I'm writing to give you the annoying news that C. Romano, one of your favoritebugbears, has written a book. Here he is on the literary circuit, getting interviewed and producing on demand an annotated list of 5 of his favorite philosophical texts. (Not surprisingly, his choices are mostly either trivial or unrelated to philosophy).
Many of your readers, myself included, take vicarious pleasure from your well-justified irritability and intolerance of fools, so why not keep us entertained and have another go at this poor dope? And to be constructive, I suppose you could also ask those learned readers to supply better quality listings of their 5 favorite books.
CHE has also run an advert for the book. The "argument," if there is one, appeasr to be just a massive non-sequitur: it is quite consistent with American being an anti-intellectual country that its well-heeled research universities produce massive amounts of philosophy. In any case, per Mr. Lakritz's constructive suggestion, I invite readers to name their five favorite philosophical texts. Signed comments only: full name and valid e-mail address.
The poster boy for the latest moral mischief is Congressman Paul Ryan, an Ayn Rand devotee whom Krugman aptly dubbed "the flimflam man." One might be strongly inclined towards an expressivist interpretation of "moral obligation" when one hears Rep. Ryan describe his attack on medical care for the elderly and the poor as a matter of "moral obligation." Here again Krugman:
[This is] going to be just like the Social Security fight, only worse: once again, Very Serious People will pretend not to notice that the Republican plan is a giant game of bait-and-switch, dismantling a key piece of the social safety net in favor of a privatized system, claiming that this is necessary to save money, but never acknowledging that privatization in itself actually costs money. And we’ll have endless obfuscation, both-sides-have-a-point reporting that misses the key point, which is that the putative savings come entirely from benefit cuts somewhere in the distant future that would, in all likelihood, never actually materialize. (What do you think will happen when retirees in 2025 discover that their Medicare vouchers aren’t enough to buy insurance?)
Here. This guy would be even funnier if he were a bit less vulgar and pornographic. A choice excerpt of the good parts:
Millions of copies will be sold of a book written by someone who can’t write, intended for an audience that doesn’t read, about the thoughts of a person who doesn’t think. God is dead....
If you are sentient, it will pain you to read...this wholly fictional monument to self-aggrandized mediocrity....
The book is less a biography than an elaborate press release. Its 432 pages (with sixteen pages of pictures – and no index) barely feign interest in describing Palin’s life in detail. It moves as quickly as possible to its real raison d’être – a methodical re-imagining of her entire political career replete with more excuses than a Cleveland Browns post-game press conference. Palin has never done anything wrong. The public have merely been led to believe that she is a dangerously stupid, erratic narcissist. Going Rogue is all about setting that record straight, offering a wildly implausible excuse for every crash and bang in her train wreck of a political career.
The theme that permeates the book – and with all the subtlety of an Oliver Stone film – is Palin’s overwhelming magnanimity. The book itself was written solely for our benefit, to set straight all of our misconceptions. Her Hindeburg interview with Katie Couric was done only because Palin pitied the struggling journalist (no mention of how her personal generosity forced her to answer simple questions like a lobotomized rube who had never ventured beyond Wasilla). Her hillbilly-wins-the-Lotto shopping sprees and misuse of Alaska taxpayers’ funds to take her daughters on vacations in $3000 per night hotels either never happened (er, she “usually” eschewed lavish accommodations for simple ones) or were forced upon her by others; McCain aides practically held a gun to her head and made her buy a new wardrobe. She resigned the governorship halfway through her only term for the benefit of the people of Alaska (admittedly, she may be onto something there). Her enormous legal bills stem from frivolous ethics complaints by her enemies, and she has borne these costs for you – out of the kindness of her heart. Buying her book and electing her to the presidency is the least you can do in return, ingrate.
A serious question arises from her narrative. Is she a sociopath with a messiah complex – i.e. she actually believes the version of events she relates here – or is she simply a shameless liar? Does she honestly fail to realize that the McCain team was bending over backwards to protect her from her own stupidity when she rails on about how they abused, demeaned, and stifled her?...
Going Rogue is an irritatingly vernacular, fantastical, and cloying autobiography of a malignant narcissist, every bit as thunderingly stupid throughout as the person behind it. In what world is it either necessary or desirable to spend $9 and four hours to figure that much out about Sarah Palin?
Via Chris Bertram (Bristol), I learn of this pleasing excorciation of the remarkably silly and pernicious "philosopher" of science (now a sociologist) Steve Fuller, who is also a shill for Intelligent Design.
How could someone who knows so little philosophy and is so bad at the philosophy he does know conjure up the arrogance required to make embarrassingly misinformed, sweeping generalizations about it?....I think I found the answer in an old Sam Tanenhaus profile of the pompous fraud:
A prestigious Kellett fellowship took Wieseltier to Oxford in the fall of 1974 to study philosophy, but when he got there ''philosophy at Oxford was in transports of logical notation,'' he remembers. ''I had no interest in studying mathematical logic or the logical analysis of language.''
Allow me to translate that: Real philosophy is hard, so rather than even try to do it, Wieseltier spent his fellowship sucking up to Isaiah Berlin and quit grad school a few years later, at a time when it was still possible to become a celebrated public intellectual without having expertise in anything. Over the next thirty some-odd years, having turned enough clever phrases and misappropriated enough philosophical concepts to secure a reputation among easily deceived people as a learned man...Wieseltier came to believe his own delusional self-flattery.
A young philosopher at a top research university writes:
"The thing that always astonishes me is that they [bloggers, journalists etc.] put
on this air of pained affront if an academic gets short with them - 'I
don't expect this tone from an educator' and all that jazz. Jesus, they
should have been in a room with Jerry 'I just have one question; was your paper a joke?' Fodor, or Kim 'but there's no fucking evidence for that!' Sterelny.
Or most of the economists I know. Where do so many people get this idea
that academic discourse is conducted by people wondering if they could
regretfully venture to take issue with distinguished colleagues who are
respectfully suggesting an emendation?"
UPDATE: Philosopher Tad Brennan at Cornell writes with an explanation:
Journalists are surprised that academics can be short with them because they last met academics in the classroom, and most professors are kind and generous when dealing with students. Serious academics save their scathing put-downs for colleagues and equals--I doubt that those quotes from Fodor and Sterelny document interactions with students.
Instead of feeling pained and affronted, the bloggers and journalists should take it as a compliment: 'hey, those academics are treating me like an equal!' That can help to salve the bruises, anyhow. And it also shows why a sharp-tongued critique directed at a non-student is no betrayal of the "tone" appropriate to an "educator". If you are my student, then I have an obligation to be your educator; if not, not.
That certainly describes my own sentiments (and practices) exactly.
ONE MORE: This is also amusingly apt (and timely), referring as it does both to Professor Sterelny and Professor Sarkar's latest takedown of the creationists. As the author notes: "anyone who thinks...bloggers should be treated with respect by academics,
simply doesn't know shit about academe, and particularly philosophy."
So reports the New York Times in their trademark he said/she said manner, when, of course, the article might have been more aptly titled, "A Split Emerges as Ignorant Ideologues Discuss Darwin," since ignorance of evolutionary biology is almost evenly divided between the two sides: on the one hand, the pathological liars from the Discovery [sic] Institute, the public relations arm of the "Intelligent Design" scam; on the other, Larry Arnhart, a professor of political science at Northern Illinois, and John Derbyshire, a pontificator at the National Review (who at least knows enough to know that "Intelligent Design" is bogus), who are championing a different intellectual muddle:
Darwin’s scientific theories about the evolution of species can be applied to today’s patterns of human behavior, and...natural selection can provide support for many bedrock conservative ideas, like traditional social roles for men and women, free-market capitalism and governmental checks and balances.
“I do indeed believe conservatives need Charles Darwin,” said Larry Arnhart, a professor of political science at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, who has spearheaded the cause. “The intellectual vitality of conservatism in the 21st century will depend on the success of conservatives in appealing to advances in the biology of human nature as confirming conservative thought."
As Professor Jones himself has noted, “the favored perspective on the causes of human behavior often reflects ephemeral enthusiasms wafted on the politics of the moment” [footnote omitted]. That summarizes we suspect, in a nutshell, the current fascination with “law and evolutionary biology,” which permits the patina of “science” to be enlisted on behalf of various hobby horses of the right: people are “selfish,” law can’t change everything, nature puts limits on utopian aspirations, and the like. Perhaps all of these are true, but right now evolutionary biology offers no support to any of them. But “ephemerical enthusiasms wafted on the politics of the moment” have made the science irrelevant. We hope to remind people that the science is relevant, indeed, crucial, and that, so far, the needed science is not there.
You will be better able to cross the divide if you stop refering to "Darwinism". The theory of gravity is not called "Newtonism". Go over to the Physics Dept. at NIU and ask someone how gravity works. Now go over to the Biology Dept. and ask someone how natural selection works. Ithink you will find the answers illuminating.
I invite some of the many philosophers of biology out there among the readership to venture over to Professor Arnhart's site to find out to what extent he has a scholarly interest in evolutionary biology and to what extent he is really an ignorant ideologue. Save a copy of your comments; if he doesn't post them, I'll post them here in due course. But perhaps we shall be pleasantly surprised?
UPDATE: A reader directs my attention to a useful short review of one of Professor Arnhart's books by philosopher of biology Roberta Millstein (UC Davis) from Ethics 110 (2000): 653. As Professor Millstein notes, Professor Arnhart makes two characteristic mistakes of the ideologically motivated in this realm: first, in assuming, without argument, that natural selection is "the primary force in evolutionary change"; and second, in ignoring that variation is both a necessary condition and consequence of natural selection, such that no one set of phenotypic traits can be deemed the "natural" ones. As she notes: these points "call into question the appropriateness of grounding his [natural right] theory in modern Darwininian biology."
The reader who sent me this list summed it up accurately: "very crazy, very funny." (I have to warn that a quarter of their targets I've never even heard of.) With some justice, they name the far right Arizona Senator John McCain as "the most loathsome," noting:
The most consistently mischaracterized politician in the country, even McCain’s most nakedly self-serving machinations are universally hailed as the bold moves of an independent maverick who really, really, like, cares, man. By virtue of his five-year stay at the Hanoi Hilton and a completely ineffectual campaign finance reform bill (which was itself only PR damage control for his long-forgotten role in the Keating Five), McCain has so successfully snowed America the he could go around kicking puppies all day and he’d be applauded for his authenticity.
In reality, McCain is as phony as slimeballs come, having reversed his
positions on Roe v. Wade, Bush’s tax cuts, the gay marriage amendment and Jerry Falwell in the last year alone, while the mainstream press looked away and whistled nonchalantly.
Bill Gates--who discovered philanthropy as soon as Microsoft became the target of a highly-publicized antitrust legal action--gets a good thrashing too:
As founder and co-chair of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, he’s fighting global poverty and disease by investing in corporations that are the source of global poverty and disease. According to the L.A. Times, The BMGF has over $9 billion invested in companies whose activities contradict the foundation’s stated mission.
Nancy Pelosi, poster girl for spineless Democrats, is also pegged:
[She has] betrayed her supposed San Francisco values by sweeping the prospect of a well-deserved impeachment "off the table" and preemptively castrating the investigations she simultaneously promised. Anyone who thinks this brittle fundraising machine with the safest seat this side of North Korea is going to implement any ethics reform beyond the paltriest possible cosmetic gesture needs to lay off the medicinal marijuana.
They have a good line on the pathological liar David Horowitz--"Like most fascist converts, Horowitz sees disseminating information as an act of treason. His favorite targets are university professors he declares enemies of "academic freedom," because nothing is more dangerous to a neocon than someone who actually knows what they’re talking about"--as well as apt remarks about Rush Limbaugh, Senator Lieberman and Ann Coulter, though these are not quotable for the family audience this blog attracts. The remarks about Cindy Sheehan are stupid--but, as my correspondent said, this list is both "very crazy" and often "very funny." Perhaps the funniest is #16 on the list--"You"--which is their Menckenesque characterization of the typical reader of InstaIgnorance or viewer of Fox News or (dare we note?) devotee of the New York Times:
Your whole life has been a pitiful exercise in rote mimicry, a meek subjugation of individuality in exchange for herd approval. Your delusions of "common sense" wisdom stem from an unwillingness to seek information and an inability to critically analyze it. You never hesitate to offer strong opinions on subjects you don’t know a damn thing about. You’re willing to believe anything a guy in a suit says on TV, as long as it doesn’t hint at your culpability in the negligent homicide of your country and planet or otherwise cloud your streak-free conscience. You’re more worried about friction on the "Desperate Housewives" set than the lack of health coverage at your tedious, soul-destroying job. You have no idea what is going on in the world, and you’re fine with that. You are why democracy doesn’t work.
MOVING TO THE FRONTfrom July 11 for the benefit of those who missed it during the summer
N+1 is a new NYC-based publication that styles itself high-brow and left; I am told that kids just out of college hanging out in NYC read it, and read its website in particular. It was one such reader, who actually knew something about philosophy, that tipped me off to this silly smear piece by an "intern" at the magazine named Alexandra Heifetz who, best I can tell, studied philosophy--or at least attended classes--at Northwestern.
One can only hope that the other writers for this publication have a more favorable ratio of brains to bile than Ms. Heifetz.
She starts out gushing about Alain Badiou (who would presumably be humiliated by the mangling of his ideas by this 20-something know-nothing), and then shifts gears midway through:
In 1989, Brian Leiter, now an analytic philosopher and law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, declared open war on continental philosophy by launching the Philosophical Gourmet Report. In the PGR, Leiter offered a ranking of the top philosophy programs in the US. At first hard copies of the rankings were distributed; then in 1996 the PGR went online. Geared toward prospective undergrads and based on the “quality of faculty” factor, the rankings were clearly, profoundly biased toward analytic programs. Some continental-leaning departments hung near the bottom of the list; most didn’t make it at all.
How is it that these silly people never seem to tire of the same lies and canards? Nowhere in this smear piece is there any mention of the fact that I've written one book and edited three others on that paragon of "analytic" philosophy, Nietzsche; that I'm the co-editor of the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy; that easily available on-line information reveals that I've taught, over the past decade, graduate philosophy seminars on "The Continental Tradition," "Marx and Freud," "Nietzsche and Ethics," and "Nietzsche and Foucault," among other topics. Of course, these facts--that is what they are--would spoil the story line for Ms. Heifetz. So, too, would the facts about all the PGR Advisory Board members who work on Continental philosophy (Frederick Beiser, Michael Forster, Pierre Keller, Sebastian Gardner, Michael Rosen, Julian Young, Allen Wood): clearly those folks, like me, have as their goal the destruction of study of the philosophy to which they have devoted major portions of their professional careers.
Alas, there is no bottom to dumb, so Ms. Heifetz continues:
On the PGR website, which is now very fancy, there’s a section called “Continental vs. Analytic Philosophy,” a concise version of the introduction Leiter wrote for the book A Future for Philosophy.
In fact, the argument of the introduction to The Future for Philosophy is different than the section in the PGR, which is left over from years ago, and which I'll revise this fall. Of course, to know this you'd have to be able to read, or to understand what you read. My guess is that the lazy Ms. Heifetz--who obviously isn't interested in any facts--simply didn't read the introduction. But back to the smear:
Here he distinguishes between them as two styles of doing philosophy, rather than categories for the kind of books to be read:
Continental philosophy is distinguished by its style (more literary, less analytical, sometimes just obscure), its concerns (more interested in actual political and cultural issues and, loosely speaking, the human situation and its “meaning”), and some of its substantive commitments (more self-conscious about the relation of philosophy to its historical situation).
Leiter seems to think he’s dropping a bomb—note the disparagements of “obscure” and “loosely speaking”—but the house of philosophy had begun to self-destruct half a century before.
"Loosely speaking" is not a disparagement, it is a way of signalling to the reader that what follows is a bit general and imprecise, in this case, because brief. Why Ms. Heifetz thinks that I think this is "dropping a bomb" is anyone's guess.
Since the 1950s analytic philosophers have made the same complaints: that continental philosophy has a messy literary quality, that it wastes time with “concepts-in-quotations,” and that it bothers itself with cultural things like genocide and the Internet. And yet, boom! Like a frantic seven-year-old, Leiter defends his kind of philosophy by pushing out people who don’t agree with him.
I, of course, did not say anything about messy literary quality, that is Ms. Heifetz's invention for purposes of her story line. And one respect in which I think that section of the PGR is mistaken is precisely in mentioning "literary quality" at all: there is precious little literary about Hegel's Science of Logic or Marx's Capital, let alone Husserl's Ideas. And speaking of seven-year-olds, I think even mine knows that the Continental traditions in philosophy are not marked by concern for "genocide and the Internet," though at least this suggests Ms. Heifetz has read (or heard about) one book, Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment. But all this is just a lead-in to her main "idea":
But what the continental has tried to preserve (and what the analytic has tried to run from) is a sense that, even while pursuing self-preservation, philosophers should never give up on answering questions that are important and interesting to everyone.
Ignorance is bliss, and when it comes to philosophy, Ms. Heifetz is apparently ecstatic. Her ignorance is palpable in two different directions here: first, she thinks it is only "analytic philosophy" that neglects "questions that are important and interesting to everyone"; and second, she is utterly unaware of those English-speaking philosophers who address such issues.
On the first point: is it only the "analytics" (whoever they are) who allegedly gave up "on answering questions that are important and interesting to everyone"? How does Leibniz's Monadology fare by Ms. Heifetz's criterion? What about Descartes's Meditations? Husserl's Ideas? Hegel's Logic? Are these folks also "analytic" philosophers? By Ms. Heifetz's "logic," they are.
Here is a quote from the introduction I actually wrote to The Future for Philosophy which, if Ms. Heifetz had read it, might have made an impression on this naif:
“[P]hilosophy” has a currency in everyday parlance and ordinary self-reflection that “linguistics” or “sociology” or “anthropology” do not. One doesn’t need an advanced degree to have a “philosophy of life,” and this has bred an expectation, even among those with advanced degrees, that the discipline of philosophy ought to be continuous with ordinary attempts to forge a philosophy of life.
Most of philosophy, both contemporary and--importantly--historical, does not, alas, live up to this expectation. Earlier and contemporary philosophers worry, to be sure, about truth, knowledge, the just society, and morally right action, as well as the nature of science, beauty, death, law, goodness, rationality, and consciousness. From reflections on these worries one might even extract a “philosophy of life,” though it would hardly be obvious, on an initial reading of Aristotle, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, Hegel, or Husserl that this is what they were after
It's not clear Ms. Heifetz even got through the "initial reading," given how she conceives of "analytic" and "Continental" philosophy:
The analytic philosopher takes his scalpel to the concept of democracy; the continental presents us with an account of the brutal pacification of the east.
Indeed, attention to "the brutal pacification of the east" is what makes Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Husserl, and Heidegger major figures in "Continental philosophy" (you missed that chapter in Being and Time? You need to read as carefully as Ms. Heifetz). It's not only, though, that it is false that figures in the Continental traditions are not interested in those technical questions of metaphysics and epistemology that Ms. Heifetz doesn't understand, it's also false that the folks Ms. Heifetz thinks of as "analytic" philosophers are not addressing "questions that are important and interesting to everyone": what exactly does she think books like Thomas Nagel's Mortal Questions (1979) or Harry Frankfurt's The Reasons of Love (2004) are about? Set theory? The foundations of quantum mechanics?
Find an educated layperson who has read any part of either the Nagel or Frankfurt books, as well as, say, the "Sense-Certainty" section of Hegel's Phenomenology or the "Introduction" Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception, and then ask Ms. Heifetz's childish question: which of these philosophers are addressing "questions that are important and interesting to everyone"? The "Continental" philosophers won't win. Again, from the actual introduction to The Future for Philosophy:
It is true, to be sure, that philosophy is now a “profession”—just like psychology, linguistics, sociology, physics, and mathematics—and it is also true that the discipline is often technical and unintelligible to the lay person. But only a complete ignorance of the history of philosophy could lead anyone to think that this supports a special complaint about contemporary philosophy: Leibniz, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger, among many other “greats,” are also technical and obscure to the lay person. Yet no one, other than teenagers and anti-intellectuals, consider this an objection to their philosophy. As Timothy Williamson trenchantly puts it in his essay: “Impatience with the long haul of technical reflection is a form of shallowness, often thinly disguised by histrionic advocacy of depth. Serious philosophy is always likely to bore those with short attention-spans.”
But enough with silliness about philosophy, it's now time for Ms. Heifetz to misstate facts about the profession:
In universities with hard-core analytic cliques, like NYU or Princeton, continental philosophers end up outside of the philosophy department and find a home in comp lit, women’s, or African-American studies.
This will come as news to the tenured members of the NYU and Princeton departments whose work is centrally concerned with Continental philosophy, like Beatrice Longuenesse, John Richardson, and Alexander Nehamas. When I pointed out this factual error--that is what it is, a factual error--to the alleged editor of this journal (a grad student in American Studies at Yale, where fact-checking apparently isn't required), he declined to correct it.
Desperate, apparently, for validation, Ms. Heifetz even manages to drag the Heckling Campaign out of the attic, long after everyone, even Richard, tired of it--and, of course, without mentioning any of the rebuttals, or the fact that 98% of the profession didn't sign the petition, or that many of the signatories recanted, or that many of them now participate in the surveys, and on and on and on.
The total ignorance about Continental philosophy that is on display in this smear piece--and the total unwillingness to acknowledge the facts about my work on Continental philosophy and the extensive coverage of Continental philosophy in the PGR--has a simple explanation: for this dispute is not about Continental philosophy at all. "Continental" for these folks does not mean "Continental philosophy," as Ms. Heifetz's spectacularly ignorant remarks well illustrate: she obviously hasn't a clue about the thinkers, ideas, and arguments that constitute the glorious traditions of post-Kantian philosophy in Germany and France over the last two hundred years. "Continental," rather, is more of a non-cognitive term, expressing something like the following: "yeah for left-wing opining about culture and politics, that's philosophy." As readers know, I'm a big fan of left-wing opining, but it ain't philosophy, Continental or otherwise. This juvenile usage of "Continental" is widespread, I fear, among those who are philosophically illiterate but fashion themselves culturally sophisticated.
A concluding thought: I wonder whether any of therandom moronsin Cyberspace who have picked up Ms. Heifetz's smear piece will be any more interested in the facts than Ms. Heifetz? I'm not optimistic.
Back to my blogging hiatus....
UPDATE: Paul Schofield, a grad student at Harvard, writes:
I enjoyed today's blog post. I find the near universal misunderstanding of philosophy quite aggravating. You point to one camp, who thinks that philosophers have lost their way with silly technical questions. I have encountered these folks. But I also routinely encounter people who think that philosophy is "corrupted" by post-modernism, and are more than willing to lecture me about this "unfortunate" turn.
Not only that. People of a religious bent feel free to berate philosophy for being "atheistic." (Real philosophy was done by C.S Lewis, don't you know?) And non-philosophers show up at philosophy talks not to learn about what it is that we do, but to vocally object (during question time) to our entire discipline's way of doing things.
What is stunning is the confidence with which these opinions are asserted. When corrected by me- an actual grad student, in an actual philosophy department- I receive incredulous stares. This makes clearing up the mis-perceptions all but impossible.
The New York Times has done it again: they've enlisted an ignorant reviewer to review a philosophical book. The reviewer is Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor at The New Republic. The book is Daniel Dennett's latest book, a "naturalistic" account of religious belief. Whatever Mr. Wieseltier knows about philosophy or science, he effectively conceals in this review. The sneering starts at the beginning:
THE question of the place of science in human life is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical question. Scientism, the view that science can explain all human conditions and expressions, mental as well as physical, is a superstition, one of the dominant superstitions of our day; and it is not an insult to science to say so. For a sorry instance of present-day scientism, it would be hard to improve on Daniel C. Dennett's book. "Breaking the Spell" is a work of considerable historical interest, because it is a merry anthology of contemporary superstitions.
Perhaps it is correct that the "question of the place of science in human life" is a philosophical, not scientific question, though I wish I could be as confident as Mr. Wieseltier as to how we demarcate those matters. But "the view that science can explain all human conditions and expressions, mental as well as physical" is not a "superstition," but a reasonable methodological posture to adopt based on the actual evidence, that is, based on the actual, expanding success of the sciences, and especially, the special sciences, during the last hundred years. One should allow, of course, that some of these explanatory paradigms may fail, and that others, like evolutionary psychology, are at the speculative stage, awaiting the kind of rigorous confirmation (or disconfirmation) characteristic of selectionist hypotheses in evolutionary biology. But no evidence is adduced by Mr. Wieseltier to suggest that Professor Dennett's view is any different than this. Use of the epithet "superstition" simply allows Mr. Wieseltier to avoid discussing the actual methodological posture of Dennett's work, and to omit mention of the reasons why one might reasonably expect scientific explanations for many domains of human phenomena to be worth pursuing.
But onward with the sneering of the ignorant:
Dennett flatters himself that he is Hume's heir. Hume began "The Natural History of Religion," a short incendiary work that was published in 1757, with this remark: "As every enquiry which regards religion is of the utmost importance, there are two questions in particular which challenge our attention, to wit, that concerning its foundation in reason, and that concerning its origin in human nature." These words serve as the epigraph to Dennett's introduction to his own conception of "religion as a natural phenomenon." "Breaking the Spell" proposes to answer Hume's second question, not least as a way of circumventing Hume's first question. Unfortunately, Dennett gives a misleading impression of Hume's reflections on religion. He chooses not to reproduce the words that immediately follow those in which he has just basked: "Happily, the first question, which is the most important, admits of the most obvious, at least, the clearest, solution. The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author; and no rational enquirer can, after serious reflection, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the primary principles of genuine Theism and Religion."
So was Hume not a bright? I do not mean to be pedantic. Hume deplored religion as a source of illusions and crimes, and renounced its consolations even as he was dying. His God was a very wan god. But his God was still a god; and so his theism is as true or false as any other theism. The truth of religion cannot be proved by showing that a skeptic was in his way a believer, or by any other appeal to authority. There is no intellectually honorable surrogate for rational argument. Dennett's misrepresentation of Hume...is noteworthy, therefore, because it illustrates his complacent refusal to acknowledge the dense and vital relations between religion and reason, not only historically but also philosophically.
Has Dennett misrepresented Hume? Mr. Wieseltier might have availed himself of a fine on-line essay on Hume's philosophy of religion by someone who actually knows something about Hume. Paul Russell (Philosophy, British Columbia) writes (with some emphases added in bold):
In 1757 Hume published “The Natural History of Religion”, a work that proposes to identify and explain the origins and evolution of religious belief. This project follows lines of investigation and criticism that had already been laid down by a number of other thinkers, including Lucretius, Hobbes and Spinoza. Hume's primary objective in this work is to show that the origins and foundations of religious belief do not rest with reason or philosophical arguments of any kind but with aspects of human nature that reflect our weaknesses, vulnerabilities and limitations (i.e., fear and ignorance). Related to this point, Hume also wants to show that the basic forces in human nature and psychology that shape and structure religious belief are in conflict with each other and that, as a result of this, religious belief is inherently unstable and variable. In arguing for these points, Hume is directly challenging an opposing view, one that was widely held among his own orthodox contemporaries. According to this view (e.g., as presented by Cleanthes), the evidence of God's existence is so obvious that no one sincerely and honestly doubts it. Belief in an intelligent, invisible creator and governor of the world is a universal belief rooted in and supported by reason. From this perspective, no person sincerely accepts “speculative atheism”. Hume's “naturalistic” approach to religion aims to discredit these claims and assumptions of theism.
Dennett's naturalistic approach, even with its different speculative explanatory mechanisms, aims to do the same thing. What Mr. Wieseltier confidently pronounces Hume's theism is, alas, not so clearly ascribed to Hume according to those who actually know something about Hume. There has been misrepresentation of Hume, I fear, but not by Professor Dennett.
Mr. Wieseltier's confident ignorance extends beyond Hume scholarship, unsurprisingly. He continues:
For Dennett, thinking historically absolves one of thinking philosophically. Is the theistic account of the cosmos true or false? Dennett, amazingly, does not care. "The goal of either proving or disproving God's existence," he concludes, is "not very important." It is history, not philosophy, that will break religion's spell. The story of religion's development will extirpate it. "In order to explain the hold that various religious ideas and practices have on people," he writes, "we need to understand the evolution of the human mind."
Just as scientific questions are clearly different from philosphical ones in Mr. Wieseltier's simple world, so too are historical and philosophical questions. He does not seem to realize that an account of the historical genesis of a belief can have bearing on the epistemic status of that belief, that beliefs with the wrong kind of etiology are epistemically suspect. But quite apart from the banal epistemic point, the material quoted by Mr. Wieseltier suggests that Professor Dennett's concern is not purely epistemological, but also rhetorical and psychological: namely, how does one get people to give up on religion? Like Nietzsche (and perhaps, in a different way, Hume), Dennett apparently puts his hopes in a convincing historical narrative.
As to Dennett's speculative natural history of religion, Mr. Wieseltier observes, fairly enough, that "it is only a story. It is not based, in any strict sense, on empirical research. Dennett is 'extrapolating back to human prehistory with the aid of biological thinking,' nothing more. 'Breaking the Spell' is a fairy tale told by evolutionary biology." He does not observe that religion is also, by the same criteria, "only a story," a mere "fairy tale," and one which can't even pretend to continuity with explanatory paradigms we have reason to deem reliable. To call Dennett's story "a pious account of his own atheistic longing," is I think shameless projection: it is Mr. Wieseltier who has genuinely pious longings, which is why he is reduced to sneering at Professor Dennett while spewing out a tissue of confusions and misrepresentations.
That we are in the presence of the pious (and the very confused) becomes even clearer later in the review when Mr. Wieseltier complains:
It will be plain that Dennett's approach to religion is contrived to evade religion's substance. He thinks that an inquiry into belief is made superfluous by an inquiry into the belief in belief. This is a very revealing mistake. You cannot disprove a belief unless you disprove its content.
It is true that you cannot show a belief to be false by explaining its origin, but it is clear you can show that holding the belief is not warranted by explaining its origin. (This is an important topic I have dealt with elsewhere.) If you believe buying stock in High Tech Miracle, Inc. is a good investment based on recommendation of your broker, and then you discover that your broker recommended it because he is an investor in the company and a beneficiary of its rising stock fortunes, you no longer have a reason to believe it's a good investment--though it might turn out to be one, of course, but you no longer are warranted in believing that. Hume, Nietzsche, Marx, Dennett and many others exploit this form of argumentation, without making any mistakes, let alone abandoning "reason," as Mr. Wieseltier--whose arrogance may even outstrip his ignorance--remarkably claims.
There is more one could say about the muddled particulars of this display of mindless anti-intellectualism and feeble apologetics for religion, but other work beckons this Sunday afternoon. Mr. Wieseltier concludes that Professor Dennett's book is "shallow and self-congratulatory." Perhaps it is, but on the evidence of this review one is actually warranted in applying those adjectives only to the review's author.
The defense, alas, was less a defense--no substantive issue in dispute was even mentioned--than a smear job.
The author of this smear job, one Hunter Baker(identified only as a "freelance writer in Texas"), talked with Professor Beckwith and the Harvard law student, but never bothered to contact me, the target of the smear. The author also never bothered to indicate why I had criticized the review, focusing only on one conclusory passage which he both misread and misquoted. Although he included various links, he never linked to my actual criticisms of the review!
Welcome to the world of right-wing slime and smear, where no ethics, journalistic or otherwise, apply, and in which facts or truth are never an obstacle.
A few hours after I "outed" Mr. Baker's connection to Beckwith on my blog, I received the following e-mail from this shameless hatchet man, which is almost breathtaking in its disingenuousness (Mr. Baker invited me to post it, and since he's handed me the rope...):
The reason I didn't list myself as Beckwith's teaching assistant is simple. I have a long record of internet and print journalism that predates any association with him. That part of my life belongs to me. He has no control over what I choose to cover or how I write stories....
"Yeah, right," says everyone over the age of 16. This claim might have been more credible, of course, if he'd volunteered this information before I outed him. Indeed, one might find it remotely believable if it had been included in his by-line when the article was published. (Why not let the readers decide for themselves about Mr. Baker's reliability and objectivity given his connection with one of the targets of the critique?) But journalistic integrity, as noted, is not one of Mr. Baker's strong suits. Indeed, in this context, the word "fraud" seems literally applicable. (Since Mr. Baker apparently hasn't heard of journalistic ethics, here's a useful site; see esp. the section on "Act Independently.")
...apparently. The author of this incredibly silly piece (even by the standards of the site on which it appears)--one Arnold Kling--purportedly has a PhD in economics from MIT. The MIT economics faculty can not be happy about this.
Here is the "argument" of the piece. The author purports to refute the view of Congressman Sanders and Senator Edwards "that life is getting harder for working Americans, that things have been going down hill for thirty years, and that our only hope is bigger government." Instead, the author will show "that it is nonsense to suggest that the middle class is disappearing and that the standard of living is eroding for working Americans."
Here is evidence that would seem, prima facie, to have bearing on these claims: (1) income and earning trends adjusted for inflation since the 1970s; (2) hours worked by individuals and households since the 1970s; (3) comparative data on hunger, malnutrition, mortality, and incidence of disease between the well-off and the poor, and between the 1970s and the present; and (4) changes in purchasing power, adjusted for inflation, since the 1970s.
Incredibly, no real evidence on these points is mentioned by the author. Instead, the author offers us the following by way of argumentative support: Today, almost everyone owns a telephone, refrigerator, color TV, et al., whereas in 1970 only the vast majority owned most of these. Many more today now own large-screen TVs too. In addition, 68.6% own their own homes today, in comparison to 64.6% in the 1970s.
It might have occurred to the author, but apparently did not, that one explanation for these changes might be that (1) prices of many of these items went down, and (2) individuals and households now work more. If the former, then consumer goods are more available, but we have not yet shown that life has gotten better along any other pertinent dimension (health, leisure, professional and personal well-being, even overall standard of living); if the latter, then life has gotten worse along one equally tangible dimension.
The closest this Ph.D. economist comes to noting the relevant factors bearing on the interpretation of his litany of consumer goods is the following: "[W]hat explains the fact that, adjusted for inflation, the pay of the lowest-wage workers has not increased much over the past thirty years? There are a number of factors involved, but I suspect that the largest component of the explanation is a shift in the composition of the low-wage work force. In the 1970's, many of the people at the bottom of the wage scale were heads of households. Today, many low-wage workers are providing second or third incomes to families." No actual data is in evidence here, just the author's "suspicion" of an explanation. And still no awareness is shown of the competing explanations for the increasing prevalence of consumer goods in the society at large.
But it gets better.
The author now presents the reader with powerful evidence that people are working much less now, and consuming more goods, than in...the late 19th-century! Since Congressman Sanders and Senator Edwards had not suggested that conditions for working Americans had deteriorated over the last century, but over the last 30 years, the relevance of this evidence is, shall we say, a bit obscure. Even the author correctly stated at the start the claims at issue. Yet he apparently does not realize that a significant portion of his article is devoted to evidence unrelated to any claim at issue in the argument.
But it gets still better.
To show that "we are healthier" now, and that the exploding costs of healthcare are delivering results, we are presented with two kinds of "evidence": first, the population is healthier now than a century ago (indeed, than two centuries ago!); and second, anecdotes about the author's own experiences with medical care, e.g., "My wife's cancer was detected early and treated effectively. My mother's cancer killed her in 1976, at age 53. If you ask me, the 1970's were no golden age of medical care." The first piece of "evidence" is, once again, irrelevant to the argument. The second piece is not even evidence.
I confess that it is tempting to conclude from this irrational display that this man is either criminally dishonest or a stark raving moron.
UPDATE: You can see all the web sites that are happily endorsing Dr. Kling's "argument" here. "The less they know, the less they know it."
ANOTHER UPDATE: A law colleague elsewhere writes: "If desired consumer goods are indeed getting cheaper, that is in fact a rise in the standard of living for both rich and poor." To which I replied, in part: "There is more to the standard of living than color TVs." Unnoted in the article, except anecdotally: changes in the costs and availability of health care, schooling, housing, personal services, safety, transportation, etc., as well as changes in the amount of time it is necessary for people to work to secure any of these items, including consumer goods.
AND AGAIN: Reader Paul Wolfson from Dartmouth points out that the site on which this article appears is not (as the quality of the article would suggest) a reputable or trustworthy forum: details here.
During this very busy time, when I'm unable to do much new extended, discursive blogging of my own, I thought I might repost a few "greatest [blog] hits" from the past that fall into a rhetorical, if not, substantive category: what one reader charmingly referred to as my "merciless rhetorical spankings of fanatics, villains, and ignoramuses." Newer readers may enjoy some of these, and longtime readers will, I hope, not object too strenuously to seeing some of these items again. And, of course, what better way to rekindle warm feelings in the bilious souls of fanatics, villains and ignoramuses than to remind the world of their fanaticism, villainy and ignorance?
(By the way, once I get past the 'Or 'Emet lecture at York in early March, I should be able to do a bit more new writing--rhetorical spankings and otherwise--of my own on the blog.)
Continental Philosophy Farhang Erfani, a philosopher at American University, provides a useful set of links to news, events, interviews, reviews, videos, etc. related to "Continental philosophy" (broadly construed)