Key Thinkers and Canons

Oct 12th, 2004 7:38 pm | By

Now that’s funny. Made me do one of those loony blurts of laughter at the computer screen that solidify one’s feeling of creeping insanity. No but really, it is funny. The Guardian has a really exceptionally irritating smug knowing comment in a leader on our debt to Derrida. My point is not to quarrel with the late Derrida, whom I haven’t read; my point is to quarrel with this particular remark in this particular rather silly piece in the Guardian.

What was important was that deconstruction held that no text was above analysis or closed to alternative interpretation. It is no coincidence that it came into vogue in the 1960s and 1970s, when many cultural and social institutions were being challenged. As a result, Derrida became popular among those willing to question the sterile idea of a “western canon” who wanted to expand literary discourse so that writers such as Mary Elizabeth Braddon could sit alongside the Brontes. Thanks to Derrida, many new voices were heard.

Sterile? Sterile?? Sterile in what sense, you, you [takes deep breath, starts over]. For one thing, there is no ‘western canon’, that’s a straw man. Yes yes, I know, Harold Bloom called a book that, but that’s because of all the people droning about the sterility of this non-existent western canon. There is no fucking canon. Okay? There isn’t. What there is, is a lot of reading lists for university literature surveys, especially in the US where people don’t get much of the kind of thing in secondary school. But that’s not a ‘canon.’ That’s a pejorative people came up with to get people to stop reading Shakespeare and read other people instead. Reading other people is fine, if they’re good (and if they’re not, if that’s what you want to do), but actually discouraging people from reading Shakespeare, by sneering about canons, is another matter. For a second thing, if there were a ‘western canon’ (which there isn’t), why would it be sterile? What’s sterile about reading, say, Homer and Euripides and Thucydides and Montaigne and Byron and Austen and Hazlitt? Eh? And for a third thing, what does ‘could sit alongside the Brontes’ mean? Anything? No, but it implies something – that thanks to Derrida, we now get to think that Mary Elizabeth Braddon is as good as Emily Bronte (not ‘the Brontes,’ since they are two different writers, after all, not a unit). Well guess what – she isn’t. Not even close. I haven’t read Derrida but I have read some Braddon, and she is mildly entertaining, but she is not within shouting distance of the author of Wuthering Heights.

The funny bit is that I was going to do a N&C to say exactly that, and then I saw that A C Grayling had got there first. Good.

Your leader express a gratitude to Jacques Derrida for impugning the idea of a literary “canon” (October 11). What deconstruction and its postmodern allies, in theory, actually do is abandon standards of judgment, describing these as tools of snobbery and exclusion, and thereby making it a criterion of excellence that a work’s author (his or her intentions, of course, aside) has an appropriate gender, ethnicity, or geographical origin.

The good reasons why these latter considerations should count in giving a hearing to traditionally suppressed voices should not be confused with the question of what constitutes the highest critical standards: it is part of the damage done by Derrida and his kind that the latter have been replaced almost wholesale by the former.

Exactly. The bit about snobbery and exclusion is what really gets up my nose. That’s the bit of cultural work that word ‘sterile’ is doing – that’s what I mean by ‘discouraging’ people from reading Shakespeare. It’s false, it’s stupid, and it’s harmful, and I wish people would knock it off. It is not ‘elitist’ to read or to like Shakespeare, and the sooner that idea gets drummed out of the ‘canon’ of right-on ideas, the better. Go, Anthony – tell ’em!

It was also amusing to see the Guardian’s idea of key thinkers. snicker, snort. Alain de Botton and Julie Burchill? gasp, wheeze.

Anyway, when I spotted the article, the first thing I thought was, I wonder if that Baggini fella we keep running into is one of their key thinkers. So I hit the down button, and sure enough. He’s everywhere, that guy. Even here.

Update: You know the best thing about Derrida? People who read him learn not to be so dogmatic! So they tell us, anyway.

A Paradigm Shift

Oct 12th, 2004 6:37 pm | By

My colleague and I have been talking in an inconclusive back-and-forth way about the subject of certainty, the revisability of scientific claims, the difference between in principle and in reality or in practice or in fact, transcendence, labeling, rhetoric, the difference between what can be imagined and what is a live possibility. We’ll talk about it further in a couple of days (well, three) when we’ll be able to do it with the useful accompaniment and assistance of gestures, grimaces, thrown objects, slaps, pinches, what my brother always called as he administered it to me an ‘Indian rope burn’ but which must be called something else now but I don’t know what, table-thumping, brow slapping, eye rolling, hair tearing, and food throwing. That is our rigorous and aerobic notion of collaboration. It has always been liberally laced with insults, taunts, mockery, and rude suggestions, and physical violence will be a welcome addition and enrichment of this tradition.

It comes up of course because of this book we’re writing, and because of thinking about the claims of people like Bloor and other Strong Programmistas. It’s impossible (naturally enough) to think about such claims without thinking about epistemology, and of course it’s impossible to think about epistemology without immediately getting lost in a bog of Yes but how do we know we know we know? and similar penetrating questions. Which is why people like Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus made such big names for themselves and why Montaigne inscribed ‘que scais-je?’ into the roofbeam and why Hume woke Kant from his dogmatic slumbers and why Derrida expanded on the point and why Rorty and Fish enjoy irritating everyone and why Douglas Adams thought of the mouse experiment and 42 and whoever thought of The Matrix thought of The Matrix. It’s not as if they’re wrong, it’s not as if there’s nothing problematic about knowledge. What one does with that thought is another matter, but the thought itself is a real thought.

My colleague’s real thought has to do with the fact that science is revisable in principle but, about some things, not in reality. That scientists may say that all scientific knowledge is revisable but there are plenty of things about which they don’t actually believe it. They don’t really believe that the fact that the earth goes around the sun is revisable. I’ve been putting up an argument. I think either that they do believe it, or that the fact that they don’t doesn’t really have any particular force. Or both of those – that they’re the same thing. They do believe it’s revisable, provided there is evidence. The difficulty of imagining what that evidence could be and how it could be reconciled with all the other evidence does make the belief very thin, or formal, or ‘merely’ verbal, I suppose – but then that’s how it is. That particular ‘if’ is a very big if – but some ifs are very big ifs. That’s the nature of ifs, and thought experiments and counter-factuals in general. So we argue about transcendence and certainty. Is it reasonable to say that some of science’s truth claims are in fact transcendent, or certain, because of this difficulty of real belief in revisability? Well, yes, in a sense, I suppose, but it’s also true that such words are used in rhetorical contexts and for rhetorical purposes – to attribute much greater certainty, and smugness and blindness and refusal to question, to science and scientists than they in fact have about a lot of their own work. They know from daily practice, from life at the coal face, how tentative theories can be, so…it seems to me that that’s enough to foster the kind of uncertainty and awareness of revisability that’s required. But then I’m the one writing this Comment, so I’m giving myself the last word. Followed by a few thrown apple cores.

Actually not. Jerry S typed and sent this extract from E O Wilson’s autobiography, Naturalist (pp 319-20) by way of commentary, so I’ll give that the last word.

I picked Hamilton’s paper out of my briefcase somewhere north of New Haven
and riffled through it impatiently. I was anxious to get to the gist of the
argument and move on to something else, something more familiar and
congenial. The prose was convoluted and the full-dress mathematic treatment
difficult, but I understood his main point about haplodiploidy and colonial
life quickly enough. My first response was negative. Impossible, I thought:
this can’t be right. Too simple. He must not know much about social insects.
But the idea kept gnawing away at me early that afternoon, as I changed over
to the Silver Meteor in New York’s Pennsylvania Station. As we departed
southward across the New Jersey marshes, I went though the article again,
more carefully this time, looking for the fatal flaw I believed must be
there. At intervals I closed my eyes and tried to conceive of alternative,
more convincing explanations of the prevalence of hymenopteran social life
and the all-female worker force. Surely I knew enough to come up with
something. I had done this kind of critique before and succeeded. But
nothing presented itself now. By dinnertime, as the train rumbled on into
Virginia, I was growing frustrated and angry. Hamilton, whoever he was,
could not have cut the Gordian knot. Anyway, there was no Gordian knot in
the first place, was there? I had thought there was probably just a lot of
accidental evolution and wonderful natural history. And because I modestly
thought of myself as the world authority on social insects, I also thought
it unlikely that anyone else could explain their origin, certainly not in
one clean stroke. The next morning, as we rolled on past Waycross and
Jacksonville, I thrashed about some more. By the time we reached Miami in
the early afternoon, I gave up. I was a convert, and put myself in
Hamilton’s hands. I had undergone what historians of science call a paradigm

‘The Plan’

Oct 12th, 2004 5:14 pm | By

Speaking of poetry – Norm has a poem by Sophie Hannah. It’s brilliant. I’d quote a bit but that would spoil the effect; read the whole thing.

Poetry rocks.

Blore Moor I Mean More Bloor

Oct 9th, 2004 8:51 pm | By

A little more Bloor for you, in case you’ve been missing him.

The law which is at work here appears to be this: those who are defending a society or a subsection of society from a perceived threat will tend to mystify its values and standards, including its knowledge…[T]he variable of perceived threat operating upon underlying social metaphors explains the differential tendency to treat knowledge as sacred and beyond the reach of scientific study.

This is interesting stuff, because what Bloor means by ‘beyond the reach of scientific study’ is ‘not considered amenable to substantive analysis by people who are not trained in the subject.’ That is, he is claiming (in great detail, e.g. via an extended comparison of Popper and Kuhn and their relationships to the Enlightenment and Romanticism respectively) that scientists treat knowledge as sacred and beyond the reach of ‘scientific’ (by which he means sociological) study – because said scientists are not, for the most part, convinced that sociological studies can analyze the substance of, say, physics or geology or neuroscience. This lack of conviction is labeled ‘mystification’ and attributed to perception of threat. The far more obvious explanation for such a lack of conviction is not discussed.

After a brief discussion of history and its way with knowledge, he returns to the mystification theme:

The case is quite different for conceptions of knowledge which seek to cut it off from the world and which reject the naturalistic approach [by which, again, he means sociological study of the content of scientific research]. Once knowledge has been made special in this way, then all control over our theorising about its nature has been lost.

‘Made special.’ ‘seek to cut it off from the world.’ Again, what he means by those rather paranoid phrases is simply failure to agree that sociologists have something useful to say about the substance of scientific research. In other words, what would appear to be the quite natural opinion of geologists and astronomers that non-geologists and non-astronomers are, pretty much by definition, not likely to be able to judge the content of geology or astronomy, is labeled ‘making it special’ and ‘seeking to cut it off from the world’. Stark staring nonsense. It’s so basic. You don’t know about a subject unless you know about it. I don’t know how to fix a car or a computer unless I learn, do I (and I haven’t learned, and I don’t know). Some subjects take more learning, more time and effort, than others, and most if not all scientific subjects are at the high end of that scale. This is not exactly a secret, is it! It’s why people don’t study the subjects in huge numbers (except perhaps in Germany), it’s why science teachers are rarer than, say, Theory teachers or Media Studies teachers. The stuff is hard! There’s a lot of it and you have to learn it, you can’t fake it by spinning words. So why would we expect people who haven’t learned it to be able to say anything relevant about it? (‘It’ always being understood to mean the actual content, not the social conventions and institutions around it or the methodology or the rhetoric of the reports.) Why would we pretend that it’s ‘mystification’ to think that non-physicists don’t know a great deal about physics?

Who knows. For something to do. For attention. For tenure. Whatever. Anyway, it’s nonsense.

Poetry Day

Oct 7th, 2004 8:51 pm | By

Chris at Crooked Timber points out that it’s National Poetry day in the UK, and gives his favourite Shakespeare sonnet. I don’t have one favourite, because there are too many, though if I did have to pick one I decided it would be either 116 or 29. Either ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment’ or ‘When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes.’ But there are several other top favourites, which I shared with the lucky readers of CT, so I’ll share them with our readers too.

Like as the waves make toward the pebbled shore


When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced


Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea


No longer mourn for me when I am dead


That time of year thou mayst in me behold


They that have power to hurt and will do none


Alas, ‘tis true, I have gone here and there


O for my sake do you with Fortune chide


Not marble nor the gilded monuments of princes

And if you like the Sonnets, and if you haven’t read Philip Sidney’s set, which preceded Shakespeare’s and influenced and inspired them, you oughta. Astrophil and Stella. Great stuff. Not the way the Sonnets are; on a different level; a different kind of level; but great stuff all the same.

Happy Poetry Day.

All That Ink

Oct 7th, 2004 7:38 pm | By

And sometimes I just waste my time. Inevitable, no doubt – but disconcerting when it happens. There I was this morning reading away at David Bloor, and making notes. Scribble scribble eh Mr Gibbon. I made a longish note about the way he uses the word ‘conventional’ and what a tricky word it can be. It implies a ‘mere’ but convention isn’t always mere. For instance, it’s true enough to say, as Bloor, and Barnes and the Strong Programme in general, do say, that the rules and criteria of science are conventional, but it doesn’t follow that they’re merely conventional. ‘One can have knowledge or findings,’ I pointed out sagely to myself, ‘that are conventional without being mere. In fact the “conventions” of science work (overall, over time, cumulatively etc) to make it more rather than less accurate – rather than to make it more acceptable.’ Fine. But then I turn the page and find –

To say that the methods and results of science are conventions does not make them ‘mere’ conventions.

I burst out laughing. Well fine! Just anticipate my objections! I don’t know why I bother!

Mind you. The objection is not entirely invalid anyway, because he does use the word that way in some places, even if he also does forestall the objection on page 44. That’s one way the whole Strong Programme works: by shifting around all the time, by using words one way in one place and another way in another. Fancy footwork, in short. Susan Haack talks about this in Chapter 7 of Defending Science. It’s rather exasperating. One minute they’re simply belaboring the obvious (people can believe true things but for irrational reasons), the next minute they’re deploying rhetoric to assert an absurdity, and the minute after that they’re saying something perfectly reasonable. And all this adds up to a Programme, and a mas macho one at that. ‘Strong’ may be not quite the right adjective.

Show Us Your Biceps, Mister

Oct 5th, 2004 7:00 pm | By

Time for another of those exercises when I quote a few passages from interesting (if eccentric) thinkers. Today’s examinee is David Bloor, one of the founding whatsits of the ‘Strong Programme’ at Edinburgh University. A few sentences from the opening page of his influential book Knowledge and Social Imagery:

Can the sociology of knowledge investigate and explain the very content and nature of scientific knowledge? Many sociologists believe that it cannot….They voluntarily limit the scope of their own enquiries. I shall argue that this is a betrayal of their disciplinary standpoint…There are no limitations which lie in the absolute or transcendent character of scientific knowledge itself, or in the special nature of rationality, validity, truth or objectivity.

That’s from the first paragraph. One, it’s interesting that he resorts to rhetoric right at the beginning, with the word ‘betrayal’ for example. And the subtle implications or innuendo behind that sentence about voluntarily limiting the scope of their own enquiries. Is ‘voluntarily’ really the right word? Or is it there to suggest things like timidity, conformity, obedience, lack of imagination and daring and scope, and the like. Is the limitation really voluntary, or is it more or less forced by the nature of reality? Is it perhaps the case that sociologists of knowledge who limit the scope of their enquiries do so because they think they don’t know enough about a given scientific field to explain its ‘very content and nature’? That seems quite likely, and not unreasonable. And note how Bloor leaves that explanation out of his list in the last sentence. He seems to mention it, but in fact doesn’t. His list makes a show of exhausting the possibilities, but in fact it doesn’t. The ‘absolute or transcendent character of scientific knowledge itself, or in the special nature of rationality, validity, truth or objectivity’ are not the only inhibiting factors that might make nonintoxicated (to borrow a trope of Susan Haack’s) sociologists ‘limit’ the scope of their enquiries; others would be the nature and complexity of the subject; ignorance, humility, knowledge of one’s own limitations; and especially evidence. The uninebriated sociologists might simply realize that they don’t know enough about the subject at hand to evaluate the evidence, and therefore don’t know how to differentiate between knowledge that is based on evidence and knowledge that is not, or is not completely. It’s not a question of any ‘special’ nature of truth or rationality, it’s simply a question of limited competence.

What is the cause for this hesitation and pessimism?…The cause of the hesitation to bring science within the scope of a thorough-going sociological scrutiny is lack of nerve and will. It is believed to be a foredoomed enterprise.

Lack of nerve and will. Hmm. That’s very reminiscent of that remark of Jamie Whyte’s I quoted the other day – ‘Now mere wilfulness has triumphed. This is what I describe as the egocentric approach to truth.’ One just has to have the will and nerve to decide that one can discover anything, even about subjects that tend to require many years of training to understand. (Mind you, it doesn’t work the other way. Strong programme sociologists don’t often write books wondering why physicists and geologists don’t investigate the knowledge of sociologists.) All very Nietzschean, or at least Riefenstahlian. All it takes is will!

Which of course is why they call it the Strong Programme. I guess.

There It Is Again

Oct 4th, 2004 8:08 pm | By

A small point. But I’m going to make it anyway, because I think it matters. Just the other day (well, September 21, actually, I find upon looking) I was talking about that translation problem – when sensible people say ‘There is evidence/there is no evidence that etc.’ and their hearers translate that (apparently without even realizing that they are translating) into ‘That is proved/proved not.’ I’ve just noticed another example, in a teaser at Arts & Letters Daily (where you would really expect them to know better, frankly, since Denis Dutton is a bit of a shark about Bad Thinking himself).

Capital punishment. Janet Reno says it doesn’t cut murder rates, Orrin Hatch says it does. Who’s right? Easy question? No!

And here is what Reno actually said:

I have inquired for most of my adult life about studies that might show that the death penalty is a deterrent, and I have not seen any research that would substantiate that point.

It’s really not a small point. It’s on journalists’ thinking such re-wordings are small and trivial and don’t matter that so much confusion and misunderstanding gets around. There just is a huge difference between saying ‘I have not found any evidence that X’ and saying ‘X is not.’ And if people are so blind to the difference that they make the translation without even noticing – well they just have no idea how anyone knows or thinks anything about anything, do they, which is an alarming thought.

Next Week?!

Oct 4th, 2004 5:46 pm | By

Well here’s a surprise – things are speeding up. The book is not coming out on October 28 after all, it’s coming out next week. It will be in all good bookshops (and, let us hope, in all bad ones as well, and mediocre ones besides, as well as adequate, so-so, okay, crapulous, and pathetic ones) for your viewing and buying pleasure. And I’ll be able to get off the plane and take my tiny red eyes into the first bookshop I see and there it will be (unless it isn’t). (Perhaps it won’t be because there will have been a rush and all copies will have sold out. Because people are finding it funny, you know. People at Smiths, for instance.)

And now here’s where you get to do your part. Not content with urging you to order it at Amazon, I have a further suggestion. This is what you do instead of subscribing or donating or looking at horrible adverts for low carb diets or sex toys. This is where you help keep the proprietors of B&W in bread and dripping for awhile longer. If you see the book at Smiths, you buy it. Here’s why: they’re starting small, at Smiths, and will only order more if the book actually sells. So if all our thousands upon thousands of regular readers grab every copy in Smiths, why, the nice people at Smiths will be running around the room squawking and slapping their foreheads in their urgency to order more copies. And that will be good.

This has been a public service announcement. Now back to your regular programming.

Education, Race and Culture

Oct 3rd, 2004 9:38 pm | By

Harry at Crooked Timber had an interesting post a couple of days ago on an issue that has been kicking around for quite awhile now: the issue of minority underachievement in school and what causes it. Another way to characterize the issue might be whether it’s just one thing that causes the underachievement or an array of factors, and if it is an array of factors, what they are and how significant each is, and whether and why some get more attention than others. Whether and why some factors are downplayed or ignored while others are exaggerated and overfocused on.

Harry puts it this way:

Our school district devoted another in-service training to the Courageous Conversations program; every employee (except the many who took sick days) had to participate…It’s a kind of involuntary therapy session — the kind of thing that my friends who used to be in obscure Maoist organizations report having gone through regularly. The pretext is a concern with minority underachievement, which the District regards as being caused by institutional racism, on which the day’s conversation focused. You might expect that a focus on institutional racism would look at the racism in the criminal justice system and the labor market, which deeply affect the prospects of minority males and, presumably, therefore indirectly effect their aspirations and marriageability (with predictable consequences for family structure). But: no mention of these things. It is all about the racism inherent in the schools, and particularly in the attitudes of teachers.

He also has an Op-ed in the Madison paper, where he makes this point among others:

The second assumption the Conversations approach makes is that what is explained by race can by addressed by making teachers face up to their own privilege and racism. The problem, in other words, is in the attitudes of teachers and other district employees. But we have evidence to the contrary. Analyses of the data from summer learning often suggest that the entire growth in the socio-economic class achievement gap each year occurs in the summer, when students are out of school. It looks as if out-of-school experiences, not in-school experiences, are responsible at least in part for that gap. In fact, our understanding of summer learning suggests that schools are truly remarkable places, in which, throughout the school year, the unequal effects of out-of-school experiences on achievement are held in check.

Other people make different though compatible points. Laban Tall collected some useful links on the subject last month, at the time of a conference on ‘London Schools And The Black Child’. There was BBC sports presenter and former Tottenham Hotspur striker Garth Crooks, for example, who told the conference ‘there was a direct link between films and rap music glorifying violence and the drift of black boys away from education and into crime and violence.’ There was a March 2002 article by Joseph Harker:

If, 10 years ago, you asked black people in inner-city areas what they most feared when walking the streets, they would probably have said it was police officers; today they’d reply that it’s loud, aggressive gangs of young black boys – who may or may not be criminals, but are deliberately trying to strike terror into those around them, living up to the gangsta-rap culture which has been imported from the US since the late 1980s. “We’re from the street,” they grunt, “we want respect” (expletives deleted). For a decade now, backed by the profane, misogynistic imagery of rap videos, these people have been given free rein to hijack black culture. Being black is all about music, sex, guns, drugs and living on “the street”, they say, and their message has been taken on board by too many impressionable youngsters. As Sewell said, education has been portrayed as “white” – what use is it when strutting the streets?

And an email debate between Tony Sewell and Lee Jasper on the subject, in which Tony Sewell put it this way:

Many black head teachers and black students are clear that underachievement can be due to the individual student, parents, community, peers and, of course, school. They don’t agree that poverty and institutionalised racism are the most important factors. I would go further and say that political correctness has avoided the real issue of an anti-school black masculinity that pervades not only our inner city but those black boys who attend schools in the suburbs. When it comes to the CRE challenging failing schools, its remit must be wider than just white racism. It must also challenge a youth culture that still thinks to do well in school is to “act white”.

And Jamie Whyte had a piece in the Times about the way the evidence was used:

In the 17th century accusations of witchcraft could be made on flimsy evidence: warts and buoyancy would do. In the 21st century accusations of racism can be made with no evidence at all, or even with evidence pointing in the opposite direction…Pupils were asked how strongly they agree with the following statements, from 5 “strongly agree” to 1 “strongly disagree”:

“Q14. My teachers expect me to do well at school. Q15. My teachers expect me to do my homework. Q16. My teachers care about my progress. Q17. Teachers listen to what I say. Q18. I am often in conflict with teachers.” The average answers of black and white pupils were the same: exactly the same for questions 14 and 15 and so close for the others that the difference is statistically insignificant.

Yet the opposite answer was somehow found – the school system was declared racist when the evidence indicated it wasn’t. That’s the kind of thing that makes one want to rush out and become a teacher, isn’t it.

Clearly there is a strong taboo against saying ‘the culture’ might be playing any part in the underachievement – no doubt it seems too much like blaming the victim. But is it going to be possible to correct the problem while ignoring crucial factors? One wouldn’t think so.

Walking Down the Runway in a Donna Karan Creation

Oct 3rd, 2004 8:43 pm | By

My colleague has been slaving over a hot stove for days, and at last the meal is just about cooked. And I must say I think it’s a triumph and worth the wait. Check it out. That’s TPM’s (The Philosophers’ Magazine Online’s) new look. Is that gorgeous or what. Look at the magical quotations thing. Look at the new section for News. Look at the bright clean colourful sparkle of it all. That’s what I call Web design.

And if you notice any problems (‘glitches’ I believe they’re called), don’t hesitate to comment or to email JerryS.

Assorted Cheeses

Oct 2nd, 2004 7:23 pm | By

This interview with Jamie Whyte is full of good quotable remarks. So I think I’ll quote some for your Saturday enjoyment.

It has always driven me mad to see people saying things that are well known to be rubbish. And I’ve never understood how they can bear it.

A good beginning.

The really big mistake comes when you treat people as authority figures when they are not expert but simply well known. There is a terrible tendency to treat people as reliable sources of fact when in fact they are simply “important” people or people who happen to be in the news. It is doubly perverse when you consider who gets counted as “important”.

Yup. We noticed that in connection with the ‘expertise’ of Juliet Stevenson on MMR, for instance, and Prince Charles on ‘alternative’ medicine.

Too many people see truth as just a game between groups, as a kind of tribalism. That is not rational. Far too many people are not prepared to say: “I don’t believe this and here’s my argument why I don’t.” They don’t feel they need to…These days, scientists are increasingly seen as part of various tribal groups, so when you read about their views the newspapers will go to great lengths to ask who they are working for, what their backgrounds are, and what are their political views are, and so on. Someone’s motives may reasonably make you suspicious that that person has an incentive to mislead you, but their arguments are no better or worse than the evidence put forward to support them.

Suspicion is one thing, and outright dismissal without argument is quite another. Good point, that.

What amazes me is that they like to set themselves up as having a slightly finer sensibility than you or me but in fact they are completely intellectually irresponsible. They used to come up with very bad arguments for their faiths but at least they felt that there was something they should provide. Now mere wilfulness has triumphed. This is what I describe as the egocentric approach to truth. You are no longer interested in reality because to do that you have to be pretty rigorous, you have to have evidence or do some experimentation. Rather, beliefs are part of your wardrobe. You’ve got a style and how dare anybody tell you that your style isn’t right.

I love that bit. Because it’s so exactly what I think myself. I’ve noticed it over and over again – that wilfulness thing. And the finer sensibility thing – if I’ve heard that implication once I’ve heard it a million times. ‘I’m spiritual, I’m deep, I see into the mystery of things, and you’re just a shallow dull literalist. Therefore any old nonsense I decide to think is real, is real.’ And beliefs as part of the wardrobe, and style (or identity, which is another version we hear a lot), and how dare you. Yup.

And speaking of nothing in particular but I want to put it somewhere and don’t want to do a separate little comment for it – I was quietly listening to Front Row yesterday when imagine my surprise, that ubiquitous Baggini fella turned up along with John Sutherland and some other guy to chat about aphorisms. So if you want to hear Julian chat about aphorisms, here’s your chance. It’s the last item on the programme, so probably about twenty minutes in.

Not Galileo

Oct 1st, 2004 8:51 pm | By

I was reading a book by Philip Kitcher, Science, Truth, and Democracy, earlier this morning. He says some interesting things about people doing the Galileo thing. Page 101 for instance –

People who publish findings purporting to show that behavioral differences stem from matters of race or sex often portray themselves as opposing widely held views in the interest of truth.

And page 106 and 107 –

Prejudice can be buttressed as those who oppose the ban [on research into race differences in IQ] proclaim themselves to be gallant heirs of Galileo…So long as the conditions driving the argument are not appreciated, champions of the forms of inquiry that should be eschewed can always make use of the rhetoric of freedom to portray themselves as victims of an illegitimate public policy of stifling the truth.

Yes. One knows the kind of thing. One is in fact all too familiar with it. One ardently hopes one doesn’t fall into that oneself. One writes contracts and signs them in blood, vowing to give it all up and move to Topeka if one ever starts doing the Galileo act.

In that sense, Marc Mulholland had a point in that post the other day, with the bit about Valiant for Truth heroes of the Enlightenment and courageous souls who standing alone fight the modern filthy tide and people imagining themselves as some kind of underground resistance. Of course, he certainly didn’t have a point if he meant us, because we are so humble and modest and unassuming and unpretentious and self-deprecating as well as sensible and reasonable and clever and good at standing on one leg. But for just that reason he probably didn’t mean us.

No but seriously. It is a real problem, and one that occurs to me often. It is very difficult to set up as some kind of general critic of some division of Bad Thinking or Silly Mistakes or Foolish Errors or Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Dunciadia or Conventional Wisdom or Received Ideas or Fashionable Nonsense or [Insert Variant Here] without running the risk of falling into ridiculous poses and attitudes, as if posing for a tableau vivant of Horatius at the Bridge or the Boy with his just never mind we’ve all heard that joke thank you very much. Ho yus, I’m Galileo, I’m Spartacus, I’m Thersites, I’m Quixote, I’m Lenny Bruce, I’m Swift, I’m Pope, I’m Voltaire, I’m Mencken, I’m a martyr for truth, blah blah blah. (Shakespeare was sharply conscious of all this, amusingly and interestingly enough. He has a lot of speeches in a lot of plays in which one character tells another ‘Yes yes, we know, you’re a satirist, you’re honest, you’re going to tell us what’s wrong with everything. Don’t bother, okay?’ Satire was very very hot in the late 1590s, it was The Fashion [and was eventually made illegal – no messing around in those days] and the presses were full of scathing satires by disillusioned young men about town. Shakespeare wrote some and also mocked the whole idea. Typical. Flexible bastard, he was. Negative capability.)

But then again. There’s only so much one can do about it. It’s no good deciding to be acquiescent and docile and uncritical and accepting about everything simply in order to avoid pomposity and posing and affectation, is it. And really it’s hard to engage in any kind of thinking or inquiry or intellectual activity at all without noticing some error here and there. So…one just has to lump it.

We could always get some business cards made up. Butterflies and Wheels: Humble, Fallible, Bashful Critics of Fashionable Nonsense. Galilean Airs Strictly Avoided. Office Hours Daily 6 a.m. to Midnight.

Under Discussion

Oct 1st, 2004 7:02 pm | By

Funny, that comment I did on Arundhati Roy was a catch-up item, as I said, left over from weeks ago, but I no sooner post it than there is a small flurry of posts on Roy because of an interview with her in Outlook India (which I hadn’t seen). She does say one or two woolly things there.

Mind you – to be fair, she also says some okay things. I may be unfair to her because her manner puts me off – and that’s not really a very compelling reason. She may not be as smug as she appears (just as I may not be as deranged and malicious as I appear – who knows). Though I am not the only one who thinks so. David Sucher of City Comforts had this to say at Harry’s Place:

Have you ever heard her speak? I found her foul: smug and self-satisfied, and certain of her own superior morality.

Yes, that is exactly the impression I got. But maybe she’s just shy. Anyway in the name of fairness here is one of the okay things she said:

Globalization, what does it mean? I keep saying, we are pro-globalization. It would be absurd to think that everybody should retreat into their little caves and continue oppressing Dalits and messing around the way they used to in medieval times. Of course not.

Good. Of course, some of the other things she says may give help to people who do indeed want to go on oppressing Dalits and women and other medieval messing around. But at least she’s aware of the problem.

The comment at Harry’s Place is worth reading. So is the one at Marc Cooper’s place and the one at No Credentials, which goes on to a different discussion, and a very interesting one. How does an academic who is avowedly not interested in facts go about ‘demonstrating’ something factual?

A Shakespearean scholar at the University of Oregon–a professor I actually like, which makes this more painful to report–will serve as my anonymous example. She wrote a well-received article using Foucault’s notion of geneaology to “demonstrate” that a noted historian’s view of anti-Semitism was poorly grounded, and that the “evidence” was in Shakespeare. I asked her, in all innocence, if she had ever thought about contacting the historian, or any other historians, to alert them to her discovery. It was my first term in grad school and I still hadn’t read a great deal of Foucault; I thought that–since he’s called a historian of ideas–his ideas were worth a damn.

She made an astounding statement; it went something like this: I know you’re interested in science, Rose, but I just don’t understand why people are attracted to the world of facts. That’s why I’m in literature; I love the imagination. If I wanted to do history, I’d do history.

This was in front of an entire class, and I didn’t know how to respond. I didn’t say what I thought, which was, “But you say right here that you’ve demonstrated something. Doesn’t that imply something, you know, factual?”

One would think so. But of course that’s just petty empiricism, plodding positivism, sucky scientism. And yet…there are people who wonder what all the fuss is about. What postmodernism, they wonder. Who are all these people who say all these absurd things? I never hear anyone say things like that, they say. How odd – I hear them and read them all the time, not always even because I’m looking for them. But Marc Mulholland’s experience is different.

…post-modernism and multi-culturalism remains the favourite whipping boy of every ‘Valiant for Truth’ hero of the Enlightenment. I hardly ever meet post-modernists, only ever courageous souls who standing alone fight the modern filthy tide of those who will reduce truth to narrative, bury sense under ‘hegemonic discourse’, defend atrocities on relativist grounds, and so bloody on. Post-modernism is the great straw-man that allows dull empiricists and purveyors of moral inanities to imagine themselves as some kind of underground resistance…

Really. Never read anyone in Science Studies (or ‘Strong Programme’ Sociology of Science and other variants) for instance? Never read any Andrew Ross? No feminist epistemology? Never browsed syllabi for university courses? Got no friends doing Open University courses?

The usual accusation is that relativism allows post-modernists to pretend that all human phenomena are equally to be welcomed. Perhaps one can find ‘theorists’ who say this, but I’ve never come across anyone who has seriously argued that, say, the back of cornflakes boxes are of equal literary value to Shakespeare. Could be that I’ve never found them because they’d have to be, more or less literally, barking mad? The idea that such notions rule the intellectual world! Puh-lease.

Puh-lease what? There are entire disciplines dedicated to problematizing the borders between ‘High Culture’ and Popular Culture (the scare-quotes because High Culture is a silly word that denotes a straw man, in my view, as is the word ‘canon’).

I was surprised once to come across the article that is, I gather, the source of the ‘Valiant for Truth’ brigade’s assertion that wicked relativists defend female circumcision. I was surprised to see that its reasoning followed the lines that, if western society permits all sorts of body modification for aesthetic and occasionally religious purposes, then why should female circumcision – under proper medical supervision – not be permitted in non-western societies? One might demur for various reasons, but a battle-cry for patriarchy, a rejection of civilisation?

Um – there’s more than one article on the subject? With more than one argument? People really do fret about interfering with other people’s cultures, and FGM is a frequent example? I’ve heard them with my own ears?

One is indeed sensitive about deeply engrained beliefs that go to the heart of individuals’ sense of self-worth. I don’t scream at first years that (a)theism is for idiots or that their support / opposition to the war in Iraq marks them out as some sort of criminal.

Straw man again. And squishy words with all too many possible meanings again, just like last time we got into this discussion, when the claim was that a ‘ramified mode of human expression’ deserves respect. Same problem here. I, for one ‘one’, am not sensitive about all ‘deeply engrained beliefs that go to the heart of individuals’ sense of self-worth.’ I’m just not. Because that covers too much ground, is too blanket an amnesty. A lot of individuals (I know quite a few personally) have senses of self-worth that are very very closely tied up with their sense of superiority to other individuals – their sense of inherent, born, automatic, by definition, superiority. You’ll have guessed what I mean by now – I mean people who think others are inferior (have less worth) because of their sex or race or similar genetic category. They really, really, really believe that – their beliefs are deeply engrained. I don’t feel any need to be sensitive about that. (Well – I tell a lie – sometimes I do. I have been known to bite my lip in some situations, in order not to hurt someone’s feelings or cause feelings of foolishness and shame. Okay. I admit it. But then it should be phrased that way – as reluctance to shame people, not as sensitivity about ‘deeply engrained beliefs that go to the heart of individuals’ sense of self-worth’ – that language is just too flattering toward the possible beliefs.)

Blimey – this is long. How does this happen. I set out to write a few words and before I know it I have half a book. That’s enough of that.


Oct 1st, 2004 1:34 am | By


August ’04







January 2004

December 2003











January 2003

December 2002




Sep 29th, 2004 8:01 pm | By

Oh I don’t know…it’s just that it’s all such an effort, you know? I’m supposed to go to London in a couple of weeks (well not ‘supposed to’ – it was my own idea – but it’s planned and scheduled and so on). But…I don’t know…I have so much to do. I should tidy up the living room, and I should hang all my clothes up one of these days, and I ought to wipe the shelves in the fridge. It just all adds up. Plus there’s B&W, and a book to write, and one thing and another. And then a trip on top of that? You have to pack, and make sure you have everything, and go here and go there. And then there are all those hours and hours and hours in an airplane. Maybe I should just stay where I am and get the living room really tidy. There’s that closet, too.

Ahmed and Aaronovitch

Sep 28th, 2004 8:39 pm | By

Another interesting pairing. This piece by David Aaronovitch and this one by Ishtiaq Ahmed. They say some parallel things.


When the Muslim theologian was asked to give an example of where the secular concept of human rights might be seen as deficient by other societies, his immediate answer was: ‘Women’s rights.’ Did secularists not understand, he asked, that there were cultures in which women did not want equal rights? ‘How do you know what they want?’ I snapped at him. ‘Have you polled them?’…And this, it seems to me, is what it always boils down to…Why is it that when God speaks through man, he so resolutely demands that women are subordinate?…It is extraordinary how mainstream religions devote themselves to the unequal restraint of women, this restraint acting as the glue that holds their cultures together.

It is, isn’t it. And Ahmed:

This suspicion is confirmed when we remember that the Islamists almost never champion the rights of the exploited and dispossessed and spend most of their time giving vent to anger against the imagined liberation of women. It is alleged to result in laxity of moral standards and thus subversive of Islamic morals.

Women, Dalits, obedience, submission, tradition. It’s important stuff. People who have the whip hand are not always easily persuaded to give it up. And now that they’ve discovered the fine new dodge of calling it Multiculturalism and claiming the victim role themselves – why, their ownership of the whip gets perpetuated a good while longer…

Winterson, Roy, Nafisi

Sep 28th, 2004 6:56 pm | By

I saw something that made me laugh at Normblog this morning – I mean, I saw something at Normblog that made me laugh. I would never laugh at Normblog, or any other blog. I’m not that kind of person. Yes I am, but I pretend not to be. I am however the kind of person who would laugh at woolly novelists – would and does.

It’s a funny thing about novelists, at least some of them. The ones that have a certain kind of success, and get a certain kind of, what to call it, of cultural standing and credibility as a result. When I say ‘certain kind’ I don’t mean I know exactly what that kind is. Some combination of respectable critical acclaim (winning the Booker certainly doesn’t hurt) and notoriety and popularity. That will be our working definition of ‘certain kind’. Novelists in that category become omniscient. They become wise, and full of insight, and informed on all subjects, and equipped to set everyone straight. Because – ? They have a way with words and a talent for telling stories? I don’t see the connection, myself. It may be the case that some novelists really are well-informed and full of insight, but in the case of this category those qualities seem to be assumed in an odd way – that’s the part that I think is a funny thing.

And Norm’s comment is about a case in point.

But I have to say that even upon this terrain you can come across something so bloody funny that an uncontrollable belly laugh is impossible to avoid. Such is the following item from Jeanette Winterson, author:

I’ll never forgive them about the war. It’s not a women’s issue, it’s a world issue. I am buying a place in Paris because I no longer want to be in the UK full-time. I want to be European, not a piece of the USA.

The war is about her, do you see? ‘They’ have let her down, and she’s jolly well ‘buying a place in Paris’. Byeeee!

That is pretty funny. ‘I’ll show them – I’ll buy a place in Paris! So there!’

And it reminded me of something I meant to comment on several weeks ago, and never got around to. It was about seeing, on two concurrent evenings, Arundhati Roy and Azar Nafisi on C-Span, and what different impressions the two of them made on me, and what if anything that difference is about. Probably nothing really, probably just a matter of personality on their parts and perception on mine. And yet…

The first one was a session of a conference of US sociologists, which for some fairly unfathomable reason was devoted to listening to Arundhati Roy give her opinions on stuff. I didn’t see the beginning (was merely channel-surfing as opposed to deliberately watching), but I saw quite enough of sycophantic admiration on the audience side and smug self-satisfaction on Roy’s. The whole thing was just very ‘I am buying a place in Paris.’

Nafisi was different. Mind you, I’m biased going in – I think Nafisi has something worthwhile to say, and I think what Roy has to say is more mixed (at best). But all the same, Nafisi wasn’t preening, she didn’t keep gazing around in a queenly way as Roy did. She was intense, urgent, impassioned – what she was saying was not about her, it was about what she was saying. Self-forgetful. Not a performance but an attempt at communication. The contrast was interesting.

Update: Martin Amis. He’s another one. I meant to mention him and forgot. Though he neglected to win the Booker – but maybe the early success is the equivalent and has the same effect. At any rate, he has that novelist’s omniscience, such that he feels it necessary to tell us that Stalin was bad, because we didn’t know that until he told us. And he’s a great preener. In fact his memoir has more preening in it than any other book of comparable size I can think of.

Let’s Not Debate Design

Sep 28th, 2004 3:01 pm | By

by Jeremy Stangroom

I’ve just been sent a review copy of a book called Debating Design. I don’t normally go in for book burning, but I’m tempted. It’s edited by Michael Ruse and, wait for it, William Dembski. It claims to provide a “comprehensive and even-handed overview of the debate concerning biological origins”. And, guess what, there’s a whole section on intelligent design written by the bastards – to quote Norman Levitt – from The Discovery Institute.

Maybe someone could explain to me why Cambridge University Press would publish such a book? If I decided to resurrect the theory of phlogiston, I wonder if I could persuade them that it warranted a book.

Perhaps more to the point, why did Ruse and the other scientists and scientific thinkers agree to particpate in such a project as Debating Design? I don’t entirely agree with the stance taken by scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Steve Jones when they say that they won’t debate with creationists and their ilk. But given that part of the ‘wedge strategy’ of the intelligent design people is to establish the scientific credentials of their enterprise, why participate in a project which might so obviously go towards furthering that aim? That just seems very bizarre. Intelligent design is primarily a political movement, so why give them a political victory?

The Smith of Smiths

Sep 27th, 2004 6:08 pm | By

Okay so if you’re tired of reading about the Dictionary (the Fashionable Nonsense one) then just skip this post. Don’t read it. Not any of it, I mean – because that’s all this one is going to be about. So, fine, you’re still reading, so don’t come complaining to me that it’s about the Dictionary, because I did say.

Although I must say you’re very fussy and demanding if you are tired of reading about it. I mean after all. Look around you. Do you see any advertising? Any PayPal? Any donation box? Any subscription? You do not. Is this place all cluttered up and junky and slow to load like Slate because it’s so full of advertising? It is not. Here I am, all rags and darns and patches, wondering where my next meal is coming from, and you’re tired of reading about the Dictionary? That’s gratitude! Never satisfied, some people –

No no, I’m only joking. You know how I am. Anyway, the point is, the prospects for the Dictionary are looking quite good. We heard awhile ago, in the summer sometime, that it would be in all the branches of Waterstones. That seems like a good sign (as well as of course a good way for lots of people to be able to pick it up and open it and read a bit and shriek with laughter and buy it). Seems like a sign that someone at Waterstones thinks more than four people will find it funny. Okay so that was good, and then last week we heard it’s also going to be at Smiths. That’s an even better sign. Someone at Smiths must think more than eight people will find it funny. Actually what we heard, or what we think we heard, is that it’s going to be featured in one of Smith’s Christmas promotions. But that can’t be right. We must have misheard, we must have missed a ‘not’ or something. A ‘never in a million years’ perhaps. ‘The Dictionary is going to be featured in one of Smith’s Christmas promotions when hell freezes over and Madonna converts to secular rationalism’ – that’s what was said but there was a sudden burst of traffic noise along with machine gun fire, low-flying aircraft, and a blast of heavenly trumpets, just as the clause starting with ‘when’ was uttered – so we missed it. We’re a little bit deaf anyway, and then the sound effects came in. Or maybe it’s the Smiths bit we misheard – maybe the Smith in question is not W.H. Smith but one W.A. (Arnie) Smith who has ever such a nice little bookstall in Slough, along with another (a ‘branch’) that his nephew manages in Luton. Quite busy places, both of them; they get as many as fifteen customers a day sometimes. And they do lovely Christmas promotions.