Pottery Barn Rules?

by John Holbo on December 30, 2007

I’m reading Ted Honderich, Conservatism: Burke, Nozick, Bush, Blair? [amazon]. It’s good, but schizophrenic. He shifts gears, lurchingly, between sober, seminar-style logic-chopping and indignant broadsides. I don’t really mind, because obviously that’s what blogs are for. Still, this is a book.

I had picked up, second-hand, that Honderich dubbed Roger Scruton ‘the unthinking man’s thinking man’. Now I’ve got the specific quote that summons the quip. Scruton (from The Meaning of Conservatism):

There is a natural instinct in the unthinking man who, tolerant of the burdens that life lays on him, and unwilling to lodge blame where he sees no remedy, seeks fulfillment in the world that is to accept and endorse through his actions the institutions and practices into which he is born. This instinct, which I have attempted to translate into the self-conscious language of political dogma, is rooted in human nature.

What’s most odd is the bit about ‘not lodging blame where there is no remedy’. I take it this is a mis-expression of the idea Rousseau (?) gets at with ‘the nature of things does not madden us, only ill-will does’ (quoted in Berlin?) But really Scruton is saying something quite different, articulating an addled Pottery Barn Rule: break something badly enough and you don’t have to buy it. (Or good old, ‘owe the bank $100, it’s your problem, owe the bank $100 million and it’s the bank’s problem’.) Could it really be that there are two sorts of ‘unthinking men’: those who cause problems they can’t solve, and those who don’t blame them for it?



dave heasman 12.30.07 at 5:08 pm

“It’s good, but schizophrenic. ”

It hears voices? It’s constantly frightened?
Is dosed to teh gills on haloperidol?


Matt Stevens 12.30.07 at 5:20 pm

God, those two sentences are horribly written. Is this an adequate translation?

“Unthinking men may be unhappy, but they realize they can’t change things so they learn to accept them. This instinct is rooted in human nature.”

Sounds trite to me, but maybe I’m missing something.


Dave 12.30.07 at 5:35 pm

‘the unthinking man’s thinking man’

Sounds like it comes from a McGinn review.


josh 12.30.07 at 6:18 pm

The Rousseau quote is indeed by way of Berlin, though the original is in bk 2 vol 4 of Emile. As for Scruton — ugh. Proof that, unless you’re actually Oakeshott, you shouldn’t try to write like Oakeshott (and even if you *are* Oakeshott, …)


geo 12.30.07 at 6:30 pm

What’s odd about the idea of “not lodging blame where there is no remedy”? Wise or not, the idea sounds perfectly commonplace and straightforward, like “don’t fret over what can’t be helped.” Why assume it must have come from Rousseau via Berlin, or anywhere else? Is this a professional deformation?

By the way, is Ted Honderich as bad as Colin McGinn says? If not, why does Colin McGinn say so?


abb1 12.30.07 at 6:33 pm

Reminds me of that ‘serenity’ thing: “to accept the things I can’t change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”.

So, yeah, I suppose if you don’t have the wisdom you’re bound to err either on the ‘too much acceptance’ side or the ‘too much courage’ side…


John Holbo 12.30.07 at 6:47 pm

‘What’s odd about the idea of “not lodging blame where there is no remedy”?”

Suppose your friend is killed in a hit-and-run and the driver is never found. Your friend is dead. No fixing that. You can’t get any recompense from the driver. Can’t be found. Is there some sense in blaming the driver, nevertheless? I would think so. (Obviously Scruton doesn’t really mean you can evade responsibility just by making sure the trouble you cause can’t be mended. But it seems to me worth quoting because, frankly, I suspect it’s wind-up to an analogously specious sort of apologetics for bad political arrangements.)


Davis X. Machina 12.30.07 at 7:05 pm

Only the question mark at the end of the title keeps it from being the silliest thing I’ve ever read….until Gielgud, Olivier, Sandler, Black that is.


Adam Stephanides 12.30.07 at 7:08 pm

The first sentence in particular is horrible; I had to read it three times to get it to make sense as written. The key is realizing that everything between “the unthinking man” and “to accept” is a relative clause which modifies “the unthinking man,” so that the meat of the sentence is “There is a natural instinct in the unthinking man to accept and endorse through his actions the institutions and practices into which he is born.” Which is probably true, actually, though I wouldn’t regard it as a good thing.


geo 12.30.07 at 7:11 pm


John, I didn’t mean “what’s wrong with that?”; I meant “what’s odd about that”? In other words, why the need to attribute the idea to Rousseau when it’s a perfectly commonplace (even if mistaken) notion that any man in the street might (and undoubtedly has, a million times) come up with?


mcd 12.30.07 at 7:53 pm

“unwilling to lodge blame where he sees no remedy” is also known as false consciousness, and the opiate of the masses. The role of political ideology is to provide remedies to people who may be unable to imagine them.

But your reference to Rousseau confuses things. Things may be unalterable without being part of nature. That’s what sufficiently powerful oppressors attempt to be,and do.


perianwyr 12.30.07 at 8:52 pm

Isn’t fatalism a form of despair, and thus, a sin?


novakant 12.30.07 at 9:58 pm

By the way, is Ted Honderich as bad as Colin McGinn says? If not, why does Colin McGinn say so?

It’s about a girl – no really.
Well, maybe that’s not the whole story, but still it’s quite hilarious.


joejoejoe 12.30.07 at 11:13 pm

‘American exceptionalism’ = ‘unwilling to lodge blame where he sees no remedy’


chris 12.31.07 at 12:47 am

Didn’t Roger Scruton also describe Honderich as “the thinking man’s unthinking man”?


Chris Bertram 12.31.07 at 6:22 am

_is Ted Honderich as bad as Colin McGinn says?_

Um yes, I’m afraid so. McGinn’s review concerns Honderich’s contribution to the philosophy of mind, but his claims to innovation in political and moral philosophy, centred on his pretentious but anodyne “principle of humanity” would also be worth a good kicking, if anyone could be bothered.


Andy 12.31.07 at 8:44 am

Book title reminds me of an old pop lyric:

“B.F. Skinner, Sigmund Freud, Mussolini,….Evert Lloyd!”


Neil 12.31.07 at 12:20 pm

Chris, Ted’s work on free will is solid. Or perhaps was solid – the recent book rehashes it, but adds some extra confusion.


dsquared 12.31.07 at 12:37 pm

Honderich versus McGinn really is like one of those matches like England versus the All Blacks, where you wish both sides could lose and just cheer for the injuries.


Steve LaBonne 12.31.07 at 2:21 pm

dsquared expressed my sentiments perfectly. I wish the philosophers would just leave “mind” alone and let the neuroscientists get on with it without annoying them with their kibbitzing. To put it mildly, philosophy has a piss-poor track record of predicting what science can and can’t accomplish, and a worse one of recommending how to go about it.


Neil 12.31.07 at 2:42 pm

Steve, you’re quite wrong about this one. The cognitive sciences, where the consciousness action is, is heavily interdisciplinary, and philosophers play an important role. Its one of the very few areas in which the philosophical contribition is actually respected by the scientists. You are right that philosophers should not be in the business of predicting what science can and cannot accomplish. Good news: we’re not in that business (for the most part).


Steve LaBonne 12.31.07 at 3:04 pm

Yes, I’m aware that philosophers with a good grounding in the science and who like working with scientists play a significant role (though frankly you are exaggerating its importance considerably). That kind of leaves out mysterians who are telling them not to even bother, though.


abb1 12.31.07 at 3:15 pm

I wish the philosophers would just leave “mind” alone and let the neuroscientists get on with it without annoying them with their kibbitzing.

Who cares. It’s all a dream anyway.


Steve LaBonne 12.31.07 at 3:24 pm

Been reading Calderón, eh?


Chris Bertram 12.31.07 at 3:55 pm

Dsquared will no doubt speak for himself, but my guess is that his antipathy towards H&M is based mainly on the characters they reveal in their respective autobiographies rather than on a view about turf wars between neuroscientists and philosophers.


Steve LaBonne 12.31.07 at 3:59 pm

No doubt, but he expressed it so beautifully that it just begged to be borrowed for other purposes. ;)


Neil 12.31.07 at 5:36 pm

Steve, we can reasonably disagree about the importance of the role played by philosophers. I think it is important (that was the word I used); you say I’m exaggerating considerably. I think the fact that, eg, BBS publishes target articles by philosophers regularly is evidence that the role is important; check the citations to Fodor in the cog sci literature for further evidence. OTOH, I’m not sure we’ve learned an awful lot from neuroscientists about consciousness – a little (but only a little) about the neural correlates, but almost nothing about what consciousness is, what it’s functional role is, or even how to look for it without relying upon subjective report.

As I say, though, I don’t think it’s unreasonable of you to disagree with me. What is unreasonable is claiming that “the philosophers” means “those philosophers without a good grounding in science”. It’s not as though familiarity with science is unusual among philosophers interested in these topics.


Steve LaBonne 12.31.07 at 5:46 pm

We don’t know much yet, but what we find out will be found out by the methods of science, with perhaps some help in the conceptual-clarification department from philosophers. And the most significant progress won’t necessarily come from those who identify with the program of “cognitive science”, either. In fact I suspect we need to learn a good deal more about the basic neuroscience before such an enterprise can even really become interesting. My $0.02-worth, not even worth that on the open market, and no doubt you feel differently.

Anyway, I don’t want to drag this thread further off-topic…


Daniel Goldberg 01.01.08 at 12:02 am

Ah. Scientism rears its head again (Steve, I perceive as such in your comments). Given that consciousness must comprise at least in part, as Searle argues, an ineluctably subjective experience, a neuroscientific focus on objective, measurable physiologic and electrochemical signs by definition cannot alone characterize consciousness.

To say otherwise is to commit to either of two premises: (1) many neuroscientists are interested in exploring subjective phenomena without seeking to objectify them; or (2) consciousness is reducible to brain states, which is typically what neuroscientists focus on. (1) is speculative, but my own impression from working with neuroscientists and reading the relevant literatures is that I have not found any eagerness to explore subjective phenomena qua subjective phenomena. (2) is fallacious.

Searle’s position on it in The Rediscovery of Mind is, IMO, convincing: there is need for both conceptual contributions from philosophers, historians, and interdisciplinary scholars, and for the work of neuroscientists in unpacking brain function and organization. Advances in consciousness would be impoverished without either, IMO.


Steve LaBonne 01.01.08 at 12:22 am

I like Searle, as it happens. I’m trying to say much what he says: that the mind is a biological function and will be understood primarily by working out the neurobiology.


Bruce Baugh 01.01.08 at 3:55 pm

This is belated but something’s been nagging me: this phrase here, the one about unwilling to lodge blame where he sees no remedy. It seems to me that a lot of folks, maybe most of the people I’ve dealt with, are most willing to set aside blame when there’s something they can fix. It’s the principle that leads to things like the boss’ or teacher’s announcement that if something swiped from their desk is returned, there’ll be no questions asked, and so on. Detailed blame games are a thing to play when you don’t have any real prospect of redress but the injury still hurts.

It is of course possible to be a sore winner in the style of the modern American conservative movement, but that stands out partly because it is (I think) unusual – to have the ability to deal with a problem and still wish to just sit and whine about whose fault it is, that’s not the norm.


Daniel Goldberg 01.01.08 at 8:19 pm


I don’t think that is what Searle says at all, and it almost certainly is not what he articulates in the Rediscovery of Mind (my dissertation involves this book as well as Consciousness & Language). In RoM, he essentially (and persuasively, IMO) argues that the dichotomy between materialism and mentalism or idealism is not necessary. That is, it is not the case that we can understand consciousness solely either in terms of neurobiology or in terms of some ethereal substance.

Clearly, physiology is a sine qua non for consciousness. Searle agrees with this, but he argues against the invalid inference from this premise to the conclusion that consciousness is nothing but neurophysiology. So, he argues, consciousness is not equivalent to brain states. This is supported by the notion that many individuals in long-term PVS have brain waves as measured by EEG. Yet they do not seem conscious in any identifiable respect.

Accordingly, Searle argues, there is an ineluctably subjective element to consciousness. Something that, by definition, is not quantifiable and is not reducible merely to a neurobiological substrate. It is of course possible that Searle is mistaken, and that consciousness is nothing but brain states, but (1) this is not persuasive to me at all; (2) there is good evidence against it; and (3) pace Descartes, it is difficult to imagine a rationalistic criterion that could definitively establish that consciousness is nothing but material structure.

As neuroscientists well know, there is no Pineal Gland of consciousness — consciousness is an emergent property, one that arises out of the amazingly complex neural system but, with little evidence hitherto that it is reducible to its material components. As such, it seems extremely unlikely to me — as it does to many of the leading scholars in the field, like Sacks, Koch, Gillett, etc., that all of what we would like to know about consciousness will be established via neuroscience.

There is obviously room to debate these propositions, but it is difficult IMO to deny that to do so is to commit to either a strong or a weak form of scientism.


abb1 01.01.08 at 8:45 pm

Sounds like a case of sneaky idealism to me.


Steve LaBonne 01.01.08 at 11:23 pm

In RoM, he essentially (and persuasively, IMO) argues that the dichotomy between materialism and mentalism or idealism is not necessary.

Well, precisely. Hence Searle’s often-repeated disdain for the traditional philosophy of mind.

consciousness is an emergent property, one that arises out of the amazingly complex neural system

Again, precisely- hence Searle’s own term for his position, “biological naturalism”. Searle, by the way, has often been accused of “scientism” himself. The word has become a meaningless all-purpose insult, rather like “fascism”, and I don’t take any such accusation seriously.

“It is a fact of neurobiology that certain brain processes cause conscious states and processes. I am urging that we should grant the facts without accepting the metaphysical baggage that traditionally goes along with the facts.” Searle, Mind, Language and Society, p. 52

“We have thus ‘naturalized’ consciousness, and indeed, my label for this view is ‘biological naturalism’: ‘naturalism’ because, on this view, the mind is part of nature,snd ‘biological’ because the mode of explanation of the existence of mental phenomena is biological- as opposed to, for example, computational, behavioral, social, or linguistic.” Searle, op. cit., p.54

“Much of philosophy is concerned with questions that we do not know how to answer in the systematic way that is characteristic of science, and many of the results of philosophy are efforts to revise questions to the point that they can become scientific questions. In this book, for example, I have been trying to do that with the problem of consciousness.” Searle, op. cit., p. 158

I agree with the positions expressed by Searle in these passages, including his description in the third quoted passage of the way in which philosophy can be useful in the enterprise of understanding the mind.


Neil 01.01.08 at 11:33 pm

My impression of Searle is more like Daniel’s than Steve’s. But like Steve I’m not scared of scientism (only bad science). Searler’s emergentism is fantastic, in the literal sense of that word.


Steve LaBonne 01.02.08 at 12:02 am

Searle’s emergentism is fantastic, in the literal sense of that word.

I enjoy imagining you saying that word in Christopher Eccleston’s accent. ;)


John Emerson 01.02.08 at 2:12 pm

I agree that philosophy should trade all of its philosophers of mind to neurobiology, artificial intelligence, and related fields. In compensation they should ask for a 12-pack of one of those expensive Belgian beers.


Daniel Goldberg 01.02.08 at 4:26 pm


Correct me if I am wrong, but you were earlier in this thread defending the proposition that ” wish the philosophers would just leave “mind” alone and let the neuroscientists get on with it without annoying them with their kibbitzing.”

I interpreted this to mean that you reject the notion that philosophers — or other humanities or social science scholars, perhaps — can contribute anything useful to the problem of consciousness, and that whatever there is to know on the subject will be exhausted by neuroscience.

In response to this, I cited Searle — who almost certainly believes that philosophers, among others, have a very great deal to contribute to the problem of consciousness — for the notion that insofar as consciousness necessarily implicated subjective phenomena that are not reducible to neurobiology, it is unlikely that neuroscience in and of itself is likely to provide all knowledge we seek regarding consciousness.

You say you agree with Searle’s take. I admit that if this is so, I have a hard time seeing how you can defend the notion that the problem of consciousness is best left to the neuroscientists. I do not think Searle would agree with that perspective.

As for scientism, I meant no insult, but I also disagree that it is “meaningless.” It has a very clear meaning, IMO, which is principally the notion that whatever the desideratum, it is best assessed through the methods of the natural sciences. The belief that the problem of consciousness, which involves analysis of subjective, ambiguous phenomena, will be explained by neuroscience rather than in addition to varieties of humanists, many of whom are trained to operate amidst significant subjectivity and ambiguity, strikes me as scientistic.


shteve 01.04.08 at 4:11 pm

I enjoy Scruton’s style – his stuff on faith and tradition is touching, and his cracks at liberals, lefties and modernisers show a nice sense of mischief.

As for the “ugly” sentence – it is clunky, but surely the problem is with the final part? Sloppy editing, I guess. Looks like the punctuation wasn’t adapted when ‘i.e.’ was “englished” to ‘that is’ – the same kind of thing they do on Wikipedia. Uuuugh.

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