I mentioned Robert Service’s new biography of Trotsky before. I haven’t bought it or read it yet, mainly because I don’t have time and I’m waiting for something like summer or a prolonged debilitating decease disease to read some books I’ve set aside. But also because I’ve read some mixed reviews of the book’s intention and style. Here‘s the review of it by David North that raises a number of larger issues.
The review begins with a different story, a reaction to the now class three-volume biography of Trotsky by Deutscher:
In 1955 James Burnham, the intellectual godfather of modern American neo-conservatism, reviewed The Prophet Armed,the first volume of Isaac Deutscher’s monumental biography of Leon [Lev Davidovich] Trotsky. Fifteen years had passed since Burnham had resigned from the Fourth International at the climax of a political struggle in which he had crossed polemical swords with Leon Trotsky. It had been a difficult experience for Burnham, who felt somewhat overmatched in this political and literary contest.
Burnham noted that Deutscher’s portrait of Trotsky was not one-sided; that he “conscientiously displays, also, Trotsky’s weaknesses…” But despite the many literary virtues of the biography, Burnham denounced it as an “intellectual disaster.” Burnham’s reason for his condemnation was that “Mr. Deutscher writes from a point of view that accepts and legitimizes the Bolshevik revolution.” The biography was “organically warped” and unacceptable. “Not all the scholarly references from all the libraries are enough to wash out the Bolshevik stain.”
Burnham confessed his horror that Deutscher had received “all the courtesies of our leading research institutions, the aid of our foundations, the pages of our magazines, publication and promotion by the great Anglo-Saxon Oxford Press.” Did the establishment not recognize the danger in allowing, and even encouraging, the details of Trotsky’s heroic life and revolutionary ideas to reach the broader public, and especially the youth?
Burnham concluded his review with a cry of despair: “The minds of many of our university students and opinion-makers are being deeply formed, on the supremely important issues with which he [Deutscher] deals, by his ideas. It is surely one more among the many indications of the suicidal mania of the western world.” The conclusion that implicitly flowed from this review was that Deutscher’s book and others like it, which portrayed the October Revolution and its leaders sympathetically, should not be published.
So it was not the quality of Deutscher’s research, it was the attitude he had toward the person he was writing about and, most importantly, toward the events that we supposedly must condemn. There are several favorite conservative issues here, of course, and the one that always annoys me is the theme of “we must protect our children/students from X, Y, and Z because they are no mature enough to get deal with it themselves,” there’s however a sense in which I wonder if it’s things can be solved in some easy way: think about research topics like terrorism or religious extremism – we only like those if they are aimed at fighting terrorism/extremism, if a terrorist-sympathizing author did the best research possible and wrote a great book about it, should it be reviewed only based on its scholarly qualities? If reviewer hates everything the discussed figure stands for, should his efforts to maintain objectivity be considered good scholarly style?
Robert Service’s book is, according to David North, a character assassination:
Trotsky: A Biography is a crude and offensive book, produced without respect for the most minimal standards of scholarship. Service’s “research,” if one wishes to call it that, has been conducted in bad faith. His Trotsky is not history, but, rather, an exercise in character assassination. Service is not content to distort and falsify Trotsky’s political deeds and ideas. Frequently descending to the level of a grocery store tabloid, Service attempts to splatter filth on Trotsky’s personal life. Among his favorite devices is to refer to “rumors” about Trotsky’s intimate relations, without even bothering to identify the rumor’s source, let alone substantiate its credibility.
It again raises a number of interesting questions: is it possible to write a good scholarly book about a person you despise? is it possible to write an objective account of what you admire? what is the general purpose of supposedly objective biography? All of this (read the rest of the review, it’s really interesting and goes where I would not go with certain ideas) leads me to a question I’ve been thinking about lately: can you criticize a philosophical position without criticizing a person that holds it?
There’s some discussion of this over at Dead Voles. My question here is simple: is it possible to have an open mind, an objective attitude toward a book or a body of work and then, after engaging it, discover that it is either worthy of appreciation or is just a bunch of baloney? My experience tells me that it is not. Here’s why: every book we read, every idea we approach, we approach from a very particular position that has its own unique history and its unique structure; I only read books I find interesting because someone else told me (either explicitly or by citing it favorably) that they are worth my attention. I firmly believe that all that stuff about “I was at the bookstore and I picked up this book and I started reading it and it changed my life” is such an exception that to take it as a rule is simply foolish. Most of us, I think, to a certain extent, always already like the books we are about to read and hate the books we are told are not coherent and stupid. In other words, there’s no such thing as a “principle of charity” when it comes to reading – we read with intention to accept or with intention to reject while some objectivity of some principle implies that we can “make up our mind as we read” – it’s just not the case. Here, I said it.
Is there then any sense in which one can avoid ad hominem attacks? Sure. Just because objectivity is not easily achieved does not mean we should not strive for it, right? Wrong. Objectivity as a value in scholarly discourse is one gigantic myth that serves this sort of idealized vision of knowledge as a perfect collections of correct statements/propositions/facts. Supposedly neutral, self-professedly objective, desperately scientific – we should use these more. Ad hominem implies that one can easily separate the person from the argument – “it is ridiculous” is somehow different from “you are a fool for thinking this is not ridiculous” – but if we look at any serious philosophical discussion, we see that it always involves passions. The logic of prohibition of ad hominems is the logic of repressed emotion “deal with the argument, repress your feelings about the discussed position, remain sober and calm, remain objective” – no one ever does that and yet we strive for it. Even the occasional person we praise for staying objective and balanced is under suspicion: do they stay calm because they have a disposition of a true scholar or simply because they do not give a shit about the issues? do they ask “what do you think about it?” because they don’t care to inquire “how do you feel about it?” and therefore get to the real core of the philosophical experience, that is, the emotion of grasping some aspect of reality?
Tea time. Rant over. Grandpa out.
Here’s a question, Mikhail: Would you say that there’s a sense in which a book/argument can be said to be true, completely apart from the person who wrote it?
Let’s say that Godel publishes his incompleteness theorems on his blog, and I’m a logical positivist who hates him because his ideas mess up my entire project. Can anything I say affect whether his theorems are correct or not? I can wage a personal war against him, and even possibly get people to think he is a crank. But can anything about my opinions make him wrong? Does it matter *at all* whether Godel was out to get logical positivists or not?
Also, there are always a couple of sides to it. There is the person who is making an argument and wants to believe that what he’s arguing is true, and there’s the person reading the argument who wants it to be true or false.
If you are saying that real objectivity is hardly ever present when we make arguments or argue against them, then okay. But you haven’t made a strong case about why we shouldn’t strive for it. The case you’ve made is stronger for just being up front about it and admitting our biases.
I agree with you that the person is relavent to the argument. Philosophy is not mathematical proof. My point in the Dead Voles thread was that the more you suppose about a person’s motivations (or pull from a paucity of evidence), the less force your argument has on a pragmatic level. People will be less likely to take your argument seriously if they think you’re out to get the person you’re arguing against.
Mikhail, this is exactly right, especially when you say:
I feel that this is exactly what I was trying to convey in the Dead Voles comment section of the thread you’ve cited, though obviously in much clearer prose than my own. In a way, this fundamental “choice” that precedes any encounter that would allow one to adequately justify it on a rational basis presents a serious problem for any notion of scholarly debate, dialogue, so-called objectivity or the “principle of charity.” In a way, it conjures to my mind Goethe’s notion of Wahlverwandtschaften, or “elective affinities,” the way in which human passions are put into the service of certain chemical valences that undermine rational inquiry or institutions (yet remains ambiguous as to whether being reductive and deterministic, or a naive confirmation of human free will). In more poststructuralist terminology, we might think of it in terms of a kind of jouissance that provides a kind of “primordial directionality” or valence.
(I tried to take some of these questions up at the Howler on a brief post called “Dialogue as Monologue,” http://velvethowler.com/2009/12/07/dialogue-as-monologue/)
Additionally, we could skirt this kind of metaphysics towards something more akin to an aesthetic judgment, as I suggested in the Dead Voles thread. Nevertheless, I have the sense that this wouldn’t be the most fruitful way of pursuing this question.
One final thing: I disagree with your position on objectivity, as I think it concedes a bit too much and misses a certain Hegelian dimension that Zizek has perspicaciously shed light on. Rather than ending with the fact that any “neutral” standpoint is far from ever being objective, always concealing a hidden particularity based on its series of exclusions of what constitutes universality as such, instead we should consider how one’s very subjective passions and involvement, the passion of getting “caught up” in the entire libidinal network of disputation and argumentation, already constitutes a kind of objectivity of the standpoint, the *GegenStandpunkt*, which is a really clever name for a Marxist journal.
Asher, I don’t disagree with your observations and before I try to answer your question, I would like to say that I blog not because I am developing some sort of philosophy or trying to make a contribution, but because I think of posts in terms of possible provocations, not simple statements of fact. It’s just an aside, I think I’ve realized this recently: since blogging is a kind of communal experience (other I would just keep a diary with all of my precious thoughts, right?), I say things to initiate a thinking along some lines, not in order to lay out what I thought up in the world outside of blogging (which we all know doesn’t really exist anyway).
I think it is useful here to distinguish between truth and correctness – nothing original, of course – the scenario you are imagining is not that unlikely (theory and its enemies, regardless of correctness, would still playing by the rules I have attempted to indicate). Imagine that I and everyone around me always thought (and read in books) that 2+2=5 and that some smartass mathematical genius moved into the neighborhood and told everyone 2+2=4. Now I know I don’t have enough money for a latte and I’m pissed. If I decided to argue against him, assuming that I do think that 2+2=5, I will begin this conversation with an obvious prejudice and emotion.
Now the second part of your observation is important for me as well and I realize that I haven’t made that part clear, i.e. it is one thing to say that pragmatically we don’t see much objectivity and “charity” and it is another thing to say that we shouldn’t even bother with it. First most certainly does not imply the second – I agree. The question, however, is the following: what sort of implicit (ideological, if you will) agenda is quietly imposed on any philosophical conversation when its ideal is correctness, objectivity and neutrality? That’s all I care about in the above rant and there’s of course a long history of philosophers arguing (passionately) for and against using scientific method (math, mainly) as an ideal method for thinking (because of its precision, simplicity and so on).
Your last sentence I think only confirms what I am saying: people will not take you seriously, if you do not at least pretend that you are going after their argument and not their person because a) arguments and people who hold them are easily separable and b) arguments can be treated in a way that does not affect the persons who propose and defend them. My thought was to question both a) the possibility of modeling our philosophical discussion on other discussions where there’s a sense in which we can separate the person and the formula, and b) even if we can do so theoretically, it almost never works pragmatically (again, not that we should stop trying, but notice how much energy is spent on policing/regulating the discussion as opposed to the actual discussion?)
Let me put it this way: When Kvond argues that his analysis of speculation or orientalism are justified, there is a sense in which Kvond disappears from the argument. He may say, “I approach it in this way”, in which case I am free to argue whether approaching it that way is justified or not. But the case he lays out is self-contained enough for me to leave his personal motivations out of it (which is not to say that I was completely successful in doing that). If the question is whether the personal is relevant, I’d say Kvond made a pretty good case. So the question becomes whether the “personal” arguments he’s made are compelling. In the case of, say, the charge of orientalism, he may be right in saying that I have not been thorough enough in reading him to make a judgement. In fact, I haven’t made a judgement. But in the case of a comment like this one…
…there’s not a lot of support given.
I really don’t feel like going back to our previous engagement with objectology (especially now that “speculative realism” is pronounced dead by its most vocal defenders) – the example you give is a matter of personal choice and all I’m asserting is the right to make this choice, not that it is inherently good or must necessarily be made. What I’m going against is the explicit prohibition of ad hominem and other “illegal” philosophical moves – what is that prohibition based on if not some ideology of politeness that is slowly but surely taking over all public discourse? why do they say “fuck” on BBC (with a warning that there’s a strong language) but there’s a whole shady rating committee in the US that basically censors movies? and so on.
If the person of the one who is making an argument is important, if his/her biography is of interest to the students of his/her thoughts, then we can talk about how this importance can play itself out in the real philosophical conversation, not whether it should be included or excluded – some examples are bad, some are good. I hesitate to class Kevin’s pronouncement you cite, I lack context, but it has as much discursive right as any other pronouncement, I think, and we should judge it based on what it says, not based on whether such pronouncements are permitted by the philosophical (and internet) etiquette police.
I’ve read the Service book, and the Patenaude book, and have reviewed both (forthcoming) for the Austin Statesman. I find the splattering filth remark funny. I guess it is because both quote a letter Trotsky wrote to Natalia to apologize for his behavior with Frida: ‘Since I arrived here, not once has my poor cock stood up straight. It’s as though it doesn’t exist. It is also resting from the stress of these days. But in spite of it, I myself am thinking tenderly of your old, dear cunt…” I didn’t find this filthy, although I wonder if Natalia liked the “old” in front of dear cunt – especially given Frida’s relative youth.
But like the Old Man himself (who Max Eastman once compared to Little Lord Fautleroy for the way he refused to join into the joking and drinking of the old Bolsheviks), those who revere him preserve an out of place puritanism. To my mind, rather than “filth”, this tells us something important about Trotsky – for one thing, he definitely kept a watch on his cock. For another thing, this affair infinitely complicated his life at a time when he was dependent on Frieda’s husband, Diego.
North seems to be pointing out a lot of factual errors later in the review and I didn’t comment on that aspect – there’s clearly a problem if, as North points out, a reputable press publishes a book that contains actual errors like years of death and so on.
My point is that in some sense Service’s biography has a right to exist as much as Deutscher’s – what seems to be annoying North is the fact that it is presented as an objective account of Trotsky’s life when it does not seem to really try hard to present a decent image of the man (not objective, but balanced, I would say).
I read Service’s book about Lenin, I don’t remember anything spectacular.
Well, I thought I was an idiot for wading in, but I was repaid with one of your typically excellent analogies. So maybe 2+2 is really 5. I think I will buy myself a latte.
Your last paragraph, I think, makes your argument much more clear. The fact that not pretending to be objective hurts you pragmatically does indeed point to a problem. But once again, I’d say that the problem is with the pretense, not with the objectivity. In other words, we need to admit that the person and the argument are not easily separable.
So I think we agree to a large extent.
I can understand the frustration with “policing”. I don’t want to be this prudish, kumbaya-singing, empathy-toting dweeb who is always saying, “why can’t we just get along”? But sometimes I think “policing” is nothing more than insisting on justification for arguments — which is something that should always happen, even if the argument is “purely” personal.
Bryan, thanks for your thoughts on the matter. I don’t know what I think about objectivity as such, I’m wondering if, say, philosophy’s fascination with its own vision of how philosophical discourse must proceed actually damages its real day-to-day proceedings.
We hold all sorts of things to be true that are not true in my humble experience. For example, ideas don’t excite people, people excite people, ideas only serve as a means to do so, one way among many others, I think – when I talk about justice, no one is jumping from a sudden realization that it is an important issue, when I show footage of civil rights protests, police intimidation, racist crime and then I show footage of an enormous crowd on the Mall and MLK addressing it with “I have a dream” speech, that makes all the difference. I think we’ve exiled emotion from our philosophical exchanges because we fashion ourselves after some imaginary “objective and neutral” scientists of thought – even if objectivity is very important, what if we abandoned it for just a second and saw what is going on in philosophy on emotional or, god forbid, psychological level?
Mikhail – Okay, well I can’t really answer that very well, because I’ve never edited or removed anyone’s comments unless they asked or it was plain spam. But there are some pragmatic reasons for thinking that in certain forums, ad hominem arguments hurt the discussion. I think there’s a rule against it in the U.S. Congress for reasons like that.
“I’m wondering if, say, philosophy’s fascination with its own vision of how philosophical discourse must proceed actually damages its real day-to-day proceedings”
And in this I think you’ve got an excellent point. I’ve really been questioning my principle of Radical Assumption of Good Faith™ for reasons like this. In essence, I’m fencing off what often amounts to the whole reason for responding in my response.
Asher, whenever you yearn for a clear and yet easy example/analogy, drop me a line as I always have plenty and they are all pretty stupid too.
I think that “policing” is just fine as long as it is not a claim to some sort of the only possible way of conducting a conversation. Of course every person has a right to choose his/her mode of engagement, but this right is all I want to affirm. One can say “well, if you choose to attack other thinkers’ persons, no one is going to talk to you and you will all alone” – great point, so my choice to play along is pragmatic and I must do it because otherwise I will be excluded. That’s fine with me, but I think we agree that this is different from saying ad hominem attacks are theoretically absurd and are objectively illegitimate means to an end.
Here’s another example (aren’t you glad you came over?). Imagine there was some odd parallel universe where everyone had a sense of humor of the cruelest sarcastic type, where people went around saying things like “Hey Asher, I heard your wife got really fat, no wonder your recent essay on X sucked so bad” and everyone had a hearty laugh and maybe an occasional “retaliation” in the form of “Yep, it’s kind of sad, now she can’t babysit your kids, so it’s unlikely you will ever produce anything of scholarly worth” – I know it’s a huge stretch, but let’s imagine such a world. Wouldn’t the ultimate insult in such a world be a simple “taking it seriously” or “taking it at its face value”? Wouldn’t the inhabitants of such a world simply stare blankly if we were to persuade them that despite their sophisticated culture of surface/depth meanings, intonations, implications and so on, if they are to engage in real thinking about X, they are to leave all of that behind? What is it that allows us to be such multi-layered and complex human subjects in “real life” and such sticklers for objectivity, strictness and neutrality when we get to ideas? Why do I have to leave my humor or my personality at the door when I engage others about some “object-oriented” nonsense or some such?
Are ad hominem attacks then illegitimate because they do harm or do they do harm because they are illegitimate?
“ideas don’t excite people, people excite people”
From this NYTimes article entitled “Gimme an Rx: Cheerleaders Pep Up Drug Sales”:
“Known for their athleticism, postage-stamp skirts and persuasive enthusiasm, cheerleaders have many qualities the drug industry looks for in its sales force.”
“”There’s a saying that you’ll never meet an ugly drug rep,” said Dr. Thomas Carli of the University of Michigan.”
“”They don’t ask what the major is,” Mr. Williamson said. Proven cheerleading skills suffice. “Exaggerated motions, exaggerated smiles, exaggerated enthusiasm – they learn those things, and they can get people to do what they want.””
“But pharmaceutical companies deny that sex appeal has any bearing on hiring. “Obviously, people hired for the work have to be extroverts, a good conversationalist, a pleasant person to talk to; but that has nothing to do with looks, it’s the personality,” said Lamberto Andreotti, the president of worldwide pharmaceuticals for Bristol-Myers Squibb.”
Sending this to my friend the Pfizer drug rep immediately. And yes, he is a handsome man.
Forgive me a long quote slightly off-topic but I think it’s passably germane. Here is Max Weber on the ethics of science as distinct from the ethics of politics. The point, in relation to the current discussion, has to do with whether and why one should separate dispassionate analysis of an argument from partisan judgment about it.
I note once again, as Kvond has, that Harman at least has explicitly adopted the persona of the charismatic philosophical demagogue, a tit that may demand a tat. And of course we may just disagree with Weber that analysis and judgment can or should be distinguished, although it’s not clear how we don’t just end up shouting our prejudices at each other if we don’t at least try. But perhaps we are all a little unclear on what kind of venue the blogosphere is: is it academic, scholarly? Is it political, personal?
Carl, where is this awesomeness from?
It’s from “Science as a Vocation,” a speech he gave in 1918, available several places on the web (I got it here). Often paired with another speech, “Politics as a Vocation,” to offer something like a comprehensive survey of appropriate orientations toward intellectual and moral work.
It often gets caricatured by people who want to argue that facts and values can’t be separated, which Weber himself would have agreed with. What he argues is that there’s an orientation toward the production of reliable knowledge that has to bracket partisanship, otherwise all knowledge collapses into so much log-rolling.
Sandra Harding, among others, took this on from a feminist science-studies perspective and argued that individuals cannot produce objective scientific knowledge in Weber’s sense – only communities bringing varying perspectives and hashing out robust consensus can do so. For her the biases are not bracketed so much as incorporated in polivocal investigation. But in her case too there’s some interest in not pushing the logic of partisanship all the way to its conclusion; there has to be a willingness to hear others in order to be heard by them.
Maybe the heterogeneity is not so much about the imposed silence of the audience, but more about the fact that the “personal standpoint” almost always appeals to a connection to what is seen as being universally shared. “If you love freedom…”, “If you care about your country…”
Then Weber says this, quite lovely I think:
I totally read about this phenomenon a year or so ago! I mean it’s a very similar point, I think.
I was once approached by a homeless man who, pointing to my t-shirt with an image of Jimi Hendrix, told me: “Did you know that Jimi Hendrix was bald?” and walked away. Now, I will admit that I did google “Jimi Hendrix bald” and found nothing, but I already had a strong suspicion that the man was just mad. But what if my philosophy professor told me that? Would I just buy it and keep repeating it to others? Probably. I have a couple of examples of stories like that from graduate school, but if I share them I might embarrass a professor who was telling those stories (and they weren’t true, but I only discovered later).
I can imagine that universe, but I can’t seem to imagine them making any scientific progress. You have to admit that the ideal of objectivity has to have served some purpose for it to have become so cherished.
And sometimes it is the pretense of holding the ideal, rather than the ideal itself, that has value. Humans are demonstrably biologically more polygamous than our societal norms admit. In a way, it is the pretense of monogamy that does the work.
I think they would have a special class of humorless and unidimensional people who will work in small offices on their small tasks (let’s give them some thick glasses and complete lack of fashion or social skills) making progress while the rest of them enjoys a good hearty laugh and all the subtleties of human interaction – I know, I’m dreaming, but let’s try and imagine such a world…
I was having an easier time when I imagined the fashionable people as post-modernist philosophers.
I told my children that Kung Pao was the Chinese equivalent of Popeye, and that instead of eating spinach to become physically powerful, he ate a spicy chicken meal which later bore his name.
Odd that the American ends up as the vegan hero in this tale.
They totally bought it. They are getting older, though, and now they doubt everything I say. But I will still yell “Kung Pao!” in a bad oriental accent from time to time as an expression of triumph.
I have to run out and get some broccoli for dinner, but before I go I’d like to that that I don’t have an much background on the issue of “what is being thought of as universally shared” being just another way of saying “ideology” but I have a strong suspicion that this universality is limited to a very small area and does not extend to things like “civility” or “politeness” or even “objectivity”…
[disappears into thin air, appears at Safeway’s produce section]
“I’m waiting for something like summer or a prolonged debilitating decease…”
That’s a lovely (presumably unintentional?) slip.
Probably just an elementary disregard of spelling – should be “disease” of course…
All of this talk about Chinese food inspired me to get take out tonight (kung pao chicken, in fact).