Roy Hattersley has a review of a book about T.H. Green in Saturday's Guardian. Hattersley attributes to Green a notion of positive freedom that closely resembles the idea of "capability" developed by Amartya Sen:
Freedom, defined as "absence of coercion", did not meet the needs of the modern age. Green extended the idea to "a positive power or capacity of doing something".
Hattersley then goes on to discuss briefly the criticisms raised against Green's conception of positive freedom by Isaiah Berlin, in his famous essay "Two Concepts of Liberty":
Berlin ... argued that Green was wrong: "If I am prevented by others from doing what I would otherwise do I am unfree", but a blind man is not "unfree" because he cannot see. Following Green's lead, social democrats should argue that blindness, caused by the wilful act or the negligence of the state, is a denial of the "positive freedom" - the right to see - that a civilised state should not tolerate.
I don't think Green would ever have tolerated a phrase like "the right to see". Moreover, I'm not sure this gloss of Hattersley's quite captures properly the shape of Berlin's criticism of Green. Berlin writes this in a footnote to "Two Concepts":
"The ideal of true freedom is the maximum of power for all the members of human society alike to make the best of themselves", said T.H. Green in 1881. Apart from the confusion of freedom with equality, this entails that if a man chose some immediate pleasure -which (in whose view?) would not enable him to make the best of himself (what self?)- what he was exercising was not "true" freedom: and if deprived of it, would not lose anything that mattered. Green was a genuine liberal: but many a tyrant could use this formula to justify his worst acts of oppression.
All the same, I look forward to Hattersley going on to reacquaint readers of the Guardian with the work of Green's liberal-socialist heir, L.T. Hobhouse:
Liberalism conceives the ideal society as a whole which lives and flourishes by the harmonious growth of its parts, each of which in developing on its own lines and in accordance with its own nature tends on the whole to further the development of others. There are many possibilities, and the course that will in the end make for social harmony is only one among them, while the possibilities of disharmony and conflict are many. The progress of society like that of the individual depends, then, ultimately on choice. The heart of Liberalism is the understanding that progress is not a matter of mechanical contrivance, but of the liberation of living spiritual energy. Good mechanism is that which provides the channels wherein such energy can flow unimpeded. . .
There's a very interesting profile by Linda Grant in today's Independentof the Israeli novelist Etgar Keret. Grant discusses Keret's collaboration with the Palestinian writer Samir el-Youssef and, most interestingly and suggestively, the "writer's need to push away slogans and headlines", to stay alert to the lure of "engagement" and its depredations.
Meanwhile, in the current issue of Les Temps Modernes (not available online),Éric Marty regrets the willingness of Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet, to allow his talent to congeal in the court of Arafat. When the PLO leader died, Darwish addressed this breathless paean to him:
Time and again he [Arafat] would drill us in his extraordinary, unanticipated confrontations with death -- by aerial bombardment or in a civilian airplane crash in the desert -- which, by some seemingly miraculous power, he outran into the embrace of life. We shared with him a journey that addicted us to striking out towards destinations glittering with the lure of the impossible and radiating a pastoral lyricism to help us endure the hardship of the road.
This, Marty argues, is to turn "the tyrant himself into a poet". In doing so, Darwish "adopts the worst models of engaged European poetry: Aragon, Eluard, who themselves contributed to the dishonour of the poets." And what will become of Darwish, Marty asks, when there is a Palestianian state? "Official poet? He's that already."
Scott McLemee has a nice article on Harry Frankfurt's bullshit book here. My piece on the same topic appears in the current issue of Time Out. It's not available online, so I'm putting it up here.
We all know bullshit when we see it or hear it. And most of us would consider ourselves to be in possession of a functioning ‘bullshit detector’. We can smell the stuff a mile off and are often consoled by the thought that it’s always somebody else who perpetrates it – you rarely meet a cheerfully self-acknowledging bullshitter, after all.
But what is bullshit exactly? It’s a lot easier to identify than to define. It can’t be quite the same thing as lying, for instance, but it nonetheless seems to involve some kind of flirtation with untruth – it’s almost as wounding to be called a bullshitter as it is to be called a liar. Why is that the case? And why we are inclined to think that there’s more bullshit around than ever before? And what does it say about our culture that it contains so much bullshit?
These are questions raised in ‘On Bullshit’, a witty, intelligent and deceptively profound little book written by the septuagenarian American philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt. Such ‘basic and preliminary’ questions about bullshit, Frankfurt observes, have for too long languished ‘not only unanswered but unasked’. He has performed a great public service in dusting them off and applying his considerable analytical and forensic acumen to them. And, in doing so, Frankfurt ought to persuade the general reader of the value and wider relevance of the kind of obsessively attentive semantic and conceptual analysis that many academic philosophers still go in for these days. ‘On Bullshit’ is addressed, therefore, not only to Frankfurt’s colleagues, who will no doubt admire its virtuosity, but also to his fellow citizens, who should recognise the desirability, political as much as anything, of being able to tell the difference between a load of bullshit and a pack of lies.
Frankfurt is not quite a lone pioneer in this area, however. He acknowledges the work done by his predecessor, Max Black, who, in 1983, published an essay on the related concept of ‘humbug’. And it wouldn’t be hard to make a persuasive case for the claim, which Frankfurt himself takes quite seriously, that bullshit is just humbug for a less polite age. In 1866, for example, P.T Barnum looked forward to some ‘philosophic Yankee’ patenting a ‘Humbugometer’, an obvious precursor of the bullshit detector celebrated by, among other cultural luminaries, Ernest Hemingway and The Clash. Moreover, the dictionary definition of ‘bullshit’, which is 'to intimidate, deceive, or persuade somebody with deceitful or foolish talk', closely resembles Black’s definition of ‘humbug’: ‘deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody’s own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes’.
Lying is a kind of a deception too, of course, but one in which the truth remains in view: the liar must know the truth in order to concoct his lie. But there are no such constraints on the bullshitter. Frankfurt’s insight is to see that ‘the essence of bullshit is not that it is false, but that it is phony’. And it’s because bullshit is not constrained by the truth that it proliferates so extravagantly. Bullshit, Frankfurt argues, has an ‘expansive’ and creative quality. Notwithstanding the association of shit with what is ‘merely emitted’ rather than designed, a lot of bullshit is exquisitely crafted and well-wrought – it’s no accident, for example, that we refer to the ‘bullshit artist’.
Unlike the liar, the bullshitter is entirely unconcerned with the truth. For this reason, Frankfurt thinks bullshitting is in fact more pernicious than lying. And bullshit spreads, he argues, when we start to believe that it is the ‘responsibility of the citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything’ and when we come to regard knowing oneself as more important than accurately representing the world; when sincerity trumps truth. But it’s mere prejudice to suppose that we can know ourselves better than we can know anything else. And if Frankfurt is right about that, then we’re bound to accept the most disconcerting and least consoling conclusion of all: that ‘sincerity itself is bullshit’.
‘On Bullshit’ is published in the UK by Princeton University Presss at £6.50
Norman Geras has an essay, "The Reductions of the Left", in the latest issue of Dissent. I hope to post something about this soon. In the meantime, here is part of the opening paragraph:
The attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, lit up the global landscape. Not only in these two cities, but wherever the news and the pictures reached during the first hours after the planes struck - all over the planet, therefore - there were people quickly able to make out features of the contemporary world that they had not previously taken in, or taken the measure of fully, things that challenged their earlier expectations and existing frameworks of understanding. Not, however, in one quarter. With a section of the Western left, the response was as if everything remained just as it had always been.
No time for anything substantial, as I have to write a piece about Harry Frankfurt's splendid little book, On Bullshit. Here's an extract:
One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, or attracted much sustained inquiry. In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, we have no theory. I propose to begin the development of a theoretical understanding of bullshit, mainly by providing some tentative and exploratory philosophical analysis. I shall not consider the rhetorical uses and misuses of bullshit. My aim is simply to give a rough account of what bullshit is and how it differs from what it is not, or (putting it somewhat differently) to articulate, more or less sketchily, the structure of its concept.
An admirable undertaking, I'm sure you'll agree. I've also been reading for background Max Black's essay "The Prevalence of Humbug" (which Frankfurt discusses in his book). Humbug, Black observes, "has the peculiar property of being always committed by others, never by oneself."
The results of Norm's latest poll are now up. He asked readers to nominate their ten favourite rock 'n' roll songs. I'm not sure if I'm gratified or alarmed to see that three of my nominations have made it into the top 10.