Monday, 17 December 2012

Terry Lecturer's critics

I am reflecting further on responses posted on Ophelia Benson’s website to (Karen Armstrong's review of ) Marilynne Robinson's 2009 Terry Lectures.
Scanning these comments, most of which come from offended Richard Dawkins devotees, it is noticeable that there are a number expressing hurt that Armstrong/Robinson seem to attribute to them (i.e. scientists or the scientist-authors whose works Robinson examines) a diminished capacity for feeling or experience.

I think there is something of real insult and hurt coming through here, not only that some purport to experience or feel differently from, or more than, oneself, but because of the challenge this purported feeling-other poses to a deeply held conviction that every state of feeling is translatable into every other state of feeling; or, to put it another way, the conviction that there is no expression of feeling that cannot be re-expressed in simpler ways.

I think such a conviction – a fundamental idea of how the world really is – arises in individuals in order not to feel lack, i.e. in order not to feel envy and hence preserve ego. The conviction may be all the more strongly held because it chimes with notions of democracy in which all individuals are held to be equal.

Anyone reading D H Lawrence who carries such a convction will probably feel the same revulsion. Lawrence seems to be all about showing human dis-equality (of inner life) to be the actual state of things and that the wrong categories of thinking are applied as soon as we entertain the idea of an equality of human being.

In my view Kierkegaard's writings act to convey the same truth, in beautiful and humorous ways.

I think J S Mill provides a fantastic resource for bringing this strange and inflammatory area to the surface, and de-fusing it, in his essay “Bentham”, (1838). Here is Mill on Bentham’s tendency to deny the existence of feeling states in others that he does not find in himself.

“The bad part of [Bentham’s] writings is his resolute denial of all that he does not see, of all truths but those which he recognizes. By that alone has he exercised any bad influence upon his age; by that he has, not created a school of deniers, for this is an ignorant prejudice, but put himself at the head of the school which exists always, though it does not always find a great man to give it the sanction of philosophy; thrown the mantle of intellect over the natural tendency of men in all ages to deny or disparage all feelings and mental states of which they have no consciousness in themselves.

The truths which are not Bentham's, which his philosophy takes no account of, are many and important; but his non-recognition of them does not put them out of existence; they are still with us, and it is a comparatively easy task that is reserved for us, to harmonize those truths with his. To reject his half of the truth because he overlooked the other half, would be to fall into his error without having his excuse. For our own part, we have a large tolerance for one-eyed men, provided their one eye is a penetrating one: if they saw more, they probably would not see so keenly, nor so eagerly pursue one course of inquiry.”

Friday, 14 December 2012

Dwight H Terry Lectures at Yale University

When a Marxist friend commended Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion", I responded that Dawkins' atheism is no atheism, because it is so narrow in what it claims to be religious.

I referred my friend to a book that came up in 2009, very soon after I had completed a post-grad programme of study of fine art (with my Marxist friend) at the Royal College of Art in London, called "Reason, Faith and Revolution",  the Terry Lectures given by the Marxist literary critic and academic Terry Eagleton in 2008.

In this book I found an effective and often funny criticism of the whole "new" atheist wave.
But a lot better was to come, in my view. Marilynne Robinson, American novelist and academic, in her Terry Lectures of 2009, "Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self", undertook an acute analysis of the tropes present in what she calls "para-scientific" literature - that literature in which social and cultural conclusions are extrapolated from science by authors who are predominantly scientists.

It's a long time now since I was really hungry for the thinking displayed by Eagleton and Robinson, caught as I was in a long internal battle with an inherited Benthamite world-view. But I still go back and re-read, while my slightly over-wrought nervous system settles down and becomes sensitive to sight, sound and touch again.

I recently dropped by the Terry Lectures website, and watched two lectures from the 2011 guest lecturers  Joel Primack and Nancy Abrams. I have since then watched the 2012 film "The Master", about the charismatic leader and vulnerable underling in a quasi-scientific religious order. However well-intentioned they might be with regard to assuaging secular globalism with a science-based religion, the daft cosmic symbology of the "Oroborus" and all the other stuff that Abrams and Primack were going on about could surely only produce what that movie portrays. I put it to the lecturers, by e-mail, that they were about founding a religion not dissimilar to Auguste Comte's "Religion of Humanity". They politely and slightly condescendingly put me right.

In 2010, Marilynne Robinson came in for (via a British reviewer of her book, and author in her own right, Karen Armstrong) some lambasting on the blog created by Ophelia Benson called "Butterflies and Wheels".
I was about to write that "Robinson's book" came in for some lambasting, but that would be a mis-description of the contents of the commentary you will find there. I entered the commentary very late, but had an exchange with Ophelia Benson, which I reproduce here for the sake of interest.
What do you think?

The post/article appeared in October 2010 in the blog set up by Ophelia Benson called "Butterflies and Wheels" (a reference to Mary Midgley's use of the phrase "breaking a butterfly on a wheel" - originally from Alexander Pope - when describing why she did not immediately respond to the book "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins when it was published in 1976).

The post/article is still here.
It was in-keeping with a fair number of other articles and posts criticising those who reacted against the "new atheism" of Dawkins et al. In this case, the ultimate target was not Karen Armstrong, but Marilynne Robinson, whose book 'Absence of Mind' had, at that time, just been published.

I was tempted to respond to Ophelia Benson's post, but wary because discussion between opponents and proponents of "new atheism" can easily resolve into name calling - one side naming something, and the other side denying it exists, or what not.
It seems to me that a way through (a tip given by former Archbishop of Canterbury Rev R Williams in his entertaining talk with Prof Jim Al Khalili) is by appealing to the notion of reasoning that is yet not science. I only needed to emphasise the point that writing about science (or about science-writing or popular-science, which is what Marilynne Robinson is doing in her book 'Absence of Mind'), while not a science, is nevertheless something that can be done well and less well. It can also be done "expertly", perhaps taking the form of literary criticism.

I want to defend Armstrong and Robinson, and Yale for their choice of “Terry” lecturers, and Yale’s maintaining the lectureship.
In response to your early remark “Yale invites some very odd fish to give lectures on subjects they don’t seem to know much about”, I would ask: do you believe Richard Dawkins knows a lot about religion?
You seem to be exasperated that anyone should give time to or think of criticising positivist thinking. Perhaps you feel that it simply doesn’t help matters to do such a thing: “Oh yay, a much-needed critique of the reductionism of positivism and the folly of thinking that science is better at finding out things than more amateurish brands of inquiry.”
Well, here you seem to allow that there can be non-scientific “brands” of enquiry. I agree. But “more amateurish” than scientific enquiry? Is that not an odd adjective to use? With it you seem to suggest that lines of enquiry that are not scientific have as their goal (because they are amateur) to get really good (perhaps you’d say “more professional”) and eventually good enough to be classed as “scientific”. Is this not a neat example of positivist thinking?
If you don’t like the writers that Yale have chosen for their Terry lectures, then perhaps you would be interested in three writers who, I believe, provide canonical arguments for the view that there are problems that are not-scientific, that science is not the mode of enquiry to address them and that the modes of enquiry that are appropriate to them, while not scientific, are yet rational: Karl Popper (e.g. “The Nature of Philosophical Problems” in Conjectures and Refutations, 1962); Isaiah Berlin (e.g. “The Divorce Between the Sciences and the Humanities” in “Against the Current”) and J S Mill (e.g. “Bentham”, 1838)

 Ophelia Benson
I think Dawkins knows a good deal more about religion than Marilynne Robinson knows about science. (Also – has Yale asked Dawkins to lecture on religion?)
What exactly do you mean by positivism? It tends to be an elastic word.
Most scientists agree (and even say “of course”) that there are lines of inquiry that are not scientific. It doesn’t follow from that that novelists are the best people to lecture on the epistemology of science. I’d be more interested in a philosopher on that subject. I think it’s naive to treat novelists as some kind of universal genius.

Hi Ophelia, and thanks for responding to my comment.
I agree, it does not follow from “there are lines of enquiry that are not scientific” to the conclusion “novelists are the best people to lecture on the epistemology of science”. However, you will surely allow that non-scientific lines of enquiry, lines of reasoning, may yet have something to say on epistemology? After all the long-standing investigation that has come to be called “epistemology” is an open question. It is only a particular philosophical stance that seeks to equate science with epistemology (which, by the way, I would offer as another pretty good definition of positivism), and it is a stance that may be contested, as it was, for example, by Karl Popper. In other words, what scientists have to say (write) about epistemology is to be judged according to its robustness as philosophy, not as science.
In their writing (“popular” or otherwise) scientists seem to say and write little about epistemology, or philosophy of science, presumably because it rarely comes up for them as something to be questioned or consulted. (The philosopher Hilary Putnam remarked on this in a televised conversation). Richard Dawkins seems to be no exception. If he does not write or say things about epistemology (or philosophy) could it be because he knows that he does not know much about it? Or perhaps he has been given little cause to think about it? Yet we know others do think about it, about “how we know” and “what we know”, and these people are not limited to scientists, nor are only scientists entitled to think about it. To regard such questions as only to be addressed by or in science is a philosophical stance (another fairly good definition of positivism, I think) and one that can be challenged, as, again, it was by Karl Popper.
You say that you would be more interested to hear a philosopher lecture on epistemology (of science) than Marilynne Robinson, or rather “novelists”. Here I have two responses.
Firstly I do not accept that Robinson, in her book “Absence of Mind” is lecturing on epistemology (of science). I think the subtitle of her book is much closer to what is being lectured on, i.e. “The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self”. I would assume that these terms are used deliberately by the author in view of the close analysis she gives of examples of what she calls “para-scientific” literature that aims either to render them meaningless or takes them to be meaningless. But in doing so, she exposes, I think quite convincingly, the authors’ often unstated prior belief of what they set out to prove. In other words, she draws attention to the philosophical stance that is conveyed through the writing, including sometimes “epistemology”.
Secondly, you say that you would be more interested to hear a philosopher lecture on epistemology than “novelists”, that is, you express a preference. Many would agree with you. But, supposing for the moment that Robinson was lecturing on epistemology, someone might ask you “Why do you have that preference?” I suppose you (or the questioner) may be dissatisfied with the reply “Because she is a novelist”. I would suppose you would want to offer reasons why “novelists’” views on epistemology do not interest you (as much). But then that may also not seem satisfactory, because novelists are individuals. To speak that way one would seem to need to offer general characteristics of “novelists” regarding their understanding of epistemology. But to do that and remain fair to “novelists” would seem to require at least some familiarity with some novelists. But if pressed further to justify ones preference it would also seem to require some in-depth knowledge of some, or at least one, novelist, i.e. possibly to a degree at which you would be able to point to the individual(novelist)’s position on epistemology. Probably the individual novelist will not have produced work in which that position is never explicitly stated (though there may be exceptions; Iris Murdoch, possibly), but it may nevertheless be possible, on examination of her writings, to guess at all kinds of ideas and thoughts and speculations about how people are that underpin the writings. But if you go down that path, to that extent, then I suppose you will be doing something like the study of literature. You may even end up writing a novel!

Ophelia Benson

  • Of course I will allow that non-scientific lines of enquiry, lines of reasoning, may yet have something to say on epistemology. I said that. I certainly don’t equate science with epistemology. I think that’s a bit of a strawman.
    Life is short. If I want to learn more about epistemology, I would rather learn it from people I have reason to think knowledgeable on the subject.

  • Alastair

  • Life is short, yes.
    Of course fiction is an art form. To regard fiction as not very good epistemology or sociology is a misapprehension, as it would be to regard Robinson (a fiction writer), at least in the performance of her Terry Lectures, as a not very good epistemologist claiming to lecture on epistemology. But I don’t see it that way. Surely what she has done is more accurately described as literary criticism? She’s examined the style and form of expression prevalent in what she calls “para-scientific” writing, because these are themselves indicative of thinking. As the literary critic FR Leavis once wrote “criticism of the style, here, becomes, as it follows down into analysis, criticism of the thought” (Richmond Lecture, 1962). What Robinson brings to the “para-scientific” writings of the science professionals Richard Dawkins, E O Wilson, Steven Pinker and others is the writing professional’s alertness to writing.

  • Ophelia Benson

  • October 30, 2012 at 9:47 am

  • Well, I suppose I agree with that basic idea, especially since most of my writing does the same thing. But I think it can be carried way too far, such that lit crits start to imagine themselves universal experts.


  • Which “lit crits”? When?
    A claim to “universal” expertise is not something I see on display here, in this work by Marilynne Robinson. The tone, if anything, is modest and questioning. I am prepared to accept that what is scrutinised in the work, i.e. certain writing, is in the domain of her expertise as a novelist and teacher of literature. That she actually has this expertise is, I believe, shown in the care and acuity with which she conducts the analysis of the writing and presents her case (“the dispelling of inwardness from the modern myth of the self”). That care – over the use and application of terms – surely indicates a respect for the intelligence of her readers and acknowledgement that the matters at hand are important and demand care if they are to be addressed? I think she also brings a certain deflationary humour to things even when the matters are serious, which I think is incredibly valuable.
  • Tuesday, 13 November 2012

    Vocabulary and speech

    If Winston Churchill crafted brilliant speeches to the nation and Parliament during WWII, it was not by virtue of his appartently very great - i.e. many words - vocabulary. (Who said that his was a great vocabulary? - Probably Churchill himself - Who counted? Why bother?) It conjures up the idea that there is a minimum number of words that need to be known in order to write a great speech. How many is that? When does one know that one has passed the threshold?

    Muhammad Ali delivered a powerful speech once, so it is said by someone in Scorcese's film "When We Were Kings", comprising just two words: "Me. We." Inspired!