Excellence: A Point of View

October 18, 2016

Excellence: A Point of View

COMMENT: Everyone in Malaysia talks about the pursuit of excellence and some pretend to know what it means, especially  our mediocre politicians in power and men in the public service who are tasked to implement our national education policy and Blue Ocean Strategy.

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We employ snake oil consultants  and experts to write glossy blueprints and reports at horrendous cost to taxpayers but fail to execute them.  We create institutions like Pemandu to promote Najib’s deformation agenda, and Permata for bright kids, while our Chief Secretary to the Government makes himself advocate-in-chief of the Blue Ocean Strategy concept to suck up to Najib Razak. In reality, we do not know what excellence is, what it takes and how to get there.

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Excellence is a simple idea if we are serious about it. All we need to do is change our attitude. Talk is cheap. Stop it and start taking action.

Malaysia has an attitude problem and it is our greatest obstacle to our future as a people and a nation. Where to begin? It has to be first fixing our education system to become a nation of high achievers and second we must stop playing politics  with the education of our future generation. But we are not doing that because UMNO politicians are afraid of  smart and pushy Malays in particular.

I wish to share with you A C Grayling’s thoughts on Excellence. This philosopher is endowed with the ability to communicate with ordinary men and women in clear and concise language. Read his article and share your comments.–Din Merican

Grayling on Excellence

When Matthew Arnold wrote Culture and Anarchy over a hundred years ago, he described the pursuit of excellence in the fostering of culture as “getting to know, on all matters that most concern us. the best which has been thought and said in the world, and through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits.”

Arnold was an inspector of schools, and a champion of higher education, and he believed in excellence in education as the way not only to staff the economy but to produce an enculturated society which would live up to the ideal in Aristotle’s noble dictum about the educated use of our leisure.

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From China to France, every country that is or aspires to be developed has an elite educational stratum, aimed at taking the most gifted students and giving them the best intellectual training possible. In China this is done at an early age, with special schools for the brightest children. In France the system of Hautes Ecoles–superior universities, entry to which is fiercely competitive–creams off the outstanding minds and subjects them to a rigorous discipline. The aim in all cases is to enhance the best in order to gain the highest quality in science, engineering, law, national administration, medicine and the arts.

Few could object to the rationale behind this, save those for whom universal mediocrity is a  price worth paying for social equality (or in the case of Malaysia where mediocrity is a means of political control, added by Din Merican). But there is the danger to which meritocratic means to the cultivation of excellence – or what should be solely such – fall prey. It is if, after the establishment of the means, merit by itself ceases to be enough, and money and influence become additional criteria. In many, perhaps most, countries in the world, money and influence are the determiners of social advancement, even where meritocratic criteria still apply too: in America money is needed to gain social advantages, in China it helps to be a Party member.

The rich and the well connected are not the kind of elite an  education system ought to be fostering. It is easy for popular newspapers and populist politicians to make pejorative use of the term ‘elite’ to connote these elites of injustice; but they are just as quick to complain if doctors, teachers, or sportsmen playing for national sides fail our highest expectations- if, in short, they are not elite after all, in the proper sense of the term.

Although there are few if any true democracies in the world– most dispensations claiming that name are elective oligarchies–the democratic spirit nevertheless invests Western life, for good and ill both. The good resides in the pressure to treat everyone fairly, the ill resides in the pressure to make everyone alike. The latter is a levelling tendency, a downward thrust, which dislikes excellence because it raises mountains where the negative-democratic spirit wishes to see only plains.

But democracy should not aim to reduce people and their achievements to a common denominator; it should aim to raise them, ambitiously and dramatically, as close as possible to an ideal. And that means, among other things, having institutions, especially of learning, which are the best and most demanding of their kind.

The Meaning of Things–Applying Philosophy to Life by AC Grayling (London: Weidenfeld &Nicolson, 2001) pp.160-161

A.C. Grayling on why Read

October 9, 2016

Why Read

by A.C. Grayling

How many a man dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book–THOREAU

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A library is like a hive storing honey, a part of the best, sweetest and most nourishing exudate of human experience–A.C. Grayling

It seems that some doctors prescribe books instead of medicines to patients suffering from depression, stress and anxiety. The patients are referred  to a bibliotherapist–yes, bibliotherapist–who gives patients reading lists suited to their conditions. The treatment’s inspiration was the observation by librarians  that borrowers are apt to say, on returning a book, that it did them good by making them or by distracting  them from their troubles.

There are almost too many things to say about something about this amazing fact. Cynics will ask,What sort of pass are we in that people need a doctor’s prescription to prompt them to read? When did we forget that reading is, for a thousand reasons, one  of the chief resources of life! Will doctors turn to prescribing dinner for the hungry and sleep for the tired as the next step in the medicalization of human existence, or as a response to the supine inability to think and act for themselves?

There is a tincture of justice in these exclamations, but it is not appropriately directed at doctors. It should be directed at the failure of our culture to show people what rich deposits of pleasure and usefulness, and what expansion of horizons, are to be found in reading. An education in reading includes guidance–very easy to give; it takes five minutes (much less if you say, ‘Ask a librarian’, which is excellent advice)–on how to find any required book or a kind of book. And just a little experience as a reader grants access to the great country where one flies as an eagle over the history, comedy, tragedy and variety of human experience, at every point garnering much, if reading is attentive, from the abundance on offer.

The key is ‘attentive’. The best thing any education can bequeath is habits of reflection and questioning. Reading can be a passive affair, an entertainment leaving  no impression on the mind beyond a pleasant present distraction. Many books are skillfully written to demand no more, and there is nothing wrong with that But for anything more, reading has to be an activity , not a passivity. It is hard to define what makes  good books good, because good books come in so many different kinds, but one thing common to most of them is that  they make readers think and feel, elevating or disturbing them, and making them see the world differently as a result. In short, they elicit the activity in active reading. “We find little in a book but what we put there”, Joseph Joubert said. “But in great books, the mind finds room to put many things.”

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Rodin’s Thinker @ Columbia University, New York

Reading does not automatically people wiser or better. When it has that effect  it is because readers have the work themselves, quarrying the materials from  their response to the printed page (or today the e-page). But apart from practical experience of life, which is everyone’s chief tutor,scarcely anything compares with books as the mine where that quarrying can begin. To read is to enter other points of view; it is to be an invisible observer of circumstances which might never be realised in one’s own life; it is to meet people and situations exceeding in kind and number the possibilities open to individual experience. As a result, reading not only promotes self-understanding, it equips one with insights into needs, interests and desires that one might never share but which motivates others, in this way enabling one to understand, and tolerate, an even to sympathize  with, other people’s concerns. As an extension of how this informs one’s behavior towards others; it is also  the basis for civil community and the brotherhood of man.

I keep a photograph on my desk of the Philosophical Library in Strahof Monastery in Prague. Taken from the upper gallery, it captures the tranquil beauty of that deep room, filled with light from the clerestory windows in the right-hand wall.The photograph shows one long bar of sunshine  lying across a tier of book-shelves, illuminating  the richness of the leather bindings ranked there. Below, on the ground floor, three desks are disposed, among an ingenious reading wheel any scholar would envy.

This scene is wonderfully expressive to do with books, and the reading of books, with study and thought, with books as the distillations of time and man’s endeavors–even of the world itself, brought into reflective equilibrium and clothed in quietness and retreat. If, off to one side, there were a closet with a bed in it and wherewithal to make tea, one would not mind being locked in there, and the key thrown away.

A cynic might proclaim this beautiful and evocative library a mere dead mortuary of dead books, a past curiosity for dull-eyed tourists to glance at, a selling point for postcards that now represent its only product. But I think it is a work of art, and represents something opposed to the uneasy, fickle, failing norm of most human life and its compromises.

In the Library, The University of Cambodia

A library is like a hive storing honey, a part of the best, sweetest and most nourishing exudate of human experience. A commentator on Virgil’s Gerogics Book IV, which tells of honey-bees and lost love, remarked that only four things withstand time–gold, sunlight, amber and honey. Some archeologists digging in Greece once came across an ancient amphora filled to the brim with honey 2000 years old. They took a little each day to spread on their bread at breakfast. After a time they noticed that at the bottom of the amphora. When they looked, they found that it was the body of an infant.

It is an extraordinarily touching thought that the mourning parents of this child, so long ago, buried it in honey to preserve it forever. The action of great wealth and great love.

Note: This essay is from A.C. Grayling’s book, The Meaning 0f Things–Applying Philosophy to Life ( London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2001). pp. 178-181. I recommend this book because, to quote the publisher’s note, it is “a wonderfully stimulating book and an invaluable guide to what is truly  important in living life whether  facing success, failure, passion, intolerance, love, loss or any other of life’s profound experiences”– Professor Din Merican, The University of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Spare a Thought about Philosophy: A.C. Grayling Interview

October 5, 2016

Spare a Thought about Philosophy: An Inte.rview with my favourite contemporary Philosopher, A.C. Grayling

by Will Bordell

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Bertrand Russell said, ‘Most people would rather die than think; most people do,’” quips the British philosopher A.C. Grayling, leaning forward in his chair at a London café as though offering me a truffle of wisdom for my delectation. Philosophy is a rather strange business in the modern world of consumerism and commerce, I suppose. We’re so used to being force-fed ideas these days that we rarely, if ever, stop and think for ourselves. And that’s where Grayling bucks the trend.

Author of over twenty books, including The Good Book: A Humanist Bible, as well as countless newspaper and magazine columns, Grayling has been a paradigm of humanism for many years: vice president of the British Humanist Association, patron of the UK organization Dignity in Dying, honorary associate of the National Secular Society… the list goes on. And yet, anyone anticipating stuffy Socratic dialogue with a kooky academic or a living, breathing replica of Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker (with added mane), would be taken aback by Grayling’s down-to-earth, congenial presence.

What makes Grayling tick, in his words, is “the fact that the world is so rich in interest and in puzzles, and that the task of finding out as much as we can about it is not an endless task, but certainly one which is going to take us many, many millennia to complete.” There’s a sort of childlike grin that beams out at me, as he affirms: “That’s exciting—discovery is exciting.” Grayling takes pleasure in doubt and possibility, in invention and innovation: the tasks of the open mind and open inquiry. It’s a mindset, he reveals, that “loves the open-endedness and the continuing character of the conversation that humankind has with itself about all these things that really matter.”

It’s also a way of thinking that marks a line in the sand between religion and science. The temptation to fall for the former—hook, line, and sinker—is plain to see: “People like narratives, they like to have an explanation, they like to know where they are going.” Weaving another string of thought into his tapestry of human psychology, Grayling laments that his fellow human beings “don’t want to have to think these things out for themselves. They like the nice, pre-packaged answer that’s just handed to them by somebody authoritative with a big beard.” He looks down towards a small flower arrangement on the table, and plays with it contemplatively before continuing in an almost plaintive tone: “And that is a kind of betrayal, in a way, of the fact that we have curiosity but, most of all, we have intelligence and so we should be questioning, challenging, trying to find out.”

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But the pessimism doesn’t persist for too long. Grayling’s biting wit is never too far from the surface of his arguments, especially when he’s waxing lyrical about theology. By tracing what he calls “a kind of Nietzschean genealogy of religion,” he adopts a storyteller’s tone: “You see a geography—and it’s an interesting one—in that the dryads and the nymphs used to be in the trees and in the streams.” After that they evaporated into the wind and the sun, he says, noting that the more humankind has discovered about the world, the more remote our gods have become. “They went from the surface of the earth to the mountaintops, then into the sky, and finally beyond space and time altogether,” Grayling observes. Not only have gods and goddesses retreated into their extraterrestrial hiding places, but they’ve also dwindled in number (generally) to only one or three, depending on your divine arithmetic: “So they’re being chased away bit by bit,” Grayling chuckles.

For all his cutting cogency, there’s an underlying empathy to what he says. Grayling seems desperate to reach out to those he believes are lost in an intellectual fog of their own making, his aim to lend a hand and pull them out. But he’s worried—and rightly so. The problem with extreme strands of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism is self-evident: “They force people to narrow their horizon of vision down so that they are almost blind, almost infantilized, as if in a straitjacket of captivity. But every religion goes through a fundamentalist phase,” he acknowledges in his typically even-handed manner, “and every religion leaves its fundamentalist rump; you can see this very clearly in the case of Christianity.”

Will we ever really outgrow religion, though? Grayling leans against the wall casually, stretching out his legs before responding with an assured brand of optimism: “It seems to me that in five or ten thousand years’ time, when people look back (if there are any people) at this period of history, the two or three thousand years when Judeo-Christian influence in the world was considerable, they will collapse it down to a sentence.” Just as we view the advent of Cro-Magnon humans in Europe in 40,000 BCE and the disappearance of Neanderthals around ten thousand years later as historical events and nothing more, so future historians will consider religion as a mere artifact. Indeed, according to Grayling, they will astutely recognize religious history as “a bad time for human beings, because they were getting cleverer with their technologies, but they were no wiser.”

Still, it’s crucial to Grayling’s philosophical outlook that when we lose faith, we don’t lose hope. “Almost any religion can be explained to another person in about half an hour,” he claims, adjusting his imperious-looking gold-rimmed spectacles. “But to know anything about astrophysics or biology or anything that really gives us an insight into the real beauty of the universe? That takes some years of study at least.” Such logic allows the adversity of a world without faith to be rebranded as opportunity, oblivion as salvation. Grayling pauses briefly, before launching into another gem in his immensely vibrant stash of anecdotes and references: “There’s a writer, a man called J.B. Bury, who wrote a wonderful history of Greece a long time ago now. He talks at one point about the Greeks’ own histories of their city-states, and he writes about one in particular, the kings of which could be traced back to divine origin.” I wait, as though anticipating the punch line of a joke, while he stalls for a second in his recollection. “And Bury effectively says, how boring! It was only a god who founded this city. But if it had been a real man who had struggled, fought against enemies and been ingenious in getting his people together, now that would be a really interesting story.” It’s an incontrovertible truth, and it highlights the contrast “between religion, which is very boring, and reality, which is much more exciting.”

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As long as religion rules the roost, however, Grayling acknowledges that we can only undermine it inch meal. But challenge it we must. “I think one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever heard is the remark that George Bernard Shaw made about the Golden Rule when he said, ‘Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.’” A barrage of rationality and clarity storms through Grayling’s argument, measured and incontrovertible: “It’s a very, very deep insight. What you really have to do is try to understand the diversity of human nature and others’ needs and interests. Try to see people in their particularity.” For religious zealots, he remarks with a knowing shake of the head, this is nearly impossible. If there’s one right answer, one absolute truth, one correct way of living, “there can’t be any diversity because that’s heresy.”

Dealing with plurality, then, is perhaps the greatest challenge that faces modern civilization, but Grayling doesn’t believe the solution is multiculturalism. “I very much agree that multiculturalism was well intentioned,” he affirms with the considered enthusiasm that I’ve come to expect of his responses. The notion of a mosaic society, though, has developed flaws, allowing disempowered and oppressed individuals to slip through the cracks, causing injury upon injury. “By allowing Sharia Councils to exist, young women who are brought to European countries as brides who don’t speak English, who are then divorced by their husbands and lose their children and their property, don’t even know that there are proper courts of law in the country to protect their rights.” Grayling prefers aspects of the French laïcité, the implication that citizens of France are “first and foremost French men and French women,” everything else being incidental and a matter for private choice. Though it has its problems (discrimination against the “invisible” Algerian and Moroccan minorities, to name but one), he believes it ensconces a better sense of cohesion than what has become a divisive multicultural policy.

“It’s terribly interesting, isn’t it?” Grayling continues, with his characteristic passion for all things discursive, “that the French have banned the face veil, and the Germans have just banned circumcision.” Never one for impertinence or rashness, he reclines in thought for a second or two: “I’m in favor of banning both of them,” he concludes. Why ban the veil, though? “Well, if I went to Saudi Arabia I wouldn’t walk around the streets in shorts,” Grayling responds, elaborating that just as wearing shorts in Riyadh is seen as an insult, covering your face in London is seen as suspicious and troubling. “But the law is an interesting one,” he says, acknowledging the caveat to his argument, “because it has a very neat nuance to it.” Face coverings, he explains, are deemed unacceptable by the government only in publically funded spaces (like hospitals and schools); “The law doesn’t stop people wearing face veils when they’re doing other things.”

What strikes me as extraordinary about Grayling is his lack of fear, intellectual or moral. He’s never afraid to offer his thoughts for general discussion, but nor is he afraid to admit he doesn’t have all the answers. After all, who does? I’m not surprised, therefore, when he responds tentatively when I ask about the vexed ethical question of military intervention in Syria and other tyrannies across the globe.

“Well, this is a hard question and therefore a very good question. A terribly difficult one,” he repeats, flicking aside his mane of silvery hair. He begins slowly but surely in a matter-of-fact tone: “The clear thing that one can say is that where there are unarmed civilian populations being terrorized, oppressed, murdered, tortured, and imprisoned by a regime, there seems to me to be no argument; one should go in there, and help them, and protect them.” It’s an ugly situation, though, and one that Grayling does nothing to pretty up. “On the other hand,” he goes on, “the people who are fighting against Assad include people like al-Qaeda and Hezbollah. It’s a real tightrope.” He’s visibly torn, his empathy pitted against his desire not to open up another Pandora’s box in the Middle East. “Meanwhile,” he looks across at me with an almost pained expression, “children, women, old people, innocents, and non-combatants are suffering. It’s a murky situation. I think everybody in the West wants to see Assad fall—I do—that would be terrific; if only we could be reasonably sure that what would follow would be a much more humane and sensible setup. But,” he forewarns, “there can be no guarantees.”

With the interview coming to a close, I decide to pose one final question. What’s the secret to the good and happy life? I half-expect him to pause for thought, but Grayling bursts with effervescence: “It’s being engaged, it’s having a project, it’s being outward-looking. I think it was Emerson who said that a man wrapped up in himself makes a very small parcel.” I’m intrigued to discover that taxi drivers, upon discovering his profession, often quiz him on the meaning of life. “And I say, the meaning of life is what you make it. There will be as many different meaningful lives as there are people to live them.” It’s an incredibly positive and open-minded outlook. He closes by reminding me that “if we honor the obligation we have to ourselves to develop, to the best of our ability, the constellation of interests and passions and talents that we have—even if we don’t succeed, never win a gold medal, never get knighted, never get published—that in itself is the good life.”

As I stroll out of the Bloomsbury café in which we’ve been sitting for the past hour or so and head off towards the train station, I finally feel that I have some sense of what Bertrand Russell meant when he said that most people would rather die than think. Thought can be scary, even iconoclastic. It can make us feel desperate and hopeless. And yet despite that, as evidenced by people like Grayling, thought and reflection can invest our lives with something more than hope, and more than wishful thinking: with meaning.

“Is he wise?” a friend asks me later that evening. A nod is all that’s necessary.

Here’s Smokey The Cat: A Philosopher’s Friend


The Erudite and Prolific Noam Chomsky: A Man of Conviction

September 29, 2016

The Erudite and Prolific Noam Chomsky: A Man of Conviction

Knowledge and Power–A Documentary

Manufacturing Consent is my favorite Noam Chomsky book. It reminds me of the awesome power of government in shaping public perception and influencing the way we think about public and foreign policy.

The media dominates our lives for as long as I can remember. When I was very much younger in 1950s I relied on the media and the radio for news and views and never realised that I was being manipulated by Big Brother to support causes which I would not  have agreed to if I had access to sources of information other than what the government was sending out through the airwaves for public consumption.

Fortunately, to day I can no longer be led to accept “official truths”from my government and its controlled media. I have always maintained a posture of doubt and will not accept anything I read without subjecting them to careful scrutiny. Naom Chomsky’s books have influenced the way I think.–Din Merican


September 11, 2016

by Michael Wood


By Anthony Gottlieb
300 pp. Liveright Publishing. $27.95.


A man is asleep at a table, his arms half-covering a drawing. Behind him a whole crowd of owls, bats, cats and less easily definable creatures hovers, ­crouches and flutters. One of the most humanoid of them is holding out a pen, and seems keen for the man to wake up. On the side of his table, written in large letters, are the words El sueño de la razón produce monstruos. We are looking at one of the etchings in Goya’s late-18th-century work “Los Caprichos.” The sleep of reason produces monsters. Or is it the dream of reason? The Spanish word allows either meaning. Goya’s note on the etching suggests he inclined to the former sense: The monsters arrive when reason is no longer alert. But the other reading has a long and persuasive history: When reason dreams, it dreams of monsters.

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When reason dreams, it dreams of monsters.

“The Dream of Reason,” the first volume in a history of Western philosophy by Anthony Gottlieb, a former executive editor of The Economist, appeared in 2000, and took us from the ancient Greeks to the Renaissance. The new work starts with Descartes and ends on “the eve of the French Revolution.” Another book is promised, picking up the tale with Kant. Gottlieb’s aim, admirably fulfilled, is to help us see what older and newer philosophers have to say to us but not to turn them into mouthpieces for what we already think we know. “It is tempting to think that they speak our language and live in our world. But to understand them properly, we must step back into their shoes.” This will be true no doubt of the post-Kantian volume as well. Even the shoes next door can look pretty strange if they belong to a philosopher.

Philosophy is many things, Gottlieb suggests, including much that we no longer call philosophy, but one of its recurring features is what William James called “a peculiarly stubborn effort to think clearly.” As Gottlieb declares in the first volume, the idea of clarity has not always seemed foremost, but the stubbornness is everywhere. “The attempt to push rational inquiry obstinately to its limits” is the name of the project. Sometimes it fails entirely, and the dream “seems merely a mirage.” At other times, though, “it succeeds magnificently, and the dream is revealed as a fruitful inspiration.” The dream appears as either fantasy or revelation, and ­Gottlieb skillfully tells “both sides of the story.” But what about the monsters?

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Gottlieb reminds us that, for Bertrand Russell, Rousseau was responsible for the rise of Hitler, because his idea of a general will “made possible the mystic identification of a leader with his people.” Leibniz was inclined “to confuse his own mind with that of God.” Descartes “was too quick to assume that whatever seemed to him to be necessarily true was in fact so.” Hobbes was “almost charmingly naïve” about the supposed rationality of sovereigns with absolute power. This last instance becomes especially strange when we think of Hobbes’s eloquent elaborations of what people are like when left to their own devices (“no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time . . . no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death”) but then, as Gottlieb shrewdly says, Hobbes “wanted above all to scare people by stressing the anarchy that would prevail in the absence of government.” He could idealize government on the same pretext.

Gottlieb is fully aware of the monsters in the dream, but doesn’t allow them to dominate his book. He is committed to the positive aspects of inquiry, especially where scientific advances are involved. “It is by virtue of its engagement with the special problems posed by modern science that modern philosophy is distinguished from premodern philosophy.” Gottlieb often makes fun of his philosophers, but gently, as a way of bringing us closer to them, and they emerge as brilliant, vulnerable humans rather than monsters of any kind. Descartes worried about “the divine insurance plan”; “Hobbes got rather carried away” when he told us how solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short life was. “If Leibniz had been a composer, most of his symphonies would have been unfinished.”

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Descartes gets a slightly harder ride than the others, and Gottlieb seems to have changed his mind about him since he wrote the earlier book. There his writings were described as “engaging,” and now they appear as “dubious” and “built on sand,” with Descartes himself accused of “trying to work out too much in his head.”

This last remark looks like a rather odd verdict on a philosopher, but it makes sense in the context of the book, and of course Gottlieb is not denying Descartes’s immense influence. All of Gottlieb’s chief subjects — Descartes himself, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Leibniz, Hume — are engaged, precisely and in a new way, with the world outside the head. Even geometry led to politics and social theory; advanced theoretical thought constantly engaged with the physical and mechanical sciences — for a long time these disciplines were still housed under the name of philosophy. There was plenty of room for work inside the head, of course, and as Gottlieb says, “philosophers always travel in several directions at once,” but the material world was a laboratory and an authority replacing, even for religious thinkers, the old, unappealable orders of the church.

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Thus Hobbes sought to “disentangle politics and religion.” Spinoza said, “I do not differentiate between God and Nature in the way all those known to me have done.” Locke was suspicious of unempirical theories that “make the mind sound lazier than it is.” And even Leibniz, whose interests ranged from waterworks and ­proto-computers to the secret order of the universe, insisted on the intimate relations of thought and substance, claiming “not only that matter cannot account for mind but that mind is needed to account for matter.” Hume meanwhile taught that “extrapolating from experience” was just as unreliable as other philosophers thought it was but still more trustworthy than any other methods we might imagine we have. And Descartes, despite overdoing his mental homework, did not maintain, as he is often supposed to have done, that the mind and the body are irrevocably split from each other. “He could not explain how it is that mind and body are united, but he was sure that they were.”

The “Age of Reason” is a phrase usually applied to the 18th century, but ­Gottlieb invites us to take it all the way back to Descartes’s “Discourse on Method” (1637) and his “Meditations” (1641), as long as we are willing to see reason as part of the puzzle rather than its solution. Is reason the same as enlightenment? For their conservative enemies, both are equally dangerous. ­Gottlieb’s description of his 18th-­century philosophers actually applies to all of those he discusses: “They were asking difficult questions where no questions should be asked.” Did they spread light? Of course, but they didn’t always know the answers to their questions, and this is why it is appropriate to think of enlightenment as a dream: It won’t always translate into the working day. It’s still a great achievement, of course, and Gottlieb gives the last quoted word to the French philosopher d’Alembert, who is defending knowledge against those who claim it is dangerous. He doesn’t believe “that anything would be gained by destroying it. Vices would remain with us, and we would have ignorance in ­addition.”

Michael Wood teaches at Princeton. His most recent book is “Alfred Hitchcock: The Man Who Knew Too Much.”

A version of this review appears in print on September 11, 2016, on page BR20 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: A Reasonable Age. Today’s Paper

When Law is NOT Justice

July 14, 2016

This conversation is with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, who is a university professor in the humanities at Columbia University. She is the author of “An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization,” and other books.

Brad Evans: Throughout your work, you have written about the conditions faced by the globally disadvantaged, notably in places such as India, China and Africa. How might we use philosophy to better understand the various types of violence that erupt as a result of the plight of the marginalized in the world today?

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: While violence is not beyond naming and diagnosis, it does raise many challenging questions all the same. I am a pacifist. I truly believe in the power of nonviolence. But we cannot categorically deny a people the right to resist violence, even, under certain conditions, with violence. Sometimes situations become so intolerable that moral certainties are no longer meaningful. There is a difference here between condoning such a response and trying to understand why the recourse to violence becomes inevitable.

When human beings are valued as less than human, violence begins to emerge as the only response. When one group designates another as lesser, they are saying the “inferior” group cannot think in a “reasonable” way. It is important to remember that this is an intellectual violation, and in fact that the oppressed group’s right to manual labor is not something they are necessarily denied. In fact, the oppressed group is often pushed to take on much of society’s necessary physical labor. Hence, it is not that people are denied agency; it is rather that an unreasonable or brutish type of agency is imposed on them. And, the power inherent in this physical agency eventually comes to intimidate the oppressors. The oppressed, for their part, have been left with only one possible identity, which is one of violence. That becomes their politics and it appropriates their intellect.

This brings us directly to the issue of “reasonable” versus “unreasonable” violence. When dealing with violence deemed unreasonable, the dominating groups demonize violent responses, saying that “those other people are just like that,” not just that they are worth less, but also that they are essentially evil, essentially criminal or essentially have a religion that is prone to killing.

And yet, on the other side, state-legitimized violence, considered “reasonable” by many, is altogether more frightening. Such violence argues that if a person wears a certain kind of clothing or belongs to a particular background, he or she is legally killable. Such violence is more alarming, because it is continuously justified by those in power.

B.E.: At least some violent resistance in the 20th century was tied to struggles for national liberation, whether anti-colonial or (more common in Europe) anti-fascist. Is there some new insight needed to recognize forces of domination and exploitation that are separated from nation states and yet are often explained as some return to localism and ethnicity?

G.C.S.: This is a complicated question demanding serious philosophical thought. I have just come back from the World Economic Forum, and their understanding of power and resistance is very different from that of a group such as the ethnic Muslim Rohingya who live on the western coast of Myanmar; though both are already deeply embedded in global systems of power and influence, even if from opposing sides. The Rohingya have been the victims of a slow genocide as described by Maung Zarni, Amartya Sen and others. This disrupts an Orientalist reading of Buddhism as forever the peace-loving religion. Today, we see Buddhists from Thailand, Sri Lanka and Myanmar engage in state-sanctioned violence against minorities.

The fact is that when the pro-democracy spokesperson Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest there, she could bravely work against oppressive behavior on the part of the military government. But once she was released and wanted to secure and retain power, she became largely silent on the plight of these people and has sided with the majority party, which has continued to wage violence against non-Buddhist minorities. One school of thought says that in order to bring democracy in the future, she has to align herself with the majority party now. I want to give Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi the benefit of the doubt. But when the majority party is genocidal, there is a need to address that. Aligning with them cannot possibly bring democracy.

However, rather than retreating back into focused identity politics, resistance in this context means connecting the plight of the Rohingya to global struggles, the context of which is needed in order to address any particular situation. Older, national, identity-based struggles like those you mention are less persuasive in a globalized world. All of this is especially relevant as Myanmar sets up its first stock exchange and prepares to enter the global capitalist system.

In globalization as such, when the nation states are working in the interest of global capital, democracy is reduced to body counting, which often works against educated judgments. The state is trapped in the demands of finance capital. Resistance must know about financial regulation in order to demand it. This is bloodless resistance, and it has to be learned. We must produce knowledge of these seemingly abstract globalized systems so that we can challenge the social violence of unregulated capitalism.

B.E.: What are the implications when the promotion of human rights is left to what you have called “self-appointed entrepreneurs” and philanthropists, from individuals such as Bill Gates onto organizations like the World Bank, who have a very particular conception of rights and the “rule of law?”

G.C.S.: It is just that there can be law, but law is not justice.

The passing of a law and the proof of its existence is not enough to assure effective resistance to oppression. Some of the gravest violations of rights have occurred within legal frameworks. And, if that law governs a society never trained in what Michel Foucault would call “the practice of freedom,” it is there to be enforced by force alone, and the ones thus forced will find better and better loopholes around it.

That is why the “intuition” of democracy is so vital when dealing with the poorest of the poor, groups who have come to believe their wretchedness is normal. And when it comes time to starve, they just tighten their nonexistent belts and have to suffer, fatefully accepting this in silence. It’s more than children playing with rocks in the streets. It takes over every aspect of the people’s existence. And yet these people still work, in the blazing heat, for little or next to nothing for wealthy landowners. This is a different kind of poverty.

Against this, we have this glamorization of urban poverty by the wealthier philanthropist and aid agencies. There is always a fascination with the picture-perfect idea of poverty; children playing in open sewers and the rest of it. Of course, such lives are proof of grave social injustice. But top-down philanthropy, with no interest in an education that strengthens the soul, is counterproductive, an assurance that there will be no future resistance, only instant celebrity for the philanthropist.

I say “self-appointed” entrepreneurs because there is often little or no regulation placed upon workers in the nongovernmental sector. At best, they are ad hoc workers picking up the slack for a neo-liberal state whose managerial ethos cannot be strong on redistribution,, and where structural constitutional resistance by citizens cannot be effective in the face of an unconstituted “rule of law” operating, again, to protect the efficiency of global capital growth. The human rights lobby moves in to shame the state, and in ad hoc ways restores rights. But there is then no democratic follow-up, and these organizations rarely stick around long enough to see that.

Another problem with these organizations is the way they emphasize capitalism’s social productivity without mentioning capital’s consistent need to sustain itself at the expense of curtailing the rights of some sectors of the population. This is all about the removal of access to structures of reparation: the disappearance of the welfare state, or its not coming into being at all.

If we turn to “development,” we often see that what is sustained in sustainable development is cost-effectiveness and profit-maximization, with the minimum action necessary in terms of environmental responsibility. We could call such a thing “sustainable underdevelopment.”

Today everything is about urbanization, urban studies, metropolitan concerns, network societies and so on. Nobody in policy circles talks about the capitalization of land and how this links directly to the dispossession of people’s rights. This is another line of inquiry any consideration of violence must take into account.

B.E.: While you have shown appreciation for a number of thinkers known for their revolutionary interventions, such as Frantz Fanon, you have also critiqued the limits of their work when it comes to issues of gender and the liberation of women. Why?

G.C.S.: I stand by my criticism of Fanon, but he is not alone here. In fact he is like most other men who talk about revolutionary struggle. Feminist struggle can’t be learned from them. And yet, in “A Dying Colonialism,” Fanon is really trying from within to understand the position of women by asking questions about patriarchal structures of domination.

After the revolution, in postcolonial Algeria and elsewhere, those women who were part of the struggle had to separate themselves from revolutionary liberation organizations that were running the state in order to continue fighting for their rights under separate initiatives. Gender is bigger and older than state formations and its fight is older than the fight for national liberation or the fight between capitalism and socialism. So we have to let questions of gender interrupt these revolutionary ideas, otherwise revolution simply reworks marked gender divisions in societies.

B.E.: You are clearly committed to the power of education based on aesthetic practices, yet you want to challenge the canonical Western aesthetic ideas from which they are derived using your concepts of “imaginative activism” and “affirmative sabotage.” How can this work?

G.C.S.: Imaginative activism takes the trouble to imagine a text — understood as a textile, woven web rather than narrowly as a printed page — as having its own demands and prerogatives. This is why the literary is so important. The simplest teaching of literature was to grasp the vision of the writer. This was disrupted in the 1960s by the preposterous concern “Is this book of relevance to me?” which represented a tremendous assault on the literary, a tremendous group narcissism. For literature to be meaningful it should not necessarily be of obvious relevance. That is the aesthetic challenge, to imagine that which is not immediately apparent. This can fight what is implicit in voting bloc democracy. Relevant to me, rather than flexible enough to work for others who are not like me at all. The inbuilt challenge of democracy – needing an educated, not just informed, electorate.

I used the term “affirmative sabotage” to gloss on the usual meaning of sabotage: the deliberate ruining of the master’s machine from the inside. Affirmative sabotage doesn’t just ruin; the idea is of entering the discourse that you are criticizing fully, so that you can turn it around from inside. The only real and effective way you can sabotage something this way is when you are working intimately within it.

This is particularly the case with the imperial intellectual tools, which have been developed not just upon the shoulders, but upon the backs of people for centuries. Let’s take as a final example what Immanuel Kant says when developing his “Critique of Aesthetic Judgment.” Not only does Kant insist that we need to imagine another person, he also insists for the need to internalize it to such an extent that it becomes second nature to think and feel with the other person.

Leaving aside the fact that Kant doesn’t talk about slavery whatsoever in his book, he even states that women and domestic servants are incapable of the civic imagination that would make them capable of cosmopolitan thinking. But, if you really think about it, it’s women and domestic servants who were actually trained to think and feel like their masters. They constantly had to put themselves in the master’s shoes, to enter into their thoughts and desires so much that it became second nature for them to serve.

So this is how one sabotages. You accept the unbelievable and unrelenting brilliance of Kant’s work, while confronting the imperial qualities he reproduces and showing the contradictions in this work. It is, in effect, to jolt philosophy with a reality check. It is to ask, for example, if this second-naturing of women, servants and others can be done without coercion, constraint and brainwashing. And, when the ruling race or class claims the right to do this, is there a problem of power being ignored in all their claimed benevolence? What would educated resistance look like in this case? It would misfire, because society is not ready for it. For that reason, one must continue to work — to quote Marx — for the possibility of a poetry of the future.

 Now in print: “The Stone Reader: Modern Philosophy in 133 Arguments,” an anthology of essays from The Times’s philosophy series, edited by Peter Catapano and Simon Critchley, published by Liveright Books.

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