Bambrough: Moral Scepticism and Moral Knowledge
Renford Bambrough, Moral Scepticism and Moral
Knowledge, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979
I read this book with some nostalgia. It was through
Bambrough’s lectures and teaching on this and other
topics that I was introduced to philosophy when I was
a student. What attracted me then was his firm and
bold commitment to definite philosophical theses. He
was not afraid to advance general theories, at a
time when too many philosophers were immersed in the
minutiae of detailed analysis. This book has the
same positive qualities. It is a vigorous defence
of moral objectivism (and is interestingly read
alongside J.L. Mackie’s recent book Ethics: Inventing
Right and Wrong, which does the same for subjectivism).
Bambrough’s defence rests in part on an appeal to
common sense, in the spirit of G.E. Moore. This has
its obvious dangers. Readers of Radical Philosoohy
will not need to be reminded of the sorts of ideological rationalisations and prejudices that can
masquerade as ‘common sense’.
‘I knOv that here is
a hand’ is all very well. There is a case for sayinr
that, at this basic ontological level, to reject
common sense is to reject the very possibility of
shared rational discourse. Can wc, however, be so
confident of the dictates of moral common sense?
Bambrough’s moral example is ‘We knO\’ that this child,
who is about to undergo Khat would otherwise be painful surgery, should be given an anaesthetic before
the operation. Therefore we know at least onc moral
proposition to be true.’ But what about, say, ‘Wc
know that adultery is immoral’? This may be
asserted with just the same degree of conviction,
the same widely shared unanimity, and the same sense
that this is epistemological bedrock, that further
reasons neither need nor can be given. F.H. Bradley,
indeed, used this very example in precisely this way.
Clearly, however, one person’s common sense is
another person’s nonsense.
To be fair, however, Bambrough does not rely
straightforwardly on the appeal to common sense. He
employs it only in the context of other kinds of
argument. These other arguments arc essentially
concerned with responding to the claim that there
are special features of moral discourse which rule
out objectivism. Bambrough’s response is two-fold.
In part he accepts that there are features which
moral discourse possesses to a special degree, and
to which an adequate objectivism must do justice.
At a more general level, however, he wants to insist
that these supposed special features are in fact
shared by other kinds of discourse. Scientific discourse, for example, and indeed logical argument in
general, is normative, involves emotional commitment,
leaves the participants free to disagree and to form
their own opinions, and so on. Therefore it cannot
plausibly be claimed that moral discourse, because
it has these features, must contain no objective
truths. And in arguing this point Bambrough is, I
think, at his best.
So far his point is a negative one: moral scepticism cannot be defended on the grounds of alleged
differences between moral discourse and other kinds
of discourse. I become more doubtful when he puts
the same kind of argument to a more positive use,
and seems to suggest that the parallels between
morality and other forms of reasoning can actually
serve to refute scepticism. lIe seems to imply that
the absurdity of scepticism about, say, accepting
the validity of a deductive inference may, as it
were, rub off on moral scepticism.
I am not sure
that the parallelism can be used in that way.
Scepticism about logical validity is surely more
basic than moral scepticism, because it is concerned
with the more formal features of arguments, and
therefore app1 i es to all arguments 1:ncluding moral
arguments. As such it is more easily answered, for
the sceptic is compelled to abandon it as soon as he
engages in any argument at all. On the other hand,
the moral sceptic can engage in some kinds of argument while still hanging on to his scepticism about
specificall;/ moral arguments.
No completely general a~guments about the nature
of practical reasoning can, it seems to mc, establish
the thesis of moral subjectivism, and Bambrough shows
this very effectively. But I also think that no
completely general arguments can establish the
thesis of moral objectivism. The only way to try
to settle the issue is to look at the actual content
of practical reasoning, to look and see whether
there arc disagreements (e.g. between utilitarians
and deontologists) of which we have to say that no
further evidence or argument could conceivably
resolve them. This Bambrough never does. His whole
discussion remains relentlessly meta-ethical.
Despite his insistence that we do possess moral
knowledge, he gives almost no indication of what the
content of this knowledge might be. I suppose this
is because he believes that it is essentially a
knowledge of particular cases – he thinks that
practical reasoning typically takes the form ‘This
action must be wrong, because it is like that one,
and we know that that one is wrong.’ Nevertheless
this stress on particularity should not prevent him
from generalizing about what kinds of activity tenG
to be rationally defensible or unjustifiable. It
did not deter Aristotle from doing so, and I would
think that Bambrough would be happy to take
Aristotle as a model.
Schrader-Frechette: Nuclear Power and Public Policy
K.S. Schrader-Frechette, Nuclear Power and Public
Policy, D. Reidel, 1980, $19.95 hc, $10.50 pb.
If there were a major accident in one of the present
generation of US nuclear reactors, the devastation
caused would be equivalent to that of 1000 Hiroshimas,
There would be 45,000 immediate deaths, and 100,000
cases of cancer, genetic damage and other injury.
A vast area of the country would be contaminated and
property damage would run to as much as $17 billion.
There are now 65 nuclear plants operating in the USA,
and 70 more are under construction.
This book explores the ethical and political
implications of using nuclear technology to generate
electricity. The author’s aim is to expose inconsistencies and fallacies in the arguments of those
who insist that we should follow the nuclear road.
Two kinds of criticism in particular are levelled
against them. They are accused of espousing a
utilitarian ethic and of committing the naturalistic
Utilitarianism is a convenient posture for those
who believe that technology is an essentially liberating force. In this context it is wielded to argue
that the harm done to the ‘minority’ (including
future generations) who are damaged by a nuclear
accident is outweighed hy the henefits of the nuclear
option to society as a whole. Against this the
author argues that individual rights are inalienable,
and enshrined in the American Constitution. In other
words, she insists that the minority rights to health
and safety in the case of a nuclear accident must he
protected. She shows that current US legislation
fails to do this, and is grotesquely hiassed in
favour of the nuclear industry, whose interests
allegedly correspond with those of society as a whole.
The naturalistic fallacy – deriving ‘bught’ from
‘is’ – also plays a significant role in the defence
of nuclear power. On the basis of a contentious
scientific estimate of the (allegedly low) risk of an
accident, i.e. of what the risk is, it is asserted
that the risk ought to be accepted. This does not
follow. For the actual consequences of an accident,
no matter how unlikely, may be so horrendous as to
outweigh the argument that the risk is worth taking
– particularly when alternative, safer forms of
energy production have been proposed.
The rigid constraints imposed on a productive
system by an ‘advanced’ technology are nowhere more
apparent than in the case of nuclear power. Even if
we wanted to, we could not shut down every nuclear
plant tomorrow. In Britain there are 27 of them
operating or planned into our energy grid. At this
stage alternative energy sources cannot replace them
– which is hardly surprising since in the USA, for
example, 83% of government funds have gone nuclear’s
way. What’s more, even if we did switch to alternative energy sources by 2000, say, the problem of
disposing of nuclear waste will remain with us for
literally thousands of years! No satisfactory
storage system has yet been developed. In the
interim we face considerable risks of contamination
and genetic damage from leaks from the present
Some readers of RP may dislike Shrader-Frechette’s
emphasis on individual (bourgeois?) rights, as
enshrined in the American Constitution, and the
polemical use to which she puts it. It would be a
pity if that were to prejudice their perception of
this hook. It is an invaluable and fascinating
piece of applied philosophy in a crucial area of
puhlic policy. I found it compelling reading.
Mouffe: Grarnsci and Marxist Theory
C. Mouffe (ed.), Gramsci and Marxist Theory,
Routledge and Kegan Paul, £9.50 hc, £5.95 pb
This is both an excellent collection of essays and
one which is extremely valuable for the English
reader. Translated here for the first time, in a
readable, idiomatic English, are a number of recent
and influential interpretative essays on Gramsci
which for too long have been beyond the reach of an
insular English eye. Thus the collection opens with
Norberto Bobbio’s classic analysis (‘Gramsci and the
Concept of Civil Society’) delivered to the first
Congress on Gramsci studies in Italy in the late
1960s, and which has provided the reference point
for a good many engagements with Gramsci in the past
decade. It is clear that the editor of the collection, Chantal Mouffe, has a number of disagreements
with Bobbio, as with many of the authors of the
essays presented here. Some of these divergences
are touched on, briefly but informatively, in the
Introduction. But on the whole the reader is
offered a range of conflicting assessments of
Gramsci: true perhaps to the pluralist spirit of the
editor, there is no attempt at synthesis, no attempt
to conclude by presenting ‘the’ Gramsci. Side by
side stands Leonardo Paggi’s Gramsci (‘Gramsci’s
General Theory of Marxism’), as recuperated and
endorsed by the editors of the journal Telos, with
Chantal Mouffe’s own paper (‘Hegemony and Ideology
in Gramsci’) which has its origins firmly in postalthusserianism, and which concludes with an invocation to Foucault and Derrida. The only common
element in these essays is the concern ~ as the
title of the book emphasizes – with Gramsci’s contribution to marxist theory, and without exception
all of the essays carefully and usefully illuminate
particular aspects of this theme.
This explicit attention to marxist theory, and
the investigations into the philosophical framework
of Gramsci’s marxism, do nothing to obscure the
politics of the project – which in many respects is
sharpened by this serious attention to conceptual
issues. I can think of no other work in English
which tackles as cogently as this the specific
theoretical transformations which occurred in
Gramsci’s rethinking of marxism. And it must be a
tribute to Gramsci that theory and politics were so
intimately connected in his own work that any assessment of the nature of his theoretical revolution
carries with it quite immediate consequences for
contemporary politics. In her Introduction, Chantal
Mouffe raises the questions of Gramsci’s relation to
Lenin and leninism; the pertinency of his distinction
between East and West, and to what e?Ctent Gramsci may
be seen as a theorist of the West; the role of
eurocommunism; and finally, Gramsci’s conception of
socialism itself. And, as she rightly notes at the
very start of the book, the variant appropriations
and claims on Gramsci have never been dissociable
from the strategies of the Italian Communist Party
and the legacy of the shifting elements of the
Gramsci legend inspired by Palmiro Togliatti.
Out of this enormous variety of theoretical and
political questions only a few can be mentioned here.
The implicit weight of these essays, as a whole,
tends to undermine the instrumental ism characteristic
of some of the earliest commentaries on Gramsci which
emerged from Britain and North America. The concept
of the expanded or integral state – viewing the
state as a complex formation, internally traversed
by a set of antagonisms, constituted on the principle
of universalism – is examined in its different
aspects by the majority of the authors. The gravitational pull of this approach, which I think exists
in the logic of Gramsci’s own theorizing, is towards
a ne~ theory of state power within marxism – although
this is certainly not to ignore the fundamental precedents inaugurated by earlier marxists with whom
Gramsci was in constant theoretical dialogue; the
fact of this dialogue is clear not only from his
early political journalism, but also from those magnificent and penetrating reflections recorded in his
Prison Notebooks. Interconnected with his rethinking
of the state is the problem of the consensual determinations within class domination, a dimension
located not only within the private sphere (civil
society), but of the state itself. This is raised
most centrally in the essay by Chantal Mouffe.
Paralleling many of the themes of Ernesto Laclau’s
Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory Chantal
Mouffe insists on the non-class-belonging of ideological elements as a key moment in the theoretical
shift away from a class reductionist analysis. Thus
she tends to think hegemony not as a dominant world
view, nor as cultural or ideological inculcation of
the subordinate groups (propaganda reinforcing a
false consciousness) but rather as the principle
which articulates – for the benefit of the dominant
class bloc – a whole range of ideologies. ‘The
unifying principle of an ideological system is constituted by the hegemonic principl~ which serves to
articulate all the other ideological elements. It is
always the expression of a fundamental class.’ This
offers one route away from instrumental ism and class
reductionism. It is arguable that Gramsci never
thought his own work in quite this way, and that this
approach tends towards a superstructuralist reading
of Gramsci which, in a different way, is proposed by
Bobbio (and interestingly replied to by Jacques
Texier in this volume in his essay ‘Gramsci, Theoretician of the Superstructures’). But there is no
doubting the fruitfulness of the theoretical issues
raised by this reformulation.
No political strategy emerges directly from this
or any of the other theoretical conclusions in the
book, although the shared commitment of the authors
to a politics conceived as a ‘war of position’ defines
a particular sort of political activity – the contours, if not the content, of the political terrain.
Some claim this as eurocommunism;others as a continuation and sophistication of the essentials of
Lenin. Many to the left of the PCI insist on the
latter position, proclaiming Gramsci’s inherent
leninism (as did, it must be remembered, Gramsci
himself). The implication of Chantal Mouffe’s contribution (although the relation with Lenin is not
mentioned in detail) is to follow a rather more
eurocommunist, pluralist Gramsci. What is of especial interest within this collection is the politically quite intransigent paper by Massimo Salvadori
(the author of the recently translated biography of
Kautsky): in ‘Gramsci and the PCI, Two Conceptions
of Hegemony’, he argues, from a position to the right
of the PCI, that Gramsci represents the highest and
most complete point of leninism which cannot, with
any political and intellectual honesty, be accommodated to the present strategic practice of the PCI,
and thus urges the Party to drop its commitment to
its gramscian dynastic past. Thus many of the
politically and theoretically contentious issues
which are crystallized in these essays hinge on the
central question of pluralism. This again is touched
on – perhaps rather too briefly in this instance in the Introduction.
The last point which can be dealt with here
relates to Gramsci as a theoretician and revolutionary of the West, a marxist whose theory is confined
by both geography and conjuncture. Biagio de
Giovanni (‘Lenin and Gramsci: State, Politics and
Party’) puts the strongest case for this ‘Western
Gramsci’ (a point of view similar, in many respects,
to Perry Anderson’s in New Left Review 100). The
tendency amongst most of the other authors is to
stress more strongly the innovations within marxist
theory, in general, which result from Gramsci. This
is expressed clearly and firmly by Leonardo Paggi.
It is apparent also from Chantal Houffe’ s analysis
of Gramsci’s conception of the national-popular,
suggesting that the very terms of the debate are
transformed by Gramsci (and thereby attaching less
significance to the enigma which surrounds the
Lenin-Gramsci question). And lastly, in an absorbing
essay, Christine Buci-Glucksmann (‘State, Transition
and Passive Revolution’) discusses at length Gramsci’s
analysis of a passive revolution operating administratively, within the apparatuses of the state, and
looks to Eastern as well as Western Europe for a
revolution in which the masses will be active and
determining, an ‘anti-passive’ revolution.
On Film Theory
B. Henderson, A Critique of Film Theory, New York,
E.P. Dutton, 1980, $8.95 pb
J. Petley, Capital and Culture: German Cinema
1933-45, London, BFI, 1979, £2.45 pb
M. Chanan, The Dream that Kicks: The Prehistory and
Early Years of Cinema in Britain, RKP, 1980,
These three recent books signal not only the
flourishing state of film studies, but also the
diversity of interests contained within that rubric:
the analysis of film texts; the sociology and economics of the industry; the history and prehistory of
cinema. Additionally, and more importantly, they
provide a context for reflecting on the thorny question of the relation between theory and empirical/
historical research, not just in film studies but in
the study of culture more generally.
Brian Henderson’s Critique of Film Theory consists
of a series of essays reproduced for the most part
from the pages of Film Quarterly. These essays,
dating back to 1970, are now presented, with a new
preface and introductory sections, as a unified body
of critical work. In the first section of the book,
Henderson’s objective is to examine the existing body
of film theory, and he provides a thorough and insightful analysis of the work of Eisenstein, Bazin
and Bodard. This section
‘concerns itself with a number of fundamental
issues that recur persistently in the apparently
very different theories of each …. They include
the relations between film and reality, the relations between film and narrative, and the question
of whether film is a language and, if so, what
kind of language.’ (pp.3-4)
Henderson seeks to establish what remains useful in
these theories for his project of ‘formulating a new,
entirely adequate theory of film’ (p48). The second
part of CFT is taken up with a detailed discussion
of film semiotics. An impressively thorough and
meticulous examination of the work of Christian Metz
– one of the most incisive diagnoses of the faults
and inadequacies of his early work – aims to ‘defend
film theory and its study against the challenges of
film semiotics’ (p.xv).
Henderson does not elaborate his epistemological
position at great length, but clearly it owes much to
the position put forward by Althusser. Stronglyobjecting to ’empiricism’, and ritually invoking ‘discourses such as psychoanalysis and historical materialism’, he argues that ‘theory must construct its
object and the field that defines it’ (p134).
Henderson moves along the familiar and well-worn
tramway of theoretical practice, divorcing the production of film theory from its social and historical
context. Rather, it becomes ‘an autonomous realm of
discourse’. Although he does not use the Althusserian terms himself, we can see Henderson’s approach
as the application of conceptual tools CGII) to
previous theoretical work (the GI of Bazinian,
Metzian ‘theory’) with the aim of producing a
priscine, unflawed GIll. In this ‘structural
approach’, theory assumes a truly fetished existence.
An abstract and endless process – ‘the continual
improvement and classification of the principles and
assumptions of film criticism’ (p49) – it heads off
in splendid autonomy, into the infinity of its own
Accepting the validity of undertaking an elaboration of film theory, it is nonetheless in its effective divorce of film theory from film criticism that
CFT presents problems. The vitality of Bazin,
Eisenstein and Godard comes from the integration of
theory and criticism in a series of provisional,
exploratory and suggestive formulations. Occasionally Henderson himself looks at individual films and
directors – notably in his discussion of Godard – and
he then produces many stimulating insights. Yet he
constantly reverts to the ‘metacriticism or philosophy of criticism’ that is film theory.
Julian Petley’s contribution to film studies is
of a markedly different kind. In a broad sociological analysis, he aims to show how the “structure and
products of the German film industry during the Third
Reich were largely determined by economic, ideological and political factors stretching back into
the industry’s early history’ (pI).
Drawing extensively on the work of German
researchers Wolfgang Becker and JUrgen Spiker,
Petley gives most consideration to the ‘economic
dimensions’ of the film industry. In a detailed and
useful account of the process of economic concentration, his main object is to oppose ‘those conventional
writings on Third Reich Cinema which explain its
organisation and structure in terms of Unilateral
governmental control and restructuring of a largely
hostile industry’. Against this Petley argues that
the reorganisation of the film industry during this
period was, rather, ‘undertaken by government and the
most powerful sectors of the industry working in
closest co-operation and very much to the latter’s
advantage’ (pI). After the crisis in the industry
during the Weimar period, the most powerful forces
in the industry saw the need for restructuring and
rationalisation; they aimed, then, to set the cinema
on a profitable basis through the development of a
monopolistic structure. In this respect, Capital and
Culture stresses the continuity between the structure
of monopoly capitalism and that of fascism.
Of central importance, along with the discussion
of the industry and of film production, is an analysis of film texts, the cultural commodities for
popular consumption. Refusing the separation of
propaganda and entertainment films, Petley establishes
a body of films dealing with Germany’s past (‘to
focus on the production of memory, that is to say on
history constructed in a specific conjuncture, and on
the positions which were set out for the contemporary
subject’ – pl06). He goes on to stress that a study
of these films shows that the sphere of filmic
ideology is relatively autonomous from the economic:
‘the economic structure of the film industry was
that of a monopoly capitalist enterprise, yet many
of the films produced throughout the period in
question … quite clearly relate to petty-bourgeois
ideological discourse’ (p23). It was this ‘petty
bourgeois ideology which really penetrated the
working class’ (p24).
Whilst the descriptive detail of C&C is useful
and informative, there are real problems in the
theoretical structure that underpins it. Like
Henderson – though in very different ways given his
broader sociological interests – Petley turns to
Althusserian theory for guidance: to the idea of the
social formation as consisting of three levels or
instances, each relatively autonomous from the
others; to the related theory of ideological state
apparatuses; to the theory of ideological interpellation. In fact, Petley draws less on Althusser
himself than upon later, ‘post-Althusserian’, transformations of the original texts. A major inspiration is the Lacano-Althusserian synthesis perpetrated
by the journal Screen, and C&C quotes extensively
from Coward and Ellis’ Language and Materialism as
if it were holy writ.
It is in the attempt to integrate theory and
empirical material that C&C flounders. In the space
of a review this question can only be adumbrated, so
I wi11 limit my comments to two, related, points.
(1) It is a common observation that Althusserian
theory is inimical to historical and empirical
observation. Invariably, attempts to operationalise
it lead to the external imposition of its mechanical
categories upon resistant material. This process
can be seen, to take just one example from C&C, in
Petley’s use of the term ‘relative autonomy’. In
attempting to provide a unified theory of the various
aspects of the cinema within the social formation,
he seeks to relate the ideological sphere of films
to the economic ‘level’. Little attempt is made,
however, to explore this relation in its historical
specificity. Rather, the concept of relative autonomy is introduced as a deus ex machina, providing
a false solution – a logical rather than a historical
solution – to the problem. The relationship is
obscured, rather than illuminated, and a real examination of the historical materials is warded off.
The two spheres – economic and ideological – remain
in an (alienated) externality to each other,
reflected in their distinct and separate treatments
within the book.
(2) On the whole, in C&C, the failure of
Althusserian theory to conceptually inform the
historical materials results in the complete disjunction of historical and theoretical treatment.
Thus, the empirical description of economic concentration (chapters 2-3) owes nothing to Althusserian
theory. And it can hardly be said that the elaborate
discussion of ‘ideological practice’ in chapter 1 is
incorporated into Petley’s chapter on films, which
remains purely empirical and descriptive. Syrntomatic of this failure, theoretical sections and
empirical sections and chapters remain separate and
distinct within C&C. Ironically, it is perhaps just
this rift that redeems the book, allowing the historical material to remain useful, insofar as it is
detached from theoretical concerns.
A major weakness of C&C resides in its failure to
convey any sense of the experiential reality of the
time – for both film workers and audiences – characterised as it is by the Althusserian view of history
as a purely objective ‘process without a subject’,
the abstract play of impersonal forces. In this
respect, in its view of history, it contrasts
markedly with the third, and by far the most interesting, of these books, Michael Chanan’s The Dream
That Kicks. The latter, characterised by its
attempt to combine an examination of the objective
and subjective dimensions of film history, has a
depth that is lacking in C&C. Although it is often
oblique and mannered to the point of being infuriating, it succeeds in being stimulating and lively in
a way that Henderson and Petley are not.
TDTK documents the prehistory and early years of
British cinema, aiming to locate it in the social,
economic, technical and cultural context of its
‘The starting point for the history of cinema
must therefore be an acknowledgement that cinema
(or film), before it acquired any identity of its
own, was immersed in a series of histories which
conditioned the process of invention. These
histories are those of the relevant aspects of
science and technology, economics, aesthetics, and
so on; and the prehistory (and, later, history)
of cinema is interwoven with them.’ (plO)
In undertaking this task, Chanan traces an intricate
path through such fields as the development of optics
and the invention of celluloid, the music hall and
theatre, the commoditisation of culture and the
patent system. In the space of a review it is not
possible to detail the complex mosaic of phenomena,
1.:10 clense network of relations in which cinema is
raptured, but clearly this account of the processes
and relations constituting and surrounding cinema is
of great importance, and the historical analysis of
TDTK represents a (theoretical) advance from existing
accounts of the early film industry.
Undoubtedly there are problems in Chanan’s book.
In many ways it is – to use a term that the author
himself adopts to describe the early process of
invention in the cinema – a ‘bricolage’: ‘this means
(crudely) knocking something together from whatever
happens to be at hand’ (pSI). This is especially
so in the section on ‘the conditions of intervention’
and in that on ‘theories of perception’, where
Chanan turns to topics apparently far removed from
the cinema, failing to really develop and adapt the
topics to his central theme. The reader is required
to make connections that Chanan suggests but does
not pursue. His enthusiasms lead him to linger in
recondite fields where he works over the available
secondary sources. And it is this reliance on such
sources that is perhaps the most serious problem in
the book. Rather than upon a thorough examination
of the primary materials of the time, TDTK rests
upon an idiosyncratic fusion of disparate secondary
materials. In this respect it certainly does not
replace existing work, such as Rachel Low’s History
of the British Film, but forms an important companion
Despite these problems, however, TDTK is an
important book, and it is so within the terms we have
used for discussing C&C and CFT. What is important
about this book is the way theory is, properly, made
into a research tool, subordinated to the task of
historical research and analysis. Significant is
Chanan’s early declaration about his interest in
‘I don’t want to write a theoretical dissertation
on the subject [of ideology] as a precondition
for approaching the history of cinema …. I
regard this as a mistaken approach, because I
don’t see how ideology and its effects can be
studies apart from historical instances.’ (p8)
This is not to deny that TDTK is a theoretical text:
it is that. But it is not theoristic. Chanan aims
to make theoretical abstractions concrete, to give
them historical texture; the historical material is
not present merely to substantiate and illustrate a
theory of ISAs or of culture. Rather, the author
uses theory to bring out the social relations
embodied in the early twentieth-century cultural
institutions, providing insights into the relation
between mass culture and time economy; the production
of new modes of perception; individualism and collectivism; the relation between production and consumption, etc.
Marxist theory cannot aspire to produce a general,
definitive theory of the cinema, ideology or culture.
It can exist only as a research tool essential for
penetrating the opaque ‘second nature’ of capitalist
‘It must dissolve the rigidity of an object
frozen in the here-and-now into a field of
tensions between the possible and the actual;
for each of these two – the possible and the
actual – depends on the other for its very
existence. In others words theory is inalienably
Such theory must be seen as heuristic and explanatory:
‘a developing knowledge, albeit a provisional and
approximate knowledge with many silences and
impurities’ . Provisional because, as a moment
of its object, theory necessarily submits to historical change along with that object. History is a
process, and, as such, it subverts any fixity of
concept. To attempt a general theory of culture
(ideology, or cinema) in the positivist A1thusserian
sense is to fetishise theory – to privilege its
logical over its historical aspect, to privilege
the scientific dimension over that of critique.
This dehistoricisation of theory seems possible to
A1thusserians only because history itself has become
frozen and static in their structural theory of the
Against this kind of theorisation, TDTK opens the
way for a historical, yet still theoretical, understanding of the cinema. One that views cinema (and
culture generally) not in terms of base/superstructure models but as an aspect of the capital relation
– an eminently historical relation – and in terms
of the concrete relations of production, distribution
and consumption that cinema mediates in specific
1 T.W. Adorno, ‘Sociology and Empirical Research’, in
P. Connerton (ed.), CriticaZ SocioZogy; Penguin, 1976, p.238.
2 E.P. Thompson, The Poverty of TheorY; Herlin, 1978, p.242.
Vestiges of Positivism
E. Nagel, The Structure of Science: Problems in the
Logic of Scientific Explanation, RKP, 1979, 4.95 pb
The overtly theoretical character of modern science
has been a considerable embarrassment to positivist
philosophies of science. Attempts to reduce theoretical concepts to observational terms have consistently failed either to offer a plausible account of the
nature and status of theories, or to provide detailed
reduction procedures for any of the important concepts actually employed in the sciences. Since it
was unrealistic to suppose that the sciences would
discard theory, positivists have laboured within a
compromise. They have sought to discover whether
these sciences might somehow be accommodated within
a modified empiricism.
The fact that the philosophy of science is judged
by a serious and respected publishing house to need
a new issue of The Structure of Science seems to
indicate the failure of that compromise. Alternatively, it provides evidence of the almost glacial
progress of that discipline over the last twenty-five
years. When this book first appeared in 1961 it was
the most detailed, cogent and comprehensive defence
of an empiricist philosophy of science. It should
also have been the last. Instead, Nagel’s problems
remain by and large those of modern positivists.
The yearly crop of books which examine and re-examine
induction, verification, laws and theories still
cling to the view that these problems must remain
unchallenged and unchallengeable by developments in
the sciences. It would therefore be tedious to
repeat the general criticisms that have been levelled
against positivism since these have been rigorously
developed in popular texts (e.g. Hindess, Philosophy
and Methodology in the Social Sciences; Keat &Urry,
Social Theory as Science; WilIer & Willer, Systematic
Empiricism: Cr.itique of a Pseudoscience). Instead
this review will focus on some of the innovative
features of Nagel’s argument to show that none of
these cosmetic readjustments can be used to insulate
positivism against such criticisms.
Nagel argues as persuasively as any positivist can
for a kind of non-reductionist naturalism (though, as
we shall see, his own arguments tend to collapse
into a halfhearted variant of pragmatism). This
means that he tries to show that explanations in the
social sciences need be no different to those in the
natural sciences but also that this doesn’t necessarily imply that value-judgements need to be unreal or
invalid. Correspondingly, whilst teleological
explanations in psychology and biology can be replaced without loss of content by non-teleological
equivalents, these sciences need not be reduced to
the categories of physics and chemistry. But
whatever the strengths of his non-reductionist
naturalism, these are clearly dependent on his own
understanding of the procedures of science. His
discussion of methodological problems in the social
sciences relies totally upon the hundred or so pages
which make up the heart of the book. Here Nagel sets
himself to show that the distinction between experimental laws and theories is a real and important one;
to delineate the major components of theories and the
relations between them; to discuss whether or not
theories state anything, whether they can be said to
be ‘true’ or ‘false’; and whether they refer to
‘real entities’. To continue the catalogue of means
and ends a little further, Nagel’s tools of analysis
are the distinction between the logical and the
empirical, the account of empirical meaning and
truth in terms of ‘observations of facts’ and (here
he introduces new terms) the account of theories as
‘indirectly verified’, and theoretical terms as
‘implicitly defined’, by the deductive connection
of theoretical and observation statements.
The most important use to which this programme of
action is put is undoubtedly Nagel’s examination of
the character and cognitive status of theories. He
outlines the tripartite structure of theories as
‘(1) an abstract calculus that is the logical
skeleton of the explanatory system, and that
“implicitly defines” the basic notions of the
system’; (2) a set of rules that in effect assign
an empirical content to the abstract calculus by
relating it to the concrete materials of observation and experiment; and (3) an interpretation or
model for the abstract calculus, which supplies
flesh for the skeletal structure in terms of
more or less familiar conceptual or visualizable
Nagel’s sedulous defence of this view of scientific theory is at times confused and, as the quote
suggests, remains throughout good therapy for
insomnia. But despite – or perhaps because of this lack of precision and subtlety Nagel’s arguments
with their in-built obscurities, are easy targets
Not surprisingly, the notion of an ‘implicit
definition’ is never defined but simply described by
example. Roughly speaking, scientific terms, for
example ‘point’ and ‘line’, though drawn from the
language of experience, are given meaning by being
implicitly defined by the postulates of a particular
theoretical discourse; in this case Euclidean geometry. The same (presumably) goes for terms like
‘class’ and ‘mode of production’: these are not to be
understood in terms of imaginable models but solely
as that which satisfies the formal conditions of the
postulates of Marxist theory. This account, or something like it, is commonplace in logical analyses of
science and suffers mainly from being based on
ambiguity. For a start, it isn’t clear whether these
scientific te~s are to be regarded as uninterpreted
signs, as counters in the deductive game of science,
or as the ‘things which satisfy the conditions’ of
particular postulates (p.92, my emphasis). If the
former, the postulates of the theory assert nothing,
which means that theories could equally well be
‘true’ or ‘false’ or merely be instrumental. If on
the other hand they are ‘things’, then it still
remains for Nagel to show that all the possible
conditions he speaks of can be known and that these
conditions ‘can provide a meaning for theoretical
terms. His arguments seem to presuppose the first
alternative. Thus theory regarded as an abstract
calculus without interpretation becomes nothing more
than an arbitrary device, unintelligible and quite
incapable of being put to use. Even though he does
seem to recognise, in the third characteristic of
theories listed above, that interpretations of a
theory have an important heuristic role to play,
Nagel fails to see that they are relevant to the
meaning of that theory.
Nagel elaborates the heuristic benefits of interpreting a theory (or calculus) in terms of a familiar
model. This model has the function of adding
‘surplus meaning’ to the theory by virtue of what is
known about it independently of the fact that it
satisfies the postulates of the calculus. This surplus meaning would then be useful in suggesting extensions to the theory, and in showing how the theory
could be related to new experimental observations.
But once again, this presents us with an ambiguous
interpretation of the ‘meaning’ of a theory. In
speaking of the ‘analogies’ between a gas molecule
and a billiard ball Nagel writes: ‘The fundamental
assumptions of the kinetic theory of gases, for
example, are patterned on the known laws of the
motions of macroscopic elastic spheres, such as
billiard balls’ (p.llO). But it is clearly impossible to think of a gas molecule as something other
than an interpretation of a particular calculus.
This being so, it is equally impossible to understand
how the surplus meaning supplied by the billiard-ball
model is related to the theory since there are, presumably, an indefinite number of conceivable, if not
existing, models of molecular theory. Why should
the ‘patterning’, or the billiard-ball model have a
privileged status? Though Nagel accords it such a
status, his theory withdraws it. Even so, this
suggests that we should be able to rely on any number
of models for predictions and for surplus meaning.
But, if entitled to rely on any, then we cannot be
equally entitled to rely on all since some may well
contradict each other. Nagel’s account at this
point is strictly incoherent: he cannot tell us
either whether the choice of model is arbitrary, or
whether the predictions which are based on any model
can be relied upon.
The empirical interpretation of theories which
follows fares little better. Here again Nagel relies
on an example, which, despite its complexity, cannot
adequately substitute a clear analysis, and, to make
matters worse, takes up the discussion of correspondence rules in connection with the problems of reduction. The account he offers refers equally to the
relation between two theories, and the relation
between theory and ‘observables’. The example he
uses is of the reduction of the classical theory of
thermodynamics to statistical mechanics which, when
simplified, requires the ‘identification’ in some
sense of ‘temperature’ with ‘mean kinetic energy of
molecules’. This identification might be one, or a
combination, of three things: a logical connection
(by virtue of the meanings of the terms in the two
theories), a convention (laid down by fiat! or a
factual hypothesis (cf. p.354ff.).
Nagel rejects the first alternative by remarking
that temperature in classical thermodynamics is
clearly not synonymous with ‘mean kinetic energy’
and that its meaning cannot be extracted from that of
‘mean kinetic energy’. The significance of this
remark doesn’t become apparent, however, unless it is
related to Nagel’s previous analysis of the meaning
of theoretical terms. If we take both thermodynamics
and statistical mechanics to be theories, so that
both terms in the identification are theoretical
terms, then the ‘meaning’ of both terms should be
implicitly defined by the postulates of the theory
in which it occurs. If these two theories are different, the meanings of the terms will also be different.
All well and good. But this example assumes that
thermodynamics has been reduced to statistical mechanics. This means that the difference of meaning
arises from the fact that the calculus of thermodynamics is only part of that of statistical mechanics
If we were to analyse the meaning of the terms by
means of the models which satisfy the postulates of
both theories respectively, then there will be a
difference of meaning if the models for statistical
mechanics are not co-extensive with those of thermodynamics. Once again there is a disparity between
what Nagel wants to do and what his theory as a whole
allows him to do. If the models concerned are privileged in any way (which as we have seen mayor may not
be the case), then the reduction procedure would
amount to the illogical assertion that the privileged
models of thermodynamics are to be identified with
only a selection, or sub-set, of those of statistical
So Nagel rightly, but for the wrong reasons,
rejects the idea that the two theories in his example
can be identified.through logical connections.
Hesitantly he adopts the second alternative, namely
that such ;~entifications may be regarded as coordinating definitions laid down by fiat. He does so
partly on the grounds that the development of a theory
sometimes leads to the re-definition of expressions
previously used as observables. But this cannot be
the case in the example he uses since the meaning of
‘temperature’, if it is to be identified within the
‘kinetic theory of gases’, is in no way equivalent to
any subjective sensations of temperature. Even if he
seems keener to give more forthright backing to the
third alternative, there is little way he can escape
the more general problems of the status of experimental law and theory. He concludes that statements
of identification must be regarded as physical hypotheses, not in the sense of experimental laws, but as
parts of the theory itself, to be justified by the
coherence of the whol~ theory and its other identifications with a wide range of experimental data.
This brings us to the most central assumption
underlying Nagel’s arguments; his distinction between
experimental law and theory. Once again there are
three arguments presented to uphold this distinction.
The first is self-destructive, the second invalid and
the third whvlly trivial. The importance of showing
this is twofold: firstly, because the distinction
arises inevitably from the pervasive empiricist view
that there exists a ‘basic’ observation language and
secondly, because the effects of it can be seen
throughout texts on methodology in the social
sciences where parallel distinctions are drawn between
‘neutral facts’ and ‘value-judgements’. To be fair to
him, Nagel does point out that there is no ‘precise
criterion’ for the distinction (p83), saying however
that ‘it nevertheless does not follow that the distinction is spurious because it is vague, any more
than it follows that there is no difference between
the front and the back of a man’s head just because
there is no exact line separating the two’ (ibid.).
But this only goes to destroy his first argument for
the distinction, that the terms of experimental laws
are ‘operationally definable’ whereas theories have
no ‘identifiable instances’ and must therefore be
established ‘indirectly’. To acknowledge that the
boundaries of ‘observability’ between ‘direct’ and
‘indirect’ evidence are not sharp, and that it is
unprofitable to try and define ‘observable’ too
closely is thereby to empty the terms of any meaningful, practical content. Clearly, many concepts
usually termed ‘theoretical’ satisfy his condition
for experimental terms (for example, the ‘mass’ of an
electron), while many terms usually regarded as experimental are not explicitly definable by any finite
number of observation procedures (e.g. ‘gas’).
The second argument for the distinction is that
laws derive their ‘meaning’ from the ‘observable’
situations they refer to, whereas the ‘meaning’ of
theories are only partially empirical owing to the
connection between theory and law via the correspondence rules. What does Nagel intend by the term
‘meaning’ used in this context? The meaning of the
terms of an experimental law should, according to
the view he has of models, be given by the observable
situations which satisfy that law, that is, simply
some of its models. The theory which explains this
law would then be associated with a number, or class,
of privileged models, each of which contains the
observable situations which are models of the law.
This in effect removes the duality of meaning involved in Nagel’s account of theoretical and experimental terms. It also takes with it the second
argument for the distinction between theory and
Only Nagel’s third argument stands up to criticism.
Theories are different to experimental laws, he says,
because they are more general. This is quite true
but wholly trivial. After all, there is no need to
explain, as Nage1 attempts to do, the generality of
theories since this criterion has no conceivable
effect on anything one might wish to say about the
cognitive or logical status of scientific statements.
The criticisms we have presented obviously place
a question mark over Nage1’s attempt to establish
what we have called a non-reductionist naturalism.
If he cannot give coherent sense to the terms
‘theory’ and ‘fact’, present a rigorous distinction
between ‘theory’ and ‘law’ or offer cogent arguments
in favour of his notions of ‘implicit definition’
and ‘model’; in short, if his structure of science is
seriously defective, there is little reason to
expect his discussion of ‘truth’ and ‘falsity’ to do
more than play on self-inflicted ambiguities. He
doesn’t thankfully devote much space in this work to
such a discussion except to suggest that there is
only a verbal difference between asking if a theory
is true and asking whether it is satisfacto~y. This
being the case, what Nagel has in reality established
is closer to pragmatic naturalism since, by extension,
we can say that there is only a verbal difference
between asking whether he is an instrumentalist or
a naturalist  – a question which, though it may
be of interest to positivist philosophers of science,
shouldn’t trouble any who subscribe to the critiques
of positivism elaborated in the popular texts cited
 I am indebted to William Reese for this point.
The Subject and the Legal Subject
B. Edelman, The Ownership of the Image,
Routledge and Kegan Paul, 2lSpp
With deference to the sometimes enigmatic
density of Edelman’s study, it is probably as
well first to locate and then describe it.
The rules for the formation of structural
marxist discourse generally revolve around
the internal categories of a theoretical
schema of dominance and over-determination.
The philosophic object or ‘problematic’ is
already mapped out and taken for granted; the
terrain is henceforth that of ideology, of
taking sides, in a theoretical struggle which
is specifically distinct from, if not anti36
thetical to, the ‘real process’. Reference
to, or representation of, the real process is
inadmissible outside the terms of the larger
discourse which indeed constitutes it; the
que:tion is thus rather of various rearrangements of discursive categories within
a discourse on ideology. Specifically the
theory of ideology designates the concept of
the subject, the ‘always ready made’ subject
(1), as formative of all ideology. It is by
virtue of the opposition between the subjects, that is, the Subject (state) and the
subject (isolated inaividual), that the determinant instance of the economic, of the
collective subject (class), is masked. The
‘juridico-political instance’ directs attention away from the economic instance, the
process of the real, to the effect of dispersing and immunising the threat of any
genuine or scientific realisation of collective or class self-interest.
Taking these somewhat recondite philosophic formulae as ‘read’, Edelman’s study
attempts to concretise and explicate the
functioning of the juridico-political instance on three different levels; namely
those of the theoretical practice of the law,
the actual judicial practice and finally that
of the real process itself. To genuinely
distinguish these levels we must assume the
success of the study in advance.
Initially, at any event, there is nothing
especially novel or difficult in Edelman’s
summary and critique of traditional legal
theory. He attempts to prove materialistically that the juridical categories of the
subject and of subjective right could not be
otherwise than they are, namely that they
create an already made or naturally given
ideological subject whose essence is that of
being ‘capable of ownership’. Quite independently of his will the subject (he who
belongs to himself) is necessarily endowed
with the capacity of property, and bears the
burden or privilege of rights and obligations
This natural essence of the subject as property owner is the hallmark of legal ideology and indeed of ideology per se. In abstract terms this position adds little to
previous elaborations (2) and so the value
of Edelman’s work must rest upon how he
evinces or proves this position in relation
to the legal history of photographic and
The answer, in descriptive terms, is that
Edelman provides a delicately filigreed map
of the quasi-Hegelian movement by which the
French courts changed their position from
saying, in the first instance, that the
‘real’, which was the object of these novel
modes of mechanical appropriation, was already privately owned, to saying that an
artistic appropriation of the real in fact
produces its object and hence that what is
re-produced in a photographic or cinematic
form belongs to the artistic agent who produces it. The analysis works remarkably
well: the real which is already owned is
‘over-appropriated’ by the labour of the
artistic agent who creates a new ‘property’.
This new property is subject, however, to
the rights of the ‘subject in law’, in that
the commodity produced must also account for
the interest invested in the real which it
has over-appropriated; it would otherwise
steal the will or consent of the original
owner and thereby negate the juridical definition of the subject at law who is necessarily a ‘willing subject’. In dialectical
terminology there is a subtle transvaluation
from the subject to the Subject to the collective subject which is-here the interest
If we translate the analysis it is in
certain senses obvious, it elaborates and
extends the categories propounded by the
Russian jurist Pashukanis who first associated the necessity of the legal ‘form’ of
human relationship with the circulation of
commodities. The category of the legal subject was inexorably tied to the exchange of
equivalents between formally ‘equal’ and
‘free’ subjects at law. To this insight
Edelman makes an addition in terms of the
circular or redoubled speculary structure of
all ideology, hereby proposing the thesis
that legal ideology in part receives and in
part creates the categories of the mode of
production: ‘by assuming and fixing the
sphere of ,circulation as a natural given the
law makes production possible’ (pI03). So
be it, but Edelman in no way clarifies or
resolves the diachronic or specifically
historical issues that dog such a thesis, it
is either trivially true (the linguistic
ellipse is mistaken for a profundity) or it
is tautological and in either case it fails
to explain how this effect is reproduced (3).
At this point, however, ~the study is
complete, the circle has been turned and we
have achieved the aim of designating the
formal structure of le?,al ideology. It is
unclear as to whether anything more than
this has been achieved. On the one hand
Edelman merely reformulates and applies a
scientific marxist metaphor for the ideolo?,y
inherent in the process of the real. Alternatively he reads the categories of legal
ideology out of the judicial practice itself.
His reading, however, is symptomatic and it
would seem, especially bearing in mind the
important differences between the rationality of civil law and common law; that specific ideOlogical excursions on the part of the
judiciary are generalised into a theory of
law which rests upon the implicit or constituted ideology behind the judician dicta.
The language of legal ideology is reformulated into the terminology of science and the
opposition, of itself, is supnosed to make
the former crumble. The level at which this
species of critioue operates is none other
than that of the science of the former
science of law: ‘theoretical nractice gives
us the very historicity of OUY combat.’ The
critique of the ideological notions of the
law carries within itself the death of
bourgeois legal science’ (pIll). We may at
least hope that such a sentiment is truer
than is immediately apparent.
cf. Althusser, Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, in
Lenin and Philosophy, London, 1971.
cf. Pashukanis, Law and Marxism, Ink L~n~s, 1978.
oneself to marxist literature with a SImIlar emnhaSIS, lollettl,
From Rousseau to Lenin, London, 1972, is ~elev~nt ..
The apnendix on AlgerIan workers is more IllumInatIng in this
respect and perhaps has a counterpart in the common law cases
under the Race Relations Act 1968.
C Sumner: Reading Ideologies, Academic
Press, 1979, £11 hc, £4.95 pb
Dear Colin Sumner,
I have just read your book in order to
It has given me a real problem.
I cannot review it – at least not in the
To do so would require me to
set out clearly what it is about.
And I am
honestly not sure. All I can do here is to
worry about it, and about the tradition in
which it stands.
Let this, therefore, be a
dialogue with my anxieties.
Your book starts from a position I agree
with, 100%. The current state of argument
about ideology is quite awful.
In particular your claim that there is really only an
illusion of connection between grand theorising and examination of empirical material,
I want to associate myself with. Your project therefore interested me; you sought to
‘bridge that gap’.
And I have learnt a lot
from your critique of other approaches.
Sampling these, you note how often Marxists still use implicitly ‘Napoleonic’
notions of ideology as ‘grand system’
ference by ‘bias’ or ‘prejudice’ (eg p19).
You provide a powerful critique of contentanalysis, showing how its theoretical incompleteness as method allows arbitrary
additions which contain its real politics
Rightly, the assumption of ‘shared
meanings’ between producer, audience and
artefact is dismissed (though it’s a pity
that you didn’t display how much this is
implicit in semiological ‘code’-analysis).
Still, semiology gets delightfully
It is shown for what it is:
ahistorical, abstract, or as you put it
‘It takes the fight out of history’. All
this I enjoyed, as indeed I liked the language of your r-ritique.
To sum up contentanalysis and its associates, along with all
the structuralist versions, as ‘formless
empiricism and empiricist formalism’ (p145)
And my reason for not wanting to do a
dismissive review comes out here.
book is dotted with important insights.
Two favourites that I shall want to hold on
to are: your comment on those who suggest
that bourgeois ideology ‘masks’ the real
relations of capitalism – you remind us of
Marx’s assertion that capitalism conceals
itself perfectly well; and your careful
insistence that both the technical and class
divisions of labour are social in form and
content – thus making, for example, Geras’
calling them ‘technical’ and ‘social’ rather
And, more than particular points such as
this, your book continually makes interesting proposals on how to begin analysis of
ideologies. You open by accurately listing
10 varieties of theory of ideology. All are
You open your own account (p16)
by posing a distinction between ideologies,
as specific beliefs and practices, and
‘forms of social consciousness’ as the
bearers of these beliefs.
It is an interesting distinction, and deserves attention.
But it doesn’t really get it.
And here I
reach my real problem with your book. Either
I am seriously misreading it. Or your book
doesn’t do the very things it criticises
others for failing to do.
And the reason I
can’t be sure is that, over and over again,
you offer propositions that, because never
applied to live examples to show their significance, seem to be hopelessly unclear or
I’ve tried to isolate some components of this, either from where they are
implicit in your criticisms of others, or
from where they emerge relatively explicitly.
There is a tendency to assume that some
beliefs are obviously criminal. Thus in
criticism; Althusser, you claim that he
vacillates between polar opposite theories.
In this context you note his difficulty in
accounting for ‘ideologies of resistance’.
You conclude: ‘He thus leaves a gap into
which humanist ideas of “human nature” could
be inserted’ (p47).
What is th~ sin involved here? Is it the same as when I am
told not to talk of human beings as ‘essentially purposive’ (p35)? Over the last ten
years I have learnt to hide my guilt-feelings at being interested in ideas about
human nature – even perhaps about the consequences of biology for human nature.
exactly have I done wrong? You say that for
Marx ‘class character and social individuality are historically and structurally constituted by the social relations of a social
formation in movement’ (p49).
I haven’t an
idea what that means~ But I do know~hat
you share an assumption with many others
that to introduce any notion of ‘human
nature’ is to be necessarily ahistorical and
An often associated term
‘praxis’ is assumed to be necessarily teleological.
That may be true of Bauman (whom
you quote, with dubious reference (pl12»,
but I deny that it is inevitably true for me.
And you don’t offer any arguments to prove
I suppose I am suggesting that you are
too blind to the tradition you inhabit.
Personally, I’m up to here with people presenting their critique of Althusser, but then
hastily adding things like: ‘I would not like
to leave this critical discussion of
Althusser’s lecture symptomale without
registering the fact that, in my view,
Althusser’s reading of Marx is very valuable’
Twang go my guilt-strings again …
But I want to say that Althusser has been
wrong, turgid, and unbelievably pernicious.
1 used to use the analogy 01 the stopped
clock being right twice a day.
I think, for
Althusser, I prefer the one about the train
that’s going in the wrong direction still
has to pass through the stations. What disturbs me is that after your critique, there
was no space left for this ritual obeisance.
What does doing it signify, then?
When I first picked up your book, I
happened on the quote on method that I’ve
don’t seem to follow your own advice.
understand you to mean that a decent method
is both theoretically articulated and
thought through, and knows how to confront
the world – and therefore might just meet
problems/resistance from the world it investigates.
Surely one of the worst problems
with current ideology-analysis is that it
can never go wrong.
For example, you
attack (p68) content-analysis for a notion
that sheer repetition of some elements has
a cumulative effect. Good, and true.
the content of your criticism is only that
it is left unspecified how we know which
repeated bits might have effects. 1 would
want to ask, differently, whether some denotations might not fail? Bad editorials
can be written.
Bad news items can be presented. Lousy arguments can be proffered.
A ~heory of ideology that cannot differentiate such is a bad theory.
Your book seems to hesitate on the brink
of seeing this. On page 226, for example,
you are criticising notions of ideology as
appearance, views which suggest we simply
construct appearances of the world:
‘One is often given the impression that
what is visible is that which is in the
mind of the observer already.
sophisticated versions of this, it is
argued that the social character of the
visible thing is attributed to it by the
observer’s ideology, and that the observer only sees a physical entity.
these phenomenological theses are at odds
with the conception developed here,
which insists that matter is seen spontaneously as it presents itself socially.’
The view being criticised is nicely picked
out; it definitely assumes that the world
offers no resistance to our understanding.
But once again, what am I to understand by
This difficulty of grasping your formulations runs throughout.
I hope i’m not being
unfair, but I honestly don’t know what to do
with the following (or, if I do know, then I
object violently): ‘the precise selection
and effectivity of the ideologies they
(media-people) employ in the process of mass
communications production is determined by
the structure of that production and its
place in the social format ion’ (p2 7); ‘soci al
ideologies (reflect) the interests and experiences of classes and groups constituted
by the dominant social relations’ (p75);
‘Marxian theory holds that each ideology is
generated withjn a specific social practice’
All these quotations seem to me to
give an illusion of clarity; if I probe I
meet nothing but ghosts of Althusser.
I have criticised you fo~ not practising
what you preach.
Too often you make claims
which, from my own limited investigations,
just won’t stand up – if I am grasping their
And I can’t tell that because you
never apply them to cases.
You mention as
‘the most fundamental thesis’ in a Marxist
theory of ideology, that ‘the emergence of
an ideology or signification (or “designation”) has as a necessary condition of its
existence a particular social relation’
(p216, your emphasis).
Now, I have research
sociobiology as a particular ideology, and
it is clear to me that this scientific ideology is as much as anything a recommendation
to create different social relations, and is
therefore not dependent on their prior existence.
I can’t make out, because of the
ambiguity of your formulations, whether I am
At the end of the book, you
list a variety of ‘developed commonsense’
ways of analysing ideologies.
example uses newspaper ideologies.) All
your methods relate to a very peculiar question: is it really in there? In other
words – if I’m not mistake again – after all
the insistence on the social production of
ideologies and their embedding in social
relations, the questions you want to answer
are primarily about ‘objects out there’ like
The activity of such ideologies
within struggles has gone missing. From my
work on children’s comics, I would want to
argue that investigating the activity of
newspaper-ideologies cannot be a separate
task from analysing the newspapers themselves.
For we need to be asking co~cretely:
into what relation with the newspapers are
readers invited? (Thus, in juvenile comics,
the readers are drawn into a ‘kids conspiracy’ by the comics themselves.)
This ‘review’ /letter is in danger of
going on for ever.
I’m trying to express
disappointment and frustration.
You do say
what’s wrong in many respects with the tradition as it stands; and then you join in.
The result is that your own empiTical suggestions look oddly unprotected.
example (p96), do I have to agree that
‘capitalism by its own logic is becoming
more transparent’? (Indeed Eastern European
state capitalism’s ability to hide its nature
even from most Marxists’ eyes suggests the
opposite – but that’s polemical … )
again, why should I accept that all capitalisms have required an ideology of contract?
You offer some ‘a priori’ reasons – but what
about Nazi Germany, or Pinochet’s Chile?
It’s not that obvious.
Perhaps in the end there is a substantial
political disagreement involved. Perhaps we
want to study ideologies for rather different purposes.
Actually, I was left in some
doubt as to why on your account we do study
Page 143 suggests that it is in order
to be able to predict.
And when I connect
that with your recommendations for how we
investigate the impact of ideologies on
‘audiences’, it looks very much observer
stuff. We go and look, and if that isn’t
enough we ask as well.
We compare and
One thing that is missing is
trying to change people’s minds.
But to me
the core of Marxism is some notion of the
unity of theory and practice.
I doubt that
there can be an adequate theory of ideology
divorced from an adequate practice of
combatting dangerous ones.
The Fantasy of Reason: The Life and Thought of
Don Locke, The Fantasy of Reason: The Life
and Thought of William Godwin, RKP, 1980,
For over a cen tury Godwin has been remembered
less as an individual than as an appendage
to other figures. The husband of Mary
Wollstonecraft, father of Mary Shelley,
political educator of Percy Shelley – these
roles have overshadowed Godwin’s own work
and consigned it to an undeserved obscurity.
Such neglect has been a sad fate for a man
about whose Political Justice William
Hazlitt commented that ‘No work in our time
gave such a glow to the philosophical mind
of the country’. In the last few years,
however, an accessible edition of this
text has appeared (Penguin 1976), and now in
Jon Locke’s introduction to all of Godwin we
have not merely a scholarly and readable
book, but the best biography ever written
Any such attempt must begin with, and be
compared to, C. Kegan Paul’s two-volume
biography first published in 1876, which,
for all of its submission to various lateVictorian prejudices, drew extensively from
original correspondence, manuscripts,
diaries, and the like. Locke has used this
material judiciously, and it is much to his
credit that, if he often covers the same
ground as Kegan Paul, he has at least
struggled on foot among the sources themselves, and does not peer out from behind
the curtains of a carriage drawn by someone
else’s opinions. Part of his success also
lies in having made great use of Burton
Pollin’s excellent bibliography of Godwin
Criticism, and in fact in heing the first to
employ it properly in this way.
Locke’s concern is with the whole of
Godwin, whose life, from fame to calumny,
Calvinism to theism, and relative selfsufficiency to prolonged penury, is as much
a fascinating reflection of the age as it is
intrinsically dramatic. This interaction of
character and zeitgeist is handled particularly well by Locke, who also demonstrates
great insight into the relationship between
Godwin’s written work and his private life.
Godwin is in fact the ideal choice for an
historical, ‘subjectful’ reading of texts.
He was, for instance, profoundly moved by
Mary Wollstonecraft’s tragic death in childbirth, having never known such emotional
happiness as during their short marriage.
This without a doubt strongly contributes to
those revisions of Political Justice which
in later editions tempered the doctrine that
the opinions of men emanate solely from
Instead, Godwin decided,
their actions, at least, were under the
direction of their feelings.
Godwin did not feel that this departure
from a dogma of absolutely rational-motiva40
tion undermined the basic conclusions of his
philosophy. His target was always the view
that self-love was the primary or even exclusive inducement to action, and here, if
upon reflection he was forced to admit that
virtue could not be universally engendered
by a ‘sentiment of general utility’, he
always maintained that altruism had to be
conceded as an element of motivation. Hence
men could be-educated to it, and if nothing
else could begin their benevolence with
private affection. The possibility is thus
left open for a society of virtuous and
humane individuals, even if species-love is
not the source of their morality.
The main theme in Locke’s book is, in
fact, Godwin’s inability to live out in
practice his own early doctrines, which
forced successive modifications of his views.
In the first edition of Political Justice,
Godwin’s whole approach to philosophy is
marked by a deeply earnest and rigorously
logical extension of his first principles
into every conceivable situation where they
might be applied. It is this honesty and
Godwin’s extraordinary deductive capacity
which give the book its depth and genius,
but which also leave Godwin so easily open
to ridicule. The case of the famous fire
in which, on utilitarian grounds, I ought to
save the philosopher F~nelon rather than my
own mother, was frequently used to demonstrate the coldness and inhumanity of
Godwinisffi. While there are many possible
criticisms of Godwin’s view, however~ the
most incisive was that such circumstances
hardly allow time for adequate felicific
calculation. In a contemporary parody, the
hero is left standing at the ladder beneath
the burning house, unable to reach a decision and later accused of failing to save
the lives of those inside, even of instigating the fire in the first place.
Locke’s treatment of such issues is quite
fair, however, and his general handling of
philosophical problems, especially utilitarian ethics, is very good. But he has largely left untouched the dark mystery of Godwin
scholarship: the degree of influence of
Sandemanianism, the creed in which Godwin
was brought up and which he briefly taught.
The small sect of Glassites, as they were
otherwise called, preached the superiority
of intellectual over emotional faith, the
elimination of private property, equality of
status, and the attainment of universal
agreement upon important questions by means
of open debate. Locke mentions this, but
relies upon Godwin’s later statement that
only the first characteristic – the praise
of reason~fluenced him.
This interpretation thus tends to ignore
Godwin’s reading of Ogilvie, Wallace, and
other writers hostile to private property.
Locke states that the only other Sandemanian
of note was the chemist, ‘the mild Michael
Faraday’, when in fact Thomas Spence, the
well-known and extremely active agrarian
radical, was also brought up in this sect.
The religious dimension merits a fulllength study in its own right, but should
not have been passed over quite so easily
Is Godwin only of historical interest,
or does he have something to offer the
In an age whose dangers demand
great practical efforts, it is easy to see
Godwin as the paragon of effusively naive
optimism; if we waited for all people to
agree rationally upon every possible change
circumstances would qUlckly overwhelm us and
leave little room for any choice at all.
Godwin described himself as ‘in principle a
Republican, but in practice a Whig’, and he
opposed universal suffrage in his own time,
believing the population to be inadequately
Nor was he the anarchist’s
anarchist, though he is often classed with
His closest association with
actual political destruction came with his
technical responsibility for the great fire
which destroyed the Houses of Parliament on
16 October 1833. Maintaining the chimneys
was among the duties of Godwin’s post, the
belated reward of long years of wbiggism.
But when one of these caught fire he was,
characteristically, at the theatre, and thus
this involuntary action emanated from
neither reason nor the passions, merely
But Godwin was, nonetheless, an extraordinary political man in his thoughts, a
political philosopher in an age which sought
to thrust this tradition of discourse into
the ravenous maw of ‘economics’ and ‘administration’, a task at which, despite chronic
indigestion, it largely succeeded.
frame of reference was still precapitaljst,
and he did not accomplish the politicization
of economic relations.
This was left, in
England, to Owenism and the working-class
But in marriage, education, anywhere that knowledge might become a function
of domination, hence perverted from its true
ideal, there Godwin worked to expose
oppression and liberate enquiry from all
In these areas, the relentless
honesty of this apostle of Sincerity and
Universal Benevolence is as fresh and
applicable as ever, and Don Locke has
contributed greatly to helping us see
through Godwin’s eyes once again.
Education and Knowledge
K. Harris, Education and Knowledge, RKP,
1979, £7.95 hc.
‘We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control’
– Pink Floyd
This book is one of the products of recent
developments in Marxist theory in Australia.
As such it owes its intellectual orientation
at least partly to struggles waged within
These culminated in the
establishment of a Department of General
Philosophy, some members of which have
attempted to fuse Popper and Lakatos with
Kevin Harris’~ book
extends this approach into the sphere of
education and does so in a way which is at
once entertaining and instructive.
find many of his claims contentious, and
indicative of (what I take to be) the unsatisfactory restrictions of his framework, I
was continually stimulated by Harris’
challenging and brisk, no-nonsense approach.
The core of the argument is the now
familiar anti-empiricist doctrine that,
crudely, ‘all facts are theory laden’.
thesis is defended with persuasive flair in
the first chapter.
Harris shows, for
example, how the results of an attempt to
count the number of people on Sydney oval
can differ depending on concepts, motives
and methodologies. Are children to be
counted? What about unborn babies? Are
people stradding the fence on the oval or
not? Does it matter whether the people are
de~d or alive, and if it does how do we
establish this? Nor will the final answer
to the question ‘How many people are there
on Sydney oval?’ simply reflect theoretical
Group pressures and
psychological prejudices of various kinds
also shape the outcome of the count.
short, the number of people on the oval,
whatever it is, is not an unambiguous ‘fact’
about the world, lying in wait to be discovered using the appropriate empirical
It is a ‘fact’ generated
within a particular socio-theoretical context, and to that extent its truth is
dependent on the particular meanings,
methodologies and motivations of the people
whose views define the parameters of that
If it be granted that knowing something
about the world does not involve passively
recording neutral data ‘out there’, but
rather involves actively making sense of the
world from a particular perspective, a new
light is thrown on education.
No longer is
it seen as the transmission of value-neutral”
apolitical knowledge; rather it emerges as
the social process whereby a particular deflnition of reality is disseminated and
That definition is the one sanctioned by those with power in an educational
They decide what is worth knowing
and, using their power, they ensure that
their chosen view of reality is systematically inculcated into the minds of successive
generations of children.
This is phase 2 of Harris’ argument:
effectively it asserts that education involves imposition.
Phase 3 develops the
idea with specific reference to capitalist
Education in such
societies, says Harris, implants a structured misrepresentation of reality in the
minds of its consumers.
institutionalized education systematically
transmits along carefully specified paths a
particular conception of the world . . A misrepresentation, because capitalist society
is a society characterized by classes with
Education is under
the control of the ruling class which, in
order to secure its power, disseminates an
ideological conception of the world.
serves to mask their real interests from the
In particular, it leads
oDDressed classes to think that their future
ll~s in collaboration with the status quo,
whereas in fact their real interests lie in
the revolutionary transformation of capitalist society.
In short, although they don’t
realize it, the basic aim of education
under capitalism is to cement the working
classes into the system – to ensure that,
‘All in all, you’re just another brick in
th~ wall’, as Pink Floyd would have it.
Harris is cautious to the point of pessimism when he comes to consider the possibilities for changing the present educational
set-up, and he is justifiably hesitant to
lay down a blueprint for an alternative.
But his preferences are clear.
a process of consciousness-raising in informal contexts in which the Socratic aim of
knowing thyself is uppermost.
become aware of how capitalist ideology distorts their perceptions of the world and of
their place in it, so will they begin to
change themselves and their society, and to
develop new lived ideologies which reflect
their real needs and not those of their
I pointed out earlier that Harris’
approach utilizes a framework which attempts
to reconcile the work of Popper and Lakatos
with Althusserian Marxism.
To my mind there
is little if anything in the above account
of his views which reveals the specific
effects of that framework.
Yet it performs
a crucial role in his argument.
presence is stunningly manifested in Harris’
discussion of consciousness-raising, it is
there that I shall begin with a more critical
evaluation of this book.
The key feature of education, says Harris,
is ‘imposition – deciding what someone needs
to know, and then attempting to ensure that
he comes to know it’ (p.176).
Consciousnessraising does not do this; here ‘what the
teacher is handing on is a new critical
methodology which can be applied to the content of lived experience.
Rather than saying
“See the world my way”, he is saying ‘Look
at your world in a different way”…
aim:-eventually, is for people to come to
understand what was false about their consciousness, and then to take on a different
theoretical perspective which provides a
better picture of the world’ (p.174).
Thus stated, this distinction seems to me
to be hollow.
Just consider for a moment
the assumptions which inform the consciousness-raiser’s project.
Centrally, they are
that capitalism is a society made up of
classes with conflicting interests, and
that workers’ inability to realize this is a
consequence of ruling-class ideology generating false consciousness.
This consciousnessraiser, in other words, espouses a particular
theory of society which asserts that workers
are mistaken in thinking that capitalism
serves their interests.
That many workers
do think this Harris admits: ‘Most people in
today’s capitalist liberal democracies are
reasonably well off materially, and by and
large they are happy’ (p.16S).
If that is
so, they can be excused for thinking that
capitalism is in their interests. And it is
not their ‘experience’, but a theoretical
perspective, which claims that ‘really’
workers are exploited – though they don’t
The aim of the consciousnessraiser is thus to get them to see that they
are exploited, i.e. to get workers to adopt
his or her theory of society and perception
of the world in defiance of their lived
In other words Harris has decided what workers need to know, and through
the mechanism of consciousnss-raising he
hopes to ensure that they come to know it.
These words are chosen with care: they are
of course precisely the terms which Harris
used to characterize education as imposition.
I cannot see how Harris can avoid the
charge that, by means of consciousnessraising, he is attempting to win people over
to the particular theory, and definition of
reality, which he favours.
He derives his
confidence in the epistemological adequacy
of his Marxism partly from Lakatos’ work.
His theory, he says, meets Lakatos’ criteria
for a progressive research programme: it is
‘objectively’ better than its rivals.
Harris often goes further: through Marxism,
he says, we can grasp the world ” as it really
It provides the Truth wi th which
to counter the false consciousness of
The idea that a theory can grant us access
to the world ‘as it really is’ runs counter
to everything that Harris says in Chapter I
of his book.
The roots of the contradiction
lie, I suspect, in his adoption of an
Althusserian distinction between science and
The production of knowledge, he
says, is a theoretical practice which can
produce the real object.
But if it is informed by particular social interests an
ideologically distorted conception of the
real is generated.
It remains only to align
Marxism with science (and to claim that it
doesn’t serve social interests?) for it to
follow that through it one can know the
world as it really is.
To be fair, Harris is (irritatingly)
ambiguous in this area, and frequently says
that historical materialism is simply a more
progressive ideology than its rivals.
that as it may there is a distinct puritanical streak in his work.
He is emphatic
that workers under capitalism don’t know
where their real interests lie, he is convinced that Marxism is ‘progressive’, and he
sometimes goes so far as to imply that it
gives us knowleuge of the world ‘as it
On top of all this he admits
that his conviction that we ought to do
something about the structure of education
in capitalist society is a moral one (p.167).
What we have here is the intellectual baggage of the missionary zealot, fervently
stepping out into the world with a view to
saving it. Missionaries cannot but impose.
What’s more they are in for a shock.
the odds are that the not-so-submissive or
ideologically cripped workers in capitalist
society will tell them to piss off and go
preach their message elsewhere – to gullible
members of academia, perhaps?
Where do we go from here?
I am not quite
Harris’ appeal to Lakatosian methodology is informed by his desire to avoid
Feyerabendian anarchism and relativism.
am also uneasy about relativism, but I don’t
think that this is the way to escape it.
Perhaps the framework that Harris is drawing
on is asking the wrong questions though.
Harris’ conviction that people are oppressed
by capitalist education derives from his
adoption of Marxism and his conviction that
it is a progressive ideology (?) which can
give us a reasonably (totally?) undistorted
view of the world.
His determination to
change that world is a moral one.
however, another way of showing that education oppresses.
That way is by analysing
the mechanisms of power whereby knowledge is
selected and transmitted in the educational
system, exposing their historical roots and
their social functions.
There is precious
little analysis of power structures in
Harris’ work though, and no historical
If there were, one
could hope for a concept of consciousness-
ralslng which recognized the importance of
recapturing one’s history as part of that
process (as psychoanalysis teaches us).
Furthermore the imperative to transform the
educational system need not involve a moral
decision; it can arise from a growing awareness by the consumers of education that
their mode and manner of cognition is
historically specific, and thus a candidate
for radical transformation.
What we need to
do, in other words, is to put aside Popper,
Lakatos and Althusser, and to pick up
Thompson and Foucault.
If my argument is correct it follows that
Harris’ omission of the historical dimension
and his associated ‘Puritanism’ are not
Rather, they are the unavoid~
able consequences of his chosen framework, a
framework which has a distinct and prevalent
tendency to exclude the socio-historical
dimension of knowledge production.
Nevertheless, whatever its shortcomings, this
book deserves to be read by all who are concerned to develop a radical critique of
Whether one prefers to extend
the Althusserian approach, or to reject it,
Harris’ book is an invaluable navigational
aid in the treacherous waters of critical
Just and Unjust Wars
Violence and Responsibility
Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A
Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations,
Penguin, 1980, £2.95 pb
John Harris, Violence and Responsibility,
RKP, 1980, £8.50 hc
The amount of unjustified violence we are
prepared to countenance is an important
measure of our success or failure as human
Hence the quality of our lives
depends upon our ability to distinguish carefully acts of aggression which are appropriate from those which are not.
At a time
when the use of seemingly gratuitous force
is fairly widespread, both of these books
are important because they examine various
ways in which we might limit the more superfluous ways in which we perpetrate harm upon
Walzer is in particular concerned to delineate the cases in which moral
choice is possible, and incumbent, in the
conduct of war.
Harris argues in favour of
a general ethic whereby we are responsible
for harm which we might have prevented, as
well as that we have directly and voluntarily caused.
Their discussions coalesce upon
the issue of moral obligation, and, though
Walzer’s interest is exclusively in situations where the normal restraints of civil
society are usually held to be in abeyance,
his application of human rights theories to
war favours a closer connection between our
conceptions of war and peace than is often
found in writers on the subject.
Just and Unjust Wars can rightly be said
to stand in a class of its own.
conduct of modern war is often bemoaned but
less frequently discussed in detail, except
possibly among lawyers and theologians, and
Walzer’s is a first-rate account of the moral
complexities involved in seiges, guerrilla
conflicts, terrorism, reprisals, neutrality,
and other issues or aspects of combat.
has never been a game played by honourable
gentlemen, but we do generally recognise the
existence of certain rules for its conduct,
and it is greatly to Walzer’s credit that he
has clearly and systematically defended most
of these, extending them where possible,
without making their practice so absurdly
difficult that moral advice loses all meaning.
His primary theme is that, because
‘just wars are limited wars’, the tendency
of modern conflicts to embrace ever-wider
numbers of noncombatants must be halted
Hence, against the ‘realist’ view that
‘all’s fair in love and war’, Walzer upholds
the validity of a ‘war convention’ about
which every soldier should be educated.
the only reason for fighting wars in the
first place is a defence of rights, the
means appropriate to this end must respect
the rights of both citizens and soldiers
during the conflict.
Walzer is fairly condemnatory about the siege of Leningrad (one
million dead) and the bombings of Dresden
and Tokyo (100,000 each), but unequivocal
on Hiroshima, saying that only had the
Allies faced defeat would such a measure
have been justified.
He favours the granting of soldier’s rights to guerrillas, providing they carry their weapons openly and
wear a visible emblem of their allegiance.
Terrorism (the random murder of innocents)
is virtually completely condemned, though
the possibility of ‘just assassination’ is
– very vaguely – left open.
As far as the justice of wars themselves
is concerned, Walzer offers three (necessarily) ambiguous criteria for commencing:
rescuing a population threatened with
massacre (would Cambodia fit? or the Gulag?);
intervening to counter the effects of a
prior intervention (Afghanistan?); and in
aid of a secessionist movement once it has
established its representative character
(Kurdistan? Tibet? Palestine?).
these questionable cases because Walzer
isn’t very specific about such examples.
Any discussion of this kind is bound to be
nightmarishly problematic, and Walzer avoids
many disturbing questions by concentrating
(too heavily, I think) on the second world
war and national socialism.
This is his
‘paradigm case'” of a justified struggle, but
most wars have a rather more complex character.
By asserting that aggression justifies
war, and that any use of force constitutes
aggression, he seems to argue that any
forceful violation of rights in turn justifies retaliation.
By remaining within what
he terms ‘the legalist paradigm’, however
(whereby such actions are construed as occurring only between states), we are left unsure as to the ‘justice’ of certain types of
internal conflicts (the American or Russian
Nor does it seem necessarily
true that no war can be just for both sides.
This is presumed because one party must bear
the responsibility for first breaking the
peace, but since Walzer operates with several different definitions of justice, it
seems difficult to say that ‘justice’ in a
cause is ultimately decided by a factor
which is in any case sometimes difficult to
assess, as in the recent Sino-Vietnamese
John Harris’s short book defends in
detail one central thesis, that we are as
equally responsible for harms we might have
prevented, as for those we have actively
This is (to me) an enormously
attractive basis for a moral philosophy of
It is one of the most deeply
radical concepts in any potential ethics,
and was also held by Marx and Engels.
Harris quotes Engels as a direct exponent
of the idea of ‘negative action’: ‘Murder
has been committed if thousands of workers
have been deprived of the necessities of
life or if they have been forced into a situation where it is impossible for them to
The question is, how far does the
circle of moral liability extend? Because
it has not built up crop reserves, is the
Indian government responsible for the deaths
of peasants whose crops are ruined by
‘Killing’ and ‘letting die’ are
explored at length, with Harris mainly concentrating on the choices faced by doctors
needing donors for organ transplants.
ends this section by proposing a very ingenious institution called ‘the survival
lottery’, whereby we all become potential
Given a genuine shortage of organs,
and the possibility that any of us may
require one, this scheme is by no means as
implausible or unfair as it may appear at
When might responsibility for harm be
subject to public sanctions? This question
concerns both Harris and Walzer deeply,
although Harris seems to feel that anything
stronger than moral reprobation lies beyond
the boundaries of his discussion; he wants
to say who is guilty, not what to do about
Walzer occasionally chooses to refer to
the NUrnberg trials, and some of the problems associated with them.
Few of us have
difficulties ascribing culpability to those
who order mass murder, for example, but disagreements are frequent when we ask how far
down the chain of command we should extend
Yet this is, it seems to
me, the key issue in both war and peace,
even though the question in everyday life
is likely to relate to one’s proximity to an
act of violence (i.e. seeing someone beaten
up on the street) rather than to more directly causal complicity.
How morally neutral is it possible to be in such situations?
This is the subjective side of the question
Passivity is often taken as
an indication of neutrality; the more privatised our roles become, the less we feel the
duty to assist in matters of public peace
Hence in America the legal
obligation to help victims in accidents, etc,
is less well-developed (or more deliberately
underdeveloped) than in many countries,
being positively hindered by a series of
precedents which have established the liability of would-be Samaritans where their
rescue attempts appear to contribute to the
demise of the victim.
A more communitarian and frequentlypractised ethics would render this type of
coerced disregard less likely.
public representatives to maintain a low
level of social violence on their own is
merely to invite the growth of repressive
Similarly, it is unlikely that
government will refrain from aggression unless their citizens actively consult among
themselves upon the justice of the cause.
It is difficult to disagree with the view
that we do share a high degree of collective
responsibility for much of the social and
international violence around us.
describe that violence, however, bears upon
what we will do about it, and Harris’s account fails, I think, to give sufficient
weight to systematic economic exploitation.
His methodological individualism largely
confines discussion to cases involving only
a few people, which eliminates any serious
analysis of structural causality.
obliged, Harris says, to demand that corporations act according to the principle of
negative actions, which is fine as far as it
goes, but that isn’t very far.
tend to have somewhat less refined moral
sensibilities than the readers of philosophical journals.
Walzer is far more convincing in both his analysis of complicity and
plea for public activity.
that responsibility requires democracy,
indeed that ‘democracy is a way of distributing responsibility’, and that the more
democratic a society becomes, the more responsible we may hold individuals to be at
Markovic and Petrovic –
M. Markovi~ and G. Petrovi~ (eds.), Praxis – Yugoslav
Essays in the Philosophy and Methodology of the
Social Sciences, Boston Studies in the Philosophy of
Science, Vol.XXXVI, D. Reidel, 1979, $55.30 he,
This is a very valuable source book for students of
the distinctive Marxist trend organized in Yugoslavia
around the journals Praxis and Praxis International
1964-1975. It contains translations (many for the
first time in English) of twenty-two essays first
published between 1965 and 1974 (except for one previously published piece by Djuro Susnji~), organized
under the headings: ‘1 Philosophy, Dialectics and
Historical Materialism; 2 Society Politics and
Revolution; 3 Culture Ideas and Religion; 4 Socialism
Bureaucracy and Self-Management’.
I gather that Petrovi~ was responsible for selecting the contributors from Croatia and Slovenia while
Markovi~ put forward the material from Serbia and
other republics. It is clear that while Petrovi~
draws on the mainstream of Praxis contributors,
Markovi~ interpreted his task much more liberally
and includes a wider variety of material (not that
the Praxis group itself ever evolved a dogmatic
‘line’). In comparison, another useful book edited
by Gerson Sher (Marxist Humanism and Praxis, New
York, 1978) is more ‘orthodox’. These two books,
taken together with individual books by Petrovi~,
Markovi~, Stojanovi~ etc. translated into English,
give us a solid basis for getting acquainted with
the whole tendency.
The book under review contains two other useful
features: a table of contents to the published issues
of Praxis International Edition 1965-74; and notes,
with bibliographies, on the contributors.
In addition Markovic takes the responsibility for
an Introduction sketching the background, history,
and fundamental orientation of the movement.
He claims our attention on the ground that this
philosophy is new in that: ‘it had to be radical’
for ‘it was created by young people who had participated in a genuine, widely supported revolution, who
were convinced that they were building up a new,
just and free society’; and it ‘had to be humanistic’
for ‘conflict with Stalinism generated a very critical attitude towards bureaucry and any bureaucratic
reduction of socialism … to an impersonal, sheeplike collectivism in which human individuality was
sacrificed’. It also had to be critical; he says:
‘Yugoslav social Philosophy never challenged the
initial forms of socialist participatory democracy which by that time were firmly entrenched
and quite popular. On the contrary, in a much
more competent way than conformist official
science, it was able to show their deep historical
significance. But, on the other hand, it was
quite relentless and not in the least afraid of
existing political power when it analysed the
essential limitations that were also real: bureau-
cratic usurpation of power, rise of class inequalItIes, resistance to new socialist culture, pettybourgeois acquisitiveness, nationalism as a surrogate for democratic socialist commitment.’
Inevitably repression followed.
‘The year 1968 was a turning point. Students’
mass demonstrations in Belgrade on June 2 and 3,
and their occupation of all buildings of the
Universities in Belgrade June 3-10, followed by
similar events in Zagreb and Sarajevo, opened up
the greatest political crisis in Yugoslav postwar
society and produced a permanent fear that philosophical critical theory under certain conditions
might inspire a mass practical movement. A series
of measures were undertaken in order to thoroughly
reduce the field of activity of the Praxis philosophers. Most of those who were members of the
Party were expelled or their organisations were
dissolved. They were eliminated from important
social functions. Funds for philosophical activities, journals and other publications were cut
off or became utterly scarce …. In spite of a
tremendous pressure in the whole period of 196875, philosophers and sociologists from the Praxis
group were able to continue to teach~ to publish,
to organize conferences and to dominate the
Yugoslav theoretical scene. How was that
First, and most important, after 1948 Yugoslavia has gone rather far in the process of
democratization and in rejection of theoretical
and practical forms of Stalinism …. Another
relevant circumstance was that the Praxis group
played an important role in keeping a complex
ideological balance in Yugoslavia. It struggled
against two dangerous conservative forces: rightwing nationalists (especially in Croatia) and
Stalinist hard-liners (especially in Serbia).
Disappearance of the humanist and libertarian
left would inevitably strengthen both unless
simultaneous steps would also be undertaken against
them. . .. Third, the internat ional status and
reputation that the country enjoyed in the world
also used to be a serious limiting factor.’
Finally, however, the journal had to suspend publication in 1975. Eight members of the group were dismissed from their University posts in Belgrade, after
a long struggle in which their colleagues stood by
them staunchly. (For material on the struggle see
Radical Philosophy 8,9,10 and 11. It is possible,
by the way, that Praxis International may soon be
restarted outside Yugoslavia.)
It remains to congratulate the editors of the
Boston Studies for providing another excellent volume
in their series. (I t is worth point ing out that they
also published, in 1976, Dialectics of the Concrete
by Karel Kosik.)
See News Section for information about the latest
pressures on the Praxis group.
all levels and in all kinds of different
I don’t think that a general
theory of responsibility for suffering can
avoid dealing with political and economic
The issues are simply far
Harris, accordingly, is most
incisive when dealing with the least political aspects of the problem, i.e. organ
Walzer’s book is an excellent
general account of the moral problems
resulting from the conduct of war, and can
be highly recommended to anyone interested
in the subject.
McCarney: The Real World of Ideology
J. McCarney, The Real
1980, £12.50 hc
of Ideology, Harvester,
Does the working class have or need an ideology?
Does socialist or communist society have or need an
ideology? These are difficult questions ‘in the
real world’ for Marxists. The working class, on the
face of it, already has an ideology (several perhaps). And if it has, then why should not its
society of the future also have one? But in that
case, can it be stronger from a scientific point of
view than the ruling class it confronts? Joe
McCarney proposes that we switch allies in the face
of these questions. Whereas a few years ago
Althusser’s rigorousness was the automatic recourse
of Marxists embarrassed at the quaintness or sloppiness of their traditional statements, McCarney rehabilitates a commonsensical Lukacs in preference to
ill-founded and sterile Althusserianism.
The Althusserian position commits, McCarney
argues, a crude category mistake in counterposing
terms intended to refer to unrelated features of
thought. Ideology, for Marx, meant simply the
struggle between the classes in the realm of thought
and knowledge, which in itself tells us nothing of
the truth of any particular idea, theory or whatever.
Marx’s attack upon the German ideology of the Hegelians does not, for example, rest upon its being ideology. That fact alone has no epistemological significance. Hegelian idealism is epistemologically
faulty in its own right, not because it is ideology;
and (it follows) there is no reason to attribute to
Marxthe view that all ideology is epistemologically
unsound and inherently idealist. McCarney backs up
this interpretation with detailed commentary on the
wording in the original of certain key passages
normally thought to sustain the critique of ideology
as such and the juxtaposition of ideology and
From this position my opening questions can be
easily and clearly answered. Working class ideology
can be admitted and then judged weak or strong in
its own right. Ideology will persist so long as
there is a class struggle which can be carried on
in the sphere of ideas.
But then there remain reasons to hope that the
ideological struggle by and for the working class
will be (not by its essence but in the real world)
more productive of true science than bourgeois
ideology can now be. For the increasing difficulty
that bourgeois ideology has in accommodating the
social reality the bourgeoisie has created has
restricted the progress of science, which has to
exist in the middle of the bourgeoisie’s struggle
for its continued dominance. Using a ‘syntactic’
conception of ideology (in which the structures in
society are echoed ‘syntactically’ in theory),
McCarney here takes up the approach of Lukacs and
renders it more sensible-sounding. ‘The driving
force of the debate,’ he writes, ‘ is the wish to
deprive bourgeois society of the intellectual authority of science’ for ‘capitalism and modern science
have grown up together in the same environment and
share its structural imprint’. McCarney re-runs
Lukacs’ critique of the unified science of nature
and society in which the inevitability of the
natural is transposed into the social world. The
bourgeois class retreats into mysticism about the
irrational, i.e. that which cannot be assimilated
into the natural as it conceives it. Wittgenstein
is a handy example, for us, of this retreat. The
living experience of the working class, on the other
hand, is the source of precisely those ideas which
are required to turn science once again in the
direction of a comprehensive grasp of social reality:
the existence of social classes, conflict of class
interest, exploitation, the treatment of people as
But here I feel that McCarney’s argument sounds
suddenly less ~ealistic than before. The reason, I
think, is that its purpose is not consistent with his
own view about the relationship between ideology and
science. For if ideology is the class struggle in
the realm of thought, then in pursuing work in the
realm of thought he must either be looking to strengthen the position of a class, or, if not that, to
force from science embroiled in the pressures of the
struggle an acknowledgement of the experience of the
class whose position he writes from. Perhaps it is
the drawback of brevity (a virtue the book certainly
possesses), but this list of concepts for the experience of the working class seems neither to touch
immediately upon the felt experience of the working
class (living in a welter of ideology too) nor by
its precision to command the respect of scientists.
Sadly, it ~eads like the same old list of Marxist
Rosenberg: The Genius of Ruskin
J. Rosenberg (ed.), The Genius of John Ruskin,
Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979, £9.95 hc
John Ruskin, the greatest crItIc and art theorist of
the nineteenth century, was an absurd and contradictory figure. Like Johnson before him, much of his
strength derived from lampooning his opponents, yet
his own character and beliefs were fissured with
superstitions, fears and absurdities which at times
reached the borderline of insanity. A selfproclaimed ‘Tory of the old school’ (p461) who learnt
his lessons within an empirical view of life which
concludes that beings are created unequal in physique,
personality, moral stamina and therefore unequal in
intellectual capacity – Ruskin nonetheless reserved
some of his fiercest invective for the ‘money-making
mob’ which ‘concentrated its soul on Pence’ (p.305).
An arch-aesthete who began his career with a sustained defence of Turner and later championed the PreRaphaelites and wedding-cake Gothic, he simultaneously maintained that art was a social value and taste
‘the ONLY morality’ (p274). His Christianity was
typically hypocritical and derived from a deeply
ingrained fear of vice rather than from praise of
virtue. His socialism, though it exerted a strong
(if rather unclear) influence on Morris, Shaw,
Tolstoy and Gandhi, was thoroughly bourgeois and
recoiled in horror at the prospect of equality especially female. Even his writings on science
were deformed by his belief that Darwinism was a
pernicious affront to human dignity. Ruskin’s autobiography Praeterita not surprisingly lurches from
calm consistency to painful and compulsive chaos;
it begins like J.S. Mill’s, continues like Edmund
Gosse’s and ends up reading like a cross between
Charles Lyell and Lewis Carroll – the prime example
of the torture of the half-enlightened Victorian
mind. Even in the field for which he is best
remembered – his command of language – he managed to
evade any semblance of consistency. As George Eliot
put it, his writing combined passages of vivid and
fluent prose (reminiscent again of Johnson at his
best) with ‘stupendous specimens of arrogant absurdity’ (quoted in D. Leon, Ruskin, London, 1949, p.82).
The initial problem in dealing with Ruskin, and
still more of compiling a selection of his writings,
is therefore to take him seriously, or, as Rosenberg
puts it: ‘to replace the caricature with an authentic
portrait’ (Introduction, p12). Most studies of
Ruskin pivot around his move from art critic to
social critic. Rosenberg wisely omits the material
which is commonly cited to ‘explain’ this transition
(most of which is used to locate this move in some
perverse psychological impulse; see, for example,
D. Larg’s Ruskin, London, 1932, p.95ff.), assuming
instead that social criticism of conditions in
Britain during the last century doesn’t require explanation or justification. As with many other
supposedly ‘focal points’ in Ruskin’s career,
Rosenberg leaves their motivation and importance an
open question. Though this is undoubtedly a useful
emphasis, the result reads perhaps a little too
smoothly, and is flawed in omitting some of the
more ambiguous, but polemical and entertaining
pieces such as Ruskin’s lecture on Work, his Preface
to The Crown of WiZd Olives and long passages from
Of King’s Treasuries.
This doesn’t however detract seriously from
Rosenberg’s achievement (many of Ruskin’s ‘minor’
works are readily available secondhand in the
Everyman’s Library, and can be used to supplement the
five ‘major’ texts used in this anthology). Indeed,
as a whole, the book conveys very clearly the rootquality of Ruskin’s work: its profound admiration
for order. It was this that led him to seek out and
enunciate broad principles or theories whether in
art, ethics or political economy, and which in effect
weaves together the fragments of his own shattered
design. The different facets of his work, which
Rosenberg justifiably ranges under the headings Art,
Architecture, Society, Solitude and Self, arc all
comprised in an allegiance to the same single term
Beauty. This is virtually interchangeable with
Ruskin’s notion of Truth and like it rests fundamentally on his belief in a universal, divinely
appointed order. Beauty even finds it~ way into his
discussions on wealth, work and war; it is an energy,
or creative force, which needs to be controlled and
which functions as the morality to restrain and
refine both sections of humanity, the idlers and the
workers. Ruskin’s socialism dissolves quietly into
authoritarianism; far from offering the prospect of
unlimited freedom, socialism (by which he means
something analogous to workers’ participation, rather
than workers’ control) is the best means to contain
freedom and so prevent it demolishing all culture in
adapting the world to man’s primeval sensuality and
Today many of the reforms advocated by Ruskin
have been effected, and in retrospect it seems difficult to imagine why he was denounced for so long as
‘a monger of heresies who must be crushed, lest his
wild words open a ‘moral floodgate .. , and drown us
all’ (p.219). This book is important in providing an
impression of the revolutionary form of Ruskin’s
teachings, and an indication of how he posed questions of economics in such a way as to link them with
problems of politics, ethics and sociology. Though
some of his work is archaic, not to say medieval
(especially his comments on chivalry and on Plato’s
doctrine of love), his contribution to economics
remains pertinent. Thus the whole argument of Unto
this Last rests on Ruskin’s attempts to humanize the
concept of value. ‘There is,’ he writes, ‘no wealth
but life . … A strange political economy; the only
one, nevertheless, that ever was or can be: all
political economy founded on self-interest being but
the fulfilment of that which once brought schism
into the Policy of angels, and ruin into the Economy
of Heaven.’ (p270).