Notes and Comment Blog

Shaun Williams – AKA STAMP

May 19th, 2004 5:46 pm | By

OB mentions below that Shaun Williams, aka STAMP, long-time cartoonist of The Philosophers’ Magazine, has died.

Here are a few examples of his work, including the Hume, constant-conjunction cartoon I told her about.

Cartoon 1

Cartoon 2

Cartoon 3

Cartoon 4

He really was a good cartoonist. The major academic Waterstone’s bookshop in London liked his work so much that on one occasion they decorated their front window with his TPM cartoons.

Thinking too much with my wrong head

May 19th, 2004 4:01 pm | By

As some of you will know, at The Philosophers’ Magazine we have a number of online interactive type things which are designed to flag up some of the possible difficulties with religious belief (problem of evil, that kind of thing).

And since it is always amusing to tease the religiously afflicted, I thought I’d post an email I received yesterday about one of the activities. It kind of teases itself, so I won’t say any more.


Your message is stupid as well as your test. There is a all loving, all caring, all knowing and all every where at one time God who truely exists. You think too much with your head and it is the wrong head. You should think about this…if there was not a God as you say there is not than why does He, not she, show you so much mercy every single day of your life. You must be one more miserable person to develope such an idiot of a test and pass it along out there into Internet space. You are not as smart as you want to think that you are and one day you will see just how dumb you really are when you ask such stupid stuff.

God is a God of mercy and total love but He is also a God of judgement. The reason there are famines and earth quakes is because people just simply refuse to serve and trust Him and it was also forewarned in the Holy Bible that such things would happen. If people obeyed the Lord with all their heart, soul, mind and strength than they would see in this world a whole lot less evil.

It was man who got us into all this mess, not God.

If you read the Word of God you will find that it states that Satan has power over the air. Which means that a whole lot of the problems with the weather has to do with his doing…a fallen angel from Heaven.

You people are duped!!!!! You are so deceived that you are the blind leading the blind with your ridduculous tests.

The reason you don’t want to believe in a Supreme being is because you want to be God and you think that you could do a much better job than what He does but if you really look over the last part of your life, you will see that you have a trail of messes that you have caused on yourself.

You are persumptious to think that there cannot be a God who can be everything to anyone who choses to live for Him. If you read the Bible, you will find that it predicts all this clamaity that is going on around us.

Oh foolishness that you, a human being will whip up to start conflict in a world already sufferring with more conflict than it truely needs.

I feel sorry for you, whoever you are on the day of God’s White Throne Judgement.

The problem with you is that you do not know how to have faith in someone you do not understand. It is painfully obvious to me as well as many others that you lack faith and are a very sad, sad person.


Well, thanks for that Katie.

I just love the “You think too much with your head and it is the wrong head” bit!


May 18th, 2004 11:56 pm | By

Some oddly-assorted items.

There was a terrifying item in the Village Voice today, about the cozy friendship between the Bush administration and something called the Apostolic Congress – a group of ‘rapture’ Christians – you know, those nice people who look forward to the day when Jesus comes back and boils the blood of unbelievers by the power of his gaze. Just the kind of folks you want influencing US policy toward Israel, yes indeed.

The e-mailed meeting summary reveals NSC Near East and North African Affairs director Elliott Abrams sitting down with the Apostolic Congress and massaging their theological concerns. Claiming to be “the Christian Voice in the Nation’s Capital,” the members vociferously oppose the idea of a Palestinian state. They fear an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza might enable just that, and they object on the grounds that all of Old Testament Israel belongs to the Jews. Until Israel is intact and David’s temple rebuilt, they believe, Christ won’t come back to earth.

Well that’s an understandable concern, so it’s good to know that dear old Elliott A. (how fondly one remembers him from the Reagan years) put in some time soothing them. PZ Myers has a few acid words on the subject at Pharyngula. He’s right, one does indeed think of General Jack D Ripper, with his mad, staring eyes.

Chris at Crooked Timber posted a comment on Julian’s latest Bad Moves yesterday. He tells an amusing story, Jo Wolff tells another (to do with Stuart Hampshire and hypothetical questions), and old (possibly Warner Brothers) cartoons are mentioned. Plus there is an interesting little discussion of the uses of hypothetical questions and whether they strip things down too much. I tend to think, in a mushy way, that they can, but on the other hand stripping down can be useful, so…

There’s the Guardian item about a book by an astronomer, Percy Seymour: The Scientific Proof of Astrology. Proof? Proof? Proof?? Why does he call it proof? Was that a publisher’s decision? The article makes clear enough why even what Seymour considers evidence is not very convincing (to put it mildly), but as for proof – ! Must be a marketing decision, I suppose.

Normblog has a comment from a friend on verbiage and where it comes from.

I am wading through finals assignments at the moment, and so many kids write – if they can at all – in this sort of media studies verbiage dotted with ‘discourse’ this, ‘dominant ideology’ that, and phrases like ‘our ontological enrichment’

Yers. Well, I can say this – if the Fashionable Dictionary is a runaway bestseller (and why should it not be? wipe that smirk off your face) and people actually read it as opposed to merely buying it and then throwing it into the back of the closet – but they will read it of course, because they will at least open it, and once they open it, they are lost – then ‘discourse’ this and ‘dominant ideology’ that will go right out of fashion. Right out. People won’t dare say them any more for fear of the shouts of mocking laughter that will assail them if they do. What a feeling of accomplishment we will have.

And finally. This is sad. I’m proofreading the next edition of The Philosophers’ Magazine this week, and in doing so today I saw that there was an item ‘Remembering STAMP’. I didn’t know, so I thought you probably wouldn’t know either, and might like to, so I thought I would tell you. STAMP did brilliant cartoons for TPM, and he’s died of leukemia. My colleague tells me of an especially good cartoon I hadn’t seen:

It had David Hume being confronted by a pregnant woman (we were supposed to assume it was his mistress). She was saying to him: “Don’t you give me that constant conjunction doesn’t necessitate causality nonsense.”

So shed a tear and raise a glass to STAMP, and to wit and good cartoons and cartoonists, and to the wish that all such people should live to be 105.


May 16th, 2004 9:46 pm | By

Religious believers can be weird. Very, very weird. I know it’s not considered polite to say that – and that’s why I tend to avoid them rather than engage them in dialogue. Precisely because there is so much that it is not considered polite to say about religious believers, that yet becomes so glaringly obvious when one does try to engage them in dialogue. It’s kind of a You can’t win situation. You simply can’t say certain things, and yet the things you can’t say are at the center of the whole discussion – so the discussion is lamed and hobbled and disabled before it ever starts. It’s a stalemate. So the familiar and much-repeated idea that discussion on this subject is possible and desirable (and even useful and productive) seems to me to be absurd. And every time the subject comes up, fresh confirmation is offered. Religious believers like to say ‘You can say anything you like! Of course you can! Do you think we’ve never heard anyone say “There is no God” before? How naive! Go on, say whatever you like!’ So you do (if you’re very stupid and credulous, at least) – and you are immediately greeted with yells of rage, with blatant misinterpretations of what you say, and with aspersions on your capacity for moral reflection. Oh. So when you say ‘You can say anything you like!’ you mean I can say anything I like provided I don’t mind having what I say translated into something else and being called immoral. Oh, okay, that sounds good.

I suppose ‘You can say’ in that context means ‘You are physically able to say’ as opposed to ‘You can without risk of having to deal with frothing intemperate dishonest reactions say.’ Okay. But that’s not what I mean by ‘You can say.’ However, I have learned through years of irritating experience that that is often what other people mean by it, so I don’t always take it at face value. Thus I choose to avoid discussions of religion with religious believers – when I can. It’s not always possible, because sometimes they pursue me back to my secular lair, and insist on having their productive dialogue anyway. This can be a trifle dispiriting. One wants to ask them to go away, but one doesn’t like to be quite that rude – so one sighs heavily and attempts to answer – and is immediately greeted with yells of rage and blatant misinterpretations of what one says. One really can’t win. One can make firm resolutions not to get drawn into such discussions to begin with, of course, but that doesn’t always work either – because one doesn’t always know in advance that they are going to happen. It’s not as if every time an invitation arrives in the mail, there is a notice at the bottom – ‘Warning: There will be one or more religious believers present who will insist on talking about God and prayer and higher authority, whether you like it or not.’ If invitations were always so equipped, one would know what to do, but they’re not.

It’s unfortunate that they’re not, though, because one result is that once such a discussion does start, and the skeptics remember an urgent appointment elsewhere and try to sidle away – what do you suppose happens? They are accused of censorship, that’s what. They are accused of not knowing how to tolerate freedom of speech and thought, of wanting to ban religion. That’s quite a leap – a leap of faith, one might say. A similar leap, and one even more popular with religious believers, is to equate non-adherence to their belief in a deity with absolute, unequivocal, irrevocable, undiluted, without doubt certitude, and then to marvel at such a degree of certitude. One religious believer I’ve encountered here and there accused me of exactly that just today. But of course that’s stark nonsense – I don’t have that kind of certitude about anything – I don’t even have one of those adjective’s worth of certitude. It doesn’t require certitude simply to decline to believe in something. And, of course, believers often display a fair amount of certitude themselves, which is exactly what makes discussions with them so unproductive – the secularists and atheists tend to hedge their assertions while the believers say what they know. As with this remark, which came from the very same believer who attributed all that certitude to me – ‘It’s about understanding that divine authority stands in judgment on all human agency.’

So. That’s what I said – religious believers can be very weird.

What is Truth, Said Jesting Pilate

May 15th, 2004 9:29 pm | By

So perhaps it does matter after all, what the truth is, who is telling the truth and who is lying, who has it right and who is deceived, what pictures are authentic and what are fake. Is that possible? It looks that way. It looks as if in fact we do care whether on the one hand soldiers of a certain regiment did abuse Iraqi prisoners, or whether on the other hand someone faked up some pictures that purported to show that but in fact (being faked) did not, and gave said pictures to a large newspaper. You can see where it would make a difference. We can all think of other pictures that matter – pictures that we would be shocked, outraged, disoriented to discover had been faked. Pictures of famine victims, massacres, mass graves, rivers full of bodies; pictures from wars, genocides, prisons, crime scenes, riots. Pictures of perpetrators and victims, just as in the Daily Mirror pictures. We don’t want to be deceived about such pictures. We don’t want to get outraged and demand that something be done about a war crime or a violation of the Geneva Convention or an act of stupid brutality, if it didn’t happen. Do we. No. Nor do we want to fail to get outraged and demand something be done if war crimes or acts of brutality did happen and we are deceived about that. We don’t want a tour of Theresienstadt or a Potemkin village, thank you. We don’t want either one of those. We want the truth.

We don’t want a situated truth or a perspectival truth. We don’t want a community’s truth. We don’t want US truth and UK truth and Iraqi truth. We don’t want my truth and your truth and their truth. We want the truth, period. We don’t want the truth the army is happy with, and the one the government is happy with, and the one the newspapers are happy with, and the one the prisoners of war are happy with, and the one the voters are happy with. Do we? I don’t think so. I think we want just the one. The single, general, universal, global, true-for-everyone truth about what did happen and what did not. That truth may or may not be available; that’s a separate issue. But we don’t look placidly at faked pictures and say ‘Well that was true for the people who made the pictures, no doubt, so that’s good enough.’ We don’t conclude that the pictures made something to talk about for a few days and that’s good enough. Sometimes playful irony about the truth just doesn’t butter any parsnips.

Testing, Testing

May 13th, 2004 7:45 pm | By

A reader raises some interesting objections, in Letters and then at my suggestion in a comment, on our Freud-skepticism.

For example, there may be an alternative explanation for Jedlika’s finding that children of mixed race couples are more likely to marry someone of the same race as the opposite sex parent, but it is prima facie evidence for oedipal feelings that cannot be ignored.

I haven’t read the study in question – but just to deal with what is said in that sentence, I have to say I am not convinced. I am in fact quite skeptical. It seems to me that it is not at all obvious that oedipal feelings are the only possible explanation for why children of mixed race couples would tend to marry someone of the same race as the opposite sex parent. Other explanations leap to mind – for instance the idea that marriageable people in general are of the same race as the opposite sex parent. Of course one can by fiat simply equate notions of what makes people ‘marriageable’ with oedipal feelings, but again, that’s not the only possible conclusion. And in any case, the basic disagreement with Freud’s Oedipus complex is not mostly to do with sexual feelings for the opposite sex parent, but with such feelings in infancy. It’s the infancy part that Freud was adamant about, and that many colleagues disagreed with him about. Freud wasn’t just saying that everyone has sex on the brain, he was saying that everyone has sex on the brain starting with infancy. Would Jedlika’s findings as described above seem to corroborate the Oedipus complex in infancy? I don’t see why they would.

I googled Fisher and Greenberg, and found a review by Richard Webster. Not a fan of Freud’s, of course – but let’s see what he says all the same.

Once again, they have failed to recognise that Freud was at least right about one thing: that psychoanalytic theories, being based on the psychoanalyst’s unique access to the hidden realm of the unconscious, are not susceptible to empirical investigation.

And they are both clinical psychologists themselves, so the same problem arises in their own line of work. Clinical psychologists have an as it were vocational skepticism about the value of empirical investigation.

In an effort to discover whether Freud’s penis=baby equation was correct, and whether it is indeed true that some women have babies to supply themselves with the penises that they lack, Fisher and Greenberg tell us that they ‘reasoned that if pregnancy is somehow a penis equivalent for women, they should have increased unconscious phallic sensations or feelings at that time’. Omitting to consider the equally plausible Freudian hypothesis that pregnancy, by supplying a ‘real’ phallic substitute, might lead to a decrease in phallic fantasising, our intrepid researchers go on to devise a ‘phallic scoring system’ based on a count of responses to the Holtzman Inkblot Test involving ‘projections, protrusions and elongations’ that Freud would have deemed phallic. Having administered this remarkable test to a group of presumably puzzled pregnant women, they concluded that (though no data are given) ‘the findings were nicely congruent with the hypothesis’. No doubt they were also nicely congruent with all manner of other hypotheses that Fisher and Greenberg, intent on looking at the world through Freudian spectacles, never paused to formulate.

Well…you see what I mean. If that’s Fisher and Greenberg’s idea of an empirical investigation, then – I remain unconvinced.

Whither the Arts

May 11th, 2004 9:40 pm | By

Art, shmart. Oh dear, I’ve gone all philistine – but people do talk such nonsense about ‘art’ sometimes. Here’s some nonsense on stilts – a lecture by Helen Vendler.

I want to propose that the humanities should take, as their central objects of study, not the texts of historians or philosophers, but the products of aesthetic endeavor: architecture, art, dance, music, literature, theater, and so on. After all, it is by their arts that cultures are principally remembered. For every person who has read a Platonic dialogue, there are probably ten who have seen a Greek marble in a museum, or if not a Greek marble, at least a Roman copy, or if not a Roman copy, at least a photograph.

And – ? Because ten people have seen a photograph of a Greek marble for every one who has read some Plato, therefore the humanities should center on art rather than philosophy or history? Er – why? The reductio is certainly all too obvious. By the same token, for every person who has read a Shakespeare sonnet, a thousand (ten thousand? a hundred thousand?) have watched ‘Survivor’. So what?

But it gets worse – it gets into territory that always sets my teeth on edge.

The arts bring into play historical and philosophical questions without implying the prevalence of a single system or of universal solutions. Artworks embody the individuality that fades into insignificance in the massive canvas of history and is suppressed in philosophy by the desire for impersonal assertion. The arts are true to the way we are and were, to the way we actually live and have lived–as singular persons swept by drives and affections, not as collective entities or sociological paradigms.

Oh, bollocks. That only makes even a little sense if you substitute the word ‘novel’ for ‘the arts’ in that passage, and even then it doesn’t make much sense. There are plenty of novels that don’t do any such thing, and most of the rest of ‘the arts’ don’t either. It’s all just sentimental bilge.

There’s a lot of sentimental bilge about ‘art’ and ‘the arts’ out there. I probably used to believe a little of it myself – at least about literature, if not about all the arts. I don’t any more. I gave it up. For one thing I’ve read or started too many vacuous pretentious ‘literary’ novels, and I’ve talked to too many people who think all ‘serious’ novelists, no matter how ignorant and unthinking, are ‘creative’ and somehow important and significant in a way that no writer of ‘non-fiction’ can possibly be. Oh I see – so one kind of writer knows a lot and writes about it well, and the other kind just writes well, and the second one is better? Hmm.

Brian Leiter quotes from an anonymous (to us) poet who puts it this way:

As to poets giving insight into life (or whatever the words are), I have been struck time and again at how plain dumb sentimental religious (‘spiritual’) so many well-regarded poets are. Do they understand life, humanity? Through a glass barely. People like Vendler live in a political vacuum and worship purity and refinement of sensibility which is fine if joined with social responsibility and authentic concern for the victims of injustice.

Just so. I’ve talked to a good many plain dumb novelists, too. I don’t think they suddenly become less dumb just because they write stories, and I don’t believe they have more insight or wisdom or ability to be ‘true to the way we are and were, to the way we actually live and have lived’ than philosophers or historians, or psychologists or sociologists, either.

This is relevant to what we’ve been talking about lately because of the ‘Freud was a novelist’ line of defense. Of course the main problem with that is that he wasn’t, that he was in a completely different kind of work, and that calling him a novelist is basically just a face-saving ploy. But even apart from that, I think there is a further problem in the sentimentality about novels and novelists in that defense which is related to the sentimentality about Freud himself. There is some underlying idea about the power and insight of novelists-and-Freud – about profundity and depth and complexity that are considered unique to fiction-writers. I don’t buy it. I like and admire really brilliant novelists as much as anyone, but I don’t think they’re magic. I don’t think they necessarily do tell us more than really brilliant writers and thinkers in other fields do. And in fact I think it’s a form of anti-intellectualism to claim that they do. So I may be a philistine but I’m not an anti-intellectual.


May 11th, 2004 3:03 am | By

One or two commenters have wondered where I was getting all this ‘Freud was wrong’ stuff, so I thought I would offer a small sample. There is an interesting article on Frederick Crews on Freud, and on Freudianism in general, for example.

One tip off to the pseudoscientific nature of psychoanalysis is to describe its institutional structure. In a real science there are no central organizations that function to ensure doctrinal conformity, expel those who deviate from the accepted truth, and present a united front to the world. It has long been apparent to observers, however, that this is exactly what psychoanalysis has done and continues to do…Unlike a real science, there is a continuing role for Freud’s writings as what one might term the sacred texts of the movement, both in teaching and in the current psychoanalytic literature. Arlow and Brenner (1988) note that Studies of Hysteria and The Interpretation of Dreams are almost 100 years old, but continue to be standard texts in psychoanalytic training programs…None of this is new to people even marginally acquainted with the scholarship on psychoanalysis. But it bears repeating because psychoanalysis, unlike a scientific theory but very much like certain religious or political movements, has essentially been immune from attacks leveled at it either from inside or outside the movement. Insiders who dissented from central doctrines were simply expelled and often went on to found their own psychoanalytically-oriented sects, typically with the same disregard for canons of scientific method as the parent religion.

And much more. And there is Crews’ reply to Jonathan Lear, which is an amusing read as well as an informative one.

Lear himself cites Plato, Saint Augustine, Shakespeare, Nietzsche, and Proust as sharing Freud’s insistence “that there are significant meanings for human well-being which are obscured from immediate awareness,” but he fails to pose the obvious question implied by such a list. What did Freud add to the previously garnered pearls of wisdom, and do his innovations constitute actual knowledge or merely a set of overweening speculations?…This paradox–one of several in Lear’s tremulously irrationalist article–rests on a fundamental confusion of categories. Although interpretation may preoccupy the analytic hour, the claims of psychoanalytic theory are not interpretations but determinate propositions about how the mind regularly works…But Lear has still another escape route handy, the contention (borrowed from Richard Wollheim) that Freudian propositions need no proof because they are merely “an extension of our ordinary psycho- logical ways of interpreting people in terms of their beliefs, desires, hopes and fears.” If we can guess why someone heads for the refrigerator, Lear believes, then we ought to be able to guess why, let us say, Freud’s Little Hans developed a horse phobia…Psychoanalysis as we know it blossomed when Freud, instead of admitting that he had tried to browbeat his patients into believing they had been molested, turned his own misdiagnosis into “false memories” supposedly generated by them in childhood to cover up their shameful and noxious practice of masturbation. Only later did he add his still more grotesque signature touch: the “memory” of having been abused could in most cases be regarded as an unconscious screen for the child’s desire to fornicate with one or both parents.

The complete articles are available online, in case you don’t already have any of the books. No need to take my word for all this.

Learning From Error

May 10th, 2004 7:03 pm | By

Questions arose the other day about whether there is any point in discussing whether someone – in particular, Freud – was wrong or not. Is there anything to be gained by looking at errors, mistakes, delusions, wrong directions. I certainly think there is. I think one can learn an enormous amount by studying inquiry that goes wrong, in all sorts of fields. One can learn about epistemolgy, psychology, how evidence interacts with theory and how theory interacts with evidence, how preconceptions and confirmation bias and hopes and wishes can confuse matters. One can learn and re-learn how difficult it can be (how impossible it can be until new instruments are invented) to tell what is really going on.

I found a wonderful quotation on the subject in Richard Webster’s Why Freud Was Wrong (p. 581 n. 3):

It may be argued that historians ought to pay more attention than they have done to scientific hypotheses which proved to be failures. The trouble with the history of science, and of scientific medicine, is that it has too often been presented as one long success story; whereas, in fact, a striking feature of the history of science…has been the tenacious persistence of supposedly scientific ideas long after they ought to have been abandoned. I think the historical study of scientific failures is important, not only because it is likely to give us a keener insight into the nature of the scientific process, but also because it may lead us to examine more closely the soundness of some of our own pet ideas. (E.H. Hare, ‘Medical Astrology and its Relation to Modern Psychiatry’)

Freud makes a fasinating study in the whole subject. Some of his mistakes are quite understandable as results of the absence of those new instruments I mentioned. Everyone was groping in the dark when it came to a lot of organic diseases that were then invisible and now are not – temporal lobe epilepsy, for one. Others are less excusable – excusable in terms of good practice in his own day, I mean. That’s one objection people have been raising in the comments: that of course Freud isn’t a scientist in contemporary terms, but it’s not fair to judge him in contemporary terms. But that’s not right: much of his way of working was not good scientific practice in 1904 any more than it is now, and there were scientists who said so at the time. But – as the case of Melvyn Bragg and his guests makes clear – that’s not as widely known as it might be.

Freedom, Freedom, Freedom

May 9th, 2004 12:06 am | By

It’s only a ruddy parking ticket.

But seriously. Speaking of Burke and Kirk, and the joys of tradition and custom…I thought the answer I got to my question at the Chronicle’s colloquy was not all that satisfying. Possibly the fault of my question. I took seriously the instruction to be brief, so my question was pretty simple-minded – then I saw that other people asked very long questions, and I gnashed my teeth in impotent fury. But all the same, I did find the answer a bit off the mark.

A widespread hostility exists, especially among those of a liberal or libertarian orientation, toward any body of thought that seeks to impose restraints upon the will of either individuals or popular movements. Unable to bear any norm of conduct above that of individual feeling, critics argue that any external or internal restraints placed on the spontaneous will of the individual by society, government, culture, or religion constitute barriers to the fulfillment of his true humanity. Hence, the removal of all moral, cultural, and legal restraints is a prerequisite to the realization of the full potentiality of the individual.

Yes yes, I know all that. I even agree with it to a considerable extent. I don’t like libertarianism, and I get intensely sick of hearing Americans insist on their right to do anything they want to – you know, drive their SUVs at high speed while chatting on the phone, smoke anywhere they damn please, pay their workers whatever the market will bear. But that doesn’t mean that tradition and custom is always to be preferred to change, and it doesn’t mean that tradition and custom is never antithetical to important, valuable, non-frivolous non-destructive freedoms. It’s traditional and customary for women to be treated like livestock in much of the world. It’s traditional and customary for dalits to be oppressed in India. Those two groups could do with less tradition and more real freedom, if you ask me. And there are other groups in similar situations. I’m not bleating about individual feeling or the spontaneous will, I’m talking about the ability to live a real life as a rational autonomous (i.e. non-dependent and non-subservient) adult. I’m also talking about asymmetrical ‘moral cultural, and legal restraints’ as opposed to just restraints, period. But since I didn’t ask a long enough question, I didn’t make that clear.

Lateral Promotion

May 8th, 2004 7:36 pm | By

Okay, let’s discuss this question of whether Freud is a philosopher, and whether it matters. Should we just all agree to call him a philosopher whether he is one or not because hey who cares? If so, why? If not, why not?

For one thing there is the question of what words mean. Is it useful for them to have such a broad meaning and application that they mean nothing? Or is it more useful for them to have a narrower, more precise meaning, so that we know what we’re talking about when we use them and so that we have some chance of talking about roughly the same thing as opposed to thinking we’re talking about roughly the same thing when in fact we are talking about diametrically opposed things. Surely it makes a difference in discussions of, say Freud and truth-claims and philosophy, if by ‘philosopher’ one party means, say, someone who tries to justify her arguments, and another party means, say, someone who has some ideas about things and talks about them well.

This reminds me (parenthetically) of a discussion on Front Row yesterday, a brief chat about the meaning of the words ‘arts’ and ‘culture’. Mark Lawson and David Crystal noted that art has to be ‘inclusive’ rather than ‘elitist’ and that that means more and more activities have to be included in the arts. Why is that though? one wonders, or at least I do. What does ‘inclusive’ mean, for one thing. Does it mean that various activities will feel hurt and excluded if they are not called ‘arts’? Or that people who enjoy doing them or consuming them will? Or both, or something different? And for another thing, why is that an argument for broadening the definition when it’s not in other areas? Cutting up a chicken for dinner isn’t called surgery. Wandering around aimlessly isn’t called gymnastics or polar exploration. Why are the arts expected to be ‘inclusive’ when other fields are not? Sport is not, for one example. Sport is allowed, in fact encouraged, to be ‘elitist’ – so why is it different for the arts? I wonder.

So, back to philosophy. Is there a difference between a philosopher and a ‘thinker’? Is that a useful distinction? Or are the two categories simply identical. But ‘thinker’ is a pretty broad category, isn’t it? And – correct me if I’m wrong – doesn’t it imply a certain flexibility, a certain license? Aren’t philosophers in fact expected to justify their assertions as opposed to just making them? If they don’t, aren’t other philsophers quick to point that dereliction out to them? Doesn’t the phrase ‘That doesn’t follow’ turn up?

The trouble with Freud as a philosopher is that he was so very wrong in his own field, his truth-claims have been subject to such thorough and exhaustive examination and found so profoundly wanting, that it seems more than a little fraudulent to airlift him out of science and drop him into philosophy, which as a discipline tends to be quite keen on the truth. It’s as if the idea were ‘Well, Freud made a mess of things in his own field but he was so profound and he wrote so well that we can’t just write him off, so we’ll just move him sideways. Now, where to. Literature? Hmm – no, that won’t do, literary theory is too demanding and rigorous, we can’t just slide people in with no training. Okay, philosophy then. They won’t mind. And if they do mind, tough – it’s about time philosophy became more inclusive and less elitist.’

Is that what happened? Who knows. It would be interesting to find out…

Einstein’s Mythology

May 6th, 2004 7:49 pm | By

If you read Allen Esterson’s dissection of the April 22 ‘In Our Time’ on Freud, perhaps you were inspired to listen to the programme. Interesting, wasn’t it? The matter-of-factness, the confidence, with which the participants talked of Freud’s discoveries as if they were settled knowledge (or normal science, as one might say). As Richard Webster amusingly points out, it’s as if people sat around the Radio 4 studio agreeing on how flat the earth is. Just so. Or how pretty the fairies look as they dance around the lawn, or how alarming it is when the poltergeists throw the dishes and boxes of pasta onto the floor, or how long and tedious the trip to Alpha Centauri is and why doesn’t the airline serve better food.

Possibly the most irritating bit of all is toward the end, when Juliet Mitchell talks enthusiastically about Freud’s correspondence with Einstein after the War. He told Einstein that he – Einstein – would think Freud was talking about mythology – but then so is Einstein himself, Freud and Mitchell concluded, in Mitchell’s case at least with an air of triumph. Oh for heaven’s sake, I muttered, throwing dishes and boxes of pasta onto the floor. Mythology indeed! Oh yes, that’s all it is, that’s all everything is, it’s just stories, it’s just narrative, all of it, astrology, psychoanalysis, physics, geology, therapeutic touch, quantum mechanics – it’s all just a story someone makes up that other people find persuasive and/or explanatory, and that’s all there is to it. You bet.

Melvyn Bragg did at least take issue with that bit of nonsense, though he didn’t take nearly enough with the rest of the show. But there’s something so – so having it both ways about that maneuver, that it sets the teeth on edge. When talking about Freud, treat his work as well-founded settled knowledge; when talking about Einstein, treat both of them as purveyors of mythology. It’s very similar to the maneuver often used by defenders of religion. When rationalists take issue with the truth claims of religion, pretend that religion has nothing to do with truth claims, it’s merely an attitude of awe and wonder, or an impulse to be good; when rationalists are not around, talk about God and God’s will. On the one hand, Freud is not nonsense, he discovered true things about hysteria, repressed memory, the unconscious, jealousy; on the other hand, Einstein and the rest of the scientific gang are story-tellers. More heads I win tails you lose. It won’t do.

What Would Burke Think?

May 5th, 2004 10:44 pm | By

There is an article about Russell Kirk by Scott McLemee in the current Chronicle of Higher Education. I’ve meant to read some Kirk for awhile, but haven’t gotten around to it. I’ve also meant to read some Burke, but haven’t done much of that either. (Yes, I know; just never mind. I’m studying 7th century vaudeville, and that takes time.) Kirk was a Burkean conservative, not a libertarian cheerleader for capitalism nor a neoconservative.

What Kirk extracted from Burke’s thought — and found embodied in the work of British and American figures as diverse as John Adams, Benjamin Disraeli, and T.S. Eliot — was a strong sense that tradition and order were the bedrock of any political system able to provide a real measure of freedom…The “reason” that Kirk found so objectionable, writes Mr. McDonald, caused liberals to define themselves “as enemies of authority, prejudice, tradition, custom, and habit.”…By contrast, Kirk’s “moral imagination” enabled people to see their lives as part of, in Burke’s words, “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” The obligation to preserve old institutions and ways of life — and to change them, if at all, only very slowly — was not a matter of nostalgia. “The individual is foolish,” wrote Kirk in The Conservative Mind, “but the species is wise.”

An interesting idea, but I must say I don’t believe a word of it. I don’t see any reason to think the species is all that wise, for a start. And as for old institutions and ways of life – well, like most if not all of us, I’m the product of a time that got rid of some pretty undesirable and unjustifiable institutions and ways of life, and also saw some re-imposed on other people. Imagine being an urban educated woman in Kabul and seeing the Taliban arrive. ‘Oh good,’ you think, ‘the old institutions and ways of life are coming back, hurrah hurrah. I’ll be locked in the house, I’ll be beaten up if I go outside and accidentally show a toenail, I’ll have to obey my male relatives – I can hardly wait.’ Ideas like Burke’s may sound okay to people who do well out of the old institutions and ways of life, and who don’t mind being surrounded by other people who don’t do so well, but to people who don’t fit that description, the appeal is doubtful. So I’m curious about how Kirk made a case for them.

Hazlitt has many interesting things to say about Burke in this essay.

He constructed his whole theory of government, in short, not on rational, but on picturesque and fanciful principles; as if the king’s crowns were a painted gewgaw, to be looked at on gala-days; titles an empty sound to please the ear; and the whole order of society a theatrical procession. His lamentations over the age of chivalry, and his projected crusade to restore it, are about as wise as if any one from reading the Beggar’s Opera, should take to picking of pockets: or, from admiring the landscapes of Salvator Rosa, should wish to convert the abodes of civilized life into the haunts of wild beasts and banditti. On this principle of false refinement, there is not abuse, nor system of abuses, that does not admit of an easy and triumphant defence; for there is something which a merely speculative enquirer may always find out, good as well as bad, in every possible system, the best or the worst; and if we can once get rid of the restraints of common sense and honesty, we may easily prove, by plausible words, that liberty and slavery, peace and war, plenty and famine, are matters of perfect indifference.

There is a live online colloquy with the author of the book on Kirk at the Chronicle site tomorrow (Thursday) at 11 a.m. my time (US, Pacific) which is 7 p.m. UK time. I sent a question yesterday; you should send questions if you’re inspired to.

Save Breath to Cool Porridge

May 4th, 2004 11:06 pm | By

We have an idea – don’t we? – that discussion is always a good thing, that more of it will work things out, that if we discuss our differences long enough and throughly enough, sooner or later we’ll resolve them. But of course that’s not true, it can’t be true – not on this planet, with this species. Consider a thought experiment. The lamb and the lion can speak, and can speak the same language. They sit down to discuss their differences. Would that resolve them?

I once heard Amos Oz say much the same thing, chatting on a local radio station (then I went to the bookstore where he was appearing, and got a stack of books signed). Americans think if only Israelis and Palestinians would sit down over coffee and really talk, they would work it out. But Oz thought it would just never be that easy – and this was several years ago.

And even in less urgent matters than who eats and who is eaten or who gets this territory, discussion doesn’t always work – ‘work’ in the sense of getting anywhere, accomplishing anything, giving both sides a better clearer more grounded and fact-based understanding of each other’s views, or giving each side new ideas, or finding some common ground, or agreeing to differ but with a better grasp of each other’s premises. As a matter of fact discussion sometimes merely makes things worse. Phil Mole talks about this in his article on why it can be so frustrating to argue with religious believers, and it applies to other kinds of believers too. Often the parties just talk past each other; often they both talk past each other and irritate each other. Sometimes one party grapples and the other party refuses. One party does its best to talk about the central issues in clear precise language and avoiding non sequiturs, while the other party does nothing but evade and elude and wriggle away: changing the subject, translating what has been said into what has not been said, ignoring corrections and clarifications, obfuscating, introducing irrelevancies, non sequituring. If the party of evasion is possessed of brilliant rhetorical and linguistic poetic literary gifts, the conversation may be aesthetically rewarding, witty, a literary or dramatic pleasure, but it won’t be successful as a discussion of the ideas in question.

So it seems reasonable to admit that some discussions are just a waste of time and effort. Life is short, time is finite, there is much to do, the soup is about to burn, so unless one actually enjoys arguments that don’t go anywhere, there is not a lot of reason to engage in them.

Catching Up With ‘No False Medicine’

May 4th, 2004 6:36 pm | By

Amardeep Singh has been busy lately. I had been checking his blog every day and then things got busy, and now look at the result – I have to catch up!

There is for instance this very interesting post on Gandhi, in which Amardeep partly agrees but partly takes issue with Meera Nanda. He is reviewing her book for a journal, which will be something to look forward to.

I’ve been reading Meera Nanda’s Prophets Facing Backwards this week (and even last week — it’s been slow). It’s an excellent book, which I would recommend to anyone thinking about questions of the history of science, secularism (in India and elsewhere), or postmodernism. I’m planning to write a proper review of it for a journal, so I’ll spare you detailed analysis for now. But one interesting problem comes up in the question of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi — aka the Mahatma. For Nanda, Gandhi’s influence is the source of much of the nativist resistence to ‘western’ rationality amongst recent Indian social scientists like Partha Chatterjee and Ashis Nandy.

Amardeep thinks the question of Gandhi’s modernity is a complicated one, and goes on to explain why. Very interesting subject and also a very important one. Scrolling up, there’s a link to a story on ‘honor’ killings and a brief comment, and up again, a fascinating post on the BJP, Naipaul, and a controversy over both. Read ’em.


May 3rd, 2004 11:26 pm | By

It’s been a busy day – and a good one. Arts and Letters Daily linked to that wonderful article by Edmund Standing on postmodernist views of gender, for a start. And I posted another terrific article, this one by Allen Esterson. And various other odds and ends – such as this takedown of Kent Hovind in Flashback. I particularly like the quoted extract from his dissertation (with proper names altered because Hovind doesn’t allow his dissertation to be quoted, which is not normal scholarly practice, but he clearly has his reasons) –

He was born in 1809 and died about 1880. He was very anti-Christian and tried to influence anyone he could not to believe in God. He was very full of godless ideas. He was a very avid agnostic, racist, and an evolutionist. He believed in a great infinite age of the universe. He was very influential in furthering the ideas of evolution, particularly in the country of England.

Is that some impressive writing or what! You’re supposed to learn to stop writing Noun Verb Object sentences over and over again when you’re about six, a year or two before it’s time to write your dissertation. And then there’s the question of what an ‘avid’ agnostic is, and what ‘great infinite’ might mean, and why he thinks readers might think England was not a country but a hat or a wheelbarrow or some other random noun. And then there’s the ‘about’ 1880, and the question of what it’s like to be ‘full’ of godless ideas, and – all that in such a short extract! Quite amazing, isn’t it. But there is much more of substance wrong with it, from what the author of the critique says.

And there is an interesting discussion at Dispatches from the Culture Wars. I posted something at The Panda’s Thumb a few days ago, and that alerted one of the Pandas or Thumbsters, Ed Braydon, to the existence of B&W, which, inexplicably, he had hitherto been unaware of (how can such a thing be in a just universe?!). So he commented on it, which led one of his readers to have a look and ask some searching questions:

Is there some room in such a polarized debate for some Humanist intervention in science? I’m a poet & a literature professor with a life-long interest in & respect for science. I have nothing but contempt for the ideas of the creationist lobby, whether young- or old-earth. But I have also read anthropology & sociology of science, as well as Kuhn & his successors. I accept that there are loony-left versions of science that deserve nothing but scorn; still, the way that scientists sometimes respond to Humanist or lit-crit critiques of science pretty often have a tinge of the fundamentalism they decry when it comes from the right. I’m talking here about the uncontroversial (to me, anyway) notion that scientists, even at work in their labs, are embedded in a cultural & social context that influences their “objectivity.”

Ed answered, I answered, and so it went. More productive than talking about religion, I think.

Say What?

May 1st, 2004 9:57 pm | By

It’s all been quite instructive – in fact, now I think of it, it couldn’t have been better if I’d planned it that way. I didn’t, I hasten to add, but it would have been fiendishly clever if I had. I’d be another Milgram or Rosenhan, a designer of some sort of thought experiment: what happens when a rational, secular empirical form of inquiry attempts to combine with a non-rational religious ‘faith-based’ form of inquiry? Sparks fly, is one answer.

There is more than one problem with trying to mix religion into non-religious enterprises like history or science. The obvious, glaring problem of course is the fundamental difference between making up one’s findings and discovering them. But even beyond that, there are further problems. There is for instance the way religion is saturated with non-cognitive elements that obstruct and interfere with – that are fundamentally hostile to – cognitive endeavours. Religion is all about things like loyalty, commitment, love, belief, hopes, desires, fears, wishes, consolation, community, tradition. Most of them good things, in the right place and used wisely, but not the right way to judge truth claims about the world. The weird non-sequitur of that absurd quotation – ‘All those enterprises I see as implicitly dependent on a Christian view of God.’ – is a good indication of that.

And it all goes round and round in a circle, because this very emotion-saturation is also what makes believers unable to see religion as a problem, unable even to hear what non-believers are saying. The two sides just talk past each other. As we saw in the discussion here: it wasn’t mere disagreement, it was complete incomprehension, even at the level of vocabulary. Which is interesting in itself. It’s interesting the way beliefs can shape what people are able to hear and perceive and take in – as my colleague put it, hearing not the argument as it is but the argument they want to hear.

That’s not to say that believers are all emotion and secularists have none, of course. But it is to say that emotions and commitments are central, avowedly so, to religion in a way they are not to history and science. And that does make a difference – an unbridgeable one.

Irreconcilable Differences

May 1st, 2004 12:03 am | By

Okay, I finally jumped. I took pity on the poor anguished people at Cliopatria, one in particular, who urged me to leave four or five times yesterday. No actually that’s not true – the taking pity bit. The urging five times is true! Ding, ding, ding, in came the emails, one after another, rebuking me for my sins and asking ‘Are you going to go?’ Terrific fun, because yesterday was also the day we were doing the last final positively last edits on the Dictionary, and I wasn’t really in urgent need of extra interruptions. But that’s okay, that’s no one’s fault. At any rate – of course as soon as people started pushing me toward the door I came over all stubborn and wouldn’t go. Isn’t that awful. What a sadist. But I didn’t feel like it yesterday. I felt like making him fire me if he wanted to get me out, rather than making it easy for him. Cruel, I know. But then…after all those endless repetitions of ‘You can say anything you want to’ followed by the instantaneous yells of rage as soon as I did say something – well I just didn’t feel like going quietly. Nope. I wanted to do a Diana and be difficult and stubborn. So I did.

And I might have gone on awhile being difficult and stubborn, too – though probably not. The fact is, I don’t want my name on a religious site. It’s that simple. But I wasn’t sure how overt it was going to be, so I was waiting to see. The answer came promptly – and it was certainly the perfect way to get rid of me! Yet another evangelical post – this one about Christian history. Urrrggghh. So I’m gone. Not out of pity at all, out of sheer revulsion.

The post quotes from an article by a ‘Christian historian’:

While ordinary history might look quite secular, Noll sees it as fundamentally Christian in its presuppositions and worldview. He compared it to science. Christian scientists do their work with confidence because they believe that the world will make sense, and that God has made it possible for the human mind to understand the world. So with the historian. “If I want to study the history of the American Revolution, I’m presupposing that something real took place, that the evidence left corresponds in some way to what really took place, that I’m intelligent enough to understand that evidence, that I’m able to put together a plausible explanation of cause and effect that might get us close to the truth,” Noll said. “All those enterprises I see as implicitly dependent on a Christian view of God.”

Eh? Presupposing that something real took place is implicitly dependent on a Christian view of God? Really? Who knew! There’s no other possible set of ideas that those presuppostitions can rest on then? Er – why?

Oh never mind, who cares. But we can see the problem. And we can also see why I felt inhibited about confronting it head-on at Cliopatria itself. Because I didn’t want to be rude, that’s why. But I must say, I didn’t think I had to censor myself here as well. I mean, be fair, as Monty Python used to say. On someone else’s territory, okay, I’ll shut up, I’ll be polite – but on ours? On territory that was set up precisely in order to expose and resist woolly thinking? It’s asking a bit much to expect me to shut up here too! But that was precisely the grievance: that instead of talking about it there (which of course I was perfectly free to do, oh yes, I could say anything I wanted to) I talked about it here. Ah. And things would have gone swimmingly if I had discussed my thoughts on the Holy Spirit and God’s will and the inerrancy of the Bible over there? I don’t think so! But we’ll never know, because I didn’t, and it also doesn’t make any difference, because there’s no way I would stay on a group blog that’s staging a Third Great Awakening. So I’m off. I prefer secular rationalist sites, thanks.

My Baby Done Come Back and Gone Again

Apr 29th, 2004 8:36 pm | By

My baby done gone last month but it came back for a little while for some last improvements. We’ve improved the squalling little thing within an inch of its life, and now we’re through. Finished. Done. That baby is so over. That baby is history. That baby has to go out and make its own way now. We’ve got better things to do. At this point, having nails driven through our eyes would seem like better things to do.

And yet, oddly, however sick of it all I am, I still find it funny. There I am proofreading away, with my eyes glazing and the lower half of my body getting ever more paralyzed – and I still find myself snorting with laughter. It’s also interesting that on more and more entries I can’t remember which of us wrote them. There are a good few now that I stare stupidly at thinking ‘Did I write that? I think I did…but…no I didn’t…or did I…no…’

So that’s that. There is champagne dripping down the walls and pooling on the floor. The baby’s clothes and toys and boxes of zwieback are in bundles at the curb waiting for the Salvation Army truck to collect them. The baby’s room has been converted into a stall for a musk-ox. And I’m going on the streets.

Class Dismissed

Apr 29th, 2004 6:49 pm | By

I belatedly added a couple of blogs to the select few in Links yesterday: The Panda’s Thumb and Pharyngula. I’ve been meaning to add both for awhile, and finally got around to it yesterday. I’m very picky about blogs in Links, partly because my colleague doesn’t like blogs to begin with, and much more because I think the longer such lists are the less useful they are. There are lots of interesting, entertaining, well-written etc blogs out there, as well as lots of the other kind, but they’re on subjects that are not all that relevant to B&W, so I don’t include them. Thus you can assume that if a blog is in Links, it is [clears throat grandly] On Topic. Now I’m going to add another, also belatedly – in fact I should have added this one months ago, but kept forgetting. But having just found two excellent stories linked on Black Triangle I realized the time had come. If you don’t know about Black Triangle, check it out; the guy does terrific work. Same goes for Pharyngula and Panda’s Thumb.

The article by Max Steuer is on a subject we’ve seen a fair bit of. Pretend science, nonsense masquerading as science, claims that knowledge is old hat and now we have discourse instead.

a growing proportion of social science departments are not doing social science at all. Many are actively opposed to science in any form, especially when it comes to studying social matters. Instead, they engage in what they think of as literary or philosophical activity, but it is practised at a level so pitifully low that it would not be tolerated in any serious department of philosophy or literature…Science in all its forms is just another discourse, so they maintain. Being unwilling to undertake the demanding work that is science, they assert that one opinion is as good as another.

That last bit doesn’t get pointed out often enough, I think. It is a hell of a lot easier to learn to call everything a discourse and leave it at that than it is to learn actual physics or biology. That’s why I don’t know any physics or biology myself! I’m as lazy as the next swine if not more so, but I try not to pretend my laziness is either a virtue or a new and improved kind of insight.

A university education should involve learning how to think more effectively. It should involve the ability to sift sense from nonsense. It should encourage the ability to question, and to know when one understands something, and when not. A certain humility and the willingness to recognise one might be wrong does not go amiss. Education can be sheer pleasure. It also should include an appreciation of the need for sustained effort. Those social science departments afflicted with the modern disease encourage exactly the opposite of what an education should provide. Students learn to be dismissive. The ability to discriminate is weakened, along with the ability to follow an argument. Fancy style is what matters.

Learning to be dismissive – just so. There are more valuable and far more interesting things to learn.