Thursday, January 24, 2013

Rocking Chairs For Cretins

The idea of advertising food under the name 'organic energising detox salad' disgusts me. The idea that food, a thing of pleasure, should be a way of removing poisons from your body, of atoning for your excesses is vile. Not only does it corrupt what should be an act of bodily enjoyment into one of repentance, of life-denial, but it requires an attitude that treats the rest of one's life as toxic, the rest of what one ingests as poisons. The licence to condemn it freely grants itself encompasses a whole life: it demands an attitude of pious abnegation towards everything, as if anything else one might consume were an act of sacrilege, a destruction of the icons, a sapping of the spirit. And yet this is supposed to be a way of enticing people to eat, to perpetuate a life that cannot but be racked by guilt. How monstrously patronising, how infantilising.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A Confederacy Of Dunces

The idea that Rousseau can be shown to be some kind of totalitarian, abusing the rhetoric of freedom to require people to fit his narrow vision of what it is to be human, in virtue of the infamous 'forced to be free' passage in The Social Contract seems to me one of the greatest calumnies ever perpetrated on a philosopher. The context in which that obviously provocative claim is made is of the problem of a legislative body having "no guarantee of the subjects' engagements if it did not find means to ensure their fidelity" (SC 1.7.6); the problem of people enjoying "the rights of a citizen without being willing to fulfil the duties of a subject" (SC 1.7.7), a problem which if not resolved would "legitimate civil engagements... absurd, tyrannical and liable to the most enormous abuses" (SC 1.7.8). What is Rousseau worrying about here then? Is it whether citizens will collaborate in his diabolical plans to turn them all into tools of his mad utopian vision, or is instead something like, what happens if people don't obey the law, if they enjoy its protection but won't heed its commands, if they exploit the willingness of others to restrain themselves to run riot? Clearly the latter. The worry is about how effective a law can be without coercive force to back it up. This is why being constrained to obey the general will "guarantees" the citizen "against all personal dependence" (SC 1.7.8). The law, as given by the general will, protects against domination and exploitation by others by providing everyone with a guarantee of their status and so giving them no reason to aggress on others. Anyone who thinks that law is some kind of solution to a coordination problem - say, Locke, Hume, any sensible member of the liberal tradition who thinks that life under political authority is freer than one where everyone else is a potential threat - agrees with Rousseau about being forced to be free. Rousseau may be mad, but it's not because he thinks we can be forced to be free. Anyone who thinks they're freer living in an ordered society than in a world of disorder and chaos thinks that, and for exactly the same reasons.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A City Full of Asperger's People

Craig Taylor's introduction to his series of interviews with people who have lived in London, clearly itself a labour of love, is such paean to the city that I, hardened Londoner, almost began to well up on the tube, not least for the explanation, whose boldness almost vindicates the otherwise outrageous claim it accompanies, of why a month's living in London made a new arrival from the north a native:

But it was a very good month... I've totally forgotten Macclesfield.

As of course one should.

Wot I Has Learned

that Thomas Nagel continues his attack on his reputation as a philosopher of competence, let alone insight, by insisting that the only way to solve the mind-body problem is to observe that he finds Darwinism 'insufficiently reassuring'; that Jerry Fodor may be capable of pleasingly pithy summaries and putdowns, but he doesn't seem to be so good at writing clearly for a non-professional audience and hasn't understood that if you attack analyticity in the name of holism in one way, it's difficult to avoid its implications in another - that if the reason batchelors are unmarried men is how it fits into our web of concepts, we might care about how we actually use the term, batchelors; that the British Foreign Service is still, in all probability, staffed by polished upper class men who believe that some banalities along the lines of history not running in straight lines and human nature being a struggle between our better and worse spirits are analysis of the prospects for international organisation, and, more, an excuse for, in an otherwise adjectiveless list of nationalities, the description of Russians as glowering; and that brain surgery, when written about well, can be genuinely disturbing.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

The View From Nowhere

One of Bernard Williams' complaints about much contemporary philosophy was that it lacked an adequate theory of error, that it couldn't explain how it was that whole traditions of thought it rejected had gone often so seriously wrong, and that because of this, we ought to think again about its claims to correctness; if it had little or nothing to say about what it was that had made some evidently very clever people make these systematic mistakes, then what reason do we have to be sure it is not making similar ones? If you haven't thought about how in the past and elsewhere, thinkers powerful enough to have gained a reputation that ensured them a reading, not all of whom can have sold themselves, fell into error, it ought to be difficult to be confident you haven't done the same. One answer, an answer Williams himself tended to favour, was that we shouldn't necessarily expect convergence on views in subjects like philosophy; of course there are standards of success, of better and worse arguments, but because philosophy is a humanistic discipline, because it is about our relation to the world, who exactly we are matters. If we are not asking the same questions as others, whether they be figures in the history of philosophy or simply from somewhere else, we should not be troubled by the fact that they get different answers, though we may learn something from it.

One of the curiousities of Williams demanding this reflexiveness about our philosophical practice is that it's not obvious that he consistently engaged in it himself. He could be quite historically and culturally reflexive, trying quite carefully to see what it was that differentiated the questions we ask, and the context they are asked in, from the questions other elsewhere have asked and do ask. He had that kind of theory of error. What he didn't seem to have was a theory of error for all the people he accused of lacking a theory of error - though it may be that I've just missed it. These people probably made up the majority of his discipline though; for all his brilliance, Williams was, perhaps increasingly as his career went on, somewhat marginal to anglophone philosophy. That was perhaps a rather difficult position to be in though, believing most of your colleagues are deeply mistaken but not being quite clear about why. Not only is there the straightforwardly philosophical worry about how the phenomenon is explained and what an absence of an explanation means, the doubt that casts on your own reasonsing, but there's a professional and personal problem. Quite apart from the persecution complexes it is surely a spur to, without a macro-level explanation of their error, you're left with the option of giving up your view that they're wrong or assuming that they're all idiots or for sale, that the discipline you choose attracts (holy) fools and the corrupt. Surely there are things to be said at the macro-level, some of which may turn on the personalities of particular, prominent figures, but it should be said.