Vol. 8 No. 21 · 4 December 1986

Search by issue:

Sociology in Cambridge

SIR: We, the undersigned, as graduate students in sociology in Cambridge, have some points of difference with Geoffrey Hawthorn’s stylisation of the current position of the social sciences in this university (LRB, 6 November). We had always taken the view that the presence of both Anthony Giddens and Geoffrey Hawthorn in the same department, with their distinct emphases and styles of writing and teaching, was evidence of vitality rather than stagnation. We have some confidence that Anthony Giddens would share this opinion.

Graham McCann, James Slevim, Marion Smith, Richard Sparks
Social and Political Sciences Committee, University of Cambridge

SIR: Geoffrey Hawthorn has done much to grace your pages and illumine our thoughts. Indeed, even though he contends that present-day theory predisposes him and like-minded sociologists to post-Enlightenment desperation, in the London Review at least he has been a source of both lucidity and hope, master-symbols of the Encyclopedia both. I turn back often and gratefully to his expositions of Habermas and others, and was delighted to retrieve his strong and elegant rebuttal of Michael Stewart’s tirade against the miners in 1985 from your latest anthology.

Honi soit qui mal y pense. It might seem indelicate even to the rudeness club in the SCR to take Hawthorn to task for the article about his boss, had he not exhibited himself as so robustly uninhibited about attaching his complaints on the work of Tony Giddens to the fact that Giddens has got the professorship which he, Hawthorn, thought sufficiently worth professing to put in for. To conclude after the disappointment that the subject isn’t there anyway and that the chap in the chair can’t do it and covers up the fact by, variously, ‘portentousness’, ‘solemnity’, ‘desperate abstraction’ and other swearwords has a decidedly grapey taste to it, and might surely be thought of as a lapse from politeness not without precedence in your editorial policy. When, however, Hawthorn goes on to conclude that ‘undifferentiated sociology’ has disappeared with Habermas off the end of the Indian rope trick, then impoliteness has dissolved into impolitics, or even immorality. If it wasn’t for his needing the money to support the calm refusal of theory in Clare Hall, or a more conventional indolence in Positano, he might wonder what that great sociologist so mordantly italicised by Hawthorn as ‘the middle Sartre’ might have to say about bad faith in this matter.

Conventionality, furthermore, is a pat charge always apt to blow up in your face. Nothing, nothing at all, could be more conventionally Cambridge than to take a few columns in the trade journal to bawl out the boss. Nothing, indeed, looks more like old corruption, the Conservative Thing itself, than to miscall a prodigal writer when writing comes costively to you. For anybody in practical politics, let alone practical reasoning, Giddens – like Habermas – is incontestably a help. Unless, for instance, we take to heart the theoretic connections of nuclear and other even less jolly forms of violence to the present and protean structures of the nation states, peacefulness as opposed to immobility will escape us to the point of apocalypse then. Unless communicative action in some more than contingent relation to truth and virtue is imaginable, then the disunited nations might as well scramble the translation machines.

No doubt sociology is not a redemptive science. No doubt the view from nowhere, or from the Clare Fellows’ Garden, is all very large and fine. No doubt this and not doubt that. Collingwood, watching the lies and murder of l’entre deux guerres, wrote that what the world (let alone Cambridge) needed as a matter of certainly desperate urgency was ‘a science of human affairs’. It would be good if someone of Hawthorn’s great gifts and intelligence got over his huff and took his own ecumenical risks on behalf of ensuring that there will be a future.

Fred Inglis
School of Education, University of Bristol

SIR: Geoffrey Hawthorn’s piece is very puzzling. After several readings, all I’ve been able to get out of it is the following: 1. Contemporary social theory faces a number of difficulties. (This bit is quite interesting.) 2. Anthony Giddens represents contemporary social theory. 3. Anthony Giddens was recently appointed to the chair of Sociology at Cambridge. 4. There should not be a chair of sociology at Cambridge. Of these propositions, No 3 is indubitable, while No 1 may well be true. (Hawthorn does at least make a case, despite an odd lapse in column three when for a time he seems to confuse Sociology with socialism.) No 2 is more arguable, however. A review of Giddens as Giddens, rather than Giddens as social theory personified, would have been more appropriate in LRB. Proposition 4, however, is very odd indeed. Non sequitur, for one thing. If a syllogism were intended, the glaringly missing term is of course social theory’s relation to sociology. At best, the former is only part of the latter, As Hawthorn well knows, a great deal of sociological work goes on, not independently of theory (we’ve been through that one), but certainly at some remove from grand theory and its fads and fashions. Shouldn’t there be a chair for any of that, either? Surely sociology has enough enemies in high places already, without Hawthorn adding his twopenn’orth from within.

The only way I can make sense of Hawthorn’s piece is by way of an implicit sub-text. My guess would be that he doesn’t like Giddens, period. If so, it is naughty of him to dress up an ad hominem opinion as an attack on our discipline and its institutionalisation. To reiterate: a review of Giddens, however hostile, would be another matter and perfectly acceptable.

Aidan Foster-Carter
Department of Sociology, University of Leeds

Making truth

SIR: The intellectual life of civilised people in dynamic societies is a whirl of disconnected general notions and attitudes. Philosophers are specialists who find the words that bring together and reconcile all the other words and help us to feel that our lives make some sense. Richard Rorty is a philosopher. He presents a unified account of the real world, of our place in it, and of what we ought to think and feel about it (LRB, 17 April, LRB, 8 May and LRB, 24 July). He thus continues an ancient philosophic tradition.

Within that tradition, Rorty identifies himself first with the romantic 19th-century idealists: the world is ideas. He goes beyond them to the position that ideas are but words and that words are human attempts to express and control. He denies any foundation on which we might come to agree on fact or value. He sees what agreement we do have as the product of the myth-making power of ‘poets’. He agrees with Protagoras that ‘each man is the measure of all things,’ and with Thrasymachus and Nietzsche that the end of life is the imposition of one’s own measure on others. He thinks the broad outlines of his view have already achieved ‘cultural hegemony’. Another way of putting this claim is that he has attempted to make a synthesis of a number of popular ideas. Both the merit and the compatibility of those ideas are questionable.

Rorty begins with the individual. I discover myself in a world of words. My education was the assimilation of a cultural heritage, of the mass of metaphors by which my society has created its common reality. I come to sense in myself a vital unexpressed uniqueness, a self, which has been overwhelmed and negated by that great ‘coral reef’ of ossified or dying metaphors which dominate all members of a society. I see, with ‘horror’, that I am a passive transmitter of alien forces, a thing. If I could somehow find the words, the metaphors, to express my unique self, I could begin to exist as a real person. But even if I find the words, I cannot know I have succeeded until I persuade others to accept my metaphors and make them their own. I have an ‘anxiety of influence’. If I persuade many others, I am a ‘strong poet’. Strong poets are the ‘paradigm of humanity’: they create the metaphors which constitute all the reality we can have or know.

Questions of truth or falsity can arise only within the unique language of each paradigm, poetic structure or metaphor. There is no neutral ground for comparing or preferring one of these to another. Rorty’s own poetic metaphoric philosophy is presented as complete and as one of many possible such complete, irrefutable and mutually exclusive philosophies. He thinks it is more persuasive than its competitors. I think it is internally incoherent, crudely ideological, and ill-suited to help us make sense of our lives.

Human nature: In every place where Rorty denies that our nature as humans might form a foundation for thought or value, he exhibits his ignorance of human nature theory. But is it not evident that the existence of any organism implies values which are, relative to the species being of the organism, objectively true? An oak tree can be harmed, a rock cannot. Those animals which have evolved a species pattern of emotions functional for their ordinary life are sensible of goods and evils. Human animals can both experience and talk about what, for humans, is the better and the worse. Human nature is thus a foundation for a human ethic. Rorty denies this, sometimes as an individualist who would make a unique species of each person (but it is not clear whether we are born unique or whether we are rendered unique by our special experiences), sometimes as a culturalist who says that neither human nature nor unique individuals exist, for we are totally plastic to our culture (but he wavers between culturalism and historicism). He is right in seeing individualism or culturalism as alternatives to the human nature view: he compounds our current confusions in not seeing that each is incompatible with the other. Worse, he seems quite unaware of his own continual resort to whatever assertion about human nature suits his purposes. For instance, he begins with an account of our entrapment in alien metaphors. Why do we allow this to happen to us? If we do it out of fear, of what are humans so typically afraid and why? Is it simply our nature to accept socialisation, to be imprintable, to live by habit? How can Rorty account for our ‘horror’ at seeing ourselves as ‘things’? Why is it necessary for poets to persuade others in order to create themselves? What are we to make of ‘paradigms of humanity’, and of a philosophy which, while patching together a complex and improbable theory of human nature, rejects all such theories?

Strong poets: What is this thing, this uniqueness, which the poet expresses? Is it the ‘it’s you!’ of our consumer society, the romantic ache of adolescent would-be swans, the crankiness of those who live snugly in little personal worlds, the sum of our psychic traumas? Larkin finds this uniqueness ‘hardly satisfying’: those who have sat long enduring accounts of the blind impresses of others will think this an understatement. Rorty wants somehow to connect our tedious uniqueness with the profound re-creations of reality which as a romantic he thinks constitute the greatness of a strong poet. The connection cannot be made. Biographical incidents predispose a poet to his work but that work is not an expression of those incidents. The theory of gravitation does not express Newton’s experiences with a falling apple. Milton’s eccentricities and ambitions colour and motivate his poetry but constitute no part of its excellence.

Rorty’s ‘anxiety of influence’ is identical with the human, indeed primate, passion for honour or social status. We find it more plausibly explained by Machiavelli, who also spoke of able and ambitious fame-seekers who produce foundational myths for new universal religions or new political orders. Machiavelli and Rorty agree that the question of truth does not arise in the assessment of such formative myths; and they further agree that except where poets or hero-founders exercise their excellence, Fortuna/contingency rules the world and accounts for the actions of men. Machiavelli’s founders fail unless they produce actual benefit for their people. The benefit must be a real benefit, known to be such on the basis of a knowledge of human nature which tells us what for humans is a benefit. Rorty implies a human nature position in saying that the ultimate human good is to be a strong poet, but the goods his poets offer us are only novel fantasies. He wants to imply that they are more than that, that they are ‘useful’, but the attempt is incongruous with his anti-foundational value nihilism.

The relation of the poets to others is troublesome. If we are horrified by the realisation of our entrapment in the dead metaphors of dead poets, we must aspire to replace them. As poets we are grateful to them for furnishing us with the building blocks of our poetic structures, but if we do not negate and destroy them we are merely ‘shoving about already coined pieces’. The newness and liveliness of our poems show up the old poems and poets as boring and oppressive. Our relation to our contemporaries and to rising young poets is less ambivalent. They are our deadly enemies. Our agenda is patricide, fratricide and infanticide. Such a universalisation of the contemporary art scene is hardly credible.

Strong poets in the sciences are said to produce myths which are ‘useful for purposes of predicting and controlling what happens’. Now either such myths actually predict and control or they do not. If they do, then scientific myths are not myths at all but something quite different – say, interim hypotheses about a constant reality. If they do not, then we can choose between astronomy and astrology only on the basis of striking novelty or number of adherents. I don’t suppose Rorty intends either conclusion. I think he is trying to elevate poetry by denigrating science and so resorts to what he himself says is the use of poetry (rhetoric) to change reality (appearances) by redescribing it. The word we have for this is ‘sophistry’.

Literary poets do not pretend to usefulness. Rorty is suspended between two incompatible accounts of their influence over us. One is that we are simply attracted to their novelty, as to a fireworks display. The other starts with the romantic ideal of the daring avant-gardist who sweeps away the stale metaphors of the past and expresses a present social reality. He tells it like it is. What attracts us, then, is not the precious uniqueness of the poet but his talent for finding the words to express our common social reality. New poems describe – do not create – an existent social reality. So persistent is this theme of the reality of social life and history in Rorty that we may say that the dominant paradigm of which he speaks is not a dark anti-foundationalism illuminated by creative poets, but culturalism, and sometimes historicism, within which poets discover rather than create. If so, then the mysterious uniqueness of poets evaporates and they are seen as capable people with an anxiety of influence.

Rorty wants to establish a dichotomy of old philosophy and new poetry, the one foundationalist, the other not. The categories blur. It is hardly shocking to suggest that the foundationalists Plato and Aristotle, Spinoza and Hume, are, even today, stronger poets than Niezsche or Dewey, and if they are, ought we not prefer them? If we prefer them, do we not become foundationalists? I think Rorty can only respond that the older writers are ‘outmoded’. “Outmoded" must mean, from an anti-foundationalist position, “unfashionable" or “on the ash heap of history". On the first definition, Yeats was outmoded until he became popular. On the second, anti-foundationalism is itself outmoded in favour of historicism.

Value: Rorty says that ‘questions about how to give a sense to one’s own life or that of one’s community … are questions for art, politics, or both.’ Value, he says, is created, is metaphor, poetry, has no foundation, is essentially undiscussable. I think Hume (Enquiry, paragraph 173) and others have disposed of the notion that values can be created from nothing. If we were not an animal for which certain elemental situational evaluations are normal, the poets could no more teach us values than they could teach them to a stone.

Foundationalist moral philosophers are those who reason with us about the overall sense of our lives and the life of our community. When such reasoning and sense is outlawed, we are left to the rhetoric of poetic moralisers. Christ (‘it is written, but I say …’) is their exemplar. The inspired moralists, Buddha, Blake, de Sade, Pascal, Nietzsche, Hitler, Tolstoy and others, speak, not to our total condition as humans, but from some powerful but partial vision. In the absence of a foundation for thinking about our condition, we have no means of choosing among these poets: we must buy the line of the cleverest one present. We see about us now, stranded on the beaches of time, the vulgar Marxists of the Thirties, the hippies of the Sixties, the student radicals of the early Seventies – all victims of the transient moral metaphors which ruled their formative youth. Poetic morality is for groupies, for minds unencumbered by the ballast of a sense of proportion and of humour, minds impressionable and eager but unfitted for coping with the perspective of a whole human life.

When value is understood to be entirely the creation of poets or of cultures it loses its function of making sense of our lives. When we know that all values are mythical we lose all sense of how to conduct our lives and all hope of ever regaining that sense. The heroic moral iconoclasts of the past two hundred years who so proudly dissolved foundational moralities were so secure in their own moral prejudices that they give no thought to where they would themselves stand when their wrecking was completed. It is completed now, and we must ask on what basis Rorty can object to the new plan of Consolidated Foods to grind up the unemployed for Low Fat Peepulburgers, or to child abuse, racism, political oppression, sadism. Poets have ‘redescribed’ and praised these and other such practices and will again. It is a testimonial to the present impotence of philosophy and to the feather-headedness of the ‘ruling paradigm’ that so many of us can embrace a theory about value from whose obvious consequences we would and should recoil in horror. We can live comfortably with tentative cosmologies, logics and sciences, for these are instrumental or merely interesting, but without a foundational morality we are left initially to the gratification of immediate itches and then to the state of nature which rendered Hobbe’s absolute sovereign both necessary and desirable. As Luther put it, ‘frogs need storks.’

The ambiguities of Rorty’s political argument allow him to use value terms in the sense of their foundational integrity even as he argues for their contingency. He says: we should ‘see how we get on’ (but how will we know?); that something ‘promises great things’ (what is a great thing?). He speaks of ‘appropriate new forms’, ‘getting in the way of’, ‘inefficient’ (by what standard?), ‘trial and error’, ‘marvellous’, ‘work better’, ‘vanguard of the species’, ‘making something worthwhile of ourselves, selves whom we respect’, ‘progress’ – all borrowed from the philosophic culture he opposes and in their rhetorical misuse contributing to the further confusion of our language and thought.

The alternative to Rorty and to the value despair of many intelligent people today is the traditional human nature foundationalism. The major secular-moral philosophers, from Plato to Hume at least, despite differences in emphasis, agree that we have a determinate-species feeling profile and that morality – human value – is discoverable through an understanding of what it is to be human and to have human sentiments and priorities. We do in fact have or can have some idea of how we should live. This is not to assert the possibility of authoritative answers to all specific value questions, or to deny that in different cultures, different problems arise as well as different vocabularies for dealing with them. It is to assert that our shared nature is a foundation for a general human ethic.

Conclusions: Rorty’s ‘strong poet’ thesis is but the ‘great man theory of history’ thinly disguised. When not actively arguing for this radical individualism, he steadily assumes the truth of its negation, culturalism and historicism, those dominant dogmatisms of our day, according to which men are totally plastic to their time and place.

Rorty’s philosophy is truly expressive of our time. Even the public is aware that public opinion is not discovered but created. Our resonating language of feeling and thought has been sucked dry by advertisers, ideologues and other poetical redescribers. The poets celebrated by Rorty have, in all the arts, pretty much ceased to sing. If all that is to be real is the world furnished us by ‘poets’ anxious of influence and if that influence is not to be limited by any foundationalist considerations of truth or humanity, then we must learn to like the idea that two and two are five and, as Orwell explained to us, a great deal more of that sort.

Robert McShea
Department of Political Science, Boston University

Richard Rorty writes: Robert McShea and I disagree about whether the questions ‘By what standard?’ or ‘Upon what foundation?’ always have a useful answer, and so we differ on the value of a philosophical view which offers no answer to such questions. I regret that McShea did not explicitly discuss my attempt, in ‘The Contingency of Community’ (LRB, 24 July), to explain how my view can be fitted together with political liberalism. I agree with him that the issue between us is ultimately about political utility. So I tried, in that piece, to show how the line of thought sketched in ‘The Contingency of Language’ and ‘The Contingency of Selfhood’ might be more useful to liberalism than what he calls ‘human nature foundationalism’.

I have no answer to his question ‘useful by what standard’, except ‘useful for furthering the goals which political liberals have always tried to further’. But I remain unpersuaded that this is not a sufficient answer. McShea would like a justification of those goals themselves, and thinks that one can get one by invoking a theory of human nature. This seems to me an attempt to justify a reasonably persuasive view by making it rest on considerably more controversial premises – premises which, though they might once have strengthened the faith of those who accept the desired conclusions, no longer do so, and which are certainly of little use in convincing people who doubt those conclusions. I do not think that Orwell took the moral of 1984 to be that we need to believe general philosophical claims if we are to keep our chins up. On the contrary, Orwell seems to me one of the people who helped us understand the rather limited power general ideas have to fortify liberal emotions, as compared with the considerable power they have to fortify non-liberal ones.

Pushing on

SIR: It’s always a pleasure for American admirers of Kingsley Amis to find that someone in his native land is giving him his rightful homage. John Bayley’s review of The Old Devils (LRB, 18 September) is gratifyingly imaginative, comprehensive, and to the point. But I’m more than a little puzzled that Mr Bayley considers this novel to be Mr Amis’s first foray into the higher comic gerontology. Way back in 1974 Mr Amis published Ending up, a mordantly funny, wonderfully well-organised book about a group of septuagenarians living together out in the country in a house called Tuppenny-Hapenny Cottage. Like The Old Devils as Mr Bayley describes it, Ending up has no central ‘hero-narrator’, satisfactory or unsatisfactory, but is a straight comic extravaganza equally indebted, I would think, to the more economical Waugh and to the more efficiently plotted stage comedies that Mr Amis may have seen and read.

I find it most peculiar that no one should haved prompted Mr Bayley to have a look at this prior adventure in the genre. But the jacket blurb may provide a clue. Its ill-concealed prurient disapproval, just barely sweetened by phrases like ‘wickedly enjoyable’, suggests that 1974 was not a banner year for Mr Amis, that he may indeed have fallen under a small cloud during the Seventies. It is greatly to be hoped that he is now re-established in his true catbird seat as Waugh’s only serious heir and successor. One welcomes the day when the Powellites are finally put to rout.

Robert Flint
Cambridge, Massachusetts

His countrymen have been paying homage to Kingsley Amis for many years now, not that you would be able to tell this from some of the things he says about us. He has just been awarded the Booker Prize, and the relief was audible.

Editor, ‘London Review’

Absent Anarchists

SIR: It is really quite an achievement to have a long review (LRB, 9 October) of several books published or republished for the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Spanish Civil War which mentions the anarchists only in connection with the burning of churches and fails to mention that the ‘genuinely popular revolution’ was led by anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists and was indeed the most impressive example of libertarian action in history. It seems that the ‘first propaganda war’ is still being fought, even in the most unexpected places.

Mary Lewis
Freedom Press, London E1


SIR: Actually, Keith Douglas was not first with the ABCCBA stanza form either (Letters, 9 October). It was employed extensively by Charles Fisher in the ‘Fisher King’ section of his Band Sonnets collection, published in Calcutta as early as 1914. Interestingly, he also used the same rhyme pattern in the sestets of most of the sonnets in that book. I am sure that Martin Seymour-Smith will bear out this claim, since he possesses one of the very rare copies of this sadly-neglected poet’s first collection.

Gordon Wharton
Croydon, Surrey


SIR: As a late-comer to the dispute, I find myself quite baffled by the letter and the rejoinder to it in the LRB of 23 October. Why does Mr Room want us to use the vox nihili ‘metaphasis’ when we have at our disposal the well-known term ‘Spoonerism’? Why, on the other hand, does Mr Hughes urge us ‘to keep “metathesis" for what it has been used for for three [sic] thousand years’, while at the same time recommending that we supplant it by ‘metaplasm’? Ancient Greek grammarians (and I had always thought English grammarians) employ ‘metathesis’ exactly as Mr Room recommends that we should use it: to describe phenomena like Old English bridd > Modern English bird, or, to take another example, Scots brunt. ‘Metaplasm’ is such a loose term that it might be applied to these phenomena, although Quintilian was certainly not using it specifically in that way. Its most widespread technical use is to describe the creation of forms in the declension of nouns and the conjugation of verbs where there exists no paradigmatic nominative case or present tense.

D.M. Bain
Department of Greek and Latin, University of Manchester


SIR: If, as your reviewer John Sutherland maintains (LRB, 20 November) David Caute is ‘a connoisseur of masochism’, then surely it was misguided of him to call Caute’s latest novel ‘a monumental failure’. This can only have thrilled the connoisseur. Would not a sugary puff have been more scourging?

Bruno Nightingale
London SE22

Cicely Hamilton

SIR: I have been commissioned by the Women’s Press to write a biography of Cicely Hamilton, the actress, novelist and playwright. I should be very grateful to receive any information from your readers as to the whereabouts of any letters or other manuscript material by or relating to Hamilton. I should also like to hear from any of your readers who have personal memories of her.

Elisabeth Whitelaw
46 London Road, Dunton Green, Sevenoaks, Kent

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences