Notes and Comment Blog

Never Mind Offensive, Is It True?

Dec 31st, 2002 5:42 pm | By

There is an interesting comment on the letters page of the New York Times Science section.

The conversation with David Sloan Wilson quotes him as saying, “I tell people I’m an atheist, but a nice atheist” (“The Origins of Religion, From a Distinctly Darwinian View”). The idea that atheists, secular humanists, agnostics and other free thinkers are not “nice” or, as is often more bluntly put, “cannot be moral without a belief in God” is highly offensive to the millions of Americans who are nonbelievers.

I entirely agree with the basic thought, but I would have phrased it a little differently. (Plus, in Wilson’s defense, I think he is reacting to the prejudices of other people, not expressing his own.) For one thing, why specify Americans? But that is a minor point, and probably just a habit picked up from political rhetoric. But more to the point, I think offensive is the wrong word here. Even though the implication is offensive, the point is surely that it’s inaccurate and a non sequitur. There are good reasons for de-linking religion and ethics, and good reasons for saying the link is not necessary. John Stuart Mill is incisive on the subject in his Autobiography, for example, describing his father’s contempt for the bribe-taking view of morality religion purveys: be good and you’ll go to heaven, be bad and you won’t. I think such issues are both more interesting and more useful than crying “offense”.

Undue Burden Indeed

Dec 30th, 2002 1:00 am | By

Here is a review of what sounds like a very strange book by a ‘New Democrat’ (i.e. a Democrat so conservative he might as well be a Republican) and adviser to Clinton named William Galston. He wraps himself in the cloak of Isaiah Berlin, the reviewer Stephen Macedo wittily remarks, in an effort to make a case for ‘value pluralism’; but it sounds more like Balkanization and desecularization. Particularly bizarre and indeed alarming is the fact that he condemns the U.S. Supreme Court for striking down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was written so broadly as to give religious groups the ability to challenge any law that imposed an ‘undue burden’.

The review is particulary sharp with the all-too fashionable idea that the US is too secular and not accomodating enough to religion.

Galston and others who support RFRA evidently believe that liberals have not been sufficiently respectful and accommodating toward religious groups and other kinds of cultural communities…As a general proposition, this claim seems to me astonishing. America is an extraordinarily religious country by any plausible measure. Politicians fall over one another in affirming their religious faith and courting religious voters.

Indeed they do, until one begins to think that atheists are the only truly insufficiently respected group in the country. Perhaps I’ll write a book.

Open the Door

Dec 24th, 2002 11:25 pm | By

This is an essay that talks (among other things) about the convergence of two subjects (if not more) that keep coming up here: the fashion for biographies of intellectuals–poets, philosophers, historians, scientists–that dwell lovingly on prurient personal details and skip lightly over the ideas and thought and books that are why the people are interesting to begin with; and the dominance of identity politics over every other kind.

The fixation on biography, particularly when it is mixed with interpretive suspicion, suggests a retreat from philosophy’s aspiration to truth; we wallow in the particular and revel in salacious detail, whether it be Wittgenstein’s homosexuality, A. J. Ayer’s promiscuity, Foucault’s “sadomasochistic” experimentations in the gay subculture, Dewey’s sexual shyness, or Hannah Arendt’s affair with Martin Heidegger. The ease with which moral judgments are passed on the lives and passions of others and the titillation derived from cutting intellectual giants down to size are indicative of our own culture. Citizens in a republic of voyeurs, we are intent on microscopic moralism, incapable of appreciating more gracefully the contradictions, tensions, and ragged edges of all lives and unwilling to take ideas seriously, as something more than bandages for personal wounds.

Just so. There is a very interesting passage where Benhabib questions the way Richard Wolin takes his subjects to task for being ‘assimilated’ Jews, for not being ‘authentic’ Jews, and says that his analysis suggests a disturbingly fixed idea of ‘authentic’ Jewish life. Indeed. It is after all possible to be Jewish, or a woman or a Muslim or gay or Nicaraguan or what you will, and still not be consumingly interested in the fact. It is possible, in fact, to be intensely interested in other things, in a wider world than one’s own race or gender or religion, to be fascinated with stars or rocks or molluscs or maps or Louis XIV or Keats or topology, instead of being interested in one’s own parochial roots. It is a terrible claustrophobic oppressive stifling ghettoization that the identity-enforcers want to thrust on everyone, a narrow Balkanized world they want us all to live in, brandishing our ‘identities’ at each other and boring each other to death.

Quantum Foolery

Dec 23rd, 2002 7:53 pm | By

Here is a very silly essay from Slate. Note the rhetoric, for one thing, the talk of atheists ‘trumpeting’ their beliefs, and the truculent demand for an explanation, as if atheism required more explanation than theism does. Note the failure to define what is meant by ‘God’. Note the default assumption that belief is normal and that it’s unbelief that requires justification. Note the circularity of the argument that non-believers have some ‘splaining to do because Garry Wills doesn’t agree with them. And note the resort to the often-cited ‘cosmic deists’ such as Paul Davies. Holt doesn’t trouble to point out that Davies is very much in a minority among physicists in drawing deist conclusions from his work. And then there is the even more obligatory mention of quantum something (theory, here, but almost any abstract noun will do). A nice little exercise in mass market PoMo for the holidays, how festive.

Confused about a Virgin?

Dec 22nd, 2002 8:46 pm | By

Confused and unfounded guesswork. Crude and offensive speculation.

So says the RC Bishop of Portsmouth, the Right Reverend Crispian Hollis, about a BBC documentary focussing on the life of The Virgin Mary.

But, alas, the really not right at all, Mr Hollis, is not talking about the nonsense of the virgin birth, the resurrection, Angels, wise men and talking snakes, but rather the questioning of these things.

Confusion indeed.

Fundamentalists and Flexibles

Dec 22nd, 2002 7:06 pm | By

Rhetoric everywhere. You can’t let your guard down for an instant, no rest for the wicked, hypervigilance is the price of accuracy, and so on. Just tweak one or two little words and you can guide your readers so very subtly in what they’re meant to think, without having to come right out and tell them. This is a story from the Observer about genetics.

The nature versus nurture debate revived from the Sixties, when it had revolved around IQ and had bitter, racial overtones. This time around, it was less to do with race but no less bitter, with genetic fundamentalists such as Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins arguing that ‘the answer lies in our genes’. Opponents, such as media psychologist Oliver James, defended more flexible accounts of human behaviour.

See how it’s done? Just call the people you disagree with ‘fundamentalists’ and the other people ‘flexible’. Simple really. Dawkins and Pinker are in fact not ‘fundamentalists’, they’re just orthodox, middle of the road Darwinians. And Oliver James’ refusal even to listen to genetic explanations (witness his one-man shouting match on Radio 4 in October) is not conspicuous for its flexibility. Ah well. It’s all grist for the rhetoric guide.

Hallelujah We’re Postmodernists

Dec 22nd, 2002 5:55 pm | By

Here is an interesting little item I turned up in my never-ending quest for material for Butterflies and Wheels. The author is a curator at the Smithsonian Institution, which is a somewhat staggering fact in light of this article. He is also the author of a highly unfavorable 1997 review of The Flight From Science and Reason in the American magazine Science, which provoked such outrage that the book editor of Science resigned. So we know what to expect, and we get it. Rhetoric, rhetoric, and more rhetoric, and a procession of outrageous assertions. I am tempted to quote and quote, but you can read the piece for yourselves. Perhaps just one or two…

…the more sophisticated paladins of transcendent science…recognize their want of ‘affirmative defenses’ of the quintessential truth of scientific facts and concepts, and for this very reason have limited themselves largely to ridiculing particular expositions and expositors of a heresy that they are unable generally to refute. When, rarely, they do come forth with an argument to demonstrate the innate superiority of the knowledge produced on their side of the chasm, it is invariably an appeal to the wondrousness of contemporary technology.

Needless to say, in turning away from that unconditioned “scientific truth” so prized by Clark Kerr’s Berkeley scientists, away from unconditioned truth generally, postmodernity ceases to regard Truth as a prime value. No longer is truthfulness expected anywhere in our culture, and its breach is regarded as excusable in any circumstance covered by a moral intent and guided by a sense of responsibility.

It’s funny, I don’t recall ever reading a scientist calling truth ‘transcendent’, or even capitalizing it; it seems to be only the critics who ever do either of those, as if sneering could do the work of argument. But maybe that’s yet another of the joys of our ‘step into postmodernity’.

Stories in Mind

Dec 21st, 2002 7:48 pm | By

There was an interesting article in the New York Times a few days ago about the way the human mind constructs explanations for everything, frequently out of whole cloth. Mood shifts that are caused by diurnal changes in hormone levels are explained as job stress and evening relaxation or alternatively as job interest and evening boredom. Whatever works. Stimulate a piece of the brain electrically to cause a laugh, and the laugher will find something amusing in the environment. Tell Freud a story, any story, and he’ll concoct a sexual etiology for it.

The article is written by a therapist who frankly admits that therapists “are, after all, hardly exempt from the need to create satisfying cause-and-effect story lines. Quite the contrary.” True enough, and the side effects of some of those stories have become well known in recent years. It is interesting to get an idea of how the confabulation process works, and refreshing to see a therapist admit to it.

Elephants Never Lie

Dec 20th, 2002 8:07 pm | By

Department of Amplification, as The New Yorker used to say. Allen Esterson takes issue with Jeffrey Masson in his new article on this site, so I thought I would recount a little dispute I once had with Masson at a book signing. The occasion was about three years ago, Masson was on tour with his new book that said dogs don’t lie about love, and a somewhat, shall we say, New Ageily-inclined friend of mine dragooned me into accompanying her. During the lecture phase of the signing, Masson was quite insistently dismissive of science and scientists. They were unimpressed with his ideas about animal emotions, they hung up the phone when he called, they were narrow-minded and prejudiced. So when he opened the reading up for questions, I asked one along these lines: ‘I have some doubts about all these sweeping attacks on science. Could it be that the scientists who don’t take your claims seriously actually have good reasons, having to do with evidence and so on, as opposed to just being narrow and prejudiced as you seem to be implying?’ He answered, ‘No. They were just being stupid and prejudiced.’ Later I asked another question: exactly how did he know that his dogs had the elaborate (human-like) emotions he was describing. He answered, ‘I look into their eyes.’ I have to admit I laughed a bit scornfully at that.

The depth of his insight into animal nature is perhaps revealed by an anecdote he told, admittedly by way of confessing his own naivete. He was once taken to an area where there was a herd of wild elephants (in Thailand or India I believe). He was so thrilled by their majesty that he walked up to one, talking to her in a respectful and admiring way. I used to be an elephant keeper in a zoo, and I could hardly believe what I was hearing. ‘So she turned and charged and tried to kill you,’ was my thought, ‘and you’re bloody lucky to be here telling us about it.’ Sure enough–she charged and tried to kill him, he ran like hell and found some tall grass to hide in, and the elephant got bored and wandered off. He did say it was foolish of him. But that insight did not appear to have taught him to take his other insights with becoming modesty. An interesting evening at the bookstore, one way and another.

Her Left Foot

Dec 20th, 2002 4:53 pm | By

Oh honestly. Sometimes I want to exclaim with Lear’s Fool, ‘I had rather be any kind o’thing than a fool’. Only I would change ‘fool’ to ‘woman’. There are moments when it all just becomes too embarrassing. Such as when reading silly self-parodying nonsense in the Guardian. Who needs sexism or misogyny when women elbow each other aside to say fatuous things like that, eh?

One of the unnoticed casualties of late 20th-century feminism was that old enfeebled virtue: women’s intuition.

Oh really? Where is that exactly? Speaking of unnoticed. Has Bathurst not noticed that whole large branch of feminism which does indeed pride itself precisely on embracing dear old female ‘virtues’ like intuition and gut feelings and hunches and instinct and messages from the ‘heart’? If not, she hasn’t been paying attention. The sneering at science and statistics and logic is bang up to date, too, not the bold and paradoxical move Bathurst seems to take it to be. Perhaps her toe has misled her.

Having a Bad Argument Day

Dec 18th, 2002 7:37 pm | By

Here is an article by Oliver James in which he tries to argue for environmental explanations of sexual proclivities, in particular the male preference for very young women not to say girls, rather than or in addition to genetic ones. This is surely an idea for which a case can be made, but James makes a hash of the job here. Take this passage for example:

Evolutionary psychologists regard these facts as grist to their mill – youthful looks are a signal of fertility: get a young wife to get more children out of her, blah, blah, blah, ad nauseam. But they could just as well be explained by the fact that, whereas men can reproduce at any age, women’s clocks are ticking, so potential mothers are always in much shorter supply than potential fathers.

Er…am I missing something? Isn’t his alternative explanation at least arguably every bit as much of a ‘genetic’ or evolutionary one as the first? Aren’t they in fact the same explanation, worded slightly differently?

And then this one:

Men may be sex maniacs, but they are not completely thick. They can work out that if they want to have a baby, a pensioner is not likely to be much help; their attraction to youth could be a rational decision rather than a genetic script.

Same again only more so. One, attraction to youth can still be both a rational decision and hard-wired, and two–the research that shows men preferring young women across cultures applies to all men, not only the ones who want to have children. Has Oliver James never met or heard of a man who in fact doesn’t want children but is still more attracted to young women than to old ones? Surely he can do better than that…

Listen Up, Sir

Dec 16th, 2002 10:12 pm | By

SciTechDaily gives us an item from the archive today: Richard Dawkins explaining to the future king why scientific reason is a better way of thinking about issues than intuition. As he points out (and it seems so obvious one shouldn’t have to point it out), Hitler and Saddam Hussein and the Yorkshire Ripper had their intuitions too. John Stuart Mill made, mutatis mutandis, the same point in On Liberty a century and a half ago.

Dawkins also points out that nature is not necessarily admirable or something humans ought to imitate in all respects.

No wonder T.H. Huxley, Darwin’s bulldog, founded his ethics on a repudiation of Darwinism. Not a repudiation of Darwinism as science, of course, for you cannot repudiate truth. But the very fact that Darwinism is true makes it even more important for us to fight against the naturally selfish and exploitative tendencies of nature.

A simple but very important point, and one often overlooked. The fact that biologists and evolutionary psychologists think there is good and ever-increasing evidence that there is such a thing as evolved, naturally selected human nature does not have to mean that they don’t think we should fight against our natural selfishness. Mind the gap.

Argument by Fashion

Dec 15th, 2002 12:00 am | By

There is a review of Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate in the current American Scientist. It raises some reasonable objections to Pinker’s book, including a contradiction I have wondered about too: on the one hand Pinker rejects the “naturalistic fallacy” (also known as the fact-value distinction, or confusing “is” with “ought”), and on the other hand the whole book is an argument that a proper understanding of human nature undermines ideas about social engineering and utopian dreams. Fair enough. But then there comes a very odd paragraph.

At this point in the book I was increasingly struck by resonances with the intellectual conservatism of science warriors such as Paul Gross and Norman Levitt. Pinker’s standard lists of blank-slaters (exponents of social constructionism, science studies, cultural studies, poststructuralism and the like) are eerily reminiscent of the singling out of enemies of science by Gross and Levitt and others. It would be a task beyond the present review to explore the connections, but the appeal to right-of-center middlebrow scientism is certainly similar and surely suggestive of a broader cultural tendency.

The intellectual conservatism? Right-of-center? Middlebrow? What is this, a fashion show? A game of Who is Hippest? Is epistemology identical with politics? Is intellectual conservatism even a meaningful concept? Is defending the role of evidence and logic in science and other forms of inquiry “middlebrow”? It may be conservative, in the sense that that is how science has been done for centuries, but does it follow that, oh dear, that’s getting a bit stale and tiresome and vieux jeu now and we really ought to do it the opposite way, via hunches or the I Ching or political preference? Surely not.


There is an article here from our sister publication The Philosophers’ Magazine about a debate between John Dupré, who wrote the review in question, and Dylan Evans, author of Introducing Evolutionary Psychology, chaired by the novelist Ian McEwan.

Identity What

Dec 13th, 2002 8:34 pm | By

There is an essay by Martin Jay in the current London Review of Books about “situatedness”, about speaking azza. Azza woman, azza Muslim, azza graduate, azza whatever. The subject is similar to that of Todd Gitlin’s Twilight of Common Dreams: the difficulties and limitations of what we like to call “identity”. As Jay points out, in reviewing David Simpson’s Situatedness: or Why We Keep Saying Where We’re Coming From, it is difficult to decide which bit of our identity is relevant to any given discussion.

How can we know, for example, whether it is more important that a person is a woman, a baby boomer, a heterosexual, Asian-American, a Catholic, a breast cancer survivor, upper-middle class, a college drop-out, twice divorced, a fashion victim or second in birth order in her family in understanding why she campaigned for Ralph Nader in the last American Presidential election?

How indeed. In fact surely the possibilities are almost infinite. An introvert, a cat lover, a Buffy fan, a runner, a sloth, a Shakespeare fan–on and on it goes. Why do we think we have more in common with fellow women/whites/Muslims/gays than we do with fellow readers/knitters/cooks? Or do we think that. Probably not. We do tend to find our friends among people with similar interests and tastes, after all. And yet identity politics is about race/gender/sexualorientation rather than about interests and pursuits and even vocations. Balkanize this way but not that, seems to be the line of thought. One wonders why. One also worries about how parochial and narrowing and claustrophobic it all is, if some people don’t spend all too much time and energy thinking about their gender or sexual preference and all too little thinking about a larger world.

Truth in Advertising

Dec 12th, 2002 8:12 pm | By

Euphemism is a subject that keeps coming up on Butterflies and Wheels. That’s not very surprising, because much of what we’re talking about is education, writing, public debate. It’s all about language, and euphemism is a well-known and time-honoured way of trying to make one’s case by prettying up crucial facts. George Orwell was particularly good at pointing this out, but he was certainly neither the first nor the last. The tactic was the issue in three stories we linked to recently: the one about incitement to murder as free speech, the one about death threats as a personality quirk, and today, again, a commentary about about death threats as free speech or freedom of religion or piety.

Do we begin to see a pattern here? It appears that some people want to argue that free speech, or second chances for schoolboys, or piety, are of more value than forbidding or preventing incitement to murder. But if people really do want to argue that, then why are they reluctant to say so? Why do they in fact not say so, but say something else instead? Presumably because they know the non-euphemistic version will sound repellent. ‘We must respect the right of schoolboys to make death threats against their teachers.’ ‘We must respect the right of pious Muslims to make death threats against novelists or journalists who have said something they consider blasphemous.’ ‘We must respect the right of poets to say that a certain group of people should be shot dead.’ But is it only their audience that euphemisers are trying to mislead? Or is it also themselves. Perhaps if they put their own positions into unmistakable language, they would be able to think more clearly about what they are saying. Euphemism tends to confuse in all directions.

Different Personalities

Dec 7th, 2002 5:47 pm | By

Here is an interesting statement from a spokeswoman for Surrey local education authority quoted in yesterday’s Guardian:

“The schools are skilled in coping with pupils of all abilities and personalities and have excellent behaviour management practices.”

The context for this statement is the case of two boys who were expelled from Glyn Technology school for making death threats against a teacher, then reinstated by an independent appeals panel. The teachers at the school threatened to strike, Estelle Morris intervened to say the expulsion should stand, and the boys have now been placed at other schools, schools with the above-mentioned skills. It is interesting that a strike of teachers occurred this week at a school in France for precisely the same reason: threats by a student, expulsion, then reinstatement by a court. One of the striking teachers pointed out that the student in question was now a hero to some of his classmates, and what sort of situation would that create for the teachers?

But another interesting matter is the word personalities in the quotation. Pupils of all abilities and personalities. Ah. So making death threats is a personality quirk? Just one of those harmless little variations in human character that decent empathetic people learn to embrace and celebrate as part of the exciting multicultural pageant of life? Is that what that is? Does that apply to everyone? Timothy McVeigh, Osama bin Laden, every serial murderer and casual bomb-tosser out there? They’re all just a little moody, a tad difficult, having a bad hair day? Or is the problem perhaps a little more severe than that. If Surrey education authority wants to argue for second chances, well and good, but it ought to do so without resorting to euphemism.

When in Doubt, Claim Certainty

Dec 7th, 2002 2:59 pm | By

Is it possible to have absolute certainty about something that is unclear? Is it possible to have absolute certainty that something “bore almost no resemblance” to something? Is absolute certainty about something so vague even a meaningful notion? I would have thought not, but some opinion-mongers apparently (I’m not absolutely certain about this, mind) have easier access to absolute certainty than I do. Witness this remark in an article about anthropology, blood sample collection, indigenous people, and the Yanomami, along with James Neel, Patrick Tierney’s Darkness at El Dorado, and Tierney’s accusations that Neel deliberately sowed measles among the Yanomami:

“What exactly Neel told his subjects is unclear, but we can be absolutely certain that it bore almost no resemblance to contemporary notions of informed consent,” said M. Susan Lindee, associate professor of history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania.

So that’s how it’s done. When you don’t know and don’t have the evidence, just announce that you have absolute certainty anyway. No doubt some innocents will be convinced.

Beautiful Facts

Dec 5th, 2002 8:43 pm | By

The wonderful Anne Barton has an essay in The New York Review of Books that is relevant to the creeping infiltration of gossip and story into areas where they do more to confuse issues than clarify them, that I keep remarking on. The relevance of this subject to Butterflies and Wheels may be remote, but it is relevance all the same. The reasons and motivations behind the novelization of biography, for instance, are probably closely related to those behind the long-standing quarrel between Literature and Science. And then it’s a popular move in Lit Crit circles to say that ‘everything is narrative’, very much including science, in fact science most of all.

It’s easy enough to understand the wish fulfillment at work behind these ideas. If we can only do away with the difference between fiction and fact, then the world is our oyster: wishes are horses and beggars will ride. Facts are tiresome, interfering, unyielding, hard, cold things. They are indifferent to us, they don’t care what we think or want or need, they just are what they are. That’s why we hate them. In fiction we can shape the world to our liking with the swiftness of thought. And that’s a good thing, of course, it’s both useful and beautiful. But it’s not the only good thing. An acquaintance with that very adamantine unyieldingness of facts is also necessary, also useful and even beautiful. Moves to elbow facts aside in favour of stories are not good for clear thinking.

Narrative or Ideas?

Dec 1st, 2002 8:26 pm | By

A couple of ideas that we’re interested in at Butterflies and Wheels were the focal points of a discussion among three historians I saw on tv recently. The US channel C-Span put Eric Foner, Robert Caro and Edmund Morris together to talk about the differences between popular and academic history, which is one issue that interests us, and in discussing that they also touched on the question of how to avoid the distorting effects of ideology in writing history. Edmund Morris is a popular biographer, who got a lot of attention, much of it derisive, for inserting himself, Zelig-like, into his biography of Ronald Reagan.
He asserted, in an emphatic and even truculent manner, that some history is “thematic” but biography has to be narrative, it has to tell the story of a life and that that story is inherently narrative and chronological, this happened and then that. He then added that academic history has become divorced from popular history because it deals with (said in a tone of increasing scorn) institutions, statistics, abstractions, when what people want is a story. Eric Foner, academic historian and author of many books accessible to a general audience, politely but firmly pointed out that that abstract and specialized kind of history provides the building blocks for the kind of popular history that Morris writes.

Morris also said, with even more disdain, that ideology has a ruinous effect on history writing. He appeared to be perfectly confident that he had no ideology himself–that, for instance, his belief in narrative and stories is not an ideology but simple transparent truth. Foner again civilly pointed out that this subject is a perennial one, that he discusses it with his students all the time, and that he tells them it is not possible to be ideology-free and the only safeguard is to know what one’s ideologies and presuppositions are. He didn’t spell it out for us but the implication for Morris’ self-satisfied naivete was obvious enough.

The discussion ended before there was time to go into the larger question of why Morris was so sure that the reading public wanted narrative and nothing but narrative. There was an essay on Morris in The New Republic last year that took him to task precisely for the mindless story-telling of his Theodore Rex, the pointless piling-up of detail, the silly you-are-thereness, the absence of ideas and thought, the studied ignoring of all the interesting scholarly work on Roosevelt in recent years. What makes Morris or anyone so sure that a general audience is interested only in story? He seems to think the notion is self-evident, but is it? Is it perhaps more of a self-fulfilling prophecy? Story is all the general audience is given, so they are trained to expect it, and to be uneasy with anything else? And it may be self-fulfilling in another way, too: if the writers of history become convinced that either audiences or (more likely) publishers will insist on Story and nothing but Story, they may decide they can’t be bothered to write anything so dull and unchallenging, hence popular history will become ever more impoverished. The issue is highly relevant to Butterflies and Wheels, because questions of public attitudes to science, truth, epistemology, understanding are the questions we want to raise, and they are inextricably involved in public education in the broadest sense, in education via popular science books, popular history books, popular philosophy books and magazines, and so on. This is a subject we’ll be coming back to.

Permanent Correction

Nov 29th, 2002 9:42 pm | By

Fashionable nonsense is a perennial subject, almost by definition. Time passes and fashions change, therefore at any given moment there is likely to be some fashionable and/or conventional wisdom around that needs correcting. Alan Ryan’s obituary for John Rawls in today’s Independent reminds us that Rawls’ theory of justice was among other things a correction of the views of the logical positivists and the utilitarians. Those views were a correction in their turn, and so back and back it goes. Humans being what they are, it can’t really be any other way: we always make mistakes of one kind or another, all we can do is keep patiently correcting each other, trying again, taking it with a good grace when others correct us. As Rawls did, in Ryan’s account: “He rarely took on critics head-on, not because he was hostile to criticism – he much preferred criticism to praise – but because he liked to revise his thoughts with his critics’ assistance, trying always to get clearer and more precise about just what the theory of justice implied.”