Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Standard of Taste

Whoever would assert an equality of genius and elegance between OGILBY and MILTON, or BUNYAN and ADDISON, would be thought to defend no less an extravagance, than if he had maintained a mole-hill to be as high as TENERIFFE, or a pond as extensive as the ocean.
To which we might add the names of JOHN HOME and WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, about whom our hero had this to say:
When [Home's play, Douglas] shall be printed (which will be soon) I am perswaded it will be esteem'd the best; and by French critics, the only Tragedy in our Language. (Letter to Adam Smith, March 1757)
In [Shakespeare's] compositions, we regret, that many irregularities, and even absurdities, should so frequently disfigure the animated and passionate scenes intermixed with them […] His total ignorance of all theatrical art and conduct, however material a defect; yet, as it affects the spectator rather than the reader, we can more easily excuse, than that want of taste which often prevails in his productions, and which gives way, only by intervals, to the irradiations of genius. (History of England, Volume 5, Appendix on the Reign of James I)
Hume is not alone in his sceptical judgement of Shakespeare, which was shared by such giants as Wittgenstein and Tolstoy; but his obtuseness became proverbial. Thus, Adam Smith was damned by Wordsworth, in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, as "the worst critic, David Hume not excepted, that Scotland, a soil to which this weed seems natural, has produced."

Hume's taste was sounder, by his own insistence, in its literal guise. Having retired to Edinburgh in 1769, without "the least Thought of Regreat to London, or even to Paris", Hume wrote to Gilbert Elliot to describe his plans:
I live still, and must for a twelvemonth, in my old House in James's Court, which is very chearful and even elegant, but too small to display my great Talent for Cookery, the Science to which I intend to addict the remaining Years of my Life; I have just now lying on the Table before me a Receipt for making Soupe à la Reine, copy'd with my own hand. For Beef and Cabbage (a charming Dish), and old Mutton and old Claret, no body excels me. I make also Sheep head Broth in a manner that Mr Keith speaks of it for eight days after, and the Duc de Nivernois would bind himself Apprentice to my Lass to learn it.
Picture Hume: apron-clad in his cramped kitchen, surrounded by the vapours of stewing meat, preparing to "dine, [to] play a game of back-gammon", and to give his literary ambitions, not just his sceptical thoughts, a rest.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006


I am writing these words in the Reading Room of the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, sitting next to Hume's manuscript copy of the Dialogues concerning natural Religion.

I did not expect to be moved; and in fact, I wasn't – at first. But it is hard to resist Hume's auto-obituary, "My own life", written in the past tense some months before his death. The script is confident and cleanly legible: it is fitting that Hume, the most agreeable of men, should have such lovely handwriting. Here is what he wrote:
In spring 1775, I was struck with a Disorder to my Bowels, which at first gave me no alarm, but has since, as I apprehend it, become mortal and incurable. I now reckon upon a speedy Dissolution. I have suffered very little pain from my Disorder; and what is more strange, have, notwithstanding the great Decline of my Person, never suffered a Moments abatement of my Spirits: Insomuch, that were I to name a Period of my life, which I shoud most choose to pass over again I might be tempted to point to this later Period. I possess the same Ardor as ever in Study, and the same Gaiety in Company. I consider besides, that a Man of sixty five, by dying, cuts off only a few Years of Infirmities: and though I see many Symptoms of my literary Reputation's breaking out at last with additional Lustre, I know, that I had but few Years to enjoy it. It is difficult to be more detached from Life than I am at present.

To conclude historically with my own Character: I am, or rather was (for that is the Style, I must now use in speaking of myself; which emboldens me the more to speak my Sentiments) I was, I say, a man of mild Dispositions, of Command of Temper, of an open, social, and cheerful Humour, capable of Attachment, but little susceptible of Enmity, and of great Moderation in all my Passions. Even my Love of literary Fame, my ruling Passion, never soured my humour, notwithstanding my frequent Disappointments. My Company was not unacceptable to the young and careless, as well as to the Studious and literary. And as I took a particular Pleasure in the Company of modest women, I had no Reason to be displeased with the Reception I met with from them. In a word, though most men any wise eminent, have found reason to complain of Calumny, I never was touched, or even attacked by her baleful Tooth: And though I wantonly exposed myself to the Rage of both civil and religious Factions, they seemed to be disarmed in my behalf of their wonted Fury: My Friends never had occasion to vindicate any one Circumstance of my Character and Conduct: Not but that the Zealots, we may well suppose, wou'd have been glad to invent and propagate any Story to my Disadvantage, but they coud never find any which, they thought, wou'd wear the Face of Probability. I cannot say, there is no Vanity in making this funeral Oration of myself; but I hope it is not a misplac'd one; and this is a Matter of Fact which is easily clear'd and ascertained.

Hume has been a Muse of these pages, on several occasions. As Adam Smith wrote in the account of Hume's death he sent to his publisher:

Upon the whole, I have always considered him, both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Economy of Prestige

It is time to announce the results of the competition to supply an exquisitely mean review. The criteria of judgement were as follows:
  1. The review must have a worthy target. Thus, I was forced to ignore, among other things, A. O. Scott's review of Gigli.
  2. The review may be grossly unfair, but…
  3. It has to give good arguments, or memorable ones that contain a grain of truth.
  4. Finally, preference was given to reviews that made good use of sarcasm.
We received 16 entries:
  • John Kekes on Martha Nussbaum, Hiding from Humanity
  • Peter Medawar on Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man
  • Michael Dummett on G. P. Baker and P. M. S. Hacker, Frege: Logical Excavations
  • Charles Pigden on Sabina Lovibond, Realism and Imagination in Ethics
  • Hilary Putnam on Gareth Evans, The Varieties of Reference
  • Henry Sidgwick on F. H. Bradley, Ethical Studies
  • Myles Burnyeat on Leo Strauss, Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy
  • Peter Geach on Philip Quinn, Divine Commands and Moral Requirements
  • Michael Dummett on Ernest Gellner, Words and Things
  • Alasdair MacIntryre on Hans Kung, Does God Exist?
  • Alasdair MacIntryre on Ved Mehta, The New Theologians
  • Alasdair MacIntryre on Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity
  • Simon Blackburn on G. E. M. Anscombe, Human Life, Action and Ethics
  • Alex Oliver on David Armstrong, A World of States of Affairs
  • Garrison Keillor on Bernard-Henri Lévy's American Vertigo
  • Colin McGinn on T. M. Scanlon, What we Owe to Each Other
It almost goes without saying that the reviews were uniformly bad, and comparative assessment was difficult. But decisions had to be made…

Thus, the award for meanest reviewer goes to Dummett, on the basis of two ferocious assaults. Honorable mention goes to Keillor on Lévy, which was certainly the funniest review submitted. Professional standards permit philosophers to be harsh, but not to engage in undue ridicule, so their scope for humour is limited. (I still think the funniest philosophical mean review is this one; see the paragraph on Wiggins at the end.)

Finally, the grand winner is…
Myles Burnyeat on Leo Strauss, Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy
Admittedly, Burnyeat has an unfair advantage of scale, since his "review" runs to 6000 words. But, as mean reviews go, it has everything: a worthy target, memorable (even influential) arguments, and a wonderful line in invective.

(Zed: Send me an e-mail with your mailing address to claim your prize!)

Monday, April 03, 2006

Utter Rubbish

Having partly defended one, I've been thinking a bit more about polemical reviews. They are, for me, a guilty pleasure. I don't like the idea of trashing what may have been the work of many hard years, and it's painful to imagine how the author must feel. But I can't deny that they are fun to read.

A recent example is Joe Queenan's vicious jab at The Know-It-All by A. J. Jacobs. Here the bitterness was soothed when the New York Times gave Jacobs an op-ed in which to reply, and he was able to hold his own. On other occasions, the rancour is not diminished by going back and forth.

One could publish a very satisfying anthology of mean reviews. My collection begins with the following two:
James Klagge on David Wiggins, at the end of this review

Joseph Ullian on Paul Weiss, writing about the "philosophy of sport".

Readers are invited to submit their favourites; a prize will be awarded for the best.