Sunday, 28 June 2009

Philosophy and Cultural Criticism

Baroness Onora O'Neill began a book review in yesterdays' Financial Times by declaring that: "Philosophers don't do cultural criticism". She added that what philosophers do is "write about arguments and categories, about truth and validity but not about how ideas are preserved or distorted or how they travel or vanish".  Whilst the point of the review was to recommend to us a book that she argues is an  exception to this rule it is a pretty strange statement and one that struck me as extraordinary enough to be worth examining.

The first thing about the statement that is peculiar is that Baroness O'Neill should be the one to make it. This is odd given that she was the BBC Reith Lecturer in 2002 (as is Michael Sandel this year), a position that, one might think, was all about cultural criticism, especially defined as a concern with how ideas are "preserved or distorted or how they travel or vanish". Not only does the evidence of Baroness O'Neill's own practice tell against her statement, her statement is also at variance with many of the central projects of contemporary philosophy.

How well does it describe, for example, the works of Charles Taylor or those of Robert Pippin, Martha Nussbaum or Alasdair McIntyre, John McDowell or Alain Badiou? Further, what about the fact that amongst the works of Jacques Derrida are included such titles as Rogues: Two Essays on Reason, Spectres of Marx and The Politics of Friendship

If we look to the more recent past it is evident that engaging in cultural criticism that was philosophically based was the whole point of the activities of the members of the Frankfurt School in addition to forming the central horizon of the works of such varied thinkers as Karl Popper, Bernard Williams and Maurice Blanchot. That such a varied set of names can be summoned shows, in fact, that the problem with Baroness O'Neill's statement is not that it is based purely on a conception of philosophy formed by Anglo-American thinkers in opposition to European ones. It is obvious that a practice of cultural criticism was as important for John Rawls as for Jean-Paul Sartre even though the differences between the way it was thought best to carry out such criticism certainly was related to very different views of the role of philosophy.

The distinction between philosophy and cultural criticism is further not one that would have met with any approval from thinkers of the past. An obvious counter-example to the claim can be found in the works of Kant. Does not Kant, after all, declare in the preface to the first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason that: "Our age is, in especial degree, the age of criticism, and to criticism everything must submit" (Axln)? And was he not also the thinker who wrote such an array of critical reflections on culture as What Is Enlightenment?, the essay on the relation of theory and practice, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone and Perpetual Peace, amongst others? And is not the good Baroness herself most renowned precisely as a contemporary exponent of a Kantian view of moral philosophy? 

When we put together contemporary reference with that from the history of philosophy it becomes clearly apparent that philosophy certainly does do cultural criticism including analysis of how ideas are "preserved or distorted and how they travel or vanish". Not only does it do this but such analysis has, if anything, been a constant element of philosophy. The attempt to suggest otherwise, to convey a sense of it as a subject concerned only with "arguments" and "categories", "truth" and "validity" is not sensitive either to the history of the subject or its contemporary practice. 

Given the multiple ways in which the good Baroness' statement is obviously false it remains to be asked how she could possibly ever have ventured it to be the case. There are, it seems to me, two reasons why she may have done so. On the one hand, in making this statement, she is suggesting the need for philosophers to engage in a cultural combat that she takes it that they tend to shy away from. On the other hand, she is also indicating some caution about the practice of philosophy and its possible difficulty in engaging in such activity. Since analysis of the practice of philosophy does not support the view that philosophers are shy of such combat it also does not lead to a conservative sense of its ability to engage. Rather it is perhaps time for philosophers to be clearer about the often revolutionary nature of their discipline and to embrace the challenges it offers to engage with the general culture in ways not evidently open to those trained and based in other disciplines.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Iranian Election

The recent debacle over the so-called "Iranian election" is one indication of the need for salient philosophical thinking about international affairs that can be set out in a way that is not only rigorous but also related to ongoing events. The majority of the commentary on the events that have taken place so far has either been restricted to reportage of the in-fighting within the elite or to speculations concerning the motivations behind the evident fraud. Little has been written thus far addressing the masses of people who mobilized and demonstrated at great personal risk. Yet it is the fact of these demonstrators mobilizing on such a large scale in the heart of the Middle East that renders these events worth watching. A revolutionary upheaval includes within itself democratic potential. It is, naturally, always possible for this upheaval to fail to attain this potential and be headed off either by following leaders who wish to divert the events to other ends of their own on the one hand or to be repressed by the regime they are challenging on the other. These potential problems are what the movement of the Iranian masses have to confront. 

With regard to the leaders who could close down its potential it is clear that the revolt has thus far not chosen its own leadership with any clarity. Mousavi, ex-Prime Minister from the period of the Iran-Iraq war, has a record that bears no examination. Similarly, Rafsanjani is engaging in in-fighting with the Supreme Leader and his lackey Ahmadi. The mass movement has, however, its own momentum and the circulated request for a general strike makes possible a confrontation with the regime that cannot be responded to by the brute mechanisms of repression. Similarly, the emergence of women as a serious force in this movement opens its own possibilities. How could the regime seriously attack a women's demonstration? The difficulties it has encountered over the killing of Neda already indicate its vulnerabilities in this regard.

The content of this revolution as one that could burst open the stranglehold of repressive regimes in the whole Middle East makes its monitoring essential to anyone serious about the Kantian demand that all governments should become republican. In declaring that violation of right anywhere is felt everywhere in the new world of globalized communication Kant made clear that there is open in modernity a new calculus of power in which information takes on its own force. This has been strikingly demonstrated in the contemporary events in which new technology has disseminated information with a speed and clarity that has repeatedly disturbed the clerics. Publicity is the basis of political action that can destabilize entrenched regimes and force the passage to openness. The watchword of pressing for such openness and orchestrating it to favour futural groups such as the young, women and the oppressed is the centre of a political analysis that can focus on something other than the tired repetitions of Kreminologists who do little to assess either the mood or the possibilities of movements that are beyond the fixed structures of power.