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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

In which Russell encounters an Eaglefish and has one of those epiphanic moments when a few things suddenly "click"

I sort of knew this already, but it had never really come into focus until this afternoon when a lot of things suddenly "clicked".

Here's the deal: among our friends on the political Left - which is where I have my roots - there are people, not just a few but many, who despise everything I hold dear. These are supposed to be my allies, but they despise liberalism, reason, science, progress, and the Enlightenment. They hate the so-called "New Atheism", not so much because they think the doctrines of Christianity or some other religion are actually true, but because they see people like Richard Dawkins as providing a rallying point for ... yes, liberalism, reason, science, progress, and the Enlightenment. They see religion as a good thing, NOT just because it can provide a sense of meaning and community, and not despite its frequent opposition to those values, but precisely because of it. It's not some sort of accident or coincidence that their commitments so often have them opposing liberalism and all the values associated with it. They know that that's what they're doing; they actually see those values as disvalues.

They're not ready to move on to a post-religious society. They may not be religious themselves, except in some cultural sense, but the post-religious societies of contemporary Europe are anathema to them. Their preference is some sort of post-liberalism in which the world is re-enchanted.

Okay, I knew such people existed; I'm not totally naive. But I'd thought it was just a few wingnuts like Bill McKibben, or a few literary scholars who are too impressed with second-tier French philosophy. I made excuses for the others. But no. The penny has finally dropped that this is a mainstream viewpoint among English-speaking intellectuals of the Left. Maybe it's not one that's popular among Left-leaning analytic philosophers or scientists, or among Left-leaning people in the science fiction community, or Left-leaning technoprogressives and transhumanists (who must reject it by definition). In fact, it's a view that I almost never encounter in real life, even though I and most of my friends are fairly Left-leaning and many of them belong to the literary world. So it seems alien. It's like I've suddenly realised that there are all these flying saucer worshippers around. Or South-Park-style Crab People. It's odd, but it's there, and it's even commonplace.

I wonder exactly how widespread this viewpoint is within, say, university departments of literature or cultural studies. Someone should do some research.

Stanley Fish and Terry Eagleton, for example, are not just isolated, idiosyncratic sentimentalists who believe in belief. They really do hate the things that I value, and they see themselves as in a struggle to resist the very things that I am fighting for in all my work. When Eagleton says that Richard Dawkins is standing in his way, he actually means it. What's more, such Eaglefish don't see themselves as expressing a view that their colleagues and acquaintances will find alien and bizarre. They expect their views to seem familiar and attractive to many readers; they expect to find an audience for which such views will have the ring of truth. What's more, they're probably right.

It's a frightening thought, but welcome to the desert of the real.

37 comments:

Ophelia Benson said...

I know, I know. Oh how I know. I have an ever-renewing sense of surprise about this. In spite of the fact that I've spent much of the past seven years observing this Tendency, it still surprises me to see Eaglefish so casually and confidently shitting from a great height on 'Progress, liberalism and enlightenment.'

I have a very serious and earnest wish/fantasy of teleporting both of them to Swat, first taking the precaution of turning them into women. See how sneery they feel about progress, liberalism and enlightenment then.

The fact is they both fill me with a really profound disgust and loathing - when they are both so very safe and prosperous and unopressed themselves - the fact that they play such frivolous games with words that are life and death to people elsewhere just makes me want to be sick.

Peter Hollo said...

I like "Eaglefish"!

We are all Ditchkins now.

Blake Stacey said...

I've said on a couple blogs that "Ditchkins" sounds like a creature from the seamy underworld of Internet fanfiction. It's the sort of portmanteau which a fan would use to label a story in which Avatar's Zuko and Katara mingle their elements — "Zutara" — or Cameron and Thirteen from House pool their, ahem, medical talents to become "Camteen".

Theological debates have often had a Kirk-vs.-Picard character to them, but it's still a little disturbing to see apologetics acquire yet another characteristic of fanfic.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to do an "exegesis" of Motoko Kusanagi. . . .

Ophelia Benson said...

I'm hoping Russell got 'Eaglefish' from me - but a commenter at my place later came up with Feagletosh, which I think is brilliant.

underverse said...

Russell,

I wonder if you'd be able to contemplate, as a thought experiment, how paranoid all of this sounds to someone who is a sympathizer of the liberal project, generally, but who doesn't cleave to your precise flavor of Enlightenment 2.0 . Do you really think that Eagleton and Fish are hostile to liberalism and rationality? I'll only defend them so far; neither is my favorite writer or thinker. But don't you suppose there might be other motivations behind a criticism of "New Atheism" than a desire to despoil liberal values?

I know, "paranoid" is a strong word. Maybe even a fighting word. But I choose it because you don't lay out any convincing data towards this supposed antagonism toward "the things you value." You just seem to "know" it, the way that theists "know" god is real, or the way Republicans "know" that gay marriage isn't normal.

No one could object to your emotional reaction of anger or hurt or frustration that "Eaglefish" aren't characterizing your cohort correctly, or aren't being supportive enough for what you find to be core liberal values. But this posting is written as though it were factual, despite the difficulty that it is argument-free. Maybe your more loyal readers will take it on faith?

daniel_abineri said...

Why has it taken so long for enlightened thinkers to realise that a lot of their left leaning brothers have a really weird attitude towards religion? They seem to loathe their own, and yet are enchanted by Islam. There's no hiding the fact that Islam seeks to suppress women, persecute Jews and gays and, in it's most extreme form, kill anyone who dares renounce this crazy faith. How does this square with the traditional leftist desire to protect and promote womens and gay rights and defeat racism? Confused or what?

Ophelia Benson said...

"Do you really think that Eagleton and Fish are hostile to liberalism and rationality?"

There are abundant direct quotes from both Eagleton and Fish on various blog posts that make their hostility to liberalism and rationality as explicit as it could possibly be. I take Russell to have been taking off from some or all of those posts.

Here for instance are some excerpts from Fish's blog post that I quoted at Butterflies and Wheels:

"Progress, liberalism and enlightenment — these are the watchwords of those, like Hitchens, who believe that in a modern world, religion has nothing to offer us...[W]e are where we always were, confronted with a choice between a flawed but aspiring religious faith or a spectacularly hubristic faith in the power of unaided reason and a progress that has no content but, like the capitalism it reflects and extends, just makes its valueless way into every nook and cranny."

"For Eagleton the choice is obvious, although he does not have complete faith in the faith he prefers. “There are no guarantees,” he concedes that a “transfigured future will ever be born.” But we can be sure that it will never be born, he says in his last sentence, “if liberal dogmatists, doctrinaire flag-wavers for Progress, and Islamophobic intellectuals . . . continue to stand in its way.”"

Possibly if you had read Fish's post you wouldn't have bothered calling Russell paranoid.

Blake Stacey said...

Just because you're paranoid. . . doesn't mean they're not out to get you.

Mr.H said...

It is not a betrayal of reason to entertain the possibility that many people are not ready to live without religion. The capacity of the majority of we human animals to live by reason alone is an empirical question- not something to be decided by Dawkins and company shouting. But those of us who suggest this possibility are not to be reasoned with; we are labeled as traitors to the 'Atheist Cause'.

What is utterly disgusting about the New Atheism is its willingness to replace reason with polemics, and treat rational disagreement as treason.

For a scientist or other amateur historian to declare, on the basis of a casual look at history, that religion is unmitigated evil, or to suggest that teaching religion is child abuse (and thus a cause for state intervention in private life): these are the real betrayals of reason and liberalism. If there is now a rhetorical opening for the po-mo truth-haters, it is one the New Atheists created.

Anonymous said...

Eagleton was raised a roman catholic and became a marxist. There's no reason to expect such a person to favour progress, liberalism or enlightenment. The fact that you do expect it shows the meaninglessness of the terms "left" and "right" politically, how foolish it is to use them and their irrelevance except as rhetorical markers.

Ophelia Benson said...

"But those of us who suggest this possibility are not to be reasoned with; we are labeled as traitors to the 'Atheist Cause'.

What is utterly disgusting about the New Atheism is its willingness to replace reason with polemics, and treat rational disagreement as treason."

Nonsense. What Eagleton and Fish wrote was not rational disagreement - it wasn't even polemics.

Russell Blackford said...

Yes, I think I got the "Eaglefish" from you, Ophelia, though I'm not sure. Maybe PZ Myers was also using it. You are both part of my daily reading.

Chris - er, I understand you point. But no. Don't think that what you said in your comment hadn't occurred to me. It had.

But part of what "clicked" for me yesterday afternoon is that this is not paranoid (after all). These people, like Eagleton and Fish, really do hate liberalism, reason, etc. They say that almost in so many words (certainly not for the first time, in Fish's case). It suddenly made sense that they actually mean it.

I think we have to take them at their word.

mace said...

How can people who "despise liberalism,reason,science,progress and the Enlightenment" be on the political Left?

underverse said...

"I think we have to take them at their word."

What word? Nowhere in the comments Ophelia cites is there a statement against reason or progress itself. The quotes are statements about making them into ends in themselves. This is a very different thing, as a trained philosopher like Russell should know. One can speak about the reification of any value without opposing it as a value as such.

If you object that Fish and Eagleton have a different hierarchy of values than you think a liberal or left writer should hold, then say that. Don't pretend this is the same as hating "Progress, liberalism and enlightenment."

If you can show me a statement by Eagleton or Fish that clearly demonstrates this "hostility," and I will take back my remarks about paranoia. Right now all you have is revelation, where you compare stories about how you have all "seen the light."

Reason means: if it can't be shown, it likely isn't there. Can you demonstrate this hostility, textually, to someone outside the choir?

J. J. Ramsey said...

Ophelia Benson quoting Stanley Fish: "[W]e are where we always were, confronted with a choice between a flawed but aspiring religious faith or a spectacularly hubristic faith in the power of unaided reason and a progress that has no content but, like the capitalism it reflects and extends, just makes its valueless way into every nook and cranny. [emphasis added]"

With all due respect, I don't think that quote is evidence quite of what you think it is. Now I can see a glaring fault in what Fish wrote above, namely a false choice between religion and the other thing that he described. However, what Fish seems to object to is the arrogance that his opposition supposedly has. It is truly foolish for we human beings to have too much faith in our own reason, since our execution of reason is so flawed. A little humility can avoid things like, oh, letting an anti-Semitic canard about Jews having sex through sheets make it into one's book. Fish also seems to think that what Hitchens supposedly calls "progress" isn't actually, well, progressing anything. (Whether Hitchens really has the views about progress that Fish says he does is another story.) Some of this is understandable. "Progress" is a vague word that often refers to industrialization and increased use of technology. Some of this so-called "progress" is really progress. I shudder to think what my life would be like without vaccines, paved roads, electricity, and so on. Some of this so-called "progress" is anything but: cutting down rain forests, pollution, advertisers finding new ways to annoy us, and so on. I suspect that Fish has the latter in mind rather than the former, and the latter have been in part the product of hubris.

Russell Blackford: "I think we have to take them at their word."

Trouble is, their words (and probably their thoughts, too) are rather fuzzy.

Ophelia Benson said...

"However, what Fish seems to object to is the arrogance that his opposition supposedly has. It is truly foolish for we human beings to have too much faith in our own reason, since our execution of reason is so flawed."

No kidding - but then Fish doesn't manage to say anything even that coherent - and the arrogance that his opposition supposedly has is sheer strawman assertion. He doesn't offer any evidence for this claim.

Your elaboration of what Fish might mean by progress is all very well - but again, Fish didn't manage to say any of that, and that was and is my point. It doesn't really work to defend Fish against charges of arbitrary unargued blanket hostility to 'Progress, liberalism and enlightenment' by telling us what he could have said but didn't, because the fact remains that he didn't. The fact that you can make a better case than he did doesn't mean that he in fact made a better case.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Ophelia Benson: "It doesn't really work to defend Fish against charges of arbitrary unargued blanket hostility to 'Progress, liberalism and enlightenment' by telling us what he could have said but didn't"

And it doesn't help to use a quote from Fish as evidence for blanket hostility to 'Progress, liberalism and enlightenment' when it shows hints--which I highlighted--that it isn't very good evidence for such hostility. Talking about "progress" is especially tendentious since the word has come to be associated with environmental and other damage that has come at the cost of what others have called "progress." And Fish's disgust with some supposed arrogance is something that he definitely did say.

Ophelia Benson: "the arrogance that his opposition supposedly has is sheer strawman assertion."

Well, it's an assertion that Fish doesn't support. I can think of a "New Atheist" who provided a non-argument argument against the Trinity where he used a quote with a straightforward meaning as an example of obscurantism in theology, followed it up with a quip that make it look as if he forgot that the Protestant Reformation happened, and followed that by quoting with approval Thomas Jefferson foolishly saying that the only weapon against incoherent ideas was ridicule. (Think about it. Another weapon against incoherent ideas is to point out where they are incoherent. If you can't do that, you have no business ridiculing them for being incoherent in the first place.) Given that said "New Atheist" is pretty brilliant, I'm left to conclude that he was too lazy to provide a better argument, which is rather arrogant.

Ophelia Benson said...

"Well, it's an assertion that Fish doesn't support."

Yes, and Fish is what I was talking about. It's quite standard in criticizing a piece by X to say 'Y is an assertion' without bothering to spell out 'Y is an assertion that X doesn't support' - that would look tautological and otiose.

Fish and Eagleton are the subject here; how is it relevant to point out that other people do a better job of arguing than Fish and Eagleton do? It looks to me like saying 'No you're wrong Fish and Eagleton are better than you say because other people are better than Fish and Eagleton are.' Utterly beside the point.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Ophelia Benson: "how is it relevant to point out that other people do a better job of arguing than Fish and Eagleton do?"

You had said that Fish's charge of arrogance was "sheer strawman assertion." If you had said that it was "sheer assertion," period, then that others had succeeded in supporting that assertion would be irrelevant. However, you added that Fish provided a strawman, which means that you indicated that Fish provided a false picture. On that matter, arguments showing that Fish wasn't as false as you claimed are relevant, even if Fish didn't supply them himself.

underverse said...

Trouble is, their words (and probably their thoughts, too) are rather fuzzy.The better to project one's fears and anxieties onto, I warrant.

The next thing you know, you're suggesting that Fish & Eagleton favor the state of affairs in the Swat valley.

Russell Blackford said...

They may not favour the state of affairs in Swat Valley, but I'd be a lot happier if they were denouncing that than seeing them denounce people who happen to favour the Enlightenment, etc.

And of course it's a matter of tone. "Taking them at their word" doesn't mean that they said the exact words "I hate liberalism [etc.]". That would have been making it easy. But when they consistently write in a tone of anger or scorn about the values we're talking about I think we can eventually draw the conclusion that they really do hate (or if you can only literally hate individuals you want to harm, despise, angrily reject, feel contempt for) those values. These people are not our allies. They have totally different and incompatible goals. They are saying so themselves.

I wish it weren't so, but the whole set of discourse that we've been seeing from Fish, in particular, for years now makes a lot more sense if you read it on the basis that he really does hate (or whatever) liberalism and everything that goes with it. He's written a whole book against the concept of free speech and has made it clear in the past that he doesn't like the liberal framework. I think we should stop bending over backwards to characterise him as being some kind of liberal who is just questioning a few things around the edges. That's not how he characterises himself.

Ophelia Benson said...

And of course nobody claimed they favour the state of affairs in Swat Valley. I expressed a wish to see them there so that they could get up close experience of life without liberalism and reason. I know damn well they wouldn't like it; that's my point. Trust Chris Schoen to sneer at a different point.

Russell Blackford said...

I just reread Fish's recent piece:

http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/05/03/god-talk/?em

It's difficult at times to tell when Fish is just conveying what he thinks Eagleton thinks, and when he is endorsing it. But the contempt and dislike for liberalism and reason are not hidden. They are openly displayed in para after para.

There's just this temptation to think, "Oh, he can't really mean it. Surely he's a liberal at heart." Except he never says that he is, and all says is stuff like: "we are where we always were, confronted with a choice between a flawed but aspiring religious faith or a spectacularly hubristic faith in the power of unaided reason and a progress that has no content but, like the capitalism it reflects and extends, just makes its valueless way into every nook and cranny." (This seems to be attributed to Eagleton, but Fish is presenting it so sympathetically that it appears to be an endorsement.)

So the "hubristic" "faith" in reason and progress is "valueless" and reflects and extends capitalism. That's the only sort of thing that Fish (or Eaglefish) ever says about it. It has no value and it somehow reflects and extends an economic system that Eaglefish plainly despises.

Is there even one good word for liberalism or reason or science or progress or the Enlightenment in the whole article? Is there one suggestion that these things have, for example, helped us cast off irrational attitudes of shame about sexuality and the body, or irrational attitudes of hostility towards the essentially harmless conduct of others? If there's any praise, I can't see it. Even the importance of medical progress seems to be considered trivial in Eaglefish's universe. Whatever comforts we have received from reason, science, and so on are "superficial" and do not bring change that is "meaningful". So much for the Enlightenment project.

The whole tenor of the argument is that the things I value are worthless - superficially and meaninglessly comforting at best - and are, indeed, an impediment to some kind of positively transformed society.

It would be nice if these Eaglefish would write clearly, saying exactly what they mean in an explicit way, rather than using all the pompous rhetoric, so that we don't have to rely on impressions of their tone accumulating over the many books and articles that we read by them. That would make it much easier to be sure what they really think. But they don't write that way, so we're stuck with trying to find an interpretation that makes sense of the whole.

The only interpretation I can come up with is that they really are hostile to the things that they write about in a tone of hostility.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Russell Blackford: "The only interpretation I can come up with is that they really are hostile to the things that they write about in a tone of hostility."

The problem is that the target of their hostility is unclear. When Fish decries a "spectacularly hubristic faith in the power of unaided reason," is the emphasis on the hubris or on reason? And as I pointed out earlier, the term "progress" is vague.

If you want to have a go at "Eaglefish" for fuzzy thinking, fine. But it is pretty ridiculous to admit that "[i]t would be nice if these Eaglefish would write clearly" and then say that their words have only one interpretation. Heck, I'd go so far as to say that to do so would be an affront to the reason that you wish to defend.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Here's a telling quote from Fish:

"And as for the vaunted triumph of liberalism, what about 'the misery wreaked by racism and sexism, the sordid history of colonialism and imperialism, the generation of poverty and famine'?"

If Fish is so against liberalism, why does he write as if racism, sexism, and colonialism--which are obviously illiberal--are bad things? Or take this:

"The language of enlightenment has been hijacked in the name of corporate greed, the police state, a politically compromised science, and a permanent war economy"

That doesn't read so much like a rejection of the wisdom from the Enlightenment era so much as a complaint about corruption done in the name of enlightenment. Continuing on this theme, we see what Eaglefish has in mind when he talks about "progress": "an empty suburbanism that produces ever more things without any care as to whether or not the things produced have true value." I doubt that this is what you have in mind when you think of progress.

Now we can debate whether what Fish is alleging is true, but getting from Fish's words to a claim that Fish really hates liberalism, etc., is a stretch

underverse said...

Ophelia, you wrote:

Nobody claimed they favour the state of affairs in Swat Valley. I expressed a wish to see them there so that they could get up close experience of life without liberalism and reason. I know damn well they wouldn't like it; that's my point. But this "wish" implies, for logic's sake, a "taste of their own medicine." It implies F & E don't want Pakistani women to have the protections of liberalism. Otherwise it would be a non sequitur. What you're arguing here is not that F & E devalue liberalism, but that they are hypocrites about it, claiming the right to bash it but still desiring to receive all the benefits and privileges of it. This (though perhaps valid) is different than saying that F & E are actually hostile to liberal values--something for which neither you nor RB have yet provided any compelling evidence for, as J.J. has been observing:

Russell Blackford: "The only interpretation I can come up with is that they really are hostile to the things that they write about in a tone of hostility."

The problem is that the target of their hostility is unclear. When Fish decries a "spectacularly hubristic faith in the power of unaided reason," is the emphasis on the hubris or on reason?
I'd go further. Grammatically the answer is very clear that the target of hostility is hubris. This does not require that close of a reading; we're not having to untangle the prose of a Julia Kristeva or Felix Guattari here.

Without pointing any fingers, without making it personal, can't we imagine, in theory, that a person could (rightfully, justifiably) criticize the corruption of Reason in another person? Wouldn't we hold the right to such criticism dear? Without getting into the merits of "Eaglefish"'s specific position on "Ditchkins," (who are held in high esteem by some in these quarters, making the comments seem more personal than they might) can we at least agree that hubris is an actual, not imaginary, human peril? Then perhaps we can talk about whether Eaglefish are missing the mark, without needing to demand satisfaction for it.

The rational--indeed the liberal, progressive--response, here, in other words, would be to keep a level head and try to see the matter for what it is.

Ophelia, in particular, I sincerely appreciate your moral passion, but I think it can often cloud your judgment. Not everyone who disagrees with you is also your enemy.

underverse said...

"I'd be a lot happier if they were denouncing that than seeing them denounce people who happen to favour the Enlightenment."

Russell, so much is elided in this phrase "happen to favor." Is this not a tacit concession that it is not Hitchens' & Dawkins' love for the Enlightenment in particular that Fish and Eagleton are criticizing?

To re-emphasize J.J.'s point: the "scorn" you highlight is not directed at reason, liberalism and progress in any of the quotes you've cited. It's directed at "faith," "doctrinaire flag-waving," "watchwords" -- in short, things you yourself (rightfully) oppose: corruption, shortcuts, tribal behavior, small mindedness... Whether these criticisms are valid or not in the case of H & D is not something I would take much trouble to defend in Fish or Eagleton. Neither is a favorite writer of mine. But let's not mistake their critique entirely for something wholly other, and more treacherous.

Ophelia Benson said...

"It implies F & E don't want Pakistani women to have the protections of liberalism."

No, it implies that E and F don't pay enough attention to the implications of their (local, narrow, parochial, 'our world is the only world') hatred of liberalism and progress.

"What you're arguing here is not that F & E devalue liberalism, but that they are hypocrites about it, claiming the right to bash it but still desiring to receive all the benefits and privileges of it. This (though perhaps valid) is different than saying that F & E are actually hostile to liberal values"

No, it's not different, because they don't just claim the right to bash it, they do bash it.

"something for which neither you nor RB have yet provided any compelling evidence"

According to you. I maintain that I have provided evidence (though not necessarily compelling evidence, but then that's a high bar to set, especially when arguing with people who have at least one foot in the Eagle/Fish camp). I don't entirely agree with Russell about the obscurity of what Fish says: I think much of it is quite straightforward (though it is often hard to know when he is reporting Eagle. and when he is echoing him).

"can't we imagine, in theory, that a person could (rightfully, justifiably) criticize the corruption of Reason in another person?"

Of course we can, but that's beside the point. Neither Eagleton nor Fish has done any such thing in the pieces under discussion here, so the fact that we can imagine such a thing doesn't help them.

"can we at least agree that hubris is an actual, not imaginary, human peril?"

See above.

Furthermore -

1) There's a complicated issue about the meaning of the word, which has actually been misconstrued by generations of high school English teachers; see Richmond Lattimore and Walter Kaufmann on this.

2) There's a popular trope about the putative 'hubris' of science and reason (Faust, the Golem, Frankenstein's monster etc etc etc) that plays into the lit critty hostility to science, which means (I would argue) that caution and skepticism are called for when people start ranting about hubristic science/reason/atheism. Yes, there is such a thing as human over-reaching; yes, we can agree about that; no, I don't think it's always a useful or relevant observation.

underverse said...

Ophelia,

This is just apologetics.

You write: "caution and skepticism are called for when people start ranting about hubristic science/reason/atheism." Is that what you call your response? Cautious? Your words:

"I have a very serious and earnest wish/fantasy of teleporting both of them to Swat, first taking the precaution of turning them into women. See how sneery they feel about progress, liberalism and enlightenment then.

The fact is they both fill me with a really profound disgust and loathing - when they are both so very safe and prosperous and unopressed themselves - the fact that they play such frivolous games with words that are life and death to people elsewhere just makes me want to be sick."

This is not a expression of "skepticism." This is an expression of certainty, that you are right, and the snotty lit crits are wrong. That's fine: plant a stake in the ground, defend it, be a warrior for your side. As I've said, I admire your moral passion. But your attempt to pass this off as "reasoned" debate, mitigated by the safeguards of "caution and skepticism," rings hollow.

Forget about the supposed war between science and humanities for a moment, and look dispassionately at the issue. Look at the arguments, perhaps even empathize with your interlocutors, who are human beings, just as you are. If nothing in your field of vision changes, you have lost nothing for trying. Well worth the risk to try and participate in actual dialogue.

Ophelia Benson said...

Chris Schoen

Do stop patronizing me.

No of course I wouldn't call my response caution and skpeticism; my response was highly polemical; but I wasn't talking about my response in particular, I was replying to your 'can we at least agree' bullshit. It's bullshit precisely because of this tricksy shifting of levels - one minute it's 'never mind E and F can't we just agree that X' and the next minute, in response to a reply to that, it's 'you can't possibly call your comment on E and F cautious.' Apologetics yourself, bub.

My response was of course highly polemical, but it took off from previous caution and skepticism. It took a lot for granted, but then I have a lot of repeat readers who know what they can take for granted.

"look dispassionately at the issue. Look at the arguments, perhaps even empathize with your interlocutors"

To repeat, for emphasis: stop patronizing me.

I did look at what Eagleton and Fish wrote. I was unable to look at 'the arguments' because there weren't any. There were many assertions but no arguments.

Your whole argument seems to be that Eagleton and Fish could have said something reasonable because there is something reasonable to say therefore they did in fact say something reasonable. That's not much of an argument.

Anonymous said...

“What other symbolic form has managed to forge such direct links between the most universal and absolute of truths and the everyday practices of countless millions of men and women?”

Eagleton's question about religion- approvingly quoted by Fish- shows the reason they disapprove of liberalism. Liberalism- empirical and hypothetical- does not claim or try to find universal and absolute truths or even claim or believe that there are such things. There may well be universal and absolute untruths, but that's a different matter.

Fish's own question is revealing: "And as for the vaunted triumph of liberalism, what about 'the misery wreaked by racism and sexism, the sordid history of colonialism and imperialism, the generation of poverty and famine'?"
The very way he puts it suggests that there is a connexion between the "vaunted triumph" and these things- the fact that liberalism hasn't ended them is evidence of liberalism's faults. However the very term "vaunted triumph" is much more reveling of Fish's own psychology. The whole point about liberalism is that it does not offer Absolute Truth but tentative and hypothetical truths that can be rejected if the evidence goes against them. Keynes's saying: "When the facts change I change my opinion" sums up liberalism. There has been no "vaunted triumph" of liberalism. All that has happened is that we have seen how the big all-encompassing belief systems produced and justified 'the misery wreaked by racism and sexism, the sordid history of colonialism and imperialism, the generation of poverty and famine'. Liberalism cannot triumph; all it can offer is a continual provisional attempt to make things better or even less bad.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Ophelia Benson: "Your whole argument seems to be that Eagleton and Fish could have said something reasonable because there is something reasonable to say therefore they did in fact say something reasonable."

Actually, the thrusts of the arguments are more that (1) the evidence that you have provided that Eaglefish really does hate liberalism is thin, and (2) some of the charges that Eaglefish makes have an element of truth.

"My response was of course highly polemical, but it took off from previous caution and skepticism."

Judging from the evidence you provided after you offered your polemic, I have trouble believing that.

Ophelia Benson said...

"Actually, the thrusts of the arguments are more that (1) the evidence that you have provided that Eaglefish really does hate liberalism is thin, and (2) some of the charges that Eaglefish makes have an element of truth."

"Do you really think that Eagleton and Fish are hostile to liberalism and rationality? I'll only defend them so far; neither is my favorite writer or thinker. But don't you suppose there might be other motivations behind a criticism of "New Atheism" than a desire to despoil liberal values?"

"It is truly foolish for we human beings to have too much faith in our own reason, since our execution of reason is so flawed. A little humility can avoid things like, oh, letting an anti-Semitic canard about Jews having sex through sheets make it into one's book. Fish also seems to think that what Hitchens supposedly calls "progress" isn't actually, well, progressing anything. (Whether Hitchens really has the views about progress that Fish says he does is another story.) Some of this is understandable. "Progress" is a vague word that often refers to industrialization and increased use of technology. Some of this so-called "progress" is really progress. I shudder to think what my life would be like without vaccines, paved roads, electricity, and so on. Some of this so-called "progress" is anything but: cutting down rain forests, pollution, advertisers finding new ways to annoy us, and so on. I suspect that Fish has the latter in mind rather than the former, and the latter have been in part the product of hubris."

Etc etc etc etc. There's a long stream of 'E and F meant X and Y even though they didn't actually say that.

"I have trouble believing that."

Fine; call me a liar; I have trouble believing you're worth engaging with.

J. J. Ramsey said...

"There's a long stream of 'E and F meant X and Y even though they didn't actually say that."

Yes, you have said several times that E and F are hostile to liberalism and rationality even though they haven't said that. They have most certainly expressed hostility to hubris, as I have pointed out, and they have also claimed that liberalism has yet to triumph and wipe out social ills like racism, etc., again as I have pointed out. The supposed "long stream of 'E and F meant X and Y'" has been me and underverse poking holes in your interpretation of Eaglefish.

"Fine; call me a liar"

No, not a liar. I doubt that you intended to say something false.

Ophelia Benson said...

"The supposed "long stream of 'E and F meant X and Y'" has been me and underverse poking holes in your interpretation of Eaglefish."

No, it has been you and 'underverse' repeatedly pointing out what E and F could have said but didn't. All I did was quote them directly.

underverse said...

Mark it well, J.J.

If you quote someone accurately, you win, even if the quotes bear no discernible relationship to your argument.

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