Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Theory Of Heaps

Hannah Arendt famously talked of, when writing on Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem, the banality of evil: that it does not wear a mask of open contempt for moral standards, that it does not exalt in its violation of those standards, that it is not a Hannibal Lecter-like figure, smiling as it gleefully discusses eating someone's liver with expensive Italian vegetables, but tries to reassure itself of its probity, its basic moral uprightness, the difficulty of its position, that it was just following orders, that it comes not from a too perfect understanding of other people's pain, but from a failure of that capacity, a quite ordinary lack of empathy.

The little increments matter. Each extra indignity, the next small piece of suffering inflicted, failed, I suppose, for men like Eichmann to mount up, but were somehow seen in isolation, as acts and events missing important connections to other, similar, acts and events. Not just that though, for surely the point is that as well as missing the sum of these horrors, they missed them as horrors individually. Not only did the genocide of Jews and other so-called undesirables qua genocide pass these people by, but each of the steps, the downward cycle of chipping away at their status as a bearer of rights, each a crime, went un-noticed. The increments matter, because it is only when they go unremarked upon that the greater horrors can be widely enough contemplated to be achieved.

I remember the most heart-rending thing about studying Nazism through documents during my A-Level history course, for example, being the last document in the textbooks we used, a list of the numbers of Jews murdered in the Holocaust by country. Tens of thousands here, hundreds of thousands there, and eventually millions in Poland and the USSR. Six million can seem like an unimaginable thing until you see it laid out like that, increment upon increment, mounting and mounting on, seemingly endlessly, these already huge numbers piling on top of each other, their orders of magnitude growing, until the incomprehensibly evil becomes comprehensible through an understanding of each of its parts. It gives you a sense of scale. You understand how terrible it was by understanding that the horror of even the smallest of its parts is at the edge of understanding.

So, increments matter. The little details matter. Understanding things bit by bit matters. And now, the reveal: this, by John Emerson, is wrong. What it wants is grand systems, philosophy painted with broad strokes, Hegel's two page long sentences on the inquities of the Neapolitans and Montesquieu's theory that different climates have different effects on the elasticity of the nerves and thus on temprament. More, the less said about the idea of giving up on truth, the better. Much analytical philosophy may be badly written and obsessed with logic, and at times wilfully obscurantist and overcome with an urge to systematise. What it is good at though, is attention to detail.

My mother, having been fed a line by someone still kicking at Plato's shins, once expressed, half-jokingly, the worry that I might be drawn into the study of the theory of heaps. The theory of heaps, even though I'm not personally interested in it, matters: it is, as Rorty correctly identifies, about vagueness, about how precise and how knowable the boundaries between concepts are. The idea is, if we can get clear about the precision and knowability of the boundaries of the concept of a heap, we'll have better idea about how vague in general concepts are. Since if we don't have a good idea of how vague concepts are in general, we are liable to make mistakes when using them, to call things by the wrong name, to become confused, this seems to me eminently sensible work, even if initially apparently rather ridiculous. But then, it is easy to forget how the little increments, the individal details, matter.


cirdan said...

Well said, Rob.

It's strange how people can, and do, simultaneously believe that:
1. it's important to think clearly,
2. one obstacle to clear thought is that real life isn't as 'linear' as logic,
3. that vagueness is trivial.

Ben said...

I thought it was good to see a criticism of analytic philosophy that didn't wonder of into Hegel, Derrida, and other nonsense.

For what it's worth, I think he has some merit - in a 'there's room for something else too' rather than an 'all that is a waste of time' way.

One thing I found really annoying reading about Berlin was to find a number of commentators say 'actually we can distinguish nine different conceptions of liberty that Berlin runs together'. Sure, there's a place for precision, but we do group people as liberals, democrats, etc. If all we do is make divisions, we can never talk about anything more than unique particulars. Sometimes a borader picture is also useful.

Phil said...

'actually we can distinguish nine different conceptions of liberty that Berlin runs together'

Ha. I made my first appearance on the LRB letters page, many years ago, arguing (contra Thomas Nagel) that even two conceptions of liberty is one too many: freedom-from is inconceivable except as a set of freedoms-to. (This has the air of an insight too obvious to have been missed, which suggests that it's probably wrong. Still works for me, though.) Which is to say that I don't think going down the analytic philosophy route necessarily entails a commitment to splitting rather than lumping.

Rob - I followed the 'Plato's shins' link; I wanted to find out what argument lurked behind that intriguing phrase, and who had made it. I know now. I appear to have been much cleverer in 2005.

Rob Jubb said...


but he makes it clear in the comments that that's what he's interested in: stuff which, from what I know of it, makes most analytical philosophy seem remarkably clear and simple. In the last LRB, there was an article by Fredric Jameson which, whilst reviewing a book by Slavoj Zizek, offers a distinction between philosophy and theory where philosophy is bad because it is systematising and theory, through its contingency, its lack of system, is not. To this, I say, bollocks, especially when Hegel - with the ultimate systemic claim about the movement of the geist through history - is invoked as a theoretician. Which isn't of course to say that the 'there are nine different types of freedom' stuff is not, at the boundary at least, a little ridiculous. What's particularly irritating about this kind of thing is that it dislikes analytical philosophy's attention to detail yet wants more on thick, particular concepts. Exactly how are you going to get more on thick, particular concepts, except through attention to detail?


what you want here is G. MacCallum and his tripartite theory of liberty, which claims that all claims about freedom are comprehensible as something of the type 'freedom for x from y to z'. An excellent piece of analytical philosophy, even if I do say so myself, precisely because it identifies the grounds of which the argument takes place: exactly what kinds of things does it make sense for us to talk about being free, what exactly does it makes sense for us to talk about being free from, and what exactly does it makes sense for us to talk about being free to.