Wednesday, June 08, 2005

ACCEPTING NOT BEING ACCEPTED: J. David Velleman has a very good and thoughtful post up at Left2Right, with which I wholly agree, and which everyone should read.
I would only add, as a slight qualification, that one should perhaps distinguish between what is reasonable and desirable to expect and demand of people as a matter of politics and social relations, and what is natural and acceptale to desire of people emotionally. That is to say, I don't think that people should expect to have their own identities or proclivities accepted and embraced by everyone, or that they should make demands for such acceptance part of their political program. But I do sympathise with people's indignation at what is true, important and beautiful to them being reviled by others, and desire that it be otherwise.

COMMUNISM, AGAIN: Apparently, Mao was a very bad man. This is, of course, not news (despite appearing in a newspaper), but it's worth remembering, and being reminded of (especially if one is, as I am, professionally Euro-centric, so that Stalin and Hitler tend to loom larger on the mental horizon). The book reviewed sounds interesting, and worth a look.
Thinking about Mao's evil, and the evils he inflicted on the people of China, raises a question for me - a real question, not a rhetorical one. I have no problem, no qualms or resistance or reluctance, in regarding Mao as a monstrous dictator; and the same goes for all the other old comrades -- Lenin, Stalin, etc. I've never understood, and generally find myself feeling little to no sympathy and even some indignation, with leftists who in some way can't let go of the illusions of Communist dictatorship, and so try to make excuses for, or soft-pedal their criticisms of, these awful, evil men. And I have no problem regarding Mao or Lenin or Stalin or Pol Pot as on the same low moral level as Hitler.
And yet, I do know, or know of, some ex-Maoists. My feelings for them vary from individual to individual. However, my feelings for them are very different from what my feelings for an ex-admirer of Hitler, or for that matter Mussolini or Franco, would be. And I wonder why this is, how I would explain and justify this reaction. Part of it is, I suppose, the general assumption that most (though of course not all) Western leftists who admired Mao were well-intentioned dupes, taken in by a noble-sounding ideology that masked terror, while those who admired Hitler or other right-wing dictators were always aware of those figures' true beliefs, and shared them. Related to this is the view that Communist ideology (as opposed to practice), for all its errors (to put it mildly), is more attractive, and more morally valid, than Nazi or fascist ideology. And this is true to some extent -- opposing the exploitation of working people by capitalists and the governments they largely control seems both more realistic and more morally noble and plausible than hating Jews (especially if one is a Jew).
Still, while I partly accept these arguments, I'm not entirely comfortable with them. I'm not sure to what extent ignorance, or good intentions, are satisfactory moral excuses. AFter all, there were people who were quite as committed to egalitarian, and indeed socialist, values and goals as any supporter of Lenin or Mao, and yet saw through them from the start; certainly, by the '30s with regards to the Soviet Union, the truth, or a sufficient part of it, was knowable. At the same time, while it's difficult for me to empathise by someone who would be attracted to or taken in by Nazism, I can't dismiss the possibility that some people were; and indeed, if one looks at the list of all of those who, if they didn't embrace, at least excused or praised with faint damns Hitler before it became fully clear what he was on about, one finds some people who are hard to dismiss as simply blackgaurds or bigots (ok, we can disagree about Churchill or Bernard Shaw; but Gandhi?)
And while I do think that Nazi and Communist ideology are incomparable (which seems to be my favourite word of the day), and think the former pretty well indefensible on moral grounds, I do find myself, at least sometimes, at least partly won over by the argument that Communist ideology is guilty of the same moral fallacy as Nazi ideology -- that is, the dehumanisation of a group of people based not on their individual characters or actions, but the circumstances of their birth (in the case of Communism, the bourgeoisie); and the claim to a monopoly on truth, and stigmatisation of all who fail to accept this truth as wicked or blind, and in either case, as needing to be crushed.
Which leaves me with the problem: what, exactly, do I make of the ex-Maoists (or ex-Leninists, or what have you) whom I'm inclined to be somewhat more indulgent to than, say, the elderly Oswald Mosely? And what do I make of Western Maoism as a historical phenomenon?

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

'GREATEST' PHILOSOPHER OF ALL TIME: The BBC is having a poll for the title of greatest philosopher of all time. This, first of all, captures much of what I like and dislike about the BBC. On the one hand, it actually covers intellectually serious subjects from time to time, and does its best to educate a broad public and make intellectual life lively and appealing. On the other hand, the way it goes about doing this is to make philosophy into a contest.
But this, it seems to me, goes against the nature of philosophy. Philosophy is a field that tends to be dominated by great individuals, men and women of genius and originality, who produce their own distinctive visions of the world. But it is also a collaborative activity, in which one philosopher builds on the work of another. So, in the BBC poll one's asked to choose between Hume, Kant, Plato, Aristotle, St Thomas, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, Popper. Yet without the challenge of Hume, Kant probably would never have made his breakthrough into the critical philosophy. So, too, Popper (or, indeed, just about any German thinker of the 20th century, and most Anglo-American ones too) without Kant is inconceivable. Aristotle refers back to Plato, St Thomas's great accomplishment was based on a transformation of Aristotle, Nietzsche was engaged in a life-long struggle with Greek philosophy, and Heidegger with both Greek philosophy and Nietzsche, and Sartre's work will forever be seen in the shade of Heidegger's.
There's also a fair amount of silliness involved. Is it really illuminating to know whom Terry Wogan or Mariella Frostrup would pick as the world's greatest philosopher? (Not that I have anything against Terry or Mariella -- as opposed to Anne Widdecombe or David Blunkett.) And then there are the 'expert' testimonials. Some are indeed by experts, who in some cases manage to talk sensibly and well, in other cases embarass themselves, and in still other cases, do both. (the usually excellent Alan Ryan contributes a characteristically droll and substantive advocacy of Mill, unsurprisingly, but can't resist the gimmicky and, I think, fairly empty claim that Mill was the original 'third way' thinker; Andrew Marr uses guilt-by-association-with-despots to tarnish Plato, Nietzsche, Rousseau and Marx and puff-up Popper (thus suggesting that he's more familiar with Popper's accounts of these thinkers than with the work of these thinkers themselves. Marr also mentions that Popper loved Bach to distraction as a point in his favour, which it surely is; but Popper liked Beethoven better. Lisa Jardine on Hobbes is just too theatrical to really listen to. Some selections are also quite interesting in themselves: Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, chooses Wittgenstein -- not a man very happy about or comfortable with his Jewish roots -- and invokes, as appealing to a Jewish thinker, Wittgenstein's declaration that a philosophical work could be written entirely in the form of jokes, without noting that when one thinks Wittgenstein, as a person or a thinker, the words 'laugh riot' are about the last thing that come to mind) One interesting theme that emerges is that many of the 'expert' witnesses (largely academics, though with a sprinkling of journalists) again and again make a case for their chosen philosopher's relevance, praising him (the finalists are all male) for having 'both feet on the ground', or some variation on that phrase. It's as if Aristophanes's depiction of Socrates in The Clouds still needed to be laid to rest. And no doubt it does; and no doubt a general audience will want to know what relevance a philosopher has for their own lives, and regard an ability to speak to their deepest concerns as part, or an indicator or primary element, of a philosopher's greatness. And this is, I think, correct. More troubling is the way in which the measure of philosophical greatness seems to be equated with practicality, and that groundedness is identified as a primary virtue of a philosopher. Having a sharp 'sense of reality' is certainly an important quality for any thinker. But philosophy aims to adress, but also go beyond, everyday experiences and modes of thinking, to penetrate to deeper patterns of thought, conceptual frameworks, assumptions, logical connections, etc. etc., of which we are generally unaware. To do this, a philosopher must be able to see the world with eyes different from those of other men and women. This does not require otherworldliness; but it does often involve it. And champions of philosophy, it seems to me, should stand up for otherworldliness, for abstraction, for intellectual sophistication, rather than trying to minimise it or deny it, by insisting that their philosopher was an everyday-guy whom it would be fun to play billiards with, or that the philosopher in question held the key, the answer to, the problems of living life today (if you look to a philosopher of the past for the answers of the present, it seems to me, you're very likely to both misunderstand the philosopher's work, present-day realities. Which is not to say that philosophers can't illuminate present-day problems -- I certainly think that they can. But their ability to do so will always be limited, and should not be the sole or even primary standard for judging their work).
A number of people have also mentioned the odd selection of finalists (see e.g. the covnersation over at Crooked Timber. I'd also say see dinner-time conversations at among grad students at Balliol, but you can't, which is probably just as well for you). The most obvious and egregious of omissions is undoubtedly Hegel. Like him or not, understand him or not, he was one of the giants of the past two centuries. He's also among the most abused, which may be why he's not on there.
Other omissions are less mysterious or objectionable, but still worth noting. Locke and Berkeley don't, it seems to me, have much claim to be the greatest philosopher of all time; but that they shouldn't appear at all seems odd. Hobbes is included, even though he's primarilly known as a political philosopher; Rousseau, for whom the same is true, is not. And given the emphasis on the 'cash value' of philosophy, how odd that William James should not appear as a contender (and if one is looking for a philosopher who was a nice, astute, honest, everyday-sort-of-guy, he would seem to me ideal)
Some inclusions are also rather odd. Epicurus and Sartre? Popper? Russell? Admirable, interesting and important as all are in their own ways, I can't see how any would have a claim to being identified as the greatest philosopher of all time on any front. To include both Socrates and Plato seems to me to beg one of the oldest questions in historical-philosophical scholarship, and redundant.
A numnber of people have also pointed out that the list excludes non-Western philosophers. This is both a predictable, and understandable, objection, and there's much to it. But, at the same time, I think that the exclusion of non-Western philosophers is ultimately appropriate, since Western philosophy, for all its variations, does form, and to be fully understood, must be perceived as, a single tradition; non-Western philosophers, not a part of this tradition, are simply incomparable with it - they're doing their own things; their work contains some insights and worthwhile suggestions for the concerns of Western philosophy, which have been taken into and enriched Western philosophy (as Nietzsche and Schopenhauer -- both on the list -- attest); but Confucianism, or Buddhism, or even the theology of the Orthodox Church, are not, I think, best understood, appreciated, or evauluated by the standards of Western philosophy (the exception here is Medieval Islamic philosophy, which revived Aristotle and transmitted him to Christian Europe).
The theme of incomparability brings me to my main objection to the poll. It seems to me somewhat fatuous to speak of the 'greatest philosopher of all time', because different fields of philosophy, and even in some cases the work of different philosophers, are incommensurable. When we evaluate, say, Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant, and Mill, are we talking about their contributions to logic, epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, political philosophy -- or what? Is a philosopher who makes contributions to all or most facets of philosophy 'better' than a philosopher who makes a contribution mainly to one or two - Descartes, Hobbes, arguably Spinoza (though my teacher Steven Smith would dispute this last allegation)?
Furthermore, one might evaluate philosophers' work in a number of different ways, as well as with regard to a number of different issues, standards, etc. One of the most important, it seems to me, concerns the distinction between the quality of argumentation, and an argument's truth value. Put another way, do you identify a philosopher as great, or 'the greatest', because you admire the profundity, rigour, consistency, originality, or what have you, of that philosopher's arguments, concepts, theories, etc.; or because you think that philosopher has gotten things right? (Some would of course reject the distinction; but for me at least it's a valid one.) Furthermore, an argument may be good in a number of different ways, many of them alluded to just now -- in terms of originality, or rigour, or sweep and inclusiveness, or sophistication, etc.
So, to choose one philosopher as 'greatest' first of all requires a much more specific and explicit criterion or criteria for greatness. But, it seems to me at least, that no such single, simple, uncontroversial standard exists in philosophy; and I tend to think that no such standard can. Even if one could articulate a standard for philosophical greatness, I suspect that it would be difficult to select a single figure who best fit it. And so the selection of greatest philosophers often amounts to something else, to an expression of personal preference of some sort. When we say 'greatest' we often mean 'the one I like the most' 'the one whose views seem closest to reality' (which often means, 'the one who most agrees with me' -- which, when one thinks about it, is really a rather arrogant assertion -- that the greatest philosopher in history is the one closest to oneself) 'the one who's had the greatest impact on me, or the most meaning for my life' 'the one who best represents an ideal of the life of the mind to which I aspire, or that I find moving' 'the one who's been most historically significant' (either in terms of philosophy, or history more generally -- though the latter issue can be very treacherous indeed). All of these are perfectly good ways to evaluate philosophers, and profess preference for one above all others (though, with regard to most of these questions, I don't think I could choose a single figure). But they are not the same as being the 'greatest'. And, as one philosopher, who didn't make the list (rightty, as he is not among the greatest philosophers in any respect -- and yet, to my mind, he is among the wisest, which points back to some of the complexities I'm trying to identify) was endlessly fond of proclaiming, everything is what it is, and not something else; why, then, should we seek to be deceived?*
Ok, you may say (if you;ve somehow gotten this far); fine. Now that you've explained why you object in principle to such a ranking, and bored us silly doing so, who's your choice?
In response to such a question, I can only through up my hands -- and then plump. I suppose that temperamentally and in terms of my own beliefs I'd warm most to Hume or Mill. But Kant seems to me the most inescapable philosopher on the list (note that I say for me; for others, Plato or Aristotle would obviously and rightly come first in this particular respect). By this I mean that there is no, or almost no, topic or area in philosophy that I've been preoccupied with at any time in relation to which I haven't, at some point or another, found myself coming back to Kant. (All the more reason to regret that I still don't have much of an idea of what Kant thought). If I were forced to vote, I'd vote for him.
But, happily, as an autonomous subject, I don't have to.

*This, of course, is a paraphrase of Isaiah Berlin's paraphrase of Bishop Butler.

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