The Dan Schneider Interview 38: Stephen Hicks (first posted 1/17/13)


Image provided by Judd Weiss


DS: This DSI is with an engaging philosopher named Stephen Hicks, whose website is a trove of ideas and information, and whose filmed lecture-cum-documentary I recently watched on Netflix, and reviewed. I will get into greater detail on that lecture and film, as well as Hick’s life, career, and ideas, in a bit. The DSI track record with philosophers is a hit and miss affair. My first one, with Daniel Dennett, was a disappointment, as he was humorless, remarkably short on ideas, and not really willing to cogitate nor elucidate his readers on anything beyond his own writings. My second one, with Mark Rowlands, is a long one that fans and I enjoy alike for its depth and speculative engagement. My third one, with Robert Grudin, was no frills and straight to the point, while my last one, with Larry Sanger, has proven to be an extremely popular one, especially with the Internet geekoisie that spawned Sanger’s career. Thus, it will be interesting to see what responses Dr. Hicks’ interview brings, since his name and ideas are often tied up with two of the more controversial philosophers of all time: Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand. Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. There’s so much good stuff to plumb that much will have to be left out. What exactly does a philosopher, in the 21st Century, do? What ideas have you wrought, and what things do you instill in your students? What has been your claim to immortality? If no Plato’s Cave, is there a Hicks’ Theorem, or the like?


SH: Philosophers continue to address the fundamental issues—the nature of reality and our knowledge of it, human nature and the meaning of life. My major work so far has been in intellectual history, in my books Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault and Nietzsche and the Nazis. More recently I have been working in business ethics and philosophy of economics.


DS: One of your positions held is Executive Director for the Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship. What does this entail, and how does this relate to philosophy in general, and your ideas, specifically?


SH: CEE is a teaching and research center. We focus on entrepreneurship because it is the foundation of business, and the ethics is mostly business and economic ethics.


DS: To return to the classroom; do you teach an overview of the history of philosophy, the application of ‘practical philosophy,’ some minutiae re: specific works, philosophers, posits?


SH: All of the above. 


DS: To get nuts and bolts level: what exactly is philosophy? Is it seeking deeper or ultimate answers tenable in a cosmos where shallow and partial reasons and answers abound?


SH: Yes, reality, knowledge, and human existence are complex, so the issues can be complicated. As well, philosophy is abstract, so doing it well requires facility with abstractions. Also, by the time most people start doing philosophy explicitly, they are typically young adults who have absorbed philosophical views from their parents and others, so much questioning and unpacking assumptions is built into doing philosophy.


DS: Did you have any heroes in philosophy as you grew up? Or were you attracted to the discipline of ideas?


SH: Not as I was growing up. I read a lot and widely, but I did not have a conception of philosophy as a discipline until university. Even then I studied it for fun, as my plan was to become and architect and engineer.


DS: All words simply denote things that other words can or cannot, therefore all definitions are dependent; so language is ultimately a circular exercise. Thus, is the penetration into real meaning something more mystical? Is it irresolvable? Is what you consider the color red really what I am seeing as red, etc.?


SH: Words denote reality, or they are gibberish. Formulating how they do that is a big project, and one needs good theories of perception and language. Those theories must be integrated with the sciences of biology and psychology, which are new and developing fields. Most of our epistemological theories, unfortunately, were articulated in pre-scientific times, so most of them go nowhere and tempt one to skepticisms of various sorts.


DS: Philosophy is ideas, but art is ideas in motion, put to some purpose. I posit this makes it a higher and more difficult pursuit. Agree or not?


SH: "Art is ideas in motion" -- not clear what's built into this metaphor, so I can't answer. 


DS: When and where were you born? You are Canadian, and an immigrant to America. Are you fully Americanized, or do you still pronounce about like a-boot? On a more serious level, do you find that even slight cultural differences between societies, such as those of Canada and America, permeate one’s mind to any great degree, or is the individual more sovereign than often given credit for?


SH: Americans say "abowt." Canadians say "about." Americans trying to sound like Canadians say "aboot."

  Mainstream American and Canadian cultures are very much the same, including both being immigrant cultures with ideas and practices from everywhere.


DS: What did you want to be when you grew up- a hockey player, a scientist, a general? Who were your childhood heroes and why? Where did you go to high school, and to what college?


SH: I was born in Toronto and went to university at Guelph, about an hour west of Toronto. I read a lot of books and watched a lot of movies, so I think most of my heroes were fictional. Though for awhile in my teens I read many accounts of famous courtroom trials and recall admiring some of the lawyers involved.


DS: What sort of child were you- a loner or center of attention? Did you get good grades? Were you a mama’s boy, a nerd, or a rebel?


SH: I had a good, standard childhood—lots of games and sports, including hockey of course, music lessons, family vacations, summer camps, theatre, part-time jobs, and so on.


DS: Any siblings? What paths in life have they followed?


SH: One of each, both busy with full lives back in Canada.


DS: What of your parents? What were their professions? Did they encourage your pursuit of philosophy?


SH: Yes, very supportive of whatever I chose to do. Both very active in many things; both read a lot, and that definitely rubbed off on me.


DS: What was your youth like, both at home and in terms of socializing with other children?


SH: As above.


DS: Do you consider yourself a social or cultural critic, a historical or existential philosopher?


SH: All of the above. On of the attractions of philosophy to me is its fundamentality and universality, which means one can engage with anything of interest.


DS: What are your views on religion? Do you believe in gods or not? Are you an atheist or agnostic? What links do you see between philosophy and religion? Is myth merely expired religion, and religion myth alive? Do you see religion spawning from the same human wellspring as art?


SH: I am not religious. Religion is a type of philosophy, one that tends to supernaturalistic metaphysics, mystical and faith-based epistemologies, and anti-naturalist views of human nature and values. I am a thorough-going naturalist.


DS: Since God concepts are obviated by simply asking ‘Who made God?’, because the answer could always be, ‘He always was;’ which is the same answer one can ask re: ‘What made the cosmos?’; thereby making God a superfluity, why does such a belief persist?


SH: I think the persistence is more for psychological and sociological reasons than philosophical. Religious philosophies were the earliest and became institutionalized culturally, and most people find it easier and more comfortable to adopt the cultural beliefs they grew up with.


DS: Does not the idea of an all-knowing, all-powerful God mandate predestination and the illusion of free will? After all, that God, if all knowing, would know all things at all times forever. So, free will obviates the Christian concept of God, right?


SH:  Yes, volition is incompatible with an omnipotent, omnisicent god.


DS: Have you ever read Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained? A pal of mine recommended the book to me, but it was not well written and its ideas were dubious. Basically, Boyer’s explanation boils down to the fear and the bush analogy. If there are two people, and there is a mysterious rustling behind the bush, the person who is fearful and immediately runs away is likely to pass on more of his genes to the next generation because, while the brave person may be braver, if there was a saber-toothed tiger behind the bush, the brave person is dead, and bravery is weeded out. Similarly, religious people and beliefs dominate because fear is good for spreading one’s genes, and beliefs in the supernatural are fear-based. While fear is no doubt a part of religion- i.e.- the fear of death, Boyer’s is too simplistic an approach. Thoughts on the idea, and on religion’s provenance?


SH: I haven't read it.


DS: Are there any major areas of philosophy, that you think have been wrongheaded, since the earliest times they were proposed? What are they and why?


SH:  Yes, the broadly Platonic-dualist-rationalist tradition has done a lot of damage, including setting people up for skepticism. Broadly speaking, I am in the Aristotelian-naturalist-empiricist camp.


DS: Do you belong to any political party, and what are your views on such current politicized matters as euthanasia, abortion, gay marriage, and stem cell research? Are you an American citizen, and can you vote?


SH: I became a citizen in 2005. I don't belong to a party. My political views are liberal—free markets economically, free speech intellectually, personal liberty religiously, sexually, medically, and so on.


DS: How political is philosophy, internally, in Academia? And what role does external politics play in internal politics? I.e.- do Left Wingers get favored treatment? I ask because, in reading up on you, a favorite tack of your opponents is to broadbrush you as Right Wing, usually via associations with Nietzsche and Rand.


SH: Academic philosophy does not strike me as a politicized field. I imagine that most philosophers represent the standard academic distibution of views, and of course there is any number of competent philosophers who become partisan hacks when they do politics. But the field seems generally non-political.

  Describing Rand as "right wing" is silly. That label seems to come from those who think economics is the only dimension that matters politically. "Right wing" in American politics has its center of gravity in religion and in traditionalist views on family, sexuality, science, and so on, all of which Rand rejects.

  As vicious and uninformed as the critiques of Rand have usually been from "the Left," the criticisms of Rand from "the Right" have been more so.

  Nietzsche's politics are harder to pin down, as he said little and did not develop his views systematically. But he was anti-liberal in the nineteenth-century sense, as well as being anti-democratic. He was also anti-socialist, but also took a few swipes at capitalism.


DS: Do you have a philosophic bete noir? Who is he or she, and what is the source of your dispute?


SH: I'm anti-Platonic, anti-Rousseauian, ant-Kantian. Kant is very deep but powerfully wrong. He transforms the Platonic-dualist system, entrenching a subjectivist turn in epistemology and a deontological turn in ethics.


DS: Let me now turn to the film that really got me reading your work and that is Nietzsche And The Nazis. Let me first start with a few points I latched on to in my review, then broaden out to the film, book, Nietzsche himself, and your career in ideas itself. I opened my review with your film’s closing query: The Nazis knew what they stood for; do we?Since you asked it, please answer it. What does America, or, more broadly, liberal democracy, stand for?


SH: It does or should stand for principled individualism—a vigorous articulation and defense of every person's rights to his or her own life, liberty, property, and pursuit of happiness. America is most identified historically with those principles, but they are universal aspirations for all humans everywhere. 


DS: The film is really a pure lecture, studded with pictures. Obviously, to grab on to a viewer for its 165 minute length, the writing and ideas had to be compelling, from the Nietzsche source, and your presentation of it, but, as a film, there had to be a precise image relevance. I think this was done quite well. Who directed the film, if not you? Who edited it, and how much of the script was tweaked for the filmic medium, or did the image always fall to the idea’s superiority?


SH: The production was done by Christopher Vaughan, John Barrett, Virginia Murr, and John Parson. My role was only to write and narrate the script. Ideas definitely dominate, with image and sound in supporting roles.


DS: Did you ever think of going with, say, an actor portraying Nietzsche in his study? Or giving a lecture, etc., the way a standard docudrama would, or were you committed to the more radical ‘filmed lecture’ take? Was that the genesis of the idea for the film, or did it just come out as the simplest, clearest, and cheapest way to convey the message you wanted to?


SH: The idea was to take intellectually-rich material—the history and philosophy—and to take advantage of the power of photos, posters, and other images and music to communicate more information and more interestingly.


DS: Why do you think Nietzsche’s ideas are so often seen as being proto-Nazi? While you state some reasons others think so, you also state many reasons he is not a forebear ideologically. Is this merely the human tendency to seek out simple answers?


SH: The Nazis came out of some mainstream intellectual and political traditions, and Nietzsche did contribute to some of those. But any political program, such as the National Socialists’, contains dozens of points, so a close look is needed to see which ones Nietzsche did and didn't contribute to.


DS: Let me ask you of Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of the great man and sublimation. As applied to the arts, Nietzsche understood this better than any other philosopher, and is possibly the best writer of philosophy in print, at least in terms of craft and style. Sublimation is the key to greatness in any field, and it is also why so many bad artists, or failures in other fields, resent the greats that they can never be. Immature and petty envy drives them the way greater forces compel the great man. Thus, the proof that no amount of schooling can make a great man or artist out of a hack. That said, having the raw tools and talent is no guarantee of greatness. It takes talent, learnt skill, and hard work. Plus, as I tell younger writers, one must have quality of excellence, quantity of quality works, and a diversity of styles and forms in that quantity. Do you agree with Nietzsche’s claims for greatness?


SH: A lot is packed into that. I am not a Nietzschean, and I disagree with most of his positive philosophy. I am working on a documentary and book currently—the working title is “Artistic Genius: When It Happens,” so I'll explain further in that work.


DS: I also think an element that separates the great man- artist, leader, scientist, from the lesser one is the knowledge that wisdom and creativity are greater accomplishments than love or happiness, which are merely selfish ideals. And, is altruism a myth? How many people really ever do anything with no expectation of gain?


SH: Hmmm ... . Wisdom and creativity are also selfish. That’s not a criticism, in my view. Those are both sources of enormous self-satisfaction and contribute to a flourishing life.

  I don't know how one ranks values to say that love or creativity is greater or less. The genuine achievement of any of them is a major accomplishment.

  Altruism is not a myth. Many people do self-sacrificing or even self-sabotaging things all the time, and they do so knowingly. It makes me sad how much such altruism there is in the world. E.g., those who let short-term fears prevent them from pursuing their dreams, or those who believe in unchosen duties to others, such as many young women who bow to the pressure of parental insistence that they sacrifice their educational or career goals. One sad sign of this is how many people feel guilt and regret for not doing what they knew they should have done earlier in their lives.

  Genuinely good social relations are always win-win.


DS: That all said, I think Nietzsche make a cardinal error in defining greatness as somehow analogous or consonant with goodness. By any measure of the term meaning,

remarkable in magnitude, degree, or effectiveness,’ Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Hideki Tojo, and Mao Zedong, were great men. No?


SH: “Great” is used both ways, descriptively and normatively, and that is fine as long as one is clear.


DS: Where would you rank Nietzsche intellectually on a spectrum of philosophers, in terms of pure intellect, as well as politically, ethically, etc.?


SH: A fun “rank the philosophers” exercise. To start one should specify one's criteria: completeness in addressing all of the philosophical issues, power of the arguments, originality, systematic coherence of the philosopher's positions, historical influence. At the very top I put Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Locke, and Kant. I put Nietzsche close to that, but down a level, which is still to say a lot.


DS: The film starts off, on the Nazi evolution, and you quote many of the party’s founding ideals. Yet, clearly, by the time they took power, in 1933, the party was firmly in Hitler’s cult of personality, and successive purges made many of the founding ‘ideals’ superfluous. As example, the National Socialists were indeed, at their start, kindred, in many ways, to other forms of Socialism, but Hitler, himself, was really only concerned with power and his own aggrandizement, so these ideals went out the window with the Night Of The Long Knives and other such events. Hitler and his top ‘crew’ were Rightist in mentality all the way. Having stated that, I would argue that Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot were similarly Rightist, or Fascist, in their tactics, and clearly upped the ante established by folks like Mussolini and Franco. No?


SH: Again, many issues rolled into a complicated package. The Nazi Party never abandoned its founding ideals, including the socialist ones, but strove mightilty to implement as many as it could given the time and resources available to it. It's fair to say that for the individual members at the top of the Party, some issues mattered more than others, and Hitler's priorities had dominance.

  One doesn't become a Fascist simply because one uses certain harsh tactics. Those tactics are used by political activists of many stripes.

  Fascism is a sub-species of authoritarian collectivism. Mussolini was a Marxist socialist for much of his development, and simply re-packaged those themes for the Italian ethnic group. The difference is between collectivism and socialism pitched nationally (Nazis, fascists) and collectivism and socialism pitched internationally (Marxists).   


DS: There is a blurred line here. I term it as politics not being on a straight line spectrum, but on a 360° curve, so that Far Left and Far Right meet on the dark side of the globe of human nature, in terms of tactics. Communism, as example, ended up killing far more human beings than Nazism did. So did the Right Wing Militarists of Japan cause, ultimately, more death and destruction in their theater of World War 2 than the Nazis did. But, Colonialism also killed more people than the nazis did- in the New World, Middle Passage, exploitation of Africa and other Third World areas, and religion certainly rivals and surpasses political systems of thought in bloodshed. But, do we consider Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun, the Crusaders, or Torquemada Rightists or Leftists? Would it not be better to term these things Authoritarian or Totalitarian, since their source beliefs are usually just pretexts to the seizure of power, anyway?


SH: Politics is multi-dimensional, so graphically a single straight or even circular line can capture only part of the complexity.

  One has to identify the dimensions and sub-questions the positions on the dimensions are answering. For a start:

* For whom is politics designed? Individualism at one end of the spectrum and collectivism at the other.

* What is the legitimate source of political authority? Democratic-republicanism at one end of the spectrum to aristocracy and monarchy at the other.

* When should force be used politically? Defensively only at one end of the spectrum and offensively at the other.

* How much power should be vested in politicians? Limited government at one end and absolutism at the other.

* What is the primary goal of politics? Liberalism at one end, in tension with egalitarianism, paternalism, and others along various sub-dimensions.


DS: You never specifically address it in the film, but which view of Hitler do you hold truck with: the die hard racist who lucked in to power? The scheming opportunist who seized upon the easiest route to power? Or some other view? Personally, I think that while Stalin, his rival, was clearly a psychopath, as was Mao Zedong (both of their body counts exceeded Hitler’s- Stalin’s by 2-4 times and Mao’s by 3-10 times), Hitler was ultimately more dangerous, for he was not only psychopathic, but psychotic. Those two terms are often conflated, but they are different. Psychopathy connotes evil, malignance, and such, whereas psychosis is detachment from reality. Stalin clearly was evil, but he was no fool; he operated rationally, if in a flawed manner. There was, as the cliché goes, ‘method to his madness.’ The same cannot be said of Hitler. Had he possessed Stalin’s rationality he may have won the Second World War. As example, his psychotic hatred of Russia and Slavs led him to attack Russia a year or two too early, before he had finished off the conquest of Britain. Numerous errors were made in the attack of Russia. Hitler’s Axis Pact with Japan was an error because, had Germany not declared war on America, after Pearl Harbor, the Nazis could have finished off Britain, despite lend/lease. Of course, there are many smaller examples, such as the odd deployment of General Rommel, the sequence of invasions, the timing of the final Solution, etc. Any or all of these things, if executed more rationally, could have led to a German victory, despite historians who feel Axis defeat was a fait accompli. Do you agree on the strategic posits I make, and what are your views on Hitler, the man?


SH: I understand the temptation, but the personal psychologies of the Nazi leadership are of limited explanatory value. More interesting is why thousands of intellectuals supported the National Socialists, and why millions of other Germans—educated and moderately so—also supported the Nazis. Were they all psychotic?

  Or was there a powerful, well-articulated philosophy of life and politics—however alien and repulsive it may be to us—that they found at least semi-rationally compelling? If so, where did that philosophy come from?

  The same should be asked about the philosophies that led to the horrors and evils of Stalin and Mao. 


DS: Another specter the film raises but never directly addresses, re: both Nietzsche and Hitler, is the debate over the Great Man and Tidal views of history. If you are familiar with evolutionary theory, Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge came up with an idea called punctuated equilibrium, wherein they posit that species do not change continually from generation to generation, but are remarkably static for long periods, then, within a small span of time, mutate greatly before falling in to a new stasis. I feel history is sort of that way too, that most of history, indeed, is static. There are discernible trends that seem inevitable. As example, it seems inevitable that the Enlightenment would lead to political democracies; that the two World Wars would lead to the end of colonialism, etc. But, there also seems to be Great Men who wrench history one way or another. Good examples would be Isaac Newton in mathematics, Wolfgang Mozart in music, Walt Whitman in poetry, and, my favorite, Genghis Khan in history. Remove figures like this from their fields and none of the 342pp343422pfields are the same today, They were, essentially, irreplaceable. By contrast, remove Charles Darwin and you still have Alfred Russel Wallace. Remove Thomas Edison and there’s still Nikola Tesla, remove Einstein and there are a half dozen other physicists with similar ideas. They are, however great, replaceable, thus ‘lesser’ greats than the irreplaceables. Thus, both the Tidal and Great Man viewpoints are essentially correct, and the choice between them is a false dichotomy. Do you agree with this idea, and which of the historical viewpoints do you cotton to?


SH: Yes, I agree it's a false dichotomy. Any major social movement involves the participation of large numbers of people. But as individuals they make the movement happen in widely varying degrees of power, from individuals who semi-passively go along all the way up to those who generate the creative ideas or large-scale organization or motivating charisma.


DS: Is there an irreplaceable in philosophy? Who, and why? Or why not?


SH: Is an “irreplaceable” a person without whom philosophy would be on a dramatically different path now? If so, then any of the six philosophers I mentioned above—Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Locke, and Kant—would be fun candidates to argue about.


DS: Let me expand beyond the film, for a moment, before I return to it. Does the idea of an irreplaceable person- say, an Über-Great Man, lend more weight to the idea that there is any meaning in the cosmos? What then is meaning? Do we simply graft it from the ether? Do we all determine it? Is that then not solipsism? Am I entitled to say that Albert Einstein or Abraham Lincoln led lives of more meaning than Nancy Slowowicz, a pole dancer from Newark, New Jersey? And more importantly, am I correct to say it?


SH: Another false dichotomy is that either the cosmos gives us meaning or we make it up.    That is, we are offered a choice between value as instrinsic and value as subjective. But value is relational—an objective relation between reality and our needs. For example, oxygen is not intrinsically valuable in itself (intrinsicism); nor is it valuable because we willed or decided it so (subjectivism). Rather the value of oxygen arises from its actual properties in relation to our actual needs. Another way to put it is that value is not a one-place fact but (at least) two-place.

  From there value issues quickly become complex, because we can identify the capacities necessary to acquire values and the actions necessary to realize them. Also some values are physical, while others are complexly psychological; some are short-term while others involve long-term judgment.

  To scale up from that to overall meaning of life questions and, for example whether Albert or Nancy led a more meaningful life. One implication of seeing value as relational is that we have to ask to whom the life in question is meaningful or not. Is Nancy's life more meaningful to her than Albert's is to her? Or to Nancy's daughter? Or to any one of us who appreciates scientific achievement? Who is the valuer in question?

  The point is we'd have to answer a number of sub-questions to build up answering and über-questions about who lives more or less meaningful lives.


DS: I ask this because I have come to the conclusion that 99.99% of people are mere placeholders- i.e.- they are the genetic go-betweens connecting the great people who push human life, society, and culture forward. Think of all the people who claim to want to sacrifice for their children, but for what? So that their children can sacrifice for their children who can repeat the process ad nauseam? No, whether they realize it or not, they are doing it in the hopes of being part of a lineage that will affect something deeper. If there were not this drive, then there would be little to separate us from amebas, no?


SH: You're right on the deferring-of-value issue. If my value is only to make my children possible, and their value is only to make their children possible, and so on, then nothing of value exists. But I don’t think the “being a part of a lineage” helps, since that is only a collectivized version of the same answer.

  Value is in living your life in this lifetime. The Existentialists were right to emphasize that point, in contrast to those who flee from this life and defer value to times and places outside of life—future generations, heaven, and so on.


DS: I feel ‘greatness,’ or the ability to more deeply affect the human condition, is a random thing. When people have tried to make available the sperm or eggs of Nobel Laureates or Mensans, as example, the kids turn out to be rather average. This gibes with the fact that almost all great people, such as Pablo Picasso, Isaac Newton, Einstein, and most famously-Thomas Jefferson, have never had any forebears nor descendents come close to their achievements. And the few famed people who’ve had success run in their families- the Adamses, the Darwins, the Barrymores, have never really had any greats in their clans, or- as in the Darwin case, Erasmus was not in a league with his grandson Charles, a great man by any measure. I call this fact The Infinity Spike, meaning that the idea that a Master Race could be engineered- at least intellectually, is folly. Perhaps physical characteristics, but the chances of two Mensans or Nobel Laureates producing another Michelangelo or Akira Kurosawa are only negligibly greater than such a person coming from a plumber and a teacher. Perhaps a three or four out of fifty million chance versus a one and a half to two chance. In short, greatness spikes toward infinity out of nowhere- there is no predictable bell curve nor progression toward excellence. What are your thoughts on this posit? And does this increase or decrease the desire for meaning to the individual?


SH: Greatness may have a biological component; I don't know. My hypothesis though is that for anyone born with normal human biology, greatness is a result of the combination of personal choices and cultural circumstances—what your parents, teachers, and others do with you, especially in your early years.


DS: Let’s return to the film. Three niggling points that stuck with me, despite, my overall great impression of the film and contents. First, in the film, you claim that intellectuals shape culture, and in my review I replied: Really? Rock music, jazz, rap, modern art, television, film. These are all the biggest purveyors of culture over the last century and none have been in the hands of intellectuals, who are more famously out of touch with common culture. Surely, this was a misspeak? Intellectuals nibble about the edges of society, but they are largely ignored. Unfortunately, celebrity bufoons like a Sarah Palin or a Michael Moore will affect culture, for good or ill, far more than, say, Noam Chomsky or his Right Wing equivalent?


SH: Not a mis-speak. Ask why rock musicians, rappers, and so on aren't being burned at the stake or why they're not spending their lives behind a plow. Thank John Locke, Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson, and other intellectuals who created the cultural space within which millions of modern artists can pursue freely their visions and lifestyles.


DS: Second, you mention Jesus Christ as a historical figure, yet there is ZERO historical evidence for his existence outside Biblical claims. I wrote: for such a historically scrupulous film, it’s odd to see Hicks take Jesus Christ face value as a historic figure, despite not a shred of evidence in that camp, as well as buying in to the unsupported claims of mass Jewish enslavement in ancient Egypt. Granted, Nietzsche and others use this as the basis for the ‘understandings’ of the Jewish mind, etc., but such nonsense should be dismissed as easily nowadays as phrenology. The first mentions of Christ’s supposed existence come about four decades after his suppose death, and even that is dubious, as most scholars see that as even later interpolations. And Palestine was then at what was, outside of perhaps China, the most scrupulously documented area of the world. Minor business transactions have survived, as have executions and crucifixions. Not a one mentioning anyone remotely resembling the Christ of myth. Is this just remanent Catholic guilt, or something, on your part?


SH: It is a matter of indifference to me whether Jesus was a historical figure (though I am inclined to think he was) or merely a powerful myth, and it is irrelevant to Nietzsche's master/slave morality thesis; his interpretation has traction either way.


DS: Lastly, you claim Hitler’s genocide was unique in scale. I wrote: It clearly was not, as King Leopold equaled or surpassed the Nazis, as did the Japanese during the same era, and Stalin killed two to four times as many people, while Mao Zedong killed up to ten times as many. Even Genghis Khan, eight centuries earlier, piled up a higher body count than Hitler and company. Was this, like the issue about Jesus Christ, mere rhetoric or hyperbole, or political correctness (PC)?


SH: Two points. One is that Nazi genocide was unique in scale given the number of people they killed in the time they had. Other killers such as Stalin destroyed more humans but over longer periods of time.

  The other is that “genocide” means intentionally killing large numbers of people for ethnic, racial, religious and such reasons, as distinct from killing large numbers of people in war or to consolidate political power.


DS: What things, if any, would you change in the film, or book derived from it, if you had to redo them?


SH: I’d like to do more on the transition intellectuals in the generation between Nietzsche’s death in 1900 and the Nazi rise to power in the early 1930s. I talk some about Moeller, Spengler, Schmitt, and Heidegger, but there’s lots more fascinating material there. 


DS: Looking into your website reveals many interesting points of discussion. On your projects page brings a couple of queries to mind. First, your interest in arts and capitalism, along with Postmodernism, makes me want to ask about the artistic values of PoMo. Specifically Abstract Expressionism in painting and what I would call (neologism alert) the deliterate (meaning a willful abnegation of reading things of quality in favor of Lowest Common Denominator crap) writings of writers from Thomas Pynchon to David Foster Wallace, as well as ‘found art.’ First, human beings are simply wired to narrative. There is no art without narrative. Back in the 1990s, as example, I attended a Walker Art exhibit of Yoko Ono’s ‘art,’ which consisted of a dot on a piece of paper, and a rotting apple on a pedestal. This was clearly bad art, if one wants to even call it art, for its narratives consist of ‘dot on paper’ and ‘apple rotting.’ Art is the communication of an idea at its highest level, and, in this way, is more of a verb than a noun. Something’s ‘art’ is in how it works, not what it is. Therefore, a Mark Rothko monochrome or duochrome painting conveys little or nothing, and shows absolutely no skill, which is why he and Jackson Pollock are so easily ‘imitated,’ and why people literally cannot tell his ‘art’ from bird shit. What are your views on the Jackson Pollocks and David Foster Wallaces of the world? I view them as frauds, at best, and delusional, at worst, and I suspect the reason such a high rate of them, like DFW, suicide, is because they know they are frauds, as well. Thoughts?


SH: In my “Why Art Became Ugly” I discuss the reductionist strategy within which much “abstract” art falls. The idea there is to eliminate from art what can be eliminated—narrative, theme, the illusion of three-dimensionality, and so on—and ask whether what remains is art. Much of twentieth-century of art was a philosophical enterprise trying to answer Duchamp’s question: What is art? But by mid-century, after everything had been eliminated, there was nowhere to go. So the mainstream artworld has been spinning its wheels for a generation or two.

  Yes, there is much intellectual fraud, posturing, gamesmanship, and sometimes nihilism going on in the contemporary art world. It’s bankrupt.

  There are interesting questions about sensation, emotion, abstraction, thematic communication, and some of twentieth-century art can be rationalized as explorations of some of those things. But much of even that has been based on weird epistemologies that lead quickly to dead ends.


DS: I view corporations as immanently unethical. Although meant in a humorous vein, I don’t think anyone has yet topped Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary definition of: CORPORATION, n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility. Yet, in 1819, in the case of Dartmouth College v. Woodward, the Supreme court de facto ‘created’ a right to personhood for the legal fiction of a corporation out of whole cloth. It was one of the worst and most blatantly unconstitutional decisions the court ever rendered, excepting perhaps the Dred Scott decision. What is your take on corporations generally?


SH: I view corporations as one of the great achievements of Western civilization. A corporation is a flexible form of social organization with limited liability.

  Note that most non-profits, including almost every college and university, are corporations. I doubt you’d dismiss them all as inherently unethical simply because they’re organized that way. Instead, any organization becomes unethical if it knowingly does bad things.

  A corporation is an association of individuals, and individuals acting cooperatively should have the same rights they do as individuals; that is, one shouldn’t lose one’s rights—e.g., to free speech or to spend one’s money as one sees fit—simply because one has joined an organization.

  I recommend Robert Hessen’s work on corporations for more, as well as Timur Kuran’s work showing how one of the reasons why the West developed significantly in the modern world while much of the Islamic world stagnated was that the West developed the corporation while the Islamic world allowed only non-corporation forms of social organization.   


DS: What is in store, in the next year or two, in terms of books and your work?


SH: Finishing “Artistic Genius: When It Happens,” which combines philosophy, art history, and cultural economics. That is my major current project.


DS: Thanks for doing this interview, Stephen Hicks, and let me allow you a closing statement, on whatever you like.


SH: Thanks for all the questions, Dan. A fun, wide-ranging discussion.


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