None ever wished it longer, said Johnson of Paradise Lost, thereby making us forget what else he said of it. Professor Sir Alfred Ayer maybe wished shorter my A Theory of Determinism: The Mind, Neuroscience and Life-Hopes (LRB, 19 May). Still, he approves it for a singularity or two, and it is lovely to have the approval of someone who has never been in much danger of the fulsome. I reply with gratitude, then, but reply I do, in something like his own spirit of independence, since he has not convinced me of anything.
His principal objection is to what he certainly over-describes as the central feature of my book, part of my solution to the mind-brain problem, the problem of the relation of a mental to a simultaneous neural event. What I say is taken to depend on my view of causation. That view, in sum, is that an effect is an event preceded by a set of things – a causal circumstance – such that the event would still have followed whatever else had been happening in addition to the causal circumstance and the event.
Professor Ayer’s objection has the premise that we typically do not or cannot specify a whole causal circumstance for an effect. Rather, we may think of something or other prior to the effect such that if certain things had been happening in addition to it, the effect would not have occurred. When the match lights, we may think of the striking and a bit more, and leave out the absence of a gust of wind. I agree with all that, and talk a lot about it in the book. I do not at all agree that it supports the conclusion he tries to draw from it, which is that we do not understand effects to be events related in the given way to antecedents, that we do not have that conception of them. It plainly doesn’t follow. Further, anyone who supposes we do not take effects to be related in the given way to antecedents is on the way to supposing we take them to be a kind of mystery, which exactly we do not.
Professor Ayer has therefore found no vital flaw in my mind-brain solution. That solution, by the way, as I am reassured to report, does not contain the second part of a thought he assigns to it. That is the thought ‘that a mental event is necessary to the occurrence of the simultaneous neural event: in other words, the mental event would not happen in the absence of its neural partner.’ Other words needed, dear Freddie, and a correction, too, to something similar in your fifth paragraph.
In dealing with the third and culminating part of my book, which he likes best and to which he gives least attention, Professor Ayer does not shed a clear and consistent light. He gives no leg up to that Common Reader he mentions earlier. He says that I agree ‘with Hobbes and Locke that a person can properly be said to be acting freely when he is not prevented by external or internal constraints from doing what he chooses.’ That report, since absence of constraint is of course compatible with determinism, makes me sound like yet one more Compatibilist, one more member of what must surely be a wearied philosophical tradition, whose burden is that determinism and freedom are logically consistent.
In fact, it is exactly as true or false that I agree with Kant and with, say, Bradley and Sartre, all of them of the opposed Incompatibilist tradition, that a person can properly be said to be acting freely when he is not constrained, and also has originated the action. Further, I do not, in the sense Professor Ayer says, reject all concepts of origination or Free Will, allow them no meaning. I don’t come close to thinking them insignificant in our lives either – absolutely the contrary – nor suppose that determinism poses no threat to rationality. In a way it does.
Professor Ayer does indeed go on to convey something of this, but tardily, and without making at all clear what is in fact a new view of things, whether right or wrong. It has to do essentially with what are called life-hopes, and, more important, is a view that escapes darkening preconceptions given us by Hobbes, Kant et al – by both of the traditions of thought about the human consequences of determinism. It is a view, too, that is relevant not only to determinism but to something more popular, near-determinism, which is the idea that there is irrelevant micro-indeterminism down below, as suggested by an interpretation of Quantum Theory, but macro-determinism up above, certainly including neural determinism.
Finally, to look at but one secondary matter about which Professor Ayer has not convinced me, he may sound a bit persuasive when he remarks that ‘it is at least not obvious that the proposition “If Queen Victoria thought Prince Albert handsome, King George V collected postage stamps” expresses a causal truth entirely on its own.’ However, what he is supposed to be showing, at bottom, if I have him right, is that if some causal circumstance including Victoria’s inclination really had as an effect some later fact about the existence of George, and that later fact really caused him to collect stamps, it nevertheless isn’t right to say that the initial circumstance caused the collecting.
Who, as Johnson might have said, unsound as he was on Free Will, could cudgel the mind to believe it? If A caused B, and B caused C, then A caused C. This fact is perfectly preserved when causal statements are analysed into what they are, which is certain conditional statements. Nor would the conceptual truth be complicated, as Professor Ayer suggests, if the period of courtship and gestation for the Royal Family were longer, and George appeared on the scene only some millions of months after Albert caught Victoria’a eye.
There is more to be said, Common Reader, much more – about those bits on Quantum Theory and classical mechanics, and whether causes are individual properties, and that fast argument about margins of error for the reality of Chance – but necessarily I stop.
University College London
Hilary Putnam (LRB, 21 April) quotes from a review I wrote of a book by Quine, originally published in the Journal of Philosophy. The first sentence of this quotation contains a printing error, perpetrated by Harvard University Press, and reproduced by Putnam (it isn’t his fault). The quotation, which appears on the back of Quine’s Quiddities, reads: ‘Quine pursues philosophical vision with an uncompromising consistency of purpose that makes his doctrines impossible to ignore.’ The error was to omit a ‘his’ between ‘pursues’ and ‘philosophical’. The quoted sentence sounds dippy. And solecisms spoil compliments.
Corpus Christi College, Oxford
Another, less subtle mistake occurred in Hilary Putnam’s article. ‘We cannot translate the Chinese word mao just any which way,’ Professor Putnam wrote. ‘But it does not follow that there is a fact of the matter as to whether mao “corresponds” to rabbits or to rabbithood.’ For ‘rabbits’ and ‘rabbithood’ read ‘cats’ and ‘cathood’.
Editors, ‘London Review’
The business of the unsavoury de Man has been proceeding predictably: smokescreens of lofty irrelevance (Heidegger, Husserl, ‘organicism’) punctuated by hot flushes of polysyllabic panic, complacencies of odium academicum designed to neutralise any idea that the real issue might be something other than Professor Norris’s opinion of ‘English-speaking philosophers’, and so on. The latest number of LRB to reach me (Letters, 21 April) makes me wonder just when Messrs Norris and Culler are going to reveal to us that some of de Man’s best friends were Jews.
Thank you from the depths of my heart for Professor Holdheim’s letter (Letters, 17 March) and his comment on Christopher Norris’s essay on Paul de Man. There must be a vast number who were deeply disturbed, as I was, by the ahistorical view of life and literature that attempted to construct an epistemology without root or stem and wondered what, other than a lack of any creative talent, could be its motivation. The din was so great that few of us could be heard and when a whole generation was sent forth to man the bastions of learning it became impossible to tell the hollow men from the blockheads. I believe that Professor Holdheim has not only given us a ‘close reading’ of the infamous de Man but a critical key that lays bare the unutterable shame that provides the real episteme for much of what passes for social and political thought in modern Europe. What do we see, we inheritors of the worlds of Bacon and Locke and Hume, and what can we learn from the ugly spectacle of the heirs of Kant and Kierkegaard, Hegel and Nietzche tramping in the bloody parades from stalag to gulag and back again? As we gather up the blood-stained pages that Professor Holdheim has revealed to us, perhaps we can discern another and more hopeful vision amid the stench and flickering light emitted by these mines of sulphur. It is the image of Marc Bloch, tortured and shot by the Gestapo with guns that had been loaded by these ‘thinkers’. And I can hear the cry of the American poet and novelist Evan S. Connell shouting across that abyss, far wider than the Channel, to another great historian destroyed in the Warsaw Ghetto: ‘Peace, Dubnow, as long as paper lasts, where can they hide?’
Jonathan Culler’s response (Letters, 21 April) to Wolfgang Holdheim’s letter on Paul de Man rejects the notion that his views are ‘a guilty reaction to his writing for collaborationist newspapers at the beginning of the Nazi occupation of Belgium’ and proposes instead that his later writings are valuable ‘for combating the ideology with which he had earlier been complicitous’. Christopher Norris had made the same point. All three writers are engaging in intellectual biography and history, where the issues must be settled, though I think we need to know much more than we do now to advance the narrative. Still, in an age of theorising that has denigrated both history and biography, it is ironic that it is the biographical problem of a leading theorist which has driven his defenders to realms they usually disdain as the province of old-fashioned literary criticism. One must wonder, however, how deconstructionists will be able to do the biographical job they propose to do since they are dedicated in principle, as Culler proclaims, to ‘the critique of the assumption that history is a coherent narrative,’ to ‘critique of the author or subject as the determining source of meaning’. It is precisely the problem of making a coherent narrative and finding the author’s meaning, however, that the historical argument about de Man is all about. Deconstructionists like Norris and Culler are supposed to be especially alert to contradictions in texts, and perhaps they are. But what is most striking about their defence of de Man’s theories is their confident plunge into matters of biography and history which depend upon assumptions that their principles contradict. We shall need to demystify deconstruction if the de Man story is to be constructed. That is a point in Holdheim’s letter that neither Norris nor Culler addresses.
Whatever the coherent narrative turns out to be, making it will not be helped by proclaiming in advance, as Norris and Culler do, that the story will be proof of the wisdom in de Man’s later theorising because it criticises his earlier disastrous assumptions. Maybe that is why he was drawn to his theory; that is a sympathetic and possible biographical hypothesis. But even if true, it proves nothing about the wisdom or folly of deconstruction.
Cornell University, New York
I must protest against John Bayley’s assertion, in his review of Nirad Chaudhuri’s autobiography (LRB, 5 May), that ‘with their knowledge of English literature, educated Bengalis could see that [Tagore’s poetry] was no good in English and began to wonder if it could therefore be any good in Bengali either.’ This is neither an accurate statement of Chaudhuri’s analysis of Tagore, nor true. It quite misses the fact that there were many educated Bengalis in the period in which Tagore established his reputation as a poet in Bengal (from 1880 onwards) whose confidence in their own language (as well as their remarkable ability in English) left them in no doubt of Tagore’s greatness. They did not need the recognition given him in the West from 1912 onwards to confirm this impression for them. Unfortunately, they do not fit comfortably into Chaudhuri’s entertaining but partial theme of Bengali decline, and so Professor Bayley is probably unaware of their existence. They include the remarkable grandfather and father of the film-director Satyajit Ray, the second of whom was the first Bengali to publish an essay on Tagore in the West, before the award of the Nobel Prize to him in November 1913.
In reviewing Visions and Blueprints, edited by P. Collier and Edward Timms (LRB, 5 May), George Steiner expresses his distaste for my chapter on ‘Left Review, New Writing and the Broad Alliance against Fascism’. ‘How poignant,’ he writes, ‘are the remnants of party discipline which enable this testimony to omit, from the list of significant British writers involved in the Spanish cockpit, the very name of George Orwell.’ This might be poignant if his statement were true, but it is not. Anyone who consults my list of contributors to New Writing who served in the Spanish war, printed on page 136, will see that it includes the name of George Orwell. I don’t expect Steiner to apologise, but when he tries to convict other writers of bad faith he should perhaps read what they have written more carefully first.
George Steiner writes: I do owe Margot Heinemann an apology. It is correct that the name of George Orwell appears in a footnote. The word ‘poignant’ seems to me a courteous description of this placement (inevitably reminiscent of Stalinist habits).
I have been struck by two thoughts. First, that this correspondence was mainly about words (‘racism’, ‘anti-racism’, ‘anti-anti-racism’, are ‘browns’ ‘black’?) rather than about the substance of racial discrimination against ‘black’ people. If your readers can find a better word than ‘black’ to describe groups of people of diverse ethnic origins who are instantly recognised by ‘white’ people as being ‘non-white’, and having been so recognised, face discrimination, I shall be glad to hear it. Second, that this avid pursuit of certain words is a form of displacement activity. It seems to serve the function of concealing not only from your readers but also from your correspondents themselves the fact that they are not really interested in the extent and causes of ‘black’ disadvantage in Britain, while suggesting that it is due to some basic deficiency in ‘black’ people.
If your correspondents are interested in some of the stark facts of ‘black’ disadvantage they need go no further than an article in the January 1987 issue of the official Employment Gazette. It shows that in 1985 unemployment among ‘black’ people in Britain was about twice the ‘white’ unemployment rate: 20 per cent as against 11 per cent. (There were some differences among the various ethnic groups, but the main contrast was that between ‘white’ people and any ethnic minority group.) This difference cannot be explained by where ‘black’ people live: almost half of them live in the London area, where the unemployment rate is the lowest in Britain. Nor can it be explained by the age-structure of ethnic minority groups: in every age group ‘black’ unemployment is double the ‘white’ rate. Nor is it explained by the lower qualifications of the ‘black’ labour force. A substantially higher proportion of ‘black’ people than of whites stay on at school after 16, and relatively more ‘black’ people obtain a higher-educational qualification. It clearly pays ‘black’ people to obtain such qualifications. Yet unemployment among ‘black’ men with a higher-education qualification is three times as high as among white men, and the probability of a ‘black’ person with a higher-education qualification having to settle for a clerical or manual job is between two and four times higher.
The reasons for these disparities will be all too clear to those of your readers who watched the recent BBC 1 series Black and White, and saw a personable young black journalist being told time and again that the room or the flat or the job he was applying for had gone days ago, only for his white colleague to be offered it 15 minutes later. Brown and Gay’s meticulously researched study (Racial Discrimination 17 Years after the Act, PSI, 1985) comes to similar conclusions: depending on the type of job, between a third and half of British employers systematically discriminate against black people. Most of my family ended up in Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Dachau, and I myself escaped by the skin of my teeth, so I hope Messrs Palmer et al will understand why I regard racial discrimination as an unsuitable subject for word-games. But I would very much like to know where they stand on the substance of racial discrimination in Britain today.
University of Glasgow