Saint-Just’s Illusion – Interpretation and the Powers of Philosophy
In the first book that Marx and Engels wrote together, The Holy Family, there is a passage about the Jacobin leader Saint-Just, who was famous not only for the ruthlessness with which he helped to conduct the Terror, but for the intensity with which he urged on the Revolution ideals of civic virtue drawn from the ancient world: his demand, as he expressed it, that revolutionary men should be Romans. ‘There is something tragic,’ Marx and Engels wrote, ‘in Saint-Just’s illusion. On the day of his execution he saw hanging in the Hall of the Conciergerie the great tables of the Rights of Man, and with pride and self-esteem declared: “After all, it was I who did that.” But those tables proclaimed the rights of a man who could no more be the man of ancient society than his national-economic and industrial relationships could be those of antiquity.’
My aim is to start out from Saint-Just’s illusion, and by asking what made it an illusion, to raise a question about the interpretation of ethical political ideas, such as freedom, in different times and circumstances. That will lead us to some thoughts about moral philosophy and what it can do.
The idea which Marx and Engels put in that way, in terms of Saint-Just’s illusion, had been expressed before, notably by Benjamin Constant in his famous lecture twenty-five years earlier on ancient and modern liberty. Constant had claimed that the ancient conception of liberty revered by the Jacobins, a conception centred on notions of public dedication, had been systematically and catastrophically unsuited to a large modern and commercial society. What Marx and Engels called an ‘illusion’ Constant called a ‘mistake’. It was a mistake, very importantly, in several dimensions at once: in historical interpretation, in politics, and in ethical understanding as well.
First, in historical interpretation. We need not agree with Marx and Engels’s specific diagnosis of it to accept the general idea, common to them and to Constant, that the preconditions of political freedom vary with different social formations. Moreover, the extent to which a specifically political freedom can satisfy the need for freedom is itself something that varies with historical conditions. What is necessary for freedom and what is sufficient for it may reasonably and honourably be understood in different terms in different historical circumstances.
It is natural to put the thought like this. But how can we speak in this way of what is necessary or sufficient at different times for this one thing, freedom? What is this item that is differently understood at different times? If, as Constant said, the liberty of the ancients and the liberty of the moderns are not the same conception, what is the relation between those conceptions? It is clearly not just a matter of words: the Jacobins and their victims were not trapped by an unfortunate mistranslation from Greek or Latin. Nor is it a change of subject, like that which thirty years ago helped some to believe that if a colonised people became free from the colonisers, that process in itself would make each of its citizens free.
One obvious suggestion is that in order to understand the relations between ancient and modern liberty, we should look to a tradition, a historical narrative, in terms of which the earlier ideal was transmuted into the later. On such an account, it will be this transmutation that Saint-Just overlooked, and it seems he did do so, since he overlooked the world that must have contained it: as he memorably said in his condemnation of Danton, ‘the world has been empty since the Romans.’
A historical account is necessary, and in principle it could be enough. Yet it is hard to believe that these conceptions do not have some more intimate connection with each other than is revealed simply by giving a historical derivation. Indeed, how could the supposed revival of the ancient conception have been announced to modern people, above all by Rousseau, with such electrifying effect if it did not speak to something which in their actual circumstances they wanted under the name of freedom? At the root of both ancient and modern liberty there is one basic or primitive conception of freedom: this is freedom as power, action unimpeded, in particular, by other people. Some thinkers, such as Hobbes and, some of the time, John Stuart Mill, think that this is the conception of freedom, and that it contains all that one knows or needs to know about its value. But this is to identify the seed and the plant, or the rhythm and the dance; it does not get us very far in answering questions, such as that raised by Saint-Just’s illusion or mistake, about freedom as a political value.
As Ronald Dworkin has said, primitive freedom is not in itself a political value at all, perhaps not even a social one. A social value implies a social space in which that value can be intelligibly claimed, and to claim freedom must always involve more than simply claiming power. It is no news to anyone ever that people want the means to do what they want to do. If I make a claim in the name of freedom, then I must do more than say that I want power. I must provide some reason why specifically I should be able to do some certain thing to you, or you should not be able to do some certain thing to me.
The same point may be put in a perhaps less edifying way. There are only two ways of acquiring power, to claim it or to get it by using power you already have. Those two may indeed in many cases come to the same thing: but if they not come to the same thing, and you need, distinctively, to claim it, then you need something to claim it with, other than the power you have, and that must be something that others can understand as an assertion of value or right.
What is true, I believe, is that every conception of freedom as a social or political value is an elaboration in political or social terms of that primitive idea of freedom as power; it involves, for instance, an interpretation at the level of social experience and argument of the frustrations and resentments involved in the obstruction of power. The question of what is involved in what I have too easily called ‘an elaboration’ is of course enormous, and much philosophical and historical work is concerned with that question: work, for instance, on the varying conceptions of oneself as a public or a private person.
But it is not any further detail about this particular case, freedom, that concerns me here. For the present purpose, I want to retain from it three ideas. A value, in this case freedom, can take different social and political expressions at different times, and it is not simply a misunderstanding that refers these to the same value. Historical understanding is necessary to see how this can be so, but there is also an underlying primitive idea of which these social expressions are, as I put it, ‘elaborations’: though I suggested that, in this case at least, the primitive idea was not itself a social value. Last, we have the point that the social requirements in terms of which an expression is viable in one set of historical conditions may make it a disaster in another: that was the nature of Saint-Just’s illusion.
There is at least one other case in which social values that make a claim on people in different forms at different times can be seen as cultural elaborations of a primitive idea or universal set of conditions. This is justice, and the conditions are to be found in the quarrels, aggressions and demands for settlement of which (we may presume) Heracleitus spoke when he said: ‘If it were not for these things, they would not have known the name of justice.’ In this case, however, unlike the case of freedom, the way in which the basic or primitive situation is specified already introduces something that is nearer to being a social value.
The primitive core of the desire for freedom, I suggested, lies in the frustration of our aims by other people; the primitive core of justice lies in such things as a loss that demands recompense, or a good that needs to be shared, and these ideas already introduce the schema of a social value. At this level, it is a highly indeterminate value, and it has of course received a vast range of cultural elaborations. Some of the elaborations have been connected with one another by historical traditions, as in the case of freedom, but it is also true that every society, however exotic it may be from our point of view, and unconnected until modern times with Western history, displays some elaboration of justice, some social structures that must be understood in terms of those primitive demands.
When Constant said that Saint-Just made a mistake, he meant, as I mentioned earlier, not merely a historical but a political mistake; and Constant’s description of the mistake itself offered a political and an ethical argument. The argument is clear enough: the Jacobin policies aimed to make French society into something that no modern society could be, and so they inevitably led to human disaster. There is certainly no conflict between the historical diagnosis, on the one hand, and the political argument, on the other; indeed the argument gets its materials from the historical interpretation. However, the fact that this is so does mean that the political argument is of a rather special kind. The way in which it is special is well brought out by Marx and Engels in their suggestion that Saint-Just’s mistake was not merely a mistake but an illusion.
In much of our everyday political discourse we argue with other conceptions of liberty, justice, equality, or whatever the value may be. When different political movements argue for programmes that variously claim the justice of letting the rich keep their gains or the justice of redistributing those gains to the poor, their arguments can get some grip because they each start from some conceptions of justice that we can culturally recognise, and they try to relate to those conceptions of justice policies which they claim to be viable for out world. The various conceptions of justice and of other values on which such arguments draw are the materials of politics. They also nourish people’s ideas of what their life ethically means, and of how it might be shaped. But Saint-Just’s conception of freedom did not fit into such a pattern, and that is just the point of the historical diagnosis: the antique conception of freedom was in a sense alien, and belonged to a different world. When Constant and the others dismiss Saint-Just’s conception and condemn him for trying to apply it to the modern world, they are indeed engaged in a political argument against that conception, but there is an important difference in this from the more usual case, in which we argue against a conception that does belong to the modern world and offers a possible way of governing our affairs in that world.
Of course, someone may want in some radical and indeterminate way to change the modern world – to change it back, for instance, so as to make it more receptive to a historically alien conception. That is an aspiration of utopianism, a familiar enough strain in European politics. As a self-consciously revolutionary leader, Saint-Just had a vision which might be called utopian, and to that extent he did not even want to engage with the political concepts of the modern world as he found them. Unlike most utopians, however, he was, for a while, among those in charge, and just in virtue of that he had to engage with a world that was obstinately there. To have a hope or a vision, even an illusory one, is not necessarily to suffer from an illusion; that begins when you cannot tell the difference between the vision and the world around you.
Saint-Just’s illusion marks the meeting-place of two spaces that we naturally treat differently. One is the space of our actual social and political life, within which we encounter various political and ethical demands and ideals, argue with them, adapt ourselves to them, try to form a conception of an acceptable life within them. The other space, of which we may be conscious only in a very shadowy way, is of other conceptions and ideals and world-pictures that human beings have had, may perhaps still have elsewhere, which are not part of our social and political space, are not even starters for a life we might now lead, and are – strictly in that sense – alien to us.
Nothing that is within our social space, and is something that we must actually address, is in this sense alien. Here it is extremely important that a claim to the effect that a particular conception lies within our actual social space is basically a social claim, not a conceptual one. What I mean by this is that there is no necessary expectation that the world of ideas and practices in which we find ourselves should conceptually hang together, form one homogeneous ethical whole. Neo-Hegelian and other nostalgic writers typically exaggerate the extent to which any society has ever had a homogeneous outlook, and one may perhaps doubt whether contemporary societies are really more pluralistic in their composition than many societies of the past. But they are certainly more pluralistic in their outlook, and consciously accept that attitudes which are substantively different from one another in spirit and in history actually co-exist. People realise, too, that this fact itself makes demands on ethical and political understanding and invention. Meeting those demands provides one dimension of ethical thought that if now particularly important.
Saint-Just’s conception was alien to late 18th-century French society, just because it was drawn from a world in which the social structures, economic forms, and people’s needs, were very different. Yet although it was alien to French society, it was connected to it by a historical story. People had a picture of a past from which it was drawn – an idealised picture, for sure, but of a past that could be represented as modern Europe’s own.
A set of values might be more alien than this. It has been a concern of philosophy to ask how alien they might be, and still be recognisably human values. Consider a society which, at least when we encounter it, has no relation to our history: an isolated, small, traditional society on the other side of the world. The people of this society seem to have beliefs, practices and values very different from ours, which are certainly in no way candidates for adoption in the world we live in. The ideas and values of such a society may seem to be alien in some more radical sense than anything we have yet considered. How radical can that sense be?
It is a familiar idea that we are not merely given the beliefs, values and so forth of such a society: faced with their activities and utterances, enjoying (or otherwise) their company, we have to interpret these things. We are also familiar with the idea, developed powerfully in philosophy by Donald Davidson, that we could not come to understand these people without building into our interpretation at a structural level some assumptions about the ways in which their experience and thoughts resemble ours: that we must interpret what they say, for instance, so that quite a lot of it comes out as true. (Experts in these discussions will know that the phrase ‘quite a lot’ passes over an immense amount of debate.) In general, if we are to interpret what they are up to, we must rationalise it in terms that make sense of it to us.
What does this process involve? We should not necessarily expect it to come out simply as a serial process in which we first ascribe to these people simpler attitudes and then get on to understanding their values. Certainly we must understand some at least of their beliefs and desires in order to interpret their values, but it can be argued, as it has been by Susan Hurley, that we must, equally, ascribe some values to them even in the course of crediting them with desires or preferences, because it is only by reference to some sense of their values, of what they think worthwhile, that we can ascribe to them a rational structure of preferences. By the same token, those values must make sense to us as values that human beings might have: and to some degree at least, that must mean values that we share. In the case of beliefs, we cannot rationalise these people’s activities and their sayings without ascribing to them beliefs that we ourselves take to be correct. Similarly, there has to be a bridgehead of shared human concerns, the argument goes, for us to be able to recognise anything these people hold as values, even as alien values.
Some philosophers want to take the argument a step further, and suggest that while an exotic people’s way of life may not be a candidate for our serious consideration in our historical circumstances – yet at a deeper level there are no really alien values. On this account, we bring to that other society, as interpreters, a structure of basic values, such as a conception of what human qualities are valuable and admirable, and we find in the others’ life and experience, as we come to understand it, a similar structure. The others will doubtless not place the emphasis as we do; they will esteem some qualities more than we do and less esteem others, their distinctions between virtues and vices, good and bad kinds of action, may not divide up the field in quite the same way that ours do. But, the argument goes on, these variations can be explained rationally in terms of their and our different circumstances. We should be not he surprised, for instance, if special emphasis is put on certain kinds of courage and certain kinds of solidarity where people have to hunt their food. This is not relativism, but quite the reverse: it is the appropriate adaptation to circumstance of shared ethical concerns. Under the local variations, the argument goes, there is a common human ethical sensibility, of a fairly structured kind. Moreover – and this follows from its being an argument from interpretation – this must be so, because it represents a condition of understanding these people’s life as a human life at all.
I am sure that in interpreting other people we have to take it that they and we have a good deal in common; it may well be, further, that some of what they and we have in common must be, if in a schematic form, some values. But we cannot be compelled to think, it seems to me, that the requirements extend as far as this argument claims, or that all human beings must share in some more or less determinate form the materials of an ethical life. It is not so much that I do not believe it to be true. It is rather that I cannot believe that it has to be true, that reflection on the demands of interpretation should be able to lead us to so substantive a conclusion. If it could, then philosophy would now have succeeded in doing what social anthropology and its intellectual ancestors over several centuries have failed to do.
European thought has passed this way before, more than once. In earlier centuries – in the time of what were called, from the European perspective, the voyages of discovery, and with the encounter of Europeans with peoples of the South Pacific – there was intense speculation and discussion on the subject of a common human nature, and on questions of how the diversity of practices and ways of life that had come to light was to be read. Some of this discussion had powerful ideological motives, and was interwoven with such questions as the possibility of salvation for these creatures, and the legitimacy of enslaving them. But once it was given that these were indisputably people, other human beings, and that they therefore had a good deal in common with Europeans, the issues became central of how determinate the basic similarities were, and at what level they were to be found: as needs, or values, or a shared moral reason, or – as it came to be put in a more recent time, when anthropology had gained an identity – a capacity to live within symbolic systems.
Many of those earlier formulations have gone, and with them (at least in their more shameless forms) the ideological fantasies that sometimes went with them, of ignorant or noble savages. But the fact that those elements have departed, and that we are anxious to relegate them to the history of colonialism and slavery, may conceal the fact that the central questions – the questions of a common human nature – remain unanswered, and continue to recur in such fields as cultural anthropology, cognitive psychology and comparative linguistics. For the purposes of ethical understanding, we must distinguish two levels of question about a common human nature. One is the general level, at which we ask what are the basic psychological and social concepts that are needed to interpret both our own and other human activities. A second and more specific question, the question raised by the argument I am considering, is to what extent those concepts are both specific and ethical: how far, for instance, it is true that we shall be able to understand another culture’s ethical practices only if we interpret them in terms of a range of virtues and vices that are familiar to us.
We need to assume a certain amount in common between us and the others; and we are trying to understand what might, very broadly indeed, be called their ethical life. But it does not follow from those two truths that what we must assume as in common with them is an ethical life, or, to any determinate level, the materials of it. It may be, as I have said, that there are some, perhaps very schematic, values that we must see ourselves and them as sharing. I mentioned earlier in the case of justice the primitive core that underlies the elaborations of that value which we might expect to find in any society. That core was to be found, I suggested, in certain situations of conflict and certain needs for settlement. That is, of course, so vague as barely to be a suggestion, let alone an interesting one. It may be that if we examined more interesting and more specific suggestions, and reached a better understanding of the basic forms of the need for justice, we shall come to see that we do need to ascribe to human beings in every society a particular sentiment or disposition, something like a sense of fairness. Perhaps But that question, and many others of the same kind, are precisely the questions that have descended into the various social sciences, as well as into philosophy, from the old speculations about a common human nature – in particular, a common ethical nature. The fact that these questions remain, and in such recalcitrant and dispersed forms, should discourage us from thinking that they are suddenly going to be answered by unaided philosophy.
The idea that they might be answered by philosophy, and in a way favouring very strong assumptions about the underlying similarities, has perhaps been encouraged by an idea that is implicit in some theories of language, particularly of a Wittgensteinian kind, to the effect that understanding someone else’s language, and hence their form of life, essentially involves identifying with them. On this account, the essence of understanding someone else’s concepts is to put yourself in the way of using them. But if you can do this-for instance, with ethical concepts – then those concepts must in some sense respond to something that is already yours. (The very phrase ‘form of life’ has helped to encourage the conclusion: it suggests at once an anthropological category and the limits of intelligibility, and so manages to imply that if we can understand others at all, then they cannot be culturally so distant from us.) But anthropologists, who actually have to do it, know that this image of interpretation through identification is inadequate. As Clifford Geertz has put it, ‘to see others as sharing a nature with ourselves is the merest decency,’ but it does not constitute a method. The whole problem is to deploy our concepts, some of which are nearer to theirs and some further away, ‘so as to produce an interpretation of the way a people lives which is neither imprisoned within their mental horizons, an ethnography of witchcraft as written by a witch, nor systematically deaf to the distinctive tonalities of their existence, an ethnography of witchcraft as written by a geometer’. One must bring with one beliefs, models, patterns of explanation: it is they that will determine how much identity there will turn out to be, and at what levels.
The fact that the questions about a common human ethical nature have not been solved may encourage a more radical thought: that, at the ethical level at least, these questions are based on a misunderstanding, and are never going to be solved by anything. It may be that in some form that suspicion may be correct, but it is not at all easy to express it coherently. To say, for instance, as is said quite often, that there is no such thing as human nature, and that everything is interpretation, merely rides over the present question, of what it is we have to take for granted if we are to give any interpretations. To reject such formulations is so easy, in fact, that we may stop asking whether there might not might be something in them after all. Perhaps it is not only our interpretation of ethical situations that inescapably involves elements local to our perspective, but our interpretation of other people’s interpretations of ethical situations.
Even leaving aside more radical doubts about the question, it is clear at any rate that we do not have an answer to it. When we ask what underlies the variety of human ethical practice, the truth is that we do not know and have no very clear idea of what an answer would look like. We do know one thing, or at least have very good reason to believe it: that it there is anything that could be an answer, it will come from actual interpretations of actual people, and will involve the kinds of psychological and social study that I mentioned earlier. It could not emerge simply from a priori reflections on the requirements of interpretation. There is a very short argument, surely, to show that it could not. If it were true that to understand other people’s ethical life, we had to interpret them in a way that led us to recognise a high and determinate level of ethical resemblance between them and ourselves, then it would already have been recognised: it would have shone forth from all those devoted attempts to interpret But it has not, which is why we are all still having this discussion. In this respect, the situation is exactly the same as with the age-old attempts to overcome moral disagreement by discovering a universal morality on the basis of nature. Nature seems, unhelpfully, to underdetermine human morality to just the extent that leaves open all the disagreements that the morality of nature was supposed to resolve.
What does it mean for moral philosophy that, as I have argued, no a priori considerations will answer the question about a shared ethical nature? At first glance, it looks like the sort of conclusion that philosophy has learned to live with over many centuries: that something it thought to be entirely its business turns out to be other people’s business as well. Except for its perpetually discouraging implication that there are many things one needs to know if one is going to make any sense of the world, this conclusion need not in itself be too upsetting.
However, I think that the present conclusion reaches rather further than this way of putting it would suggest. There are some questions that philosophy is disposed to think are, if anything is, its own business. In moral philosophy, such a question is usually taken to be the objectivity or otherwise of ethics. But the questions we reached in talking about interpretation and the extent to which it assumes or reveals a determinate degree of ethical resemblance between human beings, those same questions about which I have just claimed that if they are answerable at all they must be answered with other help: these seem to be all that is now left to this issue that has often been supposed to be central to moral philosophy and special to it, the issue of the objectivity of moral judgment. Or rather, they are all that is to left to that issue if it is understood as a theoretical issue. (I shall come back shortly to what I mean by that qualification.)
Many different things have been discussed as the question of objectivity, but they all tend either to come to nothing, or to come back to one issue: the proper understanding of ethical disagreement. Some philosophers have been very exercised, for instance, with the question of whether moral judgments can be true or false. But work has to be done to find what, and how much, that question means. Indisputably, remarks about the morally good and bad, right and wrong, are called ‘true’ or ‘false’: the question is how much of what elsewhere matters with regard to truth or falsehood follows on that use. The concepts of truth and false-hood carry with them the ambitions of aiming at the truth and avoiding, so far as we can, error; the question must be, how those ambitions could be carried out with regard to ethical thought. I see no way of pursuing that question which does not lead back to questions such as these ... If an ethical disagreement arises, must one party think the other in error? What is the content of that thought? What sorts of discussion or exploration might, given the particular subject-matter, lead one or both of them out of error? It is only in the context of such questions that issues of objectivity in ethics acquire any content, and escape from the primitively reductivist charge that ‘objective’ and ‘true’ and ‘really wrong’ and so forth are merely devices we use to keep up our confidence. But those questions, in turn, can only lead us back to this one: how do we picture the underlying ethical material in other people and in ourselves?. It is only in the light of our best understanding of this that we could understand how far disagreement might intelligibly reach, and how, at the limit, it might be intelligibly resolved. And that question is of course the one that we have already identified, the question about a common ethical nature: the question that philosophy by itself cannot answer.
I spoke of how, at the limit, disagreement might be resolved. The philosophical question about objectivity is an extreme or limiting question, and it is because of this that it coincides with a question about the limits of interpretation. It is just the extremity of the question, of course, that might make us say that it was a typically philosophical question. It is just the same feature of it that, under the only line of enquiry that could make sense of it, reveals it as having no answer that philosophy by itself is going to discover.
Most disharmonies between ethical outlooks are not as extreme as this. They are more like what we normally call disagreements: conflicts of outlook in some social space that the parties, to some degree at least, actually share, as opposed to the singular situation of the anthropological investigator, ‘set down’, in Malinowski’s phrase, among a strange people. In these more familiar cases, we need not go to the limits of human similarity and dissimilarity: we will have, typically, more shared cultural materials to work with, more ways (at least if we are lucky) of resolving or accommodating our differences. Here we come back to the division in the road that was marked by the ambivalent case of Saint-Just’s illusion. These are the cases in which we may see the alternative conception of an ethical life as a real possibility for us and for our world: it is now something to be argued with, not only something to be understood.
Moral philosophers, unlike in this respect political philosophers, have typically found these more realistic cases less interesting. Partly this is just their professional interest in the extreme and limiting case, the interest that is often called (in a question-begging phrase) the interest in principle. However, it may be that they also make an assumption: that I cannot understand my ethical disagreement with others unless I know how exactly their outlook contrasts with mine, and I cannot do that unless I can fit our differences into the universal common structure of ethical thought, whatever that might turn out to be.
This assumption is wrong. Of course I have to understand the person with whom, in limited and local terms, I am disagreeing, and this requires interpretation. But it is a mistake to think that in order to interpret one another in these less extreme situations we must reach the ultimate basis of ethical understanding, if indeed there could be such a thing: we do not have to explore the outside limits of the possibilities for agreement and disagreement. To think that we do is to accept uncritically a kind of foundationalism. Part of what we are given, in being given to some degree a shared social space, is some shared understanding of the psychological bases of moral agreement and disagreement themselves: a sense of the virtues, of expected conduct, or of public principle, and with these we work, in seeking to articulate and perhaps resolve disagreements.
In a very self-conscious culture formed by an elaborate history, such as our own, there are exceptional opportunities for varying, re-emphasising and recalling these materials. At the present time, for instance, some philosophers call for a revival of the ethics of the virtues, as contrasted with those familiar materials of modernity, principle and utility. Those ideas are to be found in our cultural reserves, and it is reasonable for them to call on them. But the philosophers err if they think that such concepts are the universal and ultimate basis of all ethical experience, and they err still more – err in the same way as Saint-Just – if they think that the virtues as described by Aristotle or St Thomas are the necessary and sufficient materials of ethical self-understanding at the end of the 20th century.
There is another way in which the demands of ethical disagreement as we more ordinarily meet it may seem to call on the theory of the ultimate case. Can we possibly conduct any ethical argument in good faith or with conviction, it may be asked, unless we believe that some answer will be objectively correct? If not, then we implicitly deploy the idea of objectivity, and all its ultimate problems, so soon as we take an ethical disagreement seriously. The answer to this point, however, is basically the same as to the last. We do not need the idea of an ultimately objective answer – the answer, for instance, that would imply, if it were expanded enough, an account in terms of a universal moral psychology of where exactly at least one of the disputants had been in error. We need only something more restricted, the idea of the acceptable answer to this disagreement, an answer that might be reached in actual historical circumstances: an answer, or the refusal of an answer, to which the parties could honourably agree.
Of course any such agreement could be criticised from outside the disputants’ perspective; this raises no new problem, and simply introduces the shared materials, whatever they might turn out to be, of another disagreement. What is indeed a problem, and needs much to be said about it, is the question of what might be counted as an honourable agreement. That question belongs to what might be called a theory of persuasion, and the essential point about it is that it would be itself an ethical discussion: a discussion of the proper role of rhetoric, and loyalty, and disinterestedness, and the value of truth – plain truth, the truth of historical and social truthfulness, rather than the phantasm of ultimate ethical truth.
To see things in this way represents the reversal of a familiar Platonic structure. For the Platonic spirit (Plato himself, needless to say, had more complex views), the aim is ultimate truth or rationality, and the powers that could lead us to it merely need to be protected from interference by persuasion. The present picture is rather of a world in which everything is, if you like, persuasion, and the aim is to encourage some forms of it rather than others. This is not a technical task, like clearing a radio channel from static. It is a practical and ethical task, like deciding who can speak, how and when. It is not, as is often suggested by those of a Platonic disposition, a picture that is a product of despair, a mere second-best for a world in which the criteria of true objectivity and ethical truth-seeking have proved hard to find. To recognise how we are placed in this respect is, if anything, an affirmation of strength. To suppose that the values of truthfulness and reasonableness and other such things that we prize or suppose ourselves to prize are simply revealed to us, or given to us by our nature, is not only a philosophical superstition but a kind of weakness. If that is the best we can say for them, we probably do not deserve them anyway.
I said earlier that philosophy might find itself without the exclusive possession, at least, of the topic of ethical objectivity, so far as that was a theoretical issue. The contrast I had in mind there was the dimension we have now touched on, of the theory of persuasion, the ethical question of how in dealing with ethical disagreement we should best conduct ourselves. There is no reason to say that this is not a philosophical subject; the reason someone might have for saying so would probably be the false view that philosophy was cut off from substantive ethical issues. But it should remind us of how deeply impure philosophy is. The fate as I have described it of the theoretical issue of objectivity reminds us in one way of the impurity of philosophy; if it is to have anything to say about that question, it will have to address a lot more than philosophy. The ethical issues of objectivity, the questions of what truthfulness and an appropriate impartiality mean to us in our circumstances, remind us of that impurity in another way: to think about those questions is also to think about a lot more than philosophy. It is to try to think seriously about a decent life in the modern world, and it is a platitude to say that it needs more than philosophy to do that.
It is equally a platitude to say that philosophy should at any rate help one to do that. Moreover, it is true. But then, with professional ease and some self-congratulation, we philosophers may draw from this another conclusion: that teaching philosophy to people must also help them to do that. Perhaps that is true, too. But before we take comfort from it, we should get clear that a good deal of what is called teaching philosophy is nothing of the sort. The word ‘philosophy’ occurs in the title of the activity only, so to speak, adverbially: what is being taught are the capacities to analyse issues, sort out one’s terms, write clearly, and expound efficiently in a short time something one does not understand very well. Philosophy is a suitable vehicle through which to teach these useful skills, since it is intellectually complex, encourages analytical talent, and when suitably presented is not very threatening. I am not of a Wittgensteinian temper to find these activities an affront to philosophy. Moreover, it may be that acquiring these skills itself helps one to think about what is a decent life in the modern world. But it is not in the least obvious that acquiring these skills, and the exercises that impart them, help people to think about that question in the ways that philosophy, properly and impurely practised, would encourage people to think about it. Not for the first time in its history, the best hopes for philosophy, and what goes on in the name of teaching it, are in some conflict with one another.
Vol. 13 No. 16 · 29 August 1991 » Bernard Williams » Saint-Just’s Illusion – Interpretation and the Powers of Philosophy
pages 8-10 | 7050 words