The Reckless Mind cover
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Publication date:
September 9, 2003
New York Review Books
Politics & Current Affairs, Science & Philosophy

European history of the past century is full of examples of philosophers, writers, and jurists who, whether they lived in democratic, communist, or fascist societies, supported and defended totalitarian principles and horrific regimes. But how can intellectuals, who should be alert to the evils of tyranny, betray the ideals of freedom and independent inquiry? How can they take positions that, implicitly or not, endorse oppression and human suffering on a vast scale?

In profiles of Martin Heidegger, Carl Schmitt, Walter Benjamin, Alexandre Kojève, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida, Mark Lilla demonstrates how these thinkers were so deluded by the ideologies and convulsions of their times that they closed their eyes to authoritarianism, brutality, and state terror. He shows how intellectuals who fail to master their passions can be driven into a political sphere they scarcely understand, with momentous results for our intellectual and political lives.


This is important. Lilla’s short, elegant and readable book is about what happens when philosophers get tangled up in the real world. It is also a matter of recognizing that the world is in the shape that it is because of the influence of the most rarefied of minds.—Nicolas Lezard, The Guardian, Paperback of the Week

Lilla’s accessible, summary look at eight 20th-century thinkers is a compilation of cautionary tales…shrewd advice…a very canny book showing us how not to think and chew politics at the same time.— Carlin Romano, The Philadelphia Inquirer

As Mr. Lilla ably shows, what is common to these thinkers is a rejection of political philosophy. They deny the possibility of a patient, sober and rational exploration of political possibilities. And even when they become disillusioned with specific tyrants—Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Khomeini—they continue to reject political moderation and balanced analysis.— Daniel J. Mahoney, The Wall Street Journal

Lilla has a gift for nimble exposition, and each study in his collection is illuminating, often revelatory,” Sunil Khilnani wrote here in 2002.— The New York Times Book Review