Vol. 11 No. 4 · 16 February 1989

Search by issue:

Why do we need it and why is it impossible?

In his review of Jonathan Glover’s and Alan Donagan’s books, David Pears claims that ‘if … the philosophical analysis of human agency has altered our view of our place in the world as human agents, it has never done so alone, but always aided by some factual hypothesis. This is very clear in cases of diminished responsibility and it ought to be equally clear in the limiting case in which the factual hypothesis is universal determinism’ (LRB, 19 January).

This seems to me to be wrong. Philosophers who have tried to alter our view of our place in the world by appealing to the factual hypothesis of universal determinism have standardly argued that if determinism is true then we cannot be truly free or morally responsible agents in the way that we ordinarily suppose. And such an argument is surely correct. But it has also been argued that you don’t have to appeal to any factual hypothesis like that of determinism in order to show this, because true responsibility is logically impossible – it’s impossible whether determinism is true or false. In which case philosophical analysis of human agency may alter our view of ourselves as agents unaided by any factual hypothesis like that of universal determinism. Pears needs to show what is wrong with this second argument.

Here is a very brief version of it. According to our ordinary, strong conception of free will, free will entails true moral responsibility; and true moral responsibility entails being truly deserving of praise and blame (and punishment and reward) for our actions, in the strongest possible sense. Perhaps the most graphic way to convey this conception of responsibility (or free will or desert) is this: it’s responsibility of such a kind that if we have it then it makes sense, at least, to suppose that it might be just to punish some with damnation in hell, or reward others with bliss in heaven. This idea makes perfect and clear sense, if we have such responsibility, even if it is in fact part of a highly extravagant and distasteful myth. Less eschatologically, many suppose that this idea makes sense simply because we are the ultimate, absolute, buck-stopping originators of our actions, in some sense which is certainly not available if determinism is true.

One could call this conception of freedom and responsibility heaven-and-hell (H&H) free will. The familiar point is that if determinism is true, then H&H free will is not possible. The less familiar point is that H&H free will is impossible even if determinism is false. For suppose some of our actions do occur partly or wholly as a result of occurrences which are themselves random or indeterministic. How could that help to give us H&H free will? How on earth could it make us responsible for those actions in such a way that we could be truly deserving of praise and blame for them? Again, suppose that some of those features of our mental make-up which lead us to act in the way we do are not determined in us (say by heredity, upbringing and environment, and ultimately by events which occurred before our birth), but are instead the outcome of indeterministic events. How on earth (which is where we are) could that help make us deserving of praise and blame for our actions? It seems that indeterminism (the falsity of determinism) is no help at all, if we are looking for H&H free will. It seems that what we would need for H&H free will is not just indeterminism but ultimate self-determination or self-creation, on the part of free agents. But it appears that such self-creation is logically impossible.

Why do we need it and why is it impossible? We need it because if we are to be ultimately responsible for our actions, then it seems that we must be ultimately responsible for how we are mentally, at least in certain respects, since our intentional actions are necessarily a function of how we are mentally. We must be ultimate ‘originators’ of ourselves, and our natures, at least in certain respects. But this is logically impossible: the attempt to describe how we could possibly be ultimate originators of ourselves and our natures in this way leads self-defeatingly to infinite regress.

For suppose that one could somehow choose how to be, in certain respects, and could then bring it about that one was that way. In order to do this, in such a way that one became ultimately responsible for how one was, one would already have to have existed prior to one’s choice, with a certain set of preferences about how to be, in the light of which one chose how to be. But then the question would arise: where did these preferences come from? Or were they just there, unchosen preferences for which one was not ultimately responsible? To be ultimately responsible for oneself one would have had to have chosen these preferences in turn. But then one would need another set of preferences in the light of which one chose them. And so on. One could never get back behind oneself in such a way as to be able to create oneself in such a way that one was ultimately responsible for how one was.

This also bears on a claim recently made in the LRB by Sherry Turkle, who concluded her review of Jacques Lacan’s Seminars (LRB, 5 January) by saying that ‘the individual is “decentred". There is no autonomous self. What sex was to the Victorians, the question of free will is to our new Fin de Siècle.’ It is true that if there is no self as ordinarily conceived, then there is no free will, as ordinarily conceived. But it does not follow that free will is possible if the self is. If the above argument is right, conclusions about free will do not depend on conclusions about the self in this way. Even if you can save the self, you can’t save free will.

Galen Strawson
Jesus College, Oxford

Wordsworth’s Crisis

E.P. Thompson’s review of my Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Radical Years (LRB, 8 December 1988) contains many fascinating speculations about Wordsworth’s revolutionary youth and his Godwinian ‘crisis’. But Thompson’s preoccupation with the book that he claims I ‘intended to write’ has distracted him from the one I have published, which explains his misrepresentation of my argument on several points relevant to his own conjectures.

It would indeed be ‘false’ and rather foolish if I had argued that there was ‘a very considerable Cambridge element’ leading the Corresponding Society solely on the basis of Losh’s and Frend’s membership of one of its committees. Fortunately, however, this is one of Thompson’s inventions. What I do show is that out of 16 men on this particular committee eight had studied at Cambridge University. By way of explaining their presence I trace how, from the 1770s on, radicals and dissenters from Cambridge University provided the intellectual leadership for the democratic reform movement in London. This link helps to explain why, in the 1790s, so many of Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s university friends moved in circles associated with the Corresponding Society and with William Godwin, and why the two poets nearly coincided in this company in London late in 1794-5.

As Thompson says, membership of the Corresponding Society was a ‘borderline situation’: a person could attend meetings or speak at the tribune while not formally affiliated to the society. But Thompson might have paused before citing Francis Place as ‘scrupulous’ evidence for his assertion that William Frend was ‘never a member’. John Thelwall was equally well-placed to know, and in his lecture of 1 May 1795 he refers to ‘Citizen Frend [in the belief that] he will be better pleased to be called Citizen than Reverend and Mr’. Frida Knight’s excellent biography of Citizen Frend has Frend as a member of the society and I agree with her.

Thompson is too eager to constrain the reform movement within discrete categories, and to project the careers of Wordsworth and Coleridge along ideal ‘trajectories’. So he claims that ‘not one of the … public reformers … or supporters of the reform societies, were Godwinians’. This begs the question as to what a pure ‘Godwinian’ might have been in 1794-5, but I doubt if this animal (if it ever existed) was only to be found among Thompson’s ‘young radical intelligentsia’. Equally, there is no reason why those young people should not respond to Political Justice and also participate in the reform movement. Thompson implies that because Frend was a Unitarian he was not a ‘Godwinian’, yet oddly enough, Wordsworth first met Godwin at William Frend’s house in February 1795. Are we to believe that the discussion then did not turn to some extent upon Godwin’s writings, and that Frend remained completely unaffected by Godwin’s ideas? It was possible for him to respond favourably to the rational perfectibility of Political Justice (as Coleridge did for a short time) while rejecting Godwin’s atheism. The same point can be made about George Dyer, one of the most active London reformists and a Unitarian to boot, who was also present at Frend’s house and frequently met Godwin on other occasions. The complicated reality of London radicalism appears particularly clearly in the careers of John Binns and Francis Place: both were regularly in Godwin’s company, demonstrably influenced by his thinking, and paid-up members of the Corresponding Society as well.

What we should be seeing, I think, is a vital intersection between the radical intelligentsia and the reform movement, such that Wordsworth, Thelwall, Frend, Place and Binns – among others – could respond to Godwin’s ideas while retaining an active commitment to political change and formal membership of the Corresponding Society. If one accepts this possibility, Thompson’s pother about whether ‘Godwinism = True Radicalism’ becomes irrelevant, and his interpretation of Wordsworth’s ‘climactic crisis’ solely ‘in terms of English thought’ unhelpfully narrow. With one or two side-lights from Crabb Robinson and Basil Montague, Thompson’s version of Wordsworth’s ‘crisis’ is identical to Wordworth’s own in The Prelude and in The Excursion. Both poems idealise an experience which had a lived, historical milieu that I have tried to recover – in this instance, by relating Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s doubts about Godwin to their perception of the French Terror and fears of similar violence in Britain. This was not a matter of the poets’ ‘sudden recoil’ to rural retreat, as Thompson has it, but a drawn-out process of self-interrogation and realignment: only in retrospect could Wordsworth assess Godwin to have been a ‘threat to his vocation’ as a poet. While Thompson objects that my book is ‘encumbered with detail’, his own reading of the poets’ lives as ‘trajectories’ simplified a complex experience that I have deliberately not reduced to ideal patterns.

Finally, it is unfortunate that his last paragraph dismisses all other 20th-century comment on Wordsworth’s revolutionary years in favour of Harper’s 1919 Life of the poet. One hopes Thompson doesn’t include his own work in this wholesale rejection, and he might have added that Harper was indebted to, and admired, the work of Wordsworth’s great French biographer Emile Legouis. Legouis’s Early Life of William Wordsworth (1896) was reissued last year, and his reading of Wordsworth’s Godwinian ‘crisis’ as it appears in The Prelude is in no way challenged or improved by Thompson’s.

Nicholas Roe
University of St Andrews


John Bayley says some excellent things about some of my own favourite poems in his piece ‘Pffwungg’ (LRB, 19 January), and I wouldn’t want to spoil his delight in what he calls ‘the rich nonsense magic’ of the eponymous stanza from Auden’s ‘What siren zooming’, were it not for two things. The first is the misquotation which transposes ‘time’ and ‘town’ in the first line. It should read ‘Till the town is ten and the time is London’ (which would strengthen his point about nonsense). But (second thing) the lines are not nonsense, though they certainly have a magic which derives in part from the fact that they initially sound like nonsense. Bayley recalls ‘the tremendous pleasure of that “pffwungg" long ago when I had no idea where the poet had got me, except that it was a place of intoxicating elation and comic-sinister hilarity’. Well, I hope I can enhance his pleasure by telling him exactly where Auden had got him: Helensburgh. More precisely, Auden’s room in the Larchfield School, from which he looked out in another poem of the same period, ‘Now from my windowsill’. As I confirmed for myself last summer, ‘Watching through windows the wastes of evening’ one can indeed see from there the fate of ships and the tide wind on the Clyde estuary, as well as ‘the church clock’s yellow face’ of ‘Now from my windowsill’.

Auden’s mise-en-scène is absolutely commonsensical. ‘Pffwungg’ transcribes the sound of the gas-burners the school used for lighting (‘Now from my windowsill’ records that ‘The silence buzzes in my ear;/The jets in both the dormitories are out’). If the poem, pace Bayley, contemplates suicide, it is only to reject it, ‘Accepting dearth/The shadow of death’ as preferable to the real thing, ‘In groups forgetting the gun in the drawer’, seeking consolation in ‘The marginal grief [which]/Is source of life’. The first line is only superficially cryptic. This poem was dedicated to Edward Upward, the source of the phrase ‘Touch of the [not ‘an’] old wound’. It was originally the fourth Ode in that currently underrated but major text, The Orators, written during Auden’s time in Helensburgh. The Envoi to the subsequent Ode repeats the gas-burner image (‘The taps are turned off and the boys are in bed’), confirms that ‘At six the lamps of Greenock [across the water] are clear’, and adds:

Night is ahead of London here.
We make ourselves cosy when the weather is wet
With a shocker, a spaniel and a crystal set.

Auden, that is, is listening to the ten o’clock news on his wireless set. The announcement that ‘This is London’ would be particularly resonant for a lonely young man (‘I don’t know a soul’) nostalgic for the less restrictive mores of the South, where you don’t always have to ‘be careful not/To offend County Council or Fisheries Board’. Nerves grow numb between north and south because the wireless, like aspirin, deadens the pain of separation: he has survived another day. Most of the strange free-floating signifiers in this poem can be given a precise Helensburgh referent: the ‘siren zooming’ of the opening lines, for example, refers to the fog-horn of the lighthouse at Cloch Point across the water. The frozen fjord is Loch Long.

Professor Bayley’s argument that Auden’s poem ‘knows perfectly well what it is talking about’ is reinforced by these circumstantiating particularities. We shouldn’t assume to be nonsense something which makes good literal sense, simply because we’re excluded from the rich provincial rootedness of the text. After all, we would get very shirty with students who claimed Eliot’s Saint Mary Woolnoth keeping the hours with a dead sound on the final stroke of nine was really magical nonsense. To my mind, the magic is deepened, not diminished, by these precise locations and locutions. Incidentally, Helensburgh in all its parochial eccentricity is ‘a place of intoxicating elation and comic-sinister hilarity’ – an ideal site for Auden’s most anarchic creation, and one of Modernism’s major works of auto-destruction.

Stan Smith
Dundee University

Language Fears

In your issue of 19 January Professor Nash writes that grammarians are enabled by their training ‘to recognise their own prejudices’. Perhaps it would be better for us all if he had written that grammarians may well be less prejudiced about language than other people are, but they do have prejudices. Like the rest of us, grammarians are able to recognise many prejudices in other people, but only some of their own. I am thinking of two in particular: first, the prejudice that one dialect is inherently better or worse than another. Linguists correctly point out that the dialect currently called ‘Standard’ is no better or worse than any other dialect. It is nothing more than a historical development of the old East Midlands dialect, but it has become useful to know because careers depend on the ability to use it, and because it is the preferred dialect for most printed matter. But linguists then turn this description into evaluation by calling the dialect ‘Standard’. A standard is the best there is of its kind; there is no ‘Superstandard’. Referring to a dialect as ‘Standard’, therefore, linguists are not describing it as simply useful or printed: they are accepting the prejudice that one dialect of English is better than any other dialect.

The second prejudice is presented by Professor Greenbaum as a fact: ‘A grammar of present-day English is a grammar of a standard dialect of English, which is implicitly identified with the language as a whole’ (Good English and the Grammarian). In fact, the identification is explicit, not implicit: in the introductions to two grammar books Professor Greenbaum has helped to write it is argued that the grammar of the standard dialect constitutes a ‘common core’ which is found in all English dialects. Certainly, it is true in a very general sense that English grammar is the same for all English dialects and also true for most of the everyday, surface features of grammar that students, lay people and textbook writers are most likely to be interested in. But it is not true for a number of well-known surface features, some of which (‘was’ for ‘were’, for example) are of great social importance, while others (the use of double negation, for example) are of great semantic importance. These and other well-known differences are not described in these two grammar books, though some of them are briefly mentioned in footnotes. These grammar books cannot, therefore, be correctly named ‘grammars of the English language’. They are grammars of the standard dialect and are no different in that respect from most of the other grammar books written during the past four hundred years.

In the context of the current national debate about teaching grammar and the English language, these two prejudices are of central importance. The Bullock, Kingman and Cox Reports all recommend respect for all dialects of English. But this respect cannot be instilled if one is called ‘Standard’.

Tony Fairman
Maidstone, Kent

Professor Nash’s recent review of the Greenbaum/Whitcut Longman Guide to English Usage, though properly welcoming, does less than justice to those areas where the book is unique. 1. The Guide can cause students to fall off their chairs with laughter. Nash has mentioned the keen distinction drawn between weak and week (‘Weak means “not strong". A week is seven days’), but he doesn’t give the masterful clearing-up of the confusion between handsome and hansom, lustful and lusty, and suit and suite. 2. Scholars will be grateful to Greenbaum/Whitcut for years for having shown them the way to an undemanding, risk-free and nearly inexhaustible vein of research and publication. You can see this in the handling of ‘seige’ – ‘an incorrect spelling of siege’ – but the ‘sabre, saber’ type of article – ‘The word is spelled sabre in British English, saber in American English’ – promises well, too.

Keith Walker
London WC1

Walter Nash writes: Ey oop, m’duck, as D.H. Lawrence used to say, innit gerrin’a bit black ower Bill’s mam’s?: which means – put into pallid Standard – My goodness, wasn’t that thunder I heard just now? It’s odd how these controversial clouds roll up whenever the talk is of grammer and usage, but it may clear the sky just a little if I assure Mr Fairman that I am generally on his side, and, what is more important, so are Professor Greenbaum and other highly distinguished grammarians; as indeed are countess lecturers in English who have been doggedly plying their missionary trade this forty years and more. Meanwhile Keith Walker jovially suggests how daft and devious it is to take money for explaining to the world the difference between hansom and handsome, which even the sub-standardly literate ought to know. And so it is, perhaps, and so they ought – except that any teacher of English will testify that these things have to be patiently explained to the most unexpected people. I might say that periodically, indeed almost weakly, I am beseiged by spellings that would have me retching for my lustful saber, if I had one. Apart from which, there is an almost metaphysical problem that besets any writer on usage: should one explain the things that cannot possibly need explanation, because in the absence of the unnecessary the work must necessarily be incomplete?


It is good to know that Boris Kagarlitsky foresaw the prospect of ‘reform from above’ in the USSR as early as 1980 (Letters, 19 January). However, this is not the point. It was clear then to many observers inside and outside the Soviet Union that change of some kind was inevitable. There had even been abortive attempts at economic reform during the Brezhnev period itself, and Andropov’s drive to reverse Soviet decline was not unexpected. But the scope of the changes which have taken place under Gorbachev, combining cultural, economic and political elements, his exceeded all predictions. Whether they are ‘radical’ is a matter of opinion, and Kagarlitsky is right to point to their limitations. In the context of Soviet history, though, they certainly are. Already they go considerably further, for example, than Khruschev’s reforms. (Let alone Gierek’s ill-fated policies in Poland in the Seventies; that the latter is the closest analogy Kagarlitsky can find does not say much for his grasp of pere-stroika’s significance.) But he should not restrict ‘radical’ to what he approves of. The Gorbachev reforms may in his view be insufficiently socialist, but this is another issue. Nor should he allow his ideological conviction that ‘real changes can be accomplished only by a mass movement’ to distort his analysis. Modern history shows both that ‘real changes’ may occur in a variety of ways, which may or may not involve mass movements; and that the latter may equally well serve reactionary as progressive causes.

John Barber
King’s College, Cambridge

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences