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30 Letters

Dear Radical Philosophy,


Oh, come on Jennifer Todd (RP 28), why don't you stop
flogging a dead horse. There's no point in making
political art; there's just no meat left – the flies
have taken .it all. It's all been consumed away,
turned into culture and thrown back at us as another
form of oppression. Any hope of a radical art faded
with the failure of Dada and surrealism. Dada tried
to put the poor beast out of its misery and surrealism tried to transcend it; both failed and so has
every attempt since. A dead horse, is a dead horse,
is a dead horse ….

Adorno said it’s not a question of politicizing
aesthetics but of aestheticizing politics. Is it a
coincidence that your article should be dotted with
posters from 1968 where the situationists had put the
above practice into operation?

And don’t drag jazz in again. The poor girl’s too
tired: Adorno demolished that myth: beneath the
supposed improvisations it’s as politically conservative as anything else. I would love to know what you
listen to at home; marxists are usually culturally
conservative when you get down to it.

Do we really have to wade through so many fine
words to come to a conclusion that includes ‘an
integrated praxis is needed, where community artists
look beyond the good feelings generated by their
endeavours and more conventional artists look beyond
the confines of the art world.’ Not terribly
original is it?

You can’t expect art to come up with the goods on
our present conditions, and all that that entails,
when articles about it p~esent arguments, let alone
conclusions, that the Frankfurt School (Adorno) dealt
with nearly fifty years ago and which the situationists surpassed twenty years ago. It’s time to move
on. There’s rioting on the streets; they’ve taken
up the bones.

Yours sincerely, Steve Dorril
Jennifer Todd comments:

Oh come .on Steve Dorril. My conclusion may not be
terribly original but it’s better than your idealisation of any active politics without analysis of its
prospects and your ‘death of art’ theme. Art has
died so often since Hegel that I can’t take the
latest obituaries seriously.

The editors chose the illustrations, not me.

Whatever their import, I won’t accept an aestheticized politics (on Benjamin’s analysis a fascist
strategy) without further discussion of its direction.

The serious political question is what people with
specialised skills – artistic and intellectual – are
to do when there is rioting and when there isn’t.

If you don’t think these skills are useful, I don’t
see why you read or write at all; if you think they
can be used, tell us how. Does your unquestioning
acceptance of the aesthetic judgements of Adorno (a
political conservative, I fear) extend to his praise
of esoteric art?

Dear Editors and Readers,
From time to time a debate surfaces in RadicaZ
PhiZosophy over the state of the magazine and the

movement, and over the direction in which they
should be going. I believe it is important that the
debate should now be renewed and pushed towards a
resolution. Only by doing so can we hope to seize
the great opportunities that confront us.

The opportunities arise from the disintegration
of the analytical movement in philosophy. This
event may be taken as fully certified, as all around
us the sky begins to grow dark with obituary notices.

The most remarkable of these to date is Richard
Rorty’s PhiZosophy and the Mirror of Nature. It is
to be expected that awareness of the significance of
what has happened should be furthest advanced in the
United States, where the best work in the movement
has been done for the past twenty years. It is
natural that the exhaustion of its resources should
first be appreciated there. By contrast, the sedulous mediocrity of the British branch might keep it
from ever reaching that point, if it could be
shielded from outside influence. But no Chinese
wall protects it from developments at the heart of
the culture to which it belongs, and no such wall
surrounds RadicaZ PhiZosophy. Our chronic crisis of
identity must enter an acute phase. So far we have
managed to get by on the assurance, enshrined inside
recent front covers, that, whatever might be in doubt,
we could recognize ourselves by our resolute opposition to the teachings of the academy. But such an
approach will work only so long as the ‘Other’ has
itself some definite shape. Now that this is rapidly
dissolving, we need some positive determination of
what we are.

The reasons for the demise of the analytical movement cannot be specified here. But, clearly, some of
them are internal to it, and have to do with the fact
that a certain conception of philosophy has ceased to
be viable. It is now apparent that Quine’s assault
on the analytic-synthetic distinction was a timebomb placed in the foundations of this conception,
ensuring that we would not be left alone to fossick
about on our own indefinitely. For it spelled the
eventual collapse of the dichotomy of ‘the conceptual’ and ‘the empirical’, which was the only serviceable guide to the realm of philosophy the movement
had to offer. With its collapse the nature of the
distinctive expertise of professional philosophers
becomes quite mysterious. Their claim to be providing vital, ‘second-order’ services for other disciplines is, at any rate, decisively undermined. Whatever the real character of those services, it becomes
obvious that they can be performed as well, or better
by historians, mathematicians and scientists acting
on their own behalf. The threat of intellectual
redundancy has a baleful ring about it in these times
In the face of the economic storms about to engulf
the academy, the philosophers seem to be clothed only
in a belief in their own cleverness, while their sole
marketable asset is a bag of tricks supposed to be
useful to aspiring members of ruling circles. But
the state’s need for sophists is quite small, and in
Britain’s case can be entirely met by the University
of Oxford. ~fuat is to become of everyone else? In
this situation it will not be surprising if it is
discovered that philosophy has, after all, something
to do with wisdom. It will not be surprising either
if Anglo-American philosophy ha.s to look elsewhere
to augment its own meagre holdings in that area; if,
that is, its response to the crisis takes an eclectic


It is, once again, to the United States that one
should look to see which way the wind is blowing.

The clearest indications are given in excerpts from
a pamphlet prepared by Hubert Dreyfus and John
Haugeland which are published in the April 1981
NewsZetter of the American Philosophical Association.

The excerpts speak of signs of a ‘general malaise’

among American philosophers and of the insistently
expressed needs of their students for ‘metaphysical
comfort’. The response is a proposal to forget ‘old
antipathies’ and to combine the resources of
‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ philosophy to construct
a new curriculum. This is not seen as a matter of
adding courses entitled ‘Existentialism’ and
‘Phenomenology’ to the teaching repertoire. The
goal is ‘more radical’: ‘to integrate the study of
analytic and continental philosophers in the same
courses’. Thus, the model syllabus in ‘Contemporary
Philosophy’ seeks to integrate the study of Quine,
Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Foucault. The creation
of this syllabus should not be taken as ari innocent
academic exercise, a re-hanging of exhibits in the
ivory tower. It is part of a project with a quite
specific ideological purpose, to unite professional
philosophers through a new legitimating consensus
promising better protection in a hostile world. The
project is funded by the Federal Government and
supported by the APA in its pursuit of the interests
of the profession within the system. It would be
naive to expect anything genuinely ‘radical’ to
emerge under such auspices. For that one must look
elsewhere, and indeed, the ‘Contemporary Philosophy’

syllabus is most interesting for what it leaves out.

The most striking omission is the tendency whose
major ‘contemporary’ representatives are Luk~cs and
Sartre, and from an earlier period, Feuerbach, Marx,
and Engels. What is excluded is the tradition of
Left Hegelianism, the only substantial body of radical
philosophy we possess. It is the only substantial
body of such philosophy in that it is the only one
wi th the authority and resources to mount a serious
challenge to the new consensus in the academy. My
proposal for RadicaL PhiLosophy is that it should
devote itself to developing this challenge and carrying it to success. This is how it should solve the
problem of acquiring a positive identity.

Perhaps the most depressing feature of the developing crisis in academic philosophy is the insigificance of the role played by the magazine in bringing it
about. Throughout the decade of its existence it has
been a marginal factor on the British philosophical
scene, an object lesson in the ease with which a
hegemonic tendency can ignore or patronize alternatives. This situation can be acknowledged without any
false modesty. The worst that can be said about the
general level of contributions is that it has been
fully representative of the standard of British
intellectual life in the period. Moreover, there
have been heartening exceptions to the rule, so that
we need not fear the comic embarrassment shown in
1976 by the commentators trying to find recent traces
of intellectual distinction in Mind. It nevertheless
remains the case that we have failed to present any
serious threat to the official philosophical culture,
or even to make a significant dent in its selfconfidence. If this is now beginning to shatter, it
owes little to our efforts. The work that has been
published qualifies the magazine to be situated as
another journal of ‘Left Theory’, distinguished from
the rest by occasional excursions into officially
neglected areas of philosophy. All this lends an
uncomfortable edge to the gibe that what has been
philosophical in it has not been radical, and what
has been radical has had little to do with philosophy.

At any rate, we have failed to make the contribution
for which we were uniquely qualified and situated, to
develop a radical philosophy for this time and place.

It is, of course, not simply an intellectual failure.

Important elements of the dominant ideology have
their roots in, and derive their show of authority
from, what passes for philosophy in the academy.

The struggle for a radical philosophy is a struggle
to shift the centre of gravity of a strategic element
of the culture. The poZ-lticaZ significance of this
struggle hardly needs to be insisted on at length.

The detailed implications of what is being proposed
will emerge only in the course of more sustained discussion than is possible now. There is, however, no
reason to fear that in practice it may lead to a programme conceived of along narrow or dogmatic lines.

On any interpretation there must always be room for
discussion of the various forms of ‘radical’ opposition to the project of Left Hegelianism, such as, for
instance, the enduring sub-plot that prefers to draw
its inspiration from Kant, as well as the tendency to
see all Hegelian influence as a symptom of infantile
disorder. Moreover, the proposal should serve to
uncover new sources of aid and encouragement. Most
notably, there is the Hegel revival, now at last
getting seriously under way in this country, with
the British Hegel Society as an institutional focus.

It must be an important part of our task to form
links of mutual support with the ‘Young-Hegelian’

elements in this development. Admittedly, it is as
yet hardly a tidal wave. But it is at least a strong
current and one that is fed by springs from deep in
our intellectual history. Their significance has for
too long been obscured by the deformed and enfeebled
view of the past imposed by the analytical movement.

Yet, in trying to make a realistic assessment of what
is possible in the present situation, we do well to
remember that it is less than a century since a
version of Hegelianism was the dominant force in
British philosophy. It is vital to ensure that when
this occurs again, it will be a Hegelianism with a
difference that emerges to set the tone of research
and discussion.

If RadicaL PhiLosophy decides on a new identity
along the lines suggested here, it will not, of
course, mean any overnight change in the quality and
character of work submitted for publication. But in
the longer term we shall certainly benefit from
clearer public perceptions of what we represent, and
from the fresh sources of support that will then be
available. In areas more directly subject to the
control of the Collective, the effects should be
immediate. The key issue here is the dialectics
project, now dormant after a short spell of activity.

It must be revived and made the main focus of our
efforts. The project serves to encapsulate a major
portion of the unfinished philosophical business of
the Hegel-Marx nexus, and it constitutes the critical
test of the enduring philosophical importance of that
nexus. If it turns out, after all, not to be intellectually viable, the idea of ‘radical philosophy’ is
doomed to lack substance, and the phrase itself had
best be acknowledged as a rhetorical hangover from an
earlier time. The implication will have to be drawn
that our philosophy has nothing distinctive to contribute to our radicalism, and that we may as well go
on cultivating them in separate boxes. But it would
be unwarranted and pusillanimous to conclude in
advance that this must be so. l~at my proposal
amounts to is that RadicaL PhiLosophy should become
the house journal of ‘the materialist friends of the
idealist dialectic’, and that it should struggle to
win for the problematic underlying that description a
central place in British philosophy. I believe that
this proposal will unite the collective around a goal
which it can have a rational hope of attaining, and
one whose attainment has the largest significance for
ways of thought and life in this society.

Joe McCarney



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