Vol. 5 No. 14 · 4 August 1983

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Cambridge English

SIR: Although I have hacked my way through the thickets of Raymond Williams’s prose (LRB, 7 July) I am far from sure that I have hit the trail. I thought one was meant to conclude that English studies would benefit if the study of literature as art was abandoned and the Tripos turned into a study of theories about literature and language, so that undergraduates will knit their brows no longer over Sejanus or Ulysses but over Lacan and Foucault. But, however that may be, I think Professor Williams was arguing that the English Tripos took the shape it did because it was designed for an ‘exclusive’ minority: i.e. the boys and girls from independent schools, the girls being specially exclusive because they were a despised academic status group. Since the English upper classes were grounded in Classics, the Tragedy paper began with Aeschylus and the English Moralists paper with Plato and Aristotle. The ‘provincial’ languages of Anglo-Saxon and Welsh were relegated, if taught at all, to options and undergraduates were encouraged to brush up their French and Italian. Thus the seed of all future conflicts in the Faculty was sown, because the Tripos was tuned to the culture of a minority class – the ruling class.

This is a social theory masquerading as fact. The reason why the founding fathers of the Tripos believed some knowledge of these languages and cultures was desirable was quite different. English literature from Chaucer to the 19th century was permeated by Classical culture and imitated French and Italian models. It was the nature of English literature, not the social class of those who were to study it, which dictated the content of the Tripos. I don’t know what the curriculum was at Professor Williams’s Welsh school, but the notion that English grammar schools between the wars were not proficient in the Classics or in French is laughable.

The founding fathers were sceptical of evaluation. They considered Arnold’s judgments on individual works of art a job lot. The Tripos should teach by close reading what a poem was about, what did or did not make it valuable in itself or in relation to other work by the same poet: not so much in relation to all poetry written anywhere at any time. Many of them thought sweeping evaluation pandered to the natural priggishness of the young and encouraged them to sneer at authors whom they thought unfashionable or dismissed patronisingly as immature. Premature evaluation was as distressing a complaint in the young as premature ejaculation. Some of the Faculty explored what were the most profitable ways of discussing literature: through words as Manny Forbes and George Rylands did, or through categories such as Tillyard’s poetry direct and oblique. With great honesty I.A. Richards abandoned his search for a method of establishing value through appetencies and concluded: ‘Convictions as to the value, and kinds of value, of kinds of poetry might safely, and with advantage, decay, provided that there remained a firm sense of the importance of the critical act of choice, its difficulty, and the supreme exercise of all our faculties that it imposes.’

Professor Williams is quite wrong to conclude that without Richards and Leavis Cambridge English would hardly have differed from English departments in other universities: the Tripos was unique in the period between the two wars. Only at Cambridge could one find before the war teaching of the kind given by Henn or Willey. Only Cambridge would have encouraged the original work of an undergraduate such as Empson.

It is, I think, true, as I argued in a lecture delivered in Harvard in 1964, that part of Leavis’s success was his appeal to the condition of undergraduates from the grammar schools. He told them that only a limited number of poets and novelists were worth serious study, and therefore that they need not fear the vast range of authors and topics offered in the Tripos. And of course Professor Williams is right to praise Leavis’s seriousness and commitment. But he is not right to say that his opponents hated that seriousness because it disturbed them. Even a sceptic such as F.L. Lucas welcomed Ivor Richards’s seriousness, and the inference that lecturers such as Joan Bennett lacked intense seriousness is absurd.

I was not surprised to see Professor Williams take the familiar line. But I must say I gasped when he said that perhaps, after all, the Faculty were ‘by accident’ (my italics) right in refusing to accept Leavis’s conclusion that ‘to learn to read literary works by close analysis involved you in an assault on a whole system of social and cultural and academic values.’ By accident! The Faculty understood only too well the implications of Leavis’s theory of culture and consciously rejected it. Professor Williams’s misunderstanding may well be the fault of the Faculty in those days. On this issue none of them published a rejoinder at length: partly from distaste for Leavis’s methods of controversy and partly because they wanted to make their own contribution to the study of literature and thought arguments about theory time-consuming. In so doing they gave hostages to fortune: but were they as tame as Professor Williams suggests?

Noël Annan
London NW8

A Technical Philosopher

SIR: John McDowell’s (Letters, 7 July) and Julia Jack’s (Letters, 21 July) comments on my review of Varieties of Reference by Gareth Evans raise important issues. Before speaking to these, let me first say something about McDowell’s more lively accusations. I am accused of ‘not understanding’ the ‘point’ of Evans’s theoretical construction and of ‘withholding approval’ from its ‘theoretical context’. At the same time, ‘Putnam himself offers a roughly adequate exposition of one of [the book’s] main lines of thought, and so undermines his own sugestion that its drift is inaccessible to a general audience.’ Well, if I have given a roughly adequate exposition of one of Evans’s main lines of thought, then I am quite content to let the readers of my review decide for themselves whether that line of thought should be taken seriously. Secondly, McDowell’s charge of an ignoratio elenchi in my review is based on the fact that I employed a past-tense sentence containing what Evans calls a ‘memory demonstrative’ (‘That eagle flew by terrifically fast’) as an example, rather than the corresponding present-tense sentence. But the point would have been exactly the same: the speaker, even if he says, ‘That eagle is flying by terrifically fast,’ as the eagle is flying by (and thus employs a ‘perceptual demonstrative’), need not have acquired the capacity to locate the eagle in objective space (the speaker may be lost). McDowell might reply that at least a weaker condition is fulfilled: I can locate the eagle in relation to my body (locate it in ‘egocentric space’, in Evans’s terminology). But Evans was interested in this capacity as it feeds into the capacity to locate the object in objective space; moreover, if I didn’t notice which way my head was turned, then isn’t it a rather desperate expedient to say I had even the more limited capacity for just an instant and lost it a second later? We could as well say that I thought a perfectly true thought and that Evans is just mistaken in holding that such a thought (containing a perceptual demonstrative or a memory demonstrative) requires the presence (or the existence in the past) of these particular capacities. Similarly, when I say, ‘That oasis is a good place to water my camels,’ and there is no oasis but rather a mirage (another example employed in my review), there is no need to accept Evans’s main piece of ‘theorising on the subject’, as McDowell terms it: i.e. to accept the astonishing claim that in such a case I have failed to think a thought at all. We could as well say I have thought something false, or that the whole question of truth or falsity lapses when we find out the oasis did not exist. We could talk in the way Evans wishes us to talk; to think we fail to grasp ‘theoretic’ truth if we don’t is to be in the grip of a picture. That Evans describes his claims as ‘conceptual truths’ seems very significant in this connection; I simply cannot believe that this ‘has no grand methodological significance in Evans’s work’. (Evans’s only argument for one of his most important claims – the claim that a fully determinate Thought cannot lack a truth value, which is a ‘key’ to establishing his own view, as well as to rejecting Strawson’s theory of descriptions – is that the denial of this principle is ‘incomprehensible’. If this sort of talk shows only that Evans’s work ‘belongs to the analytical tradition’ it is a version of ‘the analytical tradition’ that is remarkably uninformed by Quine or Wittgenstein.)

Furthermore, I must reject McDowell’s account of the history of Russell’s thinking. I dislike talk of ‘the Cartesian tradition’, but if McDowell is thinking of Russell’s break with idealism, as I take it he is, then it is just not the case that Russell was ‘led to his conception of singular “propositions" by his distaste for the way in which the Cartesian tradition typically disconnects the mind from the world; although the tradition reasserted itself in his inability to link the mind, in the direct way he wanted, with anything further out into the world … than sense-data’. The Russellian notion of a ‘proposition’ was, in fact, first put forward by G.E. Moore in 1899 (‘The Nature of Judgment’), and taken over bodily by Russell in The Principles of Mathematics (written in 1902, published in 1903). In these works the constituents of propositions are tables, chairs, numbers etc – whatever one can think about. There is no hint of objects of acquaintance or of any problem of reaching out beyond objects of acquaintance before ‘On Denoting’ (1905), and no identification of objects of acquaintance with sense-data before about 1910. (With the rise of Russell’s interest in epistemology there even came doubt – voiced by Russell in 1912 – that there are such things as ‘propositions’.) In the period (prior to 1910 or so) in which Russell talked confidently of propositions and their constituents, his view was that idealist talk of propositions as parts of mental events cut off and fixed by the mind (Bradley) was simply nonsense. Thinking, for both Frege and Russell, involved direct relation to complex extra-mental entities.

Gareth Evans’s ‘thoughts’, on the other hand, are exercises of structured systems of capacities a person has. Whatever the merits or demerits of such a conception, it has no relation whatever to Russell’s notion of a ‘proposition’. There was, thus, no call for Evans to give an account (an incorrect one, in my view) of Russell’s doctrine that propositions can have objects as constituents at all. This does not mean that there is never a point to discussing whether Russell’s views (the ones he actually held) are tenable or not, nor does it mean that ‘if we fall short of accepting [Russell’s] system he can have nothing to say to us’ – the view McDowell ascribes to me. To write that one should not rip philosophers’ statements out of the complex system of ideas which gives them sense, as I did, is not to say anything like this.

The question how language hooks onto the world is, on the other hand, a question in which both Frege and Russell were vitally interested, although not in a ‘Cartesian’ setting. Why does talk of people having ‘object-involving capacities’ not speak to this question?

In one way, of course, it does: but not in the way in which this was a question for analytic philosophy in its formative period. The question was not ‘what statements can we make about words and things?’, but how can there be a ‘singled-out’ relation, a relation of reference, at all? That, from an interpreter’s point of view, there can be a relation between my doings and sayings and some object or other is not at issue. This remark only pushes the question back to the question of how the interpreter’s words can have a ‘singled-out’ relation to certain objects rather than to any others. If our ‘capacities’ were self-identifying, if there were no possibility of asking why my doings should be intrinsically exercises of this capacity rather than that, then the remark that we have capacities which involve particular things would solve the problem of words and the world (in which case it would have been a silly problem to begin with), but essentialism about ‘capacities’ is no more satisfying as a remedy for a serious metaphysical worry than any other kind of essentialism. With this; I think, McDowell agrees. He takes Evans’s project (correctly, I believe) to have been a different project, a ‘Davidsonian’ project of describing the words-world relation assuming whatever notions we find helpful, whether these be question-begging from the point of view of the original philosophical worry or not. (But then why pretend one is speaking to the original issue?)

Such a project, if it ‘paid off’, might contribute to cognitive science: where I differ with John McDowell and Julia Jack is over the chances of success. I feel that the attempt to produce ‘theories’ of ‘how language latches onto the world’ has proved corrupting. But I did not reject Evans’s work because it proceeds from a different standpoint on this highly controversial issue (as McDowell and Jack suggest): rather, the fact that Evans’s attempt to produce such a ‘theory’ is so deeply unconvincing seemed, sadly, to support my negative attitude towards the conception of philosophy as the ‘theory’ of something or other.

Last but not least, I still agree with the words I wrote over ten years ago that François Recanati quotes in his letter. To say that long and technical argument has a place in philosophy is one thing; to think that philosophy can or should have the authority of a science is another. I admit that I think of philosophy as one of the humanities and of its products as works and not theories: this hardly commits me to holding that there is no place for hard argument in philosophy.

Hilary Putnam
Harvard University

Gift of Tongues

SIR: I should like to make a brief response to Tony Burgess’s letter (Letters, 21 July) about my recent review. His own position is apparently pro-diversity and pro-minority, but to the extent to which he implies mine is not, he misleads the reader. A critical stance need not be a hostile one. He says that I reject the argument that ‘it is time to make use of language diversity.’ What I do reject, in fact, is the interventionist approach which ‘make use’ suggests. His example of a young girl competent in Indian languages, Arabic and Swahili indicates a resource to be encouraged at school, but apart from a highly desirable general tolerance, it is not clear that any active educational programme using these languages will benefit either this hypothetical student or the student population at large. (I am not referring, clearly, to language programmes intended to assist foreign speakers to gain competence in English.)

There is simply no evidence that school programmes of the type advocated can, when acting in isolation from other social trends, substantially bolster, maintain or propagate shrinking minority languages. Consider the situation of Asian-language newspapers in Britain. While there are about three dozen such publications, the familiar pattern still exists of minority-group children losing fluency in their mother tongue. Thus the future for these papers is not bright. Can schools reverse this sort of trend? What are the real social dynamics creating this situation? If we paid more attention to these, we would be less likely to engage in wishful thinking about schools sustaining a permanently pluralistic society.

It is entirely possible to agree that linguistic and cultural diversity is a valuable social commodity, while entertaining the gravest doubts about the role of education in propping up declining languages. Furthermore, I believe that it is dangerous for schools to be cast in this role because their chances of success are small and, more importantly, because their predictable failures may have a ripple effect which can harm private aspects of group identity. Of course, Burgess’s hopes that we may all learn from new cultural experiences are unexceptionable, but what do these hopes become in actual school programmes? I suggest that they often translate into exactly that attempted manipulation – well-meaning though it may be – of language and identity which Burgess himself rejects. It is interesting to note that calls for multi-lingual and multi-cultural programmes are usually made at times when minority communities are seen to be in some danger: but if the social forces which inexorably act upon all features of identity are causing erosion of original group boundaries, can educational efforts alone usefully oppose these? Indeed, should they try?

John Edwards
St Francis Xavier University, Nova Scotia

Peace for Galilee

SIR: Susanne Kappeler (Letters, 21 July) is involved in an attempt to transform the ‘received discourse’ of the Middle East debate. So was Jacobo Timerman in his book. I believe that Timerman failed, but not for the reasons cited by Ms Kappeler. The ‘Palestinian story’ may need to be fashioned ab initio, but this will not change the fundamental premises upon which any solution to our regional conflict must be based. Neither will the retelling of the tale, if authentic, alter the need for the Arab world in general, and the Palestinian people in particular, through whatever agency they choose, to come to grips at long last with Israel’s right to exist. This was attempted by the martyred Dr Issam Sartawi.

Susanne Kappeler’s apologetics for the lack of a Palestinian Peace Now equivalent are unconvincing to say the least. The Zionist movement possessed a vital, at times pre-eminent, ‘dovish’ wing in its pre-state phase. What on earth are Palestinian moderates waiting for? I am well aware that ‘intellectual paper[s] such as the London Review of Books are not … removed from the arena of war’ – that is why I was pleased to attempt a contribution to peace-making, or at least to the ‘received discourse’ of how we think about it, in the pages of the London Review. Finally, I never argued that Israeli military strength alone could establish a peaceful region: only that the perception of Israeli vulnerability is a sure recipe for ongoing strife. Our ‘telling and retelling of the histories of war’ will not, alas, influence ‘the election of governments’ in Arab countries, where there are no elections, nor in Israel, where what is awaited is not Susanne Kappeler’s version of events but the appearance of Jordanian and Palestinian moderation, à la Sadat.

David Twersky
Kibbutz Gezer, Israel


SIR: One would hope that James Hopkins’s straightforward and scholarly response (Letters, 7 July) to Frank Cioffi’s ill-mannered and tendentious review would put an end to the latter’s anti-Freudian campaign. Particularly telling was Hopkins’s: ‘reading Cioffi on Freud, one’s attention turns to Cioffi rather than Freud. One begins to ask: how far is he willing to go …? And why?’ Quite. No doubt Cioffi will respond with his by now tediously familiar evasive reference to ‘the argument from resistance’. Isn’t it about time he came clean about his infantile toilet difficulties.

Gordon Hawkins
Institute of Criminology, Sydney University Law School

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