Friday, November 30, 2007

on pluralism: sontag, berlin, and gray

I've been reading John Gray and Susan Sontag.

Gray is interesting because he's an outspoken maverick. He's a public intellectual with a good track record in showing how actions that seem good play out badly in the end. He's done this at the time Communism fell apart in 1989, with the growth of globilization and faith in free markets, in the contradictions of the "war on terror," and with the attempt to impose democracy by force in Iraq. His method is simple. As was Thomas Hobbes, he's a pessimist and a skeptic, deeply studied and highly articulate. His guiding principal is that when people take action "the ideas and consequences are rarely those intended, and never only those."

Gray delights in telling us how frequently our preconceptions are wrong. He's best known for pointing to the tragic outcomes -- a couple centuries after the fact -- of the Enlightenment faith in reason and improvement (whether economic, social, cultural, or political). The events themselves are plain enough: There are many advances celebrated in high school history texts -- such as the harnessing of steam power and then electricity, the shrinking of distance via rail, advances in communication, the ascendancy of democracy and democratic ideals in much of the world, the abolition of slavery, the revolution in agriculture. We, most of us I think, unconsciously accept these as instances of progress -- the betterment of mankind or at least some subset of peopledom. But, Gray asks us, don't we also recognize that none -- practically none -- of these advances are unaccompanied by dreadful events: from the horrors of exploitation in the agricultural and industrial revolutions through to the mass slaughters of the 20th and 21st centuries, the plague of AIDs, the injustices of globalization, and tragic failures in ham-fisted efforts to spread democracy. To see what I mean about Gray's single-minded determination to show us the downside of "progress," take a look at any of the many short books he's published, or maybe just scan his articles in the New Statesman.

Gray appreciates Sontag as a fellow-contrarian. Like him, she said that modern civilization is deeply flawed. To quote wikipedia:
Sontag drew fire for writing that "Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Balanchine ballets, et al. don't redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history." (Partisan Review, Winter 1967, p. 57.) ([2]) Sontag later offered an ironic apology for the remark, saying it was insensitive to cancer victims.
Also like him, she delighted in questioning widely-held assumptions, even those held by intellectuals like herself. The obit in the New York Times calls attention to this side of her:
Ms. Sontag had a knack - or perhaps a penchant - for getting into trouble. She could be provocative to the point of being inflammatory, as when she championed the Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl in a 1965 essay; she would revise her position some years later. She celebrated the communist societies of Cuba and North Vietnam; just as provocatively, she later denounced communism as a form of fascism. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, she wrote in The New Yorker, "Whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards."

Despite these similarities, there's a wide gulf in the writings of Gray and Sontag. He's persistent in pushing one big idea -- the pernicious working out of Enlightenment ideals over the centuries since it took hold. While she doesn't pretend to any all-inclusive overview and you can't find an intellectual thread which permeates her writings. There's no doubt about her credentials as a member of the intelligentsia, but she was not dogmatic and she believed that our understanding of the world, the quest to achieve wisdom, isn't wholly the product of our intellects, but just as much a matter of intuition.

Gray understands this anti-intellectual force, but uses it mainly to reinforce his anti-Enlightenment thesis. Note here his emphasis on the power of religion as a countervailing force and his use of the useful phrase "works of clairvoyant speculation" in a review of books in a series devoted to worked that altered history (Battle of the books):
The return of religion as a pivotal factor in politics and war is one of the defining features of the age, and it is time Paine, Marx and other secular prophets were gently shelved in the stacks. The writings of these Enlightenment savants have stirred events for a very brief period in history, now clearly coming to an end. Against this background it is good to have Bruce Lawrence's admirably balanced and informative volume on the Qur'an, and to look forward to Karen Armstrong's volume on the Bible appearing in the Atlantic series next spring. A few great books of science have altered history, as have some works of clairvoyant speculation, such as Freud's Interpretation of Dreams. But the books that have most formed the past, and which are sure also to shape the future, are the central texts of the world religions. Future volumes in the series must surely include Confucius's Analects and the Tao Te Ching, the Bhagavadgita and the Buddha's Fire Sermon - texts that have never ceased to shake the world and, as far as anyone can tell, always will.

All this leads me to a consideration of Gray's take on Isaiah Berlin. Gray knew Berlin personally and in some ways his writings reinforce the pluralist point of view that Berlin consistently advocated. Berlin would certainly agree with Gray's attacks on the fundamentalist point of view and in fact all sources of motivation that are founded on faith in simple, basic, naive beliefs (whether political -- as in the neo-con faith in exporting democracy via warfare, economic -- as in the industrial world's faith in a globalized form of "free-enterprise," or other). But Gray tries to fit Berlin himself into a simple intellectual structure. He says Berlin's philosophy is dominated by a belief in incommensurability: that diverse human values cannot be reconciled with one another (see here for an explanation of this). And in this I believe he's wrong. Berlin's writings warn us against simplistic analyses of complex events and they say you cannot assume there to be a single human nature that all people share and have always shared. But he was not so pessimistic as to write that values cannot be reconciled, must always be in opposition. Unlike Gray he was proud to be both a pluralist and a liberal.

Gray believes "we are ultimately powerless over both our individual and collective destinies, which leads to our nonsensical faith in progress." Berlin believed that individuals and groups can effect change and can overcome conflicts in order to improve their lot. He had a fundamental belief in human decency and he was optimistic about the power of decent people to effect change for the good.

Gray seems to be saying that some core values are inately true. You can't question the basic rules of morality. They are universally true. That belief he shares with Berlin. But they differ when Gray goes on to say there's nothing you can do about the problem of evil -- a failure to act in accordance with these ethical values.

Berlin, like Sontag, believed that intellectuals shouldn't just be skeptics. He believed that people can and should make ethical choices, that conflicting value systems can be reconciled -- at least some of the time, and that a pragmatic outlook coupled with understanding and imagination, can lead to improvements in peoples' lives. As Sontag put it, "I don't want to express alienation. It isn't what I feel. I'm interested in various kinds of passionate engagement. All my work says, be serious, be passionate, wake up."

I conclude that, ironically, Gray, who espouses a kind of pluralism, has a monist flaw. In Berlin's terms, he's at core a hedgehog and not a fox, while Berlin himself, and Sontag, are undoubtedly in the fox's den.


1. Here's Berlin's famous statement about hedgehogs and foxes:
The Hedgehog and the Fox - Isaiah Berlin (excerpt)
There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: 'The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing'. Scholars have differed about the correct interpretation of these dark words, which may mean no more than that the fox, for all his cunning, is defeated by the hedgehog's one defense. But, taken figuratively, the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general. For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel - a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance - and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle; these last lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal, their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision. The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes; and without insisting on a rigid classification, we may, without too much fear of contradiction, say that, in this sense, Dante belongs to the first category, Shakespeare to the second; Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Proust are, in varying degrees, hedgehogs; Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, Joyce are foxes.

2. Here's a link to a good introduction to Berlin's ideas. I urge you to read it. From the book, The Power of Ideas, by Isaiah Berlin, edited by Henry Hardy: MY INTELLECTUAL PATH Chapter I (Also available as pdf

3. Here's a link to Sontag's excellent essay on appreciating beauty (pdf).

4. There was a good interview article on Gray in The Independent a few years back. It explains some of Gray's appeal, much like that of Christopher Hitchins, Here's a paragraph:
Gray is very good at his destruct jobs. Here he is on Post-Modernism: 'Just the latest fad in anthropocentrism.'; on atheism: 'Secularism is like chastity, a condition defined by what it denies.'; on environmentalism: 'A high-tech Green utopia, in which a few humans live happily in balance with the rest of life, is scientifically feasible, but it is humanly unimaginable.'; on Buddhism 'This is only another doctrine of salvation, subtler than that of the Christians, but no different from Christianity in its goal of leaving our animal inheritance behind.' As you can see, this is not some work of middle brow, Alain de Bottonesque consolation, philosophy viewed as an antiseptic sticking plaster for the fevered mind. This is the full monte, with isms falling right left and centre, free will savagely downsized and morality revealed as a perennial but threadbare attempt to market white as the new black.

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