Carlin Romano/American Scholar/March 2011
How can it be that philosophy, the world’s oldest profession without climactic satisfactions, remains so ill-defined? No matter where you turn, from academic pronouncement to middlebrow mulling to literary speculation, the thumbnails of it differ.
For the great Harvard epistemologist W. V. Quine, philosophy meant philosophy of science, which, he famously declared, was “philosophy enough.” When former Economist executive editor Anthony Gottlieb boldly tried to wrap his arms around the history of the field from the ancient Greeks to the Renaissance in The Dream of Reason, he concluded that “there is no such thing as philosophy.”
Provocation accomplished, he then clarified the judgment: “The history of philosophy is more the history of a sharply inquisitive cast of mind than the history of a sharply defined discipline. The traditional image of it as a sort of meditative science of pure thought, strangely cut off from other subjects, is largely a trick of the historical light.” For French novelist Michel Houellebecq, in his recently published dialogues with French public intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy, philosophy is, as American philosopher Richard Rorty asserted, “a genre of literature.” Houellebecq reports that he has “given up classifying it alongside rational certainty and placed it next to interpretations and narratives.”
Such uncertainties make it hard to decide which volumes officially stamped “philosophy” deserve the broadest attention in mass media. Two worthy old subgenres, nonetheless, often steal the limited spotlight at center stage. One is the historical overview—the classic example was Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy, a best-selling Book-of-the-Month Club stalwart in its day. The other is the ambitious, theoretical tome—think of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice—that promises, despite millennia of those nonclimaxes in the field, to settle forever some issue like “justice” or “beauty” or “the good.”
In the first half of 2011, James Miller won the Durant award with his Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche, which landed on the front page of The New York Times Book Review. The Rawls honoree was Ronald Dworkin, whose Justice for Hedgehogs won serious review attention for its claim that a terminally complex, pluralistic, much-contested concept—justice—is exactly what he says it is.
The former genre, it should be noted, flourishes even though the canon in philosophy is absurdly ossified in comparison with those of literature and history, meaning most new surveys of the field are as unadventurous as the ones before them. The latter genre continues to hoodwink well-meaning intellectuals outside academic philosophy despite a warning about system building issued long ago by the most charming of estranged professors in the field, George Santayana.
“Professional philosophers are usually only scholastics,” Santayana observed in his classic essay “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy,” describing them as “absorbed in defending some vested illusion or some eloquent idea. . . . They do not covet truth, but victory and the dispelling of their own doubts. What they defend is some system, that is, some view about the totality of things, of which men are actually ignorant. No system would ever have been framed if people had been simply interested in knowing what is true, whatever it may be.”
In his own contribution to the grand survey genre, Miller, a professor of politics at the New School for Social Research in New York City, offers a feast of conventional selection and judgment, and scant critical perspective. The lives of his 12 figures, or should we say 12 men—Socrates, Plato, Diogenes, Aristotle, Seneca, Augustine, Montaigne, Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Emerson, Nietzsche—have been endlessly written about, and Miller proves a competent aggregator of key details.
Miller suggests at the outset that he’s bravely examining a countertradition to philosophy as currently understood in academe, that being “a purely technical discipline, revolving around specialized issues in semantics and logic.”
His boldness, however, is overstated. While such a technical approach still dominates many top research institutions, the “wisdom tradition” that Miller vaunts—those thinkers who care about how we should live our lives—commands its own share of the philosophy curriculum, or at least of humanities real estate. On this second front, Miller disappoints by presenting nothing new, but only potted bios of his greats, all done, admittedly, with the solid research of the professor Miller now is and the smooth style of the Newsweek journalist he used to be.
Socrates thus comes across as the usual cliché—an “impressive, even awe-inspiring moral figure,” with no attention to the severe criticisms of him (or at least Plato’s version of him) raised by everyone from younger classics scholars to I. F. Stone. The latter claimed that Socrates was a “snob” full of “immeasurable conceit” and “class prejudice,” an irritating questioner who “never questioned slavery” and “neglected the affairs of his family and his city to engage in constant conversation.”
Similarly, the word philosophy, whose meaning was severely contested in ancient Greece between Plato and Isocrates, is simply identified with Plato’s version (though Miller, to his credit, acknowledges the dispute in passing).
Miller writes that he’s “a historian by training, and facts matter to me.” But his ambition to distill the lives of so many figures apparently kept him from burrowing deep into the scholarly facts about any figure in particular, rendering his portraits, again, predictable. As with Socrates, his portrait of Rousseau exhibits little sense of the diverse views of the subject’s personality—say, by scholars such as Leo Damrosch and Maurice Cranston—even though earlier in his career Miller wrote a whole book on Rousseau.
Even more troubling, Miller’s justification for choosing 12 men—“They are all men, because philosophy before the twentieth century was overwhelmingly a vocation reserved for men”—is a preposterously blinkered judgment in this era of excellent scholarship on neglected women philosophers—see Mary Ellen Waithe’s multivolume History of Women Philosophers, or John Conley’s superb Suspicion of Virtue: Women Philosophers in Neoclassical France—and should have been challenged by someone who read the manuscript.
Examined Lives is, then, an exercise in the Higher Wikipedia, which is not meant to sound completely snide. As a readable introduction to its worthies, it’s fine. But those serious about exploring the philosophical tradition of pondering the exemplary life would be better advised to turn to the challenging work of the late French philosopher Pierre Hadot, particularly his Philosophy as a Way of Life.
If Miller’s book underwhelms by its timorous retailing of standard views, Ronald Dworkin’s Justice for Hedgehogs annoys because of its author’s trademark smugness. Long anointed as a kind of King of Jurisprudence by the New York Review of Books, bestowing on him a powerful, protected status among academics in that field, Dworkin specializes in the illusion of argumentative rigor, wed to a clear but colorless style.
Fellow philosopher of law (and federal judge) Richard Posner, wrote in his own book How Judges Think of Dworkin’s well-known position on judicial reasoning—that judges can find “right answers” in the law if they just think hard enough. He caustically observed, “Really what he has done is relabel his preferred policies ‘principles’ and urged judges to decide cases in accordance with those ‘principles.’”
One would expect a sophisticated philosopher to approach the concept of justice with humility. As the late American philosopher Robert C. Solomon observed: “What we call justice would not have been recognized as such in Homeric Greece or in the Athens of Plato and Aristotle 400 years later. It is very different from the sense of justice that one would find in feudal France, in the Florentine renaissance, or in the bourgeois London society of Jane Austen. It is very different, indeed, from the sense of justice one finds in contemporary Japan or Iran.”
But Dworkin, in Justice for Hedgehogs, sets out his fundamental principles and treats them as if they’re obvious and “mutually supporting.” As in his reasoning about judicial decision making, Dworkin rejects any form of relativism and argues that truth in morality is objective and can be shown to be so. The book’s title is a reference to Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction, in “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” between the former, who knows one big thing, and the latter, who knows many little things.
Dworkin identifies with the hedgehog. He’s sure about one big thing—that there is a coherent unity among all human values—and his new book is the 79-year-old thinker’s final attempt to pull his whole theory together.
“I believe,” he writes in his opening “Baedeker,” or introduction, “that there are objective truths about value. I believe that some institutions really are unjust and some acts really are wrong no matter how many people believe that they are not.” Unfortunately, as in much of his work, Dworkin simply assumes that values held by well-educated, elite, liberal Westerners—for example, making one’s life a kind of work of art, respecting human dignity in one and all—are beyond question.
So, for instance, a fundamental shaping principle for Dworkin is that every life should be a “successful performance rather than a wasted opportunity”—that is, we should place extraordinary value on our own lives. Yet that’s a view shared around the world, more by aggressively careerist professionals than by humbler, selfless sorts.
Another supposed core principle is that we should, in a Kantian manner, treat all other people as ends rather than means, and show equal concern for them. It’s a lovely sentiment, and one to which we might wish to subscribe, but a variety of cultures would object to showing equal concern for the kind and the cruel, the industrious and the lazy, just as many would reject the priority on “authenticity” that Dworkin urges.
What passes for rigorous argument in Dworkin’s work is usually arbitrary, stipulative redefinition of concepts, regardless of their general use. So, for Dworkin, “ethics” and “morality” are two different things (the first is “the study of how to live well,” the second is “the study of how we must treat other people”). In similar fashion, he divides “liberty” and “freedom” and with the help of that legerdemain, makes one of Isaiah Berlin’s signature claims—that liberty and equality inevitably clash—disappear. Dworkin’s notion of democracy, in turn, stresses an ideal of citizens as partners rather than competitors, surely one of his less plausible twists of meaning. Law, as always in Dworkin’s past work, becomes a “branch of morality.”
It’s not that one can’t prefer the way Dworkin articulates these notions—what irritates is his insinuation that any other understanding of them is wrong. He goes so far as to claim that even if no one existed to believe some of his fundamental judgments, they would still be true. He similarly contends that “we cannot defend a theory of justice without also defending, as part of the same enterprise, a theory of moral objectivity.” Even Rawls, particularly in his later work, did not take such a leap, notwithstanding the way that Dworkin, like Rawls, believes all our judgments must cohere in what Rawls called “reflective equilibrium.”
Alas, what Robert Solomon observed of prior justice theory might be applied to Dworkin’s massive new ahistorical effort as well: “The positions have been drawn, defined, refined, and redefined again. The qualifications have been qualified, the objections answered and answered again with more objections, and the ramifications further ramified and embellished. But the hope for a single, neutral, rational position has been thwarted every time. The attempt itself betrays incommensurable ideologies and unexamined subjective preferences. . . . We get no universal, strong, and complete system of justice.”
Does the wan familiarity of Miller’s reverent survey, and the colorless hubris of Dworkin’s fourth large treatise, suggest that nondevotees should pay less attention to philosophy’s surveyors and master builders? Here, the wisdom of Santayana comes in handy again. Any philosophical project, he asserted, regardless of the particular truths it may contain, must eventually be understood as “a work of imagination and a piece of human soliloquy.” Those who warm to the voices of Miller and Dworkin may find satisfaction here—others should look elsewhere.