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Leiter Reports

Brian Leiter interviewed by Richard Marshall.

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3:AM: I want to ask you about the Wall Street Occupation and Plutocracy but I want to start by giving our readers a sense of where your arguments are coming from. You’re an expert in the philosophy of law, a leading authority on the philosophy of Nietzsche and have taken on the role of a public intellectual of the left. So were you always an iconoclastic type and was it political ideals that brought you to philosophy originally?

Brian Leiter: Yes and no! Yes, I guess my mix of intellectual interests and normative positions are iconoclastic, but, no, it wasn’t politics that brought me to philosophy. What brought me to philosophy most immediately was the study of Sartre, especially Huis Clos, in high school, which crystallized my propensity towards existential angst, which follows naturally for any sentient being upon atheism and a vivid sense of mortality. There followed upon this interest in Sartre a kind of fateful mistake: Sartre was a philosopher, so I was told, and he dealt with matters of existential moment, and, on top of all that, my father had studied philosophy in college and thought it a worthy topic, so I thought I should study philosophy! So I went to the college that, at the time, was reputed to have the best philosophy program in America, not knowing that most of its faculty did not think Sartre was really a philosopher! Things worked out happily, though, as I took to the other parts of philosophy, learned about Nietzsche and Marx and Freud with Richard Rorty and Raymond Geuss, but also discovered the useful “intellectual cleanliness” (as Nietzsche would say) that is characteristic of so-called “analytic” philosophy, which was then dominant.

The parochialism of analytic philosophers didn’t much matter for me, as I had my own sense of what really mattered, what really had value, and that probably explains my iconoclastic mix of interests: as a sympathetic student of Marx who loves Nietzsche; as a Nietzschean who values the dialectical rigor of so much boring “analytic” moral philosophy; as a defender of H.L.A. Hart‘s legal positivism, who thinks the American Legal Realists that Hart did so much to discredit had far more insight than he gave them credit for. I’ve been helped by being largely immune to, indeed often offended by, amour-propre (to use Rousseau’s term): I don’t really care what “respectable” academics think, though sometimes they get it right. My political sympathies did play a role, however, in my decision to also study law, as I’ve discussed elsewhere. This was before the “revolution from the Right” that Reagan orchestrated, and so it was possible, back in the 1970s, to think of lawyering as a force for social and economic progress.

3:AM: You use a striking phrase in one of your essays, “the hermeneutics of suspicion”, to discuss three of your intellectual heroes, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. Could you say a little about what you were getting at in that phrase and how it is really relevant for the intellectual left today?

BL: The phrase itself derives from the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, though I take strong issue with how he understands what such a “hermeneutics” – or method of interpretation – involves. But what Ricoeur correctly notices is that Marx, Nietzsche and Freud represent ways of thinking about and analyzing human societies and human behavior that share certain structural similarities. First, they typically suspect that people’s own self-understanding and self-presentation are misleading as to what really explains why they say what they say and do what they do. Second, these thinkers try to show that the real explanation is one that would undermine the credibility of the beliefs and values people affirm.

Take a wonderful Freudian example, that has since been confirmed by experimental work in psychology. A “reaction formation” is a psychological process in which one forms moral views in reaction to desires that one really has – so, e.g., one becomes a vociferous critic of the immorality of homosexuality and gay marriage precisely because one has strong homosexual urges and desires that one finds threatening. A reaction formation is a “defense mechanism,” a way of trying to protect oneself from desires one doesn’t want to act upon. The typical religious or moralistic homophobe will conceive of himself as “defending family values” and “traditional marriage,” when, in reality, he only mouths these moralistic platitudes because deep down he’d like nothing better than to have anal or oral sex with another man. If, in fact, it’s the reaction formation that really explains his moral beliefs, then those beliefs can’t possibly be justified, since they arise from a mechanism, reaction formation, that’s inherently unreliable (that is, it’s not a reliable way to figure out what’s morally right or wrong). This bears emphasizing: if what really explains your moral attitudes is that they are a desperate psychological attempt to restrain your own desire for what those attitudes condemn, then why should anyone else take them seriously?

This kind of critical suspicion is very offensive to the dominant political culture, especially in the United States: it is considered rude and disrespectful. And so it is, but, again, that has no bearing on its epistemic relevance, that is, its relevance to figuring out what’s really going on. Take Barack Obama, in whom many on the anemic American left invested their hopes. As President of the United States, his domestic policies, like those of Bill Clinton, have been largely to the right of Richard Nixon, and his primary economic advisors were the various economic soothsayers who orchestrated the deregulation of the financial sector in the 1990s that brought about the collapse of the global capitalist system under George W. Bush. His most ambitious “progressive” legislation was a healthcare plan originally developed by the Republican Governor of Massachussetts. At every moment where Obama, if he had any moral or intellectual core, might have led, he pivoted to the right. How could the great “liberal” hope have turned out to be such a shallow apologist for and tinkerer with the status quo?

If we put aside the romance surrounding the advertising product “Barack Obama,” and even put aside the more genuine emotional resonance of electing a Black President given the history of vicious racism in America, the answer seems quite obvious. In the United States, no one can compete meaningfully for the Presidency without tens of millions of dollars, and no one can raise such money without backing from the richest sliver of American society, i.e., the plutocrats. Since enough of the public can be manipulated at any time to believe just about anything – the entire history of the world is massive confirmation of that fact – it follows that only a candidate who meets the needs of the plutocracy has any chance, since only that candidate can get plutocrat money. The plutocracy has largely become more liberal on so-called “social” issues (e.g., anti-gay bigotry), and so any Democrat who basically respects the prerogatives of the rich is a viable candidate for them. Obama is not a fool, and nor are the plutocrats: they understand each other, and the result is that Obama has had and will have more money than any of his Republican opponents, and Obama will pivot to the right on any economic issue that affects the interests of the plutocratic class. That’s the hermeneutics of suspicion, and we need more of it every day.

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3:AM: Linked with that last question is what makes your views distinctive about Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. You’ve expressed disagreement with readings of these three thinkers that undermine the naturalism you take to be embedded in them. So post-modernist readings get short shrift from you, for example. Could you explain this? The editor of The Wire once wrote that it was post-modernism that saved Marxism’s sorry ass; in other words, it’s the view in certain quarters that the left’s best hopes are found in theories of post modernism, the Heideggerian, Foucaultian, Derridean, Badiouian, Zizekean approach. Now I put it like that because I know that its part of your distinctive approach that you don’t bracket these thinkers together at all. You in fact are vehement about this and this feeds into the discussion about the alleged two traditions of philosophy – the Analytic and the Continental – a distinction you think is bogus. Can you tell us about how you navigate these waters?

BL: There are real dividing lines in the history of philosophy, but the one between the “analytic” and the “Continental” isn’t one of them, though it’s interesting today from a sociological point of view, since it allows graduate programs in philosophy to define spheres of permissible ignorance for their students. A real dividing line, by contrast, one that matters for substantive philosophical questions, is between “naturalists” and “anti-naturalists.” The naturalists, very roughly, are those who think human beings are just certain kinds of animals, that one understands these animals through the same empirical methods one uses to understand other animals, and that philosophy has no proprietary methods for figuring out what there is, what we know, and, in particular, what humans are like. The anti-naturalists, by contrast, are (again, roughly) those who think human beings are different not just in degree but in kind from the other animals, and that this difference demands certain proprietary philosophical methods – perhaps a priori knowledge or philosophical ways of exploring the distinctively “normative” realm in which humans live.

So on the naturalist side you get, more or less, David Hume, Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Ludwig Büchner, Friedrich Nietzsche, Rudolf Carnap, W.V.O. Quine, Jerry Fodor, Stephen Stich, and Alex Rosenberg and on the anti-naturalist side you get, more or less, Gottfried Leibniz, Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel, Edmund Husserl, Gottlob Frege, Jean-Paul Sartre, G.E.M. Anscombe, Wilfrid Sellars (at least for part of his career), the older Hilary Putnam, Alvin Plantinga, and John McDowell, among many others. This disagreement – a disagreement, very roughly, about the relationship of philosophy to the sciences – isn’t one that tracks the alleged analytic/Continental distinction. Indeed, the founders of the 20th-century traditions of “analytic” and “Continental” philosophy (Frege and Husserl, respectively) are both on the anti-naturalist side, and both are reacting against hardcore naturalist positions in philosophy that had become dominant on the European Continent in the late 19th-century. And the first explosion of what anti-naturalists would derisively call “scientism” came in Germany in the 1840s and 1850s, as a reaction to Hegel’s obscurantist idealism. Naturalism and anti-naturalism mark a profound dividing line in modern philosophy, but it has nothing to do with “analytic” vs. “Continental’ philosophy.

The other distinction that I think is increasingly important is that between what I call “realists” and “moralists,” between those who think the aim of philosophy should be to get as clear as possible about the way things really are, that is, about the actual causal structure of the natural and human world, how societies and economies work, what motivates politicians and ordinary people to do what they do, and, on the other hand, those who think the aim of philosophy is to set up moral ideals, to give moralistic lectures about what society ought to do and how people ought to act. On the realist side, you find Thucydides, Marx, and Nietzsche, but also Max Weber, Michel Foucault, Richard Posner, and Raymond Geuss. On the moralist side, you find Plato and Kant, but also John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin and Martha Nussbaum, among many others. Many, but not all, naturalists are realists, since it’s reasonable to think that if you want to understand the way things really are, you ought to rely on the methods of the sciences, which have been the most successful ones over the past several centuries.

On this way of thinking about the serious disagreements in the history of philosophy, post-modernism is just an embarrassing blip, largely anti-naturalist in its sympathies, but infatuated with sophomoric versions of skepticism about truth and knowledge, that both the naturalist and anti-naturalist, and realist and moralist, traditions largely repudiate. Foucault is the hard case in this story, though it always pains me to see a thinker and scholar of his seriousness lumped with poseurs like Derrida and some of the others you mention. It’s important, though, to avoid the kind of cult of personality that Heidegger and a lot of post-Heideggerian philosophy depends upon. Foucault was human and fallible, so perhaps we need to recognize that he sometimes had bad intellectual judgment and picked up certain bad intellectual habits in Paris as well. But when he was at his best, Foucault diagnosed how individuals in the modern era becomes agents of their own oppression in virtue of certain moral and epistemic norms they endorse and thus impose upon themselves. That is Foucault’s uniquely disturbing contribution to the literature whose diagnostic aim is, with Max Weber, to understand the oppressive character of modernity, and whose moral aim is, with the Frankfurt School, human liberation and human flourishing.

Now Marx certainly didn’t need to be saved by sophomoric post-modernists; indeed, Marx didn’t need to be saved at all. On two central issues, Marx was far more right than any of his critics: first, that the long-term tendency of capitalist societies is towards immiseration of the majority (the post-WWII illusion of upward mobility for the “middle classes” will soon be revealed for the anomaly it was); and second, that capitalist societies produce moral and political ideologies that serve to justify the dominance of the capitalist class. Marx had three faults, to be sure: one was that he took Hegel seriously; another was that he wasn’t a very good fortune teller, so wildly over-estimated the pace of capitalist development; and a third is that he had no account of individual psychology, of the kind Nietzsche and Freud provide. Within academic philosophy, however, far more harm, in my view, has been done to Marx by moralists like G.A. Cohen than by any of the post-modernists. Cohen – a truly smart man and delightful human being to boot – did two unfortunate things to academic Anglophone Marxism: first, by offering a philosophical reconstruction of historical materialism in its least interesting form (namely, as functional explanation, rather than in terms of class conflict); and second, in his later work, by calling for a moralistic change in the consciousness of individuals, regardless of historical circumstances. This latter, Christian turn in Cohen’s thought represents as profound a betrayal of Marxism as Habermas‘ attempt to supply it a Kantian foundation – in this respect, both Anglophone and “Continental” Marxism betray Marx’s original realism.

To be sure, Cohen on historical materialism is preferable to Althusser, but that hardly matters, except for academic debates. What does matter is that class conflict is both the actual causal mechanism of historical change and intelligible to the people who are the agents of that change. Functional explanations are, by contrast, an interesting but irrelevant theoretical overlay. And the idea that Marxism should be reduced to moralistic sermons is, well, depressing, an admission of intellectual defeat.

3:AM: I guess the last question was raised because certainly here in the UK there’s a sense that the political left have rather struggled to find a distinctive voice to discuss issues of inequality and injustice. In fact I think its fair to characterise the last Labour government as being as unconcerned about plutocratic pressures as the right, and this was disappointing and shocking to many supporters of Labour. And now we have a lib-Dem party in bed with Tories – it’s kind of ridiculous. You do have a distinctive line on all this though and would it be fair to say that the philosophical naturalism you argue for is the starting point for your ethical and political stance? Could you tell us about Naturalism and how Naturalism and politics and ethics go together in your thinking?

BL: The line of political development in the UK over the past generation that you describe has certainly been similar to that in the US, though perhaps not as extreme. Just as Clinton in the U.S. delivered the Democratic Party wholesale to the plutocracy (so that the only issues on which it could take a real stand concerned the mistreatment of social minorities like gay men and women), so too Blair delivered the Labour Party to the slightly less rapacious ruling class in the UK. I consider this kind of analysis to follow from my realism, which I view as a subset of naturalism. As naturalists, we want to understand human beings as they actually are, and that ends up requiring realism about those human beings who are political actors. Marx is the key realist in this regard, since he understands politicians as representatives of a dominant economic class. But naturalism and realism go no further, and this is where Nietzsche is important. For I accept Nietzsche’s view (from The Gay Science) that, “Whatever has value in our world now does not have value in itself, according to its nature – nature is always value-less, but has been given value at some time, as a present – and it was we who gave and bestowed it.” I think, with Nietzsche, that the idea that “nature is always value-less” is one upshot of a serious naturalism about the world. And as Nietzsche notes at the end of the first essay of his on the Genealogy of Morality, “the well-being of the majority and the well-being of the few are opposite evaluative points of view.” This is why, to my mind, the dispute between Marx and Nietzsche is as stark as any dispute can be: they are both naturalists and realists, but Marx adopts the point of view of the majority, while Nietzsche adopts the point of view of the genius elite – not the capitalist elite I hasten to add, since he regarded them as contemptible herd-animals, like the mass of humanity. The choice between those two evaluative viewpoints isn’t one that can be made on rational grounds. What worries me, as someone who mostly sides with Marx, is Nietzsche’s challenge that a culture defined by egalitarian values is one in which genius will no longer be possible. I still don’t know what to think about that challenge, but it’s the most serious one to Marxism and to liberalism on offer.

3:AM: So when you look at the Wall Street Occupation, and others elsewhere both in the USA and in London, for example, you bring a distinctive approach to thinking about what’s going on. You’ve also brought to our attention serious police brutality being endorsed by university leaders even, which again is shocking. But you’ve also described the USA as the most powerful and dangerous state on earth and it has been a depressing reality that there seems to be a perpetual Orwellian war going on as a backdrop to our lives. Can you give us your take on the current economic and political situation and what you find most valuable and interesting about the Occupation phenomena. I’m particularly interested in your views about the use of state violence and the endorsement of plutocratic policing to clear the protests.

BL: I think Robert Paul Wolff, the distinguished philosopher who has written on Kant and Marx, is quite right to note that the Occupy movement succeeded, in the space of a couple of months, in changing the national dialogue in the U.S. from the need for austerity and cuts to programs that benefit the elderly and the poor, to the actual reality of massive economic inequality. If 75% of the wealth of the richest one-tenth of 1% of American society were immediately expropriated, there would be no need to discuss cuts to spending that affects the well-being of the vast majority. This is a democracy, why isn’t this a major topic of public debate? Why aren’t the national media full of debates between defenders of the right of the Koch brothers to keep their billions and advocates for seizing the majority of their fortune to meet human needs? One only needs to read Marx to know the answer.

An important strategic question for the Occupy movement concerns the police. The police are, themselves, members of the 99%, indeed the 99.9%. Police labor unions remain strong, despite a three-decade long campaign against labor unions in the United States. As unionized workers, the interests of police lie with the Occupy Movement, not the plutocrats. On the day the police refuse to clear “Occupy” protesters from their sites, that will be the day the game is up for the plutocracy in America. It would behoove the Occupy activists, indeed any opponents of the plutocracy, to remember this.

3:AM: Which brings us to your work in legal studies and the philosophy of law. You’re known for again developing a distinctive legal theory that you oppose the likes of Ronald Dworkin and you think that law is much closer to what Richard Posner describes in his How Judges Think book. This itself is refreshingly pugnacious. Can you say what your views are and what it opposes? And why you think it is justified?

BL: This harkens back to the dispute between moralists and realists noted earlier, and in legal philosophy, I am an unapologetic realist (like Judge Posner, who has a first-person vantage point on what it is judges really do!). The core question is how do we understand what courts are doing: do we take at face value the opinions they write, and see if we can reconstruct, as Dworkinians try to do, the principled grounds of their decisions, to understand them as trying to discover the answer the law always required? Or do we, instead, understand judges as political actors, who exploit the many points of indeterminacy and uncertainty in the law, to reach the outcomes they deem morally and politically desirable? In the United States, it seems to me utterly incredible that anyone could look at most of the work of the appellate courts, and adopt the Dworkinian view. Cases that reach the courts, especially those that reach the appellate courts, are precisely the ones in which the law’s indeterminacies are most apparent, and judges are called upon to make moral and political judgments, not legal ones. Given that reality, decisions to confirm, say, judges on the U.S. Supreme Court should be decisions based on their moral and political views, and little else. The U.S. Supreme Court is a super-legislature, though one with a decidedly limited jurisdiction (that is, only the litigated cases that come before it). A bit of realism about courts would lead the public to realize what is at stake in every single confirmation hearing for a position on the Supreme Court – to be sure, all politicians since Reagan onwards realize it, but the public is sadly in the dark.

A harder question is how far this realism about courts generalizes, though in talking to my legal realist friends in countries like Italy and Spain, my suspicion is that the narrow, but nonetheless legislative, role of courts is true most places. The English are in denial on this score, and perhaps their civil service judiciary is sufficiently disciplined that the legislative analogy is inapt. But I’m skeptical, but agnostic!

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3:AM: Now one of the interesting things happening at the moment in philosophy is x phil. You wrote a paper with Josh Knobe on Nietzsche and morality and in that essay, and in your seminal book on Nietzsche’s moral philosophy, you make the case for arguing that Nietzsche had three basic beliefs about humans that make this position distinctive and important (and a better description of moral agency than those of its chief rivals, Aristotle and Kant). The challenge of this is that it seems to offer a very different view of what it is to be human than is usually presented. Do you believe that a change of the human self-image is indeed what follows from this approach, and can you say what the opportunities and risks attached to this are?

BL: You are quite right that the Nietzschean conception of the person involves a very different view of what it is to be human. In the Nietzschean view, our conscious life is largely superficial, largely epiphenomenal – we are, as on the Freudian picture, largely creatures of our drives, many of which are unknown to us, except obliquely. But Nietzsche, unlike Freud, is not especially optimistic about the capacity for “ego” to exercise much rational influence on these drives – though it can exercise some, but only when it acquires the motivational energy of opposing drives behind it. To make matters worse, Nietzsche thinks our particular constellation of drives is a kind of biological legacy, so we are, in a kind of naturalized Calvinist fashion, set on a particular course in life long before we become aware of it – that’s why Nietzsche says, famously, that “one becomes what one is without knowing what one is.” So one’s life, on this picture, is largely a matter of figuring out what one already is – basically the opposite of the existential picture we associate with Sartre, who was, alas, a superficial reader of Nietzsche.

I think one reason Nietzsche thinks that “illusion” and “falsehood” are essential to human life is that he recognizes no one can actually live – in the sense of get up in the morning and try to make decisions about what to do – with this picture in mind. So Nietzsche should change what philosophers call our third-person perspective on human beings, and how to understand them, but Nietzsche realized that from the “first-person” perspective (the perspective of you or me thinking about what to do), the illusion of freedom and choice is essential. But it is, to repeat, an illusion, which means we ought to rethink every normative realm dependent on those concepts.

3:AM: Now, from within the naturalism approach, I wonder if there isn’t a tension between your Nietzschean idea that there are human types and empirical evidence that there isn’t enough stability in any human behaviour to justify saying that we can conform to type. I’m thinking of experiments that seem to show that ethically irrelevant factors can alter moral choices people make. So, for example, you have a person finding a dime, they are kinder straight away after than if they didn’t find the dime. Or the idea that if tired we’ll make different decisions from when we’re not. Or that if the moral questions are asked in different orders different answers are given. Or Josh Greene‘s work on the famous trolley puzzles, where it seems that our moral decisions are strongly altered by how they are presented to us etc, etc. Don’t these undermine any idea that there is a type? And doesn’t this erode even projects like those of Freud and Nietzsche who wanted to offer a way of stitching us into something more unified than this crazy creature the experiments seems to be finding? And, at risk of sounding Kantian, how do we navigate if we lose reason?

BL: You’re quite correct that there is a tension between Nietzschean moral psychology, which depends on a notion of a psychological “type” or “character,” and the situationist themes in a lot of social psychology which call attention to the influence of particular situational cues on behavior. I think there’s two key points to make about this apparent conflict. First, the actual empirical results make perfect sense from a Nietzschean point of view: for in all the famous case studies – including the Millgram experiments about obedience to authority – there is always some minority of subjects who are not influenced at all by the situational cues. So, in the case of the Millgram studies, there are some who simply refuse to turn up the voltage, despite being ordered to do so by the experimenter “in charge.” It’s quite natural to think that these were precisely the folks with character, while those who complied with even outrageous directives betrayed precisely their lack of character. Nietzsche certainly wouldn’t be surprised that most “herd animals” will do what they’re told! Millgram himself didn’t think his experiments showed that character was explanatorily otiose in understanding behavior. Second, and this is a point I owe to Joshua Knobe and that we make in our jointly authored paper to which you allude, it may well turn out that situational cues are important to understanding behavior on particular occasions, and still be true that character type gives you the best explanation of behavior over the long haul, as it were. In the end, I suspect the situationist challenge to character-based explanations has been much over-played, both with respect to what the actual results show and with respect to their import for a plausible moral psychology.

What happens to “reason” depends on what is meant by reason. Kant will not be happy on either the situationist or Nietzschean view. But that’s because Kantians think reason can dictate our ultimate ends, not simply the means to deploy in service of ends that have no rational standing. That marks another important dividing line in the history of philosophy – about the deliverances of practical reason – and, unsurprisingly, I’m on the anti-Kantian, thoroughly naturalist and realist side of that debate.

3:AM: You have taken a distinctive approach to the place of religious beliefs in society. We’re very familiar to the approach to the debate presented in terms of the science – so figures like Dawkins and Dennett and Hitchens tend to fix on the truth of religious claims to oppose religions. Your approach is different in that it’s about claims constitutional, legal and just and these don’t justify treating religious beliefs separately from any other. Is that right? Can you say something about your ideas about religious tolerance?

BL: This is the subject of the book I’ve just finished, Why Tolerate Religion? which Princeton University Press will publish next year. I share one thing with so-called “New Atheists” like Dawkins et al., namely, the assumption that religions involve significant amounts of false belief. It’s a bit too late in the day for that to be a serious topic of debate, since the evidence is all on only one side of that question. But I’m Nietzschean enough to realize that the fact that religion involves a lot of false belief goes no distance to deciding its value, its contributions to human well-being, its centrality to human life. If we only were allowed to believe what was true, after all, we’d give up on life pretty quickly since, as Nietzsche likes to say, “the truth is terrible”! So I come at this from a very different angle. My initial question was whether, if you think “liberty” or “freedom” of conscience is valuable, something that ought to be protected, whether there was some reason to think that only religious claims of conscience should enjoy its benefits. And the strange reality, even in Europe – which is largely an atheistic Continent now (the spectacle of the Pope notwithstanding) – is that the only times the courts will exempt someone from a generally applicable law is when they assert that their religion requires them, as a matter of conscience, not to comply. We understand well enough how, as an historical matter, this came to pass: the bloody wars of religion that tortured Europe in the early modern period led to the idea that religious toleration would be a better alternative. But that’s history, and the question is whether, today, there is some reason to think religious conscience is more important than any other claim of conscience. I argue that there isn’t.

3:AM: Now 3:AM is about books, music, film and the kind of thing typically exciting to English graduates among others. But you don’t seem to like English departments, in the US at least. Is this right? Is it because they seem to be in thrall to obscurantist philosophers, as you characterise them, such as Derrida? Or are you like Alex Rosenberg in his new book where he largely dismisses the study of literature per se?

BL: I love literature, and love the study of literature – indeed, I was almost an “English” major in college. One problem with a lot of American English Departments in the 1980s was that they stopped teaching literature, and became the repositories for bad philosophy, bad history, bad social science! Rosenberg’s position is a bracing one, and a useful challenge to lazy anti-naturalist tendencies in a lot of Anglophone philosophy, but it does seem to me to be based ultimately on armchair philosophy of the kind naturalists are supposed to decry. Physicalism is not a scientific result – Carnap thought it would be, but we know it isn’t the case that everything that is causally explicable is explicable in terms of causal relata that are physical. So my view on this issue is certainly not Rosenberg’s, as much as I admire his work. In any case, it seems to me that American literature departments have recovered quite a bit from the intellectual disaster of the 1980s, a happy development. And if I may paraphrase Nietzsche, life without literature would be a mistake!

3:AM: And finally, you have written harsh things about the state of the press in the USA but of course its not just the USA that has the deficit. Given the state of the world at the moment, the erosion of a strong 4th estate seems to be worrying. Are you optimistic about the future not just in terms of press freedoms and ownership but generally?

BL: This is one of the few areas where the Internet has made a positive difference to human freedom and well-being. The U.S. is obviously at one extreme in terms of the supine posture of its media, as well as its low intellectual level – and I’m not even talking here about the more-or-less openly fascist media like Fox News! But the Internet now makes available the media in multiple jurisdictions, at least to anyone who looks. I often read Al Jazeera‘s English site, not because they are paragons of journalistic objectivity and intellectual depth, but because their biases and blinders are not those of the New York Times. So I think one reason to be optimistic is that as the United States fades as a hegemonic power, other countries, with very different agendas, will support media that make very different judgments about what is newsworthy, what sources are credible, whose suffering counts, and so on. Fascists like Rupert Murdoch may destroy the major media in some countries, but it’s a big world out there, and the Internet makes it available. That’s a reason for hope.

3:AM: And really finally, can you recommend your top 5 books for general readers that we all should be reading over the xmas break?

BL: Only five books, that’s hard! But here’s five, of relatively recent vintage, that are provocative and interesting, that relate to some of themes we’ve discussed, and that I think would be accessible to any educated reader: Richard Posner’s How Judges Think, Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, David Livingstone Smith’s Less than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others, Jonathan Wolff’s Why Read Marx Today? and, a bit older but still psychologically fascinating, Li Zhisui’s The Private Life of Chairman Mao. All books for any good naturalist or realist to read!

richardmarshall

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, December 19th, 2011.