May 16, 2013 § 1 Comment
I have been in Brussels to attend a conference on the Radical Enlightenment, and to interview Jonathan Israel, the keynote speaker, for an essay I am writing about his work and argument. Israel has transformed our understanding of the Enlightenment with his superlative trilogy published over the past decade: Radical Enlightenment, Enlightenment Contested, and Democratic Enlightenment. At the heart of his argument is his insistence that there were two Enlightenments. The mainstream Enlightenment of Kant, Locke, Voltaire and Hume is the one of which we know and which provides the public face of the Enlightenment. But it was the Radical Enlightenment, shaped by lesser-known figures such as d’Holbach, Diderot, Condorcet and, in particular, Spinoza that provided the Enlightenment’s heart and soul.
The two Enlightenments, Israel suggests, divided on the question of whether reason reigned supreme in human affairs, as the radicals insisted, or whether reason had to be limited by faith and tradition – the view of the mainstream. The mainstream, Israel writes, ‘aspired to conquer ignorance and superstition, establish ideas and revolutionise ideas, education and attitudes by means of philosophy but in such a way as to preserve and safeguard what were judged as essential elements of the older structures, offering a viable synthesis of old and new, of reason and faith.’ By contrast, the Radical Enlightenment ‘rejected all compromise with the past and sought to sweep away existing structures entirely’.
The argument, as can be imagined, has created considerable controversy. « Read the rest of this entry »
May 12, 2013 § 1 Comment
In completing my book on the history of moral thought I had to reduce the original manuscript by some 30,000 words to get it to a reasonable size. Much of what has been lost is better off left on the cutting room floor. There are, however, some sections coherent enough to be worth reading. So, I am running an occasional series publishing some of the more cogent ‘lost pages’ from the book. The first was on Machiavelli. This extract is on Descrates and his influence (it has not been entirely cut from the book, but is considerably condensed). The book itself, which is called The Quest for a Moral Compass, will be published early next year.
Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, painted around 1657, reveals wonderfully the new eyes through which painters now viewed their subject. It shows a woman, ensconced in her own world, absorbed totally in reading the private words of another. There is a startling stillness about the room. Its physical features, the walls, the drapery, seem to define the boundaries of her mental world. She is alone in the room. There is an open window to the world beyond but she has eyes only for the letter in her hand. Reflected in the window is not the world beyond but her own face. The window is both a portal to the world outside and an opening to her thoughts inside, an expression both of her yearning to break the constraints of her domesticity and her total absorption in her own little world. There is an intimacy about the scene that is truly breathtaking. « Read the rest of this entry »
April 17, 2013 § 3 Comments
My book on the history of moral thought is written. In the process, I had to reduced the ms by some 30,000 words. Much of that is better off left on the cutting room floor. But there are also some portions coherent enough to be worth reading. So, I am running an occasional series publishing some of the more cogent sections that are no longer in the book. This first of the ‘missing pages’ is on Machiavelli.
‘A prince never lacks legitimate reasons to break his promise.’ The cynicism of Nicolo Machiavelli’s voice is unmistakable. However, as Bertrand Russell once put it, ‘It is the custom to be shocked by him, and he is certainly sometimes shocking. But many other men would be equally so if they were equally free from humbug.’
Machiavelli (1467-1527) was a Florentine who lived through some of the city’s most turbulent years. In 1494 the ruling Medicis were overthrown by Charles V of France and the Dominican friar Girolama Savonarola emerged as the new leader of the city. He set about morally cleansing Florence, organizing the infamous Bonfire of the Vanities during which any item deemed moral corrupting, including mirrors, cosmetics, pagan books, chess pieces, musical instruments, and women’s hats, were burnt in a large pile in the Piazza della Signoria. In 1497 Savonarola was excommunicated by Pope Alexander VI. The following year he was arrested, tortured and executed. Fifteen years later, the Medicis were restored to power. « Read the rest of this entry »
February 28, 2013 § 1 Comment
This is the penultimate extract from my almost-finished book on the history of moral thought. This is from chapter 6 – another of the chapters I am publishing out of sync – which explores early Chinese philosophy. This extract is about two philosophers, one of whom is well known as China’s most famous thinker – Kongzi, or Confucius as he is known in the West – and the other who has been almost forgotten, even in China, but who should not be – Mo Tzu.
He is known in the West as Confucius, thanks to the sixteenth century Jesuit missionaries who Latinized his name. He is revered in China as Kongzi or ‘Master Kong’. And he was born as Kong Qui around 551 BCE in Zou, in the state of Lu on the eastern seaboard. He lived at around the same time as the Buddha though neither, of course, knew of the other. This was in China the middle of Zhou dynasty, a time known as the Spring and Autumn period, after the Spring and Autumn Annals, a chronicle of the state of Lu. Not only were there struggles between the fragmenting parts of the Zhou dynasty but also between fiefdoms inside and outside Zhou territory. The conflicts that marked the second half of the Zhou period were part of a complex transition to imperial rule and the unification of China. By the time of Kong’s birth, Lu was in a state almost of anarchy. « Read the rest of this entry »
February 24, 2013 § 22 Comments
Iain McGilchrist has written a response to my post about his book The Master and his Emissary and about the RSA workshop that discussed it. Since it is a long reply, Iain asked me whether I could publish it as a post, rather than as a comment, which I am happy to do. I have appended my own response at the end. (And just to avoid any confusion, while I have set up the discussion in the form of two open letters, Iain’s piece was written as a straightforward essay, not in letter form.) I am slightly puzzled, as I observe in my reply, by the tone of Iain’s piece. He seems to suggest in places that my original was written in bad faith and that I seem not to have not read his book or the RSA document. Whether I have adequately understood either is, of course, a matter for debate. But my post was written in good faith, and while critical of Iain’s thesis was also, in my eyes at least, respectful of his work. I wrote it to engage in the kind of debate for which I had hoped that Iain himself had written his book, and the RSA had held its workshop. I am publishing Iain’s essay in the spirit of such debate, I have written my response to it in that spirit, and I hope that people will engage in that spirit with both sets of arguments.
When Jonathan [Rowson, Director of the RSA’s Social Brain Centre] and I agreed to attempt this short publication we did so with a degree of foreboding. We knew that the attempt to abbreviate an argument that is, for the most part, carefully articulated, and already somewhat compressed, in its original 350,000 word form, was inviting difficulties. One such difficulty was that in further compression much would be lost: subtlety, nuance, complexity of argument, qualification of expression, and that I would be taken as saying something cruder than I am. Another was that the casual reader might be lead to think that they could substitute an acquaintance with the paper for a careful reading of the book. Yet we were encouraged by the advice of many readers from many academic disciplines and from many walks of life to think that it was worth risking such casualties in order to engage readers who otherwise might not have come across it at all, trusting that, at least before passing judgment, they would be led to do the book justice by reading it for themselves.
But perhaps even the RSA document is too long for today’s reader. Our fears would appear to have been more than justified. It is a little dispiriting that most, if not all, the comments and objections that KM raises are addressed, sometimes at considerable length, in the course of the document. Of course, those responses might still not satisfy KM, but at least if he had read them the debate would be at a higher level. « Read the rest of this entry »
January 22, 2013 § 5 Comments
Those who have followed the excerpts I have been publishing from my ‘Book in progress’ on the history of moral thought will know that there were several gaps in the chapters. That was because I left till the end a series of chapters on the Indian and Chinese traditions. These are now almost complete, and I will publish, as before, monthly extracts from each remaining chapter. Some of the chapters have been renumbered as you can see from the complete set of extracts.
This extract is from chapter 5 which explores the ancient Indian traditions, primarily Hinduism and Buddhism.
November 6, 2012 § 1 Comment
Back in September, I wrote an essay about Judith Butler and the controversy over her winning the Adorno Prize. It touched off a debate in Pandaemonium, less because of my defence of Butler’s right to win the prize than my criticism of her work and, in particular, of her poststructuralism. I noted then that I have written little directly on Butler’s main theme, gender, but much, in the context of the debate about race, on poststructuralist / postmodernist conceptions of difference, identity, equality and agency. That critique is scattered across a number of books – in particular The Meaning of Race, Man, Beast and Zombie and Strange Fruit. I promised to delve into the archives, as it were, and publish some extracts from those books. The first – on Edward Said, Michel Foucault and the concept of the Other - I posted last month. This second extract, also from The Meaning of Race, is not so much a critique of poststructuralism as part of an explanation of how certain key themes in poststructuralist thought – in particular hostility to humanism and to Enlightenment ideas of rationalism and universalism – that once had been seen as the province of reaction came to be major currents in radical thought.
One of the problems in republishing extracts is that while essays and blog posts are generally self-contained, book extracts rarely are. In a book the argument runs through the whole work. Any extract necessarily assumes familiarity with arguments that have already been set out and builds up to conclusions that arrive only later in the book. At the same time, The Meaning of Race is now almost 20 years old. Many of the ideas that may have been barely formulated or ill-constructed in the book I have developed much further since then; some have changed quite considerably. I have, for instance, reworked the arguments about Frantz Fanon, the tradition that he represents and the legacy that he left. My forthcoming book on the history of moral thought contains new perspectives on humanism within both the liberal and Marxist traditions. Nevertheless, despite these shifts and changes, I hope that an extract such as this is still useful, both because I still stand by much of what is here and because it is, as always, a good starting point for debate.