by Samuel Hux (June 2020)
The Philosophers, Benjamín Cañas, 1970
Rebecca? I mean Rebecca Bynum, Editor and Publisher of New English Review Press and author of Allah Is Dead: Why Islam Is Not a Religion—which should have been nominated (at least) for a Pulitzer or one of the several pulitzers. Not very likely in this cultural moment when the least doubt of the nobility of Islam is thought to be simply outright anti-Muslim bias on a level with gender bias and traditional prejudices like antisemitism—this in spite of the fact that there is no rational comparison. Gender bias sets one half the human race against the other, roughly, with an indeterminate number not knowing which sex it decides to claim. Rebecca Bynum is absolutely right that Islam is not a religion—although I’ll put this my way. Religion comprises a combination of transcendental (not situational) ethics and deeply metaphysical mysteries. The communism which some of my anti-religious academic colleagues called a “religion” does not measure up to that standard, and neither does Islam, which is a not-very-mysterious but a highly imperialist politics. And as for the superficial assumption that distrust of Islam is just as bad as anti-Judaism, Judaism is one of the foundation stones of western civilization while Islam is a serious threat as it rejects most western values, and is, incidentally, the entrenchment of gender bias. But I have no intention of discussing Rebecca’s book here. Get a copy and read it. Rather . . .
Some weeks ago Rebecca, having read an essay of mine published in NER, asked me by email what I had meant by a casual remark about a couple of philosophical errors by Plato and Nietzsche, saying that in my years of teaching in a college I’d “collected” several such. I answered her with brief comments on those two thinkers and a confession that collected was an exaggeration and that most of the “errors” were not very serious and not very interesting. Anyway, since her question, I’ve been thinking that my answer was sketchy, too casual, rather ungenerous, so that I’ve felt somewhat guilty for not being more forthcoming to someone who’s been quite generous to me. So I have decided on a better response, hoping that alleviation of my guilt does not become a burdensome sprawl. While my chosen reader, of course, is Rebecca, anyone else is invited to listen in.
I should have made clear a distinction I would insist on between a philosophical error or mistake on the one hand and on the other a disagreement between thinkers. If I say to you I disagree, I can be saying something on this order: You have a point, and I see your point, but I respectfully (usually) do not see it the same way you do. (I add that parenthetical usually because occasionally one thinker, like foul-tongued Martin Luther, writes with such disrespect to his intellectual superior, Desiderius Erasmus, on the subject of freedom of the will.) But if I say to you that you are in error, are mistaken, this might be a way of saying with rather more apparent respect that I really mean something on this order: You are being foolishnuts, so how the hell can you think such rubbish? This is my understanding of the difference in any case. So, were I to propose a volume on philosophical errors, I’d really be proposing work on what I consider instances of intellectual frivolity. And, were I proposing a volume on disagreements—and of course agreements, I’d really be proposing a history of philosophy. For that is what the history of philosophy is—or indeed the history of serious human thought. I will try to provide some telling example of what I mean.
Someone—I think it was Alfred North Whitehead—said that all subsequent philosophy in the West is a series of footnotes on Plato and Aristotle. W.B. Yeats wrote (in “Among School Children”), “Plato thought nature but a spume that plays / Upon a ghostly paradigm of things; / Solider Aristotle played the taws / Upon the bottom of a king of kings”—and that, metaphorically, is not a bad summary of the of the difference between the metaphysical idealism of Plato (and his master Socrates) and Aristotle’s more earthy (and political) naturalism. The two had their obvious disagreements, but it’s not possible to think of one without thinking of the other. It’s not like putting, say, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Sigmund Freud in the same sentence.
As an intellectual exercise, think of Christian theology as it has evolved. Plato’s philosophy, through the agency of Neo-Platonism, had its impact on early (Pauline) Christianity, and then Saint Augustine’s works (not only The City of God) were profoundly influenced by Platonism pure and simple. To Saint Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle was “The Philosopher,” and you can feel it page after page of his Summa Theologica. Augustine and Aquinas had their disagreements but, if the two did not have a fruitful “conversation (metaphorically of course), then no two ever did. Much later (skipping some names), the English Renaissance thinker Thomas Hobbes famously talked of his philosophy as a quarrel with the ancients, but he was aware that his quarrel made no sense unless the ancients were worthy opponents so that his occasional agreement and large disagreement had substance. And speaking of Hobbes . . .
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, author of The Social Contract, does not himself own the idea of a social contract. In his great treatise Leviathan, Hobbes even more famously described life in a “State of Nature” as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (which a close pal of mine said sounded like a description of his first girlfriend). All those adjectives and especially short apply because, in a human population in its natural state—which cannot be called a “society,” there are no laws as such, but only the “law” of self-preservation. I am obligated only to preserve myself any way I can, even if that means violating your space and even your life. And you have the same obligation only to your self-preservation. So, every person is in a world of war of each against all, all against each. Reason tells each that a “we” must be constructed for the protection of each and all—which means a social contract by which each gives up his own natural right to violate others’ property and life for the safety of his own property and life, which requires a submission to a sovereign who-or-which will insure that each obeys the contract. Thus we hesitantly create a Civil Society or State of Law, created with, of course, a great deal of mutual distrust (hence the hesitation), but at least there is some “mutuality.”
Several decades later, John Locke both agrees and disagrees with Hobbes. Locke agrees on the necessity of a social contract forming a State of Law. He also agrees that, before the State of Law, there is a State of Nature. But, with a kindlier view of human nature, Locke believes that in a State of Nature most people are blessed with both a sense of self-obligation and other-obligation—so that the social contract is meant to protect not me from you and you from me, but to protect us from that surly bad apple of a son of a bitch, the powerful exception, who feels obligated only to himself (or herself I suppose I should add so as not to be gender biased). So, the State of Law—through the contract—establishes and protects human laws which were un-safely there in the State of Nature but not formalized. My analysis is “in a nutshell” of course so not as subtle as in Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. But the point is, again, that the history of philosophy is the story of disagreement as well as agreement.
I could shift to other matters of agree-disagree in the history. Since any worthy history of thought must involve theological questions, consider then the existence of the divine. There are too many examples of philosophers presenting rational arguments for the existence of a god or The God—as opposed to intuitive leaps of faith, so to speak—so I won’t fix on more than a couple. There is Aquinas’s five-fold argument in the Summa, where for instance one of the five is the argument from movement: if there is movement in nature there must be a first movement to set everything in motion, which implies a “first mover” or “unmoved mover.” “This everyone understands to be God.” It is no disparagement of Aquinas to note that his arguments for God do not just logically translate into proof of the Father-Son-Holy Ghost. Nor do any of the classical proofs—but that’s a different matter.
René Descartes’ argument—how shall I put it?—rather pleases me. I have in my mind the idea of a perfect being, which my culture teaches me to call God. This idea cannot come to me from any sensory apperception of the world outside me. Rather, it is an innate idea, something which as a human being I am born with. Now, as I am a mere human being, and therefor imperfect, I could not have created by myself the idea of perfection, much less a perfect being. Oh, I reckon I could call the opposite of what I am perfect and thereby claim to have come up with the idea of perfection; but that’s just clever nonsense since I am not even sure what imperfect means except not perfect, which is merely the negative of the thing/notion I’m incapable of grasping. No: the idea of perfection could only have been planted in my mind by a perfect being, and that perfect being has to exist before it can do any planting.
Now obviously atheistic philosophers do or would disagree with the likes of Aquinas and/or Descartes (and many more). How could they not? But it is curious how much debate there is about that “they.” Was David Hume really an atheist? Did William James, author of Varieties of Religious Experience and The Will to Believe, really believe? Nonetheless, any honest atheistic philosopher has to respect the theistic arguments to deserve that adjective honest—otherwise he is merely (greatly) arrogant. (I have a few in mind.) But a certain reciprocity is required, it seems to me. The honest theistic thinker cannot merely dismiss the honest atheist with whom he or she disagrees. Why?
Because . . .whether it is fully logical or not, when we speak of a perfect being—God—we assume, as Descartes did, that one property of that perfection is benevolence. Go ahead and tell me how many people sitting in a church or synagogue are consciously praying to a malevolent deity. I can’t tell myself or anyone precisely what is going on in the hinterlands of atheistic philosophers’ minds, but I would guess that for every honest atheist who thinks there is some flaw in a Cartesian or a Thomistic argument, there is another (or maybe the same) who wonders something on the order of “How can there be such radical injustice (Holocaust or other holocausts, for instance)—and pandemics, one might add—in a world supposedly overseen by a benevolent God?”—John Milton’s theme from Paradise Lost of how “To Justify the Ways of God to Man.” The question of theodicy. Any honest theist has to respect that question. But he or she does not have to—neither Descartes nor Aquinas, etc. would or should have to—respect the arguments of those who have no respect for them, the so-called “New Atheists.” Reciprocity should not be wasted.
I mean Sam Harris (The End of Faith), Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great), whom I normally admired when he wrote on other subjects, and Daniel Dennett, who I know of but have not read: there’s only so much torture I can take. They do not disagree with the classical theistic thinkers: there is no reason to believe they have actually read them, but they’re sure Descartes and company are mistaken (more of mistakes later). They do not through rigorous analysis dismantle the classical arguments for God’s existence. Rather—I’ve said this before, written this before—their argument amounts to the following substitute for judgment, as if to say “I do not believe in God, so he cannot possibly exist,” which achieves a level of arrogance that is much more than merely stunning!
Now, I am not about to compose a history of intellectual disagreements. But having mentioned René Descartes several times and John Locke once, I cannot help but note that Descartes in Meditations on First Philosophy (and elsewhere) argues for the existence of innate ideas (one of which I’ve mentioned), while Locke in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding denied their existence: the mind is a tabula rasa, a blank slate on which sensory experience writes our knowledge. And so it goes.
I, or anyone writing a philosophic history, could draw a straight line from Immanuel Kant to and through Arthur Schopenhauer to Friedrich Nietzsche and beyond, the three connected by essential disagreements which paradoxically reveal a very real kind of kinship, so that the connections between them are so strong they resemble agreements. But, enough of this, as I assume the point has been made. What, now, about mistakes, errors, as I characterized them early in these thoughts for Rebecca? I’m going to talk about three, and let it go at that.
Plato in The Republic, and elsewhere, insist that a rational and not insane human being cannot consciously do evil. If he or she does do evil, it’s because the actor has misjudged the deed, thinking it a service for the good. The proper response to this belief is not, “of course people do evil!” because clearly the question is about consciousness. My personal first response is that Plato must not be paying attention to the characters in his republican dialogue—for Thrasymachus dismisses questions of right and wrong (parallel to good and evil) saying that those in power rightly decide what’s right, or in a popular saying invented much later, “Might makes right” in political matters. But of course Plato is paying attention: it’s just that Thrasymachus isn’t conscious of the brash amorality of his over-simplification. Most philosophers will disagree with Plato (and his master Socrates, principal protagonist of the dialogue). Certainly his successor Aristotle would.
I, however, think Plato was, rather, mistaken, in error, frivolous—the whole judgment that evil action has to be thought moral by the actor is nuts! But my judgment is only incidentally a philosophic one, for it strikes me—and probably you too—that history cannot bear Plato out. At its simplest, we have seen more and read of more than Plato could have following Socrates around the agora. We know that not only can we do “wrong” knowingly; we know that human beings can do something wronger than wrong, evil. How could we not? Is it really possible for us to think that each murderer or rapist thinks mistakenly that his action is really for his victim’s best, or his own, or serves some morally higher purpose? As the saying goes: get off it! And it does no good to indulge the notion that evil is not an ontological reality, is “only the temporary absence of the good,” which even Augustine at one point in The City of God tried on although it drives a hole in the heart of Christianity. My mind, which I’ve been told is a good one, is just not that convolutedly sophisticated.
Furthermore, we can think of evils even more evil than simple murder or anything that Augustine or Aristotle or Plato could imagine. Even Plato—it we could transplant him to our time—would find it difficult to say “Hitler, wishing to do well by everyone, was not conscious of how destructive his actions were!” When Heinrich Himmler spoke in secret to 92 SS officers in Posen in 1943, his ostensible purpose was to congratulate them on their difficult service given the Judenfrage (the Jewish question). My talents are not unlimited, but one thing I can do is read, both the official text and the sub-text—and it is clear to me that when Himmler insists that while the Konzentrationslager are themselves no secret, the Death Camps should remain so—that the SS must bear up under the burden of their terrible efforts and retain their purity in spite of them, as they spare the German people themselves of this terrible responsibility. Well, Himmler was no genius, but he was not stupid enough not to know deep down what his rhetoric was revealing.
As equally mistaken as Plato’s notion, is Friedrich Nietzsche’s “eternal return” or “eternal recurrence.” If calling it “nuts” seems too extreme, it is certainly pointless, and is therefore something I cannot merely disagree with. Rather than say that life is full of repetitions, which no one can deny, Nietzsche says instead in Thus Spake Zarathustra and The Gay Science that everything that has occurred will occur again, everything we do will be redone or perhaps we are already re-doing. How seriously can we take this? For it is not merely a casual observation of possibilities. This very afternoon my beloved and I, temporarily situated in an inn, dined in our room on asparagus and salmon, after which I continued writing some comments on Plato while she took out a poem to revise sitting on her bed. Common sense will not allow me to believe this precise thing will happen again, just as common memory assures me it’s not a re-occurrence—and I know not how I know, other than common sense, that it’s not a repetition of a scene with two other characters somewhere/sometime else. So what is the point?
And if we could shake Nietzsche by the shoulders until he admitted that the “eternal return” was but an extreme metaphor for the inevitable repetitions in life, we could legitimately ask him if he thought such an obvious truth—that life is repetitious—was a worthy subject for a serious philosopher. Come on Fritz! we’d want to say. Talk about the Apollonian versus the Dionysian, the Death of God, slave morality, the Uebermensch, the Will to Power, what you wish, but do not return to this irrelevant nonsense.
Nonetheless, I will take this mistake or error seriously to the following philosophic extent: It pains me to call on the linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky, whose left-wing politics I find contemptable in their proud simplicities, but his linguistic-philosophical theories are compelling (so much so that I shall return to them shortly in a different context). Chomsky makes the radical claim—backed up sufficiently that it ceases to seem radical—that most of the utterances we make , with the exception of banalities like “Have a good day” and that sort of thing, we have not uttered before, and probably neither has anyone—unless we’re quoting or being quoted. The late great comedian George Carlin did a wonderful riff on linguistics and grammar—“I’m not going to get on the plane; I’m going to get in it!”—in which he played with Chomskyan theories. He offered an example of a sentence no one had ever said before (I realize this is comically absurd): “I’m going over to the softball game to beat up Hitler’s widow.” Anyway, if Chomsky is right, and I seriously believe he is, and there is no “eternal return” of sentences, it strains my common sense to believe that there is of specific occurrences.
Now, thinking of Chomsky leads me to reflections on another mistake or error, common to one branch of philosophy, with which I cannot merely disagree. The idea has been so common in theory of language that it has hardly been noticeable, and not subject to question, that children acquire language and at least coherent grammar by the imitation of what they hear. We hear Mommy and Papa and learn to talk thereby. What could be more obvious? Otherwise I would not have been able even to compose that question in my mind. Oh yeah! says Chomsky in his earlier works such as Cartesian Linguistics before he became a political sage. Note that word Cartesian: Chomsky took Descartes seriously in his belief in the existence of innate ideas.
Chomsky in summary (but in my own style): We may not use the word anti-establishmentarianism (or its opposite with dis-) until we have heard or read it—for diction of course has to be acquired. But we, even as children, say things we have never heard Mom or Pop or Aunt Hazel say, because we speak in sentences and not just single overheard words. We may have heard Mom say “Your father likes cornbread a great deal” so we are capable of learning to say “My aunt loves apple sauce a great deal,” for that sentence structure is a “surface structure” of a common sort. But/however in fact we say things in types of structures we have never heard. For instance, one day in my youth I am standing between first base and second with a baseball glove on the left hand when I think, “Were it conceivable that Sonny on the pitcher’s mound—now facing Butch batting left—might throw a slider low and outside and tempt Butch to punch rather than pull the ball and hence dribble a grounder toward midfield, then I might position myself closer to second, just in case, perhaps the better to spear the ball.” Now even if you change Sonny to Ralph and Butch to Clarence, I doubt that thousands of teenagers playing summer league ball learned a sentence like that by imitation.
We do not learn basic grammar by imitation, by hearing—even if we can improve our speech by education or learn how to talk about grammar in college and become professional grammarians (like for instance Chomsky). If we are a Chomsky, so to speak, we discover that just as there are innate ideas, there is an in-born “deep structure” in the human mind. There may be—or rather, are—grammatical styles in Polish not in French, that verbs, say, tend in German to appear later in a clause and earlier in English, that the adjective in English tends to appear before the noun and in Spanish after the noun (as my spouse is a beautiful woman and una mujer bella). But, according to Chomsky and Chomskyans there is a deep and innate universal grammar underlying all the local and national grammatical styles or variations that people learning to speak, acquiring the ability to think and communicate coherently, have access to, and, by the way, could not translate from language to language without. Maybe—let us pretend—I could manage that sentence as I stood between first and second at roughly age 13 because I was so bloody smart; but four-year-olds and less manage sentences and word-orders—syntax—they have never heard before or anything recognizably like them: because of the deep, innate, “Cartesian,” universal grammar underlying all tongues. It is inconceivable from Chomsky’s point of view and mine that learning to speak and achieving the ability to think coherently is simply a matter of adoptive imitation. The conventional pre-Chomskyan experts in language acquisition may disagree with Chomsky—but I don’t merely disagree with them: I think they are mistaken, in error, frivolous.
Finally (but incompletely) there is another mistake, not generating the respect that disagreement implies, that I will quickly mention. A few philosophers, some scientists, and many social-scientists, fail to distinguish between the strict determinism reigning in physical nature, on the one hand—and on the other the influences upon and limitations on the free will and available choices in the moral universe, so to speak, of human responsibility; thus calling influences and limitations deterministic. Utter nonsense. But this is a subject I have temporarily set aside in order to compose this essay. Anyway . . .
Assuming Rebecca is still listening, I thank her very much for her indulgence.
Samuel Hux is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at York College of the City University of New York. He has published in Dissent, The New Republic, Saturday Review, Moment, Antioch Review, Commonweal, New Oxford Review, Midstream, Commentary, Modern Age, Worldview, The New Criterion and many others.
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