Monday, August 29, 2005


Last time, I elected to forgo criticism; but Hampshire's argument is serious. It deserves a response.

He needs to establish that justice is a matter of hearing both sides, that this demand has bite, and that it is politically neutral: it is established by a "kind of transcendental argument" as a matter of practical reason alone.
The rational ground of respect is rationality itself, the habit of balancing pros and cons in argument, a norm [we] cannot without disaster discard in [our] own thinking.
Suppose we grant that the weighing of reasons in our own lives is inevitable. How is it meant to follow that reason requires us to weigh the claims of others in public discourse? Two answers are suggested by the book.

First, while "questions of fairness in the distribution of goods and of penalties are always matters of opinion and often give rise to conflicts [...] it is a necessity, and not a matter of opinion, that such conflicts should be resolved either by argument or by force." True enough; but why not opt for the latter, if one is powerful enough?

Second, in Hampshire's version of the Platonic analogy between city and soul, individual practical reason derives from public adversarial debate: "the habit of argument within the solitary soul [...] is modeled on the habit of argument within assemblies, committees and law courts."
The public situations I have mentioned give rise to corresponding mental processes [...] the idea of an individual's being unbiased, open-minded, and rational in his thinking has sense for us because we know what it is for a public procedure of discussion to be unbiased, open-minded and rational.
Procedural justice as practical reason is therefore presupposed by individual rationality, which we cannot do without.

I am not sure what to make of this claim. It does not follow, as Hampshire sometimes suggests, from the platitude that we learn the language of reasoning (like all language) from its public use. And there is no other argument here.

Nor does the analogy give much content to procedural justice. After all, what does it mean to "hear both sides"? For Hampshire, the answer to this question lies in an appeal to brute convention: the contingent facts of how we happen to proceed. My suspicion is that this is the book's more basic "transcendental argument", one that is suggested by a passage in which its project is first spelled out:
I shall argue that Plato is right about the existence of the analogy between the soul and the city and also right that the concept of justice is best explained by this analogy; but I shall argue that justice cannot consist of any kind of harmony or consensus either in the soul or in the city, because there will never be such a harmony, either in the soul or in the city.
This argument against justice as harmony relies on a suppressed premise: that justice is possible (as harmony is not). Despite Hampshire's claim to a "thoroughgoing skepticism and negativity", it is a kind of optimism that supports his pragmatic approach. Justice must be fair procedure, and fair procedure must be roughly what we take it to be, if there is any justice in the world. (That would explain Hampshire's praise of "shabby compromise", of politicians and statesmen who "sacrifice some of their own ideals and moral commitments for the sake of preserving their alliances.")

I respect and understand the impulse to realism in Justice is Conflict, but I am afraid that Hampshire does not see the danger here, or does not see it vividly enough. "It is the best we can manage" has often worked as an excuse for the evils of poverty, imprisonment and humiliation that he so evidently detests.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Justice as Practical Reason

Bradley's dictum about metaphysics, which I cited last time, has an analogue in ethics, well expressed by Stuart Hampshire in the Preface to Justice is Conflict:
"In moral and political philosophy one is looking for adequate premises from which to infer conclusions already and independently accepted because of one's feelings and sympathies."
Because practical reason is not distinct from the rightness of one's emotional response (that is, from character), this is not a sceptical or relativist claim, and Hampshire is not deterred by it:
I came to recognize that my socialist sympathies, and loyalty to the political left, were far from unreasonable, and not at all difficult to defend, in proportion as they were traceable to emotions engendered by the persisting evils of human life: and poverty in all its modern forms is certainly one.
We should be moved by the perennial evils, and one "can read about the mutilations of war, tyranny, massacres, and starvation described by ancient writers, as if one is reading a twentieth-century newspaper." This is exactly right. It is what Simone Weil argued in "The Iliad, or the Poem of Force" – force being "that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing." And it is a reason for the permanent impact of Beethoven's Fidelio.

Hampshire's remarks might lead one to expect a book with few arguments, a book against argument in ethics. But it is really the opposite: a plea for procedural justice, in which both sides are heard. Justice is conflict – if conflict is conceived as adversarial reasoning.

Although he does not put it this way himself, Hampshire's argument for the plea can be seen as a radical response to the distinction between "ideal" and "non-ideal" political theory. He stands against the ideal tradition, in Plato and as it survives in Nozick and Rawls. The tactic of A Theory of Justice does not go far enough: we need to find an account of fairness that is not only neutral with respect to competing moral conceptions in liberal society, but with respect to societies that are illiberal (for instance, theocratic). Consequently, practical politics cannot be seen as the application of ideal theory, at all; the picture suggested by "non-ideal theory" is a mistake. For Hampshire, practical politics must always and everywhere be defined by fairness as the hearing of conflicting claims, though there is "no rational necessity about the more specific rules and conventions determining the criteria for success in argument in any particular institution".

The cardinal problem for this view is to explain why the demand for procedural justice, even in this vague form, is not itself a substantive claim, an illicit application of ideal theory. What justifies it? And how can it stand above the fray? Hampshire's response is suggestive but obscure. He presents "a kind of transcendental argument" that the "authority and the justification are to be found in the structure of practical reason itself." Individual rationality is the weighing of considerations; and Plato was right to draw an analogy between city and soul. Thus, procedural justice is part of practical reason.

This move is impossible to evaluate on the slender basis given by the book. In any case, I do not want to criticize. I have the habit of underlining memorable sentences or passages in whatever I read. With Justice is Conflict, I found myself marking up half of every page. The prose is perfect; not a word is wasted. And what it argues, however schematic or incomplete, is wise.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Wishful Thinking

Philosophy has never recovered from the damage done to its image around the middle of the last century: it came to seem dull, insipid and mechanical, a pedantic exploration of how language works. One of the great polemics against "linguistic" or "ordinary language" philosophy is back in print, in a handsome Routledge edition: Ernest Gellner's Words and Things.

Reading it now, you can see why it was explosive, with its combination of wit and flagrant disavowal of interpretive charity. Gellner is happy to attribute bad motives, bad ideas and sheer confusions to the philosophers he dislikes, and he is often very funny in doing so.
Academic environments are generally characterised by the presence of people who claim to understand more than in fact they do. Linguistic Philosophy has produced a great revolution, generating people who claim not to understand what in fact they do. Some achieve great virtuosity at it. Any beginner in philosophy can manage not to understand, say, Hegel, but I have heard people who were so advanced that they knew how not to understand writers of such limpid clarity as Bertrand Russell or A. J. Ayer.
It is not clear whether Moore should be called a philosopher or a pedant of such outstanding ability as to push pedantry and literal-mindedness to a point where it became a philosophy. [...] One might say that Moore is the one and only known example of Wittgensteinian man: unpuzzled by the world or science, puzzled only by the oddity of the sayings of philosophers, and sensibly reacting to that alleged oddity by very carefully, painstakingly and interminably examining their use of words...
There are many more passages like this; although it is quite repetitive, I recommend reading the whole book.

It is a shame, however, about the preface to the new edition by Ian Jarvie, which is a missed opportunity. What Gellner mainly objects to in the "ordinary language" approach is its attack on philosophical doctrines as meaningless, its argument that philosophical problems always arise from linguistic confusion, and its consequent resistance to constructive theory: philosophy is therapy. Jarvie insists that "Linguistic Philosophy continues to be the tacit backbone of 'analytic philosophy', uncritically unacknowledged." This is simply false. Most of the strategies and arguments that Gellner rejects are dormant nowadays. Constructive theory is rife. The only general continuity lies in paying attention to language, but Gellner is rightly tolerant of that: it is a problem for him only when it becomes exclusive. A good essay could have been written, in the spirit of the book itself, about the recent history of philosophy, and the complicated place of Austin and Wittgenstein within it.

In any case, the value of Words and Things is not mainly in the light it casts on contemporary practice, or in its critical arguments – for Gellner, "exposition and refutation are one", and subtle distinctions are not worth bothering about – but in its sociological attitude to philosophical thought. This is easy to caricature. It can be reminiscent of an article once published in the The Sun, about a psychiatrist who diagnosed Wittgenstein as schizophrenic, observing that his work is "superficially profound, but on examination, meaningless." In Gellner, it occasionally amounts to pseudo-science: "[a] rough law holds for the history of philosophy, namely: P = 1/p, where P is Platonism and p psychologism." It has to be legitimate, however, to ask about the motives of philosophers. Some of the best insights in Gellner's book are of this kind, as when he explains the appeal of the later Wittgenstein:
The linguistic naturalism, the reduction of the basis of our thought to linguistic etiquette, ensures that there is no appeal whatever to Extraneous Authority for the manner in which we speak and think. Naturalism, this-worldliness, is thus pushed to its final limit. But at the very same time, and for that very reason (language and custom being their own masters, beholden and accountable to no Outside norm), the diversified content of language and custom is indiscriminately endorsed. Thus the transcendent, if and when required, slips back ambiguously, in virtue of being the object of natural practices, customs, modes of speech.

Apart from its sarcasm, this seems to me an apt account of the attractions of anti-foundationalism, in one of its forms. It is akin to the "naturalism of second nature" in John McDowell's Mind and World: we hope to integrate irreducible normativity into the natural world by giving a naturalistic account of how we come to think about irreducible norms. You can see why someone would want this to work.

I don't mean to be disparaging. In fact, I find it striking that my own philosophical views, with one or two exceptions – atheism, for instance – are ones that I want to be true. Does that apply to other philosophers? How often do we argue against our heart's desire? And would it undermine philosophy to learn that it is, like metaphysics in Bradley's definition, "the finding of bad reasons for what we believe upon instinct"?

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

But everything good is better

Critics of popular culture are not a homogeneous bunch. They have various complaints: that it is filled with sex and violence; that it is partly responsible for the decline in reading (at least, the reading of books); and that it has become increasingly simplistic, narcotic and dull.

The key to Steven Johnson's panegyric to pop culture, Everything Bad is Good for You, is that he is only concerned with the last of these: with what he calls the "Brave New World critics". One could be misled by his euphoric rhetoric to expect unqualified praise of Unreal Tournament and Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? But the argument is really quite narrow: that television and video games are now more structurally complicated than they were in 1975, and that this has had a positive effect on our IQ. The proper reaction to the book is not, "How does he get from that limited evidence to such sweeping conclusions about the benefits of pop culture?" but "How many of the critics will bother to deny his claims?"

This is not to say that the book is boring or banal. It contains some nice analysis – for instance, of current reality television as the adaptation of the game show to an era of puzzle-solving video games, and of syndication as a pressure towards the kind of narrative and emotional depth that rewards repeated viewing. But the central thread, a diachronic study of computer games and television series – comparing Pac-Man with Sim City, Dallas with 24, Wheel of Fortune with Survivor – is far less surprising than the book's impressive publicity might suggest. Who would doubt that you need to perform more complex tasks to survive Sim City, and track more characters and plots to follow 24?

The only favourable comparison of pop cultural forms with books is directed at "cognitive benefits" like "attention, patience, retention, the parsing of narrative threads", and the alleged intelligence that is tracked by IQ tests. Johnson barely raises the question how much value any of these "benefits" have. He assumes that IQ measures transferable skills: "problem solving, abstract reasoning, pattern recognition, spatial logic". But when pressed to defend this, or its significance, his logic is curiously circular: the development of these skills is useful in "managing more complex forms of technology, mastering increasingly nuanced narrative structures – even playing more complicated video games." So: the virtue of pop culture is to make possible more intricate pop-cultural forms.

Despite being an apologist for television and video games, Johnson's utilitarian approach in fact suggests that he doesn't think much of them. He doesn't hesitate to announce, at the beginning of his book, that the phenomena he investigates "are not, for the most part, Great Works of Art":
The conventional wisdom the [evidence] undermines is not the premise that mass culture pales in comparison with High Art in its aesthetic and cultural riches.
And he is happy to patronize the people who analyze The Apprentice on fan sites for their bad spelling and imperfect grammar, even as they are meant to indicate the interactive vivacity of reality TV. (I was amused to note that, immediately after his disparaging remarks, he manages to spell "Hazzard", as in "The Dukes of", with only one "z".)

Perhaps this is why his argument takes the tack it does: having no faith in the content of popular culture, he looks to the form, to the cognitive demands of sheer engagement. When he argues that exposure to pop culture inflates IQ, he is no more concerned with Myst than he is with programming the VCR.

The consequence is that he avoids what is, I think, the more interesting question, about the emergence of the video game from an era in which its value (if any) is purely instrumental, to the level of art. This has already happened in television – for instance, with Dennis Potter, conspicuously absent from Johnson's US-centric view. It is happening in the medium of the comic book – with Art Spiegelman and Chris Ware, among others. But these forms are at least similar to ones already in place. The work of video-game art will be something new, with its own rules and standards. In understanding it, we must resist the temptation simply to apply the expectations with which we approach the other media. Since this is true, and since so little effort has been made in that direction, it is possible that "Great Works of Video-Game Art" already exist.