Humanity and Pliny the Younger

One of the many disappointing features of contemporary classical scholarship is its guarded detachment from the modes of engagement that lead people to love Greek and Latin literature in the first place. The ancient Mediterranean world holds many and diverse attractions, but ordinary readers of great classical authors such as Homer, Sophocles, Thucydides, Vergil, Horace, or Tacitus tend to enjoy their works because they appeal to the heart and the mind in distinctively rewarding ways, presenting us with visions of human life and action that are worth taking seriously even when they venture so far into the land of myth that there can be no question of whether to believe them. They’re also just extremely entertaining, even if only to somewhat refined and dorky tastes. Scholarship, however, frequently approaches these works not as products of thought and expression intended to engage our emotions and our intellects on matters of serious human concern, nor even as high-brow entertainment meant to amuse us, but as exercises in the ideological manipulation of appearances, moves in a discursive game whereby power relations are negotiated, typically in the service of the status quo and those whose interests it promotes — or so it often goes when literature is not seen instead as an ultimately frivolous indulgence in rhetorical artistry wherein authors compete for the number and complexity of erudite allusions they can cram into their works and scholars compete for the number and complexity of erudite allusions they can convince other scholars to talk about. Very little scholarly work on Greek or Latin literature these days approaches these texts as sources of potential insight into human life, as offering some perspective that might well be, if not exactly true, at least good to think with. In fact, many scholars scoff at this kind of approach and seem somewhat embarrassed when someone in the room seriously articulates it. They describe it condescendingly as ‘humanism,’ where being a ‘humanist’ correlates with being a naive simpleton who probably wears tweed jackets with elbow patches, smokes a pipe, and would definitely be more at home in 1917 than in 2017.

It would be an unjust exaggeration to pretend that professional classicists these days have uniformly relegated old-fashioned humanistic approaches to literature to the early chapters of graduate student handbooks on theory, the chapters reserved for unsophisticated ideas that we need to understand but that none of us should ever espouse. Some other academic disciplines seem to have done so, but Classics, at least in North America, is decidedly more conservative than most other disciplines, and so traditional humanistic attitudes live on, often in combination with more sociological and cultural theoretical approaches. A great deal of undergraduate teaching by classicists probably continues to embody humanistic attitudes. My own undergraduate education might have been unusually oldschool, but in every department I’ve taught there have been at least a few professors who teach Greek and Latin literature as something we might learn from and not merely about. In scholarship, too, there are exceptions, but they are certainly exceptions. If you want to read a recent academic work that takes Greek or Latin literature and thought seriously on its own terms, your best bet is to avoid work by classicists and look instead to work written by philosophers or political theorists. Generalizations like this one always need qualification, but suffice to say that one of the reasons I ended up specializing in Greek philosophy instead of Greek literature is that scholars working on Greek philosophy standardly take the material they study seriously on its own terms.

One of the my earliest confrontations with this disheartening feature of contemporary classical scholarship came in an undergraduate class on Pliny the Younger. Pliny’s letters are fascinating documents that ought to be extremely enjoyable to read, but the secondary literature assigned for the class led me to despise Pliny almost as much as I despised the scholarship. The general interpretive strategy seemed to be: ah, Pliny wants us to think that these are just letters he wrote to people that he’s now thrown together for publication, but in fact these are all carefully crafted compositions, and their main raison d’être is to make Pliny look good, to parade his erudition and his skill and particularly his social connections; these are not charming portraits of Roman life, articulations of serious ideas, or expressions of genuine sentiment, but elaborate social posturing, subtle political machinations, partially concealed manifestations of a narcissistic obsession with managing and controlling Pliny’s public image. It is of course true that Pliny’s letters are meticulously crafted with a view to creating a particular impression of who he is. But that does not in principle conflict with supposing that in fact the letters are charming portraits of Roman life, articulations of serious ideas, and expressions of genuine sentiment. Yet the overwhelming drift of the scholarship we read in Latin 403 was that we cannot or at least should not take Pliny seriously once we have recognized this dimension of the letters; it is not simply an added dimension, it is their real purpose, and we scholars have peeled Pliny’s mask away to reveal the reality underneath, a bundle of anxiety and desperate efforts to negotiate conflicting power relations.

I like to think that it would have been easy to refute this kind of thing had Facebook already been around in my undergraduate days; in the age of social media, it now seems axiomatic that one can be intensely anxious about one’s public self-representation and sincere in one’s efforts to communicate serious ideas or sincere emotions. I tried to maintain that view at the time, but to no avail. Ultimately, even though I rejected the let’s-unmask-Pliny’s-anxieties-and-social-posturing approach, the whole experience made me incapable of enjoying Pliny’s letters for years. Still today, when I read them, I’m left with that unpleasant taste in my mouth, and one way or another Pliny and this sort of approach to him have become emblematic of everything that I dislike about contemporary scholarly approaches to classical literature. Well, not everything, but pretty close to everything.

For all that, it’s still possible to read Pliny as a human being. This morning I found myself reading Letter IX.33 and feeling disgusted with human cruelty to non-human animals and ashamed of my own complicity in it. Here’s the letter:

To Caninius: I HAVE met with a story, which, although authenticated by undoubted evidence, looks very like fable, and would afford a worthy field for the exercise of so exuberant, lofty, and truly poetical a genius as your own. It was related to me the other day over the dinner table, where the conversation happened to run upon various kinds of marvels. The person who told the story was a man of unsuspected veracity:—but what has a poet to do with truth? However, you might venture to rely upon his testimony, even though you had the character of a faithful historian to support. There is in Africa a town called Hippo, situated not far from the seacoast: it stands upon a navigable lake communicating with an estuary in the form of a river, which alternately flows into the lake, or into the ocean, according to the ebb and flow of the tide. People of all ages amuse themselves here with fishing, sailing, or swimming; especially boys, whom love of play brings to the spot. With these it is a fine and manly achievement to be able to swim the farthest; and he that leaves the shore and his companions at the greatest distance gains the victory. It happened, in one of these trials of skill, that a certain boy, bolder than the rest, launched out towards the opposite shore. He was met by a dolphin, who sometimes swam before him, and sometimes behind him, then played round him, and at last took him upon his back, and set him down, and afterwards took him again; and thus he carried the poor frightened fellow out into the deepest part; when immediately he turns back again to the shore, and lands him among his companions. The fame of this remarkable accident spread through the town, and crowds of people flocked round the boy (whom they viewed as a kind of prodigy) to ask him questions and hear him relate the story. The next day the shore was thronged with spectators, all attentively watching the ocean, and (what indeed is almost itself an ocean) the lake. Meanwhile the boys swam as usual, and among the rest, the boy I am speaking of went into the lake, but with more caution than before. The dolphin appeared again and came to the boy, who, together with his companions, swam away with the utmost precipitation. The dolphin, as though to invite and call them back, leaped and dived up and down, in a series of circular movements. This he practised the next day, the day after, and for several days together, till the people (accustomed from their infancy to the sea) began to be ashamed of their timidity. They ventured, therefore, to advance nearer, playing with him and calling him to them, while he, in return, suffered himself to be touched and stroked. Use rendered them courageous. The boy, in particular, who first made the experiment, swam by the side of him, and leaping upon his back, was carried backwards and forwards in that manner, and thought the dolphin knew him and was fond of him, while he too had grown fond of the dolphin. There seemed now, indeed, to be no fear on either side, the confidence of the one and tameness of the other mutually increasing; the rest of the boys, in the meanwhile surrounding and encouraging their companion. It is very remarkable that this dolphin was followed by a second, which seemed only as a spectator and attendant on the former; for he did not at all submit to the same familiarities as the first, but only escorted him backwards and forwards, as the boys did their comrade. But what is further surprising, and no less true than what I have already related, is that this dolphin, who thus played with the boys and carried them upon his back, would come upon the shore, dry himself in the sand, and, as soon as he grew warm, roll back into the sea. It is a fact that Octavius Avitus, deputy governor of the province, actuated by an absurd piece of superstition, poured some ointment over him as he lay on the shore: the novelty and smell of which made him retire into the ocean, and it was not till several days after that he was seen again, when he appeared dull and languid; however, he recovered his strength and continued his usual playful tricks. All the magistrates round flocked hither to view this sight, whose arrival and prolonged stay, was an additional expense, which the slender finances of this little community would ill afford; besides, the quiet and retirement of the place was utterly destroyed. It was thought proper, therefore, to remove the occasion of this concourse, by privately killing the poor dolphin. And now, with what a flow of tenderness will you describe this affecting catastrophe! and how will your genius adorn and heighten this moving story! Though, indeed the subject does not require any fictitious embellishments; it will be sufficient to describe the actual facts of the case without suppression or diminution. Farewell.

Naturally enough, there’s a lot we could say about this letter, and only some of it will have to do with human indifference to the welfare of other animals (some of it will have to do with the economic idiocy of paying for tourists’ entertainment rather than charging them for it). If we go the route of unmasking Pliny’s self-aggrandizing purposes, we might note that though the letter takes the form of a suggestion to Caninius to put this story into literary form, Pliny has himself just put it into literary form and thereby displayed his narrative skills, so that perhaps his suggestion to Caninius is disingenuous and the letter is something like a literary humble brag. Fair enough. But the story of these jackasses in Roman Africa and the poor friendly dolphin that they killed because they were too stupid to recognize the obvious solution to their economic difficulty is where the real action is in this letter.

Here was a genuine marvel, an animal so different from us and yet so intelligent and sociable, something to be seen and appreciated, something perhaps even calling for reverence and respect, and yet people — supposedly so elevated above other animals by our reason and intelligence — basely destroy it because it became economically inconvenient, though the inconvenience was solely the product of human foolishness (in this case, partially political foolishness; nobody thought to charge a fee for the entertainment because the people who wanted to be entertained were mostly Roman political officials, and, well, why should they have to pay to see a dolphin?). We might like to think that we are less cruel to animals, less willing to subordinate their lives and welfare to crass economic considerations. But that’s not true. We’ve invented whole new forms of cruelty and simply hide them from ourselves most of the time. These Romans killed one dolphin because it was costing them money; we torture millions of animals to save a little bit of cash.

Such, at any rate, were the thoughts I found myself with while reading Pliny’s letter this morning. They are, of course, not the stuff of scholarship. But even at my most charitable I cannot avoid concluding that too much contemporary classical scholarship obstructs this kind of non-scholarly, humanistic reading. Consider, by contrast, a footnote to the letter as printed in the Harvard Classics edition of 1914:

The overflowing humanity of Pliny’s temper breaks out upon all occasions, but he discovers it in nothing more strongly than by the impression which this little story appears to have made upon him. True benevolence, indeed, extends itself through the whole compass of existence, and sympathizes with the distress of every creature of sensation. Little minds may be apt to consider a compassion of this inferior kind as an instance of weakness; but it is undoubtedly the evidence of a noble nature. Homer thought it not unbecoming the character even of a hero to melt into tears at a distress of this sort, and has given us a most amiable and affecting picture of Ulysses weeping over his faithful dog Argus, when he expires at his feet:
“Soft pity touch’d the mighty master’s soul;
Adown his cheek the tear unbidden stole,
Stole unperceived; he turn’d his head and dry’d
The drop humane.”… (Odyss. xvii. Pope.)

Few prominent classical scholars today would write a footnote anything like that, even for a popular audience. It is not simply that they will object to talk of ‘humanity’ and of Pliny’s ‘temper’ on quasi-epistemological grounds, but that to approach literature with this kind of broadly ethical orientation is regarded as fundamentally unscholarly when not embarrassingly naive. Yet I, at least, do not know why else literature is worth reading if not because it offers engaging perspectives on human life that are worth taking seriously on their own terms.

The moral of the story, then: go read Pliny, but don’t bother with much recent scholarship on Pliny. Meanwhile, enjoy these dolphins playing with a cat:

32 thoughts on “Humanity and Pliny the Younger

  1. Wishful thinking, but it would be nice to think that the story Pliny recounts is apocryphal.

    I’ve always felt guilty for having read almost no classical scholarship at all, but the classical scholarship I have read turns out (for obvious reasons) to consist of exceptions to your rule. So I’m curious what you think of it. I’ve read a bit of Bernard Knox and a bit of Froma Zeitlin. Every now and then I’ll read a piece from the journal Arion. Are Knox and Zeitlin outlying exceptions to the rule? Or are they considered outmoded old-fogies? Likewise Arion, as a journal: is it taken seriously in the field, or is it considered lightweight “humanistic” fluff? My own undergraduate encounter with classics was in a two-semester comp lit course, done in what might be called “a neo-Great Books” style, starting with Homer and ending with Dostoevsky (and moving through Sophocles, the Bible, Plato, Ovid, Dante, Milton, Montaigne, Rabelais, and Diderot). It was one of the most memorable intellectual experiences of my life.

    I wonder why classical studies is the way you say it is. I’ve heard historians of post-Renaissance material make the same complaint as you do about their field (I specifically remember James McPherson, the Civil War historian, complaining about it), and yet there seems no shortage of books by historians intended for an educated lay audience. I happen right now to be reading Christopher Hill’s semi-popular/semi-scholarly books on the Stuart kings and the English Civil War (for insight into Locke). They strike me as models of the right way to write non-specialist historiography. (I also recently read Nancy Isenberg’s now-famous White Trash, which strikes me as a model of the wrong way to do it.) But I guess my question here is, if modern historians can do it, why do classicists have such trouble?

    Granted, the “it” is somewhat different in each case, and involves different issues, but in either case the question is whether and to what extent it’s possible to produce rigorous scholarship for non-specialists that speaks to “humanist” concerns that we all confront qua human.

    Totally irrelevant name-dropping: it just occurred to me that you might know Hilary Mackie, who teaches classics at Rice. She was the TA for my undergraduate Plato class, taught (in the Philosophy Dept) by Michael Frede.

    PS. Another exception to your rule whose work I’ve read: Daniel Mendelsohn. My point isn’t to adduce “counter-examples” to your generalization so much as to figure out how these exceptions-to-the-rule that I happen to know are seen within the mainstream of the field.


    • Knox was considered old-fashioned already in the 1980’s, when Zeitlin was regarded as cutting edge. I myself have much higher regard for Knox’s work, but what I dislike in Zeitlin is not what I was griping about above. I’m not as familiar with Mendelsohn’s work; my sense is that he is respected for what he does but not regarded as a scholar so much as a kind of high-brow popularizer (which is an ok thing to be; to be a middle-brow popularizer may not be unforgivable, but it at least requires forgiveness); certainly his translations of Cavafy are well regarded, but as I’ve learned, translation is not widely regarded as real scholarship. In any case, Mendelsohn writes books that ordinary people actually read, so by that criterion alone he is at best a marginal figure in the field.

      Classics, though, is a pretty diverse field and less given to fashion than some other disciplines, so there’s a pretty tremendous range of approaches and older ideas tend to survive a little more often. So it’s not as though the majority of stuff being done these days is just awful, and ultimately I think much of what’s wrong with it is not so much what it does as what it doesn’t do. I’ve read very little recent stuff that conveys the same kind of intellectual and aesthetic excitement that Knox’s works tend to have, and precious little that is as accessible or interesting to non-specialists. Granted, I haven’t read all of it, so maybe there’s more good stuff out there than I know. I should also be clear that I’m thinking particularly of scholarship on ‘literature’ here, not of work in history, archaeology, and the like; I might just have different expectations of that sort of stuff, or simply know less of it, but I’ve never found myself thinking that ancient history or classical archaeology as fields are dominated by bad intellectual trends (though it’s not hard to find cases of bad reasoning, and the reduction of human life to power relations is not uncommon enough in those fields for my tastes). It’s also my impression that the kind of thing I’m griping about is more common in scholarship on Latin literature than on Greek literature; it’s very possible that I have that impression because I’ve read considerably less on Latin literature, but one of the reasons I’ve read so much less is that I found so little of it rewarding. To be clear, much of it has its impressive virtues; philologists can find incredibly dense and rich layers of meaning in a single line of poetry, can relate one text to a huge variety of others, can set texts in a complicated web of literary, intellectual, political, and cultural contexts. There’s no denying the erudition and skill that goes into much of it. But there’s a reason why hardly anybody reads most scholarship on Greek and Latin literature except for other scholars of Greek and Latin literature, beyond the usual effects of specialized study; much of it offers few or no rewards to people whose interests are of a more general humanistic sort (I suspect this is a large part of the reason why you haven’t read much of it). By contrast, Knox is fantastic, and so even is Zeitlin in her way, despite her excessive indulgence in cramming every text into some kind of Structuralist binary and her needlessly pretentious and obscure writing style. Knox, at any rate, shows that it is possible to produce rigorous scholarship that is accessible and interesting to non-specialists. But accessibility is only a minor part of my general complaint; the bigger problem is that so much work does nothing to enrich the experience and appreciation of literature as ordinary non-scholars would be interested in it, however hard they’d have to labor to appreciate it.

      In short, there is plenty of intellectually sophisticated stuff out there and even some stuff that is genuinely interesting, however flawed in execution. But if I’m asked to recommend something even to a well read academic from another discipline with more than purely pragmatic scholarly interests, I can’t think of much recent stuff that’s really worthwhile. Even some things that I think are quite good and informative are nonetheless written in a way that seems designed to bar entry to anyone who is actually enthusiastic about the material.

      In any case, a truly fair and judicious assessment of the state of contemporary classical scholarship would have to be much more nuanced and complex. But it is no accident that my relationship with Latin literature in particular has only just begun to become reconciled now that I’ve been able to read it without the mediation of contemporary scholarly frameworks.

      Pliny himself seems to wonder whether the story is apocryphal. If I were a Latin literature scholar, I might write an entire article about the dynamics of reality and representation in Pliny and how reality doesn’t matter because experience is always mediated through representations. But I am thankfully free from that burden.

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      • Another old-fashioned example of rigorous but accessible classical scholarship would be Arthur Adkins. I hesitate to include him in part because he wrote only incidentally about literature and in part because so much of his work is deeply flawed; he basically assumed that Richard Hare’s prescriptivist meta-ethics is true and that Kant’s moral philosophy is criterial of the very concept of morality, and then produced a distorted caricature of Greek ethics as a result. But his scholarship is impressive in many other respects and yet his work is readable and interesting to anybody who cares about that sort of thing. Jasper Griffin’s Homer on Life and Death is a fantastic book that I would recommend to undergraduates; he doesn’t do his most rigorous scholarship there, but he also doesn’t dumb down or simply repeat his earlier work in a simpler form, either. So there is definitely not anything about classics in general that prohibits the mixture of rigor, accessibility, and humanistic significance.

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  2. Coincidentally, here is a pretty good example of the kind of approach to literature that has become prominent in classics and for which I have virtually no time: It’s about the Harry Potter books, but by a classicist.

    It’s hard to know what to single out as the particularly irritating features. There’s bad argument, with much of the case depending on bald assertions of non-obvious and disputable claims for which the only support offered is a citation of a beloved theorist or two; there’s bad interpretation, with several important claims that are probably false and others that seem dubious, and a lack of anything remotely resembling the principle of charity; there’s the refusal to allow the possibility that a text might be complex, with some of its layers critiquing or casting doubt on others or inviting readers to do so; there’s the subordination of everything to a hopelessly vague, platitudinous, almost entirely negative politics of equality and liberation. The only major feature missing is the failure to recognize that literature is written to be read and enjoyed and is not merely some kind of statement of ideological principles, a tool exercising its ideological influence over purely passive recipients, or, worse, just a medium through which an ideologically nefarious “discourse” speaks. Because it lacks that last feature, it doesn’t quite depart entirely from the modes of engagement that ever induce anyone to read literature in the first place, but it’s not particularly hard to see why this approach would leave one hating particular pieces of literature, and particularly ancient Greek and Latin literature, since it all fails to pass the test of political purity by being insufficiently egalitarian.

    Too much classical scholarship — if it can even be called scholarship — these days is like that. This piece adds the now standard trope of online journalism, criticizing some widely beloved thing in order to get hits from angry people. So it will be read by more people than most classics journal articles. Take away that bit of sensationalism, and you can see why hardly anybody reads classical scholarship. Note that Knox’s books on Sophocles are still in print.

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    • I came as close to “reading” that Harry Potter piece as was possible to me. Not having read any of the Harry Potter books, or watched any of the films, I literally have no idea what the author is talking about. But her claims seem so at odds with things I’ve read and heard (and edited: e.g., the Reason Papers issue devoted to Harry Potter) that the argument strains credulity.

      Have read Knox on Homer and on Sophocles and found it extremely useful.


  3. Apologies for being a worse-than-usual correspondent, a failure that involves a descent from a fairly low baseline. I’m going to adduce the half-exculpatory excuse that I’ve been traveling: I’m currently writing from a Spartan hotel room in East Jerusalem after a ten hour flight (on United), and several days of frenetic, last-minute preparations that I seem to repeat every year without ever learning to do things differently “next time.” But twelve hours of sleep and two cups of Arabic coffee seem to have cured me.

    I’m starting with this post for now, but will try to get back to as many conversations as I’ve recently begun and abandoned as possible. May not get back to them all, however. Probably will not.

    So everything you say up there makes sense (full stop), but here’s a separate thought on the same general topic: I’ve been re-reading Said’s Orientalism pretty closely to prepare for teaching it (and maybe writing about it), and while reading it today, an explanation occurred to me regarding the attitude you describe, relevant to what you’ve said so far, but approaching it from a very different angle. I’m just curious what you think about it.

    Said’s thesis is that “Orientalism” names the Western attempt to come to terms with an entity called “the Orient,” by deploying its cultural and political resources against this entity, and by implication against its members. “Orientalism” so understood is simultaneously an academic discipline, an aesthetic, and a political ideology: though we can analyze each of the three elements in isolation from the others, doing so distorts our understanding of the phenomenon; Orientalism-the-phenomenon is a systematic, integration of those three things. I won’t bother to recapitulate his argument, but his conclusion is that every Orientalist is, whether by intention or not, complicitous or implicated (or “imbricated”) in “the West’s” imperial designs on “the Orient”: there was no way to be part of the academic discipline or the aesthetic movement without simulataneously being part of the imperial project.

    (Two quick clarifications: (a) For Said, “West” and “Orient” are ideological fictions, but the West’s imperial designs are real; his point is that the fictions facilitated the designs. (b) By stipulation, Said deals with the “Near Orient,” i.e., the Islamic-Arab Middle East, but suggests that similar claims could in principle be made of the Far(ther) Orient as well. “Islamic-Arab Middle East” is flexibly construed to focus on the Arabian peninsula plus Egypt, while ranging over North Africa in the west and Iran in the east. Turkey gets left out, as do Central and South Asia. India occasionally gets mentioned, but in an ad hoc way.)

    Interestingly, one topic that comes up a lot in the literature on Orientalism is its similarity (or not) to classical studies. On one (non-Saidian) reading, “Orientalism” is simply classical philology (and ultimately, classical studies generally) applied to the non-Western world. For purely contingent terminological reasons, the old conception of classical studies makes a “humanist” of the classicist, but makes an “Orientalist” (rather than a “humanist”) of the classicist-who-studies-the-Orient. But they’re really doing more or less the same thing, and for the same reasons.

    The old-school humanist does with Western literature what you’re saying that contemporary classicists fail to do: write for a non-specialist audience, and address distinctively human concerns. The Orientalist does more or less the same thing with “Oriental” literature. (No one seems to have the capacity to do both things at once–classical humanism and Orientalism.) Of course, when “Oriental” literature is at issue, the literature in question ends up focusing on sacred texts. When the topic is Islam (or “Islamic civilization”), scholarship pivots around the Qur’an: there’s “pre-Islamic literature” (which is treated in a manner analogous to “pre-Socratic philosophy”) and then there’s the “literature of Islam,” for which the Qur’an is central. There’s also (for better or worse) a tendency within the Orientalist (academic) literature to explain bits of “civilizational behavior” in the Islamic world by reference to norms or prescriptions found in the Qur’an and associated literature.

    Said goes out of his way to dispute the Orientalism/classical humanist analogy. Orientalism, he insists, was tied to imperialism in a way that classical philology and classical humanism were not. So (he continues) it’s absurd to mention the two in the same breath. In a famous critique of Orientalism, Bernard Lewis insists that the analogy between classical studies and Orientalism holds: Orientalism was just classical philology/humanism carried out on Oriental texts. Just as it would be absurd to regard classical philologists as anti-Hellenic imperialists, so it’s absurd to regard Orientalist scholars as anti-Arab or anti-Muslim imperialists (Bernard Lewis, “The Question of Orientalism,” New York Review of Books, June 24, 1982; Said responds to Lewis in the 1994 Afterword to the second edition of Orientalism.)

    So here is my speculation: Could classical scholars implicitly have adopted a position intermediate between Said and Lewis? In other words, could classical scholars early on in their training have come to the view that there is a sense in which classical philology and/or classical humanism were tied, not necessarily to imperialism, but to a reactionary form of politics on par with imperialism?

    For Said, what makes Orientalism objectionable is its “essentialism,” its tendency to “reify” large-scale civilizational abstractions (“the Orient,” “Islam,” “the Arab Mind,” etc.), to regard these abstractions as involving timeless truths about the identity of the items in question, and to regard these truths as fundamentally apolitical, that is, unaffected by determination by material considerations. (This is the start of an answer to a question you asked re a different post, but I’ll address it more directly when I get the chance.)

    I wonder if classical scholars employed an analogous sort of reasoning about the older approach to classics. On this view, what makes classical humanism objectionable is the vaulting ambition of its claims: because it claims to speak for human beings qua human (a hubristic undertaking by definition), humanism inevitably privileges some reactionary political vision in just the way (and for just the reason) that Orientalism did, on Said’s interpretation of Orientalism? (This is really just one part of a larger indictment, but it’s enough to constitute probable cause of a felony.) On this view, humanism of the sort you’re championing in your post would inevitably become (Saidian) Orientalism carried on in the West. In other words, instead of dominating Orientals (as Orientalist imperialism did), classical humanism would come to dominate the most vulnerable members of “Western” culture: women, ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, etc.

    Bottom line for this hypothetical “intermediate” view: Said was right to indict Orientalism but wrong to exonerate classical humanism: classical humanism is just as bad as Orientalism, and in much the same ways. Meanwhile, Lewis was wrong about both things: he was an apologist both for Orientalist imperialism and for classical humanist oppression. (In fact, Said himself sometimes seems to adopt this “intermediate” view himself, but in general, I find his claims about “humanism” incoherent.)

    If the problem with humanist-type classical studies is its over-ambition, an obvious prescription would be to narrow the scope of those ambitions. Another prescription would be to inject a healthy dose of Foucault-inspired discourse theory into scholarship: after all, if precisely that strategy worked for the study of post-colonial literature, why wouldn’t it work just as well on the study of the classics? Which seems to get us to the sort of scholarship that bothers you so much. (I should say that I myself have no worked-out view, whether negative or positive, on Foucault, Foucault-inspired theorizing, post-colonial theory, or contemporary classical studies. I haven’t read enough in any of these fields to have a strong view. I’ll just say that I’ve read some things I’ve liked, and some that I’ve hated, without being able to come to an overall verdict on any of them.)

    Further speculation: Think back to when the currently-successful generation of classicists (people who are now tenured professors of classics at major universities) were undergraduates. The text du jour was Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987), and the cause celebre of the day (among conservatives, or at least those who sympathized with Bloom) was the desire to rescue “the glorious works of Western civilization” from its multicultural antagonists. I was an undergraduate in the years 1987-1991, and during that time was an intern at the National Association of Scholars (NAS), spearhead of the pro-Bloom Western Culturalist cause, with offices on Nassau Street in Princeton, New Jersey. So I saw the political machinations of the academic right up close and in person. Whatever its liberal-friendly rhetoric, NAS was obviously a conservative organization in the political sense: it wasn’t just out to defend traditional approaches to textual scholarship; it was out to defang, defund, and defeat “political correctness” in a more generally right-wing way. And it enlisted a large number of scholars, among them some classicists, in that project.

    It’s easy, thirty years after the fact, to underplay the influence of Bloom & Co., but grant (ex hypothesi) that he (or they) had enormous influence. It sounds like handwaving, but I think it has some resonance: “humanism” had come to be associated with people like Bloom, various Straussians, and (for lack of a better way of putting it) people of similarly right-wing ilk. In other words, humanism (classical or otherwise) had become yucky. The correct image of the classicist-humanist is not the relatively benign one you offer: a naive, pipe-smoking simpleton with elbow patches, but a scary Straussian like Allan Bloom or an even scarier philosopher drug-czar like William Bennett. Recall that Bloom and Bennett were once political collaborators, and that Bennett (and then Lynne Cheney, wife of Dick Cheney) was the head of the National Endowment of the Humanities. Recall also that people like Harry Jaffa, Harvey Mansfield, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Irving Kristol were all part of this coterie. It doesn’t really matter that few (=none) of these people were classicists in the precise sense of that term. What matters is that both “humanism” and “the classics” got associated with them in a way that made left-leaning people uncomfortable to be associated with a humanistic approach to the classics.

    If so, budding classicists getting their degrees in the late 1980s and early 1990s might well have cringed at the very of a humanist-driven classicism. It’s worth noting that Orientalism preceded Closing of the American Mind by about a decade (published 1978 in the US, 1979 in the UK). In doing so, it (Orientalism) had inaugurated or at least accelerated the development of a distinctive sort of post-colonial and multicultural theorizing, most of it leftist in orientation. If you were a classicist “growing up” in this milieu, you might have felt pressure, however inchoate, to “choose sides” between the Straussians and the Saidians.

    Never mind that the Straussian/Saidian dichotomy is neither exclusive nor exhaustive, and never mind that it doesn’t cut the world at its joints. The point is, in an inchoate way, a budding classics scholar might still have perceived the implicit contrast between the two camps, and felt the need to pick a side. Indeed, the Saidian camp might have seemed more attractive than the Straussian on grounds of “fruitfulness” alone: by 1990, Saidian post-colonialists and multiculturalists had a proven track-record of peer reviewed publications to their name; the Straussians didn’t. Of course, if faced with the live option of having to choose between an alliance with Homi Bhaba or one with Harry Jaffa, I might have been stymied into the posture of Buridan’s Ass, and would probably just have collapsed into a heap of despair. But then, I wasn’t a classicist.

    My point is, if your politics were left, or sufficiently left, you might be inclined to recoil against the “Straussian-humanist” option, and decide to “Saidize” classical studies–in other words, to do to (or with) classical texts what your friends and colleagues in the English Department were doing with post-colonial texts. Admittedly, I have no data in hand to prove that this is what classicists were thinking. Nor do I mean that it’s the one determinative factor. I just offer it as a plausible (to me) speculation re one relevant explanatory factor.

    Let me post this for now. If I get the chance, I’ll post two relevant passages from Orientalism that throw interesting light on all this.

    Scary what a little Arabic coffee can do for one’s loquacity.


    • So here is the first set of passages from Orientalism that I mentioned. “Orientalism” as Said conceives of it stretches across the entire expanse of Western civilization; it has roots (he says) in Homer, Aeschylus, and Euripides. He only alludes in passing to Homer, but briefly discusses The Persians and The Bacchae.

      But his real focus is the form Orientalism has taken in the last two centuries. In the third part of the book, then, he discusses twentieth century Orientalism. His point in the passages below is that Anglo-French Orientalism, the predominant form before World War II, was humanistic in orientation. By contrast, American Orientalism, predominant after the war, took its bearings from social science.

      The passages I’m about to quote precede a long discussion/critique of the work of Louis Massignon and H.A.R. Gibb, each a representative of old-school twentieth century Anglo-French (or Franco-English) Orientalism.

      Because we have become accustomed to think of a contemporary expert on some branch of the Orient, or some aspects of its life, as a specialist in “area studies,” we have lost a vivid sense of how, until around World War II, the Orientalist was considered to be a generalist (with a great deal of specific knowledge, of course), who had highly developed skills for making summational statements. By summational statements I mean that in formulating a relatively uncomplicated idea, say, about Arabic grammar or Indian religion, the Orientalist would be understood (and would understand himself) as also making a statement about the Orient as a whole, thereby summing it up. Thus every discrete study of one bit of Oriental material would also confirm in a summary way the profound Orientality of the material. And since it was commonly believed that the whole Orient hung together in some profoundly organic way, it made perfectly good hermeneutic sense for the Orientalist scholar to regard the material evidence he dealt with as ultimately leading to a better understanding of such things as the Oriental character, mind, ethos, or world-spirit. (p. 255)

      So the Orientalist is by vocation–qua Orientalist–a generalist and in that sense a humanist. Granted, we reserve the word “humanist” for those who study Western texts, but Said’s point is, the Orientalist is still in some sense a humanist, whether we explicitly call him that or not. It’s perhaps instructive that we don’t call him a humanist, as if to imply that the Orientalist studies a form of humanity that never quite measures up to the human qua human, but remains mired in a more parochial ethnic identity.

      A few pages later, Said attributes this “summational” attitude to Massignon and Gibb:

      Therefore, in the best Orientalist work done during the interwar period–represented in the impressive careers of Massignon and Gibb himself–we will find elements in common with the best humanistic scholarship of the period. Thus the summational attitude of which I spoke earlier can be regarded as the Orientalist equivalent of attempts in the purely Western humanities to understand culture as a whole, antipositivistically, intuitively, sympathetically. Both the Orientalist and the non-Orientalist [humanist] begin with the sense that Western culture is passing through an important phase, whose main feature is the crisis imposed on it by such threats as barbarism, narrow technical concerns, moral aridity, strident nationalism, and so forth. The idea of using specific texts, for instance, to work from the specific to the general (to understand the whole life of a period and consequently of a culture) is common to those humanists in the West inspired by the work of Wilhelm Dilthey, as well as to towering Orientalist scholars like Massignon and Gibb. The project of revitalizing philology–as it is found in the work of Curtius, Vossler, Auerbach, Spitzer, Gundolf, Hoffmannsthal–has its counterpart therefore in the invigorations provided to strictly technical Orientalist philology by Massignon’s studies of what he called the mystical lexicon, the vocabulary of Islamic devotion, and so on (p. 258).

      There’s a lot going on here, I’ll grant, and the relevance to your original post may not be obvious. The passage is not about classical studies per se, a fortiori not about how we should read classical Greek and Latin texts. My broader point is that it’s about humanism in the more general sense invoked by your post.

      What I find interesting and relevant is Said’s conceptualizing Western humanism and Orientalism as species of a common genus–with Orientalism, in effect, as the junior partner of the pair. What Said focuses on in the pages that follow is Orientalism’s parasitic relationship on and general intellectual inferiority to Western humanism; the focus is on Orientalism rather than Western humanism, but some of what he says about the latter suggests that the indictment against Orientalism could in principle be made against humanism. He doesn’t quite come out and say that Western humanism is (qua humanism) guilty of malfeasances on par with Orientalist imperialism. But his account seems to lead in that direction.

      For one thing, on his view, both Western humanism and Orientalism have a common ambition, and both share a common set of concerns. Both share common methodological presuppositions, and both feed off of and interact with each other. Further, both buy into the same ideological fictions of “West” and “East,” and both regard West as civilizational superior to East. Finally, both arise from the same sense of crisis and threat to “the West” (and recall that once upon a time, the Soviets were regarded as “the East”). Indeed, Said does say (in a passage criticizing Gilson’s ethnocentrism in discussing Aquinas) that “liberal humanism, of which Orientalism has historically been one department, retards the process of enlarged and enlarging meaning through which true understanding can be attained” (p. 254). So he’s set things up so that we ought at least to be suspicious of humanism.

      This is the set of passages that produced the speculation I mention above. The passages don’t explicitly equate either classical studies or humanism (or a humanistic approach to classical studies) with Orientalism. Nor does they offer any particular indictment of classical studies in the way that Said offers of Orientalism. But the suggestion is there: the door is left open to a semi-sinister interpretation of the large-scale “essentialist” ambitions of humanism (and by implication a humanist-driven approach to the Greek and Latin classics). Add a little Foucault, some sympathy for the subaltern, and a well-developed sense of outrage/social justice to the mix, and you’re off to the races.

      Uh, that came out wrong: I didn’t mean the races…I mean…oh, you know what I mean.


  4. Last passage from Orientalism for the night, which I quote partly for its humor value, and partly because it’s the only reference to Pliny in Orientalism (pp. 261-62):

    The first Orientalist congress was organized and held in Paris in 1873, and almost from the outset it was evident to other scholars that the Semiticists and Islamicists were in intellectual arrears, generally speaking. Writing a survey of all the congresses that had been held between 1873 and 1897, the English scholar R.N. Cust had this to say about the Semitic-Islamic subfield:

    Such meetings [as those held in the ancient-Semitic field], indeed, advance Oriental learning.

    The same cannot be said with regard to the modern-Semitic section; it was crowded, but the subjects discussed were of the smallest literary interest, such as would occupy the minds of the dilettanti scholars of the old school, not the great class of “indicatores” of the nineteenth century. I am forced to back to Pliny to find a word. There was an absence from this section both of the modern philological and archaeological spirit, and the report reads more like that of a congress of University tutors of the last century met to discuss the reading of a passage in Greek play, or the accentuation of a vowel, before the dawn of Comparative Philology had swept away the cobwebs of the Scholiasts. Was it worth while to discuss whether Mahomet could hold a pen or write?

    Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. And no, I don’t know which Pliny he had in mind.


  5. There’s way too much there to untangle, so here’s a tangled response: yes, something like what you describe is, at various levels of self-conscious awareness, at play in how classicists approach their work and understand themselves; but there’s more than one enormous false dichotomy involved in that way of seeing things, and that’s where much of the trouble lies. I should probably be stressing how relatively unaffected classics has been compared to other areas in the humanities, particularly involving literature, because it’s easier there than elsewhere to see how false the dichotomies are. But even more broadly, it seems obvious how false they are, and philosophers are the ones whose work makes it clearest, as they make it abundantly clear by example that one need not choose between reading sympathetically and critically.

    But even some of the bigger names in debates about the humanities make it clear. Mortimer Adler, for instance, would now be thought of as an arch-conservative but was in fact politically quite progressive for his time, though decidedly in favor of liberal democracy and not communism (hardly a far right view, that); he also disagreed strongly, eloquently, and insightfully with Bloom and other Straussians, whom he correctly identified as reading and teaching texts doctrinally rather than dialectically. So too, Martha Nussbaum is hardly a thinker of the right, but her recent collection of reviews concedes in hindsight that her attacks on Bloom understated a considerable core of agreement with him and against the theoretical fashions then in vogue in many literature departments. In fact, Nussbaum’s writing about literature, and her defense of ‘ethical criticism’ in literature more generally, is a sophisticated version of what is often derided as ‘humanism’; I challenge anyone to make a convincing case that Nussbaum is a reactionary racist or anything of the sort. That’s just two rather different examples of how a Bloom vs. Foucault kind of narrative simply isn’t adequate. (it oversimplifies the ‘theory’ side, too, but that’s a different issue; suffice to say that I think respectable philosophers will still read Foucault in 100 years when the rest of the thinkers who get lumped in with him despite their differences and disagreements will be as well regarded as Bergson is now).


    • Agreed.

      I should probably be stressing how relatively unaffected classics has been compared to other areas in the humanities, particularly involving literature, because it’s easier there than elsewhere to see how false the dichotomies are.

      That actually came out pretty clearly in the original post.

      Agree on Adler and Nussbaum, though I find Nussbaum unreflectively right-wing on Israel, a common enough pattern. Though this essay disclaims a specific focus on the facts of the Arab-Israeli conflict, it’s obviously intended as a critique of BDS. It strikes me as falling somewhere between unconvincing and clueless. That doesn’t make her a reactionary racist, but it does seem to me that her usual sympathy for the oppressed seems to desert her in this particular case. But I suppose that’s a topic of its own.

      Obvious as all this seems now, I suspect it’s much easier to see in retrospect than it was in real time. In Adler’s case, it could now be “held against him” that he was a regular guest on William Buckley’s “Firing Line” show. It seemed obvious to me back in the 1990s that Nussbaum’s critiques of both Bloom and MacIntyre were motivated by a kind of bien pensant piety and rhetorical grandstanding. The same could be said (mutatis mutandis) of the polemics of her right-wing opposite numbers (though not of MacIntyre, who didn’t fit any clear ideological mold). A cautionary tale, I suppose, about how obvious distinctions are lost in polemical tribalism.


      • I often wonder how differently my thinking would have turned out if I were ten years older and had been engaging with all that stuff when it was new. Certainly as an undergraduate in the early 2000’s, my initial reaction to Bloomian polemics was extremely sympathetic, because I was revolting against the excesses of post-structuralist theory and what seemed to me to be the pointlessness of studying literature and philosophy that way, if not the utter nihilism of much of it. I suppose I’m still inclined to deny that the Straussian approach is by any necessity particularly aligned with right-wing politics or particularly opposed to left-wing politics if these are understood in more traditional terms; obviously it is thoroughly opposed to the various forms of relativism and subjectivism that are popular among certain radical leftish folks, but as I will never tire of pointing out, there is nothing inherently liberal or progressive about those and nothing inherently conservative about their contraries. My dissatisfaction with Straussianism, even as an undergraduate, came not from its typical politics so much as from its excessively ahistorical and almost biblical modes of interpretation, not to mention the insistence on ‘esoteric’ interpretation. In graduate school, I only came to be more and more impatient with the approach and many of its practitioners, not least when I ended up writing on a topic where I couldn’t afford to ignore what Straussians had written.

        It was really MacIntyre who saved me from all the false dichotomies, though. I don’t think any other book has changed my life more than After Virtue did, and if nothing else it helped me to see that I didn’t have to choose between two camps. It may even have helped that AV was considerably more relativistic and historicist than I now find acceptable, because it didn’t seem simply to ignore or dogmatically reject the considerations that lead to the lines of thought that I had been trying but failing successfully to resist. Of course by then MacIntyre had also further developed his thoughts, and while I still don’t know quite what to think about some of it, from at least Dependent Rational Animals on he’s insisted that human flourishing and the virtues are grounded in objective goods and not simply constructions of social practice. I probably read AV less relativistically than many of its early readers did because I already knew that’s where he’d gone. I’ve come to be less sympathetic to certain aspects of MacIntyre’s thinking than I used to be, but I will always owe him a very great deal, particularly for freeing me from the thought that I would have to be a political and cultural conservative of a fairly conventional sort if I were to reject postmodern subjectivism and relativism.

        Nussbaum helped me in slightly less dramatic but still serious ways, mainly, as I’ve said, by showing me that there was a non-Bloomian alternative to the reduction of literature to ideology. The Fragility of Goodness had a huge impact on me for that reason alone, though it also further convinced me that I could be a classicist and specialize in ancient philosophy, and that was a pretty poor career decision, as I later discovered — though not one I’m inclined to regret. As for her substantive views, I find that I agree with her less every time I read her. Her earlier work strikes me as much better, her more recent stuff as less good, and even when I agree with her I often find her arguments to be inadequate. I know little about her views on Israel, but I’m not surprised that she’s a supporter. I recall reading something of hers ten years ago or more arguing against academic boycotts of Israel, which seemed quite right, but I didn’t need much argument to be convinced that it isn’t a wise idea to boycott academics because you oppose their country’s policies. In any case, the main value of her work in the 80’s and early 90’s for me was that it strongly opposed trends in philosophy and literature that I found troubling and problematic, but did so in a way that left no room for conflating her with Bloom and other right-wing critics. The injustice to Bloom and pals is, I think, that she emphasized her (almost entirely just) criticisms over her considerable agreements; as a matter of philosophy and literature, Bloom and Nussbaum have enough in common that the differences ought to be constructive and insightful, but of course politics gets in the way. That’s not too surprising; the same is true of her engagements with John Finnis, with whom she more or less agrees more often than she admits, because their disagreements over sexuality are of far greater political and cultural import than their considerable agreements about practical reason, well-being, moral epistemology, and a whole lot else. But all of that is consistent with her having played an important role for me at an early stage of my thinking, and of continuing to serve well as an illustration of how false the dichotomies assumed in certain disciplines are.

        As for Mortimer Adler, it’s important to remember that by the time he was showing up on Firing Line, he’d been writing books for over 40 years, that even when he began showing up on Firing Line, the views he was defending in his books did not fit squarely into a right-wing box. Nobody would ever confuse him for a radical, but Adler’s views came to seem more right-wing than before as the defining concerns of right and left in the U.S. shifted over time. As in so much else, his political views were basically a secularized Thomism heavily influenced by Catholic Social Teaching, which is by American standards in many respects more left than right (and was more so before the legalization of abortion convinced a lot of American Catholics that if the Republicans right on that issue, they must be right on most everything else, too, even when it’s pretty transparently contrary to what the Church teaches). In any case, one of his appearances on Firing Line was spent criticizing Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind. And he also appeared on Bill Moyers’ show several times, as well. Certainly Adler made it easier than Nussbaum or MacIntyre for conservatives to appropriate him as a figure for their tribe, but I don’t think he really makes a very good fit.

        Then again, maybe I’m not the best person to judge, since I’m not sure whether I would have been happier to identify as conservative if I had been born 20 or even 10 years earlier, and I no longer really know what being a conservative means apart from tending to hold certain positions on a handful of issues.

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        • I don’t think I’ve ever thought simultaneously about the impact on me of Edward Said, Allan Bloom, Leo Strauss, Alasdair MacIntyre, Martha Nussbaum, and Mortimer Adler–in the context of a larger discussion about humanism–but it turns out to be a useful exercise. I read all six of them as an undergraduate around 1990, about a decade before you did, and was deeply influenced by all six, but in somewhat different ways than you were.

          I agree with everything you say about Adler. I encountered him in high school, after watching him on Buckley’s “Firing Line” (back when I had easy access to a TV, or “TV set,” as I prefer to say). He not only criticized Bloom and the Straussians, but had a salutary tendency to put Buckley in his place, as well (which, in credit to Buckley, didn’t stop Buckley from inviting Adler to the show). It had never occurred to me to think of Adler as “right wing.” To his credit, and despite his reputation as a philosophical popularizer, he wasn’t a populist, at least in the invidious political sense: in other words, he made it difficult for anyone to “appropriate” him as house philosopher for a movement or party. The contrast between Adler and, say, William Bennett is pretty apt in that respect. Bennett did whatever he could to be appropriated.

          Adler certainly offered a healthier invitation into philosophy (and Aristotelianism) than Ayn Rand, so I regret that I spent more time reading Rand than I did Adler. I’ll never forget the conversation I had with a Big Name Objectivist back in the 1990s. I asked him what he thought about Adler, and he said, “Oh, he’s OK up to a point. But after that point, it’s all just empty dogmatizing.”

          I read Said’s Orientalism (1978) and Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind (1987) at roughly the same time–my freshman year of college (1987-88). It was a useful exercise to have read them in tandem.

          I’ve already belabored what I think Said gets wrong, but that emphasis conceals what’s valuable about his work. It’s not so much that Said gets this or that thesis right as that he’s generally on to something important. Among those things: You can’t work through Orientalism and/or Culture and Imperialism without acquiring a heightened awareness of the ways in which putatively humanistic theorizing is driven by considerations of power.

          To be sure, Said is much too reductive about the relationship between culture and imperialism. There are times when every claim Said makes about a text amounts to poisoning the well against the author, and all that he ends up doing in any particular analysis is to fasten on obviously incidental features of the text, ignore everything essential to it, and pronounce some “gotcha” verdict about the ulterior imperialist motive driving it.

          That said, I found Said a useful corrective to the dogmatic, willful ingenuousness one encounters among philosophers, who indefinitely “bracket” all morally dark possibilities about a text in order to focus on other, sunnier things, e.g., ignore that it really does serve a problematic moral-political agenda through and through in order to use it as a springboard (or shield) for their own theorizing. I don’t quite understand why the “dark, conspiratorial” textual possibility should be considered so outlandish. We all engage in rationalizations for our vices, sometimes fairly sophisticated ones. Why exclude the possibility that a whole text or oeuvre consists of theoretical rationalizations for some civilizational vice or set of vices? But that often sounds like “conspiracy theorizing” to a certain kind of historian, who insists that we “take the text at face value,” where “face value” seems to entail “as having benign intentions.”

          The general interpretive principle is that we take someone’s testimony at face value until and unless we acquire reason to do otherwise. But lots of texts (especially when conjoined with certain relatively obvious historical or biographical facts) give you ample reason “to do otherwise.” Machiavelli’s Prince and Discourses are obvious examples, but consider how many interpreters of Locke manage to overlook obvious facts about Locke’s account of the State of Nature in the Second Treatise: his two paradigm examples of SONs are Biblical Palestine just after (or around) the Hebrew conquest of the Canaanites, and the American continent just as European colonization and conquest was taking place. His theory of property just happens to justify European colonization and the enclosure movement in England, and Locke himself just happened to have profited richly from colonization, slavery, and enclosure. Surely Locke’s account of the State of Nature could be a rationalization for a certain brand of imperialism? If so, this should be a standard feature of any competent interpretation of Locke.

          If you wanted to get clear on what Locke means by the State of Nature, an obvious procedure would be to follow up the explicit references he himself makes to Biblical Palestine and the Americas, bearing in mind the possibility that he regards the Hebrew conquests of Palestine and/or the European ones of the Americas as a fixed point of his theorizing–a constraint he won’t violate, or seldom will (or won’t if the conquest in question is English). But surprisingly few theorists have taken this approach. It’s more convenient to think of Locke as a liberal, not as an imperialist, and more convenient to think of liberalism as a contrast term for imperialism than to see the one as naturally complementing the other. (One notable example is Barbara Arneil’s John Locke and America: The Defence of English Colonialism.)

          The preferred approach is to treat the State of Nature as a purely abstract thought-experiment, abstracting away from all “irrelevant historical detail,” and in some cases, abstracting away entirely from the text itself. Maybe there’s some conceptual value to such an exercise, but the problem is that the end-result bears only a very uncertain relationship to what Locke was talking about. A perfect example, to my mind, is Matt Zwolinski’s paper, “The States of Nature,” which argues that Hobbesian and Lockean States of Nature are “compatible” with one another, “not as a matter of textual interpretation, [but] as a matter of analysis of the concepts that we have inherited from those texts.” What isn’t established is that “we have inherited” any such concept. Can we really sever the concept of a Lockean State of Nature entirely from the texts Locke actually wrote? In what sense is the result Lockean, then? (Can we sever “Randian egoism” entirely from what Rand wrote? Or “Rothbardian anarcho-capitalism” entirely from what Rothbard wrote?) It was immersion in Said’s work, oddly enough, that convinced me to adopt a more historicized account of Locke than I previously had.

          I was (and am) less sympathetic than you to Closing of the American Mind. I found Bloom’s moralizing in the book facile and superficial (e.g., on rock music, on relationships)–and there’s a lot of moralizing in it. I was also disturbed and affronted by what seemed to me Bloom’s too-easy ethnocentrism about “Western Culture.” Ironically, it was Adler who actually argued for a “Great Books” approach to pedagogy, with some healthy awareness of the need for a multicultural approach to pedagogy. Bloom appropriated the “Great Books” approach to pedagogy without explicit attribution to Adler, then became the willing champion of “Western Culture” in higher education, making acid criticisms of multiculturalism and feminism at a time when people were asking worthwhile and long-overdue questions about the fixity of “the Canon” from those perspectives.

          Admittedly, Bloom’s pro-fixity-of the-Canon stance is not central to the book, but it’s certainly in the book, and was then bastardized by people like Bennett to reflect an Americo-centric approach to pedagogy (“American exceptionalism”). There are passages in Closing of the American Mind that suggest that because Western Culture is “ours”–because we are its civilizational heirs–it’s the task of higher education to inculcate American college students into “the West,” securing their “membership” in “it.” But if there’s anything to this “heirloom” conception of civilization, what it really implies is that it’s the task of higher education to acquaint students with the diversity of human cultures (and the difficulty–though not impossibility–of making truth-tracking judgments about them), not to “make” them “members” of “their own” particular culture.

          MacIntyre and Adler seemed to get what Bloom did not. I’d speculate that what did the trick in MacIntyre and Adler’s cases was precisely their Thomism. Whatever its flaws, Thomism really was (is) an exercise in multiculturalism in a way that Bloom’s Straussianism was not (and in a way that a lot of contemporary multiculturalism is not). Incidentally, this latter realization (about “Thomist multiculturalism”) is something entirely missing from Said’s work. Said offers a ham-handed reading of Dante’s Inferno in Orientalism, and makes a few passing allusions here and there to Newman, but doesn’t discuss Aquinas in any sustained, and shows no awareness of the importance of, say, Aquinas’s Summa Contra Gentiles to the topic of Orientalism.

          To my mind, the great value of both MacIntyre and Nussbaum was that they functioned as a kind of “loyal opposition” to analytic philosophy. In some sense, they were analytic philosophers: they could do, or had done, their share of analytic philosophy. But they also had the capacity to stand outside of its assumptions, to expose what was questionable about those assumptions, and to do philosophy in a radically different (and more historically informed) key than most analytic philosophers. It was good to know that that kind of thing could competently be done, and to have some models of how to do it.

          I find most of Strauss unreadable. I like his book on Machiavelli, but more often than not, Strauss renders texts unrecognizable by fixating on irrelevant textual minutiae while ignoring the relatively transparent structure of the text’s central arguments. The two examples that come immediately to mind are his account of Aristotle’s Politics in The City and Man, and his account of Locke’s Two Treatises in Natural Right and History. The discussion of Locke is not entirely without value, but comes with a high WTF Quotient.

          That said, “Persecution and the Art of Writing” strikes me as a very insightful essay, discussing what for me is a live but under-theorized issue. Whatever problematic use Straussians have made of “esoteric” readings, they are simply correct to say that historically, some philosophers were forced to write esoterically. Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke are clear examples. So, I suspect, are a lot of medieval Islamic philosophers. Had these writers been entirely candid or transparent in their theorizing, especially about religious matters, they would have ended up dead. So it made sense for them to be oblique, or to write in code. To the extent that they did, the interpreter’s job is not just to interpret the face-value meaning of their texts, but to decipher the code behind it.

          I was at first surprised to discover the fondness for Strauss (and for that essay in particular) on the part of people like my friend Sari Nusseibeh, one of the most prominent Palestinian philosophers (who lives in Jerusalem and teaches in the West Bank). But it shouldn’t have been surprising. The Islamic and nationalist authorities continuously scrutinize Nusseibeh’s claims for deviations from the religious or nationalist line; the Israeli authorities scrutinize them for anti-Israeli subversion. Any one of these parties could have him dismissed from his job, beaten up, jailed, deported, expropriated, or killed (or have his university invaded, closed down, or heavily regulated). So far, he has been dismissed, boycotted, beaten up, and jailed, and the university has been invaded and closed down. Ironically, around here, the day when you no longer face such threats is the day you’re widely regarded as “irrelevant” or a “collaborator.”

          As both Strauss and Nusseibeh point out, you write and think in radically different ways when you’re constantly under surveillance as opposed to when you’re not. Under surveillance, you’re forced to divide your own thoughts into those you’ll permit yourself to express, and those that must be censored. In the first category, you have to distribute “those thoughts you’ll permit yourself to express” among various different audiences: those you trust to hear what you have to say, and those you don’t. “Those you trust to hear what you have to say” end up hearing different versions of the claims you want to make, in proportion to their trustworthiness: e.g., the most trustworthy audience hears p; the next-most-trustworthy audience hears p*; the next audience hears p**, and so on (bearing in mind the possibility of interaction among the audiences….) Further, the taxonomy in question has to be strategically flexible: some thoughts become permissible-to-express over time, while others become impermissible-to-express over time; some audiences prove their trustworthiness over time, while others prove the reverse. Beyond that, there are active antagonists to consider, each with its own strategies for infiltration and subversion.

          And then there’s the psychological cost of having to operate this way. How do you acquaint yourself with your own thoughts–how do you discover what they are–if it’s impermissible to express them in any overt form? “Prudence” (or some myopic version of prudence) might even counsel concealing your thoughts from yourself. What better way to conceal them? After all, even a private diary can be hacked into (if written on an Internet-connected computer) or seized (if not). Presumably, the safest place to express a taboo thought is to yourself, aloud, in the middle of the desert or while swimming in the Dead Sea. But what if “the desert” is a closed military zone, and the Dead Sea is in Area C, accessible only to holders of a blue ID? The biggest risk is to become a stranger to yourself.

          For all of the talk about “censorship,” “safe spaces,” and “snowflakes” on American campuses, that’s not (usually) how philosophy is done back home, but it’s how it has to be done in much of the rest of the world. Though he wasn’t strictly discussing that topic, Strauss managed at some level to get that right. I don’t know that non-Straussians have.

          Liked by 1 person

          • One of my ambitions in life is to become able to write as many interesting things in as short a space as you can. That was a long-ish reply, but short in proportion to its substance. So as usual I can’t respond adequately even to a portion of it. But here’s some thoughts.

            I never feel quite settled in my opinion about matters of interpretation and the like, or at least I never feel satisfied in the settled generalizations I’ve come to. My objection to the broadly Saidian approach that you describe, as I’m familiar with it from other works that sound similar, is not that it takes context and extra-theoretical motives seriously, but that it reduces philosophical argument or creative literature to one or another contextually-bound ideological purpose, and in the process radically oversimplifies the texts’ content and their relation to the contexts in and for which they were written. No doubt there are some texts that are sufficiently simple to yield to such analysis without distortion, but even mediocre works of philosophy and literature are typically misrepresented by this mode of interpretation, whether what we’re interested in is the ideas they contain or the roles they played, intentionally or not, in their historical context. A far better alternative to ahistorical analytic philosophical modes of interpretation is the sort of work done by the so-called ‘Cambridge School’ in the history of political thought, an approach mainly developed by Quentin Skinner, J.G.A. Pocock, and their students. I prefer Skinner’s work, and therefore have read much more of it. I disagree with much of what Skinner has to say in his explicitly methodological work, but it is vastly better than the reductive ideological approaches that descend variously from Marxist, Freudian, and post-structuralist theorizing and that dominate literature departments. I haven’t read through Skinner’s main historical works, but I’ve read enough to see that despite disagreeing with him about the details of methodology, there’s a lot to learn from his work. The key is that his version of ‘contextualism’ does not in practice reduce authors either to their contexts or to their narrow practical motives and intentions in writing (the theoretical pronouncements sometimes do so reduce it, and Pocock’s work strikes me as far more reductive in this respect, to the extent that I’m not sure why the two are lumped together as representatives of a single ‘school,’ but lucky for all of us interpretations need not precisely reflect their authors’ explicit theorizing). Skinner is perhaps most famous for his interpretation of early modern Republicanism and its clashes with what became liberalism, and his interpretations differ from previous work in part because he focuses so intensely on the historical details. But his interpretations are so non-reductive that they’ve basically spawned a whole minor school in contemporary political philosophy defending a version of republicanism understood in roughly the way he understands it. That it is even possible for people to accept his interpretations and then develop what they hope to be defensible contemporary versions of the ideas he finds there should be enough to illustrate how different his approach is from the sort I have in mind and that Said seems to embrace; the reductive historicist approach is typically about discrediting texts, authors, and ideas, even when that’s not the stated goal, whereas Skinner et al.’s contextualist approach can in principle leave us with an understanding of a text that preserves our ability to enter into genuine philosophical engagement with it as something that might be true or insightful. How a Skinnerian approach would apply to fiction, drama, or lyric poetry or what not, I’m not quite sure. But even though it isn’t the kind of approach that I’ve taken in my own work, and isn’t the kind of approach I most prefer — the ‘what are these ideas and are they any good?’ approach — it is compatible with and potentially complementary to that approach. Not so the Said-esque approaches; those are for polemic, or at best for diagnosis of pathology.

            That’s compatible with those sorts of approaches having some value, pointing to some important and neglected issues, and so on. But a lot depends on how it’s done. Your Locke example, for instance, could go at least one of two ways: the reductive way that treats Locke’s theories as mere effects of imperialist and other unsavory motives that perhaps even he was not fully aware of, or the non-reductive way that treats these as potentially relevant to our understanding of what Locke thought and why. Practitioners of the reductive approach have already made up their minds about it, and so tend to interpret the ideas in uncharitable, overly simple ways that make it more plausible to see them as mere ideological rationalization.

            I’m no Locke scholar, but I’ve read Locke, and I don’t buy the reductive interpretation. I’m almost willing to say that I don’t care whether it is true as a psychological matter of fact that Locke’s theorizing was entirely determined by his need to rationalize his imperialist ambitions (though I doubt that such a claim could be true for reasons having nothing to do with the quality of Locke’s thought), because what interests me is what the ideas are, whether they’re true or plausible, whether the arguments are any good, whether his texts are worth reading and engaging with for the light they can shed on the topics they discuss (where even disastrous philosophical blunders sometimes shed light), and so on. The answers to those questions are independent of the truth of any psychological claims about Locke or socio-political claims about the practical purposes or effects of his work. I’m not fully wedded to the precise distinction between reasons and causes that the formulation presupposes, but ultimately my objection to many forms of historical or psychological interpretation is that they put texts and ideas in the space of causes and not the space of reasons; in most cases, it’s the reasons I care about, and the causes interest me only insofar as they help me to understand and assess the reasons. Would knowing that Locke was really just trying to rationalize some pre-theoretical commitments or to advance some practical agenda have any bearing on how we should understand and assess the theory and the reasons he offers in support of it? Certainly contextual and practical considerations can help us understand what some of his claims mean, and psychological or other causal stories might help explain why the theory is as it is, but I don’t see that claims about Locke’s psychology or about some putatively supra-personal causal forces responsible for his work could possibly tell us what the ideas are or whether they’re any good. In a great number of cases, though, historians and philosophers who focus on such considerations do so to discredit the ideas, or, rather, to give an excuse for not taking the ideas seriously to begin with, and not coincidentally often end up understanding the ideas in uncharitable and implausible ways.

            I can’t say whether that’s true of Said in particular, but it sounds that way. But in any case, whether it’s virtuous or vicious, it’s not particularly Saidian; Marx and Nietzsche had already done it in their various ways. I appreciate various features of Marx and Nietzsche, but the tendency of their admirers to indulge in the genetic fallacy is not one of them.

            Beyond that, I can only offer a few miscellaneous reactions — ‘responses’ would be too dignified — to some of your other points. I did not, and still have not, read through The Closing of the American Mind with any care; in the period where I was sympathetic to the kind of view it promotes, I had read excerpts and encountered a variety of appreciative summaries, but the more I came to appreciate the details, the less sympathetic I became. I have always been more sympathetic to Mortimer Adler, to whom I by sheer accident owe a lot of my direction in life (I first became more than vaguely interested in classics and philosophy through an old set of the Britannica ‘great books,’ and my African American History professor, of all people, recommended How to Read a Book, which made a lasting impression on me). I think of Adler’s flaws mainly in terms of what he omits rather than what he does, though sometimes the difference gets blurry (and some of the conclusions he came to draw later in life strike me as unfortunate); I don’t think of him as a first-rate philosopher, but I still find a lot to admire in him, and I’m thrilled to be teaching now in a school largely inspired by his approach to education.

            I am far less enamored of the ‘esoteric writing’ idea than you are, I think (and I am inclined to reject the idea that it’s so clear after all that certain authors engaged in it; I don’t see any good reason to believe that Hobbes did, for instance, at least if being circumspect and careful is not sufficient to be ‘esoteric’; I’m not sure if you mean to suggest that Hobbes is insincere in his theological claims, for instance, but I see no reason to think so, and the thought that he was strikes me mainly as the product of atheists’ inability to see how smart and unsentimental people could be theists — but I’m getting way beyond my expertise, not to mention way beyond anything I can hope to articulate adequately in any blog comment, let alone one written past midnight after a long day). Much of what you say seems at least quite possibly applicable to other cases, though. It’s possible that my notion of ‘esoteric writing’ in Strauss’ sense is narrower than yours.

            I actually think his chapter on the Politics in the City and Man is decent stuff, and Natural Right and History is really quite good for mid-20th century German philosophy. It is at least no worse, and in many respects better — or less bad? — than what Arendt had to say about the Greeks, for instance.

            Ok, I’m really done now.


            • Thanks.

              This time I really will keep it short. [This clearly did not happen.]

              You’re certainly right about Said’s own approach to interpretation. As far as Orientalism is concerned, Said is caught in a tangle of claims:

              1. Orientalism is a coherent fiction.
              2. Orientalism constructs, then falsifies, the Orient.
              3. I, Edward Said, am not really concerned to evaluate the truth or falsity of what Orientalist authors have to say. What matters is what the texts accomplish, ideologically–a dominative, imperialist agenda.
              4. As we all know, ideological claims are not truth-apt anyway.

              Which is incoherent.

              In practice, it leads Said to offering these amazingly cavalier dismissals of the claims of canonical authors and texts on the basis of little more than (3)–which is irresponsible. Whatever the interest of Orientalism in other respects, huge swatches of the book read like that. The irony is that Said’s dismissal of other authors is what makes him easy to dismiss. But dismissiveness is a mistake both ways round.

              One reason I’ve been on hiatus is that I’ve been re-visiting Locke with a view to really getting him right this time. So I’ve tried to hold off on blogging altogether (with mixed results) until I have something worthwhile to say on that topic, which means in part that I’ve held off (tried to hold off) until I’ve gotten through a long bibliography on Locke and related matters. Pocock and Skinner are on that reading list, along with Sheldon Wolin and Richard Ashcraft, among others. In fact, I’d previously intended to write a comment summarizing the literature on Locke-on-slavery in response to your Aristotle-on-slavery post, but it got past me, and in any case wasn’t entirely on topic, so I bagged it. I was also too busy immersed in such high-level theoretical pursuits as visiting the Turtle Back Zoo with Alison (“#1 Zoo in New Jersey”), and riding the choo-choo train with her. [NB: that is not us in the video; just added gratuitously, for purposes of illustration.]

              The point of putting Pocock, Skinner, and Ashcraft on the list was precisely to give myself a more nuanced immersion in “contextualist” interpretation than what one is apt to get in more reductionist quarters. But Ashcraft turns out to be pretty reductionistic: his Revolutionary Politics and and Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1986) argues that Locke was a radical Whig ideologist, rather than a “political philosopher” (except insofar as being a “radical Whig ideologist” is compatible with being a political philosopher, and on some accounts, it wouldn’t be). Anyway, most of that work is still ahead of me.

              Without elaborating right now, let me just correct one potential misimpression, though. And here I’m describing a theoretical possibility, not what I would, all things considered, affirm about Locke (partly because I haven’t considered all relevant things at this point in my research).

              To describe Locke as rationalizing imperialism is not primarily to be making a psychological or biographical claim about him. It’s to characterize what he was doing, theoretically speaking, in his political treatises. The weaker and more plausible claim is not that the whole Lockean project is point-for-point a self-conscious rationalization for imperialism; we can take Locke at face value in saying that the point of the project was the refutation of Filmer, and the desire to provide an account of the “true original extent and end of civil government.” But the requirements of imperialism (e.g., the ideological requirements of the colonial ventures Locke favored, and in which he participated) could have functioned as a side-constraint on Locke’s theorizing. In other words, imagine that we capture “the requirements of English imperialism, as Locke conceived them” by a set of propositions R. It’s possible that Locke takes R as a theoretical given in his political theorizing, so that insofar as he aims at coherence, everything he says about “the true origin and extent of civil government” must ultimately cohere with R.

              So in answer to your question,

              Would knowing that Locke was really just trying to rationalize some pre-theoretical commitments or to advance some practical agenda have any bearing on how we should understand and assess the theory and the reasons he offers in support of it?

              The answer is, it surely could. Suppose you note a series of puzzling claims in Locke that crop up over and over, but have no clear explanation. They seem like odd anomalies in the text. He says p when you expect him to be saying p*. He defends a principle P, but the articulation of P is always offered with the same puzzling exception-clauses or proviso: “P is the case, except if…” where what follows that “if” seems odd or ad hoc. What if “the desire to make the theory cohere with R” turns out to be the best explanation for all of those textual anomalies? That’s not a conspiracy theory; it’s an inference to the best explanation.

              We might be embarrassed to discover that Locke was rationalizing imperialism (some of “us” might), but that doesn’t mean he was. He might have taken the imperialist project so for granted as to have left it unsaid. Centuries later, scholars might come to take Locke’s silence about the imperialist project as a disavowal of that project when in fact the silence was an implicit avowal the whole time. If you could bring Locke to life in 2017 and ask him, “So, some of your odd claims are best explained by taking R as a constraint on the theory; is that really what you meant?” He might well look at you incredulously and says, “What odd claims? Of course it’s what I meant, you idiot! You really expected me to spell out the ABCs for you? Those claims aren’t odd at all. They’re obviously what I had to say to keep the theory coherent with R!”

              For comparison’s sake: imagine trying to read Locke by ignoring every reference to Scripture in the Treatises, versus reading the Treatises by taking those references seriously. The claims of Scripture obviously function as a constraint on Locke’s theorizing. He says that they do, and they just do. But it’s very common for contemporary theorists to fast-forward over all the Scriptural stuff on the grounds that well, maybe those Scripture quotations represented Locke’s personal beliefs (or constituted the pinch of incense he had to offer up in deference to common opinion), but they aren’t conceptually relevant to his philosophical claims. But they obviously are. Often, they function as short-hand illustrations of his most abstract philosophical claims. A twenty-first century reader reads P in Locke and thinks of one illustration of the principle, but Locke meant to illustrate something else, out of the Hebrew Bible. It makes no sense for an interpreter to construct an elaborate thought-experiment to illustrate Locke’s point when we already have an elaborately worked-out thought-experiment at our disposal (the Bible) that illustrates the point exactly as Locke thought of it. Yes, a thought-experiment can “clean up” some feature of a Biblical story that over-complicates the picture. But the thought-experiment can’t supplant the Biblical story altogether without distorting the meaning of the text.

              The imperialism issue is subtler than the use of Scripture, but I see them as involving related issues.

              I see two real problems in the literature. One is the rush among scholars sympathetic to Locke to bypass Locke’s theory to offer a “broadly Lockean theory,” invoking the principle of charity to suggest that we need not bother with Locke’s theory. On this view, what matters is what Locke would have said if he were us (which is what “charity” often ends up meaning). But it seems to me that “broadly Lockean theory” is parasitic on “Locke’s theory.” We need to know what Locke was saying–the narrowly Lockean theory, so to speak–before we spin out a “broadly Lockean theory.” Figuring out what Locke said is not a matter of what we regard as plausible, but of what he did.

              A second problem (coming in a sense from the reverse direction) is the failure to get clear on what counts as a genuinely Lockean text in the first place–what counts as permissible material to use in an interpretation of Locke. It’s not clear to me, for instance, that it is legitimate to use Locke’s unpublished essays in an account of his theorizing. Unpublished essays are unpublished for a reason. If he didn’t publish them because he didn’t think they were worth publishing, then my view is that they literally do not count as Lockean texts at all, any more than “rough work” counts for credit on a math test.

              I also reject the idea that Locke’s governmental memoranda (or worse, drafts of memoranda, or drafts of committee documents for which he functioned as secretary) should be taken in an unqualified way to represent his views. If I’m part of a committee that drafts a report on the Poor Law or on the colonization of South Carolina or the importation of slaves to North America, you may want to hold me morally responsible for the contents of the documents; I signed my name to them, after all. But it doesn’t follow, and often isn’t true, that the documents are in all relevant respects an accurate representation of my considered views. That’s not how committees work, or how committee documents work. George Washington signed the Declaration of Independence; he didn’t write it. He was responsible for enacting its prescriptions, but not necessarily responsible for coming up with the formulations in it. This distinction seems to be lost in a lot of Locke scholarship. Sometimes scholars ignore Locke’s governmental memos altogether (“not philosophically relevant”); sometimes they treat them as though the formulations in them were as much his formulations as those in the Essay (“he wrote them, after all”). Both extremes strike me as wrongheaded.

              OK, I’m really done now.


          • “Suppose you note a series of puzzling claims in Locke that crop up over and over, but have no clear explanation. They seem like odd anomalies in the text. He says p when you expect him to be saying p*. He defends a principle P, but the articulation of P is always offered with the same puzzling exception-clauses or proviso: “P is the case, except if…” where what follows that “if” seems odd or ad hoc. What if “the desire to make the theory cohere with R” turns out to be the best explanation for all of those textual anomalies? That’s not a conspiracy theory; it’s an inference to the best explanation.”

            Indeed. But notice that in this story, you start with Locke’s claims and arguments, trying to understand them as claims and arguments, and you appeal to this explanatory hypothesis to account for some otherwise puzzling inconsistencies or incoherence in those claims and arguments. You don’t treat the arguments as simply a mask for some effort to reinforce power relations of some particular sort or what not; you attempt to understand the claims and arguments by supposing that they tacitly assume the truth of set of propositions R. Perhaps along with those assumptions the otherwise inconsistent claims become consistent, perhaps not, but they enter into the picture as beliefs relevant to understanding what the claims and arguments are and whether they are any good, not, or not only (or primarily) as purposes allegedly causing the claims and arguments to be what they are. Of course, such purposes are or can be relevant to our broader understanding of a work and its role in the author’s life and immediate social context. But they enter into our understanding of the work’s content only indirectly as assumptions to which those arguments are implicitly committed, and even then they play a relatively limited role in helping us to understand and assess the claims and arguments. This is all pretty different from approaches that try to explain texts as the products of psychological or social factors aimed at some extra-theoretical goal or outcome; the trouble is not that such factors do not exist or do not explain anything of interest about a work, it’s that they don’t do much to help us understand what the works say and whether what they say is any good (though in fact I think the specific sorts of explanation we’re offered by reductive theorists are usually pretty implausible).

            “Rationalization of imperialism” is a complicated sort of case because it can easily be the kind of psychological or causal claim that you seem not to want your explanation to be. Take a clearer case: suppose we discover that our author’s central motivation in writing was to achieve wealth and fame. So one true description of what he is doing with his books is trying to make money and get famous. This has no direct bearing whatsoever on how we understand or assess his works’ content; to do that, we have to look at what the work says and consider it as a set of claims, arguments, and so on. It may be that the purpose of achieving wealth and fame helps explain why the work takes the particular shape it does, why it makes some claims rather than others; Author maintains P because his target audience is partial to P, so that maintaining P is more likely to lead to greater sales of the book and approval of its author. Perhaps P is an otherwise puzzling claim inconsistent with the bulk of what Author says, and so identifying this purpose helps explain why P nonetheless shows up in the work. Perhaps the work as a whole is really pretty poor, in which case a plausible explanation might be that its author wasn’t really a philosopher and wasn’t really interested in philosophy, but was interested in being rich and famous as a philosopher, and just wrote to appease his audience’s prejudices. All true and informative, perhaps, but it doesn’t help us understand or assess the content; it rests on an understanding and assessment of the content. To build interpretations of the content around claims — even true claims — about the author’s extra-philosophical goals and motives is, by contrast, to get things backwards. No wonder it ends up generating such poor interpretations so much of the time.

            “Rationalizing imperialism” or “undermining monarchy” are more complicated because they can enter into the philosophical purposes of the work rather than simply serving as external motives that help explain why the author wrote the work and why he wrote it as he did. I don’t suppose there’s any hard and fast distinction to be drawn between a motive external to the work and an intention or goal internal to it, but there is a difference. Of course one can be reductive in appeals to internal goals, as well, and to a large extent what is wrong with many interpretations of this or that text or author is just that they offer oversimplified or implausible accounts, not that they offer some fundamentally misguided kind of account. But the appeal to external psychological or social causal forces as though they were some kind of reliable guide to the interpretation of the content of works strikes me as a widespread mistake that otherwise conflicting approaches embrace.

            Your thoughts on Locke don’t seem to be headed in quite that direction, but then I’m left wondering, ‘so what?’ I suspect part of the issue is that I know relatively little about Locke scholarship and I especially do not spend much time with people who idolize Locke. It seems to me entirely plausible, unsurprising, and unproblematic that Locke would have regarded some forms of imperialism as justified, and likewise plausible, unsurprising, and unproblematic (in one sense) that this would create serious problems for his theory. Substitute ‘x’ for ‘imperialism’ and for most philosophers there is an x such that the philosopher regards x as justified despite this creating problems for the theory. If that is the sort of claim you have in mind, then I’ve no objections; if it’s something even in the general neighborhood of, say, “Locke’s theory of property is a product and tool of imperialist ideology, and since imperialism is bad, so is Locke’s theory, and the details don’t matter” then I’ll dismiss it out of hand as not worth taking seriously. Of course I don’t actually imagine that the latter is the sort of thing you have in mind, but it is an overly familiar kind of approach, so it’s worth distinguishing it from what you have in mind.

            I will be teaching Locke this fall. I’m not sure we’ll have much time to get into this kind of issue, but I’ll see whether I can raise some questions about how the theory might or might not square with European colonization efforts.


            • I’ve already gone on too long, so I won’t say much more, and will make this my parting thought on “the subject,” which remains related to your original post, but is at some distance from it.

              So one project an interpreter could have might be this:

              (1) …you start with Locke’s claims and arguments, trying to understand them as claims and arguments, and you appeal to this explanatory hypothesis to account for some otherwise puzzling inconsistencies or incoherence in those claims and arguments.

              Which is what I’d been describing, and which I regard as the fundamental task of textual interpretation.

              But you treat the following as though it was incompatible with (1), and illegitimate as such:

              (2) treat the arguments as simply a mask for some effort to reinforce power relations of some particular sort or what not; you attempt to understand the claims and arguments by supposing that they tacitly assume the truth of set of propositions R.

              I don’t see it that way. One and the same interpreter could in principle do both (1) and (2): explicate the arguments as per (1), then treat the arguments as an ideological rationalization for some political project as per (2). There is no logical incompatibility there, at least none that I can see. And the viability of project (2) doesn’t depend essentially on whether the arguments explicated in project (1) are good or bad. They could be either. What they (probably) can’t be is true. But I don’t see the difficulty in offering a rigorous interpretation of some text T, laying out its arguments in precise detail, even laying out charitable versions of its arguments not conceived by the author himself, then turning around and saying that the arguments, sophisticated as they are, only succeed as (say) bourgeois ideology. I don’t particularly care for his interpretations, but that’s the tack taken by C.B. MacPherson on the possessive individualism of the English tradition from Hobbes through Locke. I sometimes find MacPherson’s arguments crudely reductive, but I wouldn’t dismiss the legitimacy of his project out of hand. It could have been true, even if it isn’t. It certainly isn’t dumb or without interest.

              Another example, from a totally different direction: Maxime Rodinson’s Muhammad: Prophet of Islam is a Marxist biography of the Prophet Muhammad and of the founding of Islam. It’s a scholarly masterpiece, but from a believer’s perspective, it treats the Qur’an in reductive fashion as a kind of political manifesto with the “spiritual stuff” functioning as mere superstructure. I’m over-simplifying, but you get my point. I mean, it’s a Marxist account of Islam, for Allah’s sake. I think it’s reductive, but it’s still great scholarship. Even if he goes overboard, Rodison has a point, and his book is a useful corrective to biographies, both explicitly and implicitly hagiographical, that simply fail to integrate economic considerations into the narrative. One is given the impression that the Angel Gabriel just told Muhammad what to do, and he did it–without having to engage in practical deliberation, to weigh pros and cons, or to balance his checkbook.

              But to get back to my main point: just as one and the same interpreter could without inconsistency engage in (1) and (2) on the same text, so there might be a cognitive division of labor in which one kind of specialist does (1), and another does (2), in mutually illuminating (or adversarial) ways.

              Locke scholarship does this, and I’m sure it’s done elsewhere as well. Re Locke: A.J. Simmons’s work focuses on (1), Richard Ashcraft’s on (2). In other words, Simmons focuses on “the arguments”; Ashcraft reduces the arguments to pure ideology. You need to know both if you’re going to “do” Locke. Now, Simmons himself seems to think that Locke’s arguments have enough going for them to preclude Ashcraft’s account from being entirely true. But we could imagine a Simmons* as competent as Simmons but totally hostile to Locke, who explicates Locke just as Simmons does, but comes to conclusions more consistent with Ashcraft’s.

              Two further observations, or maybe one with two aspects.

              First, you seem to be assuming that our “given” unit of analysis is the content of a text or maybe an oeuvre. In other words, the relevant unit is “the works of Locke,” or “Locke’s Treatises,” or whatever. But it could be equally legitimate to focus not on texts or oeuvres, but on phenomena, e.g., imperialism, settler-colonialism, racism, genocide, etc. It seems to me a perfectly important and legitimate question to ask: “What causal role did the works of X play in producing phenomenon Y?” Or, “To what degree is phenomenon Y an X-ian phenomenon?” For instance, “What causal role did Lockean doctrine play in producing English colonialism in North America?” The issue here is not so much Locke’s biographical-moral responsibility for what happened (though that is a possible topic) as: to what degree does reliance on genuinely Lockean doctrine explain what happened? Inquiries like that are familiar from other quarters, and I don’t see that there’s anything illegitimate about the question. Indeed, you can’t get the answer to the causal question right until you’ve gotten the doctrine itself right. In other words, you can’t track the causal role of a doctrine unless you first figure out what it says.

              But it goes the other way around, as well: you can’t always figure out what a doctrine says until you see it played out in practice. The text(s) may be indeterminate or silent on the questions that the proponents of a doctrine will face in the future. You can’t really know what the doctrine says until it starts to face novel problems its authors had never discussed or even imagined when they sat down to work it out. Such future considerations are in one sense external and in another sense internal to the content of the work. The author can gesture within his work at problems he foresees facing in the future (or imagines that his followers will have to face), so that “the problem” is in that sense internal to the work. But if he has little or nothing to say about how to meet the problem, the solution to the problem is external to the work (or at best “internal” in the weak, attenuated sense of having an implicit solution within the work).

              Since the gap between the claims of a theory (even a well-worked out theory) and the demands of practice are dauntingly huge, this problem will beset almost any theory. There is no way to cordon the purely “internal” from the totally “external” in a sharp way, restricting attention only to (say) the former. I agree, of course, that interpreters can offer problematically reductive accounts of a theorist’s internal goals, but one can’t assume a priori that a theorist cannot himself have internal goals that are themselves highly susceptible to reduction. Again, think Machiavelli, Francis Bacon, or Lenin. (And while you may not regard Lenin as a real philosopher, Hilary Putnam–among others–did. Putnam opens a paper on reference by explicating Lenin’s account of it. Arguably, Putnam attributed the roots of his own theory of reference to Lenin.)

              Relatedly, as you yourself note, the distinction between a “theoretical” and an “extra-theoretical” motivation is not a clear one, especially in politics. Political philosophers didn’t necessarily write texts to be studied by political philosophers. They sometimes wrote with a view to changing or affecting political practice. As far as Machiavelli, Bacon, Locke, and Marx are concerned, I’d say they wrote primarily for political ends. Same with the Pragmatists, almost by definition. Between those two sets of theorists, Mill is a sort of intermediate case, but pretty practical in orientation, bridging theory and practice by claiming that truth is part of the utility of a theory. So I’m not entirely sure what an “extra-theoretical” aim is supposed to be, at least in politics. Racism, imperialism, colonialism, etc. are theoretically-saturated phenomena, and many of the writers we call “political philosophers” were far more politically engaged than most contemporary academics tend to be. The “theoretical” and the “extra theoretical” are hard to distinguish in the preceding cases.

              Very last point, on this formulation:

              “Locke’s theory of property is a product and tool of imperialist ideology, and since imperialism is bad, so is Locke’s theory, and the details don’t matter” then I’ll dismiss it out of hand as not worth taking seriously. Of course I don’t actually imagine that the latter is the sort of thing you have in mind, but it is an overly familiar kind of approach, so it’s worth distinguishing it from what you have in mind.

              The position to take seriously is not that Locke’s theory is a “product and tool of imperialist ideology” but that Locke himself was sufficiently creative to have fashioned the ideology on his own. Lockean theory is not the “product and tool” of any ideology. It is an ideology without comparable predecessors.

              To continue: someone might regard imperialism as unjust, and regard Locke’s theory as promoting injustice. (This is not quite my position; I’m just saying it’s not a position to dismiss out of hand.) But that wouldn’t be a reason to “dismiss it out of hand,” or regard it as not worth taking seriously. Exactly the opposite would be true. To say that Locke’s theory promotes injustice is not (necessarily) to attribute stupidity, cupidity, or depravity to Locke (I mean, maybe it is, but that’s not at all essential). If Locke’s theory is complex, it could be that it mirrors the structure of a comparably complex injustice. (It could also be a complex mixture of just and unjust elements. The Glausser article I mentioned in a different comment is relevant here.)

              We can grant that Locke was a great theorist. We can grant that it takes time, attention, and expertise to (sorry) unlock his arguments. But when a great theorist’s theory promotes injustice, we’re given reason for pause and disquiet. In that case, injustice has a deep theoretical structure that requires assiduous study and attention. It’s not morally uncomplicated, like the thug who puts a gun in your face and demands your wallet. (Even that’s not entirely uncomplicated, but my point is, Locke is a little more complicated than that.) In fact, it’s likely that we buy into and are complicitous in a lot of what we might be inclined to condemn in a philosopher like Locke. All of that makes him well worth taking seriously.

              I hasten to add that I don’t have a final verdict yet on Locke. I haven’t gotten there yet, and knowing me, it’ll be a long time before I do.


              • Now, see, if I had noticed this comment before I responded to your last one, I might have had some different things to say, though nothing incompatible with my last response, I don’t think. If anything, this post strengthens my contention that you aren’t actually endorsing standard strategies of suspicious hermeneutics here.


              • Ok, one more comment and then I really have to get back to work: you set out to defend instances of what you take to be the kind of thing that I’m rejecting, but it’s impossible not to notice that the examples you offer — MacPherson, Ashcroft, and Rodinson — all, by your own lights, provide crudely reductive interpretations of the texts they study. You seem to think that this is consistent with judging their projects to be unobjectionable, but it doesn’t seem to me to be an accident that their interpretations are crudely reductive; it seems like a predictable result of their methods from the point of view of anyone who hasn’t fully swallowed the relevant dogmas. I fully agree that there is no conflict in principle between the kind of philosophical interpretation I’ve been praising and historical interpretations that appeal more broadly to various sorts of causal factors; I’m even willing to grant that some kind of ‘unmasking’ accounts could in principle be true of at least some texts; but I’ve yet to see an unmasking interpretation of an important text that didn’t have severe shortcomings as an interpretation of what the text says. Obviously I haven’t read all the scholarship on everything, but certainly in the case of Aristotle, the (mercifully few) unmasking style approaches are uniformly awful and are quite frankly not worth reading. It doesn’t sound to me like Macpherson, Rodinson, or Ashcroft are worth reading, either, whatever ‘classic’ status they’ve achieved; part of my point all along has been that lots of scholarship isn’t really worth reading. With Macpherson, at least, I have the impression that it is worth reading, but mainly because I have the impression that it doesn’t fully subordinate its interpretation of texts to the goal of showing that they’re really just efforts to promote some oppressive regime of power. But perhaps that’s a mistaken impression and Macpherson really is just out to debunk Hobbes, Locke, and the gang. I’ll concede that it is conceivable that an unmasking, debunking interpretation could avoid misinterpreting a text or indulging in various sorts of fallacious reasoning, but there seems to be a non-accidental causal connection between the phenomena.


  6. I also suspect that Said simply confuses accidental features of humanism and orientalism for essential ones, entertainingly enough. Classical studies, and the very idea of ancient Greece and Rome as ‘classical,’ have certainly played a role in sustaining imperialist ideologies. But they don’t have to and never had to; to suppose otherwise is just to reify classical studies as a stable, unified entity and to infer that all its practitioners have some traits just because a bunch of them at some point did. I can’t see why ‘orientalism’ should be any different, except by stipulation.


    • Said does reify Orientalism into a stable, eternal unity. What he’s trying to say about classical studies and humanism is much more obscure. I do think that the use made of classical studies in the Orientalism debate is an interesting one, but would take an expert in both fields to unravel properly. And I’m an expert in neither.


  7. By sheer chance, I happened to be in a cafe this afternoon waiting for lunch, which was taking awhile to prepare. To kill time, I walked over to a bookshelf of old books sitting in the cafe, randomly pulled down C. Wright Mills’s The Sociological Imagination, and happened to read the book’s Appendix, “On Intellectual Craftsmanship.” I’ll leave matters at this cryptic remark: though focused on sociology, it turns out to be highly relevant to the original post, and is worth reading for insight into the parallel problem in classical studies.


    • Interesting. I read excerpts from Mills way, way back when I was an undergraduate vaguely considering the possibility of majoring in sociology (my girlfriend’s mom was a sociology professor and had turned me on to it), but it’s been that long.

      Meanwhile, I find that, as often, much of what I want to say about a topic has already been said at least as well as I could put it, and probably better, by Roderick Long. here he is on Strauss and Straussians:

      Straussians tend to approach philosophical texts with the assumption that the authors are likely to have disguised their true views, or hidden them in coded messages, in order to avoid getting into trouble with political or religious authorities; thus any apparent tension in the surface of the text is quickly seized upon as evidence of a deeper meaning contradicting the surface meaning.

      While I agree with the Straussians that alertness to the possibility of prudent dissimulation is a useful tool for interpreters, in my judgment Straussians are so quick to read apparent tensions as genuine contradictions, and genuine contradictions as intentionally inserted clues, that they routinely underestimate the value and subtlety of the so-called surface reading. As a result, Straussian interpretations become (IMHO) almost entirely unresponsive to and dismissive of the actual texts they are supposed to be explicating; subtle distinctions the authors are trying to make are ham-handedly misread as contradictions, and the Straussians end up mostly imposing on a rich variety of texts a preconceived, blandly uniform set of Straussian ideas that every great thinker “must” naturally have accepted, rather than opening themselves to an engagement with the ideas the authors actually claim to be propounding. Thus I find the standard Straussian readings of, for example, Plato, Xenophon, Descartes, and Locke, almost completely worthless. (I agree with them that Xenophon is a much sharper philosopher than he’s traditionally been give credit for – but my reasons are virtually the opposite of theirs. The Straussians, like Xenophon’s critics, find the surface of Xenophon’s text to be a mass of contradictions; unlike the critics, they quickly dive below the surface to find the deep meaning. Contra both the Straussians and the critics, I think the surface of Xenophon’s text is just fine as it is, and the supposed contradictions are mainly the product of impatience, or a tin ear, on the reader’s part.)

      He elsewhere nicely articulates much of what I’ve been trying to say in my complaints about various interpretive trends: The quotation from C.S. Lewis could, with suitable alterations, apply to much of the theoretically-driven work done in Classics and other literature departments.

      In general, I find it easier to address how and how not to read philosophical works than how and how not to read ‘literature,’ and not only because the kinds of writing that fall under ‘literature’ vary so much among themselves. My complaints, however, are much the same.


      • I agree with just about everything in both of Roderick’s essays, but don’t think it contradicts anything I said. (I say “just about everything” only as a hedge, in case there’s something I missed; I can’t think of an actual disagreement.)

        On Straussian readings, I agree with what Roderick says about the Straussians, but think it’s still possible to recognize that a given author employs or employed esoteric techniques of writing-under-persecution while respecting the more transparent surface reading of the text. (A good writer-under-persecution would know how to write so as to be read accordingly.) But as I said in a different comment, there are a lot of variables involved here, something perhaps best appreciated by actually trying to write philosophy from inside a regime that is actively monitoring you, and willing to persecute you for saying the wrong thing. Most of the world is like that now, and until recently, all of the world was. I’m inclined to think that resort to oblique or esoteric writing is more widespread than is usually acknowledged.

        On the “two Russells” piece: again, I agree with what Roderick says, but don’t think that there’s any vice of deficient deference involved in suggesting or arguing that a text has an imperialist agenda. It depends, of course, on the text. Put imperialism aside for the moment: it’s hard to deny that, say, Lenin’s State and Revolution has a totalitarian agenda. Committed Leninists might deny it (my first professor of political theory was a Leninist who denied it), but I would accuse them of being too charitable about the claims Lenin is making.

        Granted, Lenin doesn’t (quite) come out and say, “I’m a totalitarian, and totalitarian dictatorship is exactly what I want for Russia when I become the dictator there, including a lot of extrajudicial mass killing,” but like it or not, those are the implications of what he does say. An interpreter insensitive to the totalitarian implications of Lenin’s claims would be missing the point of the text. An interpreter who seized on Lenin’s rationalizations and believed them as stated–as exculpating him of the charge of totalitarianism–would either be extremely ingenuous or an apologist for Leninism. Some texts really are pretty sinister, and State and Revolution is one of them. Frankly, I’m (even!) open to the claim that Marx’s texts are totalitarian in implication. That’s how suspicious I can get.

        Totalitarianism aside, Marx’s “On the Jewish Question” is (I would argue) a genuinely anti-Semitic text, no matter how charitable a reading one conjures up to explain away its anti-Semitic features. People have certainly tried. It’s an open question what relation Marx’s anti-Semitism bears to his critique of liberal rights, but a fair-minded interpreter should be open to the possibility that the connection is a close one. The antipathy to Jews and the antipathy to bourgeois liberal rights might well spring from the same bigoted source. That isn’t primarily a biographical claim about Marx the person (though it could be). It’s a claim about what’s going on in Marx’s work. One implication is that contemporary Marxists should probably be careful to forge a clearer boundary between anti-Semitism and anti-individualism than Marx did. But that task won’t be urgent to the sort of Marxist who denies (without much examination) that the problem is there, or casually acknowledges the existence of a problem somewhere in the Marxian neighborhood, but is sure it doesn’t matter much: Marx’s anti-Semitism is, after all, just an accidental, contingent feature of one part of one text, right? (Right?) Well, maybe it is. But maybe it isn’t.

        Yes, there are crudely reductionistic, simple-minded, textually insensitive, problematically uncharitable, deficient-in-deference readings of great texts. But there are also racist, totalitarian, and imperialist texts–sometimes obviously and sometimes subtly so. Those texts don’t always explicitly announce the most problematic features of their own claims, or identify the most problematic implications of those claims, or discuss what, in reality, would be required to translate the text’s abstract claims into real-world practice. But an interpreter has the license to ask all the relevant questions and give the relevant answers.

        I’m the first one to say that Said mishandles the unmasking/debunking/making-the-inexplicit-explicit task in Orientalism and in Culture and Imperialism (as do others), but I would insist that the task itself is a perfectly legitimate one. Sometimes authors wear masks that requiring unmasking. Sometimes authors soft-pedal the real implications of the doctrines they’re defending–which requires exposure. Sometimes doctrines are promoted by a subtle division of labor, a kind of cognitive-political “good cop/bad cop” routine, in which one proponent puts a happy face on the doctrine, and the other offers up the harsh version. But both versions could exemplify the main features of the doctrine, and represent a difference of emphasis within the parameters of the doctrine. An interpreter should be willing to take a sufficiently wide and skeptical angle on the theoretical enterprise to be able to grasp that. There’s no a priori hermeneutical principle that says that theorists mean well when they theorize.

        I am not saying that we should trawl through the great texts of the Western tradition, casting an indiscriminately jaundiced eye on everything we read, and then reducing the claims of the text to some sinister ideological conspiracy. I’m saying: there are cases where the evidence warrants a skeptical-to-jaundiced reading of a given text or author, and when it does, it’s perfectly legitimate to go ahead with as jaundiced a reading as the texts (plus justified background assumptions) will bear.

        That is not a case of slighting what the text says at face value, or its details, but of fully acknowledging its claims and then grasping their real-world implications, or grasping that the claims rationalize some injustice, or are indeterminate as between a benign and a sinister reading.

        Incidentally, interpreters sometimes make a distinction between the essential and accidental features of a text, treating its accidental features, by default, as though they were non-existent features. It seems to me that that maneuver is more likely to lead an interpreter to ignore the details of a text than a reading that sees the text as advancing some nefarious agenda. Details, after all, matter more to the promotion of nefarious agendas than they do to wide-angle accounts of the essential features of a doctrine. In my experience, it’s common for interpreters to wave away the pernicious features of a great text as something “not worth worrying about” precisely because it’s a mere detail. The idea is that the text comes into clearer focus if we abstract from the details. But sometimes, the devil is in the details.

        Here’s an example of the kind of “jaundiced” reading I have in mind: Locke’s theory of property can (with good textual warrant) either be read as a liberal defense of homesteading, or as a veiled rationalization for the dispossession of “wasteful” land-holders from primitive or uncivilized societies (or both). As a matter of historical fact, the theory functioned to do both things at once: imperialists from Vattel to Andrew Jackson to Theodore Roosevelt have always argued that vacant land is there for the taking, understanding “vacant” to mean “under-used.” That’s why historically, homesteading was itself intrinsically tied to the dispossession of “uncivilized” societies. And both homesteading and dispossession have often (in the English-speaking world) had a recognizably Lockean pedigree.

        The warrant for the two readings (or the one integrated reading involving both elements) is patently there in Locke:

        S gets to appropriate a parcel P just in case S uses P for a productive purpose, bounds P, refrains from wasting P, and leaves enough and as good for others of the value that P has for S.

        Textually speaking, I think it’s very obvious that Locke’s own conceptions of “productive purpose,” “boundary,” “waste,” “sufficiency,” and “value” are entirely ethnocentric. A contemporary Lockean might aspire to re-cast Locke’s theory so as to avoid that ethnocentrism, but he couldn’t begin to do that until he’d grasp that Locke himself didn’t do it. Not only did Locke not do it–it’s obvious he saw no need to try.

        I don’t think contemporary interpreters take those facts seriously enough. It’s not enough to take some neat verbal formulations from Locke (as I just did above), wrench them from their context, perform “conceptual analyses” on them using antiseptic thought-experiments, and call the result a “Lockean theory of property.” The problem with that approach is not just that it’s not what Locke did (though it isn’t). The problem is that it fails to deal with what Locke dealt with. Locke’s discussions of Biblical Palestine and pre-colonial North America are not merely “accidental” features of the text that an interpreter can wish away. They’re there for a reason. Locke sees property holdings in those places (the Hebrews’ holdings in Palestine, English holdings in America) as paradigms of initial appropriations and intends to use them to explicate the very concept of initial appropriation. His judgments about property in Palestine and in America are woven into his account of initial appropriation.

        Let’s assume that Locke was neither evil nor an idiot. If so, one needs to ask: what is the depth of ingression of the ethnocentric/imperialist features of Locke’s view into the theory? Why did he find himself in the predicament of offering a theory of property with such egregiously ethnocentric/imperialist features? Is it just that “he was a child of his time,” or is there some deeper theoretical or structural reason connected to the type of account he’s offering?

        One answer of the latter sort is that it’s actually very difficult to avoid doing what Locke did, at least for a theory of the form Locke wants to give. The instances of appropriation most familiar to us are the ones we actually confront in the real world. But most of us don’t actually confront that many types of property regime in our theoretical lives. And we can’t. The world is too big, time is too short, and plane tickets are too expensive to encounter very many. We internalize certain ways of thinking about property, and intuitively find radically different ways of thinking about it as very alien, even absurd.

        E.g.: Why are Bedouins nomads, anyway? Why don’t they just wise up and settle down, like normal people? What sense does it make to say that “The Temple Mount belongs to the Jewish People,” or “Al Aqsa was a gift from Caliph Umar bin Khattab to the ummah of Islam–as institutionalized, in perpetuity, by the Islamic waqf in Jordan”? That all sounds like mythology, not a matter of serious property claims. Some Lakota Sioux want “the land back” so as to re-populate it with buffalo and bring back the old traditions of the buffalo hunt. But that strikes a lot of people as absurd: it seems absurd to turn South Dakota into a big game park so that a couple of thousand Indians can live out an ancient fantasy that was suboptimal even when it was possible to live it. (The controversy over DAPL is in the same ballpark. Defenders of DAPL regard Indian claims to ancient burial spaces as absurd; Indians regard DAPL as sacrilege.) Once you get past thought-experiments, most real-world property claims seem absurd. Who really needs a Mercedes, a BMW, a yacht, a pool, thousands of acres of real estate, a billion-dollar bank account, and six mansions? And how could one seriously claim to have title in all that? Etc.

        Locke has a pretty clear, if mostly inexplicit, way of handling this problem (or these problems). Whether we consult reason or Scripture, we’ll find that some people–heathens, in particular–are just wrong about a lot of things. One needn’t work out the details or produce a worked-out theory to see that: it’s obvious. Yes, they’re human. Yes, they’re God’s children. Yes, we’re governed by natural law in dealing with them. But if they stand their ground on ground that isn’t theirs (by Lockean strictures), they don’t have a right to it. If they claim property holdings that they waste, while refusing to leave enough and as good for others–where “enough and as good” is understood in Lockean terms–well, then, it looks like they have to be “expropriated.” And if they won’t permit that? Well, what follows is the State of War. So from Locke’s theory of property we move to his theory of just war as applied to non-Christians. The account is laid out very clearly and rigorously in Barbara Arneil’s John Locke and America.

        Avoiding these implications is not as easy as contemporary Lockeans think: Locke’s theory has no theoretical “escape hatch” that permits easy escape from the problematic features of his theory. That suggests that if one wants to be a modern Lockean, one needs to see the urgent need for an “escape hatch” and build one–assuming that it’s possible to build one, which isn’t entirely obvious. A good discussion of this general issue, but on slavery rather than appropriation, is Wayne Glausser’s “Three Approaches to Locke on the Slave Trade,” modeled on Quine’s “Three Grades of Modal Involvement.” The basic approach is clear enough from the second paragraph of the paper, visible in the thumbnail. My point is simply that Glausser’s third view has some plausibility and should be on the table until it can conclusively be dismissed.

        I’ve used Locke as an example, because it’s what I happen to be interested in, but the point is obviously broader than Locke. This isn’t scholarship; it’s journalism, but this critique of Charles Murray by Nathan Robinson strikes me as entirely on point (ht: Sergio Mendez). It’s a debunking reading of Murray. On the one hand, it acknowledges the face value content of Murray’s claims and arguments. On the other hand, it suggests that there is a latent message behind the manifest claims that is much darker (so to speak) than Murray and his defenders are willing to acknowledge. It (correctly) vindicates the outrage that people feel about Murray while simultaneously (and justifiably) castigating much of that outrage as uninformed. I don’t quite agree with Robinson that Murray is a racist (how to use that word is a long discussion of its own), but I agree in a general way with his verdict on Murray.

        My general point: It takes a certain commitment to a hermeneutics of suspicion to do what Robinson has done here (and Arneil has done on Locke), but I regard that (within limits) as salutary, whether in journalism or in scholarship. A lot of things deserve suspicion, and a lot of things should get it.


        • Yes, I didn’t intend my previous comments and Roderick citations as an expression of disagreement with you, but as an attempt to set out a set of problems that I think we should avoid when we try to understand texts, problems that one need not fall into simply by virtue of supposing that, say, Locke’s theory of property has imperialist aims.

          The more detail you offer, though, the more unsure I become about whether your take on the matter really does avoid the problems. As I see it, there’s no problem with noting that a view V has some implications I that legitimate imperialism; there is also no problem with arguing that legitimating imperialism is, explicitly or implicitly, one of the author’s aims in defending V. Nor, finally, is there any problem with arguing that, because I is false, bad, or otherwise problematic, if I is really an implication of V, then V is likewise false, bad, or otherwise problematic. That may be all you’re up to, and if so, then the only objections I would have in principle would be that V isn’t the author’s view, that I isn’t an implication of it, that I doesn’t legitimate imperialism, or that it isn’t therefore false, bad, or otherwise problematic. In Locke’s case, I don’t know enough to have any views either way, aside from, as (I think) I said, that I would find it unsurprising if Locke’s theory of property has some imperialism-friendly implications and that one of his aims in defending that theory was to vindicate certain sorts of imperial projects that he thought were justifiable. I’d have to consider details before I’d be willing to say whether this is a problem for his view, or how much it’s a problem, but ceteris paribus I think it would be a problem.

          I begin to have doubts, though, when you embrace more ‘suspicious’ styles of reading, or suggest that your own inclinations about Locke are a case of suspicious reading. What is Locke allegedly hiding under his mask? It sounds to me like the imperialist implications of Locke’s theory of property are not exactly concealed, even if they’re not at the forefront of his discussion. In any case, even if they were inconsistent with the rest of what he says — as opposed to inconsistent with our own political prejudices — why should we suppose there’s any kind of unmasking to do? A mask is supposed to make its wearer appear to be someone he isn’t; when you peel away the mask you reveal the true, hidden identity, like at the end of a Scooby Doo episode. So far as I can see, the only way to turn what you’ve said about Locke and imperialism so far into an unmasking style of reading would be to treat his work, implausibly if not perversely, as driven by a pre-theoretical, if not pre-rational, commitment to Europeans being able to take people’s stuff, a commitment that not only constrains his theorizing, but that his theorizing is designed primarily to justify in a way that hides its true nature. I suppose it’s possible that Locke’s theory of property is really just that sort of mask, but I don’t see any reason to think so. I also don’t see how any talk of its true nature can avoid being talk about Locke’s psychology or about supra-individual socio-cultural forces that caused Locke to think what he thought. I am happy and even eager, unlike some, to talk about what a text or a theory’s aims are, as opposed to what its author’s motives were, so that I don’t suppose that any talk of intentions must be psychological. But interpretations that purport to identify the real factors that lie concealed beneath the surface of a text or idea must, it seems to me, be talking about some psychological or other factor that purportedly explains why the text or idea is as it is, and I don’t see how these have any bearing on what the ideas and arguments are or whether they are any good. (Sometimes ‘interpretations’ seem to seek to discredit texts and authors by appealing to the historical effects of their ideas, but these tell us even less). Again, it’s not that I think there can be no true or illuminating causal accounts, psychological or otherwise, of why a given author’s ideas took the shape they did; I just don’t think these sorts of accounts do much if anything to tell us what those ideas were or to assess them, and often these sorts of accounts, or assumptions about the way these sorts of accounts would look in a given case, distort interpretations of theses and arguments to begin with.

          Otherwise put, there doesn’t seem to be any legitimate philosophical work for unmasking or debunking interpretations to do. They seem designed to do merely rhetorical work of discrediting the author or the ideas, but nothing about the character or quality of the ideas can be inferred from an author’s motives, or the socio-cultural factors that influenced his thinking, or the historical effects of his ideas. If none of those is in question, then we’re just criticizing theses and arguments in the way that philosophers usually do — this doesn’t follow from that, this implies that, which is bad or false or problematic, or whatever — and there is no unmasking going on. That is, unmasking or debunking interpretations strike me as indulging in straightforward logical fallacies. The complaints you make about interpreters of Locke strike me as straightforward complaints about how they interpret and understand the arguments, not as complaints that they’re failing to see through some mask; you’re complaining that the theory really has some implications that they fail to recognize, or some weaknesses that they fail to acknowledge. Otherwise I’m not sure why there would be a problem here; if Locke’s theory were aimed at legitimating imperialism, but it turned out to fail miserably in those aims, such that one would have to distort the theory to legitimate imperialism, then why would it be a problem for the theory that it was aimed at legitimating imperialism? So too for ‘ethnocentrism’; if Locke’s claims were true and well warranted, why would it be a problem that they are ‘ethnocentric’? It is presumably ethnocentric to suppose that women should not be legally subordinated to their fathers or husbands and lack independent political rights, given that many societies in the past have lacked this belief and some continue to do so; does the ethnocentric character of the supposition have any bearing on whether it’s true or justified? I’m usually among the first to insist that we not take our own society’s moral assumptions or social practices for granted as though they were self-evident truths or the norms of nature, but the problem there is not ‘ethnocentrism,’ it’s bad reasoning.

          In short, I’m not convinced that your suggestions about Locke actually involve any hermeneutics of suspicion, and to the extent that they do, I fail to see how they raise any points of legitimate philosophical interest that could not be raised equally well, or better, without the characteristic rhetoric of suspicion, unmasking, and the like. In other words, I don’t see that your approach to Locke has much at all in common with Said’s approach to anything except that they’re both interested in questions about imperialism and the like. So I think I’m only disagreeing with you insofar as you present the kind of thing you’re up to as similar to the kind of thing Said is up to. But I haven’t read Said aside from brief snippets, so perhaps I underestimate him, in which case we can substitute ‘Said’ with ‘standard practice in the hermeneutics of suspicion among academics from the mid-20th century to today.’


  8. The most obvious thing Locke was hiding when he wrote the Two Treatises was that he was the author of the text, that he intended the text as incitement to overthrow Charles II/James II,* and that its positive prescriptions were “policy advice” for their successors. What Ashcraft shows–persuasively and in excruciating detail–is that the whole text of the two Treatises is, from beginning to end a (literally) cloak-and-dagger exercise in revolutionary incitement. For instance, he argues with plausibilty that Locke was part of the Rye House Plot to assassinate Charles II/James II, among other things.

    In other words, the text doesn’t just offer a critique of the divine right of kings and the need to overthrow a tyrant in the abstract. It offers (and was meant to offer) both prospective incitement to and retrospective justification of revolutionary violence against the existing Stuart regime. In that respect, the two Treatises and State and Revolution are (whatever their obvious differences) functionally similar texts, and can now be seen as written by authors wearing masks: the theorist who is in fact out to kill people.

    In Lenin’s case, this should be obvious. State & Revolution is a pre-emptive justification for the Bolshevik Revolution, but it’s not as though Lenin could really say that. It offers veiled rationalizations for just about everything Lenin did during and after the Revolution, but he couldn’t say that, either. Once you look at the history, though, and then take a harder squint at the text, you realize that it’s all there. That is something that the more sedate “let’s just look at the text” school of interpretation misses, but once it’s pointed out, it becomes an obvious and salient feature of the text.

    What Locke may or may not have been trying to hide when it comes to property and colonialism is a subtler and more difficult affair that I can’t handle in a blog comment, but that he was wearing a mask and engaged in an act of concealment is just an undeniable fact. He didn’t even avow authorship of the the two Treatises until his deathbed. He pretended to be a country doctor and secretary to Shaftesbury, but he was in fact a secret agent of Shaftesbury’s anti-James/anti-Catholic conspiracies.

    This affects how we construe the words written on the page. He wasn’t writing an academic contribution to “theory.” He was writing a text whose purpose in part was to get certain people killed pretty soon after publication (or before, if possible). Precisely because academic theorists tend not to think that way, my view is that they tend to misunderstand authors who do.

    Consider how differently you would have to read my blog posts on Israel and Palestine if you knew for certain that I was an active member of the military wing of Hamas. Previously innocuous claims would start to take on a radically different cast. Previously indeterminate claims would potentially come to assume a determinacy that they previously lacked. My excuses for not being more explicit about my claims, or for not having time to respond to various queries, would come to have plausibly different explanations than the ones you now likely adopt. You would be justified in devoting suspicious, even paranoid scrutiny to the claims I make about violence that you wouldn’t otherwise engage in, and probably never engage in, given the identity of your colleagues and the work you do. Very few of your colleagues write Aristotle scholarship while functioning as secret agents for Philip of Macedon or Alexander the Great.

    Once William and Mary took the throne, Locke become a government bureaucrat. Government bureaucrats notoriously wear masks: it’s what they do, and have to do. It’s a highly contested and contestable question whether Locke’s governmental memoranda count as policy-level specifications of his political philosophy. Most scholars (including most of the leading lights of Locke scholarship–as well as most of the lesser lights) use them that way. For the most part, I don’t think they should be used that way (though in some cases, I guess they can). But it’s a subtle and difficult issue. I’m hoping to blog on it later.

    When? It’s a secret.

    *I’d originally written “Charles II” throughout when I meant “Chales II and James II.” I’ve fixed it.


    • If that’s an answer to my earlier question, it pretty clearly equivocates, or at least changes the subject. It’s not news that Locke didn’t write the treatises under his own name, that they were meant to promote a very particular, and not exactly peaceful, course of political action, and that these two facts are closely related in a straightforward way. What none of this, or anything else you say above, has even the slightest tendency to suggest is that the arguments and theses of the treatises are a mere rationalization for some fundamentally non-rational agenda, however transparent or opaque to their author’s consciousness. Nor do any of the legitimate, and legitimately interesting, facts about Locke’s biography, historical context, and motives and intentions in writing the treatises have any bearing on what the theses and arguments in the text are. It would indeed be very interesting to discover that you were an active member of the military wing of Hamas; it would indeed lead me to interpret some of what you have written in new and interesting ways; it would have zero impact on what the theses and arguments of Foundationalism and the Foundations of Ethics are, or what the theses and arguments in your blog posts about BDS are. Even if such a discovery were somehow to discredit you, if you happened to make some damn fine arguments in defense of some plausible theses, even the discovery that you didn’t believe them and were just pretending to believe them to cover up the fact that you are actually an Israeli agent would have no bearing on what your posts claim or whether the arguments are any good. If the Devil makes plausible arguments for virtue, they’re still plausible arguments for virtue.

      I half suspect that the reason you think you’re defending the thing I’ve been attacking is that you haven’t read enough of the sort of thing I’ve been attacking. So here’s an example. You know how Aristotle wrote complex works about ontology and psychology, right? You know why? You know what he was doing? Well, it turns out that “Aristotle creates a metaphysics and formulates a theory of the soul in order to uphold power.” Know how we know it? Because he appeals to those theories to defend slavery and sexism. Thus Holt Parker, ‘Aristotle’s Unanswered Questions: Women and Slaves in Politics 1252a-1260b’, Eugesta 2 (2012), pp. 71-122. I hope you don’t waste your time reading it, but if you do, you’ll notice pretty quickly that Parker is about as good a reader of Aristotle as your average undergraduate who resents having to read; it’s just barely apparent that he has actually read some Aristotle, but that’s it. This sort of trash is hardly unusual; Robert Mayhew’s The Female in Aristotle’s Biology offers numerous other examples if you’re interested (perhaps the best: you know why Aristotle thought women’s brains were smaller than men’s? Because he was a sexist and thought women were less intelligent. Oh, Aristotle didn’t think the brain had anything to do with intelligence? Whoops). Since you mention Alexander the Great, I’m reminded of Hans Kelsen’s old paper in which he argues that all of the ‘contradictions’ in Aristotle’s treatment of monarchy in the Politics are a product of his covert support for Macedonian domination over Greece — an inverted anticipation of the view some Straussians hold that they are a product of his covert opposition to Macedonian domination over Greece! There is a recent book that argues pretty fully that those ‘contradictions’ are not even apparent, let alone explicable in terms of covert agendas. Part of the lesson here is that it helps to pay attention to what an argument or thesis is before you offer up biographical, psychological, or ideological causes for it. In addition to these having no direct bearing on the philosophical content of the work, focus on them has the unfortunate tendency to make people produce really stupid interpretations of the philosophical content of the work.

      I’m pretty sure everything you actually have to say about Locke is pretty interesting, even if some of it has no direct bearing on what his claims are or whether they’re of any philosophical value. I must be mostly to blame here for not being able to clarify adequately the kind of interpretive strategies that I’ve been rejecting. I’d hoped that illustrating them with a parodic application to your own work would have helped. Evidently not.


      • For that matter, if the Devil makes really bad arguments for vice, they’re really bad arguments for vice. Maybe he meant them to be really bad arguments because he was joking around, so that anyone who misses the intention fails to see that the whole thing was a joke, and thereby seriously misinterprets the devilish discourse. But they’re still really bad arguments for vice; if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be funny.


      • I don’t think that responds to what I said. My claim is not that “the arguments and theses of the treatises are a mere rationalization for some fundamentally non-rational agenda, however transparent or opaque to their author’s consciousness” specifically in the case of Locke. I said explicitly that I haven’t worked out my views on Locke. My thesis is that one can’t, a priori, dismiss the possibility the arguments and theses of a text are not mere rationalizations for some fundamentally non-rational agenda, however transparent or opaque to their author’s consciousness. They could be, and their being so is relevant to understanding the text. A reductive or subversive reading doesn’t supersede a textually sensitive analysis of the claims and arguments of the text, but supplements it. You’ve given me examples of bad arguments to reudctive conclusions in cases where the reductive conclusion is probably false, but that’s irrelevant to my claim: it an ignoratio elenchi. Your examples don’t rebut the possibility that there could be cases of good arguments to that conclusion where the conclusion is true.

        A reductive reading is entirely plausible in the case of Lenin, an example you haven’t so far mentioned. An interpreter could, with perfect legitimacy, work through Lenin’s arguments, find them wanting as arguments (in part for their lack of soundness, in part for their vagueness or indeterminacy), and then discern the further fact that they function as rationalizations for a political agenda–i.e., the Bolshevik Revolution and the brutalities it engendered. A look at the historical facts, both political and biographical, throws interpretive light on what Lenin was saying, clarifying his claims, or specifying them, in ways that a purely textual interpretation could not do.

        For instance, when one reads Lenin likening the bourgeoisie to Shylock in State and Revolution (section 4), a reader might at first be naively inclined to regard that claim as a mere literary or rhetorical flourish, and move on, treating the Shylock reference as normatively inconsequential. But once you see, retrospectively, what Lenin was actually willing to do in the name of Soviet socialism, you come to realize that he meant the reference to Shylock pretty literally. He not only (likely) meant that the bourgeoisie ought to be forced to convert to socialism and exiled, but meant to conjure up the very vitriol that audiences often feel for Shakespeare’s Shylock, hoping to harness that vitriol and apply it to the Russian case. He doesn’t come out and say that, but in context, it’s not much of an interpretive leap. This latter interpretive possibility might not occur to a naive reader unaware of what Lenin actually did as leader of the Soviet Union–or one aware of what he did, but reluctant on methodological grounds to read State & Revolution in a radically uncharitable, reductive way. But in cases like State & Revolution, the naive interpreter’s interpretive charity just serves to whitewash what the text was saying, and to whitewash the historical role it played. And that’s one example of thousands I could adduce. You encounter a new one on every page of Lenin.

        Unless you want to say that the latter task is somehow illegitimate as such, I don’t see that you’ve rebutted (or even dealt with) with what I’ve said. Whether what’s true of Lenin ends up being true of Locke is beside the point, and something about which I’m agnostic (and said I was). The point I was making was not about Locke per se, but about authors of a certain (politically engaged) kind, of which Locke was an instance. My point is that a reductive thesis could be true given what Locke was up to, and has to be borne in mind as a real interpretive possibility. That doesn’t absolve the interpreter of the need to grapple with the best version of the argument in the text. It doesn’t motivate or justify dialectical sloppiness, well-poisoning, or straw man argumentation, either. It simply gives the interpreter the freedom to treat the author of a text the way he would treat anyone else: capable of good but capable of evil; innocent before proven guilty, but guilty if proven so–and subject to the appropriate moral evaluation in the latter case.


        • Sorry I’m so late to this; life has somehow caught up to me.

          I think we might be talking past each other here. I’ve been taking your comments up to now as though they were supposed to be a criticism of something I’d said, and I’ve been rejecting them as such. You seem to be taking my comments as rejections of things you want to say quite independently of any criticisms of what I’ve had to say, not simply as defenses of my own claims. One of my main lines of defense against your comments interpreted as a critique of my own has been that I don’t have any objections in principle to what you’re saying, because it’s quite compatible with what I’ve been saying; maybe we do or would disagree about some details here or there, but I just don’t see that the kind of approach you’ve been defending is an instance of the kind of approach I was attacking. That might explain why you don’t see how what I’ve said responds to what you’ve said while I don’t see how what you’ve said even resembles a plausible objection to what I’ve said; if you’ve been taking my comments as a critique of yours quite independently of their implications for mine, while I’ve been taking yours as intended to constitute objections to mine, then maybe we’re just misunderstanding each other. Or maybe not. In any case, if you do intend to be raising objections to my critique of reductive unmasking interpretations, then I don’t have anything to add to what I’ve written in previous posts, because the interpretive moves you’re defending are not in fact cases of the approach I was criticizing, and so don’t raise any objections to my critique. I don’t have any objections, in principle at least, to the approach you’ve been defending; I object only to the suggestion, which you may in fact not be making, that it should be regarded as the same approach I’ve been critiquing, or that a defense of it poses any problems for my critique of the approach I’ve been complaining about.

          But I think this horse is decidedly dead.


          • Oh, I see now that I wasn’t quite so late as I’d supposed; I haven’t even checked the blog in long enough that I just assumed your replies had been sitting here waiting for me for more than a week. Whoops. I might say that you’re the late one, but you had far better reasons for not responding; I mean, sure, I’ve been busy, but I’ve also been distracted and lazy, whereas you’ve been in a different hemisphere, so…


          • Refinement: I don’t have anything to add, because the interpretive moves you’re defending are either not cases of the approach I was criticizing, or they are cases of it that I conceded nearly a month ago to be possibly legitimate in principle. To quote myself: “No doubt there are some texts that are sufficiently simple to yield to such analysis [analysis that “reduces philosophical argument or creative literature to one or another contextually-bound ideological purpose”] without distortion, but even mediocre works of philosophy and literature are typically misrepresented by this mode of interpretation, whether what we’re interested in is the ideas they contain or the roles they played, intentionally or not, in their historical context.” So to the extent that your objection to my objections — if you’re objecting to my objections — is that the sort of thing I’m complaining about can in principle be a legitimate way to interpret some texts, my response is: yeah, I said that a month ago, dude.


      • If that’s an answer to my earlier question, it pretty clearly equivocates, or at least changes the subject. It’s not news that Locke didn’t write the treatises under his own name, that they were meant to promote a very particular, and not exactly peaceful, course of political action, and that these two facts are closely related in a straightforward way.

        I brought up the Locke-related history in response to your claim that there was no need to unmask Locke (not to prove that Locke was an imperialist on a reductive reading). There’s no longer any need to unmask Locke with respect to his role in the Revolution of 1688 because Peter Laslett has already done the unmasking. Before Laslett’s unmasking, it was widely thought that Locke wrote the Treatises to offer a retrospective justification of the Revolution. Laslett showed that Locke was offering a sneaky “injunction” to initiate the Revolution (or in any case, writing in advance of the Revolution).

        Laslett’s unmasking of Locke clearly affects how we read the text. Locke famously tells us that revolution is only justified when a “train of abuses” makes “the design” of tyranny “clear to the people” (ST, 225). On Laslett’s reading, that design was clear in 1678, and justified killing Charles II and James II. On the non-Laslett reading, it’s not clear whether the design was clear in 1678, nor was it clear that killing Chales II and James II was ever a justifiable option. Surely the difference makes a difference, not only to how we read Locke on the Revolution, but how we read Locke on politics generally.


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