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Letters

Vol. 5 No. 17 · 15 September 1983

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A Technical Philosopher

SIR: Hilary Putnam’s attempt (Letters, 4 August) to refurbish his solitary argument against Gareth Evans only makes things worse. Certainly someone who is lost can entertain a thought expressible by a sentence like ‘That eagle is flying terrifically fast,’ and certainly I want to say that this is because he can locate the bird in his ‘egocentric space’. Putnam points out, as if it made this response irrelevant, that Evans is ‘interested in this capacity as it feeds into the capacity to locate the object in objective space’. Certainly: Evans’s plausible thought here is that the capacity to locate things in ‘egocentric space’ is intelligible only because it normally does ‘feed into’ something involving knowledge of where one is. That is, an ability to identify objects in the perceptually demonstrative way even when one is lost – something whose existence Evans never denies – would be unintelligible if there were no such thing as not being lost. As for the idea that a perceptually demonstrative thought requires some ability to locate its object, I confess that what Putnam finds ‘a desperate expedient’ strikes me as something of a truism. (Not noticing which way one’s head is turned need not undermine one’s command of ‘over there’, ‘up there’, and so forth.) Putnam’s mirage example is somewhat off-target: here the thinker certainly focuses on something (the mirage), and the question whether to say he thinks something false about it, or what, turns in large part on issues about what ‘oasis’ (rather than Evans’s concern, ‘that’) contributes to thoughts that might be expressed by ‘That oasis would be a good place to water my camels’ – issues about which Evans is deliberately tentative.

Putnam has a view about what made reference an issue for the founding fathers of analytical philosophy: in effect, he thinks it was a craving for a real link between language and something like Dinge an sich. He sees that this is not what bothers Evans: that is why he is so sure that Evans’s way of relating himself to Frege and Russell brutally distorts those thinkers. But my point, which Putnam has done nothing to meet, was that this version of history is not sacrosanct. On a perfectly arguable different view, what takes centre-stage is a certain conception of the mind’s ‘contents’, one whose roots lie in the position that natural science occupies in our culture; that conception threatens to force on us a falsely attenuated picture of a quite ordinary relation between thought and quite ordinary objects, and in recoiling from this threat Frege and Russell were, not succumbing to dubious transcendental hankerings, but reinforcing other considerations that enable us to recognise the conception as a mere prejudice. (Taking Frege to share the movement of recoil reverses the usual account of him, and this innovative reading by Evans is brilliant whether right or wrong.)

If it were possible to establish Putnam’s contention that, had Evans succeeded, his work might have been at best a contribution to ‘cognitive science’, rather than ‘speaking to the original issue’, it would be by showing that this different view of ‘the original issue’ is wrong. Putnam, however, apparently cannot even see that there is a question about this; he thereby reveals, as I suggested, that he is not qualified to assess Evans’s work as what it is. Both in supposing that his display of erudition about Russell somehow confutes what I wrote, and in supposing (‘… content to let the readers of my review decide for themselves’) that to undermine Evans’s ‘no object, no thought’ idea (not, incidentally, his ‘main piece of “theorising on the subject" ’), it suffices merely to hold it up for inspection, Putnam betrays an unthinking adherence – naturally taking it for granted in his readers as well – to a form of the conception that I have called ‘a prejudice’. It is ironic that, for all his holier-than-thou historicism, Putnam is so unreflective about this historically-conditioned warp in his own thinking that he cannot even see it as an assumption, let alone comprehend a philosophy that would call it in question.

Putnam sees his attack on Evans as defending a humane and historically self-aware approach to philosophy against a self-deceptively ahistorical scientism. This is just wildly off the mark. (If there is scientism anywhere, it is in Putnam’s unconscious assumption.) Unable, as I have explained, to understand what Evans is doing, Putnam has given himself something to grapple with by foisting on to Evans a particularly crude version of the self-image that Richard Rorty attributes to analytical philosophers. That he ‘simply cannot believe’ he is wrong about this hardly meets my charge of misrepresentation. The only support Putnam offers is the quite remarkable suggestion that Quine and Wittgenstein have taught us not to attach the label ‘incomprehensible’ to anything, as Evans does to the idea that there is a gap between ‘The whole question of truth and falsity lapses’ and ‘There is no thought here.’ Reasoned criticism of bogus distinctions is exactly characteristic of Quine and Wittgenstein, and that is what Evans undertakes; it is a gross travesty to suggest that the label carries all the weight. I doubt that either Quine or Wittgenstein would make a serious issue out of anyone’s particular choice of opprobrious epithets to drive such criticism home.

John McDowell
University College, Oxford

Pride and Graft

SIR: I appreciated Christian Hesketh’s thoughtful review of my book Northampton: Patronage and Policy at the Court of James I, (LRB, 21 July). May I correct one error of fact? The reviewer stated that I have confused ‘the second Duke [of Norfolk], who destroyed the Scottish army at Flodden, with the third …’ I did not. My statement, that the third Duke ‘had served with skill both at sea and on the field at Flodden in 1513’ (page 6), is correct, and refers to his service as a captain in that battle. His father’s central role in that same campaign would, of course, merit a stronger description.

Linda Levy Peck
Purdue University, Indiana

Three Feet on the Ground

SIR: Mr Hanley (Letters, 1 September) has misunderstood the issue. I advocate neither neglect of Wordsworth’s philosophical preoccupations, nor (heaven help us) a restricted alternative canon. On the contrary, I thought Jonathan Wordsworth narrowed Wordsworth’s interests, along fashionable lines, when he represented his best poetry as concerned with self to the exclusion of people and politics. My own counter-evidence included the 1802 Preface to the Lyrical Ballads. Mr Hanley supports my case, and of course I agree with him, when he observes that the Lucy poems, The Prelude and ‘The Leech Gatherer’ also reveal a more attractive and complex Wordsworth than the current stereotype. Harriet Jump’s Wordsworth on the same Letters page is another creature again. She cites Coleridge in the Biographia Literaria (1817) and Wordsworth ‘many years later’ to prove that Wordsworth’s theories never mattered anyway. But they would say that, wouldn’t they? The Preface had notoriously democratic connotations, and by 1817 both poets were pro-Government writers. My review was about the tendency of critics of major writers – not just Americans, and not even just Wordsworthians – to standardise and to narrow the terms in which the writer gets discussed. Ms Jump and Mr Hanley neatly illustrate the process by referring consistently to two sources of authority – Wordsworth himself and his co-author Coleridge – as though discussion has to be kept within, as it were, the family. This habit can take a rather literal form, as it does in Mr Wordsworth’s book, where he suggests that Wordsworth gave up love of mankind and other people when he discovered that his poetic vocation required him to focus on himself and his sister Dorothy. It is more sophisticated when in the same book, as Mr Hanley observes, Wordsworth’s poetry is explained through Coleridge’s ideas. Critically speaking, these practices are similar, merely the middlebrow and highbrow variants of the same fallacy. Coleridge’s pronouncements must provide a Wordsworth critic with some of his data, but they don’t supply his basic analytical tools. This is not simply because Coleridge was prone to fibbing over detail, especially in retrospect. It’s because his theories are no more disinterested than anything else he wrote; like Wordsworth telling his own life-story in The Prelude, Coleridge is an interested party. Quite apart from the general scholarly value of wariness and detachment, good modern criticism has to show some intellectual range, in modern times as well as in the subject’s times.

Marilyn Butler
Oxford

Secrecy goes soft

SIR: David Leigh says in his review of books on the Secret Service (LRB, 4 August) that ‘the secrecy game started to collapse in the mid-1970s, because of events in the United States.’ He has got it more than ten years late, and back to front. The process began in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and in Britain. Secrecy about both the Security Service and the Secret Service was eroded during the cases of Isis, Blake, Vassall, Profumo and Ward; and the end of the beginning came just 20 years ago, when the Spies for Peace exposed the RSG system and private Eye named the head of MI6, both with impunity.

Nicolas Walter
London Nl

Flaubert’s Parrot

SIR: When Julian Barnes’s grudging review of Hazel Barnes’s book on Sartre’s Flaubert appeared (LRB, 3 June 1982) I was tempted to write a point-by-point rebuttal. As you know, I resisted the temptation. Today, having read his ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’ (LRB, 18 August), I am glad I held my peace. As Grand used to exclaim in La Peste: ‘Hats off, gentlemen!’ I cannot remember having been so hugely entertained by a piece in the LRB. C’est hénaurme! The paragraph beginning ‘I thought of writing books myself once’ is a masterpiece of concision and wilful compression, inviting, almost inciting, the reader to imagine the wealth of experience and sensibility behind the ‘life’ so discreetly suggested. Indeed, the construction of the whole ‘story’ would have brought a smile of complicitous admiration from Flaubert. It is one of the most joyous celebrations of writing, the kind that makes one wish to clasp the hand that wrote it and say, ‘I know what you mean!’, even at the risk of presumption. Two points occur to me with regard to the parrot in Un Coeur Simple. Barnes’s sly introduction to the death of Félicité and the fleeting transfiguration of the bird undermines (deliberately?) his commentary: ‘the intention is neither satirical, sentimental nor blasphemous.’ The intention, such as one can divine it, of the whole story is indeed probably none of those things and the central character is evidently one for whom Flaubert felt compassion and respect. Nonetheless, something within him, it seems to me – shades of le Garçon? – could not prevent the drollery of the transfigured parrot from appearing on the page. The magisterial control of tone rightly appreciated by Barnes in the quoted death scene produces a veritable microcosmographia of writing: the whole spectrum from pathos to bathos and, in this reader at least, reactions from ambiguous empathy to guffaws of Pythonesque ribaldry. I have tried several times to read that entire scene aloud with a straight face. Impossible.

The other point which may encourage Julian Barnes to further literary thoughts is the bird’s ‘ridiculous name’: Loulou. It is only one consonant removed from the surnom of Sartre, which, to his irritation, his mother used even in his mature years: ‘Vous avez lu le dernier livre de Poulou?’she would ask their acquaintances. From Loulou to Saint-Esprit is perhaps no more fanciful than the passage from Poulou to Jean-Paul Sartre. Barnes could certainly write a cadenza on his phrase: ‘Is the writer much more than a sophisticated parrot?’

Robert Wilcocks
Beer, Devon

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