Philosophical casualties

January 14, 2024

The lives that have been undone in the Gaza war bear testimony to the undoing of philosophical thought in our age

Philosophical  casualties


istory as a phenomenon refuses to be covered under the ambit of an explanatory framework or historical power; hence, our failures to predict its outcomes. Any attempt to subject history to general laws ends in a failure. That is why history always remains ahead of the available theoretical inventory. Since history is essentially a product of time and a particular space, the powerful empires and societies of the time try to subjugate it to direct its course according to their will. In the domain of ideas, the uncanny nature of history turns lofty ideas and idols of a time into denigrating instruments of power. This is what is happening in the world today. We will see this process by taking stock of the philosophical fallout of the Gaza War.

Peace is always the first casualty of a war. But the biggest casualty in the Gaza War has been the death of 1,500 Israelis and 21,822 Palestinian citizens, including children. In addition to these, there has been another casualty that has gone mostly unnoticed. That is the death of intellectual conscience. This is evident in a statement “Principal of solidarity” issued on November 13, 2023, by Jürgen Habermas, Nicole Deitelhoff, Rainer Forst and Klaus Günther. The statement supports Israel’s right to self-defence against the forces trying to “eliminate Jewish life in general.” Thus, they argue that Israel’s attack on Gaza was “justified in principle.”

Habermas is a towering figure. He claims to uphold the universal values of enlightenment in an age that has witnessed counter-narratives emerge against the metanarratives. That is why he strives to complete the incomplete project of modernity amidst the irrational assault of postmodernity.

In the 302-word statement, there is only one mention of Palestinians. It’s all about Israel because Jewish life in Israel matters, whereas the children of a lesser God are just hard nuts to crack in the moral machinery of philosophers. The statement obfuscates the issue of the mass killing of Palestinians by engaging in the semantics of genocide and ignoring the fact of the death of civilians on the ground. This has created a furor in the world of philosophy as a philosopher born in Fuhrer’s time has gone against the ethos that he espouses. It has also questioned the legitimacy of the philosophical underpinnings of the prevalent moral order of the world.

However, Habermas was not alone in this. Philosophers and intellectuals as diverse as Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek and best-seller Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari joined the chorus of self-defence and one-sided condemnation of Hamas. Žižek had previously supported Palestinians on various occasions, but he succumbed to the pressure of a pro-Israeli ambience in the West. Žižek and Harari reduce the complex history of the Palestinian conflict to an ahistorical analysis by attributing everything to the trigger of war started by Hamas’s attack on October 7. Žižek insists that Israel has the absolute right to defend itself against terrorist attacks. While giving the green light to bomb Gaza, he only sympathises with Palestinians in Gaza. In utter confusion, Žižek hunts with the hounds and runs with the hare.

Harari took umbrage at American and European progressives, especially leftists, for showing “indifference and extreme moral insensitivity” by supporting Hamas. He equated the support of socialists in America to Palestinians to support of socialists in Europe and the US to Stalin as “this is not the first time the radical left, in pursuit of some fixed vision of justice, finds itself aligned with some very brutal movements and regimes.” While doing so, he forgot to hold back and reflect on the question of who is purging in the current conflict in Gaza. If the ruthless murder of 1,500 Israeli citizens is a massacre, then how does one describe the killing of 21,822 innocent Palestinians? Harari tends to conflate the distinction between Palestinians, Muslims, Islam, Hamas and terrorism. By collapsing the distinctions, it becomes easier to justify the death and destruction in Gaza morally. This ahistorical approach breaks history into pieces, decontextualises the factors and actors and magnifies a single event to explain the whole. It is not historical causes and context that foment violence in Palestine but the ruthless “Arab mind” and typical “Muslim Rage.” So, we are back again into the game and theories of mentalities that were typical constructs of colonial scholarship.

The most shocking intellectual response came from Canadian psychologist and public intellectual - Jordan Peterson. He generally presents himself as someone who is very careful in crafting his statements. However, his kneejerk reaction against the Hamas attacks in advising the Israeli state, “Give ‘em hell” in a tweet on October 7, reveals the duplicity of vision and action. Coming from someone who enjoins his audience to seek peace rather than victory, this is strange. If the best minds in the world have such a skewed view of the war, then imagine the condition of the wretched of the earth.

The responses to Gaza War by the philosophers mentioned above show the degeneration of the minds of modern intellectuals and their acquiescence to the dictates of power and the necessities of their theory. The explanations, interpretations and analysis churned out by the media machinery and academic pundits today is that Muslims’ hatred towards the Jews is causing the war. For the intellectual, moral brigade, Hamas is the epitome of that religious hatred. For that reason, they argue that Israeli violence is aimed at Hamas alone. In fact, since its establishment, Israel has been as brutal with the Palestinian organisations of a secular persuasion as it is with Hamas.

The corruption of the mind precedes the corruption of deeds. Despite the death of more than 21,000 people in Gaza, the tacit support of the major Western powers to Israel and endorsement by the philosophers betoken silencing of the conscience in intellectuals. In a classical sense, the public intellectual is the custodian of the public conscience. Despite the dire need for empathy towards the suffering humanity, the intellectuals of today have surrendered their true vocation of speaking the truth to power by becoming the embodiment of the will to power, thus betraying the very vocation of intellect. This is reminiscent of the post-World War I period when intellectuals subscribed to the prevailing nationalist sentiments, imperialist agendas, fascist ideas and totalitarian tendencies. Against the backdrop of such troubled political waters of Europe, French intellectual Julian Binda wrote a book, La Trahison des clercs (The Treason of the Intellectuals) in 1927. The book examines the prevailing prejudices of politicians and the betrayal by the intellectuals. Commenting on the nexus between power and intellect, Binda declares, “Our century will properly be called the century of the intellectual organisation of political hatred.” As a result, politics started to decide morality. The stance taken by Habermas, Žižek, Harari, Peterson and their ilk clearly shows “the intellectual organisation of political hatred.”

Remember, noble ideas can beget ignoble acts. Time is like a flow in the river of history. Nothing in the river of history is fixed. Even ideas, their meaning and impact keep changing. We never know the consequences of the interface of an idea with different historical contexts, actors and factors. An idea that reveals truth and proves emancipatory might end up being an instrument of untruth and subjugation. The same is the case with Israel. The very experiences of the holocaust that paved the way for the protection of Jews from anti-Semitic ideas have become a perfect alibi for the killing of Palestinians in Israel. Similarly, if Binda’s book is the bible of modern intellectuals to remind them of their vocation of speaking truth to power, his personal life sets an example to avoid falling into the trap of one’s own mind. His gradual tilt towards the left ended up with a surrender to Stalin by favouring his purges in the USSR and Eastern Europe. According to Gustav Jönsson, Binda justified the execution of Hungarian foreign minister, Laszlo Rajk, on false charges of being a “Titoist spy.” He went to the extent of comparing his defence of Stalin with Emile Zola’s defence of Dreyfus. This time, history surely repeated itself but as a tragedy.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Habermas’s nearly seven decades of intellectual endeavours for the universal supremacy of reason have ended in the defence of a far-right government in the state that practices apartheid and genocide against dispossessed people. The espousal of self-defence by Israel by the intellectuals is a farce. Despite their sanguinary results in the world, fixation with our ideas turns our own minds into a prison, and its inmates into monsters. The life and works of Jonathan Swift epitomise this well. He established a lunatic asylum in Ireland but ended up being its inmate after losing his mind.

On an intellectual level, the surrender to power is manifest when thinking minds, in the words of Binda, “desire to abuse the values of knowledge before the values of action.” Hence, we witness a morality where violence by the wretched of the earth is deemed barbaric and the dropping of guided missiles and bombs a civilised act of self-defence. This has corrupted the thought of the thinker as the moral system of the world. Owing to this, the political, moral, and intellectual systems are collapsing in front of our eyes. Under the pressure of history, all the high-sounding words that formed our moral worldview are turning into debris of cliches.

The unfathomable nature of history’s disintegration of moral frameworks and philosophical ideas reminds us of a picture of “The Angel of History” though painted in colours by Paul Clee but in words by a renowned German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin in his essay, Thesis on the Philosophy of History. In it, Benjamin paints the process of history in very captivating language. “Where we perceive a chain of events,” writes Benjamin, “he [the angel of history] sees a single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed… But a storm is blowing in from paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

If Israel thinks that it is progressing in the storm of war by levelling the buildings in Gaza and eliminating Palestinians from their land, then it is harbouring a dangerous illusion of controlling history. The more dangerous aspect of the ongoing mayhem in Gaza is that the complicity of intellectuals with the perpetrator of settler colonialism can expunge such atrocities from the pages of history. History has no law to heal the wounds, restore the identity and assuage the pain of the wretched of the earth. Settler colonialism in the Americas and Australia has recent historical examples of erasing people from the face of the earth as well as history. Speaking about the merciless march of history and its consequences for the disposed people, Edward Said writes, “History has no mercy. There are no laws in it against suffering and cruelty, no internal balance that restores a people much sinned against to their rightful place in the world.” We live in an age where we neither call the angel of history to judge as gods have already fled the land, nor invoke moral principles as all the ideals have degenerated into instruments of subjugation.

To extricate ourselves from the existing political and intellectual morass, we need to get rid of the habit of regurgitating old truisms and start thinking imaginatively to forge new ways for creating new solidarities. Edward Said set an excellent example of forging new ways of communication and coexistence not only through his writings but also by practically engaging young Palestinian and Israeli musicians in a musical initiative called the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. The orchestra was co-founded by Said and Israeli composer Daniel Barenboim. It aims at overcoming binaries of Muslim-Jewish, Palestinian-Israeli and East-West. The very name West-Eastern Divan is taken from German national poet Goethe’s famous work West-Ostlicher Divan, which was inspired by the Diwan of Persian poet Hafiz Sherazi.

Like fusion in music, we need to train our new generation to nurture the imaginative faculties of the musician to fuse antithetical elements in a single whole. The philosophers of today have lost the capacity to imagine a holistic picture and inclusive ethos by shutting themselves in cocoons of their own parts. Hence, hey are neither interpreting nor changing the world; rather they are undoing the thought. The innocent folks whose lives have been undone in the Gaza war bear testimony to the undoing of philosophical thought in our age.

The writer is a social scientist interested in the history of ideas. Email:

Philosophical casualties