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British Society for the History of Philosophy; Philosophers for Peace; The Question of Postmodernity; Chomsky Smear Campaign; Tomin; Royal Institute Lectures

News

British Society for the
History of Philosophy

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Every few years since the war, a British Society for the
History of something-or-other has been set up. This wlll
form an interesting study for the future historian of academe, as reveallng in its way as the flurry of scientific,
phllosophical and llterary societies in early nineteenthcentury Britain. It is now the turn of the History of PhilosOphy. The inaugural meeting of the British Society for this
was held on Aprll 12-13 1985 at Westwood Hall, University
of Leeds, where the magnolla about to bloom outside the
front door symbollsed the hopeful anticipation within.

If expectations ran high, that was owing to the initial
proclamation of the Society’s specIfic aims, which included
– co-operation with historians of science, polltics, theology, law, literature and other kindred studies, and with historians of philosophy from overseas, on matters of common
interest
– the reappraisal of all aspects of the ‘received tradition’, exploring new approaches to the subject and new or
neglected aspects of it
– the raising of historiographical questions, including
questions about the history of the teaching of philosophy
and about the teaching of its history
– the study of the relation of philosophy to its past,
exploring the insights to be derived from both analytic and
historical approaches, and raising the awareness of continuing. developments in the history of phllosophy among phllosophers themselves and other students of the humanities.

Given that it is always easier to draw up a manIfesto
than to put it into practice, it is perhaps unsurprising that
not all these admirable aims could receive equal attention
during the inaugural meeting. Rather, the organising committee chose a selection of papers to be read which revealed
implki tly certain dIffering approaches to the history of phllosophy, without laying great stress either on what these
approaches might be, or in what spirit of critical reflectiveness they were held. But it was possible to infer that one
current approach is very much of the ‘history of ideas’ traditlon, wherein philosophical ideas are somewhat detached
from their historical context, and the relation to other phllosophkal ideas is the important thing.

Another approach seems to be to discuss current philosophkal debates which might have some bearing (unspecified) on the enterprise of the history of philosophy. It is, of
course, most valuable for members of the Society to tackle
questions about what the subject of the Society is, how it
should be done and what difficulties attend the enterprise.

But it is less clear that the best way of doing this, in the
context of an inaugural meeting, was through a so-called
‘Symposiurn( (i.e. two lengthy papers instead of one) on
Translation. This did highlight, though, the extent to which
the relationship between phllosophy and history of phllosophy is “likely to continue to be a fertlle source of creative
tension at the heart of the Society’s activities.

(In the early years of the Histury of Education Society,
Asa Briggs gave a talk on ‘The Study of the History of Education’ (v. History of Education, Vol. 1 (1972), pp. 5-22), in
which he outllned various historical approaches particularly
relevant to the Society’s concerns. Perhaps a congenial way
of introducing historiographical reflection to the activities
of the BSHP would be to invite a historian to address a
meeting sometime soon?)
The only paper which appeared to be even aware that
this was the inaugural meeting of a society (and the only
one to address explicitly one of the Society’s specIfic aims)
was Jonathan Ree’s, on the history of phllosophy teaching
and popular perceptions of phllosophy. Perhaps, indeed, it
was the only paper written or tailored for the occasion; for
one must recognise the perennial tension at such conferences between the requirements of topic or subject-matter,
and the needs of individuals to seek outlet and audience for
their work.

Once one is reminded that philosophy has a history, and
historic traditions of teaching and promulgation, a reiated
question springs to mind that the Society could usefully jiscuss one of these days. What are the historic roots of the
tradition whereby people should read out, for long stretcnf”,
of time, prepared texts which are patently designed as written prose? Conference-attenders on almost anything will be
famillar with this tradition, of course, but If the BSHP is to
reappraise ‘received tradition’ this would be a good place to
start. This tradition has further corollaries. Not a single
speaker at this conference, for instance, proved capable of
writing a text that could be read within the tima allotted.

(In Jonathan Ree’s case, a fluent and lucid delivery was
interspersed with instant timing judgements which left the
impression somewhat of Achllles and the Kangaroo.) It is not
clear whose interests are served by this written prose tradition: papers which are accessible and stimulating when read
by someone, privately and at their own pace, become incomprehensible and stupefying when read to them, If the
author has made no attempt to compose spoken rather than
written prose. Almost all speakers (i.e. readers) proved much
better able to explain clearly what they were trying to say,
once they had liberated themselves from their texts, in discussion. Perhaps the BSHP will give some consideration to
the advantages of movIng towards pre-cIrculatlon of papers,
which affords much greater opportunities for discussion and
understanding.

InterestIng tImes lIe ahead for the Society, th,~!).

Whether it will become the forum for widespread IlvE’h’ i 1-

43

volvement in the subjed, or another outlet tor philosophical
reflection about philosophical ideas, lies in the hands of the
committee and the members. To judge by the inaugural
meeting, could go either way.

John Fauvel

******************************************************
Membership detalls of the British Society for the History of
Philosophy may be obtained from:

Alan Holland, BSHP
Department of Phllosophy
University of Lancaster
Bowland College
Lancaster LA 1 4YT

A t the 1983 World Congress of Phllosophy a new L’ JUp,
International Phllosophers for the Prevention of Nuclear
Omnlcide (IPPNO) was formed, open equally to all countries.

Its first International Conference wlll be held in the United
States in 1986 under the Presidency of Professor John
Somerville, with an International Organizing Committee representing all major countries and all philosophical viewpoints.

Its primary purpose is dialogue for mutual understanding
and peace among countries with differing ideologies and
social systems. Five conference days are planned for Plenary
Sessions, Symposia and Workshops. All proceedings will be
open to the educational community.

Papers of not more than 20 minutes reading time are
sollcited from scholars in any discipline related to the prevention of nuclear conflict.

For further details and draft prospectus of the Conference wr ite to
Professor John Somervllle
1426 V1erritt Drive, El Cajon, California 92020
(619) 447-1641

Philosophers for Peace
News has reached us of two recently formed peace groups
specifically concerned with the philosophical issues at stake
in the pe2ce movement; Phllosophers for Peace and International Phllosophers for the Prevention of Nuclear csrnriTcide (IPPNO). For the information of R.P readers, we reproduce below extracts from their publlclty material and contact addresses.

‘Phllosophers for l-‘eace is .•• a decentralised globai
communication network to help facilitate the effective sharing of ideas, perspectives and research alllOng
all those people in terested in exploring the phllosophlcal issues involved in the whole questi0n of
peace in the widest sense.

The idea is to compile an informal network regIster to be circulated to all participants (the first of
which is in the initial stages of compilation) listing
all those wishing to take part in the network and
giving some idea of their activlties and areas of research. This will enable participants to contact one
another via the mail etc. (and wherever possible in
person) and to explore areas of mutual concern. It is
thus hoped to facilitate the fruitful exchange of
ideas concerning the philosophy of peace between
people all over the world, including areas which do
not normally intercommunicate very effectively.

The network register, which will be updated regularly, is also planned to function as an information
exchange whereby participants can give brief details
of the continuing activities and research, as well as
sharing news of any detailed communications which
may be taking place among them. This will enable all
participants to keep in touch with one another in
general and to know which contacts to explore in.

‘greater depths. It is al50 hoped to share reading lists
etc. via the register.

The aim is to have no formal membershi? or organisational structure per se, but rather to build up an
organic network based on open sharing and cornmunication. It is hoped that meeting5, discussion groups,
workshops, conferences and who knows what else will
emerge naturally and spontaneously through the personal initiative of participants.’

For further information contact:

Phllosophers for Peace
clo Thomas C. I)affern, 108 Ledbury Road,
London Wl1 2AH
telephone 01-229 0174
44

The Question of
postmodernity
I here has been much lalk (and not a little wr i ting) of late,
among both philosophers and cultural critics, of ‘postmodernity’, the ‘postmodern’ age, and other related terms of epochal cultural diagnosis. The term ‘postmodern’. was original1y
popularised by the American architectural critic, Charles
Jencks, back in 1968 in his book The Language of Postmodernist Architecture where it was used to characterise a
particular architectural aesthetic. More recently, however,
it has rapidly become part of the common currency of intellectual exchange in a much more generalised sense. In this
sense, it is used not simply as an aesthetic category, even a
general one, but as a designation for a whole new cultural
epoch, manifestations of which, it is argued, may be found
not merely in the arts, but in science, technology, and most
fundamentally, in the very idea of knowledge as well.

The process of generalisation of the idea has been
closely tied up with, although not exclusive to, the development of post-structuralism as a philosophical movement in
France. It has received its most extended elaboration to
date in Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition:

A Report on Knowledge (1979), an English translation of
which has recently been published by V1anchester University
Press, in their History and Theory of Literature Series, Vol.

10, 1984. One of its rnost vigorous critics h2′> been JUrgen
Habermas, the Frankfurt critical theorist. In a number of
recent papers and interviews Habermas has been concerned
to re-emphasise the dialectical character of the original
Frankfurt critique of Enlighten:nent, and to oppose himself
directly to current developments in French and American
·cultural theory.

To its philosophical proponents, the idea of the postmodern or of postmodernlty seems to mark the achievement
of a final (Heideggerian) break with all those modes of cultural experience grounded upon that false ‘metaphysics of
presence’ and the related ‘fallacy of constitutive subjectivity’ which, according to Heidegger, has characterised the
whole Western tradition since Plato (and possibly before). It
registers an almost apocalyptically liberating event, albeit
one which is liberating in an essentially different way from
that in which the. idea of emancipation has tradi tionally
been construed – the idea of a revolutionary subject being,
for the postmodernists, a paradigm of the fallacy of COJ1-

stitutive subjectivity. Thus, for example, Lyotard, launching
what amounts to something of a crusade on behalf of the
postmodern and its phl1osophical representatIve the ‘unpresentable’ beseeches hIs readers: ‘Let us wage war on
totality; let us be witness to the unpresentable •..• ‘

Not surprisIngly, especIally gIven its Heideggerian orIgin,
critics of the movement see It as a dangerously reactIonary
phenomenon, reproducing at the level of phl1osophlcal obscurantIsm a variant of the neo-conservatism of DanIel Bell
and those other cultural critics of the polltical rIght who
have espoused the cause of postmodernism In the arts. There
are, of course, as in any confrontatIon of thIs kInd, people
trying to mediate between the two positIons. PrIncIpally,
those llke the American MarxIst, Frederlck Jameson, who
has attempted to rescue somethIng of the culture caUed
‘postmodern’ from the InterpretatIons of the phl1osophlcal
postmodernlsts. But the basIc phl1osophlcal antagonIsm remaIns. The ultImate coherence of Jameson’s strategy of
d1alectical reappropriatIon, In fact (see, for example, hIs
‘Postmodernlsm, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitallsm’,
New Left RevIew 146) would seem to depend upon some as
yet unestabllshed phl1osophlcal synthesis.

It was In the context of these debates that the Institute
of Contemporary Arts organIsed another of theIr weekend
conferences In London at the InstItute In May. The title was
sImply ‘The Quest10n of Postmodernity’. It was planned that
the philosophIcal issues be consIdered on the first day wIth
the more restrlctedly cultural or specIfically aesthetIc ones
being addressed the followIng day. As usual, the ICA managed to marshal an ImpressIve body of partIcIpants for its
rotating panel over the four sessIons, aU of which, held In
the maIn audItorium, were sold out.

The maIn speaker for the fIrst sessIon was Lyotard. He
spoke In French to the maIn topic of the conference, and
was gIven a perIodic trailslatlon by Geoff Bennlngton, cotranslator of hIs book, who sat besIde hIm and took hIs talk
down verbat1m. The rest of the panel, who each gave extended responses to hIs talk, Included Phlllppe LacoueLabarthe, a French Heldeggerlan, Terry Eagleton, MartIn
Jay, and Peter Dews. In the afternoon, Jay gave a paper on
the prImacy of the vIsual in modernIsm and its antIcIpated
decline.In the postmodern era. The same system of takIng
responses from the panel, wIth the speaker replyIng before
letting In the audIence, was adopted.

The spectacular character of the ICA conference routine has already been noted recently In RP (see ‘CrossIng the
Channel’, RP 40) and I shall not dwell upon 1t here. Except
to mentIon that thIs was the most exhaust1ng of spectacles.

During the Lyotard sessIon, for example, it was two and a
half hours, wIthout a break, before the chair (Alan Monteflore) turned to the audIence for questIons. ThIs was dIspIriting. Not least because of the number of ostensIbly quite
different conceptions and perlod1sations of ‘the postmodern’

that were at play In the discussIon without beIng clarIfied
or expllcitly related to one another. GIven the conference
title, to whIch Lyotard addressed hImself, thIs was also surprIsing, sInce itnj~ht be supposed that ‘the questIon of
postmodernlty’ 1s at least to begIn wIth, and especIally at
th1s stage In the debate, a question of defInItIon and conceptual clarIficatIon. Lyotard’s talk, It is true, was structured around an exposition of three different senses of
‘postmodern’. But no real attempt was made to relate these
to each other or to analyse them.

Lyotard 1s actuaUy as responsible as anyone for the confusion that currently prevaIls in the literature of the philosophIcal postmoderns on thIs just point, offerIng two quite
d1fferent periodisations of the postmodern age with1n the
first four pages of hIs book. The tensIon wlth1n the concept
created by these dIfferent perlod1sat1ons (which reflects a
fundamental ambIvalence of the postmodernlsts towards modernIsm, and how to understand that) underlay the whole
day’s dIscussion without ever really beIng d1rectly confronted. Peter Dews, 1n h1s Habermaslan defense of an enlargened conceptIon of Enlightenment rat1onality, d1d however spell out the opposit1on’s perspective on the matter.

But there was not so much a debate between the proponents
and opponents of the idea of postmodernlty, as a repeated
statement of opposed positIons on an Issue the nature of
whIch was Itself far from clear.

One could not help feeling that It was both the centralIty of Lyotard himself to the proceedIngs, and the centrallty
of hIs work to the way In which the whole 1ssue of postmodern1sm has been generaUy receIved, that was the major
stumblIng block to the clarIfIcation of what Is at stake In
the debate over the concept of the postmodern. For just as
throughout hIs recent book Lyotard contInually contradicts
hImself In hIs efforts to pre-emptor l1y counter antIcIpated
crItIcIsms of hIs positIon, so throughout the weekend at the
ICA, both the Images he evoked In defence of hIs posItIon
and the presuppositIons of hIs dIscourse contInually subverted the poInts he was tryIng to make. Thus, for example,
he spoke of post modernIsm 1n arch1tecture as a symptom and
result of the ‘tragedy’ of archItecture’s loss of its ritual
functIon of ‘render1ng homage’, and as beIng comparable to
the last dance on the Titanic. Yet It Is precIsely the functIon of the exposure of the ‘fallacy’ of constItutIve subjectIvIty and of the essentIally contradIctory character of all
legItImatIng dIscourses, to which he Is committed, to undermIne any such notIon of tragedy. Slml1arly, hIs extremely
loose analogIcal use of psychoanalytic categor1es such as
‘workIng through’ to descrIbe the emergence of post modernIsm out of modernIsm would seem to be grounded upon a
concept of subjectlv1ty to wh1ch he Is expllcitly opposed.

Yet It Is only by vIrtue of such systematIc ambivalence that
Lyotard’s posItIon seems to be able to exert any rhetorIcal
force at all.

The second day’s two sessIons, on post modernIsm In
archItecture and in the ‘fIne’ and ‘popular’ arts, respectIvely, were more productIve. Kenneth Frampton’s paper on critIcal reglonallsm as a counter-strategy to postmodernlsm In
architecture was, for me, the hIgh poInt of the weekend. At
least In the archItectural debate, one felt, there Is a clear
conceptIon of what the whole controversy Is abo!lt. Both the
very hIgh level of generallty at which It has so far been
formulated, and the studIously evasIve stance of Its proponents towards its further clarIficatIon, suggest that phl1osophlcal postmodernism wlll remaIn, at least for the moment,
a prImarily aesthetIc phenomenon.

Peter Osborne

Chomsky Smear
Campaign
There is, It seems, a sustaIned attempt beIng made to dIscredit Noam Chomsky, the well-known American phl1osopher,
llngulst, pol1tical analyst and human rIghts actIvIst, whose
most recent book, The Fateful TrIangle, sets out a powerful
crit1que of US – IsraelI foreIgn policy. AccordIng to an artIcle by Alan Ward In the (US) GuardIan 0.4.85) systematic
attempts have recently been made to stop Chomsky from
speakIng at a number of American unIversItIes. WhIle when
he spoke at the UnIversity of MichIgan last October, leaflets
printed In the same unusual typeface as the talk’s offIcIal
publlclty were handed out to the audience descrIbIng Chomsky as ‘dIshonest’ and ‘mad’ and claimIng, among other
thIngs, that he denIes the exIstence of the holocaust.

The orIgInator of thIs claIm, reprInted 1n the leaflet
from an editorial in the magazIne The New Republ1c,
appears to be the BritIsh llngulst Geoffrey Sampson. Sampson has vlllfled Chomsky at length both In an artIcle 1n the
October 1984 issue of the rIght-wIng magazIne The New
Cr1ter1on and, orIgInally, In h1s entry on Chomsky in the

45

hardback edItIon of the book TwentIeth Century Culture,
edIted by Alan Bu11ock. In both these pIeces, along wIth the
holocaust claIm, Chomsky Is accused of persIstently tryIng
to minImise the Khmer Rouge atrocities In CambodIa. Whl1e
in the former of the two pIeces it is further claImed (incorrectly) that, in direct contradIctIon to his stated belief
In the prInciple of free speech, Chomsky threatened to InitIate llbel actIon agaInst the projected US paperback edutlon
of Twentieth Century Culture.

The holocaust claIm and the suggestIon that Chomsky’s
attItude to free speech Is hypocrItIcal are connected. Both
go back to the Incident four years ago when Chomsky crItIcIsed the arrest and trial of the French teacher Robert
Faurlsson (who did deny the realIty of the holocaust) for
‘falslflca tIon of history’, on the grounds of his bellef in the
general principle of academIc freedom and the rights of free
expression. The suggestion that this action implied an endorsement of Faurisson’s views was made at the time, and
‘expllcitly repudiated by Chomsky, who has described the
holocaust as ‘the most fantastIc outburst of co11ective insanity in human history’. Sampson’s suggestion that Chomsky
has attempted to restrict his right to free expression (by
threatening libel) is clearly intended to reinforce the claim
that Chomsky shares Faurission’s views. The reiteration of
‘this claim at the present time, despite Chomsky’s explIcit
rebuttal of it, in conjunction with the charge of hypocrisy,
can only be interpreted as a deliberate misrepresentation of
Chomsky’s ideas designed to discredit him so as to direct
attention away from his criticIsms of IJS foreign pollcy.

Chomsky, incidenta11y, as a polIcy of never engaging in
lIbel suits on his own behalf. His ‘censorship’ of Sampson’s
views about him consisted of sending Bu110ck documentary
evidence to the effect that Sampson’s entry In Twentieth
Century Culture was a fabrIcation. Bu110ck asked Sampson
. to revIse it, and on his refusal, replaced it. The hardback
editIon, however, continues to circulate with Sampson’s
entry in it. Meanwhl1e, in response to Chomsky’s making
these facts public, in a letter to The New Republic, publlshed in a shortened version two months after it was
recleved, Sampson has suggested that Chomsky’s defence of
hImself to Bu110ck was in any case the moral equivalent of a
lawsuIt!

Both Sampson’s success in launching a campaign of character assassin a tlon agaInst Chomsky (after having initially
been a serious crItic of Chomsky’s work – for whIch, see the
revIew of his Liberty and Language by Russell Keat In
RP25), and the harassment to whIch Chomsky has been subjected on some US campuses as a result, are disturbing evIdence of the politIcal clImate In Reagan’s America. The fact
that Sampson’s a11egations were accepted into the fIrst edItion of Bullock’s book In the first place is surprising, at the
least.

Tomin
Jullus T omln, the exIle Czech phl1osopher part of whose
reply to t1artln Walker’s GuardIan articles on phl1osophy In
BrItain was publlshed In RP 37, flnally succeeded In obtaIning a teaching positIon InBritain when he became a visItIng
lecturer in phl1osophy at SaInt David’s UnIversity Co11ege,
Lampeter at the beginnIng of the year. TakIng the opportunity offered by his positIon to reflect upon his experience of
phllosophy in Oxford, where he had llved for the previous
fIve years, Tomin had the fo11owing to say, in the Lampeter
Newsletter of Aprl1 1985:

In the, West, to wrIte anything worth publlshlng today
presupposes an enormous study of secondary lltera46

ture; it Is like a cancerous tumour in the body of the
human inte11ect; It blocks the experience of vig’orous
contemplation •••• at Oxford the dons are preoccupied
wIth bul1ding an edifIce of second rate and second
hand materIal ••.• the last five years have been the
most instructive of my Hfe. I have been with people
of the highest niveau of theIr kind; but somehow
even they have lost touch wIth the Greek writers.

Thanks to the work of generatIons of scholars, we
now have the definitive texts, yet paradoxlca11y Instead of freeIng the words, scholarshIp has kl11ed
them and modern scholars are preoccupIed with Irrelevancies.

Hardly a revelation to RP readers, but it’s InterestIng to
hear it from Tomln, initlally so predIsposed to be sympathetic to Inte11ectual culture at Oxford. His experIence of
Oxford, in fact, seems to have considerably strengthened hIs
emphasis on the potential social function of phl1osophy,
apparent in hIs pIece in RP 37, by some kind of negative
reinforcement. Speaking of hIs experIence in BrItaIn, he
remarks that ‘I pursue a11 my work In BritaIn In such a way
as to become useful to my country after returnIng to It’.

ThIs Is, of course, precisely what Tomln is denIed by the
Czech authorIties. He is, however, currently renewIng hIs
campaign to return to CzechoslovakIa. Anyone wIshIng to
add their voIce to the campaIgn Is InvIted to write directly
to the t1lnister of Internal AffaIrs in Prague, requesting hIs
reInstatement as a Czech citizen.

Royal Institute Lectures
Two Boards, A.E.B, and J.M.B., now offer Phl1osophy Alevels. The Royal Institute of PhIlosophy has taken an InterestIng InitIative in this. They have arranged theIr 1985/86
serIes of lectures on the texts prescrIbed by these Boards.

The lecturers concerned are Invited to make them accessIble
to those without prevIous acquaintance with phl1osophy. The
.lectures are gIven at 14 Gordon Square on FrIdays at 5.45.

The programme starts on 11 October with Plato’s RepublIc
and runs through chronologica11y (ArIstotle, Descartes, Hume,
Marx, MW, Nietzsche, Russe11, Ayed to Sartre on 28
February. Then the serIes concludes wIth a lecture on Hume
by the organIser Godfrey Vesey. The lectures wl11 be
publlshed by Cambridge UnIversity Press.

‘SOTle of the cartoons in this issue are once more from
Cumhuriyet, Turkey’s only remaIning independent daily newspaper. The Turkish MInistry of Culture’s bool<burning activIties (reported brIefly In RP38) continue unabated. The entire
stock of the Turkish publlshlng house 'Ege' 033,000 copIes),
'acquitted' In a recent trial, somehow ended up pulped by
the state paper company anyway. Meanwhile, the IslamIc
fundamentallst MInister of 'National' Education has banned
the teachIng of Darwin In TurkIsh schools, and ordered the
rewrItIng of 1200 school textbooks from a 'national' perspective. 'National' phl1osophy in the universities to fol1ow?

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