The two things that qualify a person for being a conservative, he held, were having a passionate interest outside politics and a strong sense of mortality. And, dare one indite this in a political magazine: “A general interest and preoccupation with politics is the surest sign of a general decay in a society.” Still, politics is necessary to life lived among “people whom chance or choice has brought together.”
The problem, Oakeshott felt, was not only that “politics is an uninteresting form of activity to anyone who has no desire to rule others” but that those it attracts are, too often, unimpressive human beings. At one point he calls them “scoundrels.” What isn’t required, but is too often evident, in politics is “manufacturing curable grievances.” What is needed is the assurance of “the little things: to go where we like & when; having paid my taxes to spend my money on what I wish.” His final word is this: “Politics is the art of living together & of being ‘just’ to one another—not of imposing a way of life, but of organizing a common life.”
So much of Oakeshott’s political thought is propelled by his unshakeable belief in the imperfectibility of human beings. Montaigne is his intellectual hero here, the Montaigne who understood that all human judgment and wisdom is fallible.
We too often forget that the name “intellectual” itself is a French invention. There is a tendency, because the French exported the concept very successfully in the past, to try to interpret any thinking phenomenon as an “intellectual” one, and to believe that where there are no proper intellectuals, there is no thinking. However, as Stefan Collini brilliantly demonstrated in Absent Minds, it is France that is the exception rather than the other way around. The way it has promoted the figure of the intellectual is unprecedented in history, and it would be pointless to try to find the same patterns in other countries which have other traditions. British thinkers, in that perspective, have been sceptical of the term “intellectual” for two reasons: they felt superior to what they saw as French immaturity or grandiloquence, but at the same time inferior to them, because they watched the exceptional treatment given to intellectuals in France with great envy.
Just because a country remains reluctant to recognise its intellectual character doesn’t mean it doesn’t have one. Conversely, just because a country constantly boasts about its tradition of thought doesn’t mean that the tradition is still alive. Progressive thinkers such as Sartre have always preferred — isn’t it much easier? — to paint large abstract pictures, and then, when reality contradicted them, to turn a blind eye and blame someone else — the bourgeoisie, usually.
British thinkers, from Adam Smith and David Hume to Friedrich Hayek (Britain being his adopted country), from Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and John Stuart Mill to John Gray, from Edmund Burke to Michael Oakeshott and Roger Scruton, have always started from the facts and the patterns of life and tried to make sense of them, without being obsessed by the fact that they were or were not thinkers. British people think because they don’t think they think. I wish the French would do the same.
Polanyi was one of the most prominent physical chemists of the middle of the twentieth century. In the second half of his life he took up philosophy in an effort to understand his own experience of scientific discovery. His elaboration of “tacit knowledge” entailed a criticism of the then-prevailing ideas of how science proceeds, tied to wider claims about the nature of reason. The logical positivists conceived reason to be rule-like, whereas according to Polanyi, a scientist relies on a lot of knowledge that can’t be rendered explicit, and an inherent feature of this kind of knowledge is that it is “personal.” He explained:
“The declared aim of modern science is to establish a strictly detached, objective knowledge. Any falling short of this ideal is accepted only as a temporary imperfection, which we must aim at eliminating. But suppose that tacit thought forms an indispensable part of all knowledge; then the ideal of eliminating all personal elements of knowledge would, in effect, aim at the destruction of all knowledge. The ideal of exact science would turn out to be fundamentally misleading and possibly a source of devastating fallacies.”
But the culture of scientific apprenticeship that developed in Europe, and then later in America, did so without warrant from the official self-understanding of modern science. As Polanyi writes, “To learn by example is to submit to authority. You follow your master because you trust his manner of doing things even when you cannot analyze and account in detail for its effectiveness.” This is intolerable if, like Descartes, you think that to be rational is to reject “example or custom” in order to “reform my own thoughts and to build upon a foundation which is completely my own.” The paradox of the Cartesian project is that from a beginning point that is radically self-enclosed, one is supposed to proceed by an impersonal method, as this will secure objective knowledge — the kind that carries no taint of the knower himself. Polanyi turns this whole procedure on its head: through submission to authority, in the social context of the lab, one develops certain skills, the exercise of which constitutes a form of inquiry in which the element of personal involvement is ineliminable.
Let’s dwell for a minute on the role that Polanyi assigns to trust: “You follow your master because you trust his manner of doing things.” This suggests that there is a moral relation between teacher and student that is at the heart of the educational process. Of course, the student must trust that the master is competent. But he also must trust that his intention is not manipulative. It is the absence of just this trust that we found at the origins of the Enlightenment epistemology in the previous chapter: a thorough rejection of the testimony and example of others. This rejection begins as a project for liberation — from kings and priests — and blossoms into an ideal of epistemic self-responsibility. But the original ethic of suspicion leaves a trace throughout. This stance of suspicion amounts to a kind of honor ethic, or epistemic machismo. To be subject to the sort of authority that asserts itself through a claim to knowledge is to risk being duped, and this is offensive not merely to one’s freedom but to one’s pride.
If Polanyi is right about how scientists are formed, then the actual practice of science proceeds in spite of its foundational Enlightenment doctrines: it requires trust. The idea that there is a method of scientific discovery, one that can be transmitted by mere prescription rather than by personal example, harmonizes with our political psychology, and this surely contributes to its appeal. The conceit latent in the term “method” is that one merely has to follow a procedure and voilà, here comes the discovery. No long immersion in a particular field of practice and inquiry is needed; no habituation to its peculiar aesthetic pleasures, no joining of affect to judgment. Just follow the rules. The idea of method promises to democratize inquiry by locating it in a generic self (one of Kant’s “rational beings”) that need not have any prerequisite experiences: a self that is not situated.
It’s a delightful coincidence that I just encountered this same theme of trust last week in a book about a completely different topic. In fact, I’m just going to merge that post into this one. Here’s Saul Frampton talking about Montaigne’s understanding of experiential knowledge as opposed to that of Descartes:
But Montaigne can be seen to offer an alternative philosophy to that of Descartes, a more human-centered conception that lays no claim to absolute certainty, but that is also free from what some have seen as the implications of such claims: the totalitarian political movements of the twentieth century, and the individualist anomie of modern Western life.
For at the heart of Descartes’ philosophy is the intellectual principle of division, an attempt to offer clarity in a world made uncertain by religious and political unrest. He thus states as part of his ‘method’ that intellectual problems should be ‘divided’ into ‘as many parts as possible’ and that we should accept as true only that which we can perceive ‘very clearly and distinctly‘ — i.e. separate from other things. And this principle provides the foundation for his division of mind and body: he sees the mind as all ‘one and the same’, whereas he ‘cannot think of any Corporeal or extended being which I cannot easily divide into Parts’. For Descartes, true knowledge thus amounts to a singular unambiguous vision: he uses the metaphor of a city designed by one ‘single master’, rather than evolving naturally and haphazardly through the work of ‘different hands’.
Montaigne, by contrast, operates with an older, less cutting-edge, yet perhaps more venerable intellectual instinct: that of proximity. Rather than defining and dividing things, Montaigne wants to bring them together, get near to them, close to them, not least to himself. And rather than searching for certainties that divide him from the commonality, Montaigne sees the principle of trust as of far greater importance; as he says at the start of his essays: ‘You have here a book of good faith.’ For Montaigne, human relations are the primal scene of knowledge: if trust is restored, agreement, tolerance and hence truth will follow; the search for constancy and certainty strikes him as merely obstinacy in another guise…For in the midst of these [French wars of religion] Montaigne begins to see such conflict as fueled by the search for political and religious certainty.
Whereas Descartes’ division of mind and body separates him from other bodies and other people, Montaigne sees his own relationship to his body as opening a gateway to ‘the universal pattern of the human’, and as a consequence society at large. Self-knowledge thus leads us into ourselves, but then out of ourselves into others: we need to get to know ourselves before we can understand our fellow man — a logical paradox from a modern perspective, but not for Montaigne.
Skeptic magazine publisher Michael Shermer has gotten onto the same “science can determine moral values” bandwagon as other scientistically-minded writers such as Sam Harris. But this commentary isn’t directly about Shermer’s latest book , and even less about Harris (about whose ideas I’ve written more than enough ). Rather, it concerns a more specific claim about science-driven moral progress made by Michael in a recent article that appeared in the libertarian Reason magazine, entitled “Are We Becoming Morally Smarter? The connection between increasing IQs, decreasing violence, and economic liberalism” . The piece is an interesting mix of good points, good reasoning, bad points, and bad reasoning. I am going to try to sort things out in the interest of stimulating further discussion.
Yeah, I saw recently that Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature and Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape had apparently produced this bouncing baby boy (I didn’t even know they were dating!). Judging by this review (which was pretty fun to read), I doubt Shermer’s going to bring any more to the discussion than Harris did, which wasn’t terribly impressive itself.
In fact, speaking of Harris, Kenan Malik offered what I thought to be a definitively damning summary of the problems facing these attempts to ground moral values in science:
Science cannot determine values because one cannot scientifically assess what is right and wrong without having already constructed a moral framework within which to evaluate the empirical data. Or, as Huxley put it, science ‘may teach us how the good and the evil tendencies of man may have come about, but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before’.
For Harris, as for many of the New Atheists, the desire to root morality in science derives from an aspiration to demonstrate the redundancy of religion to ethical thinking. The irony is that the classic argument against looking to God as the source of moral values — the Euthyphro dilemma — is equally applicable to the claim that science is, or should be, the arbiter of good and evil. In Plato’s Euthyphro, Socrates asks the question: do the gods love the good because it is good, or is it good because it is loved by the gods? If the good is good simply because gods choose it, then the notion of the good becomes arbitrary. If, on the other hand, the gods choose the good because it is good, then the good is independent of the gods.
The same dilemma faces contemporary defenders of the claim that science defines moral values. Harris argues that wellbeing can be defined through data gained through fMRI scans, physiological observation, pharmacological measures, and other such techniques. Such studies may be able to tell us which brain states, neurotransmitters or hormones calibrate with particular real-world conditions. But whether those states, neurotransmitters or hormones are seen as indicators of wellbeing depends on whether we consider those real-life conditions as expressions of wellbeing. If wellbeing is defined simply by the existence of certain neural states, or by the presence of particular hormones or neurotransmitters, or because of certain evolutionary dispositions, then the notion of wellbeing is arbitrary. If such a definition is not to be arbitrary, then it can only be because the neural state, or the hormonal or neurotransmitter level, or the evolutionary disposition, correlates with a notion of wellbeing or of the good, which has been arrived at independently. The Euthyphro dilemma can no more be evaded by scientists claiming to have objective answers to questions of right and wrong than it can by theologians.
The search for explanations and theories in philosophy, Wittgenstein believed, was linked with this worship of science. Intoxicated by the success of science, philosophers had forgotten that there was another kind of understanding. ‘People nowadays think that scientists exist to instruct them’, he once wrote in a notebook, ‘poets, musicians etc. to give them pleasure. The idea that these have something to teach them — that does not occur to them.’
Russell, of course, was horrified by this attitude. ‘The later Wittgenstein’, he wrote, ‘seems to have gotten tired of serious thinking and to have invented a doctrine which would make such an activity unnecessary.’ If one thinks that ‘serious thinking’ and ‘science’ are the same thing, then this remark is precisely right.
In a recent series of emails, Arthur unknowingly, almost eerily in his precision, echoed this very stance:
What applies to Dante applies, on a lower level of course, to the writers cited by Watson. Kafka’s work is not “robbed of its meaning” by the obsolescence of Freudianism, it is far too weird and original, pre-Freudian and post-Freudian, for that. What galls me here is that uncomprehending and condescending assumption that artists are just wayward students of intellectuals—as if they were not themselves intellectuals, and highly independent and original ones, at that. (Inside every artist is an intellectual, the saying goes—but not vice-versa.) What bites my butt is the assumption that the kind of writing that wears a white coat or talks about wages and surplus value is the model of knowledge and adult thinking, while art is just what happens when the kids are let out into the playground at recess.
Now, if you’re like me, you may have had an “A-ha!” moment when confronted with such clear and elegant imagery. Even though there is no argument being put forth, technically speaking, the limitations of a scientistic approach become suddenly and vividly apparent. It becomes obvious why, for example, looking at fMRI images of someone’s brain as they look at pieces of art will tell us nothing useful about the nature or meaning of art. The parallel lines of artistic and scientific understanding will never meet. Wittgenstein seems to have had something like this in mind. Monk again:
Analogously, in his later work, Wittgenstein treats all philosophical doctrines as confusions, though now he thinks the confusion has arisen because, as he puts it, ‘a picture held us captive’. His task is to free us from that picture. Because the picture that held us captive and that gave rise to the philosophical problem is assumed in everything we say, it cannot usually be dislodged by argument. It is, as it were, too deep for that. What is required to free us from the picture that holds us captive is an enriched imagination, and this cannot be given to us through argument, it must be acquired through, as it were, therapy. Wittgenstein’s later work, then is aimed at the pre-philosophical, rather than the philosophical, level. It addresses, not our argumentative faculties, but our imagination.
Life is suffering, yes. After all, it is full of awful things such as trafficking, mental illnesses, war, corruption, poverty, etc. Yet, life is also alive and joyous. The joy of being alive that, in spite of all the harm, still – for the majority of people – keeps the belt around the waist, not the neck. How come?
Small gestures happen where life is passed on, not as hope or faith, but as a possible future existence. Survival and compassion go hand in hand. A deep understanding of how everything is connected. A True Detective is compassionate. Cohle survives because he keeps on questioning what he does not know.
I haven’t seen True Detective yet, but I thought it was interesting to come across this essay shortly after the theme came up in conversation here.
Marx’s critique is powerfully moral, not in the sense of establishing rules of right and wrong conduct but in the older sense of describing what it is for humans to be able to flourish, to be able to realize themselves fully. It was also cynical about the very idea of morality, or rather of what it had come to represent. For Marx, the concept of alienation, and of human flourishing, could not be wrenched away from the project of social transformation, of the overthrowing of capitalism itself.
…’The claim of Marxism to be a morally distinctive standpoint’, argues Alasdair MacIntyre, for many years a Communist Party member, ‘is undermined by Marxism’s own moral history’. Whenever ‘Marxists have had to take explicit moral stances’, they have ‘always fallen back into relatively straightforward versions of Kantianism or utilitarianism’. There is in Marx, MacIntyre suggests, an absence of thought about the moral underpinnings of social transformation. Marx excoriated the moral consequences of capitalism. He wrote of how human nature might flourish under communism. But he wrote little of the norms by which revolutionary social movements should be judged. One result was the wrenching apart of politics and morality in those movements and societies influenced by Marx. Social change came to be seen purely in political terms and its moral content defined solely in terms of the success of its political ends. The moral case for any action was that it furthered the cause. As a result, MacIntyre suggests, there is a moral hollowness to Marxism that could only be filled by looking elsewhere for moral answers, in particular to utilitarian ideas that the revolutionary means were justified by the revolutionary ends.
…By 2008, however, the possibility of change (at least in the way that Marx would have understood it) had become negligibly small. The depth of the economic crisis led to talk of a ‘crisis of capitalism’. And yet there was no political challenge to capitalism. Workers’ organizations had been destroyed, the left had imploded, as had the idea that there could be an alternative to the market system. The resurrection of Marx challenged none of this. Those who turn to Marx these days look upon him not as a prophet of capitalism’s demise but as a poet of its moral corruption. But to what extent does a moral critique that is explicitly hitched to a social critique remain meaningful when the possibilities of acting upon that social critique seem so to have faded? That, perhaps, is the most difficult question to be asked of Marx’s thought.
Chinese philosophers, Fung insisted, have tended to avoid the abstract, showing little interest in metaphysics or pure logic, pouring their energies instead into developing more down-to-earth, practical political arguments. They were, he suggested, ‘concerned chiefly with society and not with the universe’, more preoccupied with defining how to live than in discovering how things are. Or, as another Chinese philosopher Y.L. Chin has put it, ‘Chinese philosophers were all of them different shades of Socrates’.
Not just geography, but language too, Fung suggested, made Chinese philosophy distinct. The Chinese corpus contains few great philosophical tracts. There is little to compare with Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, or Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason. Chinese philosophy tends rather to be poetic, aphoristic, suggestive. The very language of the Chinese, many argue, has lent itself to aphoristic philosophy and discouraged long, finely argued theses. A written language based on the alphabetic system, and with a tight grammatical fabric, as came eventually to be used in the West, provides useful material from which to fashion an argumentative treatise. A language that is constructed from symbolic characters that are not susceptible to considerations of singular or plural, or of past, present and future tenses, and most of which can equally be a noun, a verb, and adjective or an adverb, but whose connotation changes according to the other symbols alongside which it sits in a sentence, is necessarily more ambiguous and allusive in meaning. Chinese language is, the philosopher Lawrence Wu suggests, ‘an excellent tool for poetry but not for systematic or scientific thought’. There is in Chinese philosophy ‘profound insights, brilliant aphorisms, interesting metaphors, but few elaborate arguments’.
The calls of birds and the traces left by wolves to mark off their territories are no less forms of language than the songs of humans. What is distinctively human is not the capacity for language. It is the crystallization of language in writing… Writing creates an artificial memory, whereby humans can enlarge their experience beyond the limits of one generation or one way of life. At the same time it has allowed them to invent a world of abstract entities and mistake them for reality.
…It is scarcely possible to imagine a philosophy such as Platonism emerging in an oral culture. It is equally difficult to imagine it in Sumeria. How could a world of bodiless Forms be represented in pictograms? How could abstract entities be represented as the ultimate realities in a mode of writing that still recalled the world of the senses?
It is significant that nothing resembling Platonism arose in China. Classical Chinese script is not ideographic, as used to be thought; but because of what A.C. Graham terms its ‘combination of graphic wealth with phonetic poverty’ it did not encourage the kind of abstract thinking that produced Plato’s philosophy. Plato was what historians of philosophy call a realist — he believed that abstract terms designated spiritual or intellectual entities. In contrast, throughout its long history, Chinese philosophy has been nominalist — it has understood that even the most abstract terms are only labels, names for the diversity of things in the world. As a result, Chinese thinkers have rarely mistaken ideas for facts.
Or maybe it is: in the last few years, several scientists and philosophers, Chalmers and Koch among them, have begun to look seriously again at a viewpoint so bizarre that it has been neglected for more than a century, except among followers of eastern spiritual traditions, or in the kookier corners of the new age. This is “panpsychism”, the dizzying notion that everything in the universe might be conscious, or at least potentially conscious, or conscious when put into certain configurations. Koch concedes that this sounds ridiculous: when he mentions panpsychism, he has written, “I often encounter blank stares of incomprehension.” But when it comes to grappling with the Hard Problem, crazy-sounding theories are an occupational hazard. Besides, panpsychism might help unravel an enigma that has attached to the study of consciousness from the start: if humans have it, and apes have it, and dogs and pigs probably have it, and maybe birds, too – well, where does it stop?
…The argument unfolds as follows: physicists have no problem accepting that certain fundamental aspects of reality – such as space, mass, or electrical charge – just do exist. They can’t be explained as being the result of anything else. Explanations have to stop somewhere. The panpsychist hunch is that consciousness could be like that, too – and that if it is, there is no particular reason to assume that it only occurs in certain kinds of matter.
This seems like a perfect place to link to this Existential Comic about Chalmers and panpsychism, while strongly recommending that you peruse the entire archives and read a new comic there every Monday.
Now, then, you’ve heard me several times before express provisional agreement with Spinoza’s brand of panpsychism, so this time, I’ll change it up a little and cite Alan Watts saying pretty much the same thing, that while we commonly think of human intelligence as some sort of alien phenomenon in the universe, stranded in cold isolation as if it were “dropped” here with no hope of rescue, it may be both more comforting and accurate to think of it growing out of the world in the same way that apples grow out of an apple tree. From this viewpoint, conscious thought is a latent characteristic of “dumb, brute” nature, not an absurd aberration. Pile up enough rocks and dirt in the right conditions for long enough, and they’ll start “peopling”. If that sounds uncomfortably teleological and religious for your taste, well, just keep in mind that if Spinoza had lived anywhere else in Europe besides the Netherlands, he would have probably been executed for the threat his ideas posed to institutional religion, rather than merely being excommunicated and shunned. Entertaining the notion that consciousness could be a fundamental aspect of existence itself doesn’t necessarily lead to a belief in gods, souls and holy scripture.
In order to try to philosophically reconstruct Camus’ position, and to show why he has been so partially received, this book argues for a single hypothesis. We argue that Camus should be understood as a philosophe, in a neoclassical, humanistic, and also an enlightened French sense that it will be our task in the Introduction to preliminarily explain.
…Already we thus see how Camus’ oeuvre, itself an argument that “a man does not show his greatness by being at one extremity, but rather by touching both at once,” is as good as its word. Camus does not accept the accepted polarities of philosophy versus literature. His life and work contest the separation of wholly theoretical philosophy versus philosophising rooted in the Socratic gnôthi seauton. He equally challenges the opposition between reason and emotion. Our claim is that Camus‘ bridging of these accepted polarities goes some way to explaining how often he has been partially read hitherto. If we do not accept that Camus’ thought and activity challenges these inherited oppositions, we are bound to read him as either a philosopher or a poet, a sentimentalist or a rationalist, an atheist or a theological thinker, a rebel or a reactionary, an ancient or a modern, even when such readings can only be vouchsafed at the cost of overlooking countervailing evidences found elsewhere in Camus‘ diverse production. Srigley, for instance, argues that the evidence speaking to Camus‘ deep allegiance to Greek thought (evidence we have started to give here) speaks in favour of reading Camus’ work as involving a total critique of the modern age, since its key ideologies represent for him so many secularised or immanentised, Christian or eschatological doctrines. Camus at one point in his Carnets does declare that “no, I am not a modern,” and The Rebel is a famously powerful critique of Marxism-Leninism and elements of modern liberal societies. Yet in “Helen‘s Exile” and elsewhere, Camus is critical of figures like Saint-Exupery to the extent that they despaired of the times. Again, the closing arguments of The Rebel criticise nothing so much as people who turn away from “the fixed and radiant point of the present” in the name of idealisations of what the present is decried to lack, in more or less elegiac or apocalyptic strains.
The opposition ancient-modern, we would rather suggest (one which always trades in unsustainable cultural generalisations) is one more opposition that Camus’ thought straddles. In fact, the French word ‘philosophe’ that features in our title, in Camus’ native French, is not only the generic term for philosophers of all times and places. It resonates specifically with the generations of French lumières spanning from Montesquieu through to d‘Holbach, led by Diderot and Voltaire, but looking back via Pierre Bayle to Michel de Montaigne. As Peter Gay in particular has argued, the thought and activity of these definitive “moderns,” the enlighteners, involved their attempt to revitalise the modern West‘s pagan, classical heritage in the context of the advent of the modern natural sciences. It is just such a project that Camus, his own still small voice, advocates for in the twentieth century.
I came out of Ms. McCarty’s Philosophy 101 with a deep, abiding appreciation of four thinkers in particular — Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky and Camus. The presence of the latter two, known primarily as novelists, indicates the broad scope of the class, in which we were taught to appreciate timeless and pressing questions about life, regardless of the academic pedigree of the questioner. The Dane and the Russian have faded in importance to me since then. Nietzsche, I dunno, I guess you could say I have something of an interest in his work. My affinity for Camus, though, has only deepened over time. His humane, pluralistic moralism, impressive even now, is even more so when considered in the original postwar context, where it was highly unfashionable and widely scorned by noxious Stalinist apologists like Merleau-Ponty and the execrable Sartre. Having just spent a good part of this evening reading and enjoying Sharpe’s introduction to his forthcoming book, I recommend it to you as well.