Idiot Savant? Moi?

Feb 15th, 2004 6:26 pm | By

It can be quite interesting, in an unnerving sort of way, seeing people blogging about Oneself. I’ve been seeing quite a lot of that lately, partly because of the religion and hijab discussions, both of which get people agitated. I’m certainly not going to comment on all of them – I’m not that much of an egomaniac (oh yes you are, oh no I’m not, are, amn’t) – but once in awhile one will suggest an interesting thought or line of inquiry. There is this one for example.

“Some people come into the world as idiot savants, having no choice but to concentrate all their energies on the study of their one small corner of the universe. The results can be interesting, beautiful or even profound, but that’s not a defense of small mindedness, is it?” I cut that paragraph out of last night’s post and moved it up to the front. I think I should have a little more fun with it, since it applies not only to the limitations of Ophelia Benson’s ideology (and the limits of her intellectual curiosity) but also in a more general way to a whole array of recent events and debates…The argument behind liberal economics is that it is predicated on a form of neutrality, predicated itself on an assumption, that of the drive for maximalization. Ophelia Benson assumes that rationalists and religionists want the same thing. Brad Delong assumes, for the purposes of his economic theorizing, that all people want the same thing.

I take it (and I could be wrong) that this guy is criticizing instrumental rationality, and that he takes me to be an instrumental rationalist. I find that interesting not only because it’s about Me (oh come on that’s why, no it’s not, yes it is, no it’s not, is, isn’t) but because it’s probably relevant to why rationality and reason have a bad name at the moment. It’s the Voltaire’s Bastards idea, that conflates rationality of all kinds with instrumental rationality. So questions such as ‘Why should we believe X if there is no evidence for X?’ (a question I have been asking a lot lately) are viewed as peculiarly narrow and limited, and the same kind of thing (or perhaps even exactly the same thing) as instrumental rationality. So if one raises such questions, and then declines to be fobbed off with replies to the effect that science can’t answer all questions and there is more in heaven and earth than etc. therefore we should believe what our inner experience tells us however incommunicable it may be – then one is a small-minded idiot savant with limited intellectual curiosity.

Of course I don’t in the least assume that rationalists and religionists want the same thing. Quite the contrary in fact, and that’s part of what I’ve been saying. Religionists want consolation, or meaning, or reassurance, or a feeling of security, or all those. Rationalists want their ideas about the world to match the reality of the world as closely as may be. I see those two things as being strongly opposed; in short, not the same thing.

Maybe an item a little farther down the page helps to explain the confusion.

“[I]t is never a good idea to allow one’s political, ideological and moral commitments to infect the judgments that one makes about truth-claims which have nothing to do with such considerations.” I have little interest in arguments except those that involve one’s political, ideological and moral commitments, and not only for political, ideological and moral reasons.

That’s a quotation from our About, as you’ll probably recognize. Apparently our blogger has found me irritating enough (on the God thread at Twisty Sticks, I think it is) to explore B&W a little. But he hasn’t understood the passage very well. I should be sympathetic, really, because it took me awhile too. I got confused in much the same way. It’s my colleague’s work, About is, and when he first wrote it, when B&W was under construction, when in fact there was no B&W except a banner at the top of an empty page – when he first wrote it, we discussed it, and I wasted a good deal of time arguing about that very line, for the same sort of reason. I didn’t want to disavow all political, ideological and moral commitments. Nor did I have to, he kept patiently explaining, until after a few hours I finally grasped it. The point is about the truth claims. Judgments about truth claims are different from judgments about politics and morality, and things do go wrong when we get them muddled. We can all, I imagine, think of examples in about a quarter of a second – especially if we’ve been reading B&W, which spends all its time pointing them out. We want it to be true that there are, or are not, WMD in Iraq, so we have to be very very careful, when considering the evidence, not to let that want influence the way we look at that evidence. Substitute anything you like for the phrase ‘WMD in Iraq’ and the thought is the same.

So we’re not in the least saying that moral or political arguments are less interesting than other kinds. We’re saying that it’s not a good idea to let our commitments infect our judgments of truth-claims. If that’s a small-minded, idiot savant, limited, intellectually incurious view – so be it. But guess what – I don’t think it is. I think improving one’s chances of getting at the truth of the matter is actually enlarging rather than narrowing. But then I would, wouldn’t I.

On and Off the Fence

Feb 13th, 2004 8:52 pm | By

Excellent. There were several people reminding us that many French Muslim and Muslim-background women do in fact support the ban on the hijab at Twisty Sticks yesterday, as I mentioned. And today there are several more. Very good indeed. The prevailing assumption that there is Only One Right Way to think about this issue has been shown up, frankly. I have a lot to say about this, but only time to say a little of it now.

A tangential matter: the Waiting Socialists point out that they weren’t ‘scolding’ me, as I said. No, true, they weren’t. I did think of that as I typed the word – then typed on. Too lazy (or in a rush) to think of a better word. But I should have, really, because that’s just the kind of thing I hate (well one of the kinds of things, I hate lots of kinds of things): conflating questioning and disagreement with attack or rebuke. In fact that was really stupid of me. If they had a comments place I would say so there, but they don’t – however they clearly read me just as I read them, so it comes to the same thing. This is tediously self-referential, I know, but it’s also not – because mistakes like equating interrogation with scolding are among the many many ways we go wrong in our thinking. I suppose I think there’s just no such thing as too much attention to the ways we do that.

Allow me however to take issue with or perhaps expand on one thing they say:

We note that, once again, none of our questions, or those of others who don’t entirely agree with her, has been answered – except one: Ophelia now writes as if she has got off the fence that she depicted herself as sitting on in her previous posts on this issue. That, at least, we are glad about. It never was a very convincing posture.

Well…maybe. But I’m not sure if I’ve really been sitting on the fence, or if it’s just that I keep going back and forth. Or is that exactly the same thing? (Not so much sitting on the fence as swinging on the gate, perhaps.) At any rate, I do go back and forth. I do see drawbacks either way, as well as advantages. But about the convincing part – true enough. My real preference is for the ban – but I also do see why other people object. The objections have merit. But I do think the anti-ban side has a remarkable tendency simply to ignore or discount the arguments of the other side. I think there are real tensions in this issue.

And one final random item (time presses today), Norm Geras’ highly amusing birthday poem to Kant at normblog. I’ll give you just a flavour, including the sly quotation from B&W:

For we are little crooked folk
Yes, even learned bookèd folk
Are crooked little timber folk

Though clever supple limber folk

And Kant it was who said ‘Hey crooked!’

He could have said ‘Your claws are hookèd’

Yet he did not, he spared us that

He didn’t see us like a cat

He saw us more like twisty sticks

Like rough bent planks, no easy fix

Darwin Day, Religion, the Hijab

Feb 12th, 2004 8:03 pm | By

Happy Darwin Day. It’s appropriate, in a way, to have all these arguments about religion all over the place. It’s as if I’d planned it, but I didn’t. Nope – it was the result of a mutation, I think.

The one at Squiggly Wood I mean Crooked Timber goes on. And there’s another at Matthew Yglesias’ blog. Mostly, I must say, the arguments seem surprisingly feeble as well as repetitive. Why is that surprising – surely part of my point is how obviously shaky it all is. Yes but they’ve had all this time to come up with good arguments! Hundreds of years. But so much of it is just along the lines of ‘How dare you?’ or ‘Who are you to disagree with so many people?’ or ‘The Pope is the leader of millions of people and atheists are a tiny minority’ or ‘Science can’t answer questions about X’ or ‘Science is just another belief, exactly like religion, no difference at all, they’re exact equivalents’ or ‘Atheism is a belief in just the way theism is’ or ‘Religion is consoling so how dare you point out that it’s not true.’ None of this is very convincing or persuasive, is it. I want to say more about this – but later.

Meanwhile, there is more discussion of the hijab issue – not surprisingly, since the French MPs decided just a couple of days ago. There is one discussion at the ever-popular Twisty Sticks I mean Crooked Timber, and another at Fistful of Euros, and no doubt at many other places too, but I haven’t seen them – too busy making my own noise. (Soon everyone on the planet will be blogging and no one will be reading – a state of perfect equilibrium, or entropy, or reductio ad absurdum.) But the arguments on the ones I have seen seem to me irritatingly one-sided, or one-eyed. Everyone exclaiming about freedom and tolerance, and making all too little account of the many French-Muslim women who support the ban. Many don’t, but many do – why are the ones who do just discounted? I wonder.

And tolerance is such a shifty word. So shifty that I don’t use it any more, haven’t for years – since long before B&W. (Or maybe I never did use it, maybe it’s a few years ago that I became aware of that, and of the reasons.) Sure, tolerance is a good thing up to a point – but only up to a point. There are so many things I haven’t the smallest desire to be tolerant of. So the easy, feel-good use of the word is evasive, it seems to me. Tolerant of what, exactly? Of parents who impose fundamentalist Islamic views of women on their children? Are we so very sure that’s a good thing to be tolerant of? If so, I would recommend a read of Susan Moller Okin’s Is Multiculturalism Good for Women?

It’s also interesting that the fans of tolerance seem to be so unable even to hear the arguments of the other side. That of Rana on Crooked Timber, for example:

If you think wearing hijab is “way cool” you haven’t worn it. I did until the age of 18. There is no question in my mind that it is a symbol of “militant Islam” and a blatant manifestation of women’s second-class status. The Islamists are using us in their jihad against liberal, secular society (not to mention any moderate interpretation of Islam). Last summer I visited Cairo (my father’s hometown) and visited an exhibition of urban photos from various decades of the 20th century. What particularly struck me was the near total absence of headscarves into the Sixties. Not only among the bourgeoisie but in the working class areas of the city as well. Today it is ubiquitous, even on university campuses and in fashionable cafés. I asked an Egyptian friend of mine why this is so and she looked at me as if I were crazy. “In my neighbourhood any woman who doesn’t wear hijab is considered a prostitute.” Make no mistake, hijab represents the triumph of Islamism.

Or those of Phersu at Fistful of Euros:

I respect the Anglo-Saxon concept of multiculturalism and their lack of Secularization but it is not the French Republican principle of laïcité. I had this debate many times with Charles Taylor and other Communitarians who think our conception of modernity is obsolete because of globalization and I know I will not convince you. In the UK, there is still a State Religion (even if Charles wants to change that). In the US, every child has to swear allegiance to a Nation “Under God”. There is no “laïcité”, only Toleration of many Churches. In France, religion is supposed to be purely in the private sphere and the State protects the freedom of conscience against all religions. That is why no civil servant or minor students can show religious signs.

Multiculturalism and tolerance can often seem to work in only one direction, or in one direction further subdivided. Toward ‘Third World People’ but only if they take the approved view. For some reason, the approved view in this context is that there is absolutely nothing in favour of the French ban on conspicuous religious apparel, so any ‘Third World People’ who take another view are just kind of lightly jumped over as if they weren’t there. It’s interesting…

The Waiting Socialists are still scolding me about this, too:

Now that this pernicious attack on individual freedom and social tolerance, mainly for the benefit of Jacques Chirac, has come so very close to being enforced, we hope that other genuine secularists will think again about their support for it, or their failure to oppose it – which, regardless of the detailed reasons for their hesitation, amounts to much the same thing in practice.

But I’m afraid I still don’t agree with them. And the more comments I see from such as Rana and Phersu, the less I agree. So blogging can serve a purpose, after all.

Two Frameworthy Statements

Feb 11th, 2004 9:02 pm | By

Here’s the one I wanted to comment on no matter what. In a discussion of that perennially popular subject, why are there so few conservative academics. I simply wanted to point out (actually I want to frame in gold leaf, and embroider, and carve in stone, and issue in a limited edition with illuminated initials and gold binding) this comment, which pretty much sums up a lot of what B&W is about and what prompted it in the first place:

The labels ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ take on new and peculiar meanings in Academia. For instance, I believe in affirmative action, increasing taxes on the rich, socialized medicine, I am pro-legalized abortion, hold Christianity to be institutionalized ignorance, and donate to the ACLU. In all you could say I am pretty left wing. Except when I was a grad-student in Classics. Then I was called at various times a Nazi, a Fascist, compared to the French Aristocracy prior to the revolution, and labelled ‘arch-conservative’ more than once. Why? I rejected relativism, ridiculed deconstructionism, was in favor of the traditional Canon as core reading in the Humanities, had the audacity to point out the many egregious historical errors that certain Black Studies and Women’s Studies professors made (the former blatantly making stuff up about Egypt, the latter Crete). I also ‘proved’ I was a right-winger by explaining the etymology of the word ‘history’, after someone used the term ‘herstory.’ Intellectual conservatism and political conservatism are quite different things.

There it is. The day the left became associated with anti-rationalism and left rationalism to conservatives – that was one bad day.

It’s fascinating to see Stanley Fish saying something similar. I don’t know if this is a clarification or a change of views. I had thought he was a fairly Rortyish (or do I mean Rortyesque) pragmatist, but this doesn’t seem very Rortyesque:

It’s hard to see how anyone who believes (as I do) that academic work is distinctive in its aims and goals and that its distinctiveness must be protected from political pressures (either external or internal) could find anything to disagree with here. Everything follows from the statement that the pursuit of truth is a — I would say the — central purpose of the university. For the serious embrace of that purpose precludes deciding what the truth is in advance, or ruling out certain accounts of the truth before they have been given a hearing, or making evaluations of those accounts turn on the known or suspected political affiliations of those who present them.

But either way, it’s a very eloquent statement of a very important point. Where is that gold leaf…

Shoes and Ships and Sealing-wax

Feb 11th, 2004 7:43 pm | By

It’s going to be one of those days when there’s more to comment on than time to comment in. ‘More offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in.’ There’s a very interesting piece by Stanley Fish in the Chronicle of Higher Ed that I want to say something about; there’s a quite fascinating comment at Crooked Timber that I’m going to say something about, come what may; there’s the rest of that rumination on wishful thinking I wrote yesterday that I want to add; there are other odds and ends; and there’s also another interesting discussion at Crooked Timber which I ought to point out. It discusses the religious arguments and disagreements we’ve been discussing here lately. It made me laugh a good deal in a startled sort of way when I first clicked on CT, but then I wasn’t expecting it. Plus I’m easily amused.

One of the odds and ends I mentioned was the discussion at What Happens When You Tell a Lie. Marijo thinks the tone of my post on wishful thinking was contemptuous and trivializing, so I thought I would clarify. It wasn’t. What I said was in fact dead serious. I really do wish I could just wish away pain and death and sorrow. Of course I do! But I can’t. I’m well aware that fantasy can be highly consoling, and in many forms I think that’s perfectly harmless and indeed beneficial. How many lonely children have been comforted by their imaginary friends? Probably billions. In one way you could think of the deity as an imaginary friend. But that gets more dangerous, because the fantasy starts getting confused with reality, and that confusion is socially encouraged and even sometimes mandated. And then things can go badly wrong. But that is not at all to say that I have no use for fantasy. I spent my entire childhood in a fog of the stuff, and I’m firmly convinced that was a fine thing.

I wrote a column for TPM Online about some of these issues recently. I offer it by way of showing that contempt was not what I was expressing in that Comment below.

Then Beggars Would Ride

Feb 10th, 2004 11:13 pm | By

If wishes were horses, if pigs had wings. The world is one way, our desires are another. Hence the joy of fantasy, daydreaming, fairy tales – magic. The book I want is upstairs – how I wish it were here in my hand. The food is in the refrigerator, uncooked – how I wish it were cooked, on plates, on the table. The dishes are dirty, I wish they were clean. X, Y and Z are dead, how I wish they were alive. A and B are ill, I wish they were well. The world is full of suffering, I wish it were not. The suffering is useless, I wish it were useful. Bad things happen, I wish they didn’t.

We want to believe the universe encodes our idea of meaning. But it doesn’t. We have to content ourselves with self-created meaning – projected meaning. Invented, assumed, dreamed up. Applied, pasted on, added, painted, stage-set meaning. Upper floor meaning – pretend, make believe. Applicable only to us. Contingent, subjective, made.

And made by us. Not by a deity, not by chemical processes, but by us. Shabby shambling little primates on a smallish insignificant planet. One animal species among the millions that live and have lived on this planet – how could its notions of meaning be inscribed in the cosmos? But we so want to think they are – so we pretend that religion somehow underwrites our claims.

We don’t want our meaning to have been made, and especially not by us. We know we’re not good enough. So we assert that it’s been done by someone much grander – and yet like us – only more so. Like us only perfect – the way we would be if we were perfect. Which seems like a contradiction in terms – if we were perfect we wouldn’t be like us. Being imperfect is the very essence of being like us. It’s hard to know what we would be like, really – as soon as you start to think about it it makes no sense. What would perfect arms be like, for example. Longer? Shorter? Extendable? Retractable? Equipped with blades? Infinitely long?

That’s the great thing about religion. It doesn’t need to bother with such things (unless it’s Aquinas, but it’s common or garden religion I’m talking about here, the religion of the newspapers and The New Republic and the pundits), it just asserts, and ignores contradictions and impossibilities. That’s the whole point. It’s a mechanism for making wishes into horses. A wish-to-horse conversion device.

Socrates was all the Rage

Feb 10th, 2004 10:13 pm | By

I’ve had one or two more thoughts about hipness – or at least fashion. The two are not identical, in fact I suppose you could argue that they’re often opposites – and yet they’re not, are they. They’re both about being Correct in some pathetically slavish way. One a majoritarian sort of way, the other in a minoritarian sort of way – but in each case, slavishly other-directed. Either one involves looking anxiously around the room all the time to check what everyone else is doing. Both involve not wanting to be dorky or geeky or nerdy or out of it; both are all about presentation of self, which has some limitations as an organizing principle for how to live and what kind of person to be.

But those weren’t the thoughts I had – those were the thoughts I had as I typed. The thoughts I had were about the fact that fashion (and possibly hipness) was a Hot Topic in 5th century Athens, too. Aristophanes’ ‘The Clouds’ for example – all about the silly fashion for philosophy and for that loony Socrates fella. In ‘Protagoras’ all the youth are just mad for the sophists. And even in ferocious Thucydides – or not even but especially – the young men all had an ‘eros’ to go to Sicily. Wanting to invade Sicily was all the fashion. And so were the terrible ways of thought that resulted from the prolonged war – the increasing brutality and cynicism and treachery.

Well, nothing surprising here. Humans influence each other. Gather them close together in cities, and they have many more opportunities to influence and be influenced by each other than they did back on the dear old Sabine farm. That’s much of what Rousseau didn’t approve of, as Scott McLemee points out, about civilization. It’s bad for people, makes them inauthentic.

But fashion can be useful too. It can draw our attention to good and useful new things, as well as bad and harmful or merely silly and pointless ones. We have to use our judgment to decide whether the things that have grabbed our attention are any good – but the initial grabbing is not always a bad thing. Sometimes a lot of people, or a small number of attentive people, can like something for good reasons.

Desire Under the Skepticism

Feb 10th, 2004 8:21 pm | By

This is an interesting opinion piece from the New York Times yesterday. There are a great many like it out there – the point it makes is of such obvious relevance at the moment.

Our current dispute over the intelligence that led to the invasion of Iraq seems to be yet another illustration of this eternal principle: presidents and other decision makers usually get the intelligence they want. This doesn’t mean that intelligence reports should be ignored, but that they must be viewed with skepticism. And in my years in government service, I had the misfortune to see desire win out over skepticism too many times.

The intelligence they want, you see. The verb is important. It indicates a priority, and a distortion which follows from the priority. They want a particular intelligence, so that is what they get. It would be better if they could refrain from wanting any particular intelligence, so that they might have a better chance of getting intelligence that was not shaped by that want. So that desire would not win out over skepticism.

Those now trying to figure out what went wrong before the war in Iraq should bear in mind a simple truth: we are more likely to “know” what we want to know than what we don’t want to know. That human flaw is built into the very process of making intelligence estimates.

Yes. And into almost every other human thought process one can think of. It’s so very difficult to avoid. It’s so very pervasive, and natural, and knitted into the fabric of our mental operations, that most of the time we don’t even know we’re doing it. It just feels like the only possible way to think. I’m looking for X, so naturally, I’ll see and notice and remember the evidence for X, and since I’m not looking for Y, I’m not going to bother seeing and noticing and remembering the evidence for Y, am I. Why would I? That’s not what I’m doing right now.

And when we’re looking for our keys so don’t bother to notice all the other things we see in the process of looking, that’s not a big problem. But when we’re looking for WMD, or justice or equality or improved agriculture or a murderer, or a deity, things are not so simple. The first step is to be aware of the problem and how huge and pervasive it is; otherwise there is no hope of correcting it.

Hipness Through the Ages

Feb 9th, 2004 7:06 pm | By

I see that Scott McLemee has a link to B&W on his site – on account of how I had links to his site. It’s like ping-pong. No but really, I feel like mentioning it because he mentions the hipness thing.

We share a distaste for that “hipness unto death” which has become such a nuisance of urban life. Maybe it always was? I don’t know. On reflection, it does seem that Rousseau was complaining about it, quite a while back.

Yeah. And Elizabethan satirists, too, come to think of it. Ben Jonson had great fun with the subject in ‘Every Man in his Humour’ and Ditto Out of his Humour. He was really interested in fashion, and wickedly funny about it. His friend (and slightly resented rival) Shakespeare was not as interested as he was (to judge by his chosen subject matter at least) but he was interested. Hamlet has some pointed things to say about the fashion for child actors at the Blackfriars Theatre (not surprisingly – they were the competition). ‘There is Sir an eyrie of children, little eyases, that cry out on the top of question and are most tyrannically clapp’d for ‘t. These are now the fashion, and so berattle the common stages – so they call them – that many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose-quills and dare scarce come thither.’ Sounds very hip, doesn’t it? A little kinky? And there’s a fair bit about fashion in the Sonnets, too, especially the dread of more fashionable – hipper – new poets displacing him in the affections of Lovely Boy. And Juvenal had some dyspeptic things to say about fashion and hipness, if I remember correctly – well he must have, it’s such a Juvenal kind of thing, hipness.

It’s not a completely unserious point though. Even apart from the sheer irritatingness of the lust for being hip, there is a real epistemological issue underneath. It’s too obvious to bother saying, of course, and yet it doesn’t seem to be universally understood: hipness is not a good criterion for what’s true. But there are people whose writing would lead one to swear that they think it is. ‘Naive and old-fashioned’ is a phrase that’s used a lot to discredit opponents – a phrase that always makes me feel as if someone has emptied a jar of ants down the back of my shirt. Itchy.

Religion Aims, Again

Feb 9th, 2004 3:32 am | By

Section 3 of Allen Orr’s review of Richard Dawkins’ A Devil’s Chaplain reminded me of a review of the same book by Michael Ruse. I commented on Ruse’s review last month. Section 3 of Orr’s review deals with Dawkins’ criticisms of religion, and what Orr thinks is wrong with them.

You might argue that what conflicts did occur between science and religion were due to misunderstandings of one or the other. Indeed you might argue that Dawkins’s belief that science and religion can conflict reflects a misconstrual of the nature of religious belief: while scientific beliefs are propositions about the state of the world, religious beliefs are something else—an attempt to attach meaning or value to the world. Religion and science thus move in different dimensions, as Gould and many others have argued.

You might – and a lot of people do. Michael Ruse for example:

People like Dawkins, and the Creationists for that matter, make a mistake about the purposes of science and religion. Science tries to tell us about the physical world and how it works. Religion aims at giving a meaning to the world and to our place in it. Science asks immediate questions. Religion asks ultimate questions. There is no conflict here, except when people mistakenly think that questions from one domain demand answers from the other. Science and religion, evolution and Christianity, need not conflict, but only if each knows its place in human affairs — and stays within these boundaries.

That certainly is a popular argument, or rather assertion, these days, isn’t it. But it isn’t true. Religion does try to tell us about the world – it tells us there’s a supernatural being in charge of it. That is a truth-claim. Religious people do in fact believe in the existence – the real existence, not some fuzzy metaphoric existence – of this supernatural being. They may be vague about the details, but they believe the critter exists – that’s what being religious means. And then, just as I said last time, this business about ‘aiming’ to give a meaning – anyone can aim to do anything. I can aim to give the world a meaning. Does that oblige anyone to accept my attempt? Why are we obliged to be respectful about religion’s ‘aims’ of that kind?

And in any case that claim is a bit of footwork. Both reviewers try to defend religion from Dawkins’ criticisms by changing the definition of religion of the word – but as Dawkins himself points out in one of the essays in A Devil’s Chaplain, that is not the normal meaning of the word. It’s a mere tactic, that kind of thing, and I don’t think it’s respectable.

Christopher Hitchens has some choice things to say about this kind of thing in his Letters to a Young Contrarian:

I have met many brave men and women, morally superior to myself, whose courage in adversity derives from their faith. But whenever they have chosen to speak or write about it, I have found myself appalled by the instant decline of their intellectual and moral standards. They want god on their side and believe they are doing his work – what is this, even at its very best, but an extreme form of solipsism? They proceed from conclusion to evidence; our greatest resource is the mind and the mind is not well-trained by being taught to assume what has to be proved.

So. You might argue that Dawkins’s belief that science and religion can conflict reflects a misconstrual of the nature of religious belief, but you’d be wrong, it doesn’t. It’s the belief of S.J. Gould and Ruse and Orr that it doesn’t that reflects the misconstrual.


Feb 8th, 2004 9:47 pm | By

Well, we all have our ups and downs. Only natural. Something to do with ions, isn’t it? Or was it ozone? Or the tides? Phases of the moon? Harmonic convergence? Something like that. Or maybe all of them. Who knows.

Anyway, I’m in a pessimistic phase. Or a discouraged one. Nobody reads B&W, I should save my breath to cool my porridge, people who used to like B&W have gone off it, etc. I have a N&C in mind – I have the articles that suggested it at hand, all ready to quote from…But. The brain is on strike. It’s downed tools and is marching up and down with a sign – ‘What am I, a robot?!’ It would write something if I forced it – but I don’t seem to feel like forcing it. I seem to feel more like downing tools myself, and marching up and down along with it. Or perhaps I’ll run away and join the circus.

A Diabolical Liberty

Feb 6th, 2004 2:00 am | By

Yikes! Weird! Someone I don’t know and have never heard of – had a dream about me. Nothing icky, at least not that he said, but – still, an odd notion. Next thing you know I’ll be dreaming about C–n the Un——-le. He’ll be staring at me through a monocle and holding a copy of Swallows and Amazons.

Brief and to the Point

Feb 5th, 2004 8:40 pm | By

Thought for the day. I like to give you a good eloquent quotation now and then – actually had I but world enough and time I would do it more often than that, several times a day probably, because I’m always running into sentences that just seem to distill a lot into that one small frame. I just read this one in Meera Nanda’s new book (which of course you should all read):

Intellectuals, whose job it is to agitate and educate on behalf of universal and humane values, began to see the protection of traditions from the onslaught of modernity as more important than combating the tyranny of traditions on social relations.

See what I mean? That sums up a lot, doesn’t it. And what a mistake that move turns out to have been…

What Did Sokal & Bricmont Really Say?

Feb 4th, 2004 7:10 pm | By

Francis Wheen was on Start the Week Monday to talk about his new book How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World. The book sounds like just our sort of thing in a way, being about various forms of delusion and what a lot of them there are about nowadays – but in another way it doesn’t, quite, because it apparently doesn’t limit itself the way we do. Mind you, there’s disagreement about how much we limit ourselves, and how much we ought to, which gets back to that ‘What was the question?’ N&C I did a week or two ago. But still. However expansive a view I take, I don’t attempt to cover every kind of delusion I can think of. Wheen has Thatcherism and postmodernism in the same book, and those are two pretty odd bedfellows. Andrew Marr pointed this out, in his jocular-rude way – that the book is in fact about everything that ‘gets up both nostrils.’

Even more interesting than Wheen talking about his book, actually, was Gilbert Adair talking about it. Wheen remarked that he expected Adair would probably disagree with him – Adair said he did agree on the whole, but he was concerned that Wheen failed to make a distinction between ‘populist’ versions of postmodernism – ‘everything is relative and so on’ – and the real intellectual ideas at the core. Lyotard, he said, made the point that the roots of postmodernism go back to the Enlightenment. Hmm. Adair didn’t have time to clarify what he meant by ‘populist’ postmodernism, but the fact is, one can read statements of epistemic relativism coming from any number of academics. I’m not sure they qualify as ‘populist’ in this context – so I’m not sure that assertions that ‘everything is relative’ are really some watered-down or oversimplifed demotic version of postmodernism. It’s pretty widely agreed, by proponents and opponents alike, that epistemic relativism is the very core of postmodernism – so where does the populism come in?

Adair went on to shore up his point by talking about (without actually naming) Sokal and Bricmont’s Fashionable Nonsense/Intellectual Impostures. He said there was a ‘scandal’ when two physicists wrote a book pointing out that a lot of French ‘intellectual gurus’ inserted scientific ideas they had only the haziest understanding of into their writings in order to intimidate – successfully, Andrew Marr interjected. Yes indeed, Adair agreed, the gurus made fools of themselves, no question. But. When he reviewed the book he was careful to point out what as far as he knew no one else did: that the authors specifically said: ‘we are not attacking the core of the thought of these people, what we are attacking is the one-upmanship.’

Well that’s not quite right. It’s close to right, Adair was paraphrasing, I don’t think he meant to obfuscate – but I think it’s worth clarifying what Sokal and Bricmont actually said on page x:

But what exactly do we claim? Neither too much nor too little…We show that famous intellectuals such as Lacan, Kristeva, Irigaray, Baudrillard and Deleuze have repeatedly abused scientific concepts and terminology…We make no claim that this invalidates the rest of their work, on which we suspend judgment…A second target of our book is epistemic relativism, namely the idea…that modern science is nothing more than a ‘myth’, a ‘narration’ or a ‘social construction’ among many others…[W]e dissect a number of confusions that are rather frequent in postmodernist and cultural-studies circles: for example, misappropriating ideas from the philosophy of science, such as the underdetermination of theory by evidence or the theory-ladenness of observation, in order to support radical relativism.

So. On the one hand, they suspend judgment on the rest of the work of the ‘gurus’, which is slightly different from saying they are ‘not attacking’ it. Admittedly that’s a nice point. ‘Not attacking’ could be taken to be the same thing as suspending judgment – but it could also be taken as more than that. In this context, with the word ‘specifically’ preceding it – it seems to me it sounds more active, not to say semi-favorable, than merely suspending judgment. And on the other hand, they are indeed attacking epistemic relativism and attendant confusions that are rather frequent in postmodernist circles. So in short they are not really as neutral on the fundamental ideas of postmodernism as Adair made them sound. It’s a point worth making, I think, because the ideas in question are 1. such very bad ideas and 2. so very influential. It’s worth knowing who is opposed to them and why.


Feb 2nd, 2004 9:23 pm | By

Our reader Chris of Intelligent Life alerted me to this wonderful essay by Frank Lentricchia. It should be required reading for all aspiring ‘Literary Theorists.’ I want to quote and quote and quote. But read the whole article (the whole shorter article: this is a reduced version of the original from Lingua Franca.)

Over the last ten years, I’ve pretty much stopped reading literary criticism, because most of it isn’t literary. But criticism it is of a sort—the sort that stems from the sense that one is morally superior to the writers that one is supposedly describing. This posture of superiority is assumed when those writers represent the major islands of Western literary tradition, the central cultural engine—so it goes—of racism, poverty, sexism, homophobia, and imperialism: a cesspool that literary critics would expose for mankind’s benefit. Just what it would avail us to learn that Flaubert was a sexist is not clear. It is impossible, this much is clear, to exaggerate the heroic self-inflation of academic literary criticism.

Just exactly what we’ve all (all we anti-Theorists, naive readers, lovers of literature as literature, Shakespeareolators, etc) been saying all these years. On the nose.

Then, seven years ago, I lost my professional bearing and composure. The actual crisis occurred in a graduate class, just as I was about to begin a lecture on Faulkner. Before I could get a word out, a student said, “The first thing we have to understand is that Faulkner is a racist.” I responded with a stare, but he was not intimidated. I was. He wanted to subvert me with what I thought crude versions of ideas that had made my academic reputation, and that had (as he told me before the semester began) drawn him to my class. And now I was refusing to be the critic he had every right to think I was. And I felt subverted. Later in the course, another student attacked Don DeLillo’s White Noise for what he called its insensitivity to the Third World. I said, “But the novel doesn’t concern the Third World. It’s set in a small town in Middle America. It concerns the technological catastrophes of the First World.” The student replied, “That’s the problem. It’s ethnocentric and elitist.” I had been, before that class, working hard to be generous. After that class, I didn’t want to be generous anymore and tried to communicate how unspeakably stupid I found these views, but had trouble staying fully rational.

Well what more is there to say? There it all is. Heads I win tails you lose. [Insert novel or poem or play here] is ethnocentric or elitist or sexist or homophobic or Orientialist or colonialist or all those and more because it doesn’t mention any of them but just goes ahead and talks about something else. That is, as Lentricchia so trenchantly says, an unspeakably stupid idea. That’s pretty much all there is to it. What a good thing there are apostates in the world.

Hipper Than Thou

Feb 2nd, 2004 7:12 pm | By

I’ve just been browsing Scott McLemee’s site and seen so many items I want to point out to our readers that I’ll just have to do it here.

There is a highly amusing review of David Brooks’ silly Bobos in Paradise for a start.

David Brooks, a writer for the conservative Weekly Standard, is also an amateur sociologist; which is to say, someone who makes mental footnotes to the New York Times…The argument of Bobos in Paradise is simple, and the author restates it every two pages (perhaps as a courtesy to the people he is discussing, who must do their reading between cell phone messages).

But amusing is not all it is, because silly is not all Brooks is. His smugness is well criticized.

Then there is a review of a book by Leo Braudy. Interesting in itself and the occasion of this opening paragraph:

Google permits the most unlikely people to display sudden bursts of erudition. Not long ago, I came across the blog kept by a generic urban hipster – one containing the familiar catalog of new CDs purchased, smirking remarks on public affairs and essentially meaningless references to “irony.” (Memo to the clueless: Irony does not mean repeating cliches in a sarcastic manner. It just doesn’t.) Reading a few entries, I got the strong sense of someone whose powers of concentration were utterly focused on the Next Big Thing.

There’s a certain commonality there. Hipsterism, the Next Big Thing, amateur sociology, trend-spotting in general. I have long thought that the desire to be hip is one of the roads to perdition, and I think McLemee may have had the same thought. Never, never worry about whether you’re hip enough; that way madness lies. Be a dedicated nerd, instead. Hipness is the dead end of all dead ends.

Reading Instructions

Feb 1st, 2004 8:49 pm | By

I see where Socialism in an Age of Waiting has picked up my plug for Hazlitt from a few days ago. I’m pleased about that – the more advertising Hazlitt gets the better, as far as I’m concerned. So since that N&C is now below the fold, as the saying goes, i.e. in the archive where no one will ever look at it again – why I’ll just revive the subject for this month. SiaW think I even understated the case –

Via Butterflies and Wheels, there’s a collection of essays by William Hazlitt of whom Ophelia Benson writes: “It’s a permanent, settled grievance of mine that Hazlitt is so little-known. I think he’s the single most inexplicably obscure writer in English. He ought to be at least as famous as Orwell and far more so than Lamb or Carlyle. He’s an absolutely brilliant, dazzling writer, and he’s no slouch as a thinker, either.” If anything, she’s understating the case for Hazlitt – but see for yourself.

Well I did understate the case, as a matter of fact. That ‘no slouch as a thinker’ was a bit of deliberate understatement. In fact he’s a very good thinker. It’s absurd that he’s not on every shelf. So I thought I might as well quote a bit from an excellent essay at Blue Pete, by way of illustration.

I have often been reproached with extravagance for considering things only in their abstract principles. And with heat and ill-temper, for getting into a passion about what no ways concerned me. If any one wishes to see me quite calm, they may cheat me in a bargain, or tread upon my toes; but a truth repelled, a sophism repeated, totally disconcerts me, and I lose all patience. I am not, in the ordinary acceptation of the term, a good-natured man; that is, many things annoy me besides what interferes with my own ease and interest. I hate a lie, a piece of injustice wounds me to the quick, though nothing but the report of its reache me. Therefore I have made many enemies and few friends; for the public know nothing of well-wishers, and keep a wary eye on those that would reform them. Coleridge used to complain of my irascibility in this respect, and not without reason . Would that he had possessed a little of my tenaciousness and jealousy of temper; and then, with his eloquence to paint the wrong, and acuteness to detect it, his country and the cause of liberty might not have fallen without a struggle!

That’s from ‘On Depth and Superficiality.’ O ye benighted ones, put down your Butler and your Bhabha, and read Hazlitt.


Feb 1st, 2004 12:24 am | By

There is an amusing post here by a blogger who is eccentric enough to read B&W. He’s just been reading a N&C from back in early January, the one about academostars – which sent him to an article by Scott McLemee in the Chronicle, which prompted some reflections on Stanley Fish’s Reagonomical views of the merits of overpaying academostars.

To be fair, Fish may have a point: his presence in an English department may draw starry-eyed grad students into the department and increase funding for more useless graduate seminars on esoteric topics that will prove of little or no use to anyone teaching at most universities. In this respect, the “material conditions” of the other professors in the department may be improved somewhat (though the graduate students and adjuncts will still be teaching the same thankless classes for the same poverty-level wages). But Fish will still be making 2-3 times what his colleagues do for far less work (most academic superstars teach one course a year, generally a graduate or senior seminar with a small enrollment). Very little of that privileged status will be trickling down to his colleagues.

It’s all very reminiscent of Robert Frank and Philip Cook’s The Winner-Take-All Society, an excellent book on the way minuscule differences in talent can make the difference between a hugely remunerative career and none at all (in professional sports, movie stardom, popular music, for example). Stardom does work that way. And often it has so much to do with – a kind of gas, really. Vapor, hot air, bubbles. Especially in the case of academostars. People become stars because people start calling them stars, and other people hear that and call them stars too, and more people do the same, and more and more. Mass hypnosis. Pretty soon it becomes unthinkable or socially unacceptable to ask ‘Why is this person a star? What’s the big deal? In what way is this one so enormously better than that one?’ It all seems to have far more to do with hype and silly showbizzy attitudes than it does with anything resembling intellectual interests or values.

False Consciousness

Jan 30th, 2004 5:52 pm | By

So here’s Nawal El Sadaawi, saying the demonstrations of women against the French proposal to ban the hijab are a ‘signal example of how “false consciousness” makes women enemies of their freedom, enemies of themselves, an example of how they are used in the political game being played by the Islamic fundamentalist movement in its bid for power.’ I have noticed repeatedly that a lot of Westerners who oppose the ban have an unpleasant (to put it mildly) tendency to accuse supporters and semi-supporters of racism and colonialist ways of thinking – as if there were total unanimity among people of Muslim background. But of course there isn’t. Far from it. Of course many Muslims and people of Muslim background are strongly opposed to the ban, but there are also many who favour it. For reasons which El Sadaawi makes admirably clear.

False consciousness makes women obedient instruments of their own oppression, and transmitters of this false consciousness to future generations of children, of girls and boys. It is lethal because what it does to women’s minds is not visible. Unlike physical female genital mutilation it is an invisible gender mutilation which destroys the dynamism, the capacity to understand what is happening, to react and resist, to change, to participate in making changes. It destroys the essential creativity of the human mind. It instills fear, obedience, resignation, illusions, an inability to decide or else it leads women to make decisions, to take positions, to defend values and ideas inimical to their own interests, to the health and development of their life. It makes women their own enemy, incapable of discerning friend from foe.

False consciousness is a very, very difficult notion to defend, for obvious reasons. The retort is always available, ‘How the hell do you know whose consciousness is false, that X doesn’t really believe what she says she believes, that if only she listened to you she would change her mind?’ And yet we know there is such a thing – we know it if only from our own experience. We know how easy it is to be misled, to be persuaded, to see things through a glass darkly. We know it happens. And this argument between women who cling to the veil and want other women to cling to it too, and women who want to take it off and want other women to take it off too, has been going on for many decades. One can always just shrug and mumble about ‘Their culture’ and let it go at that – but that doesn’t really get anywhere, does it, since ‘Their culture’ itself is riven with disputes over the matter. It’s as well to keep that in mind when the issue comes up.

Hazlitt Speaks His Mind

Jan 29th, 2004 6:55 pm | By

Something put me in mind of Hazlitt’s famous Letter to William Gifford this morning – so I thought I might as well give you a bit of the flavour of it. It’s a permanent, settled grievance of mine that Hazlitt is so little-known. I think he’s the single most inexplicably obscure writer in English. He ought to be at least as famous as Orwell and far more so than Lamb or Carlyle. He’s an absolutely brilliant, dazzling writer, and he’s no slouch as a thinker, either.

The letter to Gifford starts off briskly:

Sir, You have an ugly trick of saying what is not true of any one you do not like; and it will be the object of this letter to cure you of it.

There are so many people around who have that ugly trick, these days. How one wishes for a few Hazlitts to cure them of it.

You are the Government Critic, a character nicely differing from that of a government spy – the invisible link, that connects literature with the police…The distinction between truth and falsehood you make no account of: you mind only the distinction between Whig and Tory…The same set of threadbare common-places, the same second-hand assortment of abusive nick-names, the same assumption of little magisterial airs of superiority, are regularly repeated…You dictate your opinions to a party, because not one of your opinions is formed upon an honest conviction of the truth or justice of the case, but by collusion with the prejudices, caprice, interest or vanity of your employers.

And that’s just from the first couple of pages. There’s quite a lot more. It’s a little lesson in history and politics, as well as epistemology, in itself.

Update. That was silly – I should have given the link for this wonderful site that has a number of Hazlitt essays (though I don’t see the Letter to Gifford, alas). If you’ve never read a word of him, you don’t have to wait until you can get to the library or bookstore, you can start with Blue Pete.