A brief survey of today’s public intellectuals reveals their dispiritingly narrow range. They tend to stay safely within the boundaries of their discipline. Leon Wieseltier is not this sort of intellectual. Born in Brooklyn and educated at Columbia, Oxford and Harvard, Wieseltier garnered fame in the 1980s for being a sort of liberal wunderkind; a protégé of Isaiah Berlin savvy in contemporary politics. He has been the literary editor at the New Republic for over three decades, seeing figures like Andrew Sullivan, James Wood and Dale Peck come and go, and he is a vocal proponent of the magazine’s brand of pragmatic, hawkish liberalism.
Wieseltier’s domain, the second half of the New Republic contains reviews and essays. It has been described by New York magazine’s Carl Swanson as “a sort of archipelago of learnedness… haunted by its own testy thoroughgoing-ness, dense with type and argument, and deliberately off-putting.” Wieseltier writes the “Washington Diary” column at the back of each issue, and is the author of Kaddish, a memoir and study of the Jewish mourning prayer.
You were recently honoured with the Dan David Prize for being a “foremost writer and thinker who confronts and engages with the central issues of our times, setting the standard for serious cultural discussion in the United States.”
That’s what they say.
You also received a large amount of money. Do you intend to do anything with it?
One thing I certainly won’t do is use it to escape from public life or being a public intellectual. But other than that I don’t really know. Live more comfortably? I have a son who is going to be going to college eventually.
Will you use some of it to work on another book?
I’ve been working on a book about Messianism for some time now.
So what do you think are some of these “central issues of our times”?
I think I’d back up for a moment and say that a kind of preliminary issue is the question of the role of ideas in our public debates and in our society. We have become a technologically addled society that is obsessed less with the question of whether something is true or false, or good or evil, and more with the question of how something works and what its consequences will be.
The technological realm has been promoted as the very model of thought for human relations and all sorts of human activities. Our society has come to scorn what is called humanism or the humanities. And I think that is terrible thing, because there are many things about human life that cannot be quantified. So the re-assertion of the centrality of humanistic ideas is a very high priority right now
I read your piece about the philosopher Thomas Nagel and the controversy surrounding his book Mind and Cosmos. Is this debate a manifestation of our “technologically addled society”?
Nagel’s book is astonishingly brave. There are things one agrees with more and one agrees with less, and there are things in it on which I certainly have no opinions. But I do know that not all of human life can be explained scientifically. And I do know that the question of consciousness cannot be smoothly worked out into a scientific analysis. There is a distinction between science and scientism. Science is what scientists do. Scientism is the belief that there are scientific answers to all questions.
I think the only important question really, in terms of worldviews, is the question of materialism— whether materialism can explain natural and human life. There are two camps. There are those who think it can and those who think it can’t. And all of those who think it can’t, whether they are mystics or rationalists or mathematicians, are all on the same side of the line.
Do you think this is something that’s got worse over the past decade?
I do. I think that, generally, people do not like to live in inconclusive situations. There are only two things which can relieve them of uncertainty and make their circumstances seem like some sort of inevitability. One is science and the other is religious dogma. I think for that reason, as modern life gets more complicated and daunting and busy and frenzied, people are looking for shelter in the storm and they are finding it in science and religion.
Do philosophy and the humanities carve out a useful space between science and religious dogma?
No, it’s not a space between! I think the central fact about human life is that we live in many realms, and the categories of one realm cannot explain the categories of another. They can shed light on each other, but it makes no sense to give an economic answer to a cultural question. These are all attempts to reduce one realm to another and I think all realms are essentially irreducible.
It would be moronic and primitive for me to utter a word against science—that’s not what I’m saying. But some of the great scientists I know are the first to talk about the limits of their fields, their ignorance and the provisional nature of their conclusions. The church of Galileo’s followers is kind of a grim comedy.
You seem to have a longstanding aversion to disciplines which attempt grandiose reduction. You studied philosophy at Columbia and then at Oxford during the heyday of JL Austin, AJ Ayer and PF Strawson.
I first came to Oxford the September after [WV] Quine, [Saul] Kripke, and [Donald] Davidson had all spent the year there. It was as if I found myself in the Gobi desert. But various people understood that I was neither interested nor gifted for that kind of philosophy. And I quickly found asylum.
And Isaiah Berlin was one of those asylums?
Yes he was. He was my other father.
Were there any other figures, in the philosophy department or elsewhere?
Anthony Kenny taught me Wittgenstein as best that I could understand the early Wittgenstein, and he did it in such a way that allowed me to pursue aspects of his work that were not about the deepest recesses of propositional logic.
Peter Strawson taught me Kant, and it was a great privilege. He was an analytic philosopher, but of a different kind. He was a deeply cultivated and humanistic man.
And then Isaiah basically took me in and I spent every Saturday afternoon at his house. I sat at his feet for a long time.
Do you think philosophy has become more accommodating to more humanistic viewpoints since the late 60s and early 70s?
I follow it now from a distance. I understand why philosophy should be done rigorously, and shouldn’t just be another toasty branch of humanistic edification. On the other hand, there is the very interesting question about whether the way to understand human life is by understanding sentences. And it never seemed to me that language deserved the centrality that analytic philosophers gave it. The question of whether there is a God cannot be reduced to the question of how we use God in certain sentences. And so I find myself alienated by that, and by the idea that logic would be the model for all human thought.
A lot of people know you as the longtime literary editor at the New Republic. Do you feel there is a certain way, as a literary editor, that you can shape public debate?
The editing I do is the secondary aspect of my working life. The primary aspect is the study and the writing. I’d like to think I’ll be remembered more for Kaddish than for my work at the New Republic. Even though I regard my work at this magazine as a primary duty to the society in which I live and this culture. It’s an honour, but I am a writer who edits.
What are the responsibilities of a magazine like the New Republic?
I think the first responsibility is to see to it that the level of discussion about subjects that urgently matter to politics and culture is high. Disquietingly high in the present environment. Secondly is to see to it that all the realms are respected, that political criticism and cultural criticism are not synchronised, in the way a Stalinist or Tea Partier would like.
A lot of people have noticed and felt a bit alienated by the ideological shifts that The New Republic has gone through…
Not me and the back pages. 30 years.
Were you ever tempted to leave for another magazine?
Oh no no no no. Occasionally a little bird would whisper in my ear about another job. But I have perfect freedom here and I have all the responsibility I would want. I’ve never been particularly interested in power. And I can write anything I choose to write, in any way I wish to write it. I’ve been unusually happy.
Also, my view of the world—and this is very un-melodramatic and unexciting—hasn’t really changed. One has to pay attention to the world, but you can’t be at the mercy of tomorrow’s newspapers to know what you think about the primary questions of human life. In the case of my political convictions, I decided many years ago I was an old-fashioned liberal. Meaning that I believe in the use of American power for good purposes abroad—the weakening of tyranny and the spread of democracy. I believe in the use of American prosperity at home for the creation of a more equal and just society. I believe in the welfare state and progressive taxation and gay marriage. The old sort of liberalism—and since [George] McGovern there hasn’t been a party that represents the whole package.
Now that Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes has bought TNR, do you see the magazine returning to a classic sort of liberalism?
No. Look: TNR is not a magazine that completely adds up. Irving Howe used to say if you read a single issue of TNR from cover to cover you get cross-eyed. And that’s fine with me. We have a core conviction here: anyone here is allowed to argue for whatever they want, so long as he or she argues for it cogently. We crusade for things, but we don’t have the sort of view of the human world in which everything adds up and is one neat package because a single spirit runs through everything. Everything doesn’t haven’t to add up into an aesthetically dazzling seamless whole. It just has to be serious and defensible.
Let’s get back to your writing and the state of journalism. I liked your piece lambasting David Remnick’s essay on Bruce Springsteen. It was funny, but what I found interesting was that behind this humour seemed a sort of optimism about journalism. That it can, and should, hold more intellectual gravity.
Yeah, I think that’s correct. I don’t call myself a journalist and I can’t call myself a professor, so the only professional term to which I answer happily is “intellectual.” And I think it is a very honourable term and I am happy with it. The Springsteen thing was written against a kind of journalistic complaisance. And to be wicked. I think that it is very important to give people an example of irreverence. We live in a culture of worthless praise.
It seems that in an age of blogging and online journalism everything is either solipsistic back-patting or pure vitriol.
Or it’s talk radio. And I have to say that there is not one blog, out of the eight million that must exist, that I read. The thing about blogging is that it is either someone’s first thoughts—which we know by definition are never their best thoughts—so that’s not interesting, or as time goes by they simply repeat themselves. Moreover there isn’t a lot you can say about anything consequential in 300 words. I write the back page of the magazine and I always wish it was three times as long as it is.
How do you feel about Twitter?
Twitter is one of the biggest assaults on the human attention span ever.
Our attention spans are certainly tested. I know of people who have read books like Ulysses or War and Peace on iPhones or iPads, and all the text is linked to footnotes, readers’ companions and so on.
Reading with something that opens up every conceivable door is just promiscuous.