Monday, 10 June 2013

Getting to Writing by John Gray

I came to philosophy in the process of committing myself to a painting project. Commitment to a kind of life, a way of engaging with the world, was the anti-dote to a militant utilitarianism inherited from my father. A phenomenology of technology had formed in my thinking, without knowing of “phenomenology”. At least for that period when I was developing painting practice I was a "phenomenologist". I regret that my engagement with philosophy was not tutored, although I had the marginal advantage of being a student of painting at the when literature came alive to me, and where I came into contact with artists and writing on art informed by philosophy. Philosophy was of constant reference to and among the people who I studied alongside, and that made it valid for me too.

I worked over four or five years to learn where phenomenology fits in to the wider arena of modern Western philosophy, and became aware of the long-standing division between so-called “continental” and “analytical” traditions. This learning inevitably affected the - how to describve it? – heightened nervous awareness I had lived in and which had made me sensitive to phenomena.I admit this was a kind of depressed, anxious mode.

At some point, when I had started to lose touch with the person in me who had responded strongly to work of Martin Heidegger, I came across a trio of writings in the liberal philsophical tradition: Jose Ortega y Gasset’s “Revolt of the Masses” (1930), J S Mill’s essay “Bentham” (1838) and John Gray’s “Isiaiah Berlin” (1991).

Whereas I came to read Heidegger via Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard, John Gray approached Heidegger from within British academic philosophy, i.e. from within a community that was presumably (especially in the 1960s when Gray was a student) as unsympathetic to Heidegger and phenomenology as any could be.As a kind of naive Heideggerian, I was for a long time gripped by the rival perspective that Marxism gave to the things that interested me, in particular the role of technology in society. Instinctively baulking at Hegelian-Marxist ideas, I pored over Georg Lukacs essays and - in trying to trace links between phenomenology and such things as "reification" - re-traced a few steps walked by post-war philosophers like Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Always feeling the need to juxtapose opposing views (feeling so inadequate) I also engaged with the work of Karl Popper, principally because of the claims that Marxism made on materialsm and "science". Eventually I came to John Gray's writing, at the end of this obsessive period, simultaneously stumbling over Gray's "Straw Dogs" (2002) and the transcript of Isaiah Berlin's 1965 lectures on "The Roots of Romanticism".

(I took Berlin's lectures on Romanticism with some caution, and had had the benefit of hearing and reading contemporary philosopher Andrew Bowie's account of the Romantic tradition before I found them. (By the way, here is a link to a very natty critique of Belin's published lectures by Andrew Bowie from the journal "Radical Philosophy"). However, the passages from Berlin that stood out for me, however, had already surfaced as I read - or tried to read - Bowie, for example when I thought about the character of writers in the Romantic tradition, such as Hamann, and Kierkegaard. Berlin's broad characterisation of the Romantic moevement, at least in Germany, is that it emerged out of a state of collective humiliation and defeat at the hands of the rational, post-Revolutionary French. This broad characterisation may be insupportable on close inspection, as Bowie would assert, I think. But I believe the deep reflection on subjectivity found German philosophy is, or at least can be, stimulated by hurt esteem. I believe Protestant conceptions of moral good, loading a tremendous amount of responsibility on the individual to justify himself before a scornful judge, can demand introspection and searching of purity of heart to the extremes seen in Kierkegaard and others.)

I then read Gray's short study of Isaiah Berlin (1991) and all of a sudden I had arrived at where Gray is - a compelling post-progress, Ballardian vision that is a bit stark and unpleasant but also clear and refreshing and even sometimes dimly optimistic. Berlin recognises that some human values are rationally incommensurable. We commit to living, make choices for ourselves through which certain values are realised. But in doing so we find other values denied or contradicted. For one example, which seems to have been a conflict for me, the good of organising to achieve "greatest happiness for all" tends to eliminate the possibility of self-realisation. That appeal to the principle of self-realisation is what I believe Berlin associates with "positive liberty", and organising around it being the source of movement towards the rational state, or the state that is humanly natural or naturally human (I forget Marx's formulation), derived in Hegel.

So I'm constantly asking myself, "How did I get here? What have I brought with me, a lay reader, that Gray - a professional philosopher - has not?" (This is my way of trying to value my responses to all this reading with the knowledge that I will never be an academic engaged in live philosophical disputes, philosophy having long-since become a professionalised and academicised pursuit.)

Karl Popper’s work is one powerful strand of thinking that denies certain knowledge. His work makes space for imagination as a source of meaningful discourse that lies outside science (in Popper’s terms the kind of discourse we call “metaphysical “ – and any talk about art or religion, for example, is metaphysucal) may speculate about the world but its speculations are irrefutable and un-scientific.

The idea of a “science” of history or politics that identifies “laws” of historical development was a principal target of Popper’s work and, from a different trajectory, of Isaiah Berlin’s work too (despirte his erstwhile involvement in the early days of Oxford linguistic analysis and logical empiricism, Berlin seems to have arrived at his stance on this without the need to engage in epistemological dispute, like Popper, but more by an engagement and - to a certain degree - identification with what he called the “counter-enlightenment”). His trajectory was such as to oust quasi-scientific methods from social sciences and introduce methods to those fields of research that could be open to critical questioning (his critical rationalism).

But the concept of (at least) political science remains.

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