A few years ago, attended a seminar on the “Memorial Address”, a speech delivered by Martin Heidegger in 1955, on the 175th anniversary of the birth of composer Conradin Kreutzer. Apart from reports from the organizer of the seminar that gasps had been emitted from other faculty at St. Mary’s at the mere idea that anyone would read a Nazi sympathizer,* about the only thing I remember from this seminar is the introduction by the translator. In it, he mentioned by way of explanation that, in Germany in the 1950s, people still invited philosophers to speak at public occasions, as representatives of best thinking at the time. So Heidegger, whose works very few philosophers and fewer civilians even pretend to understand (I don’t), was still respected enough in the land of Kant and Hegel that mere incomprehensibility was not considered a fatal shortcoming.
Anyway, the translator thought it important enough to mention that philosophers were once considered public figures, as if it might otherwise seem jarring to a modern reader to read something from a philosopher written and delivered as a speech to a audience at a anniversary celebration. Moderns, it seems, expect their philosophers to be safely quarantined in lecture halls and classrooms, away from honest citizens.
This low opinion of academic philosophers can be seen in the movie Funny Face, produced in America a few years later in 1957. In this comedy, the hopelessly nerdy and hopelessly beautiful book store clerk Jo Stockton, played by Audrey Hepburn, is smitten by the philosophy of “empathicalism” propounded by one Emile Flostre, a Parisian philosopher. (I imagine they made Flostre French because it was a little too soon in 1957 to use a German philosopher. Besides, German philosophers are not funny, at least not in a light enough way to use in a musical comedy.)
The plot, such as it is, brings Jo and Dick Avery (Fred Astaire) to Paris. Dick’s job is to warn Jo off Flostre, who he is certain is a fraud and lecher. Even though his motives are more and more suspect as he falls in love with Jo, Dick is proven correct in spades – Flostre thinks of Jo as only another conquest to be made, and shows no ’empathy’ with her desire for, I suppose, TRVTH.
The point is, that in an America where the dominant philosophical school at the time were (still are!) various flavors of Marxist, Hegelian and Analytic Philosophy, the producers of this movie were safe in having the protagonist announce that Flostre was a fraud well before he ever makes an appearance, and regardless of the noble-sounding but laughable things Jo says about him and his teachings. American movie-goers were safely assumed to largely share or at least be sympathetic to this point of view.
Heidegger might have been the last philosopher as public figure to grace the intellectual landscape of the West. Given the nature of the philosophy now taught at the University, it’s hard to see this as any great loss.
Two related posts:
*I want to say I’m sure that Margaret Sanger and John Dewey, for example, get a similar reaction at St. Mary’s because of their political views and affiliations, but somehow I doubt it.