The Poverty of PPE, Episode Eight


31. This paper is certainly an abortion, as Gareth Stedman Jones has said. The paper in fact has very little to do with moral and political philosophy, and only provides the student with a second dose of indoctrination in linguistic philosophy on top of the draught he has been given in the misnamed ‘General’ Philosophy paper.

32. A closer acquaintance with texts has been expected in this paper in recent years, though no authors are so well established as Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume. The 1968 Finals examinations had three of thirteen questions on authors, demanding acquaintance with Butler, Hume, Kant and Mill (no prizes for guessing what they have in common!) The other ten questions all ‘look’ linguistic, and demand to be answered as they would be in the pages of Mind (i.e. mindlessly – this opinion would have the support of no less a person that Wittgenstein himself. ) Two of them (Numbers 6 and 8) promiscuously imply by their wording that an acquaintance with the work of R. M. Hare (presently White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford) is looked for.

33. In his early book, The Language of Morals (1951) Hare writes, “Ethics, as I conceive it, is the logical study of the language of morals” (p.iii) – a view which, as Mary Warnock quite rightly says, “leads to the increasing triviality of the subject”. The triviality arises from divorcing ethical questions from their social context, and by the refusal explicitly to argue for an ethical principle – the universalisability rule. Unfortunately, he argues for this moral position without realising he is making a moral judgment rather than a logical distinction! Elsewhere, the offerings of moral philosophers in the analytic tradition express a complete moral abdication in the face of the immense moral problems facing the world. The Language of Morals is full of painstaking analysis of what constitutes a good car, a good egg, even good sewage-effluent. J. O. Urmson has graded apples for us; the late Professor J. L. Austin confessed to total moral bankruptcy: “I am very partial to ice cream, and a bombe is served divided into segments corresponding one to one with the persons at High Table: I am tempted to help myself to two segments and do so, thus succumbing to temptation … But do I lose control of myself? … Not a bit of it. We often succumb to temptation with calm and even with finesse.” [NOTE: From the Presidential Address to the Aristotelian Society, 1956.]

34. What is needed instead of the forced digestion of the after-dinner concoctions of the declining gentry is a study of those writers who have put forward worked out ethical ideals, and who have discussed ethical questions of the sort which actually arise in the world, as opposed to at the High Table of an Oxford college, and in the context in which they arise. Sartre is essential reading for students in this respect, so are many novelists and theologians – e.g. Brecht and Kierkegaard.

35. If students were to read these authors who are deeply interested in moral questions, they would find the artificial division between moral and political philosophy collapsing. There have been critics of the linguistic technique as applied to politics, but five of the seven questions in the political philosophy section of the Moral and Political Philosophy paper in 1968 ‘look’ linguistic. Only two demand knowledge – of Hume and Mill (both bourgeois thinkers). For some time an attempt appears to have been made to distinguish political philosophy and political theory. The only difference appears to be provided by the strange idea that political philosophy is about theories of punishment. There is always a question on this, and most students are told to skip the political section in the paper, just doing some work on punishment to provide them with the necessary material for the one question which must be answered in this section. What a striking contrast to the idea that questions of political values should be central to PPE! It would be better (though not much) to replace this paper with the present Political Theory optional paper broadened to take into account writers more especially concerned with ethics, though ultimately I believe there is no hard distinction between ethical and political questions.

36. When confronted by something as grotesque as the paper just discussed, one’s first reaction is not to look for alternatives but to ask, with some amazement: what has gone wrong with a society which produces a University which produces such a course? Ernest Gellner, Herbert Marcuse and Perry Anderson are among those who have begun the search for the answer which we have a right to demand.

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13 thoughts on “The Poverty of PPE, Episode Eight”

  1. This is all interesting, though as I think you mentioned in your intro the other day the ethics paper has come an awful long way.

    Though it is still characteristic of both ethics and theory of politics that students are expected to follow closely, and attemot to comment upon/reporduce, the work being done by philosophers in Oxford, at the time. I’m not sure how much I like this, and i tend to think not a lot.

  2. 34. Hmmm. What may be needed is the study of Sartre and Brecht historically; not just their ideas, that is, but their lives and how they lived them. To wit, the role hypocrisy played in their lives and the ways they managed to accomodate living contrary to their own “worked out ethical ideals”. That’s not to say that I regret any of the Sartre I’ve read (rather a lot, I’m afraid) or that I don’t count “Mack the Knife” among my half-dozen favourite songs ever, but I do regard both a prize shits. I think Sartre was pretty brave during WWII, but he usually contrived to be somewhere else when anything he supported happened later, and he supported some dreadful causes (but didn’t everyone? well, him more than most). As for Brecht, I once thought he was a moral giant for moving to East Germany after the war, but then I met East Germans, and they didn’t think anything worth publishing about the philosophy of that failed state. I know this must read like boilerplate anti-communist decency. I take Sartre the way I take Wilde – as a soundbite man – he had some good lines. But a worked out ethical philosophy? Nope.

  3. he usually contrived to be somewhere else when anything he supported happened later

    Wouldn’t that be true of almost anybody interested in foreign affairs? Orwell pretty much the exception in this.

  4. The criticism of Austin is silly. The High Table setting is an eye-roller, certainly; but the point (the possibility of ‘clear-eyed’ akrasia) is a very good one that needed to be made, as there was (is) a strong tendency to regard akrasia as ‘loss of control’. The passage has often been referred to subsequently (as by Davidson, not himself a footling trivia-monger), and for good reason.

    If there were a prize for guessing what Butler, Hume, Kant and Mill have in common in this context, I’d have little chance of winning it. All empiricists? no… theists? no… English-speakers? no… Perhaps they are all ‘bourgeois’? But then isn’t Kierkegaard too?

  5. When I finally got around to reading How to do things with words (around 1996) I was quite struck by how it wasn’t the book I expected it to be, given the familiar reputation and criticisms of “Oxford ordinary language philosophy” (or whatever you wanted to call it), in particular in the fact of (i) Austin’s willingness to put the distinctions he himself sets up under some quite considerable strain and (ii) the overriding concern with the “doing things” rather than blandly with the words.

  6. Of course the “Theory of Politics” paper was introduced subsequent to this and the publication of “A Theory of Justice” made a big difference too.

  7. Not quite: Pateman took Theory of Politics in1968, which was an optional paper that you could do in addition to the Moral and Political Philosophy paper. I haven’t yet got a good sense of what the differences were, and my (very limited) attempt to track down a 1968-era exam paper hasn’t yet borne fruit.

  8. The reference to Austin brought to mind this excellent essay by Martha Nussbaum (who is as rooted in ‘linguistic’ philosophy as the best (worst?) of them but retains an admirable consciousness of history) about Judith Butler. I quote at length:

    ‘The idea of gender as performance is Butler’s most famous idea, and so it is worth pausing to scrutinize it more closely. She introduced the notion intuitively, in Gender Trouble, without invoking theoretical precedent. Later she denied that she was referring to quasi-theatrical performance, and associated her notion instead with Austin’s account of speech acts in How to Do Things with Words. Austin’s linguistic category of “performatives” is a category of linguistic utterances that function, in and of themselves, as actions rather than as assertions. When (in appropriate social circumstances) I say “I bet ten dollars,” or “I’m sorry,” or “I do” (in a marriage ceremony), or “I name this ship…,” I am not reporting on a bet or an apology or a marriage or a naming ceremony, I am conducting one.
    Butler’s analogous claim about gender is not obvious, since the “performances” in question involve gesture, dress, movement, and action, as well as language. Austin’s thesis, which is restricted to a rather technical analysis of a certain class of sentences, is in fact not especially helpful to Butler in developing her ideas. Indeed, though she vehemently repudiates readings of her work that associate her view with theater, thinking about the Living Theater’s subversive work with gender seems to illuminate her ideas far more than thinking about Austin.

    Nor is Butler’s treatment of Austin very plausible. She makes the bizarre claim that the fact that the marriage ceremony is one of dozens of examples of performatives in Austin’s text suggests “that the heterosexualization of the social bond is the paradigmatic form for those speech acts which bring about what they name.” Hardly. Marriage is no more paradigmatic for Austin than betting or ship-naming or promising or apologizing. He is interested in a formal feature of certain utterances, and we are given no reason to suppose that their content has any significance for his argument. It is usually a mistake to read earth-shaking significance into a philosopher’s pedestrian choice of examples. Should we say that Aristotle’s use of a low-fat diet to illustrate the practical syllogism suggests that chicken is at the heart of Aristotelian virtue? Or that Rawls’s use of travel plans to illustrate practical reasoning shows that A Theory of Justice aims at giving us all a vacation?’

    Eye-roller it most certainly is, but it would be rather a mistake to read earth-shaking significance into the High Table example as well.

  9. If you mean to deny my claim that Austin’s point was “a very good one that needed to be made,” Nakul, I can’t discern any reasons for such a denial in your post.

  10. No, I was quoting that in support of your comment, pardon me for not making it clearer. Though, as it happens, I disagree with Austin’s reading of Aristotle’s position on this. I don’t think Aristotle equates akrasia with ‘loss of control’ at all, certainly not in the sense Austin’s counterexample implies. But then that’s a fault of his commentators, who are determined to misread Aristotle in Book VII as saying that. Austin’s is indeed a good point that needed to be made, if only to rescue Aristotle from his interpreters.

    And there we go again with our trivial ‘linguistic’ philosophy … 🙂

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