Monday, 3 June 2013

F R Leavis's Criticism of the 1959 Rede Lecture "The Two Cultures and The Scientific Revolution"

The 1962 Richmond Lecture by F R Leavis is cultural criticism of a confrontational kind. It confronts a mentality - captured I think in Ortega's term "learned ignorance" - that assumes there can be no grounds for convictions (of how I might live and what I might cherish) that can't be re-stated in terms it already understands. This amounts to a sense of omniscience or at least a conviction that what is not yet known will be more of the same type as what is already known.

Aware of this in advance, Leavis moves straight to the only form of communication that could cut through this mentality and into consciousness, by enacting the opposing argument. As Leavis writes in the preface to the published text of his lecture "my argument is, very largely, the criticism". The act of criticising Snow's "performance of a lecture" as a piece of writing, with the critical attention to writing-as-thinking that Leavis brings, is the argument.

Here is a link to a presentation by Professor Stefan Collini, a British academic and intellectual historian, talking about the possible merits (in terms of effectiveness of criticism in getting attention and changing minds) of the style of cultural criticism exemplified in F R Leavis's 1962 Richmond lecture "Two Cultures?
The Significance of C P Snow". The central criticism Leavis makes so forcefully is of the cultural conditions, increasingly dominated by instrumental reason, that can elevate a man like C P Snow to the position of "sage". The response Collini gets from fellow academics seems to be cautious: polemical confrontation like Leavis's alienates the reader whose sympathy for humane learning one is trying to elictit; a similar effect is had by appealing to ineffable truths; better results can be got through Raymond Williams’ approach of showing in detail how the cultural "superstructure" is linked to the economic "base".

Here is Stefan Collini introducing Leavis's criticism of CP Snow's lecture.

I read Stefan Collini’s “What are Universities For?” recently, about resisting commodification of arts and humanities learning (or any learning) in universities. From what I understand he has come to regard it as a wrong move on the part of humanities educators to rise to the demand of education funding bodies to justify learning in arts and humanities in the prescribed quantitative terms. I agree, the move is wrong because even to begin to answer in such terms yields to “Benthamite” utilitarian philosophy a right to claim that the benefits of education in arts and humanities disciplines are quantifiable. It is a defensive move which immediately strengthens the challenging position. If that utilitarian philosophy insists on truth and reasoning on the model of science, i.e. universal truth, proveable, quantifiable, demonstrable, then yielding any ground to it on this question is assenting to its claim to universality. The proper response (or maybe Collini would say, a response that can be successful) to the demand to justify arts and humanities education in quantitative terms is to refuse and carry on, and if absolutely pushed into it, to press in the strongest possible terms the opposing philosophy which holds some questions as valid which have no one “true” answer. This is what Leavis did with his Richmond Lecture. If the challenge is received, then the utilitarian philosophy will be forced to confront the consequence of its demand, namely to deny the validity of any expression or practice not conforming to it.

The confrontational challenge risks two fairly unpleasant outcomes. Firstly it could leave the utilitarian philosophy in stunned bafflement, because the limited sensibility the philosophy presumes to satisfy is limited, lacks range of affect or lacks the capacity for enjoyment of ambiguous states. It's bafflement is that there are any grounds for dispute, because the sensibility satisfied by utilitarian philosophy cannot imagine being unsatisfied by it. The kind of limitation or lack I refer to here is that "one-eyed" quality that J S Mill finds in the thought and person of Jeremy Bentham, such that Bentham failed to ascribe to others (not out of error but out of imaginative incapacity) anything beyond the range of feeling that he found in himself. 

This points to the second unpleasant outcome, that the confrontation will jolt the the limited sensibility into awareness of the lack in itself that makes utilitarian philosophy adequate. If it does become aware of that lack, it may also become aware of the urge to dictate limits, to be dictatorial, present in its insistence that all practices and expressions be justified in terms of their utility and, implicit in that insistence, the belief that they are all of the same basic type such that every expression or state of being is translatable into every other state, with no loss of meaning. (That urge to dictate limits is what I used to call “militant egalitarianism” – you will be equal! – and for many years it formed my idea of fairness). I think there is a good chance that being seen to be dictatorial in this way would conflict with the underlying desire of utilitarian philosophy that people achieve happiness, because in effect it is setting limits on what others can be happy in. Who has the right to determine such limits? Wishing not to be taken as dictating limits, the response may come that it is not “I” who wishes to dictate limits. In other words, in order not to be seen to be dictating limits (by insisting that all human expressions and practices be reducible to the same kind) then it is necessary to distance oneself from the principle “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”, disown it, by placing it outside oneself, in the world, such that no person actually holds the principle to be true for them. The reasoning might be “Individuals are not called on to hold this principle as true for them personally because it just is true, objectively”. Then the penny might drop, that this is a philosophy and only people can hold a philosophy. We do not find them in the world, alongside birds and rocks and people. We are responsible for what we believe that informs our actions, and it is an evasion of responsibility to distance onself from our beliefs by claiming them to be facts of the world.

The insistence that every expression and practice is essentially translatable into every other (of the same basic kind) is really a consequence of not wanting to be conscious of lack in oneself. It is a kind of psychological defence. The unpleasantness of this outcome is the considerable hurt and despair experienced when we recognise (what) we cannot feel.

Alongside these two unpleasant and, perhaps, negative outcomes is the greater positive value of a demonstration that the whole signifies beyond the parts, and failure to attend to the whole is a falling short of our capacity to be amazed, awed, reverential, not only of what may inspire awe in us, but of the being (ourselves) that can experience amazement, awe and reverence. Instead there is complacency and self-satisfaction, a feeling of completeness. In his criticism, Leavis constantly draws attention to Snow's performance of his "Two Cultures" lecture, which betrays the absence of the qualities Snow presumes to possess to the degree that he feels he can speak with authority on literature. Snow is unaware: "He doesn't know he doesn't know". Cliche, the appearance of thinking, is there. 

I became aware of Collini’s work because I read his introduction to a re-edition of C P Snow’s 1959 Rede Lecture “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution”. At the time I was a student in arts and humanities. But commitment to art instigated personal crisis for me and what space I had made to create was taken over by a struggle to overcome the voice in my own mind which nullified art and artists (myself included). That voice was a rigidly utilitarian philosophy. The nullification happened not in any direct, focussed criticism of an artist or an art work, but in the very style of thinking, which ruled out in advance any basis for appreciation (valuing) of wholes. The overwhelming forcefulness of this voice, the sense of completness and rightness that could allow it to be so insistent, invoked an immediate defensiveness in me. One felt bound to justify oneself before it, under the terrible threat of being cast as irrational (opening the door to being demeaned, marginalised, treated as unserious etc., etc.). I was so needing the support of this voice, I worked extremely hard to try to communicate in its terms, to try and achieve common understanding. I battled with this voice for a long time, always on the defensive, before I discovered Leavis’s Richmond Lecture. In the battle I was drawn into the error of attempting to communicate in its terms, which took science as its model of knowledge method of reasoning. How is knowledge attained through science which makes of it true knowledge and of everything else mere opinion? That was the basis of the tone of condescension and assumption of power that put me on the defensive. The philosopher of science who successfully opposed Logical Positivism (advocates of the “scientific world-view”) was Karl Popper. He was at tremendous pains to communicate with philosopher-scientists knowing that he was challenging their confidence that scientific knowledge is "true" knowledge (which was likely to put them on the defensive) and that his opposing philosophy of science amounted to a non-foundationist epistemology. He was seeking to impress on them that in seeking to elimintae metaphysics from science, they also eliminated science. In my extreme defensiveness and need to maintain the support of the sceptical utilitarian voice, I resorted to an appeal to Popper's philsophy of science, which preserves the meaningfulness of metaphysical statements precisely because it casts science as itself metaphysical. (I really wanted to point my opponent to Martin Heidgger’s work, in particular his essay “Modern Science, Mathematics and Metaphysics”, but I knew that if Popper’s work was going to be almost impossible for my strongly utilitarian and empiricist opponent to accept – because of its basically Kantian character – then Heidgger’s had no chance of being taken as other than irrational).

I wish I had not had to take this route to communication. I came to realise that it is much better not to ever attempt to answer the challenge of utilitarian philosophy to justify metaphysics, only oppose it and carry on. If I had been aware of it, and able to grasp the basis for his criticism (of the conditions that elevate a man like C P Snow to the position of "sage"), I would simply have reached for Leavis's Richmond Lecture and pointed to that. When I did find it, I knew it was the most powerful and brilliant weapon to combat the benevolent technocratic dictator in me. But I also knew that if I presented Leavis’s book to the original source of that utilitarian voice, my father, then he would in all probability have been baffled. Of course he would have been baffled because, unlike me, art had not become a preoccupation for him, so the disdain Leavis shows for the art of C P Snow would not have been understandable. It would have seemed excessive. This is evidently how many people reacted to Leavis's cultural criticism.

It may not be impossible to persuade the "mindblind" of the existence of mind, but any success will be hardly worth the pain and effort. (Here is a link to a 2006 paper in the "Journal of Bentham Studies" by two British academics who claim Jeremy Bentham was a person exhibiting characteristics associated with "Asperger's Syndrome".) 
On the other hand, for the one who makes the effort, a mind, or at least mindfulness, may be wrested from a state of "mindblindness", which is acquired no less than (a pre-disposition to it is) endowed by genetics.
For anyone who doubts that "mindblindness" is acquired, then consider the writing of Spanish liberal philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset. While his 1930 book "Revolt of the Masses" contains some dubious vitalist ideas, there is a chapter given over to the "learned ignorance" of the technical specialist, who adopts a tone of completeness bolstered by the experience of having attained certain (i.e. scientific) knowledge in his or her special area. The sense of completeness blots out awareness of the possibility of expertise in any area of enquiry that does not appear as scientific. What damagingly recreates itself is the tone of address, which is so closely bound up with the style of writing that accompanies scientific enquiry, which seeks to eliminate the subjective in order to be as objective and neutral as possible. But when it strays into areas outside narrow scientific enquiry, that tone is radically misplaced. Only omniscience (or "genius" as Leavis says) could justify the adoption of such a tone, and one can easily imagine someone impressionable witnessing the performance believing the speaker to actually be omniscient. That impression can stay if it is not challenged. Ortega writes: "To have an idea means believing one is in possession of the reasons for having it, and consequently means believing that there is such a thing as reason, a world of intelligible truths. To have ideas, to form opinions, is identical with appealing to such an authority, submitting oneself to it, accepting its code and its decisions, and therefore believing that the highest form of intercommunication is the dialogue in which the reasons for our ideas are discussed."

I read Leavis’s Richmond Lecture when I was a student of fine art. Shortly afterwards, I read Leavis's introduction to two essays by J S Mill "Bentham" (1838) and "Coleridge"(1840), as well as Mill's essays. Through the reflections they inspired, I was helped to see that my art, and my artist self-project, were mis-cued and had to stop. This was not a happy experience. But the insights I gained that enabled me to see the mis-cuing of my art also enabled me to see what value arts education can have in developing self and responsiveness and awareness of limitations.

It was a coming up against limitations that I now regard as the value of my time in arts education. 
Leavis's lecture challenges the attitude that takes “standard of living” as the measure of human well-being.
In its performance as much as its content it is also a defence of the things that are valued in arts education.

In my home-life, growing up, arts education was not understood, was not accessed, was not esteemed and was generally mistrusted. This was going to be a big problem for someone who had facility in painting and drawing, and I have spent fifteen years living out those problems, getting a perspective on their sources and an appreciation of what can lead someone to call Leavis's Richmond Lecture "the finest polemic of the twentieth century". (Martin Dodsworth essay "mid-twentieth century literature", in The Oxford Illustrated History of English Literature edited by Pat Rogers, 1987, OUP)

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