Lisbon referendum

by Henry on June 10, 2008

I’m in Ireland at the moment, reintroducing the two year old to the country of his ancestors, and, more to the point, the delights of Andy Nolan’s sausages (if you’re ever passing through Kilcullen, and you’re not a vegetarian, you owe it to yourself to pick up a few pounds), and McCambridge’s brown-bread. But in between childcare responsibilities, I’ve been trying to piece together the debate over the upcoming referendum on the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty. Ireland is the only country where the public actually gets a vote on this Treaty, and there is a good chance that it will vote No (one recent opinion poll had the No side several points ahead; another had the Yes and No side neck-and-neck). If Ireland votes the Treaty down, it will fail, and nobody is quite sure what will happen next. More discussion of the specifics of the debate under the fold – I also have a more political-sciencey” post”: on this over at _The Monkey Cage._
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To Justify Something Is To Diminish It?

by John Holbo on June 10, 2008

Being vexed by Stanley Fish is a mug’s game. But here goes:

Even in courses where the materials are politically and ideologically charged, the questions that arise are academic, not political. A classroom discussion of Herbert Marcuse and Leo Strauss, for example, does not (or at least should not) have the goal of determining whether the socialist or the conservative philosopher is right about how the body politic should be organized. Rather, the (academic) goal would be to describe the positions of the two theorists, compare them, note their place in the history of political thought, trace the influences that produced them and chart their own influence on subsequent thinkers in the tradition. And a discussion of this kind could be led and guided by an instructor of any political persuasion whatsoever, and it would make no difference given that the point of the exercise was not to decide a political question but to analyze it.

So you are allowed to describe positions and arguments but not to venture evaluation. You may not test ideas, theories, positions for validity or intellectual merit. In political philosophy, to argue for or against a political philosophy would be ‘un-academic’. Justification and academia are twain and never the two shall meet. So far as politics go. So most of those we think of as academic political philosophers – Marcuse, Strauss, Rawls, the list is really quite long – aren’t ‘academic’. Because they attempt to justify their own views about how the body politics should be organized. Which disqualifies them. Fine. Whatever.

I really wasn’t going to rise to the bait but the man has a follow up, which concludes:

The demand for justification, as I have said in other places, always come from those outside the enterprise. Those inside the enterprise should resist it, because to justify something is to diminish it by implying that its value lies elsewhere. If the question What justifies what you do? won’t go away, the best answer to give is “nothing.”

Now, to be fair, Fish is talking specifically about justification of the liberal arts here. There is something to be said for the liberal arts as a good ‘in itself’. But Fish feels free to formulate his defense so expansively because he has gotten too comfy with a position that is a silly sort of know-nothingism – justify-nothingism, rather. Being an academic means never having to say you’re sorry for not having reasons. Fish presents this as gracious abstention from public debates academics should not meddle in. That would be bad enough, in my book. What makes it worse is that I suspect Fish thinks the flip-side of this is academic immunity from public criticism. This gets into my reading of his other writings, which I won’t go into right now. What academic ‘interpretive communities’ do is perfectly hermetic and externally unaccountable. I don’t see how that can be right, on the most generous liberal arts education as end in itself view.

Am I unfair to the man?

UPDATE: Julian Sanchez responds thoughtfully to my post. He objects that I am too uncharitable. I think it’s fair to be rather hard-nosed in this case, but your mileage may vary. I like this bit. “On this model [Fish’s], teaching philosophy would look a little like teaching theological interpretation to atheists.” I think that is very apt. I think that in some ways Fish is to intellectual justification as atheists are to God. He just doesn’t believe in the stuff. Or rather, he believes that the things we call ‘justifications’ are all, in some deep, anti-foundational sense, just arbitrary moves in language-games. This drives him to say some odd stuff, per the title of the post.

Nussbaum on Liberty of Conscience

by Harry on June 10, 2008

I was lucky enough to see Martha Nussbaum give a lecture in Chicago a couple of weeks ago, based on her new book Liberty of Conscience: In Defence of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality (UK). I confess to having been a bit skeptical prior to the lecture. I always like reading Nussbaum’s work, and she’s a great speaker, but I’m not riveted by the topic, still less by historical investigations in philosophy, and am always put off by having the name of a country in the title (or subtitle) of a work of philosophy. The talk (and now the book) convinced me that I should be more open on all counts. She gave a fascinating account of the thought of Roger Williams, the founder of the colony of Rhode Island, and made a very convincing case that his arguments for freedom of religion anticipate, variously, two of Kant’s formulations of the Categorical Imperative, Rawls’s idea of the overlapping consensus, and Locke’s sharp claim (in the Letter) that the magistrate has responsibility for secular matters, but not for care of the soul. “Anticipation” must be the wrong word in at least Locke’s and Rawls’s cases, because she convincingly argued that Locke must have been aware of Williams’s arguments, and, although she did not argue this, it is reasonable to assume that Rawls was too. She also argued that Williams’s theory of religious equality is superior to Locke’s theory of toleration on several grounds, including that it does not depend on Protestant premises, that it is more extensive (Williams, weirdly enough, believed that not only pagans, but even atheists (whom he called “anti-Christians”) could be decent people), and that it is more demanding: his argument does not merely support a stricture against persecution (which Williams termed “soul rape”) as Locke’s does, but a stricture against establishment. All this, and the guy sailed back and forth between England and the colonies, learned numerous languages, including Indian languages, and spent months at a time living with Indians. Finally, in the book, she makes a strong case for that Williams’s principle of religious equality is not parochial, but has a great deal to say to other democratic cultures: it’s been enough to get me to examine (but not necessarily to reject) my casual antidisestablishmentarianism in the UK context. Despite having about a million things to do, I’m now half way through the book which is as good, and as interesting, as the lecture promised. Highly recommended.