Monday, 17 December 2012

Terry Lecturer's critics

I am reflecting further on responses posted on Ophelia Benson’s website to (Karen Armstrong's review of ) Marilynne Robinson's 2009 Terry Lectures.
Scanning these comments, most of which come from offended Richard Dawkins devotees, it is noticeable that there are a number expressing hurt that Armstrong/Robinson seem to attribute to them (i.e. scientists or the scientist-authors whose works Robinson examines) a diminished capacity for feeling or experience.

I think there is something of real insult and hurt coming through here, not only that some purport to experience or feel differently from, or more than, oneself, but because of the challenge this purported feeling-other poses to a deeply held conviction that every state of feeling is translatable into every other state of feeling; or, to put it another way, the conviction that there is no expression of feeling that cannot be re-expressed in simpler ways.

I think such a conviction – a fundamental idea of how the world really is – arises in individuals in order not to feel lack, i.e. in order not to feel envy and hence preserve ego. The conviction may be all the more strongly held because it chimes with notions of democracy in which all individuals are held to be equal.

Anyone reading D H Lawrence who carries such a convction will probably feel the same revulsion. Lawrence seems to be all about showing human dis-equality (of inner life) to be the actual state of things and that the wrong categories of thinking are applied as soon as we entertain the idea of an equality of human being.

In my view Kierkegaard's writings act to convey the same truth, in beautiful and humorous ways.

I think J S Mill provides a fantastic resource for bringing this strange and inflammatory area to the surface, and de-fusing it, in his essay “Bentham”, (1838). Here is Mill on Bentham’s tendency to deny the existence of feeling states in others that he does not find in himself.

“The bad part of [Bentham’s] writings is his resolute denial of all that he does not see, of all truths but those which he recognizes. By that alone has he exercised any bad influence upon his age; by that he has, not created a school of deniers, for this is an ignorant prejudice, but put himself at the head of the school which exists always, though it does not always find a great man to give it the sanction of philosophy; thrown the mantle of intellect over the natural tendency of men in all ages to deny or disparage all feelings and mental states of which they have no consciousness in themselves.

The truths which are not Bentham's, which his philosophy takes no account of, are many and important; but his non-recognition of them does not put them out of existence; they are still with us, and it is a comparatively easy task that is reserved for us, to harmonize those truths with his. To reject his half of the truth because he overlooked the other half, would be to fall into his error without having his excuse. For our own part, we have a large tolerance for one-eyed men, provided their one eye is a penetrating one: if they saw more, they probably would not see so keenly, nor so eagerly pursue one course of inquiry.”

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