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McCarthyism and American Philosophy

John Capps argues that Senator McCarthy’s anti-Communist purges helped positivism to triumph over pragmatism in American universities in the 1950’s.

The McCarthy era still casts a long shadow over American politics and culture. From 1953 to 1954 Senator Joseph McCarthy summoned hundreds of witnesses before the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations with the stated intention of rooting out Communist spies in the U.S. government. Many others were called to testify before the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities. These witnesses included Army officers, writers, and movie producers. Many of those called to testify found their careers and lives destroyed. At least one witness committed suicide and many others lost their jobs or were blacklisted. While the effects of McCarthyism are by now well documented, especially as they concerned the American entertainment industry, McCarthyism’s effect on American philosophy has received very little attention.

By any definition these were extraordinary times. Hostility toward Communism was widespread in American society. This hostility was also directed at philosophical positions, such as Marxism, that were viewed as sympathetic to Communism. Leftist university professors came under special scrutiny and many were forced to leave academia. While Joseph McCarthy was a political force personally for only a relatively short time, he fostered attitudes which were widespread throughout much of the 1950’s.

The period from the late 1940’s to around 1960 was also an extraordinary time for philosophy in United States. The previous decade had seen an influx of European philosophers who were fleeing fascism. After W.W. II many of these philosophers found permanent positions at prestigious American universities where they trained the next generation of American philosophers. Significantly, many were also associated with the philosophy of logical positivism. While positivism had attracted some American followers in the decade before W.W.II, it solidified its position after the war as the most up-to-date, rigorous and scientifically respectable method of doing philosophy. American philosophers were attracted to its blend of logical rigor, linguistic analysis and quasi-scientific methodology. In contrast, John Dewey’s death in 1952 signaled not only the end of a tremendously productive life (Dewey was 92 when he died) but also the eclipse of pragmatism, arguably America’s one original contribution to the world of philosophy.

The pragmatists had prided themselves on stressing philosophy’s practicality. Pragmatism was self-consciously concerned with recognizing, understanding and solving the wide range of problems facing human beings. In contrast, positivism was most closely associated with very technical problems in the philosophy of language and philosophy of science; in comparison, interest in ethics and political philosophy languished. The range of concerns of American philosophy contracted quite severely as positivism became dominant in American philosophy departments. At the same time many older philosophers derided positivism for its remoteness from everyday life and for using a narrow range of tools to address an equally narrow range of problems. The complaint has persisted that American philosophy remains predominately analytic, highly technical, and focused on questions which have no clear practical benefit.

Recently a number of scholars have asked whether there was a connection between the political climate of the McCarthy era and the rise to prominence of positivism in American philosophy departments. The question is not so much whether positivists shared McCarthy’s political agenda – in fact, the most prominent positivists held left-wing political views – as whether McCarthyism cleared the way for positivism by helping to eliminate its competition.

In his recent book Time in the Ditch: American Philosophy During the McCarthy Era (Northwestern Univ. Press, 2001), John McCumber has highlighted the political persecution many American philosophers faced. He argues, first of all, that philosophers were more likely to come under scrutiny than other academics: using figures from the American Association of University Professors he concludes that philosophers were much more likely to be investigated or summoned before government committees than English professors or economists. Second, many of the most prominent cases of political persecution during the McCarthy era involved philosophers.

A few of these cases are worth retelling. Herbert Phillips, a tenured philosopher at the University of Washington, was one of the first academic victims of McCarthyism. Phillips’ commitment to Marxism was well-known: he would announce this fact to his classes and warn them to assess his statements in this light. In 1948 he came under scrutiny from the state legislature’s Fact-Finding Committee on Un- American Activities. Phillips refused to cooperate with this committee and was cited with contempt. As a result, Phillips (along with five other colleagues) was brought up before a university committee to examine whether his lack of cooperation amounted to a violation of the University’s administrative code. Here Phillips admitted to still being a member of the Communist Party. The verdict of this committee was mixed: three of the eleven members held that Communists should be fired from their university positions; another five agreed but argued that it fell outside their authority to recommend this course of action. The University’s president, Raymond B. Allen, took the position that Phillips should be dismissed, and the Board of Regents agreed. When Phillips applied for jobs at other institutions he discovered that he had effectively been blacklisted and he never held an academic position again.

The case of William Parry also merits attention. Parry was a tenured professor of philosophy at the University of Buffalo in New York when he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953. Parry had been trained as a logician (earning his doctorate under Alfred North Whitehead at Harvard) but was also known for his work on Marxism. He had also been a member of the Communist Party from 1933 to 1946. In his testimony before the House Committee he invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refused to testify about his or others’ activity in the Party. After his testimony the University of Buffalo conducted its own set of hearings which led to Parry being stripped of his tenure and having his salary frozen. He was granted tenure again in 1961 (when his salary was unfrozen) and later served as chair of the philosophy department.

These two cases illustrate a wider phenomenon and point to a general lesson. Phillips and Parry did not become targets because of any evidence that they had neglected their duties as professors of philosophy. They did not hide their commitment to Marxism and they were not accused of secretly indoctrinating their students. Instead, they were targeted simply for having the philosophical and political views they did. Most disturbing, both Phillips and Parry were punished by their own institutions for actions that were perfectly legal: namely, belonging to a political party and invoking the Fifth Amendment. Both lost their tenure and Phillips found that no other college or university would hire him. The message to other American philosophers would have been clear: having a political philosophy could jeopardize one’s livelihood and one should not expect the normal protection of academic freedom. Better to pursue questions of little practical significance than to risk one’s career.

Of course having the right political philosophy could be of help during the McCarthy era. As a result, while philosophers were prominent among the victims of this era, a number of philosophers were also notable for their anti-Communist efforts. Foremost among these was Sidney Hook. Hook, a professor of philosophy at New York University, had inherited Dewey’s mantle as the spokesperson for pragmatism (he was sometimes referred to as ‘Dewey’s bulldog’). He had also had a youthful fling with Marxism which led him, later in life, to reject it all the more strongly. Hook argued that because the Communist Party was a secretive organization, and because its goals were antithetical to the open pursuit of truth, its members were unsuited for any positions of public trust. Hook’s opposition to Communists in academia led to a remarkable exchange of articles in The Journal of Philosophy. Then, as now, The Journal was a leading periodical for professional philosophers in the English-speaking world. (At the time it was published biweekly; it is now published monthly.) The exchange began in 1951 when Victor Lowe, a philosopher at Johns Hopkins University who, like Parry, was a former student of Whitehead’s, accused Hook (among others) of ‘vicious intellectualism’. Lowe defined vicious intellectualism as an over-dependence on definitions as guides to behavior. To be viciously intellectual is to trust our definitions more than our experiences. In particular, it is the error of assuming that, because an item falls under a particular definition, or is the member of a certain class, it must therefore possess every property entailed by that definition or class. While this is a tempting assumption to make, it ignores the fact that even good definitions can be vague or ambiguous. The real world is more complicated and hodgepodge than our definitions would lead us to believe. Lowe argued that even if Communism as a political movement was devoted to indoctrination and propagandism this was not enough to exclude party members from university positions. The reason for this was simple: even though party membership was enough to satisfy the definition of a ‘Communist’ (or for that matter a ‘Republican’ or Liberal’) this did not mean that one agreed completely with that party’s platform. In fact, Lowe’s point was pragmatic. Because a person may belong to a number of different groups, often with different and incompatible agendas, we must look to that person’s actual behavior in order to determine what they really believe.

Therefore Lowe concluded that anti-Communists such as Hook had committed a logical blunder and a vicious one at that. They had unfairly judged professors on the basis of one factor without examining the wider set of relations into which professors normally entered. In his response, published in 1952, Hook replied that the blunder was instead Lowe’s. Hook argued that Lowe had ignored ‘highly relevant evidence’ pertaining to the particular dangers posed by the Communist Party. Because the Communist Party operated in secret, required complete loyalty from its members, and sought to indoctrinate, recruit, and propagandize,’ professors associated with the party could justifiably be fired even if there was no evidence that they had used their position to further the Party’s ends. According to Hook the Communist Party posed such a risk to a free society and to free inquiry that its members could be drummed out of the academic profession.

It isn’t perfectly clear who, in retrospect, had the better argument. Perhaps Hook’s alarm was appropriate and his actions necessary to counteract the dangers of Communism at a time when Stalin’s crimes, for example, were not so widely known as they now are. However it can be difficult to believe that the Communist Party actually posed as grave a threat to the United States as Hook believed. As Ellen Schrecker argues in Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (Little, Brown & Co., 1998), the Federal Bureau of Investigation and others frequently overstated the danger poised by Communist Party members. In retrospect the Party seems almost comically ineffectual in the United States and its pretensions to secrecy little more than the initiation rites of a fraternal organization. It is also doubtful that the Party was very successful at indoctrinating its members. Schrecker, in an earlier work No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities (OUP, 1986), quotes Phillips as saying “I am a member of the Communist Party because I hold the ideas I do; I do not hold the ideas I do because I am a member of the Communist Party.” Finally, we are now familiar with the many abuses of the McCarthy era, of the lives and careers destroyed by the witch hunts that took place during this period.

What is clear, however, is the form that Hook’s argument took. In rough outline (and without explicit reference to the ‘relevant evidence’ he cited) the argument looks like this:

1) Professor X is a Communist.
2) Communism is committed to certain principles which are incompatible with the duties of a university professor.
3) Therefore, Professor X should be fired.

This argument bears a striking resemblance to the positivist’s deductive-nomological theory of explanation. According to that theory an event is satisfactorily explained when it can be deduced from a set of background conditions and a general law. Hook’s argument likewise explains why a professor should be fired: because that professor is a Communist (background condition) and because Communism entails a certain set of beliefs and actions (general law). In short Hook used a positivist-style argument in order to make his case.

The sort of argument Hook offered, one couched in terms of general laws, was politically compelling. The sort of approach Lowe advocated, of treating suspected philosophers on a case-by-case basis, was not. American philosophers would have been well aware of the debate between Hook and Lowe, just as they would have been aware of the fate waiting those suspected of Communist sympathies. From this one could then draw the following insights: first, that arguments invoking general laws, such as Hook’s, were likely to be well received and, second, that one’s philosophical career would be more secure to the degree that one worked in areas where this style of argumentation was prevalent. If one wished to avoid scrutiny, in other words, one was well advised to work in areas that were the most logically rigorous and quasi-scientific. Philosophy of language and philosophy of science were in; metaphysics and political philosophy were out. This would suggest that there was in fact a connection between the political climate of the McCarthy era and changing philosophical methods in the United States.

The exchange between Lowe and Hook would also support Louis Menand’s recent claim that pragmatism, among other styles of philosophy, was unsuited to the political realities of the Cold War and McCarthy eras. In The Metaphysical Club (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001) Menand has suggested that these times called for a philosophy that provided clear, unambiguous answers. Hook’s approach provided these while Lowe’s more pragmatic proposal did not. However it is not just that Lowe’s approach was out of step with the political realities: we should also consider whether it (and other approaches) was a victim of the McCarthy era, just as many individual philosophers were.

This leads to the metaphilosophical question of how best to think about philosophy and its history. There is a long-standing assumption that the history of philosophy is best understood as a series of arguments, with the stronger arguments eventually displacing the weaker. On this view the history of philosophy is essentially rational and can be studied without reference to the broader social contexts in which philosophical thinking takes place. The McCarthy era should certainly make us reconsider this assumption. It is anything but obvious that changes in the style of American philosophy can be entirely explained in terms of the force of the better argument. However, the McCarthy era should also lead us to examine a second metaphilosophical assumption. On this assumption the social context would be recognized so that its influence over philosophy can be minimized or, if possible, eliminated. According to this view, social and political factors affect the course of philosophy but in ways that detract from the objective assessment of philosophical arguments. Given what occurred during the McCarthy era this is certainly a tempting assumption to make (it would highlight the importance of permitting arguments to compete on a level playing field) but, again, it is not obviously correct. As we have seen, American philosophy emerged from the McCarthy era focused on questions that had minimal practical or political significance. The McCarthy era thus teaches us to be skeptical not only of outside political pressure on philosophy but also on the countervailing pressure that philosophy be rigorously apolitical. As a result the lesson is not so much to eliminate the interaction of politics (or other social factors) with philosophy as to watch over this interaction carefully. While philosophy should not be a victim of politics it should not be entirely divorced from it either.

If American philosophy did take a decisive turn as a result of political pressure during the McCarthy era then several further points deserve to be made. The first is the obvious point that this episode illustrates the historical contingency of philosophy. Changes in philosophical style are not always due to purely rational considerations. Perhaps for both better and worse, philosophy takes place in a broader historical context and is exposed to social and political influences. The second point is that the denial of this contingency – the view that philosophy is or should be free of social and political influence – can itself be a reaction to particular historical situations. What happened during the McCarthy era certainly raises this possibility: American philosophy became abstract and apolitical at the same time that it came under increased political scrutiny. Third, and finally, the McCarthy era serves as a warning when we consider the present state of philosophy in America. As McCumber observes, philosophers had the dubious merit of receiving more than their fair share of scrutiny. Today, many would lament what is apparently philosophy’s marginalization and yearn for a time when American philosophy seemed socially relevant and perhaps even a little dangerous.

American philosophy does not play as prominent a role in American culture as it should, or as it once did. An example of this is the general silence of American philosophy on many issues that affect both Americans and others. For example, since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Americans have expressed a gamut of sentiments ranging from hysteria to patriotic triumphalism – but there has been little philosophical discussion of the basis or merits of these sentiments. This is especially worrisome because the current war on terrorism shares many traits with the McCarthy era’s war on Communism. Then, as now, the U.S. government is taking unprecedented steps in the name of national security and there is a similar concern that this is at the expense of constitutional rights. While it is unlikely that the specific abuses of the McCarthy era will be repeated, the absence of philosophical debate is nonetheless distressing.

While the McCarthy era lasted through the 1950’s, Joseph McCarthy’s career ended much earlier. In early 1954 he opened hearings investigating the promotion of an Army dentist, Irving Peress, who was suspected of being a Communist. The Army-McCarthy hearings were televised and made for grand theater as McCarthy sparred with the Army’s counsel Joseph Welch. On June 9, 1954 McCarthy revealed that a young colleague of Welch’s had belonged to a Communist organization many years before. Welch replied, “little did I dream that you could be so reckless and so cruel as to do an injury to that lad.” When McCarthy continued his attack Welch replied with a now-famous denunciation: “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” McCarthy lost his popular support and by the end of the year had been censured by the Senate and stripped of his committee chair. He became an increasingly marginal figure until his death in 1957. McCarthy’s career was brief but the era to which he gave his name had significant – and persistent – consequences that left American society and American philosophy transformed.


John Capps is an Assistant Professor in Philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York.

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