Monday, April 28, 2008

Blackburn at the THE

At THE they are starting a series in which academics talk about things "beyond their area of expertise." This is a somewhat dubious experiment, it seems to me; the idea behind it is that academics don't talk beyond their area of expertise, an idea that will not, I think, withstand close scrutiny. But I suppose it is something different. Those of us in philosophy are represented right off by Simon Blackburn, the first in the series, who gives us an attempt that can only be regarded as a bit of a bad omen for the series in general. The basic idea is interesting enough: Blackburn identifies 10 things that he regards as major modern myths. Unfortunately, only one of the points (the fifth) is a serious candidate for a myth, and the reasoning presented on several points is muddled. I suspect there is a mix of factors responsible for this: the speculative character of the series, the need to be concise, the need to be clever and funny and interesting, etc. But it's not a great list. Some thoughts on each of Blackburn's "myths".

(1) The myth of meaning. This is Blackburn's best attempt: "People think words mean things and that they know what they mean. Both claims are often untrue." That seems somewhat plausible at first, if not examined too closely; but reading on, we realize that what Blackburn really means is that there can be words with no clear ideas attached, and clear ideas are not a plausible account of meaning. Indeed, a more careful reading of Berkeley, whom Blackburn quotes, might have led Blackburn to this reflection, because Berkeley's point is not that there are words that have passions substituted for meanings, but that words often inspire passions rather than ideas. This does not mean that the words are meaningless; on a Berkeleyan account of meaning, words would still have a meaning from their use in syntax. But Blackburn muddles things up even further when he goes on to say:

The test of whether someone is talking like this is whether you can imagine successful action based specifically on what they say. When we cannot, Berkeley's process is under way.


But this is extraordinarily implausible, as Berkeley again could have told him. Words, when they directly inspire passions rather than ideas (that in turn go on to inspire passions), can shape action more directly than words that don't, because they skip the middleman. This is why politics, rabble-rousing, advertising, exhortation, and the like is so rife with words calculated to bypass ideas. If I say, "The bourgeois statesman oppresses the proletariat and thus should be killed," if this leads people to reflect on the ideas raised by these words, this has put matters in the field of speculation, and I will have led people to reflect on the death-worthiness, if any, of people meeting a certain description. But if my words are well-calculated to raise passions rather than ideas, I will have motivated people to a state where they might well engage in successful action based specifically on what I say.

And this makes sense: meaning and idea are not the same, as Berkeley saw. A word can have meaning even if I do not put an idea to it that can be examined. If I exhort bereaved people to take comfort in the fact that so-and-so lives on in his children, I have said something to which most people will not, under the circumstances, put a an idea, because they are too distraught. But that doesn't mean that they couldn't fix ideas to it under any circumstances, nor, even if they didn't, that there isn't a meaning of some other sort that could be analyzed from the usage of the words or their associations in such usage. All it means is that ideas are not essential to the many of the functions of language, especially many of the practical ones.

(2) The myth of religious belief. I appreciate the quotation from Hume's Natural History of Religion, but the argument here is simply too absurd to take seriously. Hume himself was well aware that the simple equation between belief and behavior that Blackburn attempts to make is untenable; that custom can have "an effect on the imagination in opposition to the judgment" (Treatise 1.3.13.9). Thus when Blackburn says,

People say they believe in life after death but still grieve when people die. Christians try to get rich and Muslims gamble. The state of mind here is unaccountable in the same way as that of the child who pretends that the tree stump is a bear and then becomes genuinely frightened of it, while knowing all the time that it is a tree stump.


he is simply being silly; the state of mind is no more unaccountable than the fact that someone grieves when their friend moves despite knowing that it is a great move for them, or the fact that people can simultaneously affirm the importance of obeying the law and still speed or jaywalk when in a hurry, or the fact that an alcoholic can insist that alcohol is something he detests and nonetheless in a moment of weakness fall of the wagon.

(3) The myth of British values. Much the same problem here. That the British often don't engage in fair play doesn't tell us anything about whether they value it, or do more to try to encourage it, or have a better conception of it than others. This is practical inconsistency; and surely Blackburn is well aware that human beings are not flawlessly consistent. For instance, you can have respectable philosophers writing silly things for Times Higher Education.

(4) The myth of the scientist. "This claims that there is an expertise, science, and that people who are good at it deserve a lot of attention. This is almost wholly false." But, of course, there is an expertise, science, and people who are good at it do deserve a lot of attention. There is no such thing as a scientist, says Blackburn, with a silly snipe at Whewell, just "biologists, chemists, physicists, mathematicians and so on," and being an expert in one field doesn't make you an expert in another.

By the same reasoning I can prove that there is no such thing as philosophy, or philosophers. There are just ethicists, logicians, historians of philosophy, etc., etc., and when people step outside their field of expertise "they are no better than the rest of us".

It is unclear why Blackburn thinks breaking it down to the level of "biologists, chemists, physicists, mathematicians and so on" is adequate. For obviously one can be an expert in, say, the physiology of newts and not in, say, the ethology of hyenas, and someone who is an expert in the one might well be at a bit of a loss in the other. So it turns out that there is no scientific expertise at all, and no scientific experts. Of course, this is absurd. What Blackburn should have argued is that there are, in fact, overlapping fields of expertise and the access from one field to another is not always equally easy. A physicist may struggle in moving from physics to some forms of paleontology, but be able eventually to find an 'in' by looking at methods for dating. It's simply false to say that outside their field "they are no better than the rest of us"; but it is true that no field of expertise provides the royal road to every other field of expertise. There is no universal method. Yet there is a complex set of overlapping fields, and collective these can be treated as forms of scientific expertise.

Nonetheless, this is better than some of the others; if we were to set aside the specifics of Blackburn's reasoning, we could get something like what he seems to want to get at; we do often talk about 'science' as if it were univocal and monolithic. So perhaps we could treat this one a bit more favorably than I have.

(5) The myth of management. I think this is Blackburn's best point, since it is actually a reasonable candidate for a myth. Again, some of the reasoning is a bit shaky; but some of it is clearly at least half-joking.

(6) The myth of democracy. I'm not even quite clear what Blackburn thinks the myth here is supposed to be. It sounds very much like he is claiming that people can't at all be trusted to govern themselves because they are easily manipulated, which is, again, silly; first, because Blackburn just pointed out that people can't be managed, so the manipulation has limits, and second, because when people put forward democracy as a value, they aren't claiming that people are saints and geniuses, but that there are moral reasons to support a set of rights related to self-governance. Which there are.

(7) The myth of culture. "As it occurs in phrases such as multiculturalism, working-class culture and the like, this is the myth that there is a definite, admirable, rooted traditional way of being, and that it must be valued and cosseted and, above all, respected. All this is poppycock." If by 'poppycock' (one of those words that tend to be associated more with a passion or sentiment than with an idea) we are referring to the claim that when people talk about "multiculturalism, working-class culture and the like" they are committed to saying "that there is a definite, admirable rooted traditional way of being, and that it must be valued and cosseted and, above all, respected," then, no doubt, it is all poppycock, because that's not what people are saying. What they are actually doing is something much closer to the opposite: denying that there is a monolithic, definite culture, and affirming that there is a diversity that needs to be recognized. Blackburn seems to be conflating a great many different contexts in which one might use the word 'culture'; one could, of course, use it to refer to something supposed to be monolithic and definite. Most people use it just as a rough term for a stable set of practices. For instance, part of the culture of Quebec is the use of the French language. This is verifiable fact. Nor do people use the term 'culture', as Blackburn seems to suggest, to convey something that does not change; if they did, there would be no one going around arguing that this or that aspect of culture needs to be preserved.

8. The myth of equal respect. Chris Bertram has tackled this one at "Crooked Timber".

9. The myth of choice and competition. Need I say that his whole description here is tendentious? But perhaps this is one, too, where something can be found analogous to what he is suggesting.

10. The myth of the public service ethos. I take it here that Blackburn is primarily using hyperbole to make a point, which is not something I would criticize him for doing.

I do appreciate the difficulty of what Blackburn is trying to do here; there are several demands, not all easily reconciled, that pull a piece like this in several directions. He's trying to be light; several times his attempt to be light comes across as mere shock-jockery, or whatever is the British equivalent. He's trying to make serious, thought-provoking points; he doesn't manage to meld this with the light touch very well, since it means that some of his jokes are going to be read as serious and some of his serious points are going to be read as jokes. It's scarcely decipherable. He's trying to be concise; sometimes accuracy and clarity get sacrificed. He's trying to be clear; nuance has in several places been lost. As one of the commenters says, it's "juvenile stuff," and as another says, it's "half-baked nonsense". It needn't have been, and a few times you can see that there is probably some more serious thought behind the silliness, but I don't think Blackburn has succeeded very well in presenting his points in a way that lets you see such serious thought.

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