I must award the prize for most removed from reality to Jean Baudrillard, beloved by the art school-type crowd in the ’80s and ’90s. In his early work, such as The Mirror of Production (1975), he cogently analyzed marxism as embracing productionism as fervently as does capitalism. But he soon declared that reality is no longer moored to reference points; under the sign of simulation modernity has become hyperreal; all is simulation. In The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (1995) Baudrillard took this view to a new level, asserting that images of the U.S. war on Iraq were more real than any actual “war.” It has been said that from being a big science fiction aficionado he graduated to writing sci-fi himself. One quote he did get right: “We live in a world where there is more and more information and less and less meaning.”

In many ways postmodernism was a debilitating impulse, a surrender in thinking. Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University, published “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” in a 1996 issue of Social Text, a “cultural studies” journal. Sokal purported to apply a postmodern approach to particle physics; the article was a complete hoax, as he admitted. A parody, employing trendy pomo rhetoric, without substance. But leading postmodernists fought back, defending the indefensible, just as there were those who defended Baudrillard’s insistence that the Gulf War didn’t really happen.

Strongly influenced by his contemporaries Foucault and Sartre, Gilles Deleuze focused on how philosophy comes about. He first received acclaim in academic circles for his Nietzsche and Philosophy (1962). Deleuze became involved in what is called the philosophy of sense; in The Logic of Sense (1969) he resisted philosophy’s “linguistic turn.” It was at this point that he came to fully embrace his materialist and naturalistic leanings. In those years he began his collaboration with activist psychiatrist Felix Guattari. Deleuze’s major work, Difference and Repetition, mirrors, however abstractly, the difference he sought, and the repetition and inertia that blocked liberation from the State and the Communist party.

Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus (1972) and A Thousand Plateaus (1980) are the two volumes of their Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Foucault’s take was that these works examine Western society’s “innate herd instinct” and question what is normalcy. But their complicated and obscure “body without organs” concept seems to me unnecessarily central to either capitalism or schizophrenia.  And their reliance on the “rhizome” metaphor, describing a lattice-like surface as means of development, is clearly related to postmodern rejection of depth and origins.

The Left in Europe declined markedly in the 1970s. Its last significant theorist was the structural marxist Louis Althusser, who strangled his wife in 1980 and was declared insane. His For Marx (1962) and Reading Capital (with co-authors, 1965) are forgotten today, even as embarrassing communists like Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek soldier on.

Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (1967) introduced an important concept as to the nature of modern society. Ignored by the mainstream until the 1990s as too radical, Debord, in turn, ignored the centrality of technology.

There were no important postmodern thinkers after the 1990s. In America, philosophy has mainly slumbered in the shallows of pragmatism, from William James down through John Dewey and more recently, Richard Rorty. Its thin reformism barely veils its utter conformism.

Another branch of contemporary philosophy includes ethicists such as Emmanuel Levinas, Martha Nussbaum, and Peter Singer. I think their overall failure stems from ignoring social institutions, while claiming to decide how to approach questions of right and wrong.

A third sector is philosophy of mind, still haunted by machine metaphors despite the overwhelming negative reality of technology. Thomas Nagel’s What Is it Like to be a Bat? (1974) is a banal if well-known offering from this field.

Philosophy: for all that life has been up against, hardly a success story.