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Poseurs, frauds and pseuds have taken over philosophy
The elegant writers of old are gone, says Patrick West. Now philosophy is full of exhibitionist gobbledygook
Philosophy at 3:AM
by Richard Marshall
What’s the point of philosophers these days? Not much, if you ask your average lay person or journalist. Philosophy, most of us would say, has become arcane, obscure, too technical and trivial. Such a perception was made manifest during the notorious Alan Sokal hoax of 1996, when the scientist concocted an essay of pure gibberish and successfully submitted it to an academic journal. It seemed to confirm the view that modern philosophy has become obscurantist, and a repository for frauds and pseuds.
It’s this impression that Philosophy at 3:AM seeks both to explain and to redress. Based on the cultural/literary website 3ammagazine.com, it’s a collection of question-and-answer interviews with 25 contemporary philosophers of all hues, from metaphysicians and logicians to ethicists and linguists.
The cry that “philosophy has become too obscure” is akin to “the young are badly behaved” or “our language is becoming debased” – it’s ancient and eternal. Sure, modern analytical philosophy can seem overly technical, and the continental variety can veer into exhibitionist gobbledygook. This appears especially so when you compare both schools to the beautiful literary philosophy of yore: Camus, Freud, Nietzsche, Rousseau.
But there has always been dry, technical philosophy: Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Hume’s Treatise, Aristotle, Aquinas and Hegel. As the America metaphysician Eric T Olson argues here: “Philosophy is hard. That’s its nature. No one would expect serious works of physics or mathematics or economics (as opposed to popularisations) to be immediately accessible to intelligent readers with no training in the subject. Why should philosophy be any different?” Philosophy at 3:AM thus emerges less as a book on philosophy than one about it. And here lies a problem – or perhaps the problem.
I’m not sure a lay reader would want to read a book in which philosophers talk about their own discipline. Such navel-gazing only seems to reinforce the perception that philosophers are out-of-touch. This collection is thus a symptom of the problem it’s trying to address.
The use of the impersonal female pronoun from the outset is a case a point. When speaking hypothetically, I would prefer an alternating “he” or “she”, or even a “s/he”, to a question-raising, flow-stopping impersonal “she” and “her”. Keep it simple: the first rule of good writing. There is also the name-dropping. “Philosophical enquiry,” asks one philosopher, “is that the sort of thing Aristotle and Hume were doing, or the sort of thing that Kripke and Gettier were doing?” The last two are hardly household names. Add to this, the often sycophantic tone of the interviewer: “Your ideas blow away many so-called radicals such as Foucault, and your conclusions, couched in very cool, precise language, belie their corrosive impact...” Yuk!
It’s a pity, because if you persevere, there is much interesting matter here. Patricia Churchland suggests that moral behaviour preceded religion by 200,000 years and religions evolve into monotheism – yet Confucians, Buddhists and Taoists continue to live without deities.
While Gary Gutting rightly derides Derrida’s writing as needlessly obscure and repetitive, he defends him as a serious and valuable philosopher. The meaning of words are forever unstable, and we shouldn’t be afraid to accept this. Brian Leiter dismisses Derrida as a “poseur”, while standing up for Foucault, who diagnosed how “individuals in the modern era become agents of their own oppression”. To be sure, Foucault belongs to the category of seductive literary philosopher, but it was Freud who first truly elaborated how people internalise rules, becoming the oppressors of themselves.
Eric T Olson explores the Theory of Forms using the tale of Theseus, the mythical king of Athens who builds a ship and goes to sea. He occasionally returns to port to replace the ship’s worn pieces until eventually every one of them has been exchanged. In the meantime, the local museum has been collecting the cast off pieces, which it manages to assemble just as they were when Theseus first set sail. So there are now two ships: the repaired ship at sea and the reconstructed ship in the museum. Which of the two is Theseus’s original ship? Olson concludes that both are.
Michael Lynch regrets the rejection of objective truth in modern philosophy. “It is not just a metaphysical mistake; it is a political one,” he says, while Graham Priest delves into motion, contradiction and paradox: “For something to be in motion is not for it to be in one place and one time, and another at another, but at one and the same time to both be and not be in a place.” It can indeed be difficult to resolve place and movement: this is why prepositions are so different and difficult in foreign languages (in Italian you say you are “at” a city, irrespective of whether you are going there or situated there; and you say you are “in” a country whether you are heading or actually there).
Finally, Eric Schwitgebel asks why professors of ethics slam doors, talk rudely during presentations, leave behind rubbish at their seats – and why among university libraries, textbooks on ethics are stolen more than the average.
This is all very interesting, but it’s also very bitty. What could have been a good book is ruined by its presentation in a deeply unsatisfactory format.
The Middle Ages make us look uncivilised
We're told the medieval era was full of flat-earthers, witch-drowning and deaths by Iron Maiden. But that's pure fiction, says Patrick West
It’s customary among journalists today to describe barbaric and senseless behaviour as “medieval”, and the reaction to recent beheadings at the hands of Islamists in the Middle East has been no exception. In the Times Matthew Syed applied the word to Islamic fundamentalists’ treatment of women, while a Daily Express headline spoke of “The chilling medieval society Isis extremists seek to impose in Iraq”. Perhaps Pulp Fiction is to blame. In Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film Marcellus Wallace famously exclaims: “I’m gonna get medieval on your ass”, reinforcing the cliché of the Middle Ages as an era of savagery. Still, today’s hacks do history no favours by repeating this lazy and misguided stereotype.
If only Islam in the Middle East would return to medieval values. A thousand years ago, the Muslim world was far more civilised than Christendom, with Islamic civilisation the torchbearer in the fields of chemistry, medicine and astronomy. Though relatively backwards by comparison, Christian Europe was relatively free of ISIS-style extremism and barbarism. Religious fringe movements such the Lollards in England or the Anabaptists in Germany were either short-lived, tolerated or expelled to the New World.
Islamic State-style religious extremism was not a feature of the medieval era, but rather of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. It was the 16th and 17th centuries that saw Puritanism, the Inquisition, the massacre of Huguenots and Irish Catholics, witch-drowning, the burning of heretics and holy wars across Europe. The Middle Ages were relatively civilised by comparison. Indeed, medieval Canon Law stated that witches didn’t exist.
Of course, journalists alone aren’t wholly to blame here. We’ve all been subject to this myth of medieval barbarism ever since the Renaissance, and Europe’s consequent desire to depict the interregnum between the Fall of Rome and its rebirth as a dank and brutish time.
The Victorians reaffirmed this caricature in contradistinction to their own times (albeit with a large element of romanticism – hence the Gothic Revival). They created the legend that it was common belief in the Middle Ages that the world was flat. As J B Russell’s Inventing the Flat Earth, Columbus and Modern Historians (1991) explains, the Greeks determined that the Earth was a sphere by 500 BC. Most educated European maintained this to be true thereafter. In his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas gave the globe’s spherical nature as a standard example of scientific truth.
While Aquinas did ponder in his great work “whether several angels can be in the same place at the time”, neither he nor any other medieval scholar agonised over whether how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. The first reference to this comes in 1618 (by a Protestant). There was no taboo on dissection in the Middle Ages (a practice imported from the Middle East), and spices weren’t added to mask the foul taste of rotten meat: such spices from the Orient were vastly expensive and instead the practice of smoking, curing and salting was widespread. That quintessentially “medieval” torture device the Iron Maiden was an 18th-century invention, the first citation of it being in 1793.
The Church and monks in Ireland preserved knowledge of Roman civilisation. It was the Church that helped to establish the first universities in Bologna, Oxford and Paris. The medieval era also gave us writers that are still read today: Boethius, Boccaccio, Dante, Petrarch and Machiavelli.
The Church was not the censorious tyrant of Hollywood legend. As the historian David Linberg writes: “The late medieval scholar rarely experienced the coercive power of the church and would have regarded himself as free (particularly in the natural sciences) to follow reason and observation wherever they led.” Again, it was later, darker era that saw the Church become more intolerant: Copernicus wasn’t persecuted in the 16th century, but Galileo, in the 17th century, was.
While some Muslims and Christians are prone to dwell on the dogmatism and brutality of the Crusades, it was these adventures in the Holy Land that brought Christendom into contact with Muslim advances in science and technology – not least with what we today call Arabic numerals. The medieval epoch was a thoroughly outward looking one. In 986AD the Icelandic seafarer Bjarni Herjólfsson was the first European to spot America, while Leif Erikson was the first to set foot on it.
In more recent times, film and television, from Braveheart to Game of Thrones, has perpetuated the popular misunderstanding that the Middle Ages was a time of constant fighting, bloodshed, torture and execution. In reality, the most common forms of punishment in Europe were exile, public humiliation and fines. When execution did take place it was usually through hanging rather than beheading – a fate reserved only for the nobility and rarely the public spectacle of lore. In England, medieval civilisation also saw the institution of trial by jury.
Of course it’s easy to swing the other way, as did G K Chesterton and 19th-century anarchists, romanticising the Middle Ages, and depicting it is as an era of agrarian simplicity, freedom, chivalry and banquets. Nevertheless, to brand something abhorrent as “medieval” is a historical hangover from the Renaissance, Enlightenment and Victorian eras. Such arrogance and lofty thinking is particularly misplaced considering the violent world we live in today or of the horrors of the last century. That which we abhor as uncivilised and abominable should really be called “Baroque” – or perhaps “20th century”.
Patrick West is a columnist for spiked-online.com
The Iron Duke needed a little help from his friends
Patrick West on a book that shows that Britain actually had a rather minor role in the great Battle of Waterloo
By Gordon Corrigan
Atlantic Books, £30
A common complaint made by First World War historians is that our perception of that conflict has become distorted by Blackadder Goes Forth. This was the 1980s comedy that reinforced the poets’ narrative that it was a needless and horrific conflict conducted with great incompetence and callousness. Yet Blackadder was equally guilty of reinforcing another stereotype: that of the Duke of Wellington being an aloof autocrat. In Blackadder the Third, set in the Regency, Stephen Fry interprets Arthur Wellesley as a overbearing bully who enjoys thrashing his servants and duels with canon (“only girls fight with swords”), and whose guiding principle for leadership is to “shout, shout and shout again”.
We have read and heard much about the First World War in this centenary year. No doubt we will hear much about the Duke of Wellington – and Napoleon – next year: the bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo. So it is timely to deflate some of the common misconceptions surrounding the Iron Duke and the battle itself.
Far from being the bellicose boor of Stephen Fry’s incarnation, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, was a cautious and conscientious figure, who was willing to be at one with his troops on the field of battle. “He planned meticulously and well understood the importance of logistics, of being able to feed, house, tend and transport an army,” writes Gordon Corrigan in Waterloo: A New History of the Battle and Its Armies. Wellington was a calm, methodical leader, and it was his consequent victorious track record in Iberia that had won him the position as head of the Anglo-Dutch army.
Corrigan is eager to puncture another illusion: that Waterloo was essentially a British victory. The British were actually a minority in the Anglo-Dutch coalition of 110,000 men, which in turn was smaller than the 117,000 Prussian force. The Russians were to provide 150,000 and the Austrians close to 300,000, but by the time both were close enough to take part the fighting was over. Britain’s main contribution was £5m and the Royal Navy’s blockade. And at Waterloo, were it not for the late arrival of the Prussians under Field Marshal Blücher, Napoleon might have triumphed.
So how did this victory come to be perceived as a typically British affair? Hindsight and subsequent Anglo-German relations, argues Corrigan. The year 1815 marks the start of the British Century and the last throw of a French imperial era. Between the two world wars of the next century, and after the second, there was little incentive to credit the Germans with anything. Most books on Waterloo after 1945 were allegorical. In writing of the gallant, outnumbered and outgunned British holding the foe until the last, before defeating the mighty dictator and thus saving the world from tyranny, they actually spoke of a much more recent conflict.
Waterloo is not all historiography. Far from it. It’s an old-fashioned romp, in which the emphasis is on detail, tactics and character rather than theory or grand narrative. The lack of primary sources will disappoint the more rigorous reader and orthodox historian. But as this book is primarily a yarn, it doesn’t really matter.
Inevitably, the author compares and contrasts Napoleon and Wellington. Both were born in the same year in peripheral parts of their nations. Both were the product of feckless fathers and domineering mothers, and rose through sheer ability and minimum of patronage. But here the comparisons end. In contrast to the prudent Wellington, Bonaparte was a gambler and opportunist who was careless with the lives of his troops.
Corrigan doesn’t, however, cast the battle as a simple duel. Blücher emerges not merely as a first-rate leader, but also as the most colourful of the three commanders: “A quaffer of copious quantities of gin and brandy, Blücher would swig coffee, munch raw onions and smoke a huge meerschaum pipe as he rode along”.
We later learn of Blücher and Wellington’s first encounter after victory. With both generals on horseback, Blücher threw his arms about Wellesley then kissed him. We also discover that only 10 per cent of British officers had been commissioned from the ranks. The bulk of officers were of the middle classes, educated at grammar schools and the sons of professional men. More revealing still is the number of English and Irish Catholics in the British Army, making up 20 per cent by the time of Waterloo. This preponderance was due to the anti-Catholicism that had been institutionalised in 1688.
While the ban on Catholics joining the Army was lifted in 1741, they were still debarred from holding any “office of profit under the crown”. But this wasn’t enforced in the Army, as long as they didn’t make ostentatious displays of their faith. As a consequence, the Army became one of the few outlets for a Catholic gentlemen. This legacy continues today: in 2012 Catholics made up slightly more than eight per cent of the population but 20 per cent of Army officers. So much for disloyal papists.
More sensitive readers might flinch at the passages on amputation, while perhaps the most appalling disclosure is that riflemen deliberately picke out drummer boys. They were deemed so important because when shouted orders were drowned out by ambient noise signals were given by the beat of a drum.
The Battle of Waterloo is further demystified when we read of looters on the field in its aftermath. Wounded men who tried to resist thieves had their throats slit.
Corrigan’s manner can be a bit gruff. There is a non-sequitur complaining about the RSPCA and a breezy comment about the French soldier’s predilection for rape sits uneasily. His use of “England” to mean Britain is felicitous to historical usage, but it’s just plain wrong to the modern ear. Nevertheless, Waterloo is a hugely enjoyable, illuminating and very gory read.