Living within the truth

Onora O’Neill

In the twenty stagnant years between the Prague Spring and the Eastern European revolutions of 1989 there were two conduits for intellectual contact between intellectuals in Eastern and Western Europe. The official British channel, sustained both by the British Academy and by the British Council, carried a two-way flow of carefully scrutinised visits by academics and writers. For those visiting Eastwards the pace was genteel: lecturing that would have been done in a concentrated burst in the West, conferences that would have taken a weekend between working weeks, were prolonged. Conversations crawled. The visits were never without interest – they were glimpses into secluded worlds – but the interest wasn’t mainly intellectual. Visitors told themselves that the tedium would be worth it if they made contact with some people who were able to talk more freely, or if those people got a chance to visit Westwards. Since Westwards visits were a valuable perk, they were controlled by Directors of Institutes and Academies, and used to reward reliable stalwarts rather than to encourage free spirits. ‘Foreign collaboration’ was part of an institute’s plan and system of control, with the result that return vists, even when run on Western lines, were guaranteed their share of tedium. In the last eighteen months some of those frustrated free spirits have been making up for lost time, and also reproaching Westerners for maintaining and using official channels in the past, and so conniving with a system that rewarded intellectual stagnation with travel opportunities.

For much of this period, and especially for Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, official channels were supplemented by unofficial ones. Unofficial contacts also relied on various institutions, including the Dubrovnik Inter-University Centre, the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen in Vienna, the Soros Foundation and the Jan Hus Foundation, but their most distinctive feature has been a virtual absence of central co-ordination. They have relied on a network of intellectuals – many of the British ones from Oxford, and many of them philosophers – who have taken small initiatives. These intellectuals have visited and invited, have found small subsidies and supplied books, made contact and talked, organised conferences on neutral turf, and revived the ancient academic practice of corresponding. The logistics of such arrangements were no more than tedious for those at the Western end they could be tough and risky for those at the Eastern end. Their lives included hours of queuing, and the risk that the powers-that-were, both in their institutes,and departments and beyond, would prove hostile.

Their activities could only be sustained if they took the responsibilities of intellectuals seriously – which they did. Those responsibities were not liked in official circles: the standard Soviet textbook on ethics, a collective work called Ethics published in Moscow in 1986 and translated into English in 1989, has a great deal to say about responsibility, but not a word about the responsibilities of intellectuals, let alone about their political responsibilities. In societies which vested all responsibilities for informed criticism solely in the Party, the term ‘responsibilities of intellectuals’ was code for a challenge to authority, an opposition which must by definition be disloyal and which was denied institutional embodiment in press, party or parliament.

The Political Responsibility of Intellectuals emerges from this world of non-official contact between Eastern and Western European intellectuals. The papers were first presented and worked over at meetings at the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen in the late Eighties. The contributors come from Poland and Hungary (Czech intellectuals were rarely able to travel), and from several Western countries, mostly Britain. They include academics of great distinction in a wide range of disciplines from both parts of Europe, most of them with long experience of both worlds. Since the papers were written, Eastern Europe has changed hugely, and it is a mark of the excellence of these papers that they are not outdated. They are not simply a monument to a certain period of European intellectual history, to the institutional difficulties that were faced and to the efforts that were made to overcome them – although they are also that. The papers show, as much as they discuss, what may be involved in the idea of the responsibilities of intellectuals.

The papers by Eastern and Western writers are very different in tone and concern – and who would be surprised? Most of the Eastern European writers take for granted that intellectuals have distinctive responsibilities, indeed political responsibilities, and chart how these were undermined and damaged and how they may now be revived and strengthened in particular Eastern European countries. Elemer Hankiss summarises the absorption of private associations into the Party in Hungary, which eliminated both contexts and capacities for public and political action under Communist rule. Jacek Kurczewski reflects on the difficulties within Solidarity in understanding the role of ‘experts’, and the limits of the role that Polish intellectuals could take in a gradually democratising polity. Many in the West are now familiar with one highly influential Eastern European discussion of these two themes, in Vaclav Havel’s profound essay on the ‘The Power of the Powerless’. In it Havel gave a vivid account of the destruction of civil society by its absorption into state and party, and sketched a vision of a reversal of this destruction based on the practice of ‘living in the truth’, even in small matters.

Several paper argue from the internal practices of certain intellectual disciplines to a view of the wider responsibilities of their practitioners. For example, Ian Maclean argues in a scintillating essay that the multiple practices of legal interpretation, for differing audiences and purposes, must ultimately invoke not only norms of truth-telling but an awareness of the historical and political context of legal interpretation. Jerzy Jedlicki takes a historian’s look at the process of re-emergence from years of Party control in an engaging essay that is highly relevant to present changes in Eastern Europe. He asks what it is to reappropriate a sense of identitly – national, ethnic, religious – that was suppressed under really existing socialism, and argues that reappropriators must accept responsibility for the shames as well as the glories of the past with which they seek to identify. The events of 1989 and 1990 showed that this conclusion is increasingly shared. While West Germans long ago pioneered public acknowledgment of the sins of their fathers, it was only last March that de Maziere acknowledged publicly that East Germans, who had been taught to think that they were Hitlet’s victims, shared responsibility for the Nazi past. Both Poles and Czechs have also begun to take public responsibility for their post-war treatment of Germans. Jedlicki’s essay illuminates the enormous political responsibilities of historians, whose work largely determines which identities are there to be appropriated, and also which rancours and resentments, which evasions and dishonesties, will be incorporated into those identities and so shape the future. Here the sobrieties of scholarship evidently bring heavy political responsibilities.

Several other essays re-open the question about the limits of the responsibilities of intellectuals. Most argue against the conception of pure, ‘ivory tower’ intellectuals whose responsibilities are not or should not be political. For example, Jerzy Szacki distinguishes cultural intellectuals, who take seriously their responsibilities to scholarship, literature and science, from political intellectuals, who ‘feel responsible for the entire world’ and specialists, who acknowledge special responsibilities only within a sphere of expertise. He contends that cultural intellectuals, whether or not they have been through the experiences of Eastern Europe, can no longer distance themselves from politics. Intellectual life is now nearly always politically funded and structured. A more traditional view is urged by Edward Shils, who contends that intellectuals always work within traditions, to which they feel primary responsibility. On the whole, Shils admires ‘institution intellectuals’, who can be exonerated for their lessened intellectual activity because their days are spent in public service, but deplores engagement in other responsibilities among ‘freelance intellectuals’, whose concern for their disciplinary traditions has been ‘adulterated by the infusion of political beliefs’.

The essays by Western Europeans do not for the most part reflect direct experience of life lived under conditions where intellectuals are among the few beleaguered sources of critical thinking, and it becomes natural to think that if anybody has the tasks that in democratic societies are shared among citizens or institutionalised in the press and the opposition, then it is the intellectuals. Western intellectuals fear that the problem lies not in their responsibilities but in their irresponsibility. This fear goes far deeper than a sense that, as a matter of fact, one or another group of intellectuals has behaved in shaming ways – although they have. It is a fear that the life of the mind can offer no foundations for reason, nor therefore for morality and responsibility, nor therefore for the responsibilities of intellectuals. Many Western intellectuals fear, not that they may betray reason and morality, but that reason and morality – or at least their former reliance on reason and morality – have betrayed them.

This theme is broached in a fine introductory essay by Ernest Gellner, who offers an exemplary exposition of Julien Benda’s much mentioned but little read La Trahison des Clercs of 1928. Benda called intellectuals to task for deserting old standards of truth, objectivity and morality. But as Gellner sees it, it was because 19th and 20th-century intellectuals have been ‘so loyal to the old transcendent principle of impartial objectivity that they discovered something which undermines those principles’. Treachery is implied in traditional conceptions of the task of intellect: if it is the first responsibility of intellectuals to follow the argument where it leads, and if it leads away from universal truths and moral values, then intellectuals must follow the argument. Gellner thinks that Benda commits the treachery he condemns in that he simply asserts, but does not justify, universal values. He concludes that doubt about truth and about moral standards may be less treacherous than false confidence. Peter Winch takes a related position where he claims that attempts to justify moral claims in more ultimate terms distort and weaken the claims themselves. Both Gellner and Winch find the supposed political responsibilities of intellectuals problematic, in that they see no deep connection between commitment to intellectual life and truth or morality. They bring into question not only the political but the cultural responsibilities of intellectuals.

Undoubtedly the most challenging of these essays is Alan Montefiore’s defence of both the cultural and the political responsibilities of intellectuals. He provides a philosophical argument that supports and illuminates Szacki’s contention that the role of the merely cultural intellectual is simply unavailable. Montefiore’s argument builds on lines of thought to be found in Kant, in Wittgenstein and in Havel. From Kant he takes the thought that there is no theoretical reason without practical reason: if intellectuals are committed to the pursuit of truth they must also be committed to truthfulness, and to respect for other reasoners. These commitments will never provide them with algorithms for thought or for life, but will define constraints of which both theoretical and moral judgment must take account. From Wittgenstein Montefiore takes the thought that this commitment to truth and truthfulness bears with it responsibility, with others, for maintaining a public language embodying norms of reason and truthfulness. From Havel he takes the thought that the ostensibly modest proposal of living within the truth, even in limited spheres of life, is a deeply political commitment. Even oppressive systems of power cannot do without the norms of truth-seeking and truthfulness. All they can do, and this is damaging enough, is to replace these norms in limited domains of life with ritualised norms and slogans. Yet they remain ‘at all times ultimately vulnerable to truth’.

Montefiore’s argument is, as he acknowledges, not one that holds only for intellectuals in a restricted sense: it holds for all language users, and everyone must have something of the intellectual in them. He takes an equally broad view of the political: ‘all that characterises or touches upon the domain of public policy’. Hence the sense in which he argues for the political responsibilities of intellectuals is quite different from the one that has flourished in Eastern Europe. He does not maintain that a restricted social group has special political responsibilities, but rather that those who are concerned for truth, as we all are, are concerned for the conditions of truth-telling, and that since these are never merely private, we all also have political responsibilities. Montefiore’s argument is the democratised counterpart of the Eastern European contention: our responsibilities as citizens follow from our responsibilities as truth-tellers. If intellectuals have any special political responsibilities, these can only arise because especially strong commitments to truth and to truth-telling create additional reasons not to stay on the sidelines of public life.

If there is a line of thought that most of the contributors share, it is that we cannot defend a strong view of the cultural responsibilities of intellectuals while taking a sceptical view of their political responsibilities. However, beneath this apparent agreement lies a split between those who doubt that we have any strong account of responsibility to offer for either sphere and those who think with Montefiore that we can find linked accounts of responsibility in the two spheres. The seemingly parochial concern with the political responsibilities of intellectuals, which preoccupied Eastern European intellectuals while they were denied political life, pivots on far from parochial questions of the authority of reason and of morality, and of the link between them.