Sunday, November 6, 2011

Boredom, spuds and charity

In this post I will be discussing cats, concepts, Mr. Potato Head and "being difficult".

In an email discussion recently, the possible merits of a new book by Stephen Pinker were being weighed on the basis of a review entitled "Is Violence History ?". In discussing the book the reviewer, Peter Singer, employs notions such as reason, ethics, justice, repression, mind, morality, cognitive and emotional faculties, hunter-gatherers and so on. He comes to the conclusion that Pinker's book is "supremely important". I have quoted some passages at the end of this post.

My reaction to this review was very different from that of the other participants in the discussion. So different, in fact, that I thought I had better not say it straight out, but only remarked: "This is kaleidoscope thinking: round and round go the same old notions, flashing and rattling. Morality, reason, violence ... I got tired of reading such stuff decades ago." Having thought over all this later, including my decision to hold back, I identified boredom and charity as essential components.

1. Boredom

It was around the age of 15 or so that I first encountered books and articles about reason, ethics and so on. I was particularly taken by Gilbert Ryle's The Concept of Mind. This led me to the British analytic school of moral philosophy and R.M. Hare, all of whose books I read that I could get my hands on in Texas (I see in the Wipe article that the reviewer, Peter Singer, studied under Hare). For a long time I read with particular interest the TLS reviews of books of philosophy.

Over the last forty years, however, I have lived in Germany, reading Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Dilthey, Nietzsche, Plessner, Gadamer, Sloterdijk, Deleuze, Rheinberger, Rorty, Atlan, Morin, Bachelard ... As a result I seem to have lost my ability to make much sense of those TLS reviews (even the fretfully humorous ones by Fodor !) or the Singer review. This is where the trouble starts with my American and British acquaintances - where I find myself being charged with being difficult, cynical, insecure ...

The image that sprang immediately to mind when I read the Singer review was Mr. Potato Head. The words "reason", "ethics" etc. seemed to be bits of plastic being rearranged yet again to produce a striking result. Now whether or not an Anglophone person has read any of the German and French writers I mentioned above, surely - I feel - he/she must have tired of all those inconclusive but insistent Anglophone discussions over the years: reason is a component of morality (or not), violence is natured (or nurtured), mind is a neural epiphenomenon (or not), justice is positive (or natural), cognition and emotion are separate (or bound together in our hunter-gatherer natures) ...

The fact that I find all this worthless - does it imply cynicism, a belief that "there is no such thing as reason and justice" ? It does not. It implies that I believe (at the very least) that the words, the conceptual cut-lines, are worthless. Exercise: try to formulate what you want to say without using the words "reason", "justice" and the rest of 'em. Do you find it difficult to break that habit ? It is rather reminiscent of addiction, isn't it ? And that potato - is it not "the neutral subject" surveying the world of ideas without a clue as to how it constructs that world, and is constructed by it ?

I am not trying to create the impression that I know-it-all and that these are easy-peasy issues - far from it. What I am trying to do is bring attention to how difficult they are. Glibly, skillfully shuffling traditional words around won't hack it. Boredom, though, is the mother of invention, a state of mind conducive to finding different approaches.

2. Charity

Dogs easily learn to look in the direction a person points with his index finger. Cats never learn this, but always look at the finger. I myself will look in the direction pointed when there's something there worth looking at. Otherwise I tend to stare at the finger, trying to figure out the point of pointing at such a pointless thing.

At first glance, it seems that I am being rather uncharitable, to put it mildly, to dismiss a serious discussion of Singer's/Pinker's ideas as a game of Mr. Potato Head. I'm sure the participants would not thank me for suggesting in this way that they are wasting their time. But do I find it uncharitable to be dismissed as "cynical" ? No, I find it frustrating, since my interventions are equally serious.

Maybe the problem is the analogy with Mr. Potato Head. This image may seem offensive, but I found it apposite and funny. And this is, I think, the core of the problem: I tend to be serious and make jokes at the same time. Many people interpret that as cynical frivolity, whereas I expect it to be taken as a token of self-deprecation and open-mindedness.

It seems there is more seriousness in the world than I had expected, and charity is not going to fix it. Thank God for books and blogsites, where one can speak one's mind without immediate reprisals.

Quotes from the review:
When you heard that a gunman had slaughtered scores of Norwegian teenagers on a holiday island earlier this summer, did you think that here was another symptom of our sick and violent world? So did I, until I read Steven Pinker's brilliant, mind-altering book about the decline of violence.
The real fascination of this book is how we got from being a species that enjoyed the spectacle of roasting each other alive to one that believes child-killers have the same rights as everyone else. As Pinker shows, it is both a long story and a relatively recent one. The first thing that had to happen was the move from a nomadic, hunter-gatherer existence (where your chances of meeting a violent end could be as high as 50:50) to settled communities. The trouble was that early governments showed themselves at least as capable of cruelty as anyone else: most of the truly horrific instruments of torture Pinker describes were designed and employed by servants of the state.
To readers familiar with the literature in evolutionary psychology and its tendency to denigrate the role reason plays in human behavior, the most striking aspect of Pinker’s account is that the last of his “better angels” is reason. Here he draws on a metaphor I used in my 1981 book “The Expanding Circle.” To indicate that reason can take us to places that we might not expect to reach, I wrote of an “escalator of reason” that can take us to a vantage point from which we see that our own interests are similar to, and from the point of view of the universe do not matter more than, the interests of others. Pinker quotes this passage, and then goes on to develop the argument much more thoroughly than I ever did. (Disclosure: Pinker wrote an endorsement for a recent reissue of “The Expanding Circle.”)
[The escalator of reason appears to be a cautious intellectual version of the Rapture]