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The Philosophy Scare

The Politics of Reason in the Early Cold War

From the rise of formalist novels that championed the heroism of the individual to the proliferation of abstract art as a counter to socialist realism, the years of the Cold War had a profound impact on American intellectual life. As John McCumber shows in this fascinating account, philosophy, too, was hit hard by the Red Scare. Detailing the immense political pressures that reshaped philosophy departments in midcentury America, he shows just how radically politics can alter the course of intellectual history.  
McCumber begins with the story of Max Otto, whose appointment to the UCLA Philosophy Department in 1947 was met with widespread protest charging him as an atheist. Drawing on Otto’s case, McCumber details the hugely successful conservative efforts that, by 1960, had all but banished the existentialist and pragmatist paradigms—not to mention Marxism—from philosophy departments all across the country, replacing them with an approach that valorized scientific objectivity and free markets and which downplayed the anti-theistic implications of modern thought. As he shows, while there have since been many instances of definitive and even explosive rejection of this conservative trend, its effects can still be seen at American universities today.

224 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Philosophy: American Philosophy, General Philosophy, History and Classic Works

Political Science: Political and Social Theory


“McCumber moves confidently from particular administrative facts to generalizations about the theoretical biases of professional philosophers."

Times Literary Supplement

“McCumber’s analysis opens up space for long-overdue debates about the effects of the Cold War on US philosophic thought and intellectual life more generally. It illuminates the consequent struggles between analytic and continental philosophy as well as the still powerful failure of so many intellectuals to grasp the legitimacy and cognitive value of social justice philosophic issues. Focusing on the infamous administrative fearmongering and intrusive regulation in the UCLA Department of Philosophy’s hiring practices makes vivid the strategies used to institutionalize Cold War philosophy. This is a must-read for philosophers, historians, and university administrators.”

Sandra Harding, University of California, Los Angeles

The Philosophy Scare enlarges McCumber’s earlier treatment of an important but neglected story. His earlier Time in the Ditch rightly downplays the explicit theoretical flaws and scientistic intentions of midcentury American philosophy to show how its basic outlook formed a convenient response to Cold War politics but also survived to plague later philosophy. In The Philosophy Scare, McCumber identifies a broader ‘Cold War Philosophy’ that runs in the background of many disciplines, not just (albeit especially) philosophy, after World War II. He employs Kuhn and Foucault positively and Reichenbach negatively to show how American academies responded to anti-communist fearmongering by touting ‘objective science’ and ‘dispassionate’ rationality as the essential preferences of real educators. Armed with this pinched image of intellectual life, administrators projected a dissimulating portrait of the academy as respectful of politico-religious reactionaries and supportive of free market capitalism. I am especially impressed by McCumber’s extensive use of UCLA’s archives to demonstrate its key role in disseminating Cold War Philosophy by implementing the infamous, widely copied ‘California Plan’ for hiring new faculty and the pernicious ‘Allen Formula’ for rationalizing academic repression. He is right to worry that this story has not ended.”

Robert C. Scharff, University of New Hampshire

What came was the rise of what McCumber calls Cold War philosophy, which used the ‘mathematical veneer of scientific objectivity and practices of market freedom [largely engineered by] forces outside the university’ to remove what today is known as continental philosophy. All this occurred as US philosophy entered "the dark realm of socio-political pressure."
McCumber’s key text to explain the philosophical side of this is Reichenbach’s The Rise of Scientific Philosophy, as well as his impressive research using primary sources (university documents, catalogues, letters, memorandums, directives, policies, etc.) gained through substantial archival work as well as secondary sources (newspaper articles, etc.). The rise of Cold War philosophy occurred at a time "deeply haunted by fear of atheism" and "the battle against communism [for which] rational choice theory (RCT) provided the favoured model." With the support of governmental and academic elites, RCT quickly took over the discipline of economics and made strong inroads into political science." It also affected philosophy… One thing one might learn from McCumber’s exquisite book is that as soon as the freedom to write philosophy is restricted, philosophy is damaged. If anything, McCumber’s book is a timely reminder that true philosophy can only exist in absolute freedom.

Philosophy in Review

Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations

Part 1   The Cudgels of Freedom: Cold War Philosophy’s Theory of Objects
1          Academic Stealth in the Early Cold War 
2          Reductionism as the Favored Form of Naturalism

Part 2   The Carrots of Reason: Cold War Philosophy’s Theory of Subjects
3          The Politics of Rational Choice 
4          Rational Choice Philosophy as “Scientific Philosophy”  

Part 3   Purifying the Academy
5          Organizing Academic Repression: The California Plan
6          Rationalizing Academic Repression: The Allen Formula

Epilogue: The Two Fates of Cold War Philosophy

Appendix: Roster of UCLA Philosophy Department from 1947–48 to 1959–60

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