Edward Feser, increasingly emerging as one of the sanest and clearest minds of our age, treats us this week to a superb – well, in fact it was last week – review of a new book on the pitfalls left for us in the philosophical landscape by that revered German, Immanuel Kant. Those pitfalls of course continue to be dug deeper and deeper by the many who have fallen into them over the past two centuries – and they just keep digging. Feser and his subject are screaming at them to stop.
Postmodernist scepticism and triumphalist scientism might seem to have little in common. But as neither doctrine ever tires of reminding us, appearances can be deceiving. Among the things they share is scorn for philosophy’s traditional claim to provide objective knowledge of a kind distinct from empirical science: in short, metaphysics. Yet to justify that scorn would require taking an extra-scientific cognitive standpoint and showing from it either that science alone gets hold of reality – as scientism claims – or that not even science does so – as postmodernism alleges. And such a standpoint is precisely a metaphysical one. Thus, as Étienne Gilson wrote, does philosophy always bury its undertakers.
Raymond Tallis tosses a new shovelful of dirt onto them with each addition to his impressive oeuvre. It only helps that he is a polymath, not an academic philosopher. Formally trained in medicine, he is well informed about science, and thus not intimidated by it, as too many academic philosophers are. Not least among his other virtues is the unacademic elegance of his prose.
Feser is sharp and his critique is utterly relevant to our time. He is clearly grateful that a man like Tallis, with his scientific and polymath background, from an atheistic and Darwinian perspective, can see as clearly as he does, the inconsistencies of the postmodern and scientist positions.
He observes how a clear examination of these positions leave us in a situation in which
The notion of a mind-independent reality thus seems to vanish entirely. Common sense thinks of cognition as a window onto the external world. Kant appears to have inadvertently transformed it into a mirror.
Nor is such a view merely a historical relic. Postmodernism is essentially a relativist variation on Kantian epistemology, though that is not a connection Tallis draws in this book. What he does note is that Kant’s idealism has taken on a scientific guise in the physicist John Wheeler’s proposal that quantum mechanics shows the world to depend on the observer. As Tallis argues, the problems that faced Kant’s version remain for this reformulation. If quantum phenomena are among the physical causes that led to us, they can hardly depend on us. Incoherence tarted up in the language of physics is still incoherence.
This review is a long and rewarding one. Out of fairness to the TLS Garvan Hill can only give you these briefest of extracts. If you want a really refreshing vision of a world in which common sense might once again reign, read it all.
The mystery of how we make sense of the world
256pp. Agenda Publishing. £25 (US $30).
978 1 78821 087 4
Read No we Kant via the TLS app (£), library, or good newsagents – if you hurry.
A biography of the great art historian, Kenneth Clark, has just been published. It is reviewed in the Times Literary Supprumlement this week. And a paragraph in the review reminds us of something that might be forgotten in the commemoration currently going on around the world of an event 500 years ago.
Clark is mainly remembered now for his masterly book and BBC Television series, Civilization, first broadcast back in the 1960s.
Susan Owens, reviewing James Stourton’s new biography, notes that he has been able to quote extensively from Clark’s letters for the first time, “and the voice we hear is unexpectedly funny and candid.
“But it is the accounts of Clark’s involuntary reactions that perhaps shed the most light on the character of someone so often described as ‘chilly’ and ‘remote’. While making episode six of Civilisation, ‘Protest and Communication’, he kept breaking down in tears in front of an astonished crew as he stood at the church door in Wittenberg to speak Luther’s words ‘Here I stand!’ The shot took six takes.”
In the very depths of his being Clark felt the pain of the devastating impact on western civilisation symbolised by that moment in history, a gesture of rebellion – without passing judgement on its causes – from which flowed so much death and destruction, wars, persecution and impoverishment of the human spirit, century after century ever since.
James Stourton, KENNETH CLARK Life, art and civilisation, 496pp. William Collins. £30. ISBN 978 0 00 749341 8
In the culture wars it is not recommended to the defenders of Life that they talk about the Nazi holocaust as a parallel to the holocaust of the living unborn. This is primarily a matter of strategy or tactics. The accidental details of the horror of the holocaust which took place in the Nazi death camps are so visceral that in the public imagination it is incomparable with anything else in human history. Inviting comparisons is thought to be ridiculous – if not downright obscene.
But is it? Are there not strong parallels? Is evil not evil in whatever packaging it is presented to us?
Both of these evils have their root in one great evil – the denial of humanity. Both of these evils also share a common characteristic which mark them out in their own time, the characteristic of banality which was highlighted for the world in the case of the Nazi holocaust by Hannah Arendt.
The entire Nazi project for the extermination of the Jews – and others – was based on a view of the human race which raised the Aryan embodiment of that race to a level which placed all other Nazi-classified embodiments on an inferior level. The Semitic peoples it placed on a level where their very humanity was denied. Their very existence was a threat to humanity and for that reason they warranted extermination.
Am I exaggerating if I say that those who adhere to the ideology of choice now prevailing in many of the world’s national jurisdictions, and who are driving the practice of abortion through this ideology, share this same common denominator. In both cases, at the heart of their doctrine is a denial of the humanity of their victims. The pro-abortion movement, under the specious pretext of defending the rights and best interests of women, have built an ideology which not only denies but which has also closed off all debate on the essential humanity of the child awaiting delivery from its mother’s womb. This radical misunderstanding of humanity is one of the great fault-lines dividing the peoples of the world today.
On the foundation of this false and unexamined principle – which with each day that passes science shows to be more and more false – they have built the narrative that all those who oppose abortion are bent on denying women their fundamental rights. This ideology has now asserted itself across the world and established the right in law in countless jurisdictions to terminate the lives of millions on the basis of denying the humanity of children before birth. Sleepwalking, millions have subscribed to this ideology – just as millions of Germans were half asleep as millions of their fellow human beings went to their deaths in the camps.
What is the difference? I see none. There may be accidental differences, but for those who identify themselves as sharing their humanity with, on the one hand, the Jewish people, and on the other, with children from the moment of their conception, palpable evil is the common denominator which they share.
It is here, contemplating this evil, that we also become aware that the truth of Arendt’s description of the evil of the Nazi atrocities as banal also applies to the evil stalking our world today.
In 1961 Arendt covered the trial, in Jerusalem, of Adolf Eichmann – following his kidnapping on a street in Buenos Aires, and resulting in his death sentence and execution by hanging in Israel. Her reports appeared in The New Yorker and were later published in book form after his execution as Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1963. For all sorts of reasons the book inflamed debate over the holocaust. One of those reasons was her characterization of Eichmann as an exemplar of what she described as the “banality of evil”. There is perhaps less agreement now* over whether it can be properly applied to the person and career of Adolf Eichmann himself but the idea that much of the evil in the world is perpetrated in the most banal circumstances rather in spectacular and sensational ways is hard to deny.
Arendt rejected the overblown rhetoric of the chief prosecutor, Gideon Hausner, who portrayed Eichmann as a sadistic monster. She insisted that Eichmann was no more than a colourless bureaucrat, a shallow operative who had had “no motives at all”. Acting out of “sheer thoughtlessness”, Eichmann “never realized what he was doing”, for he worked in a system that made it “well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel” that what he was doing was wrong, she maintained
Maybe yes, maybe no. It now seems probably “no” in the particular case of Eichmann. But there is no question that the “system” for which he worked – and helped create – had many operatives, cooperating agents, sleepwalking participants in this great evil for whom their participation was banal, ordinary and mundane. It is in just the same way that acceptance and, in some cases, participation in the culture of death which is abortion, is banal, ordinary and now just a part of everyday life. Such is the routine way in which doctors – like many Kermit Gosnells – daily propose to mothers that they would be wiser to abort the child they are carrying; or so-called counselors advise and facilitate the same; or parents advise their pregnant daughters, or boyfriends their girlfriends. It is everywhere and the world has just become accustomed to it all.
Thankfully the horror that was the Nazi holocaust is now universally recognised – excepting some pockets of nutty, if still abhorrent and dangerous, anti-semitism. The same is not so with the modern horror of abortion. The blinding god of Individualism has dulled the consciences of millions into accepting this human sacrifice as just one more event on the daily round. Those entrusted with the promotion and protection of the common good have just nodded their heads in agreement, buying the lie, the lie which is at the heart of both holocausts, that the victim being sacrificed is not human. In this holocaust they have swallowed the deception that the object of their violence is just a clump of cells (which we all are), a “foetus”, not worthy of the name “child”, and fit only for the incinerator – if the so-called quality of life of those on whom it depends for its life, seems to require it.
It is that very banality which makes us dull and restrains us from comparing this holocaust with the other. Let us tell the truth and call this what it is, a holocaust of the most horrendous proportions, a human sacrifice to the false gods of modernity, more terrible than Moloch, Astaroth, or others of the ancient world who demanded young lives as sacrifices. When enough people in the world eventually accept the truth that its victims are human beings, we will hang our heads in shame that it was allowed to go on for so long.
Last week’s issue of the Times Literary Supplement notes the comments of British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott on how Alex Haley’s book Roots was such a curative agent in helping African Americans cope with the lingering trauma of slavery. Mr. Prescott was speaking to The Guardian newspaper and the TLS goes on to quote the paper telling us that members of the evangelical Christian group Lifeline have been touring the globe in chains, wearing T-shirts with the logo “So sorry”. Lifeline members have “apologized to the vice-president of the Gambia and to a descendant of Kunta Kinte, the slave made famous in the Alex Haley epic Roots” (Guardian, March 24).
The TLS finds it all a bit dodgy and not really serving anybody’s interests that a book like Haley’s should be used as a basis for anything. “Haley’s non-fiction saga, at the end of which the author travels to the Gambian village of Juffure to be reunited in spirit with Kunta Kinte, has long since been exposed as fraudulent. In 1978, Haley paid $650,000 in damages to Harold Courlander, having admitted that large passages of Roots were copied from his book, The African. Allegations that the genealogy linking him to Kunta Kinte was false were never rebutted by Haley, who died in 1992, nor were suggestions that the African griot who outlined the family tree had been coached.”“The case for a retrospective ‘apology’ for an abhorrent trade that ended 200 years ago is not bolstered by being backed up by a dodgy book,” the TLS commentator concludes.
Indeed. What we need is good history and with the honesty which good history will reveal in all of us there will be no need for these spurious apologies. However, there is a bigger problem here than a dodgy book. We regret the sins of our fathers but we are not responsible for them. We should learn from them – as we have – but to apologise for them is meaningless. This year in Ireland we commemorate an event in 1607 known as the Flight of the Earls, when some of my ancestors, having been defeated in the war they launched against the English to try to preserve their Gaelic culture, fled to the continent to avoid their final humiliation. We are not looking for any apologies – I hope. It is sufficient that the truth be recalled.
Today’s New York Times carries a feature on what it calls “the climate divide” in which it observes that there is a growing consensus that the first world owes the third world a climate debt. Of course it does. But it owes it on the basis of our common humanity. To seek to generate this sense of indebtedness on the basis of a guilt which all do not accept in the first place is to undermine the truth which should be the basis for the powerful actions we need to take.
These two examples of guilt-inducement – one using a dodgy book, the other using a shaky scientific theory on the causes of global warming – will do nothing to restore the balance which humanity needs. Spurious apologies and false guilt will only blunt true consicence and dull the motives for right action.