Friday, February 16, 2007

Awkward University

Now I am rested and free to read and write philosophy, having been wholly absorbed in my preparation for my journalism exams, I hope my attempts to talk about the Prophet Isaiah are not too late and the Awkward Squad who visit here are disposed to chewing over what liberty is.

Turning to Berlin's essays on Liberty it seems obvious he was an exceptionally worthy philosopher; a man clearly worried about worldly issues despite his abstract discipline; a man conscious the thoughts of a professor in his study could wreak havoc in later years having been semi-digested by the Robespierres, the Napoleons, the Hitlers and the Stalins. He begins his famous "Two Concepts of Liberty" chastising the assembled academics who listened to this stirring lecture and his later readers by stating if a Martian were to visit a British or American University they would be forgiven for thinking the people lived in Utopia "for all the serious attention that is paid to fundamental problems of politics by professional philosophers". Somehow this worry, twinned with a consciousness that the great writings of Rousseau, Marx and many others could be the foundation for such destruction, propels the essay and much of what Berlin wrote.

Given the essay is ostensibly about negative and positive liberty it comes as a shock to the reader how little the first kind of liberty is discussed. A stirring quote from J.S. Mill, a famous defender of this liberty, defines it thus: “The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way.” This, despite some academic mumbling and analysis which claims Mill’s utilitarianism is possibly incompatible with his libertarianism, seems largely to be a cornerstone for the tolerant pluralism that Berlin offers in the essay’s conclusion.

Having given a light impressionist picture of negative liberty, the chase moves to positive liberty, that altogether more abstract beast, which Berlin perceives as motivation for the totalitarian regimes haunting his writing. Essentially positive liberty is a variant of Kantian rationalism, the idea that man should act rationally, suppressing desire in favour of what the rational will dictates, and this and only this, is to be truly free. According to Berlin’s potted history of this potentially tyrannical idea it took on a menacing aspect in the hands of Fichte, who is the subject of the following brilliant animadversion:

“’No one has rights against reason.’ ’Man is afraid of subordinating his subjectivity to the laws of reason. He prefers tradition or arbitrariness.’ Nevertheless, subordinated he must be. Fichte put forward the claims of what he called reason; Napoleon, or Carlyle, or romantic authoritarians may worship other values, and see in their establishment by force the only path to ‘true” freedom.”

Dotting through intellectual history Berlin charts a historical map setting out how catastrophic positive liberty can be. Whether he is trustworthy guide to other thinkers is open to question, but there is no doubt his brilliant prose fires a blast against any philosopher or person who thinks that the failings of our fellow man can be eradicated by force and that the perfect state can be arrived at by terror.

So positive liberty is a dangerous idea, not necessarily a false one, for Berlin also thinks it animates “the most powerful and just public movements of our time, and that not to recognise this is to misunderstand the most vital facts and ideas of our age. But equally it seems to me that the belief that some single formula can in principle be found whereby all diverse ends of men can harmoniously be realised is demonstrably false.”

Berlin’s critique is of the system building of philosophers. The idea that the right way of acting for all can be discovered by introspection is treated with scepticism, and instead a richer understanding of the needs of others is advocated. Let yourself be driven by conviction, but don’t expect others to share your convictions. Allow people the freedom to get on with their lives even though your strong convictions might make you believe you can engineer the inner souls of others for the better. This delusion will only lead to tragedy. Simultaneously the philosopher or thinking person cannot retreat from the world, but the temptation to dictate to others what they should think should be avoided.


chris said...

I was just thinking about Isaiah Berlin yesterday, oddly. Still can't get my head round any of it though.

I've just been writing a feature on cars...

Toby Lewis said...

If you have any questions about Berlin please feel free to ask although I'm no expert.

I hope the feature went well.

anticant said...

’No one has rights against reason.’ Maybe not, but the vast majority of humankind live by irrationality. There's the rub - especially for philosophers who fondly believe they have deeper insights.

How influential is philosophy in shaping what actually happens in the world? Not, I fear, nearly so much as philosophers fondly believe. The great mass of people know nothing of philosophy or logic, and care less. They act on impulse and passion. Pascal said: "All our reasoning reduces itself to yielding to feeling."

Toby Lewis said...

I think Berlin documents quite helpfully how at times philosophical ideas affect the world and great historical movements. The story he has to tell may be too epic, yet there is something quite interesting (if tendentious) in his narrative of how the different intellectual ideas of scientistic rationalism and enlightenment led to a barbaric irrationalism in the hands of philosophically dogmatic dictators.

Surely people like Marx and Rousseau were philosophers who moved beyond the study and the seminar room? The consequences of their ideas interpreted by the wrong hands have been shown to be diabolical yet they were certainly influential. Bentham, Smith and Mill have also had a more measured influence on our world even if their ideas have also been grotesquely distorted.

I would advocate philosophy being taught in school. The argument should be made for it as a universal subject and the teaching of logic, ethics, aesthetics, Plato, Descartes, Locke should be regarded as fundamental to a person's education as knowledge of Shakespeare and Cervantes, or a basic understanding of mathematics and the sciences.

anticant said...

Contrary to Pascal, Keynes wrote in chapter 2 of the "General Theory": "The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood....Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back."

I used to think as you do, Toby, about teaching everyone some philosophy and ethics, but I fear it's too idealistic - most people dislike the effort of abstract thinking, and prefer to watch football, go to the pub, or do manual tasks. I few years ago I gave a young teenage cousin an excellent little book called "The Philosophy Files". His reaction was to say to his mother "Oh dear, do I have to read all this stuff?" You can lead a horse to the water, but you can't make it drink.....

toby lewis said...

Yet if they are taught to like things they may well find a passion. My parents used to always try to encourage an interest in culture generally and so they would take us to Churches, art galleries, etc. Often we may have preferred in the short term to go to an amusement park, but in the long term the opportunity to open our minds at a young age through exposure to the beautiful and the historically important was invaluable. What you should say to the cousin is "give it a try, you'll probably like it." None of this is mutually exclusive to pub-going, carpentry or football. In fact people need exposure to all of these things to appreciate their value.

The problem with the British education system is that philosophy is marginalised. This means it is often only at degree level that people have the opportunity to study it. This was true for myself. I went to a religious school, which only offered theology! I even asked to study philosophy, I was ignored and offered art history instead. In Spain where they taught philosophy as an optional subject, where all pupils had to choose between theology or philosophy. According to Ana (my wife) it was a great way of encouraging students of a more scientific bent to have exposure to the other culture of the humanities and for the humanities students to learn a bit more about rigour.

As to the Keynes' quote it definitely seems to be the Zeitgeist floating around at the time.

zola said...

Interesting here that philosophy is a normal school subject in Norway for kids around 8-18 years of age. Just a point. But this point might help this thread becoming UK based and biased.

Berlin would not like that methinks.
I am reading again, for this thread, turgenev who berlin seemed to adore. I am comparing one character from fathres and Sons ( children depending on the translation) with Big Bliar. If Berlin has anything left in him it might surface this way.