Monthly Archives: September 2009

Imagine that

Jean Kazez sees women on the dopplerganger radar, in her regular arts column

Jean Kazez

Jean Kazez

With women now responsible for more terrorist acts and a clearly unqualified woman nearly capturing the US vice-presidency, forays into male preserves are not always worth cheering. It seemed like good news, though, when Liesl Schillinger recently heralded Rivka Galchen’s novel Atmospheric Disturbances as a gender-bender on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. Such philosophical fiction, coming from a woman, is “extremely rare”, she claims.

I was just about to clap my hands for Galchen when it occurred to me to wonder – what was Schillinger talking about? Many philosophers are women; many novelists are women. Is it really true that women haven’t been writing brainy philosophical novels until now?

I did sort of think Schillinger had stacked the deck. She made a point of saying that a philosophical first novel by a woman is a rarity, as if to forestall mention of second and third novels. Why not point out the rarity of philosophical novels by residents of Oklahoma or people with the initials “RG”? But there was no altering the challenge. I began to wrack my brains for philosophical first novels written by women.

Meanwhile I began Galchen’s book, which proved to be chock full of philosophy phrases and words. There is talk of possible worlds and epistemology, personal identity, and (especially) doppelgangers. The premise of the book is introduced in the very funny and strange first 25 pages. Psychiatrist Leo Liebenstein wakes up one day and notices his wife Rema has been replaced by a simulacrum. He senses a connection to trouble he’s been having with Harvey, a patient who believes he is an agent of the Royal Meteorological Society, with the power to control the weather.

Harvey had been in the habit of wandering off on wayward meteorological missions, until Rema came up with a solution. Leo would pose as another agent, with instructions for Harvey from the head of the society, a Dr. Tzvi Gal-chen. For a while the strategy had stopped Harvey’s wanderings.

But then Harvey disappears and the doppelganger appears in Rema’s place. Leo suspects Gal-chen, the enigmatic but brilliant weather-maven, will help him find the real Rema. After all, he is an expert on Doppler radar (are you following this?). Soon Leo travels to Buenos Aries and Patagonia, and dogs start to be central to the plot, as well as many cups of coffee and plates of cookies … and the whole thing starts to be by turns wildly entertaining and tedious.

When the cookies, dogs, and discussions of Doppler radar got to be too much, I returned to my own mission. I quickly scanned the horizon for female philosophical novelists and only came up with female philosophers, like Philippa Foot, Judith Thomson, and Julia Annas. It seemed promising that Martha Nussbaum writes about philosophy and literature and uses literary elements in her writing, but she’s never written a novel.

The mission was not going well when one day while folding the laundry I had an epiphany (in fact, a multiple-epiphany). Of course! Simone de Beauvoir was both a philosopher and a novelist. Iris Murdoch was too. And Susan Sontag was at least a philosophical writer, as well as a novelist. Now I just needed to see if they had written philosophical first novels.

At the book store I discovered that Murdoch’s first novel, Under the Net, is jam-packed with philosophy talk. “Some parts of London are necessary, others are contingent,” begins a chapter. This is a sentence that only philosophers can love as much as it deserves to be loved.

Simone de Beauvoir’s first novel was She Came to Stay, an exploration of a ménage a trios; hopefully it wouldn’t be cheating to call it a study of sexual ethics. Her later novel All Men are Mortal fits the description “philosophical novel” to a “t”, with its immortal protagonist and lessons about the meaning of life.

At this point, I felt victorious, but started to worry that I was reaching back pretty far. Then it came to me: The Mind-Body Problem was published to wide acclaim in 1983. Rebecca Goldstein’s protagonist has a head full of philosophy: she worries about mind and body, “mattering maps”, mathematical truth, aesthetics. Not only did Goldstein write a philosophical (and very enjoyable) first novel – and then other works of philosophical fiction and non-fiction – but I couldn’t help noticing she’s another “RG”.

No doubt the urge to see Goldstein as a doppelganger was the effect of reading Atmospheric Disturbances. Leo continues to look for Rema, ponder the meteorological theories of Tzvi Gal-chen, encounter dogs and eat cookies … and then he and we begin wondering how a person knows the difference between reality and psychotic delusion.

A breakthrough for women, no, but Atmospheric Disturbances is a unique cerebral entertainment. By the time you get to the end you may not find the story wholly believable, but the welter of strange detail, the peculiar tone, the meteorological poetry, and the evocation of love and loss will stay with you for a long time.

Jean Kazez is the author of The Weight of Things: Philosophy and the Good Life (Blackwell). She teaches philosophy at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Africana insight

Lewis Gordon on an intellectual terrain that examines what it means to be human in the modern world

(cc) Stig Nygaard

(cc) Stig Nygaard

I have always been struck by how differently the term “introduction” is interpreted in North American philosophy versus the discipline in the rest of the world. In the former, it generally means a “beginners” text, with summaries of arguments. When Hegel wrote his introduction to his Phenomenology of Spirit, which has appeared in print as a text of its own, Bertrand Russell his Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, and Husserl his Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, their European audiences knew that they were not receiving beginner’s guides but the introduction or, better, the introducing of an area of research in philosophical terms.

It is with such models in mind that I took to writing An Introduction to Africana Philosophy at the invitation of Cambridge University Press. Although “Africana philosophy” has been a formal subject of discussion in the academy since Lucius T. Outlaw discussed it as a preferred formulation in his article “African, African-American, Africana Philosophy,” in The Philosophical Forum in 1993, the field points to an intellectual history that precedes that development by more than 1,000 years. Why and how this is so was what I aimed to show.

Africana philosophy refers to an area of philosophy that grew out of intellectual challenges posed by the African Diaspora in the modern world. Although it grew out of what was at times called “black philosophy,” the difference could be placed on a Venn diagram of crossing circles, where “black” is a category that includes but is not exclusive to “African”. Australian Aboriginals or First Peoples, a variety of Southeast Indian communities, and some of the people included in the political categories included in Steve Biko’s conception of black are not African. As well, there are things African that are not things black. White Africans are obvious instances, but so, too, are the Asian Africans. Africana philosophy, then, includes discussions of blackness, but it also includes other problems raised by the emergence of African Diasporic people.

An African Diaspora did not emerge as such, however, until the understanding of such people and their scattering, whether by trade, enslavement, or empire, came about. This development, I argue, began with the emergence of Afro-Islamic civilisations and their expansion, by way of conquest, into Christendom, which we know today as southern Europe. This Mediterranean Islamic world eventually linked the peoples of the Atlantic with those of the Pacific Ocean. Their defeat in 1492, known as the “Reconquest”, marked the beginning of a new expansion of Christendom, one that spilled into the Atlantic and resulted in the Modern Era. It is with such expansion that new kinds of people emerged as they were understood in the New World and the changing understanding of those in the southern hemisphere of the old.

A mistaken view of Africana philosophy is that it is parasitic of Western philosophy, and that it is so in a way that limits its legitimacy as an area of thought. This misconception is often alluded to, although not intended, in the phrase “philosophy and the black experience” or “philosophy and the Africana experience”. This formulation is from a longstanding assumption that Africana and black peoples bring experience to a world whose understanding finds theoretical grounding in European, often read as “white”, thought. I mention this to stress the importance of studying Africana philosophy as a constellation of ideas. When faced with the task of introducing this field, the problem of articulating it as an intellectual endeavour was one of my guiding concerns.

To understand the difficulty of formulating Africana philosophy as an intellectual project, one should bear in mind that the emergence of the modern world was accompanied by a set of ideological tropes from the Reconquest. It included the notion raza, from which developed the term “race”. Raza referred to breeds of dogs, horses; Jews, and Moors. (The normative significance of the term meant that, for early modern Spaniards, the series would not have been separated by a semicolon.) This notion had situated, through a theological naturalism, the Christian as the normative standpoint of legitimate humanity. The effect was, consequently, not only on Jews and Moors but also on the many non-Christian populations encountered in the Americas, Africa, and Asia, many of whom were also neither Christian nor Moor. An ongoing legacy of this period is the category of people who live in the modern world as being outside of the human realm.

Africana philosophy examines and offers insights into what it means to be human in the modern world. Such a task is challenged by the context of its exploration, namely, the impositions of colonialism and racism that have been the undercurrents of modern aspirations of enlightenment and reason. Those hurdles come to the fore in the effort to locate Africana philosophy within the confines of intellectual history. As W.E.B. Du Bois had observed in his work on the study of black people at the dawn of the twentieth century, the researcher must surmount the problem of studying problem people. He noticed that researchers, as did the general population, did not regard black people as facing social problems but instead as being the problems themselves. This impediment was a function of such people not really being considered people in the first place. Since real people are subjects of history, the problem of intellectual history surfaces: How does one offer a history of those or that which is ahistorical?

Du Bois’s response was to present a two-tiered argument on the double standards faced by those whose research avows the humanity of black people. The first was to recognise the general presumptions projected onto such people. That was known as double consciousness, where black people see themselves as seen by a world hostile to their being. The second, and for intellectual history the more important, was to recognise the contradictions and falsehoods of such misguided impositions. Let us call that potentiated double consciousness. That latter expands the researcher’s understanding of the overall societal context by particularising it. It is seen as falling short of universality and truth. In addition to the historicity of African Diasporic peoples, the argument also applies to their intellectual life. It calls for examining the value of ideas relevant to the plight of such people.

The challenge, then, is to avoid the pitfall of treating Africana intellectual history as neither intellectual nor historical. To that end, I explore Africana philosophy through three thematics posed by Africana thought: philosophical anthropology, philosophy of freedom and liberation, and metacritical reflection on reason.

Philosophical anthropology examines what it means to be human. Unlike empirical anthropology, which presupposes the legitimacy of the human sciences, including their methodologies, philosophical anthropology challenges the methods themselves and the presuppositions of the human offered by each society. That area of research makes sense for Africana philosophy from the fact of the challenged humanity of Africana people in the modern world. Since many Africana peoples are also black people, and since many black people were enslaved in the modern world, the main thesis of antiblack racism and enslavement support this turn, for the essence of antiblack racism is the claim that black people are not fully human beings, if human at all. That enslavement involves making human beings into property calls for a response in philosophical anthropology.

Developing a philosophy of freedom and liberation is a sensible intellectual response to racism and colonialism.

There is, however, the problem of how reason is used to justify arguments in philosophical anthropology and our discourses of freedom. For example, simply asserting the equality of blacks to whites and demanding recognition of that fails by virtue of affirming whites as the initial standard. That whiteness was predicated on racism jeopardises its legitimacy as a standard. It is, in other words, at least in moral terms, a low measurement of humanity. The task, then, is to raise the standard of humanity. But such standards, it soon becomes evident, are open and incomplete by virtue of depending for their creation on those whom they are supposed to evaluate.

Metacritical reflection on reason is a major aspect of Africana philosophy. It comes to the fore not only with the problem of justifying our philosophical anthropology and discourses of freedom, but also on a recurring question posed to every Africana philosopher, especially by postmodernists: Given the abusive use of reason by many great philosophers, such as Kant, Hegel, and many recent stalwart figures, against black people, why appeal to such a discipline for the expansion of freedom and liberation?

The Martinican philosopher and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon once reflected that Reason had a habit of taking flight whenever he entered the white intellectual world. That philosophy, a discipline, as Karl Jaspers characterised it, is one long hymn to reason suggests that black people do not stand a chance when even it flees blackness. How was Fanon to respond to unreasonable reason? To force reason to become reasonable would be unreasonable or, as continues often to be the perception toward blacks who attempt to do such, violent. Fanon, in other words, had to reason with reason.

Many Africana philosophers exemplify Fanon’s situation over the ages. It is a task that is not taken on exclusively by Africana philosophers, but it is one that presses upon them in a unique way. All philosophers use reason, but only some face the situation of having to reason with reason.

In An Introduction to Africana Philosophy, I took up this task, of reasoning with reason, as I examined this Promethean struggle throughout the past millennium. The story I wrote is of many communities – tenth-century Moors developing arguments for a separation of mosque and state; sixteenth-century Catholic priests arguing over who has membership in the human community; an eighteenth-century Akan philosopher at the University of Halle who argued for the equality of the Moors of Europe, challenged Cartesian philosophical anthropology, and wrote a text on proper reasoning; nineteenth-century work on philosophy of civilization and problems of human study; twentieth-century intellectual movements ranging from prophetic pragmatism and Africana analytical philosophy to Africana existential phenomenology; and, going full circle back to Africa, raising the problem of decolonised reason in a contemporary world of increasingly deracialised states but heavily racist and unequal civil societies.

It is a story of philosophy in the modern and contemporary world, as it faces the ugliness which often makes it foreboding to the novice while possessing a beauty with the capacity to move us all closer to the achievement of human understanding.

Lewis R. Gordon is the Laura H. Carnell Professor of Philosophy and Jewish Studies and the Director of the Center for Afro-Jewish Studies at Temple University and the author of An Introduction to Africana Philosophy (Cambridge University Press).

Debate: The real enemies of reason

Ophelia Benson and Dan Hind go head-to-head on the threat to Enlightenment values

Dear Ophelia,

You and I disagree about how the concept of Enlightenment should be understood and used in contemporary political debate. Perhaps I should start with a sketch of how I think we differ.

newage200Most writers who invoke the concept of Enlightenment situate it on one side of a titanic clash between the forces of light (good) and the forces of darkness (bad). This “great divide” between reason and unreason generates and gives colour to a varied and influential rhetoric. Atheist polemicists situate their campaign against religious faith in an intellectual tradition that they trace back to Spinoza and Voltaire. The defenders of philosophical realism describe their commitments in terms of fidelity to the Enlightenment tradition. The enemies of quack medicine likewise identify themselves with the Enlightenment commitment to basing beliefs on sound evidence.

The structure of Enlightenment that all this implies is best illustrated by a phrase of Dick Taverne’s. He has claimed that “the new Rome that science built is under siege by the barbarians.” The Enlightenment resembles a walled city under attack and its enemies are irrational or anti-rational barbarians, a coalition of the untutored and the modishly sophisticated.

But there is a problem with this formulation. For all its clarity, it obscures the emancipatory potential of the historical Enlightenment and indeed enlists the prestige of the word and the ideas associated with it, to a campaign of mystification.

Your own work gives us some clue as to how this alchemy-in-reverse is worked, how base metal can be made from the gold of Enlightenment. In Why Truth Matters, the book you co-wrote with Jeremy Stangroom, you state that counter-Enlightenment and reaction “are all about the rejection of reason, inquiry, logic and evidence, in favour of tradition, religion, instinct, blood and soil, The Nation, The Fatherland.” By identifying reaction with the forces of unreason I am afraid that you obscure the enthusiastic embrace of the scientific method by illegitimate, secret, and tyrannical power.

By focussing on irrational threats to the enlightened inheritance, and by identifying reaction with these irrational threats, this model, your model, shifts attention away from what, it seems to me at least, should be the central conflict of our time: the struggle between two contending models of Enlightenment. One the one hand we can trace a tradition of Enlightenment that asserts the sovereignty of truth, of sincere public debate, and a commitment to the open exchange of information. This we might call the Open Enlightenment. It has many sources in the historical Enlightenment, and is perhaps most perfectly articulated by Kant in his famous, though not always closely studied, short piece What is Enlightenment? On the other hand, there is a tradition of Enlightenment that situates the pursuit of knowledge within, and subordinates it to, state and later corporate power. Here the commitment to truth takes place under cover of official secrecy and commercial confidentiality. Political and economic power provides a venue for scientific inquiry only in order to take advantage of the knowledge thus generated. Among the technologies developed are methods to manipulate the public by estranging them from a clear understanding of reality. Rationally planned campaigns to bewilder and confuse the public take many forms. Often they consciously mobilize or exploit the forces of unreason. Just as often they seek to take advantage of the intellectual prestige of the Enlightenment sciences to present their chosen policies as uncontroversial common sense and to marginalise their opponents as benighted enemies of progress and evidence-based thinking.

The Enlightenment should not be treated as an unexamined unity, a good that must be defended. Rather we should see it as precisely the point on which to concentrate our powers of discrimination. It is surely better to describe Enlightenment as a city at war with itself than as a city under siege. Civil conflict bewilders and confuses participants and onlookers. The lines of conflict are not drawn with the clear, childish lines of a cartoon. Enemies are eager to appear as friends, friends can appear at first in the guise of enemies. The central conflict of our time is not between light and darkness, but between the light that illuminates and the light that blinds – between knowledge in the service of justice and knowledge in the service of tyranny.

Enlightenment understood in this way is fraught with confusion and difficulty. It does not offer us a simple way to advertise our intellectual daring and tough-mindedness, Instead its vocabulary is unstable and uncertain. All our efforts to describe this conflict within the Enlightenment jar with the lovingly maintained oppositions and affinities that do so much to guide, to sweeten, and to limit, our thinking.

Perhaps you disagree with my description of your position, perhaps you do take broadly the position I describe but think it defensible.

Let me know. I look forward to hearing from you.

Best wishes,

Dear Dan,

I don’t think we disagree about how the concept of Enlightenment should be understood and used in contemporary political debate, because I don’t really have an opinion about it. I don’t use the concept much (if at all) myself, and I’m not sure I have a worked-out view on the matter. I’m also not sure if you mean enlightenment, or the Enlightenment.

At any rate, I’m quite sure that I never talk about titanic clashes between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. I have a strong aversion to journalistic clichés of that kind, and I would only mention them to deride or dispute or analyze them. I do see a difference (if not a “great divide”) between reason and unreason, but I don’t feel any need to recruit either the Enlightenment (much less enlightenment, which sounds too Buddhist for the purpose) or the forces of light and darkness in order to discuss them.

I don’t recognize this picture of atheist polemicists and realists and enemies of quack medicine who base all their claims on the Enlightenment. I know of some who write about the Enlightenment for particular purposes, but none who routinely “describe their commitments in terms of fidelity to the Enlightenment tradition” as if they were reciting an oath of allegiance. I think that picture has a whiff of the straw man, to tell the truth.

But never mind. Your basic point, I take it, is that corporations and governments – or state and corporate power, as you put it – make use of reason and evidence just as scientists, realists, and atheists do, and that the frankly irrational is not the only enemy of public debate and the open exchange of information. Of course I agree with you about that. It would be hard not to when (for instance) highly rational actors in the Bush White House come up with “signing statements” in which the president signs a bill into law but stipulates parts of it that he considers unconstitutional and which he instructs federal agencies to disobey. This is a classic example of the secrecy and deception you talk about: Bush avoided the political heat and journalistic attention that a veto would have triggered, and simply quietly authorized himself to ignore parts of the law that he himself signed. Congress could have monitored this and raised a fuss, but it didn’t; somehow the administration repeatedly slipped this dodge past thanks to mere Congressional inattention. It was one journalist – Charlie Savage of the Boston Globe – who went through the documents and broke the story.

I agree with you that powerful self-interested people can be highly rational and also immoral, unprincipled, dangerous, corrupt. But what I don’t see is why you think Why Truth Matters or atheist polemicists and enemies of quack medicine shift attention away from that problem. Of course, I see it in the most literal sense, that they talk about different things – but I don’t see why you consider that worth objecting to. Everything shifts attention away from whatever it’s not talking about, but what of it? A book about global warming shifts attention away from the war in Iraq, a book about Iraq shifts attention away from the Democratic Republic of Congo – and so on. There are a great many issues and problems in the world, and we have to break them down into manageable pieces in order to discuss them and think about them – so naturally no book is going to be about every possible problem. I fail to see the force of your objection, that people who worry about, say, irrationality, or hostility to science, or credulity about alternative medicine, are shifting attention away from other subjects. Perhaps if you could clarify that for me, we would find we don’t disagree on much after all.


Dear Ophelia,

You talk about both Enlightenment and counter-Enlightenment in Why Truth Matters in ways that have important political implications, so I am surprised that you don’t have a “worked out view” about how we should understand and use the concept in this respect. And my note shows how your published views differ from mine in one respect at least. Perhaps we can talk again when you know what you think?

I have never said that atheists and so on “base all their claims on the Enlightenment” – a silly claim. The straw man here is of your own making. I offer a number of examples in The Threat to Reason of the way in which the clash between reason and unreason features in mainstream discussion of the Enlightenment. Readers can decide whether it is accurate or not to see this as the dominant current way of writing and thinking about the concept. It is a claim that finally depends on evidence.

My “basic point” isn’t quite how you describe it. States and corporations use scientists, realists and atheists, as well as reason and evidence, in pursuit of their interests. Enlightenment exists within these institutions in a highly circumscribed form – indeed in their modern form they are creatures, as well as captors, of the Enlightenment.

And this constrained and secret Enlightenment does far more to undermine the ideal of a rational public than the frankly irrational. Indeed it uses the frankly irrational as one instrument among many to secure its aims (when, for example, it encourages and promotes conspiratorial fantasies). It also exploits the prestige of science and Enlightenment and it endlessly invokes the clash between reason and unreason as part of its efforts to associate its critics with a noisy and embarrassing lunatic fringe (readers who attend to the operations of the public relations industry will see what I mean).

The frankly irrational is dwarfed by this secret Enlightenment. So it is disastrous that so much time and energy is expended on elaborating a concept of Enlightenment that ignores the tension within it; all this fussing about the attack of the irrationalists misses a much more serious threat and furthermore misunderstands the phenomenon it thinks it is being so brave about.

Now, of course it is worthwhile to challenge the frankly irrational. But it is wrong to ignore the ways in which rational agents animate and exploit Evangelicals, neo-fascists and so on. To talk about the Enlightenment without registering its (at least) dual nature is to collaborate in a cliché of thought far more pernicious than the clichés of language that so jangle your sensibilities.

I hope you’ll agree, once you’ve given it a little thought, that there is some factual basis for, and some substance in, what I am saying. I also hope that readers of our exchange will see that the ideas of the seventeenth and eighteenth century have more to offer us than the stale oppositions beloved of so many of the Enlightenment’s self-styled defenders.

With best wishes,

Dear Dan,

Why Truth Matters has two authors, so the few places where it mentions the Enlightenment and counter-Enlightenment are not necessarily attributable to me, and in fact they’re not all my doing. I don’t use “the concept of Enlightenment” much myself, as I said, and to the extent that I do, I don’t have a worked out view of “how the concept of Enlightenment should be understood and used in contemporary political debate” because it doesn’t stand out for me as problematic – as widely misused, misunderstood, misappropriated. I have a default view of the concept, as it were. Different words stand out as problematic for different people (and for the same people at different times), and most words are unproblematic for all of us; we’d be unable to communicate otherwise. I don’t use the concept much myself but I assume I know what is meant when other people use it; I don’t (so far) share your view of the way other people use it, but I’m not sure that not sharing a particular view necessarily amounts to disagreeing with it.

True, you didn’t say “that atheists and so on ‘base all their claims on the Enlightenment’”, that was a paraphrase; apologies if it was a straw paraphrase; you said the “defenders of philosophical realism describe their commitments in terms of fidelity to the Enlightenment tradition.” I don’t recognize that picture – I don’t think defenders of philosophical realism do defend their commitments in terms of fidelity to any tradition – I think that’s a rhetorical flourish, one with emotive overtones. Rhetoric of that kind makes me suspicious – it suggests an agenda, not to say an animus.

Be that as it may, I do recognize your picture of the secret Enlightenment. A clear – if frivolous – example came to mind as I read your reply: there’s an episode of the US TV series The West Wing in which Toby – the communications director, which is to say, the head of PR for the White House – gives a good old rant about the mindless irrationality of a group of anti-WTO protesters. I remember shouting energetically at the TV when I saw it. (I like to be irrational myself!) The episode simply stepped right over the real – and entirely discussable in rational terms – problems with free trade agreements that equate any kind of regulation – labour laws, environmental regulations, health standards, information requirements – with protectionism. Something else I remember is my horror when I asked my Congressional Representative – Jim McDermott, famously out on the (comparatively) left end of the Democratic Party spectrum – at one of his constituency meetings to explain the workings of free trade agreements. He told me – what I should have known – that the decisions are made by the trade representative, who is appointed by the president, and that’s that. There is no oversight, no appeal, no recourse; Congress has nothing to do with it and no control over it. One appointed official makes colossally far-reaching agreements of this kind, which are binding, and there is no mechanism for review or revision. There’s secret “Enlightenment” if you like.

But I’m not sure I agree with you that this secret Enlightenment dwarfs the frankly irrational. I could offer several reasons but we have limited space, so I’ll stick to just a couple.

One is that I think pervasive systemic unreason – active hostility to reason – is bad for people, that it works to deprive them of something very valuable. I think it makes their lives poorer, and offers very little in return.

Another is that I think we need reason in order to resist the secret Enlightenment itself. Faith won’t do it, intuition won’t do it, homeopathy won’t help. The sad thing about Toby’s rant in The West Wing is that there was a lot of truth in it – some of the protests were mindless and content-free and they did work precisely to give ammunition to PR hacks to say all criticism of the WTO is irrational. Reasoned argument is a necessary tool for countering secretive manipulations and also for spotting them in the first place. To the extent that there is a fashion for embracing frank irrationalism, to that extent the followers of fashion are disabled from resisting the secret Enlightenment.


Dear Ophelia,

I am very glad you agree that it makes sense to talk about a secret Enlightenment. This is not a concept that features prominently in contemporary debates about the Enlightenment, much less in discussions about contemporary politics. The fact that it doesn’t might lead you to conclude, on further reflection, that the concept is indeed “widely misused, misunderstood, misappropriated.” Whether commentators are for or against it, they almost always talk as though the Enlightenment can be adequately understood as a unitary phenomenon. This is a terrible mistake, insofar as it distracts us from at least one crucial distinction – between open and secret Enlightenment.

But I don’t know why you still want to claim that the frankly irrational poses more of a threat to the possibility of a rational public than the secret Enlightenment. To repeat, this is an empirical matter. Either amateur conspiracy theories or state-sponsored ones are more serious. Surely those who promote nonsense about the benevolence of the WTO, or about secret alliances between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, do far more damage than any number of freelance paranoiacs? It is the fantasies that come officially endorsed, or from the makers of The West Wing, that should trouble us.

You are quite right to say that we need reason to resist the secret Enlightenment. That’s why it is crucial to distinguish between the two versions of Enlightenment. It is only by doing so that we can enlist reason in the service of liberation. And I also agree that the rejection of reason diminishes us. But, again, it is rationally promoted irrationalism that does most to belittle and constrain us, precisely because it is so difficult to recognise and to resist. Challenges to it can always be associated with a noisy and irrational lunatic fringe.

Besides how does one practically deal with the threat posed by the frankly irrational? Surely the best way is to demonstrate how reason and respect for evidence can be mobilised to challenge the forms of deception that matter? The promoters of unreason prosper because they are able to persuade the unwary that reason is a cover story for power. Prove them wrong by adopting a rationally defensible order of priorities, in which what does most harm excites the most energetic resistance.

There are more serious and more dangerous forms of delusion and magical thinking than religious fundamentalism and postmodern philosophy. The secret Enlightenment indifferently exploits our appetite for fantasy and our desire to be intellectually respectable. It is, in the end, a more interesting and more worthy adversary than the more commonly cited threats to reason, as well as being more serious.

So I hope that you will make sure that your co-authors and the writers on your website distinguish between the secret Enlightenment and the Enlightenment that, in our best moments, we try to honour. Reason serves many appetites, not only the simple hunger to know and honour what is true.

But there is a light, Ophelia, and it never goes out.

Best wishes,

Dear Dan,

No, I don’t agree that it makes sense to talk about a secret Enlightenment. I didn’t say I thought it made sense. I said I recognized your picture of the secret Enlightenment; that is, I understood what kind of thing you were choosing to call “secret Enlightenment”. I went on to echo your usage a few times, in the first instance with distancing quotation marks. Perhaps I should have kept the scare quotes; I dropped them only because they get distracting and irritating, not because I’d decided to take your terminology at face value.

I don’t think it does make sense to talk about a “secret Enlightenment” because that’s an oxymoron. If it is secret it’s not enlightenment. If it’s deceptive it’s not enlightenment.

In your first entry you cite “methods to manipulate the public by estranging them from a clear understanding of reality” and “[r]ationally planned campaigns to bewilder and confuse the public”. But campaigns to bewilder and confuse the public, however rationally planned, have nothing to do with enlightenment or the Enlightenment: a campaign to do that is not a secretive branch of the Enlightenment, it’s the plain opposite of it; it’s a negation of enlightenment. There is only so far one can stretch a word before it snaps. Enlightenment simply does not mean bewilderment and confusion. To bewilder and confuse people is to endarken them, not to enlighten them. It’s just some kind of showy paradox to pretend that deception and manipulation fit any definition of enlightenment.

The mere fact that rational actors who try to bewilder and confuse the public use some scientific and/or rational methods to do so does not make them part of the Enlightenment. This seems to be the whole heart of your case: that use of a rational tool for a purpose of manipulation makes the manipulation part of the Enlightenment. That seems very feeble to me. Wiccans and astrologers browse the Internet; that doesn’t make Wicca and astrology part of the Enlightenment.

Your “secret Enlightenment” is simply not the Enlightenment as commonly understood, and I fail to see what is gained by first splitting the Enlightenment in two – a good and a bad, an open and a secret – and then defining campaigns to bewilder and confuse the public as part of the bad half. What do we get from that, apart from a nod to Horkheimer and Adorno? That campaigns to bewilder and confuse the public are bad – but we already knew that. That campaigns to bewilder and confuse the public apply some rational and/or scientific techniques to the job – but we already knew that too. I don’t see what work you think this new nomenclature will do. Alert us to the more sinister and destructive applications of reason and science perhaps? But that can be done (and is done) much more directly and clearly simply by doing exactly that.

So, no, I don’t agree that it makes sense to talk of a secret Enlightenment. I would say that the fact that this “is not a concept that features prominently in contemporary debates about the Enlightenment, much less in discussions about contemporary politics”, might lead you to conclude, “on further reflection”, that it’s not a useful or convincing idea.

You say it’s an empirical matter whether the frankly irrational poses more of a threat to the possibility of a rational public than does the secret Enlightenment, an empirical matter whether amateur conspiracy theories or state-sponsored ones are more serious. But actually it’s a conceptual matter before it’s an empirical one, because it can’t be an empirical question until we know what “threat” and “serious” mean. It’s not an empirical question whether strawberry is better than chocolate, and the same applies to other value judgments, such as “threat” and “serious”.

So, no, I won’t make sure that my co-author (I have only the one) or the people who contribute articles to Butterflies and Wheels (there are no writers on B&W apart from me) adopt your terminology. I don’t generally “make sure” that other people say anything in particular in any case; I’m not that presumptuous. But if I did, I wouldn’t make sure that they said that.


Ophelia Benson is the author of Why Truth Matters (Continuum).
Dan Hind is author of The Threat to Reason (Verso)

Review: The Idea of Justice

The Idea of Justice
by Amartya Sen
(UK: Allen Lane; US: Harvard University Press)
£25/$29.95 (hb)

sen200“Justice delayed is justice denied,” runs the old adage. Amartya Sen has taken this truism and turned it against almost all his illustrious predecessors who have written about justice. To Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant and even his old teacher John Rawls, Sen adds: and likewise justice idealised is justice not realised.

At least he would have done, had he been a canny intellectual opportunist rather than a thoughtful, measured Nobel laureate. Such pithy sound bites are absent from a text which is at times repetitive, loose and in need of a good edit, but which also contains such a generous measure of incisive, clear and important ideas that any such failings are quickly forgiven.

The book’s moral heart is located in an idea Sen sets out in the book’s first paragraph: “What moves us … is not the realisation that the world falls short of being completely just … but that there are clearly remediable injustices around us which we want to eliminate.” In the mouths of some people, this could have been little more than the activist’s lament that while the world goes to hell in a handcart, philosophers discuss how to balance scales of justice on the head of a pin. But Sen’s point is not that jurisprudence is irrelevant, but that it too often rests on a mistake.

That mistake he calls transcendentalism: the idea that the way to think about justice is to first describe what ideal justice is like and then use that conception to guide the practice of justice in the real world. This is the method of classic social contract theories, like those of Hobbes and Rousseau, and also of John Rawls (Sen’s old friend and colleague, to whom the book is dedicated), who uses the device of “impartial spectators” behind “the veil of ignorance” to establish what ideal justice is.

Sen makes a convincing case that there is no general principle from which one could conclude that having an ideal of justice is necessary to rank the relative justice of two different systems or states of affairs. In a neat analogy, he observes that “if we are trying to choose between a Picasso and a Dali, it is of no help to invoke a diagnosis … that the ideal picture in the world is the Mona Lisa.” But more than that, making the conceptualisation of an ideal state of justice might actually prevent a theory from fulfilling a basic requirement, namely that it “include ways of judging how to reduce injustice and advance justice.” It us simply implausible to assume that it would always be possible to measure two imperfect societies against the measure of the perfect, to determine which is better.

More particularly, Sen criticises the focus on establishing what ideal institutions should be like. You have only to look at the world to see that countries that have very similar formal institutions can vary enormously in how just or unjust they are. For instance, “[the] presence of remediable injustice may well be connected with behavioural transgressions rather than with institutional shortcomings.” Injustice within a family, for example, may show nothing about the failure of the institution of the family.

Sen’s alternative is to promote a comparative approach, whereby we judge societies, practises and states of affairs against alternatives, actual and possible. This is practically, as well as theoretically more powerful. As he says, we didn’t need to know what an ideal society looked like before we could conclude that it would be better if we abolished slavery.

The constant and seemingly effortless interplay between practical necessity and theoretical rigour is one of the delights of Sen’s writing. This is particularly evident in how he addresses what has been a recurrent theme in his work: the challenge of creating a better, more equal and peaceful world in the absence of universal agreement on ethics, politics and the good life.

The foundations of Sen’s response to this challenge was laid down in his past work with Martha Nussbaum on the capabilities approach, which he returns to several times in The Idea of Justice. This insists that although there may be many different, equally valid conceptions of the good life, there are nonetheless some universals which we can, and must, insist that all societies work towards. What saves this from contradiction is the idea that the universals are not particular activities or ways of life that people adopt, but capabilities they are fully enabled to exercise. So, for example, while it may be a particular, non-universal value that men and women fulfil the same social roles, it is a universal value that women are not prevented from exercising their capabilities to fulfil the same roles that men do, should that be what they want.

The capabilities approach is not without difficulties. In particular there is a question of how far it is possible, in practice, to have the right to exercise a capability in a society where there are no formal barriers to doing so, but social practices run contrary to doing so. However, there is surely something right in Sen’s insistence that it is unrealistic to expect a viable theory of justice to eliminate all traces of pluralism.

He illustrates this with a parable about three children and a flute. Each has a very different claim to it. The first argues that the other two have plenty of other things to play with, whereas he only has the flute. The second is the only child who can actually play it. The third, however, spent days making it. Sen is not arguing that in this particular case there may not be an objectively fair solution. However, he is saying that it is unrealistic to suppose that there could be a general theory of justice which could determine which of the claims of need, ability or property rights always takes precedent over the others. What is realistic is to say that in any given case, one can make a particular judgement about what would be most just in that situation.

Sen’s combination of pluralism and universalism reflects the deep humanity that infuses his outlook. Unlike some religious leaders who praise interfaith dialogue and tolerance while at the same time preaching doctrines which are evidently exclusivist and intolerant, Sen genuinely tries to see the good in all his intellectual opponents. Many a time he prefaces critical remarks, not with general terms of praise, but specific examples of what he does actually agree with. This is so prevalent that it is noticeable when he shows signs of actual loathing for an idea he double distances himself from by use of adjective and punctuation, calling it “so-called ‘rational choice theory’”. Sen rightly deplores the fact that the theory has somehow managed to equate “rational” with “smart maximisation of self-interest”.

While Sen is often sharp in his analysis, as with his last book, Identity and Violence, there is nonetheless an absence of a clear idea about how we take his ideas forward. Sen is a passionate advocate of public reason, but while his pleas that we try to resolve comparative justice disputes in the rational public square are welcome, how in practice we do so remains elusive. But perhaps to expect a more prescriptive route map is to misunderstand the nature of his project. If thinking about and creating justice in the world is not about creating ideal conceptions and ideal institutions, then isn’t it necessarily about piecemeal negotiation of particular issues, as they present themselves? Criticising Sen for not telling us more about what we should do is like listening to someone advocate the merits of improvisation and then asking to see a score.

Julian Baggini is editor of tpm

The skeptic

Wendy Grossman finds that the dramatic dice are loaded against skeptics

mindreader200One of the problems skeptics have is that the “other side” is so much more entertaining than we are. We of course have immaculately good taste and a terrific sense of humour, but when it comes to mounting a great show with singing, dancing, and audience participation, most of the time we’re not so much. I learned this the hard way, by going to a 1994 live appearance at Earl’s Court by the American evangelist and faith healer Maurice Cerullo. The biggest surprise wasn’t the shameless and persistent urgings for money and the buckets everywhere to collect same, or even the shameless and persistent promises that donating money would keep the audience’s families intact and their children safe. It was the sheer showbizness of it all. We just don’t measure up, even those of us with a background in stage magic.

I was thinking about this the other day when I read that one of the skeptics – the Skepchick Emma-Louise Rhodes – had written and was producing and starring in a skeptical play. Given that it isn’t much fun for an audience if the characters stand around lecturing each other … then, what?

I also wondered how she’d get around those pesky but unwritten rules of drama that say that for a play to be at all satisfying, something has to happen that changes the characters. Chekhov put it best when he said that if there is a gun on the wall in the first act, it has to go off by the end of the third act. So if you start the play with a skeptical hero, by dramatic logic something has to happen to make him wonder, and if you start the play with a believer … well, even if you debunk the beliefs he starts with, it’s still more entertaining to then hit him with a different miracle he can believe in.

Part of that, I think, is that classic supernatural legends – ghosts, vampires, fairies, aliens – are great metaphors for unchanging human psychological realities; the trappings of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer are different from those of Dracula, but the emotional resonance of vampires hasn’t changed.

It is, however, the rare skeptical view that can be a metaphor for anything else. The most notable exception is of course Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which uses the Salem witch trials as a stand-in for the McCarthy hearings on “un-American activities”). More direct (and sadly being re-enacted these days in real American life) is Jerome Lawrence’s and Robert Edwin Lee’s Inherit the Wind, a dramatic rendering of the Scopes “monkey” trial that pitted a science teacher against creationists). I highly recommend the 1960 movie version starring Spencer Tracy and Frederic March.

In the middle of these ruminations, I went up to Scarborough to see a group of three ghost plays by Alan Ayckbourn. In Snake in the Grass (2002), the “real” ghost is overshadowed by the woman-made fake one. In Life and Beth (2008), the ghost, like those in traditional ballads and stories, is a representation of the person being mourned by the bereaved. Like those ballads and stories, the play shows that the dead can’t rest until the living can let go. That Beth is rather more willing than the people around her expect is of course Ayckbourn’s own twist. Still, the play requires an exorcism to get rid of its ghost.

The third (or first) of the three, Haunting Julia (1994), is both the most skeptical and the most paranormal. In it, 12 years after the title character’s suicide, her father and lover meet a psychic to try to understand what really happened. About halfway through piecing their stories together, the psychic is cleanly exposed as a fake. But the combined presence of the three men still serves to summon up the suicide’s ghost.

Ayckbourn, who has written that he hates research, did as good a job on his fake psychic as any of us could have wished. Even so, all his characters follow the dramatic rule that they witness phenomena they cannot explain.

Rhodes’ play avoided that trope. Based on a real “Russian Roulette” stunt staged by the illusionist Derren Brown, Crackshot is the story of a hypnotist who is about to pick someone from the audience to hypnotise into being able to aim accurately enough to shoot a loaded gun at a target held above her head. All the elements of the stunt turn out to be fake: the gun is loaded with blanks, and the audience member is a planted stooge. But first: the hypnotist finds a scary fan in her dressing room who holds her hostage while professing his undying love. More twists ensue forcing the hypnotist, who wanted to play at facing fake danger, to face real danger. But none of the characters is left wondering by phenomena they can’t explain. What gets them is real enough.

Wendy Grossman is founder and former editor (twice) of The Skeptic magazine.

Hay on why

Julian Baggini visits a feet and mind tapping new festival

hay200I’m sitting on a stage, chairing a debate about “new ways of thinking”, when I catch sight of the composer Michael Nyman in the audience, reclining on some of the large cushions which line the walls. He doesn’t see me looking at him, however, because he’s holding up a compact digital camera and is filming a woman asleep on the balcony. He continues to do this, grinning, throughout the whole session.

Welcome to How The Light Gets In, the newest and probably hippest addition to the British philosophy calendar. It’s a festival of philosophy and music, held in Hay-on-Wye – a town on the Welsh-English border, famous for its bookshops – at the same time as the international book festival, in May. Its inaugural year featured talks and debates with an impressive and eclectic range of speakers, including Simon Blackburn, Steve Fuller, Will Hutton, Kenan Malik and Susan Neiman. The philosophy programme ran under the loose theme of “Crunch: Values and Belief in a New Era”, while individual sessions took on big topics such as “The Life and Death of the Enlightenment”, “The Failure of Reason” and “Dreams of Utopia”. How The Light Gets In was intellectually as well as logistically ambitious.

The festival is run by The Institute of Art and Ideas, set up last year by Hilary Lawson, a broadcaster, vice chair of the Forum for European Philosophy and the author of two books of philosophy. The IAI boasts its own venue – The Globe at Hay – a converted 250 year old Methodist chapel with a bar and café in the crypt.

“I’ve always wanted somehow to get philosophy out of the academy and into people’s lives,” Lawson told me in The Globe. “I think that what happens is that you get a new paradigm which comes in, which is exciting at the time and opens up a way of thinking, and then a school develops as a defence of the paradigm. The academy almost necessarily tends to defend the paradigm, and I think that it’s important to keep looking to the edge.”

Lawson is critical of the academy, but far from dismissive of it. “Philosophers, in the sense of people who call themselves academic philosophers, have tended to generate a language which cuts them off from everyone else, and gives them some authority, and I think this is a mistake. Everyone is in some sense a philosopher. We’re all trying to work out what our lives are like, and poets and politicians have philosophical things to say. It’s not just confined to people who have been trained in logic, although of course, being an ardent advocate of rationality, I’m going to encourage people to test their ideas and force them to think them through.

“I hope that academic philosophy has got a really important part to play in this. Philosophers need to be out there and obviously in this festival we have tried to include a range, so we’ve included people from the philosophical academic world, but also people from political theory and sociology who have got something to say from an overall philosophical point of view.”

The trouble with challenging the paradigm by looking to the edge, however, is that the edge tends to develop its own paradigm, with critics of the status quo developing their own counter-orthodoxy. This is perhaps what Phillip Blond, the “red Tory” thinker, had in mind when he pointed out that a lot of what he heard at the festival was “easy, sub-Derridian, social and cultural relativism, passing itself off as a critique of totalitarianism, when in fact that social and cultural relativism is exactly what allowed totalitarianism to gain and hold power. … I think I’d probably like to have more debate, make it more serious, certainly more historical, and also focus around alternatives to the present order, rather than engaging in fake debates around some putative totalitarianism which actually no one in this country has ever lived in. All they’ve ever had is extreme freedom and now they want more, which seems to me to get the world wrong, to get modern British society wrong.”

Blond’s reservations, however, are far outweighed by his praise. “I think it’s a self-evidently good thing. I think what Hilary’s done is a little bit visionary and much needed and it’s integrating philosophy into the middle class mainstream and hopefully it can move beyond that into all parts of our life. I think that British culture has lost its reflective and critical edge that we certainly had before the war and we need to recover it. A lot of university lecturers and school teachers are talking about how critical reflection – which really is only the idea that things could be otherwise – has been driven out of the curriculum, and that often students come to universities with four As but can’t write a critical essay. So I think this is to be much welcomed and I’d like to see it in some sense scaled up. This is the first festival and I think it’s an extraordinary success. Most lectures have been sold out, and this is an indication I think of a wide desire and hunger for serious debate.”

Lawson thinks people are more than hungry, they’re “ravenous for some philosophical input into their lives. I think that in terms of people’s everyday lives, they are very lost. They’re lost by precisely the kind of conversation we were having here, in terms of perspectivism and relativism and so forth, and they’re just not sure how to proceed, in the same way that the thinkers involved here are grappling with how we proceed. And what has been most interesting here has been that, when we were putting the talks together, we included a number with quite a topical quality, things about the economy, like banks, bonuses and inequality, and so forth. But the events which have been most well attended – and we’ve had a number which were pretty much full – appear to be the most abstract and theoretical. And I think that’s because people hear the day to day of politics and social argument on Radio Four and Newsnight and the Sunday Times and they’ve had that up to their ears, and they somehow want to think about the bigger issues underlying that. So I think there’s a huge potential for philosophy.”

The festival should run again in 2010, and in the meantime, the IAI is far from dormant. This summer, it ran “Camp Anarchy”, a weekend for kids in which they would debate what the rules should be for a society starting from scratch. (See news, p?)

Lawson is clearly very motivated to advance the standing of philosophy. “Philosophy has become more and more abstracted from people’s daily lives, so in a way, philosophers are a kind of joke in Britain. The only time they appear is in comedy and it seems to me really important to do something about this.” He’s certainly having a damn good try.

Julian Baggini is editor of tpm

Profile: Seneca

Robin Wood on the philosopher accused of fiddling while Nero fiddled while Rome burned

Seneca by Gareth Southwell

Seneca by Gareth Southwell

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c.4 BCE – 65 AD) was the second son of Seneca the Elder, born at Córdoba in Spain but brought up as a child in Rome by an aunt and educated there in rhetoric and philosophy. He was particularly drawn to philosophy and deeply influenced by the stoic doctrine, which he himself later developed. He became quaestor (chief revenue officer) and a senator and, under Claudius, he occupied a position at court. He was accused of an intrigue with Julia, the daughter of Germanicus, and banished to Corsica in 41. He was recalled eight years later in 49 by Agrippina to be the tutor of her son Nero because of his literary reputation, which he had achieved during his exile. When Nero became Emperor in 54 AD the influence of Seneca and Burrus (prefect of the guard) kept the young emperor temporarily under control. Later, after the death of Burrus, Nero’s conduct worsened and Seneca asked permission to withdraw from court and lived in retirement devoting himself to literature. But in 65, on a charge of complicity in Piso’s conspiracy, he was ordered to take his own life. Tacitus records the calm and dignity with which he did this.

Seneca was one of the most important and prolific writers of his day, both in prose and in verse. Ten books of ethical essays (miscalled Dialogi) survive on subjects such as anger, the constancy of the stoic sage, and tranquillity of mind. Three of them are ‘consolations’ to the bereaved. He presented to Nero, early in his reign, a treatise called De Clementia (On Clemency) in which he commended this quality to the autocrat. It is possible that Shakespeare had it in mind when composing Portia’s great speech on the quality of mercy. He also wrote the De Beneficiis (On Benefits) in seven books. His Naturales Quaestiones (Studies into Nature), eight books on physical science, achieved great popularity. The Epistolae Morales (Moral Epistles), of which 124 survive, give philosophical and ethical advice to a friend. He is almost certainly the author of the Apocolocyntosis (The Pumpkinification of the Emporer Claudius), a bitter satire on the deification of Claudius. Seneca also wrote nine tragedies on Greek mythological subjects, more designed to be recited or read than acted. They are somewhat melodramatic and violent and had an influence on Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy in England out of all proportion to their merits.

Seneca’s moral writings greatly influenced or at least gained the respect of later Christian writers, to the extent that before AD 400 a forged correspondence between him and St. Paul had been composed. This was possible because of his broad humanitarian outlook. He was a stoic and shared the stoic cosmopolitan view of life and in many ways, in theory at least, he was in advance of his contemporaries. He condemned false values engendered by wealth, he denounced the cruelty of the Games and the stupidity of much in the official religion. He showed compassion to slaves and in principle rejected the concept of slavery. However, in practice, he did not really do anything towards its abolition. He believed that some portion of the divine spirit dwelt in each and every person.

The problem remains, however, that there seems to be a serious discrepancy between his ethical ideals and his actual life (such as we do not find, for example, in Socrates). To some, he appears as unduly morally complacent, and to others as a loathsome hypocrite. He had wide financial interests and was very rich. So how could, as one modern historian of Rome has put it, ‘the millionaire who flattered Polybius and showed such spite to the dead Claudius and drafted Nero’s justification for the murder of his mother, at the same time preach virtue and the simple life’?

Maybe the circumstances of his life proved too burdensome and he did what he could but has been harshly judged by some. Perhaps, as Nero’s tutor, he hoped to turn the young aspiring emperor to true virtue. In De Clementia he urged the ruler to limit his autocratic powers by self-regulation. But, as Nero became more callous, Seneca’s influence over him began to decline and he weakly condoned one excess after another, perhaps hoping to prevent worse.

Like Cicero, in retirement he devoted himself to philosophical writing, particularly the Moral Epistles, seeking inner freedom of spirit and the virtue that leads to it. Although a notable expounder of stoic doctrine and a significant Latin writer he cannot be said to rank with the great philosophers of ancient Greece.

Robin Wood is a Methodist minister and lecturer in ethics

Suggested reading
Cooper, J. M. & Procope, J. F. 1995. (eds.) Seneca: Moral and Political Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Griffin, M. 1992. Seneca: A Philosopher in Politics. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Seneca. 1969. Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Rewriting history

Chris Lawn laments our insensitivity to historical context

history200There is an orthodox view in the discipline of philosophy, prevalent in the Anglophone world, and it goes something like this. Philosophy is made up of the systematic ideas of influential individuals, and to understand the nature of the subject is to fully grasp those ideas as they appear in the unfolding history of canonical works. This thought serves a strongly pedagogical function, consequently programmes of instruction have as core components courses with “history of philosophy” in the title. These are generally divided into historical epochs: the Classical, the Medieval, and the Modern periods, leading up to something climactic called “Contemporary Philosophy”. This is often subdivided into Contemporary (Analytic) and Contemporary (Continental), indicating that in the recent past philosophy underwent a decisive split.

The working assumption behind the major divisions is not too difficult to find. It is axiomatic that philosophical ideas and systems are part of a continuous chain. This means that you cannot grasp the thoughts of Hegel, say, without having first studied his predecessors Kant and Aristotle. The philosophical tradition is made up of perennial ideas, it is assumed, but they find themselves constantly subjected to reworking over time, and in the revising process improved upon and refined. There is development in the history of philosophy, on this view, and current philosophers expose the errors and mistakes that even the heroic thinkers of the past failed to notice. All of this further assumes that the history of philosophy is as much history as it is philosophy. Philosophy cannot be studied without appreciating the degree to which ideas, and more specifically philosophical ideas, are intrinsically historical, that is, bound up with their own past.

It is frequently assumed that in the term “the history of philosophy” the “philosophy” part needs further explanation but the “history” bit can take care of itself. This is certainly questionable. For too long, certainly in the analytic tradition, the history part of the term has been ignored. The price paid for neglect is a distorted account of what the history of philosophy is. What passes in its name is not genuinely historical. For example, there are many single and multi- volume works entitled history of philosophy; most popular in this genre are Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy and Frederick Copleston’s incomplete eleven-volume History of Philosophy. These works treat the history of philosophy as an unfolding narrative. Interwoven within this are the lives and works of the great philosophers. What is offered is a lifeless chronological survey of the ideas of the “great philosophers”, presented as a seamless progression of bodies of doctrine or systems. The ideas of each individual philosopher are generally preceded by a short biographical sketch, working on the assumption that the bare outlines of the life provide sufficient socio-historical background to contextualise the work and aid interpretation. Such “histories” can be useful as a very general guide to the figures of the past. Unfortunately, they perform a disservice as philosophy is viewed as a steady incremental development. The history of philosophy is taken to be a fixed canon of unchanging texts and figures, but a more chaotic and unstructured picture would be more accurate. The history of philosophy is an impossibility: the canon constantly changes with the vagaries of philosophical fashion. I suppose Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, and Kant would always make the Premiership but as we get closer to the present day the figures to be included (or excluded!) become more controversial.

What has to be borne in mind is that the history of philosophy itself has a history. Although Plato and Aristotle were also early historians of philosophy, squaring accounts with their predecessors, the real founder of the history of philosophy is Aristotle’s pupil Theophrastus. His doxographical Opinions of the Physical Philosophers, now lost, was known to be influential. He was followed by the 3rd century CE chronicler Diogenes Laertius, an innovator in that his work was more anecdotal than straightforwardly philosophical. His ten-volume Lives of the Philosophers is an intriguing blend of hagiography and biography. He seemed to have no great gift for original thought but a real flair for gossip and a good story, working on the assumption that details of the life of the thinker – the more sensational and spicy the better – offer useful insights. Although his work could not be classed as scholarship in a modern sense, it not only is one of the most important, because unique, sources of the lives and biographies of the ancient thinkers, it attempts to be systematic albeit in a rudimentary way. His classification is still used in grouping the doctrines of the thinkers of the classical world. So durable was his schema that it became the model for the much later English language work, Thomas Stanley’s The History of Philosophy (containing the Lives, Opinions Actions and Discourses of the Philosophers of every Sect), 1655-62. Also important in this early modern period was the work of Georg Horn. His 1655 Historiae Philosophicae broke new ground in two ways. It extended history beyond the classical period, taking it up to the present day, and it smoothly grafted philosophy’s pagan past – as it was then seen – onto the more ideologically acceptable Biblical narrative.

It was in the Enlightenment that various histories of philosophy sought to emulate the ways of hard science by adopting systematic methodologies. Pioneering works by Brucker and the Kantian Wilhelm Gottlieb Tennemann are worthy of mention. With Jacob Brucker’s Critical History of Philosophy (1742-44), according to Jonathan Rée, “histories of philosophy became systematic critical studies of the evolution of philosophical systems rather than treasuries of curious tales about the lives and opinions of dead philosophers”.

Another key figure is G.W.F. Hegel. His monumental posthumously published Lectures on the History of Philosophy is an ambitious attempt to demonstrate how philosophy is no more than its development through world history. Each philosopher, on this view, is the mouthpiece of spirit- the spirit of the age- and part of a larger narrative attesting to the movement of Geist. Hegel denies any gap between philosophy and its history: in doing the history of philosophy one is simultaneously doing philosophy. Whereas Hegel collapses philosophy into history, the tradition of Brucker and Tennemann laid the foundations for the fundamental approach of analytic history of philosophy. Largely as a result of the Kantian influence, history of philosophy set up epistemology as the paradigm. The history of philosophy tended to focus exclusively upon questions relating to the extent and nature of human knowledge. This focus endures, as much history of philosophy – especially in its reading of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – concentrates almost exclusively upon those philosophers concerned with the foundations of knowledge.

A more “historical” history of philosophy would seek to construct alternative, or at least parallel, histories. Although still somewhat marginal – that is, they have failed to take centre stage – some recent philosophers have sought to construct histories of philosophy around alternative themes. Morality, evil, autonomy, identity, and selfhood are some of the themes that spring to mind here. More radically, feminist historians of philosophy have sought to expose the marginalisation of women philosophers, and have re-written them back into the canon.

Attention has already been drawn to the tension between so-called “continental” and “analytic” philosophy with the suggestion that it derives from differing versions of the historical. The task of the history of philosophy is to interpret, by reconstructing, historical (philosophical) texts. In this light, crudely stated, continental philosophy aligns itself more readily with historical reconstruction and analytic philosophy with rational reconstruction. It is necessary to elaborate on the distinctions here. Historical reconstruction depends upon reviving a lost (because past) context, as a means to enriching a text’s interpretative scope: the assumption is that when the background to a text is brought into view, the meaning of the text itself is understood with greater accuracy and insight. What is reconstructed is the detailed historical context, the cultural ground from which a text sprang. The historical reconstructor is sensitive to the fact that the work is necessarily analysed from a perspective invariably remote from the horizon of the original, and thus seeks to avoid overshadowing it with the distorting conceptual concerns of the present.

On the other hand there is rational reconstruction. Now the tendency is to pull in the opposing direction. This procedure subordinates contextual, that is biographical, sociological, and psychological, in a word, historical, aspects of the work to allegedly more philosophical (because truth-related) concerns. Often – and this is clearly evident in many analytically oriented works – contextual and historical dimensions to a text’s interpretation are played down or even forgotten. The more one focuses on the historical, the analyst claims, the more likely one is to occlude genuinely philosophical concerns. There comes a point, on this view, where too much history pushes a philosophical study into nothing more than dusty antiquarianism. Here there is a largely dismissive attitude to wide historiographical concerns, as though they somehow detract from the more solidly philosophical matters such as the formal aspects of reasoning, the logic of the arguments, and their consistency and coherence. On the strictly philosophical level, it is alleged, there is little more to the study of a text than concern for truth. The extraneous historical stuff may make a contribution to understanding an author’s psychological motivations, it may also give insights into the reception of the text through its history of interpretations, but these are sideshows subordinate to the main attraction, the philosophical worth of the work; which is, it is claimed, intrinsically related to issues of truth – to be assessed by competent philosophers and not amateurish historians and antiquarians.

Instead of occupying an impossible place in the past whilst forgetting the present, the rational reconstructor unapologetically stays in the present. Ancient texts are reconstructed in such a way that they appear to translate seamlessly into the concepts and idioms of the interpreter’s horizon. The ancient text decodes into the present and offers novel ways of expressing old problems. This procedure gives rise to its own difficulties: for example, that the nature of the reconstruction will reflect the interpreter’s fundamental philosophical commitments (and display little more than a self-interrogating ventriloquism).

Motivating historical reconstruction is a concern for “authenticity”; fidelity to the text is of paramount importance. Working on the assumption that there is an alienating distance between the “original” meaning of the text and current linguistic usage, the historical reconstructor labours to retrieve putatively original and possibly lost nuances in the text. The retrieval strategies are usually contextualising, and aim to show a text locked into a nexus of meanings, the overall senses of which have been skewed, distorted, and refracted by lexical sedimentations and semantic accretions over time. Reaching back to the horizon of the text, it is claimed, is surely a necessary part of the investigative process of correctly interpreting a text.

The central problem with this form of reconstruction is this. The more one seeks to retrieve or reconstruct ancient meanings, the more one loses sight of the particular problematic in the text as it presented itself from the interpreter’s initial perspective. The more one attempts a comprehensive historical reconstruction by locating the interpreter in the past, the more one loses sight of those questions that initially inspired the interpreter from the site of the present. Historical texts, unavoidably read in the present, create interpretive difficulties that it is assumed contextualisation mitigates. Yet as one gets closer to the historical text one loses track of the questions and concerns that drew one to the text in the first place.

When the opposing forms of reconstruction are kept separate they produce caricatures of genuine history of philosophy. The question then is: how can they be brought together to work productively, or are they mutually excusive? A move in the direction of hermeneutics, the philosophy of interpretation, makes some sort of resolution possible. In an important essay on the historiography of philosophy the American philosopher Richard Rorty claims: “the two genres (i.e. rational and historical reconstruction) can never be that independent”. It is for this reason, Rorty continues: “because you will not know much about what the dead meant prior to figuring out how much truth they knew. These two topics should be seen as moments in a continuing movement around the hermeneutic circle”. Rational and historical reconstructions work together when viewed as dimensions of the constantly turning circle of interpretation. Rationality is not a fixed point but actually part of a historical continuum; the rational will always be embedded within a historical context. “Reason exists for us only in concrete, historical terms,” says the hermeneutical philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer in Truth and Method, “it is not its own master but remains constantly dependent upon the given circumstances in which it operates.”

One of the advantages of the more hermeneutical form of reconstruction is the avoidance of a certain kind of history of philosophy, which starts from a fixed (ahistorical) position and then seeks to locate a philosopher or a text exclusively within its framework. I have in mind the multiple “-isms” and “-ists” that bedevil much modern history of philosophy. To see philosophy’s history as no more than a limited range of basic timeless positions –and the genuinely philosophical task is to figure out where a particular philosopher sits within the framework – is to efface any concern for the genuinely historical.

An approach, typical in many Anglophone history of philosophy courses, proceeds as follows. Once Descartes, for example, has been pinned down as a “dualist”, the next task is to figure out what variety of the same best fits the bill: is he a substance, a predicate, or a property dualist? The real philosophical questions, it is claimed here, surround the logical connections between the various types of dualism, and address questions about relative differences. The problems raised by Descartes’ form of dualism may be less important than the abstract notion of dualism (divorced from any historical context). This kind of reduction of the history of philosophy to a war of fixed positions turns it into a process of taxonomy and logical classification, and militates against the kind of contextualist reconstruction that a more genuinely historical understanding of a text demands. To simply label a work dualist suggests that it conforms to some essential description of duality, for which the appropriate “-ism” is convenient shorthand. To do real historical justice to a text there needs to be an appreciation of its specificity: awareness that its significance stems from its uniqueness. The reduction of texts to competing “-isms” works against any possible particularity.

An appreciation of philosophy’s past as a tentative body of contested texts, to be historically interpreted, would make for more interesting history of philosophy. The approach of much analytic philosophy to its own past needs to be radically overhauled in the light of postmodern theory, especially hermeneutics. There are signs of a renewed interest in the philosophy and theory of the history of philosophy, with analytic philosophers reflecting upon their own history; linked to this is the burgeoning number of new biographies of the great philosophers. These are promising signs but there is a great more work to be done in this area.

Chris Lawn is lecturer of philosophy at Mary Immaculate College, Ireland, and the author of The Philosophy of the History of Philosophy (Acumen, forthcoming)

My philosophy: Guillermo Martínez

Julian Baggini meets the Argentine novelist with maths on his mind

martinez200It doesn’t sound very promising: A professor of mathematics writes novels in which logic and numbers play a central part. Those who remember Satan in the Suburbs, Bertrand Russell’s foray into fiction, might well be tempted to turn away at this point. But that would be a mistake. For Guillermo Martínez turns out to be even better with words than he is with numbers.

In the Spanish speaking world, in particular his native Argentina, he is an established, multi-award winning author. However, when his debut, Regarding Roderer (Acerca de Roderere), was published in the USA in 1994, it made little impact. His follow-up La mujer del maestro (1998), was not even translated. But in 2005 his breakthrough in the English-speaking world came with his third novel, Crímenes imperceptibles, published as The Oxford Murders. It’s an ingenious and original detective novel which became a film directed by Alex de la Iglesia, and starring Elijah Wood.

Given his moody author photos and evidently formidable intellect, I was pleasantly surprised to find Martínez an affable and highly approachable interviewee when I caught up with him in Buenos Aires, where he now lives. It soon became evident talking to him that the marriage of fiction and mathematics is much more natural than you would have thought, because it allows him to explore themes common to both: the limits of logic and the role of imagination and aesthetics in reason.

Martínez’s appetite for abstract ideas was whetted in a home in which ideas and learning surrounded him. “My father was an amateur writer,” he told me. “He wrote over three hundred short stories, some plays, four or five novels. He was very interested in some fields of philosophy. He would try to explain all those topics to me and my brother.” In addition, “When I was a child, my mother was finishing her degree in literature. So my house was full of books of different sorts.”

When it came to going to the Universidad Nacional del Sur at Bahia Blanca, in his home town, however, Martínez opted for something more practical. His father had been an agricultural engineer, and in electrical engineering Martínez saw something that might similarly provide him with a sustainable livelihood. But “after two years I saw that I was not going to finish that course. During those first two years I discovered higher mathematics. I learned about different kinds of infinite sets and logical paradoxes. I was interested in mathematical logic, so I switched to that.” He then went to Buenos Aires to pursue a doctorate “I studied some of the many kinds of valid logics first developed by Lukasiewicz, the Polish mathematician. He developed those logics as counterparts corresponding to the concepts of necessity and contingency.”

Although he was also interested in the existential philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, clearly the world of Frege and Gödel was a different kind of philosophy altogether. “They were very different fields, of course. You look at Jean-Paul Sartre’s books, they are about literature and philosophy, existentialism, how to deal with ethics, the notion of freedom. When I had to study Gödel and Frege, that was a piece of maths. I was very grateful to mathematics because I think there is depth in mathematics in the possibility and the ability of building and defining very subtle differences. Mathematicians are very keen in establishing very thin and slight differences and having a concept for each one of them. It is not a surprise that many of the most important philosophers have been mathematicians. Spinoza, Kant in some sense, Leibniz, Descartes – all of them have this kind of mathematical mind.

“I think there is a deep connection between the mathematical thinking and philosophy. I have translated a book that was written by a colleague when I was in Oxford, Vladimir Tasic, called Mathematics and the Roots of Postmodern Thought. He tried to trace some of the simple discussions back to discussions in logic in the thirties. He tried to prove that the core concepts and discussions are very similar. I was very impressed by that book, it was very smart, and I translated it into Spanish.”

In Bertrand Russell’s autobiography and also in Regarding Roderer, you get a strong sense of people being attracted to mathematics because they see in it the possibility of discovering the true nature of reality. Mathematics promises a glimpse into the real underlying order of things. Martínez feels something of this urge, but is keenly aware that maths too has its limits.

“You get the notion of truth in mathematics but it is like a game in which you fix rules. In mathematics the rules are clearly fixed, so that anyone can agree what is true. Of course, then things blur a little because once you have the notion of truth you have also have the notion of what is provable, and that is a very different notion, Not everything that is true can be proved in a mechanical way. So there is this gap between the notion of truth and what can be really proved by the axiomatic machinery.

“There are some axioms that mathematicians use in their professional lives which cannot be proved, and a whole different mathematics arises if they are not allowed to use them. So in some sense you can see that a proportion of what mathematicians are constructing relies upon some faith.”

However, appreciating the limits of proof does not make Martínez sceptical about the power of reason and argument. “At each fork in the road, what happens is that you see why this limit is reached,” he says, alluding to Nietzsche. “For example, I think it is the same kind of problem the Greeks had about the square root of the number two. It is a problem because quotients and integers were the only tools they had and using those tools there weren’t able to find the square root of the number two. But with the notion of limit, which was, I don’t know, 300 years ago or something like that, there was now a way of understanding why there is a limit and which way that limit can be overcome. Now we have a way of thinking and understanding that number. I think this is the way that reasoning expands itself. It is a kind of act of act of imagination. That’s why I always say in my essays that human reason is not something that is given once and forever, it is a historical development, something that is elastic.”

What’s particularly interesting for Martínez about such acts of imagination is that, to work, they must be rationally explicable, but the means by which they arise is often mysterious.

“The way that you reach the truth in mathematics, for example, or the way a new novel comes to your thoughts – is it just coming out from a leap or is it something that comes step by step? Do you see a kind of inspiration which is the end of some hidden reasoning?” He makes great use of this idea in The Oxford Murders, where intuition and logic provide two routes to the same conclusion. “You can make a comparison with the way a chess player thinks. In some sense you know which paths cannot be taken and you are thinking of some different possibilities and all of sudden you see the best way. But you see it before you can actually say why that is the right line.”

But, of course, until you’ve shown why it is the right line, you don’t actually know if the flash of insight is genuinely insight at all. This is another theme which is dealt with imaginatively in Regarding Roderer, subtitled in the American edition “A novel about genius”, but actually much less clear-cut than this. “There is a theme of ambiguity running through the book. Maybe he was just some guy, he thought he had this kind of inspiration but it didn’t have a solid background, and so probably he was wrong.”

This way of thinking helps close the gap between art and mathematics. Martínez had reminded me of an interview I had recently read with the guitarist Robert Fripp, who reiterated an idea commonly voiced by musicians that technique is something you learn and then throw away. You practice your scales and so on until you reach a stage when you don’t have to think about it any more, it becomes intuitive. Is Martínez saying maths is like this?

“There are people like Oliver Sacks who think that mathematical thinking is connected with artistic ability. I’m not talking about the computer part, the analysis. That is clearly the left part of the brain. But the right part, which is connected with the more primitive part, he thinks that thinking about numbers and counting and all that – not the ability to perform operations, but the number patterns – is connected with musical ability. I think there is some kind of musical intuition connected with number. There is a gift, like you have the gift of perfect pitch, that allows you to think in a mathematical way. I have met many mathematicians and the way they think is very interesting. They don’t have the absolute proofs but they know if things can be proven. They think in a more Zen way, like the archer.”

Perhaps Martínez’s most intriguing notion, voiced by a character in The Oxford Murders, is that the judgement that something is right, in mathematics and philosophy, is at least in part an aesthetic one.

“There is something that happens to nature with chess players, mathematicians, writers. Nature doesn’t try every possibility. There are some patterns that are clear to you or nice to you in some way. Marx said that cats don’t study mice objectively, they study them to eat them. There is no such thing as an objective study, there is always an interest in the things you study. A machine will prove every theorem, but a mathematician doesn’t want to prove every theorem. He chooses which theorems which are interesting.”

Martínez then launches into a complicated example concerning whether or not there is chance in the universe. The way he sees it, since we’re always studying finite series of events and never the totality, we can never be sure whether the fully rational account reflects a genuine absence of chance, or whether it is a mere rationalisation. “To each finite piece of knowledge, you have the machinery of explanation, but you still don’t know what happens with the whole series. Both ways of seeing are right in some sense. So people who say everything is chance could be right, but who knows if the whole series is the flipping of a coin; and those who say, no, everything is rational, they have part of the truth because everything we know can be explained.”

But isn’t it true that, although any finite series can be given a rationale, it is still the case that sometimes there are good reasons for saying that one is the better one?

“Again, it is an aesthetic one. Many times people say the second one is not as elegant, not as accurate perhaps, but it suits better. But there’s no way of really explaining that aesthetic judgement.”

The concern is that we like elegance, but reality may not be elegant at all.

“I think it is an acute and difficult problem with the way that proofs appear in mathematics now. Before a proof was something that a normal person in a normal life could check from beginning to end. Now a proof can be something run by a program, so the complexity, the kind of calculation, is totally different. Now a person in his whole life is not able to reach the end of the proof. What is elegant for a computer is no longer elegant for a person.”

In his fiction, Martínez explores the way in which we are able to impose structure on reality, precisely because the true structure is never fully given to us. This can happen retrospectively as well: something happens that we can later describe in ways we couldn’t at the time. Though in some sense this is inevitable, it is clearly also open to abuse.

“I was in the States when the attacks on the twin towers happened. When I went back one year after that I was very interested in all the fuss about Saddam Hussein and the way the media were super-imposing that reality on the citizens – all that discussion of weapons of mass destruction. All those things which were false and I knew that. I had the intuition that everything was just an excuse to go into Iraq. I was impressed to see how from one year to another they managed to change reality, and to impose something which was a total lie on 250 million people.”

But isn’t it the case that Martínez shows the possibility of doing something much more subtle than merely spreading lies? In The Oxford Murders, there is a true sequence of events about what happens. But the significance of what happens changes according to the interpretation, and the significance is the important thing. So it’s not just the ability to rewrite history falsely, which governments do, but it’s more subtle – the ability to rewrite history accurately, if you like.

“It’s to lie with truth,” he agrees. “Not just to lie – everyone can do that – but to lie like a magician, with all the cards on the table. That is the trick in the book.”

Martínez is justly pleased with the way his books have made maths interesting. “I am very proud that many people who really hate maths, after reading my book for a couple of hours even had the feeling that they understood some of that. Many times in maths that is what happens – you don’t really understand line by line but you have the feeling that you see something, you almost understand, but you get the impression that you almost reach some truth. And I think many people for the first time in their lives gave maths this kind of second opportunity after high school.”

But his books are not mere mathematical versions of Sophie’s World. Fiction is not just a vehicle for maths, the two fit much more closely together, illuminating something of the nature of both, and more.

“In some sense I believe like Henry James that fiction competes with reality. For example, this novel changed my life, in a very material way. And many books I read changed my way of thinking.”

Julian Baggini‘s latest book is Should You Judge This Book by Its Cover?

Review: Rescuing Justice & Equality

Rescuing Justice & Equality
by G.A. Cohen
(Harvard University Press)
£29.95/$45 (hb)

Jerry Cohen's valedictory lecture © Chris Bertram

Jerry Cohen's valedictory lecture © Chris Bertram

Rescuing Justice & Equality forms part of a stream of writings about egalitarian justice which Cohen has produced over the last 20 years. It collects together, updates and adds to a number of key papers and arguments that he has produced over the period. The themes pursued here continue directly from the concerns of Cohen’s last book If You’re An Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich?, even reproducing one of its chapters.

Cohen’s egalitarianism issues from a “deep normative conviction” – a conviction about how things should be – which maintains that justice “roughly” requires economic equality. Cohen does not offer a defence of this principle; indeed, he states that it is difficult to defend such deep convictions, “except against attack”. Therefore Cohen’s general approach is to take on philosophers who advance theories of distributive justice which offend against his deep conviction. In other places Cohen has written at length about threats to achievement of economic equality posed by theories from leading contemporary political philosophers such as Robert Nozick and Ronald Dworkin. In this book his criticisms are trained almost wholly against John Rawls and the economic inequalities that his theory sanctions in the name of justice.

The first part of the book centres on a critique of Rawls’ second principle of justice – the “Difference Principle”. The second criticises Rawls’ “constructivist” methodology for justice and especially Rawls’ use of an Original Position to unearth and justify principles of justice.

Rawls’ Difference Principle allows inequalities in income and wealth only if such inequality maximises what goes to the least well off groups in society and makes them better off than they would be in an economy of strict economic equality. This principle accommodates the fact that extra financial incentives and an economy of inequality might be required in order to get the talented to produce in ways which maximise what can be allocated to the worst off.

Cohen’s aim is to rescue economic equality from threats posed to it by the extra equality-subverting material incentives which talented producers demand for their efforts. He claims that it might be “sensible” to operate an economic policy which is sensitive to such facts about the motivations of high-flying producers; however we shouldn’t call an economy which relies on such facts about human motivation, or the narrowly self-seeking attitudes of high-flying producers which make such facts true, just. In part one Cohen attempts to show in various ways that given Rawls’ professed egalitarian commitments, such selfish behaviour cannot be vindicated by the terms of Rawls’ own theory.

In part two Cohen’s concerns with Rawls are more abstract and deal with issues in theoretical ethics raised by the criticisms presented in part one. Here Cohen’s aim is to rescue the very concept of justice from Rawls. Cohen’s striking claim is that Rawls’ principles of justice are not “principles of justice” at all. They are actually “optimal rules for social regulation”. For Cohen, Rawls claims too much about what he has achieved in his Theory of Justice. Rawls can’t claim the label of justice because the normative principles – the principles which tell us how things ought to be – which he defends are shaped by and hostage to facts (such as facts about human motivation and productivity in the formulation of the Difference Principle). For Cohen “facts are irrelevant in the determination of fundamental principles of justice.”

Rawls’ dependence on facts for justice occurs in the methodology that he uses for his theory. This requires that justice must be constructed from an Original Position in which parties consider alternative normative theories and “the conditions of our life as we know it” (which include facts about human nature and the human situation) before they choose principles to govern the basic structure of society.

For some, Rawls inclusion of the “conditions of life” clause is a virtue of his theory. It gives it a worldly quality and seems to make his views about justice relevant to, applicable for, and achievable in our lives. Cohen claims that facts can’t enable us to know or justify the normative principles that Rawls claims. Facts can’t support principles in the way that Rawls assumes. This is because if a fact supports a normative principle then this is because of a deeper normative principle that makes that fact relevant to the first principle. At the pure bedrock of justice are fact-free normative principles. Rawls’ theory fails to operate at, or even recognise, this “Platonic” bedrock.

The central claims of both parts of the book are interesting and highly original contributions to contemporary debates in liberal egalitarian philosophy. Arguments for these claims are conducted in Cohen’s characteristically forensic analytical style. This book is philosophers’ philosophy. It will be challenging for those who are uninitiated in the academic twists and turns of debates about Rawls’ A Theory of Justice and the ins and outs of academic debates in liberal egalitarianism.

Rajeev Sehgal is a senior lecturer in philosophy at Roehampton University