A new philosophy festival is running in Hay-on-Wye, parallel to the literature festival. Speakers include Simon Blackburn, Zygmunt Bauman, AC Grayling and Mark Vernon, and tpm editor Julian Baggini is chairing some sessions. Details and booking here.
Monthly Archives: April 2009
There is no denying the central role that determinism has played in discussions of free will over the last four hundred years, and possibly far longer than that. Nor can one deny the significant role that it continues to play in these discussions. Whilst there are undoubtedly a number of different issues within the free will debate, determinism is still taken by the majority to be the peg upon which the others hang.
But not everyone shares this view. According to Nicholas Maxwell, rather than asking “Is free will compatible with determinism?” we should be asking “Is free will compatible with what modern science tells us about the universe?” Maxwell says that he finds it “quite extraordinary that the entire tradition of philosophical debate about free will tends to take it for granted … that the central issue is whether free will is, or is not, compatible with determinism.”
At first glance, this does seem to be a better question to ask. After all, who cares if free will is compatible with determinism when surely what really matters is whether free will is compatible with reality. And what is reality if not the world as modern science tells us it is? On the other hand, it may be that philosophers take it for granted that the question to be asking is whether free will is compatible with determinism because science is relevant to free will only because of what it has to say about our being determined. To take one recent example, the authors of Four Views on Free Will are unequivocal in their assertion that science is of interest to the debate only because of how it relates to determinism.
“If we accept that the universe isn’t deterministic there are still good reasons to think about the compatibility of free will and determinism,” they write. “First, it could turn out that future physicists conclude that the universe is deterministic, contrary to the contemporary consensus about at least quantum mechanics. It is notoriously difficult to predict how future science will turn out, and it might be useful to have an answer to the question in advance of the scientific issues getting sorted out. Second, even if the universe were not fully deterministic, determinism might hold locally (either as a matter of how local spacetime is constructed, or as a matter of how the physics for non-quantum physical objects operates). Third, we could be interested in whether free will is compatible with a broadly scientific picture of the universe. Since some aspects of the universe seem deterministic and others do not, we might ask if free will is compatible with determinism as a first step to answering the more general question of whether free will is compatible with a broadly scientific picture of the universe.”
Their conclusion is clear; science is of interest to discussions of free will because of how it relates to, or implies, determinism, and for no other reasons. But is this really the case? Are those sciences that have, or appear to have, an impact on whether we have free will of interest only because they support, or do not support, determinism?
There is no doubt that this is the case with discussions of quantum theory and the neurosciences, with much recent debate centring around the question of whether quantum phenomena play a role in neuronal activity. And when genetics is discussed, it is invariably to invoke the bogeyman of genetic determinism, even if those accused of expounding such a concept, such as the zoologist Richard Dawkins, do not actually do so in practise. As he puts it: “The belief that genes are somehow super-deterministic … is a myth of extraordinary tenacity.”
But what about those areas of science which are clearly relevant to free will, but which receive far less coverage in the literature, such as the special theory of relativity, evolution, and psychological research into rationality? Are they of interest to the debate only because of what they say about determinism?
The relevance of the special theory of relativity to free will can be summed up by the following passage from the physicist Paul Davies: “In the [special theory of relativity] there is no universal present, and the entire past and future of the universe are regarded as existing in an indivisible whole. The world is four dimensional (three of space, one of time), and all events are simply there: the future does not ‘happen’ or ‘unfold’.”
In other words, physically the future is as closed and unalterable as the past. Which, one cannot fail to note, is also a consequence of determinism. In which case, the theory of relativity does not appear to give the traditionalists any reason to abandon their formulation of the free will problem in terms of determinism. But what about evolution?
The aspect of evolution which is of interest to us here is that evolution is gradual, as Darwin himself explicitly stated: “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.”
The brain must have evolved through numerous, successive, slight modifications. And if the brain evolved gradually, then so must have the faculties that are associated with the brain, such as consciousness and free will. And if free will evolved gradually then it must be something that can exist by degrees.
What can we learn from this about free will? For one thing, it means that we can reject any characterisation of free will that describes it as an all-or-nothing ability found only in humans and in no other species. If free will evolved then the ability to make decisions with a certain degree of free will must have been present in our recent ancestors, if not in our more distant ancestors. A further implication that can be drawn from the gradual evolution of free will is that we humans may not be as free as any individual can be. It may be the case that we just have a high degree of free will and that there are further degrees of free will that are possible. Clearly, evolution has a number of consequences for free will. But what does it say about determinism? Absolutely nothing.
Now consider psychological research into rationality. The ability to make decisions rationally is generally held to be an important part of free will, so if there are situations in which our rationality is impaired without our realising, it could have serious consequences for free will. But there clearly are such situations. According to one recent review of the rationality literature, psychological experiments going back thirty years fail to support the idea that human beings are intrinsically rational: “What these studies demonstrated is that even under quite ordinary circumstances where fatigue, drugs and strong emotions are not factors, people reason and make judgements in ways that systematically violate familiar canons of rationality on a wide array of problems.” And if their rationality is impaired in a variety of different situations without their realising it, then so too is their free will. And this is the case regardless of determinism.
What these examples show is that those philosophers who believe that science contributes to the free will debate only because of what it has to say about determinism are clearly mistaken. There are areas of science which have an impact upon free will without determinism being involved in any way. Given this, is it now time to put aside the traditional formulation “Is free will compatible with determinism?” in favour of Maxwell’s formulation “Is free will compatible with what modern science tells us about the universe?”?
The Human World in the Physical Universe, N Maxwell (Rowman & Littlefield)
Four Views on Free Will, J. M. Fisher, R Kane, D. Pereboom and M. Vargas (Blackwell)
Mathew Iredale‘s Sci-Phi column appears regularly in tpm.
Philosophers can alter our vision in at least two ways, emotionally and cognitively, by enabling us not only to see X, which we can generally do well enough on our own, but to see X as Y or as Z.
The emotional modification of seeing that philosophers can facilitate is suggested by Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, when he writes, “The world of the happy is quite another than that of the unhappy.” The world is experienced differently, as many can attest, even in visual sensation, depending on our emotional outlook.
By interpreting what is seen in philosophical discourse, providing a context, concepts, categories and a specialised terminology for what is seen, philosophers can colour our seeing of the world in subtle ways by playing on our passionate responses to social, political, and aesthetic phenomena, enabling us to see injustice where we might otherwise have seen only bad luck or a morally indifferent sequence of events; or to see romantic genius, the eternal struggle of free will against necessity, where before we might have only seen paint on canvas.
Philosophers, again, like scientists, historians, art and literary critics, but in distinctively philosophical ways, also enable us to see differently by providing useful information and stimulating our imaginations. They can help guide and instruct vision, educating the viewer as to what is interesting and worthwhile to look for, directing us to what is there to be seen but otherwise too easily overlooked.
The American philosopher Fred Dretske draws the required distinction between epistemic and non-epistemic seeing in his book, Seeing and Knowing. Imagine looking into a drawer of jumbled up kitchen gadgets, searching for the garlic press.
The device is there, perhaps right before us, and we non-epistemically see it in the sense that light-rays are reflected from its surface and received by our retinas; yet for a time at least we cannot pick it out from the jangle of other equipment.
Philosophers, by offering theoretical interpretation and nourishing our imaginations through training in the method of thought experiments and the vistas of contrast afforded by familiarity with how different the world might be in non-actual, merely logically possible worlds, can change the way we epistemically, knowingly, understandingly, see things among the things we already non-epistemically see.
Who goes there?
What or who do we see when we watch the central character in a performance of “Hamlet”? A man who has recently starred in a famous television science fiction show? Or a man whose murdered father has recently begun to haunt him, whose mother appalls and fascinates him, whose lover attracts and repels him? But of course that second man, the conflicted murderer, isn’t real, is he? He’s a fictional character. But what exactly does this mean? Hamlet has thoughts and feelings of his own, just as David Tennant does. He is made of flesh-and-blood just as Tennant is (it’s no part of the play’s story that he’s an android). He is as much possessed or dispossessed of freedom as Tennant is (if he were not, he could not be held accountable for his acts and omissions; and although Shakespeare created Hamlet and his world, he does not act with authorial authority within that world). We might say: there is no particular property or attribute that Hamlet lacks which real mean and women possess, or vice versa; existence is not a predicate. But that does not mean that there is no difference between fictional and real existence; it just means that we can’t tell that difference by looking – because we can’t articulate it by means of criteria. The difference lies elsewhere, outside the province of vision; it has to do with the kinds of relationship in which we might stand to Hamlet, as opposed to another real person – matters having to do with time and space. If we allow ourselves to be absorbed in the play, as opposed to detaching ourselves by calling upon our knowledge of its ending, we can inhabit the same time as Hamlet – the time in which he has to make decisions, in which his past affects but does not determine his choice, and in which the future is accordingly in part his to determine. But we can’t inhabit the same space as him – there is no route from our position to his: if we get onto the stage, he disappears, together with his world. Whereas, if we want to touch David Tennant, getting onto the stage might work the trick. (Although, of course, it might not: he might of course simply ignore us, act as if we aren’t there – reduce us to the merely fictional, the utterly unreal).
So, our eyes are not deceiving us: Hamlet really is, or can be, there, on stage right in front of us. It’s just that what we see is something we can’t get – can’t get next to, confront, one embodied being to another.
Dale Jacquette is professor of theoretical philosophy at the University of Bern, Switz
Stephen Mulhall is the author of On Film (Routledge)
In the seventeenth century, the English philosopher John Locke provided one of the first statements of what became an influential view of secondary qualities: colour, smell, taste, noise, etc. When you look at grass it appears green. However, grass is made up of atoms and these are colourless rather than green. But is the light reflected from these atoms is green? Not exactly – it’s not as if you see green waves of light snaking their way from the grass. The reflected light is invisible (if it wasn’t it would get in the way of what you are looking at!). Your brain interprets this light as green? Undoubtedly, but what does that mean? There is nothing going on in your brain that is green – grey and gooey maybe, but not green. The greenness of grass is a perfectly real property but seems to exist nowhere at all. That was Locke’s view of secondary properties in general. Nevertheless, we can say that the greenness of grass is, partly but crucially, a matter of what is going on in your brain.
In some recent work on vision, however, the emphasis runs the other way. Under certain conditions, we are blind to changes that occur in our visual field, even though these changes are significant and occur in full view. The most convincing explanation of this is that our visual representations give us only the general gist of what is going on: they are more like rough sketches than photographs. Of course, it doesn’t seem to us as if we see only the rough gist of what is going on. Our visual experience is rich, detailed and complex. So it is – but this stems from our ability to direct our attention at will to a world that is rich, detailed, and complex. If this is right, then properties we have attributed to our visual representations of the world – richness, complexity, and detail – are not to be found there at all.
One of the most tricky things about vision, it seems, is not working out what we see, or how we see it, but where we see it.
Mark Rowlands is author of The Philosopher and the Wolf (Granta)
In the first edition of tpm editor Julian Baggini’s Philosophy Monthly, Julian is talking to the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks; offering an alternative thought for the day; visiting the first Thomas Hobbes Festival of Ideas and twittering.
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One kind of secret, the open kind, is that which has to be kept but not so well kept that nobody would even guess at its existence except perhaps those who were in on it from the outset. That there are not many secrets of this or any kind in philosophy as practised nowadays is perhaps unsurprising, given that it depends so much on communicative media like books, articles, or peer-group review for its sense of identity and self-worth as a collective enterprise rather than just an outlet for idiosyncratic opinions. Maybe I should say “as practised in the mainstream Anglophone-analytic line of descent” since philosophers in the other (continental or mainland-European) line have more often emulated Kierkegaard in preserving what Jacques Derrida has called “a taste for the secret”. They have been more receptive to a mode of indirect communication that eludes any literal, face-value reading and responds only to certain well-attuned hermeneutical refinements or subtleties of interpretation. “Thought provoking thoughts”, as the tpm motto rather nicely and cryptically puts it.
Still there is a secret that is sort-of acknowledged but sort-of suppressed within the analytic community. In brief, it is the fact that philosophers have more to learn from language – language at its furthest creative, unpredictable, or “literary” stretch – than has yet been recognised. This claim might appear downright absurd given the extent of the “linguistic turn” across diverse movements of thought. After all, there is nothing secret about the idea that language is the ultimate horizon of intelligibility, rather than those previous candidate items – essences, forms, concepts, ideas, or sense-data – that have caused so much philosophic trouble in the past. Yet even the most zealous promoters of this turn have often failed to grasp what would strike anyone sufficiently attentive to language itself – to its creative and thought-provocative aspects – as distinct from certain philosophically received ideas about language. What these have in common is the tendency to let some generalised conception decide in advance what shall count as a paradigm instance of language by their own theoretical lights.
The latter approach is one that spans some otherwise diverse schools of thought, from analytic philosophy of language in the Frege-Russell tradition to structuralist and post-structuralist ideas about language, ideology, and representation. The trouble is that these thinkers – of whichever theoretical bent – very often let their fixed doctrinal conceptions get in the way of any adequate response to language at its full creative-exploratory stretch.
Then there is the “ordinary-language” doctrine, with its chief inspiration in Wittgenstein’s later writings, which tends to look askance at any non-standard or communally unsanctioned, i.e., any extraordinary mode of linguistic expression that fails to make sense by those same criteria. Hence (as I have argued at length in Fiction, Philosophy and Literary Theory) the curious tension in Wittgenstein’s remarks about Shakespeare between a flat refusal to credit the judgment of those think-alike “professors of literature” who routinely praise him as a nonpareil genius and a grudging allowance, very much in the German high-romantic style, that there is something about Shakespeare’s plays more akin to a force of nature than an artefact of human dramatic and verbal contrivance. The problem, for Wittgenstein, is how to square his claim that language makes sense only by the norms of some existing communal “form of life” with his awareness of its power to open up dimensions of meaning that cannot be accounted for by any such conventionist or communitarian approach.
So it is not surprising that this routine appeal to the wisdom enshrined in “ordinary language” doesn’t get us very far toward revealing the springs of linguistic creativity. However there is no more help to be had from those alternative, mainstream-analytical modes of thought which take it, on the contrary, that common-sense linguistic intuition is not the last word and that philosophy – or theory – can and should sometimes call it into question. For even when they do try to stretch their techniques around certain select “literary” topics – like the workings of metaphor or the (supposed) problem of reference in fictive discourse – such approaches typically remain at a large conceptual and methodological distance from the sorts of language that ostensibly occupy their focus of attention.
Post-structuralists and analytic types have this much in common despite their otherwise large divergences of view: that both seek to question, challenge, correct, revise, or even systematically subvert the workings of “ordinary language” in pursuit of some theoretically elaborate programme. In both cases the result is to open up that same gap between language and meta-language, or whatever it is about literature that unsettles, provokes and thus teases out the best efforts of conceptual analysis and whatever it is about the analytic enterprise that finds itself thus unsettled and provoked.
The signal exceptions to this general rule are again to be found on both sides of the English Channel and again tend to be thinkers of a marked “literary” bent whose responsiveness to matters of linguistic nuance – ambiguity, metaphor, metonymy, paronomasia, irony, and so forth – tends to go along with a certain resistance to the lure of philosophic system-building. That is, they are aware of just how much philosophers (let alone literary critics or theorists) stand to lose by allowing the inherent creativity and sheer quirkiness of language to become just a handy source of set-piece examples.
I am thinking here of an otherwise strangely assorted bunch of thinkers whose common virtue is just this extraordinary gift for locating, describing, vividly evoking, and to some extent seeking to explain the source of such remarkable effects. Among them is J.L. Austin, the anatomist of speech-acts or performatives, whose writing exhibits a hyper-cultivated ear for the finer points of everyday usage along with a readiness – one not shared by his more method-fixated exponents such as John Searle – to give those points their philosophic due rather than dragoon them into the service of a wholesale classificatory theory. They also include Jacques Derrida who was quick to spot just this irrepressibly heterodox or system-subverting dimension of Austin’s texts and to register its various signs of resistance to the kind of self-assured, risk-averse reading proposed by Searle. Indeed I can think of no recent philosopher whose writings come close to Derrida’s for this well-nigh uncanny ability to combine the utmost conceptual precision with the utmost sensitivity to hitherto unnoticed, often problematical yet highly revealing details of the text in hand.
Among literary critics, William Empson shows the same kind of shrewdly analytic intelligence allied to a genius for verbal explication that sometimes supports but just as often creates unexpected problems for his tentative forays into literary theory. Should any philosopher doubt that there is anything of value to learn from this quarter – having perhaps been put off by certain well-publicised wranglings between philosophers and literary theorists – then they could best start with Empson’s preternaturally brilliant, acute and perceptive Seven Types of Ambiguity and then proceed to The Structure of Complex Words. What the latter book loses by comparison in terms of critical-creative brio it gains in terms of philosophic yield, that is, its ability to unpack the complex words in question and exhibit the variety of intricately structured senses, feelings, covert implications, subliminal metaphors, evaluative overtones, or suasive doctrines carried by the different orders of semantic “equation” that are here laid out for analysis.
The existence of a work like Complex Words, with its wealth of distinctly philosophical as well as literary-critical insights, is one of those open secrets that result from the overly rigid present-day division of academic labour. Such is the prevailing guild mentality amongst some philosophers which leads them to view anything with the label “literary criticism” or – worse still – “literary theory” as ipso facto not worth their attention, even (or especially) where it is so bold as to lay such claims on its own behalf.
This attitude has no doubt been hardened by the taunts of those ex-guild-members, like Richard Rorty, who propose that philosophy should henceforth count itself just one more voice in the ongoing “cultural conversation”, or just another strictly non-privileged “kind of writing” with literary criticism as the model to which it might best – i.e., most fittingly or least self-deludedly – aspire.
Nor have philosophers been much impressed by Derrida-influenced literary theorists such as Geoffrey Hartman who suggest that criticism should be pepped up by occasional doses of (preferably mainland-European) philosophy but only in a pick-and-mix, loosely eclectic, allusive or name-dropping way and without any notion that philosophy might have something more distinctive or properly “philosophical” to contribute. In Hartman’s case this provocation was all the more unfortunate since he happens to be one of the very few literary critics who can run Empson close for verbal sensitivity and, at times, sheer hermeneutic exuberance.
Still philosophers should not be put off investigating Empson’s, Derrida’s or even (at its subtle and mind-stretching best) Hartman’s work by the preconceived notion that there is nothing of interest or value to be gained from acquaintance with that hybrid genre of writing that is vaguely and for the most part disparagingly known as “theory”. For it is in just this long disputed border-zone where philosophy comes into contact (or conflict) with language at its most inventive, unpredictable and wayward that thought may find itself venturing onto ground that has not yet been trodden into ruts by the keepers of received philosophical-linguistic lore.
I could put this more simply as a plain suggestion that philosophers of language take time off once in a while to read Shakespeare and the best commentators on Shakespeare, Empson foremost among them, as well as philosophically-minded Shakespeare critics such as A.D. Nuttall. It is not, or not primarily, a matter of unearthing philosophic “themes” such as the neo-Platonist influence on Shakespeare’s thought, or his understanding of theological doctrines concerning free-will and determinism, or his conception of subjectivity vis-à-vis Descartes’ near-contemporaneous musings. No doubt there is plenty to be said in that vein, although some philosophers – not to mention literary types like Tolstoy and George Bernard Shaw – have denounced Shakespeare’s habit of going all-out for dramatic effect by seeming to countenance all manner of far-fetched, ill-assorted, contradictory, or downright silly ideas. I don’t think many readers will need convincing that these latter judgments had more to do with the aging Tolstoy’s famous “renunciation” of literature and with Shaw’s rival claims as a more “intellectual” and politically crusading playwright than with any intrinsic failing of Shakespearean poetic drama. On the other hand their adverse reactions are not so very different from Wittgenstein’s near-allergic response to what he considers the self-indulgent, licentious, even morally pernicious character of Shakespeare’s wordplay.
This kind of judgment has a long prehistory in English criticism, finding perhaps its most powerful yet oddly ambivalent expression in Dr. Johnson’s animadversions on the poet’s fatal weakness for puns, ambiguities, multiplied metaphors, and suchlike linguistic “quibbles” despite his incomparable greatness in other respects. It is through the challenge Shakespeare poses to widely-held ideas about language, truth, and representation that philosophy presently has most to learn about their limiting effect on its own responsiveness in this regard.
In my own – I trust not wholly untypical – experience, the effect of going back to Shakespeare or to texts such as Empson’s Seven Types after over-long subjection to the grey-on-grey of most academic prose – or the engrossing yet somnolent word-magic of Wittgenstein’s later work – is to re-stimulate just that sense of open expressive possibility that is so easily dulled by routine habits of language and thought. In Fiction, Philosophy and Literary Theory I have tried to show how a certain approach to the topic of creativity in language – the question how it is that certain modes of utterance may surpass the limits of received or communal usage – can also throw a sharply revealing light on the issue of freewill versus determinism or of human accountability for acts as well as words. There is a great difference between this kind of active involvement with language where the responsive reader must in some sense be repeating the act of creation in their own mind, whether or not with the help of a gifted intermediary such as Empson or Derrida, and the largely passive or disengaged approach – signalled most often by a striking absence of what Hartman calls “answerable style” – that typifies so much philosophical writing nowadays. It seems to me that some philosophers have lost out by reason of their fixed aversion to literary theory just as some literary theorists have lost out through a failure or refusal to meet philosophy on anything like its own, properly demanding terms.
Maybe they should take comfort – and courage – from the example of a literary critic like Christopher Ricks who is himself strongly averse to “theory” and a brilliantly gifted exponent of textual close-reading very much in the early-Empson mode. Yet he is also apt, like Derrida, to raise the most thought-provocative philosophic questions through his acute awareness of the way that certain texts (including, as it happens, those of J.L. Austin) exhibit this self-reflective, self-subverting, self-complicating tendency. For there is indeed a meeting-point – one exemplified, albeit in different ways, by Austin, Empson, Derrida, Hartman, Ricks, and Nuttall – where the interests of analysis and creativity can be seen to converge, rather than (as so often of late) being misperceived as somehow inherently at odds one with the other.
No doubt it is the “secretive” character of many literary texts – their withholding of some deeper, esoteric sense or refusal to yield up their meaning to the first (naïve or literal-minded) comer – that sets them apart from most present-day philosophic prose with its trademark ethos of plain-speaking, problem-solving directness. Still one need only mention such generically hard-to-classify instances as Plato, Montaigne, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Wittgenstein to make the point that metaphor, fiction, multiple viewpoint, “free-indirect” style, and other such modes of indirect communication are at home in philosophical as well as in literary discourse.
Why this should be the case – why thinking should find itself sometimes compelled to go such oblique or parabolic ways around – is a question that some literary critics have pondered to striking effect, among them Frank Kermode in his wonderful book The Genesis of Secrecy. This body of work is terra incognita to the majority of philosophers, even those (especially philosophers of language) who have most to gain from acquaintance with it. All of which goes to reinforce my point: that there is a great difference between secrets artificially maintained by the workings of proprietary self-interest and those other, more rewarding kinds of secret whose distinctive mark, in the poet Wallace Stevens’ words, is “to resist the intelligence almost successfully”.
J.L. Austin, How to Do Things With Words (Oxford University Press)
William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity (Penguin)
Geoffrey Hartman, The Fate of Reading, and other essays (University of Chicago Press)
Christopher Norris is Distinguished Research Professor in Philosophy at Cardiff University and author of Fiction, Philosophy and Literary Theory: will the real Saul Kripke please stand up? (Continuum)
Kubrick did a disservice to smell and to film when he labelled Patrick Süskind’s Perfume unfilmable. If the director who had risen boldly to the challenge of depicting the origins of humans deemed smell an unfilmable sense, there seemed no point in any lesser mortal trying to prove him wrong. Martin Scorsese, Tim Burton and Ridley Scott all followed Kubrick in abandoning the project shortly after they had taken it on. And the situation of olfactory cinema was not alleviated when Tom Tykwer did finally take up the challenge in 2006. His multi-million dollar blockbuster avoided tackling the problem of filming smell at all and so confirmed the audiences’ suspicion that the problem itself was unsolvable.
As smell rises in cultural esteem, challenging the ascendancy of the visual, it seems time to lament that there is no great olfactory film, and to ponder what this tells us about smell itself. There now seems no need to worry about the place of smell in contemporary life. That sense once denigrated by Aristotle as the least distinguished of all now has an assured place in university discourse and drawing-room chatter. We have a distinguished body of smell literature, presided over by Marcel Proust and Patrick Süskind; we have a growing scene of contemporary smell art. Last year Reodorant II: Urban Brain opened in New York, offering a series of multi-sensory installations that attempted to visualise and investigate the brain’s capacity for sense perception, memory, emotion and logic. The thriving state of what will no doubt soon be known as “olfactory studies” was made clear by the publication of Jim Drobnick’s The Smell Culture Reader in 2006, which brought together olfactory work by anthropologists, sociologists, perfumers and cultural critics. Tellingly, though, there was no essay on smell and film, only a brief discussion of smell-o-vision cinema, nestled amongst other newer odorous gimmicks. It is time for a filmmaker to prove Kubrick wrong by capturing smell on the screen.
And “smell” here should be taken to mean the verb – the act of smelling – more than the noun – the fragrance or stench. It is less difficult to evoke a particular smell than the sensation of smelling itself, and several of the great food films have successfully conjured up odours of one sort or another. Marco Ferreri’s La Grande Bouffe (1973) and Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover (1989) are two classic films that appeal to the olfactory in their evocation of the gourmet and the putrid. Greenaway’s film in particular gorges our noses with the highest notes of French cuisine, only to inflict on us the fetid nastiness of a van of rotting meat. As the wife and her lover are shoved naked into the van and their skin is bloodied with the severed heads of pigs, there is a stench that makes any 1960s experiments with smell-o-vision a pasty imitation of the aromas we are capable of imagining for ourselves, given the right cinematic guidance.
These experiments represent the most literal attempts to bring odour, if not the act of smelling, to the cinema. And if they are now seen fairly unanimously to have failed, it is because they restricted the imaginative processes normally sparked by the visual content of cinema by being clunkily (and ineffectively) literal. One critic of the flagship Aromarama film Beyond the Great Wall (1958) found that it was bad enough when a pine grove in Peking smelled like “a subway rest room on disinfectant day” but even worse when the pine smells hung around to adorn shots of the Gobi desert.
So why has the movie industry put so much work into its rather lame attempts to perfume its picture houses and so little effort into capturing the sensation of smelling on the screen? For the directors who have shied away from the olfactory, it seems to be a question of fear. A fear, perhaps, of striving for the sublime. Fragrance is at the opposite end of the artistic spectrum from words, with their earth-bound logic, and so when the sense of smell is privileged it tends to be seen as heavenly and ethereal. In 1754 Rousseau lauded smell as “the sense of the imagination”, at once visceral and fanciful. Thus the director who finds the visual equivalent for the olfactory must offer images beautiful enough to be heavenly; abstract enough to go beyond the usual possibilities of the visual in stimulating the imagination.
Presumably Kubrick and his successors were also deterred by the interiority of Süskind’s novel. In general, literature as a medium has easier access to interiority than film, but the personal nature of smell makes this particularly pronounced in olfactory literature. Despite the strident attempts of Luca Turin to prove otherwise, most of us are convinced that our sense of smell is unique. We have our own smell memories, which inflect every new smell we encounter. Hence, perhaps, Aromarama’s decision to allow everyone to respond uniquely to smell, rather than having it interpreted for them. Maybe there was someone in the audience of Beyond the Great Wall who did actually associate lush forests with pine-flavoured disinfectant.
Each fragrance in Süskind’s novel evokes a unique set of associations in the smeller who encounters them, usually the sharp-nosed criminally smell-obsessed hero, Grenouille. Süskind enables the reader to share Grenouille’s delight or horror by providing a synaesthetic counterpart for each aroma, evoking sight and touch. The smell of a baby is a mixture of warm stone, fresh butter and pancake; the scent of the most beautiful girl Grenouille has ever seen is “a piece of thin, shimmering silk”, combined with “pastry soaked in honey-sweet milk”.
These images offer an equivalent for the smell, rather than merely approximating it. The baby surely feels like the stone more than it smells like it and the silk and the girl share a visual and tactile rather than olfactory beauty. In reality, silk has an unpleasant, fishy odour. These evocations of smell are unique and they offer an interior appreciation of fragrance that the smelly objects alone could never suggest. But they do not seem unfilmable. Offered this combination of visual and tactile metaphor, the filmmaker seems called upon to find a filmic equivalent for metaphor, and the most obvious technique would be montage. Through a dream-sequence montage of baby and stone, girl and silk, it seems possible to convey Grenouille’s experience of smell as well as the richness of Süskind’s imagery.
Perhaps this invitation for montage is what drew German director Tom Tykwer to Süskind. In his 1998 film Run Lola Run Tykwer managed to capture the essence of fate and contingency, surely as ostensibly unfilmable a subject matter as smell. The film illustrates the thought processes and even multiple future outcomes of the characters with quick, almost subliminal montage. When Lola’s boyfriend imagines a tramp fleeing with his money from Berlin, a montage of potential destinations blazes through his mind. As Lola runs in and out of the lives of passers-by, the fate awaiting each one flashes by on the screen in a rapid blast of stills. Tykwer also uses cartoon special effects and red-tinted dream-sequences, dramatising the internal monologues of the characters as they die. With this film Tykwer made his mark as a director willing to depart from representational depiction of experience and capture the traditionally unfilmable.
But, put off by Kubrick, led astray by the Hollywood budget, or just fearful about smell, Tykwer ended up making a film that ignored the interiority of the novel altogether. Perfume is a film of exteriors, ridiculed by the German weekly Die Zeit as “big nose theatre” because it fails to represent smell with anything other than a plethora of noses – twenty-seven close-ups of Grenouille’s nose alone. And despite these close-ups, except in a brief synaesthetic dream sequence when a perfumer is transported by Grenouille’s perfume to a forgotten world of gardens and beautiful women, the film does not investigate smell from the characters’ perspective and therefore refuses to be a smell film at all.
The relative success of this brief moment of smell memory points to memory as the crux of smell interiority and the best starting point for the yet-to-be-made great olfactory film. Smell tends to disrupt the usual temporal flow and invite the disjointed leaps between past and present that characterise consciousness in general. This temporal disruption is the guiding principle behind much modernist literature; Proust, Woolf and Joyce all demonstrate how the past can at any moment seem more real than the present, triggered by a verbal, visual, aural, tactile, haptic (by touch) or olfactory stimulus. And of course it is Proust who made the olfactory his own here, combining his modernist sense of time and memory with a characteristically Gallic odour-consciousness to create a phenomenon now known as “Proustian memory”.
This sickly chronicler of lost time drew on a line of French smell enthusiasts including Zola, who compared the odour of Paris to “a great untidy bed”, Flaubert, who obsessively sniffed the discarded slippers and mitten of his mistress Louise Colet, and Baudelaire, who found that as other minds floated on music his swam on the perfume of his love. Proust’s unique achievement is to describe the process of smelling as vividly as the smells themselves, demonstrating that the odour of petrol can call into bloom corn-flowers, poppies and red clover; that the fragrance of hawthorns in blossom can usher in a longing for a person long-forgotten; that smell and taste can “bear unflinchingly in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”
Despite his extreme interiority, Proust, and with him the “vast structure of recollection” itself, have not proved unfilmable for two French directors. Time Regained (Raul Ruiz, 1999) and La Captive (Chantal Akerman, 2000) are both sensory masterpieces that fuse intellect and body, memory and desire. Ruiz’s film captures the meanderings of memory in a series of brilliantly orchestrated flashbacks and surreal dream sequences, with characters aging ten years in a single scene and forgotten landscapes emerging out of familiar windows. At the end of the film the older Marcel follows his younger self into an eerie dreamscape, which encompasses an ornate drawing-room, a forest of deathly statues and a radiantly heavenly seaside. In particular, Ruiz makes much of haptic memory, punctuating the film with images of Marcel with arms outstretched, tripping over cobbles, at different stages in his life. And Akerman’s film suggestively explores the way that physical desire can be displaced onto other senses, so that the most erotic scene in the film can show the two naked lovers looking at each other, both fresh from their baths, separated by a glass screen.
With all this careful attention to sensory detail, it is all the more disappointing that neither of these films makes any real attempt to capture the olfactory. During the separated bath scene in Akerman’s film, the lovers do briefly discuss smell, with Simon wishing that his allergies didn’t entail Ariane washing so often and covering up the “sweet changing odours between the legs”. But we see no evidence of this olfactory obsession and Akerman seems to waste the opportunity to conjure up a visual equivalent for these odours. Ruiz’s film is pervaded by an intoxicating abundance of flowers and gardens, which contributes to the overloaded sumptuousness of Marcel’s world, and it has all the apparatus to be the great smell film. But the viewer waiting for the pivotal smell moment is ultimately left disappointed by a film that privileges the visual and the haptic over the olfactory.
Nonetheless in capturing synaesthetic memory Ruiz’s film is perhaps the best smell film we have. The sensation of smell at its most powerful is more about a peculiarly immediate kind of intellectual association than about pure sensory delight or horror. The most evocative odours resonate with other fragrances in our individual smell vocabulary, and here Ruiz shows film as a medium to be equal to literature in capturing the more peculiar or unconscious workings of the mind. Indeed, this seems to be what cinema does most naturally; it is better placed than literature to make effortless subliminal connections. This is particularly evident in films from what was perhaps the most “cinematic” age of cinema, the 1920s, before the coming of sound brought film in line with the theatre as a story-telling medium.
The silent era was a world of delicate metaphor and surreal juxtaposition. Directors as different as Sergei Eisenstein, Abel Gance, Fritz Lang and Luis Buñuel created radical techniques that might serve as inspiration for today’s olfactory filmmaker. Gance and Buñuel both represented the thoughts and impressions of characters through dream-sequence montages. In the opening of Buñuel’s classis Un Chien Andalou (1929), the director himself sharpens a razor with which a woman’s eye is slit open and a dream-sequence-esque film of the unconscious begins. Buñuel montages random objects, associated through shape or perspective, so that a hand filled with flies transmogrifies into the hair of an armpit and then a sea-urchin, with the images coming together to form an impression of desecration and invasion. The twenty-first-century director who follows the lead of Buñuel need have no fear of representing the “sense of the imagination”. And the great smell film, once it is made, will make us uncannily aware of the convergence of memory, synaesthesia and felt thought involved in the act of smelling.
Lara Feigel is a lecturer in the English Department at King’s College, London and the editor of A Nosegay, A Literary Journey from the Fragrant to the Fetid (Old Street Publishing)
Ernie Lepore is the Easter bunny. Or so he tells me. That’s because his family are of Neapolitan origin and his full name is Ernesto Pasquale Lepore, “lepore” meaning “hare”, and “Pasquale” the adjectival form of “Easter”.
Such trivia is no way to introduce a distinguished philosopher of language, you might think. But, in fact, the example of his name is pertinent to the subject he talked about in Seoul. You see, the Italian word for ‘hare’ is not lepore at all, but lepre. Lepore certainly derives form lepre, but is it accurate to say it’s a variation of the same word, or a different, related one?
Lepore, the man, is interested in this issue, specifically, in David Kaplan’s question about what makes two utterances utterances of the same word, and more generally in what exactly words are. For Lepore, the fact that we haven’t got a good answer to that most fundamental of questions is something of an intellectual embarrassment.
“Most linguists think that there are infinitely many sentences, that languages are productive and systematic,” he told me at the World Congress of Philosophy in Korea. “Maybe the most remarkable achievement of our lives is that we learn this thing with infinite power. Very limited, finite beings are able to achieve this remarkable accomplishment. But, of course, the whole thing hangs on those sentences being built up out of their components, which are words. So it’s not even clear what one of the more striking theses in the development of linguistics over the last half century signifies or means without an account of the atoms, so to speak, out of which we build these things.”
The challenge is to lay down the rules for “individuating” words, that is to say, for saying when two utterances are of the same or a different word. Sounds easy? Then what about lepore and lepre? The fact they have different spellings doesn’t clinch it: consider “colour” and “color”. Nor does meaning settle the issue: synonyms are not the same word, even though they have the same meaning.
Of course, philosophers have made more sophisticated attempts to answer this question, and in his Seoul paper, Lepore says he “did a pretty good job, I think, of running through the main candidates, and I hope I convinced you that they’re all bankrupt, none of them work.”
What he was then set to do was provide his alternative. But the famous world congress time constraints got the better of him. “I still think they were lying about how much time I spent,” he tells me, but I was there, and they weren’t.
“Well, you know what happened is I looked up, because there was some young Korean student, and he looked puzzled. He probably wasn’t. He was probably thinking about his girlfriend or something like that. And then I thought, well, I’m a guest, let me repeat that. And you don’t factor your repetitions when you’re timing yourself.”
Fortunately, tpm is able to transcend such limitations and bring you Lepore’s unstated conclusion. First, however, is the (abridged) story of how Lepore got there, which is a fascinating example of how philosophers develop their ideas and make connections.
For starters, he co-wrote a book with Herman Cappelen, published last year, called Language Turned On Itself, which is on the nature of quotations. “When Jerry Fodor realised I was writing an entire book on quotation marks, he said to me, ‘You know, Ernie, with you around, the semicolons aren’t safe.’
“But, in writing that book, it became clear to me that one of the giant lacunae in the literature is that no one really has an adequate understanding of what expressions are. We just assumed all our readers would know when you have two expressions and when you have one expression, and then we went to show you what quotation expressions are among the set of expressions. Well, we left that part unchecked.
“So in the back of my head, I felt I had to finish that part of the project some day. And then two years ago, I taught a seminar at Peking University in China, and just by coincidence, I stumbled into a discussion on ‘the heresy of paraphrase’. This is an expression from the new critics, who were literary critics from the mid to early part of the last century, inspired by T.S. Eliot and I.A. Richards.
“One of their theses is that poetry cannot be paraphrased. And they use an inductive argument: well, look at these efforts to try and paraphrase a poem. Poems can’t be translated. They can’t be paraphrased. They can be described and they can be analyzsed in some sense, but the analysis and description will always be incomplete.”
Initially, Lepore found the view absurd. “Sure I could put the poem in another medium. I could describe it somehow to other people. That was my simple analytic philosophical dismissal of literary criticism. But then the more I looked at it, the more I was overwhelmed by the evidence. It’s striking. You get a uniformity from Aristotle forward about this resistance of poetry to paraphrase and translation. I don’t know a single book of poems in translation that doesn’t begin the preface by apologising.”
This set Lepore off onto another project, to “reconcile that view about the nature of poetry with my views about the nature of meaning, my training in cognitive science, which tells me surely the poem has significance, there ought to be a way of re-representing it.” However, once again, this work “presupposed that I had a prior understanding of when two expressions were different. So again, I found myself having a manuscript that I was pleased with, but it had this giant lacuna at the bottom: what are expressions?”
In trying to answer this question, however, Lepore found that he was delving into metaphysics, and wasn’t equipped for it. So he started working with John Hawthorne, who holds the prestigious Waynflete chair of Metaphysical Philosophy at Oxford. “He’s a really fascinating philosopher. You throw your ideas at him and he throws back interesting responses.”
With Hawthorne, he went though and rejected all the proposed solutions to the problem of individuating words. But what about an answer?
“When you say schedule [shedule] and I say schedule [skedule], and you say tissue [tish-yoo] and I say tissue [tiss-yoo], most people say we’ve used the same word. Why? It can’t be merely that they mean the same. For example, I guess in Britain you guys use ‘presently’ to mean something different than we do. Even though we pronounce them the same way, but they don’t actually have the same meaning. So it’s not clear we can get a hook on this by saying, well, it’s the meaning that holds it together.
“So we think, maybe it’s been wrong to look at the intrinsic properties of our performances. Instead, just look at certain relational, historical factors about them. I learned my word from someone and you learned your word from someone. When we look back at the history of such learnings, we find out that they converge.” So the broad answer they settled on, which has recent precedents, was that “two performances across time are performances of the same word, just in case they have the right appropriate historical relation to each other.”
This solution entails some bad news. If the identity of words is to be found in their histories, then it seems we’re doomed never to be able to specify the actual conditions for the identity of words.
“Here’s an example that John and I put in the paper. Most people would agree that performances of the word ‘moan’ and the word ‘mean’ are totally separate words. I can’t imagine anyone denying it. However, if you take the cluster of performances of the one word and the cluster of performances of the other word, you could trace them back to a single cluster of performances in Saxon England. Now, from that, I don’t think anybody would feel compelled to say, ‘Oh, isn’t that interesting: in Saxon England they had a homonym that was two words.’ I think most people would agree that whatever they were doing in Saxon England, those performances were performances of one word. So that raises the interesting question, since those performances of that single word somehow or other provoked and inspired performances of distinct words, contemporaneously, when did these two words come into existence, exactly?
“And here’s the amazing thing about literature on this and our investigation – nobody has a clear view about that. So there’s this notion that the performances of words, of the same word, changed across time. But in this case, the logic of identity tells us that we have two words now and we had one word then. Something happened. When did it happen? And you would think that any theory of words has to give an answer to that question. Right?”
The trouble is, there doesn’t seem to be a good one.
“On the one hand, we’re really good at local performances. Moan/mean: different words. Schedule/schedule, same word. No one pauses to say, well, schedule and schedule, are they the same word? When you first hear it you might wonder, but almost any authority is going to tell you immediately they’re the same word with different pronunciations.
“We’re also really good at telling you that that’s a non-performance of a word, or a bad performance of the word. So we’re really good at listening to people’s accents and recognising the words that they performed, as opposed to recognising that a child doesn’t have a grip on his word at all, that it’s not a bad performance, that’s a non-performance of the word. But we’re really bad at the historical questions.
“Now, why is that interesting? Because on the one hand, it suggests that we’re not sceptics about the existence of words. There’s enough regularity in our performance identification to say there’s a true ontological posit here, there is something, a word. No one’s prepared to go sceptical, atheist about words. On the other hand, it doesn’t look as though that’s enough, because there are these fuzzy, borderline cases.
“Normally, when you’re presented with that metaphysical profile, where you have a lot of clear cases and borderline fuzzy cases, you’ll appeal to your favorite theory of vagueness. There are a number of theories of vagueness out there, but among the two prominent ones, one is the so-called epistemicist view, which says, there are facts about words, but we’re never going to know them. The other one is there’s no fact to the matter at all about those borderline cases.” Lepore and Hawthorne opt for the former.
“The good news is most people don’t feel that vagueness all by itself destroys the existence of a topic or the entities postulated in it. The bad news is it looks as though our concept of words is metaphysically second-rate. It’s robust enough that we feel comfortable accepting the posit, but flimsy enough to suggest that the pursuit of the criteria that the history of the literature is full of is misguided, misplaced.
“So at this stage – remember I said this was a work in progress, this is not a finished product – we have, for the moment, convinced ourselves that the pursuit of criteria of identity is misguided. So I don’t know how it’s going to go.”
Reflecting on this conclusion and the lack of time at the world congress, Lepore suggests, “Maybe it’s a good thing I didn’t get to the end, because it’s a little bit of a letdown. But what I think is exciting about the stuff that John and I are doing is the journey that led us to the end.
“You know Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winner in economics? He wrote a paper not that long ago in which he talked about how when we recollect prior events, we use this kind of a formula for recollecting. We remember the peak and the end. And when I was listening to his talk, I thought I could take guidance from him on how to give public presentations. You want to make sure you don’t begin with a bang and end with a dud. And I risked that by saying, well, you know what, we’re kind of skeptical about a positive end to this project. That’s not exactly how you want to end, so I have to think about it.”
You can be sure he will. In the meantime, perhaps we’ll have to settle for the conclusion that “Pasquale lepore” is probably not “the Easter bunny”, but we’ll never know when it ceased to be so.
Julian Baggini is editor of tpm.
“There is something paradoxical in the view that the conservative should be the outsider,” admits Roger Scruton, a man who nonetheless embodies the paradox completely. Scruton has been Britain’s leading intellectual defender of conservative values on politics, art, religion, ethics and culture for nearly three decades, for which he has been rewarded by marginalisation within academia and ridicule in the left-wing press.
“That is just part of the to and fro of public life,” Scruton tells me in the study of his Wiltshire farmhouse, where he lives with his wife and two children, and tends to his hunting horses. Still, “I don’t feel bitter at all,” he insists. “I had a really interesting time being disliked.”
Scruton is often portrayed as a fox-hunting arriviste, the grammar school boy done good who is now desperate to be posher than posh. But the coherence of his philosophical work over the years belies such an easy caricature.
“There is a unifying intellectual endeavour,” he says of his work, “which is to bring philosophy and culture back together, so that the study of philosophy moves back from being the handmaiden of the sciences – as it’s tended to be in British empiricism and also modern analytical philosophy – to being a meditation on the human condition which borders on literature, art, music and the rest. That’s always been my interest, which is why I started by doing research on aesthetics.”
That primary focus is “connected to a sort of cultural conservatism of the TS Eliot type, which moved me at a certain stage in a political direction. That’s to say, I became, like many people of my generation, very disillusioned with the post-war socialist consensus and began looking for other things. It’s never been a primary interest, but I became interested in how to articulate the message about some form of intellectual conservatism for the age in which we live.”
Although his work on aesthetics has been primary, it was his third book, The Meaning of Conservatism, which kick-started his life as a public intellectual. “I only wrote it because Ted Honderich asked me to,” he explains. “Penguin thought that they should publish something on conservatism at the time, which was 1979, I think – a long time ago – and Ted looked around and racked his brains for anybody he could think of who was a conservative. He hit on me and that launched me on another career, in a way, as a spokesman for a certain position.”
Scruton’s articulation of conservative philosophy stands in great contrast to the mainstream left-liberal political philosophy of the last fifty or so years, as much in its methods and underlying assumptions as in its conclusions.
“First of all, conservatism isn’t goal-directed in the way that socialism is, and some, though not all, forms of liberalism are. Articulating it is first of all a matter of describing what it is and bringing out that in it which is loveable, acceptable, or in any case jeopardised by unthinking reform. That’s a huge labour of description and evocation. It must be conducted against a background of professional disillusion with the idea of goals in politics. We can’t know how to proceed towards some ideal in this world and it’s foolish to try, and the evidence of history is that people who have tried have ended up in situations of mass genocide. Isn’t it better to look at what we have and see the ways in which it secures equilibrium, satisfaction happiness etcetera for the people who are involved in it?
“That’s a much more difficult thing to do, I think, than to articulate a forward-looking socialist doctrine. If you look at Marx in particular, he says almost nothing about the communist future. It’s just an abstraction. Everything is about how hateful this and this is in the present and anyway history is going to sweep it away. My view is that is morally irresponsible and that really one must begin from an understanding of the virtues and the defects of the thing that one has.”
However, it’s one thing to evoke and describe, quite another to justify. How does he do that for conservatism?
“Well, someone like Rawls is looking for an abstract unifying principle of justification, which he calls justice, and in my view completely distorts the concept of justice in order to do this. I would say your relation to the social order in which you’re brought up is comparable to your relation to your family.
It’s full of imperfections, tensions and so on but it’s not something for which an abstract justification is needed if it is to go on. It is the given, to use the Wittgensteinian mode of looking at it. The important thing is to know how to adjust it, and how, not just to dislike those things that you dislike, but how to love those things which you don’t dislike.”
This way of arguing is essentially Burkean. As Scruton put it in his memoir, Gentle Regrets, “Burke brought home to me that our most necessary beliefs may be both unjustified and unjustifiable from our own perspective, and that the attempt to justify them will lead merely to their loss. Replacing them with the abstract rational systems of the philosophers, we may think ourselves more rational and better equipped for life in the modern world. But in fact we are less well equipped, and our new beliefs are far less justified, for the very reason that they are justified by ourselves.”
However, can’t one imagine such a way of thinking being used to refuse the franchise to women, or failing to abolish slavery? As a conservative, how does one distinguish the things that actually do need changing from Burke’s “justified prejudices”?
“I’m not saying that acceptance of the existing arrangements is the final arbiter of everything,” Scruton replies, “but it’s the thing from which you begin. If you don’t begin from that, there isn’t any possibility of political dialogue, compromise and all the things that make it possible for people to live together. Again, going back to the family example, of course we live by moral principles as well. One might discover that one’s father is after all an embezzler and that must change, and likewise one might discover that one’s society depends upon immoral ways of using people and that must change. It’s reasonable to think that without some totalising principle under which all these adjustments fall.
“You’re arguing as though it ought to be easy to argue these things, and it never is, because after all one is talking not just about moral precepts to do with justice, freedom and so on, one is also talking about competing interests. One of the great things about the conservative position – in practical politics as opposed to theoretical philosophy – is that it has always recognised that political solutions are compromises, in which as many of the contending interests as possible are reconciled with each other, so it’s essentially irenic philosophy. It’s not to do with the righteous overbearing the unrighteous and imposing upon them a doctrine which they are rejecting or anything like that.”
How does this apply to a practical example, such as Britain’s House of Lords, in which, until recently, people held political office purely because they were born into nobility?
“In a case like the House of Lords, I think that obviously there would be the Burkean arguments that if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. It’s been around for a long time, obviously it performed all sorts of functions, we didn’t know how it came into existence, it arose by the invisible hand, all the usual things. So if we’re gong to adjust it we must have a very clear conception of what is wrong with it and whether it’s producing the wrong results and the rest.
“Then a conservative with my way of thinking would also recognise that in a democratic age, people are filled with the idea that people who have gained power or authority without popular election are somehow illegitimately in that position. Even if you think that’s wrong, which I do, you’ve got to say that nevertheless they represent a vast number in the population. Their interests and view of this must be entered into the equation, and whichever compromise emerges would be the best that one could hope for. That for me is what politics is. That sort of decision making is totally unlike what socialists think politics is. For them there are first principles from which you derive your procedures of action, and then you proceed towards your goal and impose that goal on everybody regardless of whether they want it.”
Isn’t the worry that had such a view of politics had been more widespread, then a lot of the things that we now think are perfectly laudable would have been harder to bring about because there would have been a greater presumption against change?
“Sure. Some things would have been harder to bring about but some unwise changes would have been resisted. Look at the collapse of the education system. If conservatives had entered more fully into the compromises, which they didn’t, because the Labour party was determined to exclude that voice, then we wouldn’t have, I think, the breakdown in school education which we’re witnessing today.”
The decline of standards in all sorts of areas of life is, of course, another conservative theme which citics like to mock. But when it comes to matters of what is usually called high culture, and Scruton simply calls culture, the importance of maintaining the highest standards in the arts is one which Scruton defends with some thoroughness. So why does culture matter so much to him?
“I came from a background where culture wasn’t very significant. Lip service would be paid to it, but there weren’t many books around, we never went to the theatre or anything like that. Music only arrived by accident when my father inherited a piano. But when I discovered it, it made such an impact on me, I realised, here is another vision of life, this is a call, and I’ve got to follow this. This is infinitely more interesting than anything around me. I’ve always thought that and then that raises the question, how do you justify that? Not just living like that but living off it, from writing, teaching, all those ways in which one can make culture into a way of life. So I’ve always had this question, what is the benefit – not to you who are involved to it, because that is like asking what is the benefit of the person you love, that is your existential commitment – but what is the benefit to others who don’t have it and maybe don’t want it? Why should governments give money to support the arts when it’s a minority taste? Shouldn’t they be giving money to support museums of pop music or whatever, and the Arts Council has been very influenced by that.
“You have to find some way of describing the benefits that my being cultured confers on those who aren’t, and that is a hard task, but not an impossible one. It’s like asking, what is the benefit for the mass of people of the priest’s vow of chastity? They’re not going to vow chastity – he’s doing this by way of cementing his own personal relation with God. But what is the benefit for others? And we know that actually, anthropologically, there is a benefit. There is somebody who deliberately absents himself from felicity in order to set an example, to be immune to certain kinds of relationships, to stand as father and advisor to a whole community. I think that is the role that high culture has played in our society, the theatre in particular, but also concert-gong and the rest. A lot of people whom it has never directly touched it has indirectly touched, by giving moral and spiritual sustenance to the teacher in the primary school for instance, or to the person who is going to be prepared to set up a little youth orchestra in the village or an amateur theatrical group. It’s preparing an elite for a sacrificial role which benefits others, and that’s the way I look at it.”
As often happens with Scruton, one is sometimes taken aback by the high moral tone of some of his language: a sacrificial role? Surely purveyors of culture derive great benefits from their involvement in it?
“I get a tremendous benefit, but also I lead a studious life and work extremely hard at getting the right word, the right sentence and so on, which I needn’t bother with if I didn’t have that sense that this is of intrinsic value. And if I didn’t do that but just wrote sloppily I wouldn’t be able to propagate any message and maybe that would have negative impacts on others.”
The question that obviously arises here is whether this view entails a distasteful elitism. Just as Socrates’s maxim that the unexamined life is not worth living throws into question the value of many ordinary, unreflective lives, doesn’t Scruton’s view privilege the life of the cultural connoisseur over simpler, everyday folk?
“Culture is another name for the deepest examination of the human condition, in a way. Nobody would accuse Socrates of snobbery when he said that, although of course he was addressing upper-class youths in Athens and all the rest. I think there’s no reason why someone shouldn’t say this, because it could be true, and one wants to know how, in that case, others can enjoy the benefits of knowing something about themselves and their condition.
“I take the view that this is one of the things religion does for people. It is a channel through which that tradition of examination of the human condition can pass its wisdom down to ordinary people and illuminate their lives, and I think the loss of religion makes it more obvious just what people lose through not having any culture as well. The danger is that people will just get lost in a morass of addictive pleasures and not ask themselves the questions about the meaning of their own lives and not make the effort to make themselves interesting to others, so that human relations begin to crumble. I think we’re actually seeing that. If you look round the society in which we are, it’s not in a happy state. Although it has everything materially, people are finding it very difficult to make themselves interesting to each other.”
Scruton is well aware that many good, decent people are also uncultured, and argues that asserting the moral value of culture is not at all refuted by this.
“There isn’t any direct connection between high culture and morality at the level of the individual person. That’s why in the book Culture Counts I wrestled with the thought that it is more like science than we think: there’s a collective attempt to preserve a kind of knowledge, knowledge about what to feel and the legacy of social emotion. Of course, you can acquire that and pass it on without yourself benefiting morally from it or being changed morally, just as people can do with science. Maybe that’s what it’s all about – this legacy of emotional knowledge is something of vital importance to all of us, especially to those who don’t consciously have it. That was the thought, and actually it’s quite an original thought, because nobody has tried to justify culture in that way.
“These are speculative connections and I may be wrong, but one shouldn’t be afraid of entertaining the thought that I’m right. It’s not snobbery. It’s like saying, when Christ said on the cross, ‘Forgive them father, for they know not what they do,’ that wasn’t snobbery, but he was expressing a massively superior vision to those around him.”
Does his view entail that good, uncultured people depend for their goodness on high culture elsewhere in society?
“It’s an interesting suggestion. All we know from our predicament as modern westerners is that there has been this huge educational inheritance which we’re somewhat throwing away at the moment, in which science, mathematics, literature, music and fine art, history, and languages have all been mixed together and have fertilised each other. We can’t say that one bit of it could be extracted and survive without the rest. But we can look at parts of the world that have had a high culture and lost it, the Middle East being a very obvious example, and see how bereft it leaves people. There isn’t in the modern Middle East and Islam that ability to compromise, to see the human condition in its totality, to abstract from one’s own immediate concerns that we have. Once, of course, all that high culture was there flourishing, especially of course in Persia in the 13th century.”
Scruton even argues that there is a moral benefit to music – not just programme music or opera, but pure music.
“I’m not the first person to say this, because Plato in the Republic raises this question: how should people sing and dance in order to produce an orderly social condition? I would say that music is something which has a tremendous power: it has a power to silence us and to take us along with it. So there’s a good question, what is it making us do?
“One answer is that the first thing it is making us do is to move in time to it, and adapt our body rhythms, and the emotional rhythms that go with it, to what we’re listening to. This is obviously a way of rehearing all kinds of things that we wouldn’t normally rehearse because we’re too busy doing other things. So it does matter what kind of music you listen to, because it will implant its movements in your soul. That’s something that Plato said in a completely different idiom, but I think it’s true, and of course the psychologists think this too, because they’ve done all this empirical research on what happens to children brought up listening to Mozart as opposed to listening to pop music and all the rest, so we know it has a hugely differential effect on their moral and intellectual development. But I would say as adults, there are great differences between those who enter into a state of frenzy through music and those who, on the contrary, enter a state of meditation. These are character-forming experiences.”
Scruton is famously, or notoriously, critical of popular music. He was even successfully sued once by the Pet Shop Boys for suggesting in An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Modern Culture that “serious doubts arise as to whether the performers made more than a minimal contribution to the recording, which owes its trade mark to subsequent sound engineering, designed precisely to make it unrepeatable.” I put it to him that in any genre you’ll find there are always some people of great creativity and artistry. How prepared is he to overcome the initial barriers to appreciating this and give apparently raw or violent styles of music a go?
“I accept that. I have actually been listening to quite a bit of heavy metal lately, and Metallica, I think, is genuinely talented. ‘Master of Puppets’ I think has got something genuinely both poetic – violently poetic – and musical. Every now and then something like that stands out and you can see that people have got no other repertoire and have a very narrow range of expression, but they’ve hit on something where they are saying something which is not just about themselves. Pop music is so concentrated on the self and the performer that it’s very rare that that happens, I think. It never happens with Oasis or The Verve. It did happen much more of course with the Beatles, and in the old American songbook, Hoagy Carmichael and Cole Porter and all that. That was a popular music which was about communication of often quite gentle feelings. So I’m not as prejudiced as I seem. I would like to be more prejudiced because it would prevent me from listening to this stuff.”
I was reminded of a Guardian article last year in which intellectuals were asked for their confessions, most of which were no such thing: you’re not going to think worse of John Carey, for example, because he admits to liking a nice cup of tea and a sit down. Scruton alone admitted something that flies in the face of much of what he has stood up for: He finds Elvis irresistible. Is that right?
“I do find him irresistible, yes.”
But you feel you shouldn’t?
“Well, it is all below the belt with Elvis. I was slightly tongue in cheek.”
This sense of humour is a side of Scruton that is often missed. In his latest book, Culture Counts, Scruton devotes several pages to the importance of jokes and comedy. However, what a lot of people find almost comically impossible in Scruton is the high seriousness his approach generally takes. We have become too ironic to take ourselves as seriously as Scruton would like us to.
“It’s true that people don’t live up to my expectations. This is one reason why we laugh. Laughter is in a great many cases a recognition of our falling short from an ideal. If we didn’t have ideals, humour would all be black. I still think that it would be a bad thing for mankind if people didn’t make the effort that I and other people make to paint ideal portraits of the human condition.”
But laughing at falling short of an ideal is still possible if you don’t hold that ideal. In the Monty Python films, for example, much of the humour is that there is this background of grand narratives – the quest for the Holy Grail, the life of Christ, and so on – but the reality of human life is nothing like as noble as these stories we tell of ourselves.
“That is true. In fairness to me it should be said that my writing, however high-toned it is, is also quite humorous at times. It’s more ironical than jokey, I guess. I certainly don’t want to look as though I’m imposing some kind of solemn sermon. But I only ever say what I think and perhaps what I think is a little bit too demanding.”
One example of this irony is a passage in Gentle Regrets where he talks about how there is something grotesque about someone adopting a conservatism which really should be a matter of inheritance. The passage gave me the slightly sad sense of a man who had rejected the liberal academic home he would have been most at home in, but who now lives among conservatives who sense he isn’t quite “one of us” either.
“That passage was written slightly with tongue in cheek. It was a chapter on why I became a conservative and was written with a sufficient irony to make the narrative plausible. Without in any way exaggerating the problems I had, it is nevertheless the case that it was damn stupid to become a conservative. Had it not been for the fact that I was convinced of the truth of the position I would certainly have dropped it straight away, because in the culture of those days – remember this was the seventies – it just isolated me from the university community and much of the way of life of people of my class, interests and outlook. So I was being a little ironical and looking at myself from the outside as a comic figure. I didn’t want to describe myself as a tragic figure.”
Scruton’s problems with academic life, however, are more than just political. He finds the whole business of most contemporary Anglo-American philosophy to be sterile and dull.
“I was properly trained in Cambridge and I would never want to dismiss the value of that training and the real achievements of people like Wittgenstein, obviously, who is very much one of my culture heroes, and the analytical method generally. I think it clarifies so much in philosophy which was unclear and in particular swept away – well it should have swept away, but alas it didn’t – the worst kind of phenomenology and Heidegerrian nonsense and all that, and put serious enquiry in the place of it.
“But the problem is it does have a relentlessly negative effect, because there is no attempt, or very rarely is there an attempt, to give a synthetic view of what the world is for us, what the world is in itself, and to fit the human being into this picture in its full complexity. That really is all that I meant by saying that you’ve got to put culture back in the picture.
“You can make a contribution in analytical philosophy without making any connections with the broader culture. The question that interests me though is whether you can use what you know from analytical philosophy to help understand the broader culture, and I think you can. That’s what I’ve always tried to do, certainly in my work in aesthetics. My book on the philosophy of music is very analytical but is totally about the nature and meaning of the music and culture. I think it benefits from being analytical. I wouldn’t ever want to repudiate that discipline.”
Interestingly, you hear many similar things being said within academic philosophy these days from people who are very far from Scruton politically. It would be ironic indeed if the profession that once pushed him away were now moving closer to his way of doing things. Rather than the prodigal son returning home, home may be moving closer to the son.
Julian Baggini’s latest book is Complaint (Profile).
When a book is described by critics as “a funny, provocative coming of age novel” and “a tender portrait of a feisty little girl lost”, you don’t expect a cameo appearances by the real-life philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend. Nor would you expect it to be divided into three “modules” named after Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger and Søren Kierkegaard. But then again, what expectations would you have of a novel called A Girl’s Guide to Modern European Philosophy?
Charlotte Greig’s debut combines the page-turning lightness of a popular romantic comedy with the weight of existentialist philosophy and the ethics of abortion. “When I first started writing it I didn’t have much philosophy in it at all,” she tells me. “What I was hoping was that the narrative in itself would be engaging enough, and I think it has to stand or fall as a novel. But I realised that the philosophers gave it a backdrop which gave it some depth.”
For the music journalist and contemporary folk musician, the novel was a chance to revisit the scene of her young adulthood, Sussex University.
“We had these weird courses like ‘modern European Mind’” she says of her first, foundation year. “I enjoyed the philosophy but, for instance, one of the things they gave us to read was Kant, and I just couldn’t understand it. So I thought I can’t do straight philosophy, plus I can’t do logic and things like that. So I found this course, intellectual history. It does sound really pretentious, but I absolutely loved it.”
Greig first became interested when she read Camus’ The Outsider aged 17. “I think we’re all at our most philosophical when we’re teenagers, aren’t we? There is something fascinating in those teenage years about questioning the moral order or the society you find yourself in, and I think it is a time when very strong and possibly violent dislikes and feelings of anger are coming up.”
In that sense, the sort of philosophy Greig was into still had that rock and roll like capacity to enthuse the kids and annoy their square parents.
“I remember asking my father, because he was going to London, to pick me up one of these introduction books, the Fontana Modern Masters, on Sartre. He was a naval officer, and he opened this book on Sartre on the train and came back absolutely horrified. He said, ‘What is this stuff, it doesn’t make any sense. I thought philosophy was about the meaning of life.’ And I remember saying ‘Don’t be so stupid, it’s nothing to do with the meaning of life! How could you be so foolish?’ But now I actually think it is to do with the meaning of life, and if it isn’t, or it has no bearing on what we do, what is the point of it?”
Philosophy was also a politicising influence. “It was a very political time. Marxism was a revelation to me, particularly in terms of history. I had studied history at school and had thought it was just a bunch of dates, and I always thought, ‘There’s something wrong here. we didn’t have a war because a treaty was broken, did we? There must have been another reason.’ Marx put all of this stuff into perspective. Although I wasn’t a Marxist or communist, I had, like most of my contemporaries, a very low opinion of the government and the way that our society ran, and I still do actually. I feel we could live a lot better than we do.”
The atmosphere of dissent and counter-cultural thinking at Sussex was quite intoxicating, even though Greig was aware that at times it felt uncomfortably like “a lot of middle class people pretending not to be middle class.” It was also home to several colourful individuals, including, for a time, Paul Feyerabend.
“Feyerabend was a rather vaudevillian character. He really played up and there were these scientists there who absolutely hated him. He was like the devil incarnate, and they’re still the same I think. Some scientists just can’t cope with any attack on the basis of science. And he was saying that science was witchcraft, you can imagine how well that went down. We loved him, because he was such a flamboyant character.
“He was quite an old man at the time and he had a very pretty girlfriend who was very young, and had red plaits, I remember. He was always saying outrageous things and didn’t have a respect for academe, and nor did a lot of people at Sussex, and that was why it was a fun place to be.”
“There were some bad things about it. Some of the tutors were very sexist. It was a lax time for social mores, and nowadays I imagine people probably look down on tutors trying to get into bed with young girls who come in as pupils. But I don’t think they did in those days. It was all par for the course really. There were quite a few of us who were hit on by tutors, it wasn’t uncommon. I remember one tutor, who put on my report, ‘she is an elegant presence in the tutorial.’ We were routinely chatted up and also undermined.”
Greig went on to do an MA on the concept of ideology in Hegel and Marx. Then she enjoyed a long career in music journalism, “which may not seem very connected, but actually if you do it sensibly and carefully, it’s about historical movements and movements of people to different places and different times.”
This unexpected continuity is evident in her first book, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?, which was about girl groups such as The Shirelles. “You may not think it’s a particularly philosophical subject but I think it is actually, because I wanted to understand how much women were singing for women; how much they were singing for men; who liked this stuff; how much pop music is a female-oriented thing; and those questions all come up all the time. I used that general position of intellectual history or cultural studies, whatever you might want to call it, as a way of getting into serious discussion of music.”
This reflects both the strengths and limitations of her philosophical training. “One of the things I find difficult now is to look at a philosophy or a political position or anything and say ‘is wrong or right?’ I tend to take the attitude, which you do with intellectual history, which is more about the cultural context. What I’m interested in is why did Freud come up with those ideas at that time, not really was he right? That’s my limitation as a philosopher.”
Around five years ago, however, one of life’s strange turns led Greig to return to a more direct engagement with philosophy.
“I was making music and I was writing and I really wasn’t making much money. I had moved to Cardiff and I’d actually been in existential psychotherapy, because when I went to Cardiff, I had a – I don’t like to use the word breakdown – but I had a blip and it was a big one, and it came when the pressure came off. I had had two children and I have never really been part of an institution. I’ve done various things, like I’ve taught at university level, worked for publishers, working for the BBC, quite decent jobs, but I never really wanted to join, and I never really quite knew why. And after I did this existential psychotherapy I felt that I could have something to offer as a therapist, but I don’t think I did really. I did it for a year and really enjoyed it, but I think I came to the realisation while I was doing it that I did have some other skills that we quite well formed, like writing.
“It rekindled my interest in philosophy. To do that course I had to read Heidegger and various things and I suddenly thought I am really interested in this sort of stuff, I really like it. And I always liked the idea that philosophy could help you, because I had suffered a lot from anxiety, I had a very turbulent childhood, a lot of moving around, being sent here, there and everywhere. Maybe it’s just my nature as well. There’s a certain amount of unsteadiness and need to keep the balance and one of the ways I’ve done that, like a lot of people do, is to use your mind. It’s an important ballast, isn’t it?”
Returning in her fifties to the philosophy she read in her twenties resulted in some pleasant surprises.
“One of the things I really found amazing writing this book was I went back to Kierkegaard, I understood it so much better than I ever did when I was a student. It was like an open book to me, it was really easy understand, whereas at the tine I found it very hard and quite honestly I don’t know why I persevered with it. I did find it hard but I knew there was something there.”
Heidegger also appeared to her in a new, clearer light.
“I do remember reading Heidegger, about the subject and object relation, which is quite abstruse and in way seems to be quite divorced from one’s everyday experience. I think I didn’t understand it at the time. But then I did this course in existential psychotherapy.”
What Greig found was that, surprisingly, Heidegger threw light on the central dilemma of her novel: whether to have an abortion.
“I was interested in that abortion debate and it has changed, because it used to be, as I remember, about the rights of women, and it was about whether women could be sexually licentious and not obey their husbands. By giving women the pill you were giving them freedom, basically, and there were a lot of people who thought that was wrong. When I went to Sussex the abortion laws were only about five or six years old. We take it for granted now but it was still a very new triumph for women to have that so we were all very protective about it.
“But I always remember feeling there was something wrong about that. There’s long speech by Fiona in the novel, when she says it’s like having a tooth out, and you just don’t go into the moral dilemma of it, because it’s so easy to play into the hands of what we now call pro-lifers.
“Nowadays the whole debate has changed to the rights of the foetus, which wasn’t really considered in those days. But I still thing that whole way of looking at it, of rights, of the rights of the woman and the rights of the foetus, is the wrong way to look at it and I think Heidegger gives you a way through that. The Heidegger is in there for ontological reasons really, that’s to say it’s all a continuum, the baby is attached to you, it is one being, and then there’s the social world outside, and the environment, and this is all something which is connected and you have weigh it all up together.”
Greig must be confident that her own understanding of philosophy has deepened, because she gives her central character thoughts about the subject that lead her tutor to describe her as talented.
“I think if I had had those thoughts when I was 21, I would have been a very talented philosopher. I’m not sure that having them now means I would, it’s taken me so bloody long to get there.”
Greig continues to work as musician, having recorded five albums over the last decade. Her next novel takes a character who “only comes in and out in a page” of A Girls Guide and gives her a story of her own. “She’s a rather mysterious and all the tutors fancy her, and I wanted to write a story about her, because she always seemed so debonair and everything, but I write this story about her and her whole life is in a complete mess.”
Philosophy isn’t going to feature in this one, but TPM is happy to convey one more piece of advice which didn’t make it into the Girl’s Guide: “I found the best way to read Hegel was really fast, and the same for Sartre. You got a kind of feel for it if you skimmed it.”
You know what? I think she might be right.