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Letters

Vol. 16 No. 4 · 24 February 1994

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Shop Talk

Although John Lennard (LRB, 27 January) quotes with approval Walter Nash’s statement that the phrase ‘economical with the truth’ was ‘invented and its application demonstrated by Sir Robert Armstrong (now Lord Armstrong)’, there can be few who do not wonder how it is that such a phrase had to be re-invented. For Sir Robert Armstrong was using the phrase, no doubt expecting it to be recognised, in the sense defined in the OED, S.V. Economy, III.6.b., and which had been in use in 1796. The OED sidesteps a multiplicity of illustrative quotations by offering a common example of its usage – ‘I do not impute falsehood to the Government, but I think there has been considerable economy of truth.’ It was a usage that descended from the serious theological concept of ‘economy’, developed (according to Cardinal Newman) from Christ’s ‘Cast not your pearls before swine.’ That is, starting with the notion of ‘economy’ as ‘a system of divine government suited to the needs of a particular nation or period of time, as the Mosaic economy’, it developed as ‘the judicious handling of doctrine, i.e. the presentation of it in such a manner as to suit the needs or to conciliate the prejudices of the persons addressed’. Thus if a pagan asked an early Christian about the Trinity, he answered: ‘I believe in one God.’ That was being ‘economical with the truth’ – there was no way the pagan was going to understand the Trinity, so one didn’t trouble him with a full answer. To an unsympathetic person (e.g. a Charles Kingsley) this would look like an economy in the sense of being sparing with the truth. And so Kingsley – who knew the medieval theological concept of ‘economy’ perfectly well – could bluntly write: ‘Truth, for its own sake, had never been a virtue with the Roman clergy. Father Newman informs us that it need not be.’ And so there began a splendid controversy that led to Newman’s Apologia pro Vita Sua. Perhaps at the end of the 20th century we need the phrase ‘economical with the truth’ to be shorn of its history, but it is more entertaining with it.

Arthur Johnston
Altrincham, Cheshire

John Lennard in his review of Walter Nash’s Jargon: Its Uses and Abuses describes Professor Nash’s account of the phrase ‘economical with the truth’, in which he states that it ‘was invented … by Sir Robert Armstrong (now Lord Armstrong)’, as ‘close to perfect’. Alas, the account is far from perfect.

Shortly after Sir Robert’s use of the phrase, the Times published (27 November 1986) a letter from me in which I observed that the British statesman, W.E. Forster, had regretfully reflected: ‘What is the use of lying, when truth, well distributed, serves the same purpose?’ (T. Wemyss Reid, Life, Vol. II, 1888). This provoked further correspondence in which earlier antecedents of the phrase were noted in Newman’s Apologia (1864) where, in discussion of the notion of Economy derived from some early Church Fathers, it was said that ‘This cautious dispensation of the truth, after the manner of a discreet and vigilant steward, is denoted by the word “economy" ’ (Appendix, no 7), and in Somerville and Ross’s story ‘Trinket’s Colt’ in which a character is described as ‘not … shrinking from that economy of truth that the situation required’ (Some Experiences of an Irish R.M., 1899). On 1 December 1986 the Times devoted a Third Leader to the phrase, and cited Burke’s First Letter on a Regicide Peace (1796): ‘Falshood and delusion are allowed in no case whatever: But, as in the exercise of all the virtues, there is an oeconomy of truth. It is a sort of temperance, by which a man speaks truth with measure that he may speak it the longer.’ Professor Nash’s account of the genesis of the phrase is, in the words of Alan Clark’s recent variant on it, ‘economical with the actualité’.

Edward Wilson
Worcester College, Oxford

Misrepresenting

Colin McGinn’s review of Renewing Philosophy (LRB, 2 December 1993) is in content not a book review, but a polemic, and as such requires a response. It is a major misrepresentation that I attack all of analytic philosophy (let alone all of philosophy) as being ‘scientistic’, as McGinn suggests. McGinn asks a rhetorical question: ‘Does he believe that traditional ontology and epistemology are tarred with the scientistic brush? Is Frege’s work included? … Or Strawson’s, or Davidson’s or Kripke’s or Dummett’s? What of Leibniz and Spinoza and Kant and Hume and Plato and Aristotle?’ Compare that with what I actually wrote: ‘there are within analytic philosophy important figures who combat this scientism: one has only to mention Peter Strawson, or Saul Kripke, or John McDowell, or Michael Dummett.’ I do attack two tendencies in current analytic philosophy (that they are two tendencies and not one is something most readers of the book have had no trouble in understanding): scientism, on the one hand, and a tendency to fantastic ontological and metaphysical constructions, on the other. The example I give of the latter tendency is the view of the philosopher David Lewis that when we talk of ‘ways things could have been’ we are referring to real worlds, just like our own, except that in them the United States is still a British colony, or Napoleon won the Battle of Waterloo, or whatever. The other tendency I attack is scientism. There is no mystery about what I mean. What I attack is 1. the idea that some sciences are a sketch of a completed metaphysics, and the task of the philosopher is to comment on the findings of those sciences and to speculate about what they are likely to come up with in the future; coupled with 2. the failure to see that the ideas that are read into those sciences by these philosophers (e.g. the idea that the mind-world relation is explained by speaking of ‘nomic connection’) are so empty that we have no notion at all what they actually mean or of how they could be made clear.

A polemical point of McGinn’s which depends on a misrepresentation: in Renewing Philosophy I say that the use of ordinary causal statements presupposes a distinction between primary causes and background conditions which is context sensitive and interest relative. The reviewer’s description of this is: ‘whether A caused B [is] partly dependent on human interests,’ and hence ‘it is hard to see’ how I can ‘avoid the consequence’ that there wouldn’t be causes or effects in a world without people. But from the fact that the use of a notion presupposes certain interests it does not follow that we cannot use it to describe the world as it would have been if those interests had not existed. The picture of Hilary Putnam as an idealist metaphysician (who thinks all philosophy except his own is ‘scientism’) is simply a bogey-man.

Hilary Putnam
Harvard University

The Annual MLA Disaster

I found the last sentence of Catharine Stimpson’s letter (Letters, 10 February) mystifying. ‘I trust that Sutherland got carried away by his own polemic, not that he is carrying the banner of one faction or another,’ she writes. It may be that she suspects that I am a member of the MLA’s bête noire, the National Association of Scholars. I am not. Stimpson implies in her letter that to criticise the MLA is to criticise the United States and all it stands for. It is in fact quite possible to admire America (as I do), to admire and envy the American university system (as I do) and not to admire the MLA in its present form (as I do not). It is of course for the members to decide if they want changes. If the Association is doing as splendid a job as Phyllis Franklin reports (Letters, 10 February) clearly its officers have nothing to fear.

John Sutherland
University College London

Professor John Sutherland’s explication of the meat market known here and about as the MLA (LRB, 16 December 1993) provides a most illuminating view which certainly reveals much of the current state of affairs in that area, at least, of academia. Maqbool Aziz’s answer (Letters, 27 January) should certainly eliminate most if not all queries the poor soul might have who would choose to question the Sutherland piece. I have distributed the odd copy of both the article and the letter about my department. Such subversive behaviour has not gone unnoticed. I am a PhD candidate at the University of California at Riverside where the (in)famous Dr Gregory Bredbeck and his theoretical minions fuck their and our gender on a regular (if not daily) basis. I sign my name on the assumption that no one else at UCR would have the good sense to read your paper.

Susan Fellows
Solana Beach, California

The Old Beast

John Lloyd correctly identifies the obstacles to reform in Russian enterprise (LRB, 10 February). Over the last few months I have had the opportunity to observe one such enterprise at close quarters: its primary function and that of its senior managers is to fulfil roles which in Western democratic societies are largely performed by local authorities, government agencies or charities. One of the most critical of these functions is the provision of work.

Russia lacks a network of proper support for those who become unemployed and one of the reasons for continuing low levels of unemployment is the genuine reluctance of managers and administrators to consider making members of their workforce redundant. Unemployment is anathema to many, not only because they are well aware of the lack of comprehensive provision and supporting services for the unemployed but also because the value system inherited from the Soviet past defines a member of society as somebody with a job. To be without a job – especially for men – is still regarded as a form of social deviancy.

In a sense, therefore, Russian enterprises are caught in a double bind. Reluctance to terminate employment means that enterprises cannot improve productivity but this means they remain tied to the old forms of a centrally planned economy with its ‘drip-feed’ of credits and state subsidies. In fact larger enterprises are continuing to recruit young people and, at the same time, many workers stay in employment past retirement age because pension entitlements are eroded rapidly by inflation, which may well become worse during the course of this year. In this situation productivity levels continue to fall, leading to growing impoverishment and spreading disillusion about the market economy. The ‘old beast’ – as John Lloyd puts it – may continue to writhe in its coils but for many Russians the grip of those coils represents security and familiarity even though suffocation may result.

C.J. Bailey
Doncaster

Broad-Minded Kleinians

The trouble for the layman when reading about psychoanalysis is that so much of the theorising is obfuscating, however clear it may be to the professional. I was puzzled by Adam Phillips’s review of books by Christopher Bollas and Malcolm Bowie (LRB, 10 February). What does he mean when he writes: ‘For the patient in psychoanalysis the most disabling insights are the ones he cannot forget?’ If they are disabling surely the analyst has failed. In my experience of Kleinian analysis some thirty years ago insights into one’s own character are often surprising, even shocking, but not disabling for they enable one to recognise character defects, come to terms with them, sometimes even change them for the better. Then (in parenthesis): ‘The best and the worst of psychoanalytical theory always verges on the mystical.’ In my experience ‘the mystical’ is the reverse of the truth. My analyst was very down to earth. Equally confusing is the statement that psychoanalytical ‘disciples’ – a term oddly suggestive of religion – ‘enact the catastrophe their leaders’ (another odd term) ‘are trying to avert.’ I don’t know about ‘Freudians becoming ascetic prigs’ and Winnicottians becoming ‘rigorously spontaneous’, but I do know that Kleinians do not ‘become enviously narrow-minded’ – whatever that term may mean. And who, anyway, does the envying? Adam Phillips speculates in the last sentence of his review: ‘Perhaps the function of psychoanalysis in the future will not be to inform but to evoke.’ Evocation is one way of informing the patient about himself and coming to know oneself is not a had concise definition of the function of psychoanalysis.

James MacGibbon
Manningtree, Essex

Lefter than thou

Reading Christopher Hitchens’s review of new books from the SWP (LRB, 6 January), then Chris Harman’s reply (Letters, 27 January), was a strange experience for a few of us who are too young to feel obliged to invest in old debates and grudges. Harman started out convincingly enough by defending the part played by the SWP in various struggles over the past two decades. He is right to stand by their record in launching and running the Anti-Nazi League, and in his claim that the Party continues to ‘question the dogmas of the fashionable Left’. In both roles, and in a hundred other arguments and interventions, the SWP has managed to preserve much of what was best in the New Left during times when that tradition seemed in danger of extinction. It was for those reasons that I joined the SWP ten years ago. Despite this, Harman’s claim that the SWP remains theoretically open-ended will jar with some people.

The Party may well reject the dogmas of the fashionable Left, but it does so with an attitude that itself grows increasingly dogmatic and self-regarding. Christopher Hitchens says that, in the IS of old, ‘one was expected to be able to debate about everything, from changes in the class composition of society to the question of Lukács and the historical novel, to the situation in Indonesia.’ Harman’s attempt to make out that this remains the case struck a particularly hollow note with me, since the SWP expelled me recently precisely for continuing one of these debates. According to Chris Harman – in his role as the author of the charges brought against me, if not as a correspondent to the London Review – arguing about Lukács and culture these days is a ‘diversion’ from the struggle against fascism. That is why up to ten other SWP members are now threatened with the same fate as myself.

It seems that the price paid for ‘efficiency’ against the fascists today is that theoretical debate is no longer welcome in the SWP, that consensus is to become the precondition of party discussion rather than its telos. The point about the IS tradition is neither that it was a debating hothouse which threw up some novel ideas, or simply that it did the business against the class enemy. The point is that it combined these moments in a way which avoided the pitfalls of both sterile theoreticism and blind activism. That tradition, contrary to the rantings of Richard Gott (Letters, 27 January), was a rich and fertile one.

Andy Wilson
London N16

Fatter and Less Hairy

Henry Gee (LRB, 27 January) is strangely misinformed about the aquatic theory of human evolution. He has clearly read nothing that has been written about it in the last 22 years. AAT (aquatic ape theory) addresses the question of why humans are so different from apes in so many respects – bipedality, hairlessness, descended larynx, eccrine thermoregulation, tears of emotion, subcutaneous fat, sebaceous glands, ventro-ventral copulation, and half a dozen other features. The orthodox scenario assures us that humans evolved these differences by adapting to a savannah environment, but fails to explain why not one of these features is found in any other savannah primate (or in some cases in any other land mammal). The predictive value of the savannah theory has proved to be nil. The latest blow to its credibility has been the growing consensus that the savannah ecosystem as we know it did not emerge until two and a half million years ago, whereas there were bipedal hominids four million years ago. Bipedality, hairlessness and speech are among the major hallmarks of humanity. In terms of the bankrupt savannah hypothesis, scientists cannot agree on an explanation of any of them.

Elaine Morgan
Mountain Ash,

Henry Gee writes: My dismissive treatment of the aquatic ape theory has clearly caused some offence. As I understand it, proponents of AAT note several anatomical, physiological and behavioural features of modern humans that set them apart from the Great Apes. These include relatively large amounts of body fat, paucity of body hair, face-to-face copulation, a propensity to sweat profusely through the skin, and so on. Furthermore, these features are held to be inconsistent in a creature conventionally thought of as having evolved on the hot, dry savannahs of Africa. Conversely, many of them are seen in aquatic mammals such as whales and seals. Therefore it is simpler to suppose that humanity underwent an aquatic stage in its history.

This scheme fails for several reasons. First, the AAT marshals its evidence by recourse to syllogism: aquatic animals are fatty, humans are fatty, therefore humans are by nature aquatic. Such a link is, at best, suggestive and correlative – a hypothesis rather than a theory.

Second, the proponents of the AAT attempt to bolster it by knocking a straw man – the idea that humanity evolved on the savannah, and that if this idea is correct there should be evidence for it in modern physiological and behavioural adaptations. There are two things wrong with this assumption. One is that just because most human fossils in Africa tend to be found in regions that are hot and dry, this doesn’t mean that those are the places that humanity evolved: they’re simply the places that people have looked. As Jonathan Kingdon notes in Self-Made Man, the most human-like of the Great Apes is the bonobo or pygmy chimpanzee (Pan paniscus), a creature with a social behaviour uncannily similar to that of some human societies – including face-to-face copulation. The bonobo is a forest creature which (as far as we know) never ventured onto the savannah or into the water. It is possible that fossil hominids lie undiscovered in tropical forests, or along ancient shorelines long since inundated by the post-glacial rise in sea-level. It is also entirely possible that such fossils will show evidence of aquatic habit, although it’s unlikely. Until these fossils are found, we won’t know either way. This is why most serious students of paleoanthropology would prefer not to speculate on the irrecoverable habits of our ancestors: their speculations would be based on the still pitifully small body of evidence available, most of it gathered from areas now under savannah – because that’s where they’re easiest to find.

The further misapplied assumption in the straw-man case concerns the nature of adaptation. A strict (and over-simple) interpretation of Darwin suggests that an animal and all of its parts is perfectly attuned to the environment: imperfection in adaptation is soon weeded out by natural selection. However, even Darwin realised that natural selection can work only within the strict limits imposed by the genetic variation it is offered. As Stephen Jay Gould has shown on several occasions, this variation is constrained, in turn, by evolutionary history. Many features (most famously the appendix) have little or no adaptive value – they are there only as a vestige of long-forgotten ancestry. If adaptation ruled, strict natural selection would have evolved the appendix away long ago, we’d all be perfect machines, and appendectomies wouldn’t have been invented. This raises a problem for proponents of the AAT. On the one hand, they stress the imperfection of human adaptation to the savannah, noting how much better our ancestors would have been in the water. At the same time, it is the vestiges of such features in plainly non-swimming modern humanity that they use to promote their idea. Were adaptation as strong as they assert, both savannah and aquatic-led adaptations should have been expunged long since, and there would be no AAT worth shaking a stick at.

Third, subscribers to the AAT base their ideas on an analysis of what anatomists call ‘soft-part’ characters – features of physiology (sweating), behaviour (copulation) and external appearance (distribution of subcutaneous fat and body hair). Such features are notoriously plastic and prone to variation for all manner of reasons, not necessarily adaptive. Proponents of the AAT have been rather selective with their evidence. First, some of the soft-part features they cite are highly variable even within modern humanity, thus making their status as ancestral legacies somewhat dubious. For example, my own luxuriant whiskers would be an impossibility were I Japanese rather than Jewish. Likewise, my generous waistline and Pooh-like inclination to stoutness would look daft on the etiolated figure of a Masai or Ethiopian marathon-runner. The trend to suppress the appreciation of natural human variation has allowed ideas such as the AAT to spread.

Perhaps more important, the AAT says nothing about bones and teeth, the parts of the body most likely to be preserved as fossils. The problem here is that aquatic specialisations are very hard to detect in such remains. That whales and seals are aquatic can be discerned easily from their skeletons and dentition. But what do we do about – say – otters? Sea-otters spend a large part of their lives at sea, but this is difficult (if not impossible) to see from their skeletons. By the same token, sea-otters are every bit as furry as their landlubber cousins. And would you ever know, from its bones, that your golden retriever dives into the nearest puddle at every opportunity? Real scientists are constrained by the real evidence that they have to hand, in the form of real bones, and real teeth, once the property of real hominids. None of these show any evidence for an aquatic phase of our ancestry, which, at present, is no more (or less) likely than (say) the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence.

Mr Edwards (Letters, 10 February) challenges me to support my assertion of the popularity of the AAT with feminists. Ms Morgan notes that I have ‘clearly read nothing that has been written about [the AAT] in the last 22 years’. The latter, at least, is true. About ten years ago, a friend gave me a book on the subject. It was written by Ms Morgan, but I didn’t get any further than the title: The Descent of Woman.

Fault-finders

Michael Dobson (Letters, 27 January) continues to misinform your readers about the contents of my book Appropriating Shakespeare. He now describes it as ‘a general allegation that the less talented Shakespeare critics of today include many intolerant wielders of stereotypes.’ In fact, I follow the whole sequence of cause and effect, from the major idea-bearers who have had such a paralysing effect on contemporary theory (Freud, Lacan, Derrida, Barthes, Foucault, Althusser), through their popularisers (Hillis Miller, de Man, Fredric Jameson), and on to a gallery of Shakespeare critics which includes some of the most celebrated names now practising the art. That Professor Dobson should claim to have read my book but still think that I only deal with minor figures must destroy his credibility as a reviewer.

The real issues at stake were touched on by Catherine Gallagher in her excellent review, in the same issue, of Barbara Lewalski’s recent book, Writing Women in Jacobean England – namely, that Lewalski reduced all the diverse social and personal situations that her material offered to the same New Historicist formula of writing by marginalised figures as ‘subverting the dominant ideology’. My book – which never claimed to be anything other than one person’s interpretation – shows how the politicising of Shakespeare has encouraged conformity and weakened independent thinking. If Dobson were to think about such issues, and not reduce them to the young versus the old (‘They hate us youth,’ as Falstaff says), he might acknowledge that the present situation is rather worrying.

Brian Vickers
Centre for Renaissance Studies,

‘I’m actually in my mid-fifties, with a three-year-old daughter, and no thought of retirement.’ Thus Brian Vickers (Letters, 6 January). I do hope his wife isn’t one of those unacceptable older women who has had an embryo implant – but in any case, congratulations on your oomph, Professor Vickers.

Lalage Saunders
Des Moines, Iowa

Supposing

Michael Hofmann (LRB, 27 January) prefers Douglas Day’s 1973 biography of Malcolm Lowry to mine, because Day writes about Lowry whereas I write about Lowry’s life. Foolishly, I had persuaded myself that, having been contracted to write a biography, I was expected to produce a life-story. My mistake, it seems. Of course, if Hofmann prefers Day’s biography (the one which he thinks is not about Lowry’s life), then, chacun son goût. But the grounds offered to support his preference seem a little shaky. He cites my characterisation of Lowry’s reactions to a Christmas message from his mother, and to the assassination of Gandhi, and of his feelings for Kafka, arguing that they are based on inadequate biographical data. ‘As a writer,’ Hofmann asks, ‘why the suppositiousness, the skating over one’s essential ignorance of another’s being? Why should Lowry not have giggled at his mother’s letter, used Gandhi as a pretext [for going off to get drunk in Rouen], or found Kafka an absolute hoot (which he is, the funniest thing until, well, Lowry)?’

Hofmann supposes that, in the passages he quotes, I was supposing; but I was no more supposing than he was, and certainly no more than we all do in reading others’ intentions. There were witnesses in France to Lowry’s distress over Gandhi’s death and to his heading off to Rouen, where he was later found and brought back. I could have signalled this in a note, but one cannot add a note for every sentence written, and readers of biographies have, to some extent, to trust that a writer is not inventing everything which is not explained in a note. Of course, even Lowry’s witnesses cannot have known his state of mind, any more than Hofmann can know mine or I can know Hofmann’s. As to the mother’s Christmas message and my opinion of its effect on Lowry, Hofmann cannot have read the preceding pages. Shortly before, Lowry had been accused of plagiarism, which devastated him (he said), and his friend, Davenport, had failed to keep a promise to visit him in Cuernavaca, leaving him very depressed (if we can believe his letter to Davenport). It is not too wild a supposition, therefore, to say that his mother’s sentiments cannot have helped his self-confidence, bearing in mind also his fear of upsetting her and so losing his monthly stipend. As to Lowry’s reactions to Kafka, well, we have Lowry’s own words (in two letters quoted in my book) associating Kafka with his sense of being persecuted. Perhaps here again I should have given chapter and verse, but the quotations are there, and I was simply trying not to overload pages with footnotes.

Of course, Lowry’s state of mind might have been other than I depicted, but a biographer must have some licence to try to portray such moods and feelings if the evidence or context points strongly towards it. After all, Douglas Day, whom Hofmann admires, peers into Lowry’s mind through psychoanalytical goggles, even though, as far as I know, Day is not qualified to practise psychoanalysis. So what? I’m not necessarily against ‘suppositiousness’, even of the Freudian kind, from a biographer. It’s Hofmann who disapproves of it. At least, from his review of my book, I suppose he does.

Gordon Bowker
London W8

Fragile

Andrew Rutherford (Letters, 10 February) is quite right to say that Tina Modotti would have had to have been prescient to read in 1925 lines that Pound published only twenty years later, and I confess I was at first a little startled by her predictive powers. But Modotti read whatever Pound she read in an anthology, which I have not been able to find. I assumed, on reflection, that Pound had used those particular lines earlier, and that Mildred Constantine had read the anthology and found them there, rather than creatively splicing into her text whatever lines by Pound she fancied. This is what Rutherford calls taking on trust, which I think is better than the reverse; but obviously actual knowledge would be better still. Perhaps someone else can clear this up?

Michael Wood
University of Exeter

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