Monday, October 31, 2005

Thinking in Action

In search of "popular philosophy", I have decided to read some volumes in the Routledge series, Thinking in Action, edited by Simon Critchley and Richard Kearney. I recommend Michael Dummett, On Immigration and Refugees, but it is too political to be examined here. (Dummett is famous for giving up work on Frege: Philosophy of Language to fight against racism in Britain, returning only when he was sure he had failed. The preface to the Frege book is painful to read.)

The series offers many possibilities. I was tempted by Zizek's On Belief, but it has already been pilloried by John Holbo. Instead, I settled on two: On Humanism, by Richard Norman, and On the Meaning of Life. (Further volumes that may be of interest to this audience: On Anxiety and On the Internet.)

On Humanism is a nice corrective to Straw Dogs. For Norman, "humanism" is not blind faith in progress, or in some radical difference between us and other animals, but, principally, belief in ethics without God. This a pretty modest conviction, I think. The style is sober and unpretentious. Not much here will be new to philosophers: a critical review of standard arguments for the existence of God, an attack on the "divine command theory" of morals, a survey of utilitarianism and objections to it. The book would make a good introduction to philosophy – although, in that role, it could do with a guide to further reading.

It is not flawless. In rejecting God, Norman assumes that a belief is unjustified unless we can provide a reason for it that would apply to others. He does not acknowledge the notorious difficulties in meeting this foundationalist demand. For instance, in questioning religious experience, he argues that knowledge of the content of perception always depends on having "reliable independent grounds" by which to establish its cause. This could be the premise of a valid argument for scepticism about the five senses. It is therefore not a good premise to use in argument against belief in God.

The more interesting claim, anyway, is that we can make sense of ethics without God. Norman gives the usual objections to the divine command theory: if God's commands are not arbitrary, they must appeal to an independent standard of right and wrong; and it is in any case bad to be motivated by mere commands, or out of fear punishment and desire for reward. You might think that no-one holds so crude a view, but I can point to at least one: my geographical forebear, John Clarke of Hull (1687-1734). In an accounting of the most influential philosophers to come from my home town, he would, unfortunately, be first. His brief glory was to have been refuted by Francis Hutcheson – though it is a tribute to the retrograde character of British philosophy that he was taken seriously at all.

The best part of Norman's book is the final chapter, which begins with a puzzling fact.
Looking back [...], I cannot escape the feeling that everything I have said is obvious. [...] That view sits uneasily alongside the recognition that most of [it] would be rejected by most human beings, now and throughout history.
If it is apparent to Norman, and to me, that there can be ethics without God, why has it been orthodox to assume otherwise? He doesn't really attempt to resolve this quandary, and perhaps it lies outside his, and my, expertise. Let the sociologists go to work. But I can't resist a speculation. God seems necessary, I think, not directly for ethics, but for life to have meaning. (Ethics would be threatened by the death of God only if, as I doubt, it depends upon the meaning of life.) If atheists like me want to make sense of the moral-philosophical significance of religious belief, it is this inscrutable question that we must address.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Nostalgia for the Stone Age

It is occasionally good to read a book you expect to hate, a book designed to irritate. I have done so, and now you, dear reader, must suffer the consequences.

The book is Straw Dogs by John Gray, Professor of European Thought at the LSE. It is a sustained attack on what he takes to be the prevalent "humanism" of modern culture: the claim that humans are radically different from other animals (for instance, in being free, or conscious, or rational, or moral), which supports an unbending faith in progress. His goal is to put humanity in its place, to prick our misplaced arrogance: "human life has no more meaning than the life of slime mould".
Home rapiens [sic] is only one of very many species, and not obviously worth preserving. Later or sooner, it will become extinct. When it is gone the Earth will recover. Long after the last traces of the human animal have disappeared, many of the species it is bent on destroying will still be around, along with others that have yet to spring up. The Earth will forget mankind. The play of life will go on.
It is clear from similar passages that Gray identifies with Gaia – to use his term – not with humankind. He is looking forward to our extinction almost with excitement. Straw Dogs gives misanthropy a bad name.

I had expected to write a post attacking Gray's arguments, but this is not to be. For one thing, the book consists largely of unargued assertion, so it is hard to know where to resist (if not everywhere). There are many contradictions. For another, I don't question Gray's doubts about our future happiness – though that doesn't stop me from hoping for it. I do think he gets carried away, in hinting that the hunter-gatherers of the Stone Age enjoyed a neo-communist utopia, in suggesting that "humanism" leads inevitably to the search for virtual or cryogenic immortality (!), and in his apparently sincere (gleeful?) prediction of the rise of the machines:
Natural life forms have no built-in evolutionary advantage over organisms that began their life as artefacts. [...] As machines slip from human control they will do more than become conscious. They will become spiritual beings [...]
The question, how we are different from other animals, is more recognizably philosophical. But Gray is impatient with, and frankly ignorant of, philosophy and its history. He remarks without irony that Socrates "was guided by a daimon, an inner oracle, whose counsels he followed without question", and suggests that "Hume has had little influence". While being critical of philosophy, Gray does not attempt to do better – though he gives the impression that he thinks it would be easy. (His treatment of freedom and determinism is sophomoric.) When we do find arguments, they tend to the bizarre, as in his critique (?) of science:
According to [...] Karl Popper, a theory is scientific only in so far as it is falsifiable, and should be given up as soon as it is falsified. By this standard, the theories of Darwin and Einstein should never have been accepted. [...] As pictured by philosophers, science is a supremely rational activity. Yet the history of science shows scientists flouting the rules of scientific method. Not only the origins but the progress of science come from acting against reason.
When Popper's theory conflicts with scientific practice, the right moral to draw is not that he is wrong about reason or scientific method, but that science is irrational? It's certainly an original move.

Gray's book has been hailed as "powerful and brilliant" (J. G. Ballard), as "a remarkable new work of philosophy" (Will Self), as "daunting and enthralling" (Adam Phillips). In reality, it is shallow and lazy. It makes one despair to think of it as an emblem of public philosophical reflection.

The topic could have been important, and even timely: one of the great conflicts in philosophy of mind is between reductive naturalism (which, despite Gray, is the orthodox view) and what might be thought of as a kind of "humanism", on which there is a radical discontinuity between rational beings and "brutes", between the space of reasons and the space of natural law. These questions about our place in the scheme of things are much discussed by philosophers, though you wouldn't know it to look at Gray. They have a long history, from Aristotle to the present. (Gray is wrong to suppose that "humanism" is a Christian legacy, or that it is obviously refuted by Darwin.) But they are difficult. If there is to be such a thing as popular philosophy, it will have to make much greater demands on the attention and intelligence of its readers. I hope the reception of Straw Dogs is not good evidence of what we can expect.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Deus Ex Machina

I said in a previous post that I would like to believe in God. I should clarify this. I do not crave ritual (I have plenty of that), or organized religion. I don't want to worship God. I just want Him to exist. It would make the world unimaginably different to see it in the divine light.

My sense of the God I want there to be is captured by an anecdote about my wedding. We had trouble finding an officiant. The first person we asked turned out to be an evangelical talk radio host (long story...). He did not want to do anything "pagan". The parting was mostly amicable, and entirely mutual. Cautioned by this, we began to search for someone with both gravity and flexibility. We found Bob Epps, who used to be the campus minister at IU. Our meeting with him was reassuring. He voiced a willingness to do almost anything, with minimal provisos: no livestock or drugs during the ceremony. While disappointed, we were prepared to compromise. At last we reached the sticking point: what should be the text?
"We are thinking about the Book of Common Prayer," I said, "but I don't want 'God' to be there."

"Whether you mention Him or not," he replied, "God is going to be there."
That seems right.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Strategic Opacity

Shakespeare's biography is impossible for a different reason: an insufficiency of facts. Stephen Greenblatt's recent stab at the task is at times so self-consciously speculative as to resemble a literary experiment. Where Georges Perec wrote a novel (Things) almost entirely in the subjunctive – "They would open the mail; they would open the newspapers. They would light their first cigarette. They would go out." – and another in the second person (A Man Asleep), Will in the World is composed in the mode of epistemic possibility. It tells us only what could have been the case. This generates some comic moments, as maybe compounds upon might, and we end up imagining something that almost certainly was not. But Greenblatt's prose is exquisitely atmospheric, and it motivates the suspension of disbelief.

His best interpretive argument is not that Shakespeare's leather imagery stems from working in his father's glove shop, or that Falstaff was based on Robert Greene, but this:
Shakespeare found that he could immeasurably deepen the effect of his plays, that he could provoke in the audience and in himself a peculiarly passionate intensity of response, if he took out a key explanatory element, thereby occluding the rationale, motivation, or ethical principle that accounted for the action that was to unfold. The principle was not the making of a riddle to be solved, but the creation of a strategic opacity. This opacity, Shakespeare found, released an enormous energy that had been at least partially blocked or contained by familiar, reassuring explanations.
If Hamlet does not fain madness in order to protect himself until he comes of age – as in some earlier versions of the story – why? If Lear does not test Cordelia's love in order to force a profitable marriage – why?

The theory of strategic opacity deserves a fuller treatment – which it perhaps receives elsewhere. The quoted description suggests, I think unhappily, that it has the character of an empirical discovery, as though Shakespeare noticed the reactions of his audience, and figured out the recipe. This is not what Greenblatt intends. But then he owes us something more, an account of what it means to excise motives, a hermeneutics of the explanatory gap.

It is curious that, in puzzling over the scarce remains of Shakespeare's life – the absence of letters, confessions, essays, even books inscribed with his name – Greenblatt does not mark the irony: if this was deliberate, Shakespeare made himself strategically opaque. Our relation to him is like our relation to Hamlet, or King Lear. He is a figure of myth. That is why, as Woolf remarked, his plays "seem to hang there complete by themselves." I am not sure how to feel about this. Should we want to think of Shakespeare's life as a "riddle to be solved"? Or is the biographer who does so akin to a critic in search of Othello's missing coda – the scene in which Iago grants that, yes, he was in love with Desdemona all along.

Monday, October 03, 2005


Biography is impossible. As Iris Murdoch wrote (describing the protagonist's first discovery in La Nausée), "[There] are no adventures. Adventures are stories and one does not live a story." But a biography is a novel. And so it is inevitably false.

This argument assumes, with Forster, that a novel tells a story – not always true in these post-modern times. But the thirst for biography is a thirst for novels that do tell stories: for Victorian novels, with a moral, a beginning, a middle, an end. A human life is bound to have at least two of these; the problem is that the others must be supplied.

If this is impossible in any case, it is especially dangerous in one's own. But I was disappointed, all the same, to see that the title of my prospective autobiography had been scooped by A. N. Wilson, for a chapter of his anti-biography, Iris Murdoch as I Knew Her: "Hull is other people." ("Hull" is the name of my home town in Yorkshire.)

Wilson's book is gripping and occasionally brilliant: he wrestles lazily with the problems of explaining a life by telling it in order, opting first for an account of Murdoch's (possibly disingenuous) request for him to write her biography, and then for a series of episodes in the attempt to understand her work through aspects of her life: her "Irishness", her philosophy, her friends, her attitude to God, and her tactic in conversation of asking incessant but trivial questions.

His approach is resolutely impious. Wilson's Murdoch is no saint, a flawed artist, not much of a philosopher. Amidst the criticism, which is sometimes forced, and which he retracts ambiguously in his final pages, Wilson frames what I think of as the fundamental question about her work: what are we to make of the fact that so many of her novels begin with gravity – with metaphysics and morals – only to descend into melodramatic farce? In a perceptive review, Elijah Millgram argued that even Murdoch's best novels are, by her own moral and aesthetic standards, bad: escapist entertainment, full of comic and erotic capers. They must "be counted as consoling fantasy rather than as truthful art." I am sure he is wrong about this; but the critical challenge is right.

I don't have a firm answer to it. One might attempt to trace the problem to her own life, which was apparently one of intellectual attraction to the Good, combined with a toxic and destructive lust for affairs and intrigues and lies. Murdoch was well acquainted with what she called "the greedy organism of the self".

As befits his scepticism about biography, Wilson has a different idea: that the modern novel lends itself to existentialism, and that this worked for Murdoch in some early attempts, until her conversion to Platonism got in the way.
Is not such a concept [that of a Platonist novel] self-contradictory at a very deep level?

I don't know. After all, what would one expect of a Platonist novel, if not that the souls of its characters should be dragged back to the sordid material world?

A rhetorical question is not an argument – not for Wilson, and not for me. But, still, I can't help thinking that there is a solution to the puzzle, if not of Murdoch herself, then of the novels she so fluently and carelessly wrote.