Marginal Comment

I’ve just started dipping into Kenneth Dover’s Marginal Comment, his autobiographical volume which attracted comment in the press when it was published in 1994 owing to his frank discussion of his powerful desire in 1985 to have one of his colleagues, Trevor Aston killed (“without getting into trouble”). It is full of good things, such as this passage (p.69):

“My ambition in 1945 had been: to marry a congenial wife, and with her to bring up children who would become good people; to get a tutorial fellowship at an Oxford or Cambridge college, preferably Balliol; and to write at least one book which would be well regarded by people in my own subject and would be of lasting value to them. I felt by 1950 that I had not done too badly so far. I leave aside wilder ambitions, such as writing a good novel or becoming Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, and fantasies, such as growing a prehensile tail covered with dense fur.”

I was going to add that good autobiography is extremely rare, but since I barely read autobiographies these days, I probably don’t know what I’m talking about. I enjoyed Louis Althusser’s The Future Lasts a Long Time in 1995, and Timothy Garton Ash’s The File more recently, both of which are excellent, though quite odd in their different ways.Nick reminds me [3.4.2002] of another volume of memoirs, which has always meant a great deal to me: Norman Fowler’s rather blissful effort, Ministers Decide.

Orgy puts stop to degree courses in sex

Only in the Daily Telegraph:

By Oliver Poole in Los Angeles

A university course on male and female sexuality has been suspended after students took part in orgies and were taken to a gay strip bar where they watched their instructor have sex.

Male undergraduates at the University of California at Berkeley also complained that they were made to listen to other people’s depraved sexual fantasies, take pictures of their genitalia and watch explicit pornography.

A female sexuality class at the university, which was synonymous in the 1960s with the spirit of free love and psychedelia, is also being investigated after it emerged that it, too, involved visits to strip clubs, along with lectures from porn stars.

Social science faculty heads took action after student Jessica McMahon said that at the end of the trip to the gay strip club the class instructor stripped on stage and started to engage in sexual activity with one of the club’s male performers.

She said: “It got kind of crazy and one of the [strippers] ended up getting fired.”

Christy Kovacs, a Berkeley freshman on the course last term, said that there had been an open invitation to any students who were interested in attending an after-class orgy at another instructor’s home.

They were encouraged to pair off and disappear into one of the bedrooms before swapping to have sex with another partner.

Marie Felde, the university’s spokesman, said that an investigation into the accusations had begun. She said: “Those sorts of activities are not part of the approved course curriculum.”

State senator Dick Ackerman, a Republican and a former student at the university, has demanded the institution “re-evaluate” its approach to pastoral care.

The male and female sexuality courses were set up by the university a decade ago to examine the limits and prejudices surrounding sex.

Although established and monitored by the social sciences faculty, student instructors ran the classes, which counted towards end of year marks.

Among the lecturers scheduled to speak at the male sexuality class this term were Nina Hartley, a porn star who appeared in the Hollywood film Boogie Nights, a representative from an anti-circumcision organisation, and the owner of Good Vibrations, a local sex shop.

It’s such a good Daily Telegraph story that the reader has no idea at all as to whether it might be true.

Cutting Edge Research

Raj writes to the weblog:

Here’s something from the “coffee after a meal keeps you awake” stable, c/o the BBC:

After crunching data from five decades of Olympics, two Harvard economists have deduced that cold countries perform better than hot ones in the winter games, and that large states produce more athletes than their smaller neighbours.

You can download their paper here.

Pierre Bourdieu et mort

Thomas Ferenczi writes in Le Monde:

Les controverses suscitées par les interventions publiques de Pierre Bourdieu au cours des dernières années ont quelquefois obscurci l’image de celui qui est largement reconnu comme l’un des grands penseurs de la société contemporaine. Un de ses disciples, Louis Pinto, a rappelé, il y a deux ans, dans un livre consacré à “Pierre Bourdieu et la théorie du monde social”, comment le travail du sociologue a représenté “une révolution symbolique” analogue à celles qu’on a pu rencontrer dans d’autres disciplines, en musique, en peinture, en philosophie ou en physique.

Ce qu’a apporté Pierre Bourdieu à la sociologie, expliquait Louis Pinto, est avant tout une “manière nouvelle de voir le monde social”en accordant “une fonction majeure aux structures symboliques”. L’éducation, la culture, la littérature, l’art, qui furent ses premiers sujets d’étude, appartiennent à cet univers. Mais les médias et la politique, dont Pierre Bourdieu fit, à la fin de sa vie, son champ d’investigation privilégié, relèvent également de cette approche. Ce qui caractérise les “champs de production symbolique”, selon Louis Pinto, c’est le fait que les “rapports de forces entre agents” ne s’y présentent que “dans la forme transfigurée et euphémisée de rapports de sens”. Autrement dit, la “violence symbolique”, thème central des travaux de Pierre Bourdieu, ne s’analyse pas comme une pure et simple instrumentation au service de la classe dominante, elle s’exerce aussi à travers le jeu des acteurs sociaux. C’est sans doute cette volonté de surmonter les “fausses antinomies” de la tradition sociologique – entre interprétation et explication, entre structure et histoire, entre liberté et déterminisme, entre individu et société, entre subjectivisme et objectivisme – qui donne à la sociologie de Pierre Bourdieu son originalité.

Des Héritiers, un de ses premiers livres, publié en 1964 avec Jean-Claude Passeron, aux Structures sociales de l’économie en 2000, en passant par La Distinction en 1979 et l’ouvrage collectif La Misère du mondeen 1993, pour ne citer que quelques-uns des quelque vingt-cinq livres qu’il a publiés, il a ouvert une voie d’une grande richesse. En lui décernant sa médaille d’or, en 1993, le CNRS lui rendait un hommage mérité. Pierre Bourdieu, estimait le CNRS, “a régénéré la sociologie française, associant en permanence la rigueur expérimentale avec la théorie fondée sur une grande culture en philosophie, anthropologie et sociologie” Mais Pierre Bourdieu n’était pas seulement un chercheur exceptionnel, reconnu par ses pairs à travers le monde, il était aussi un intellectuel soucieux d’intervenir dans le débat public, dans la tradition française de Zola à Sartre. Il avait fait beaucoup, dans les années 1990, pour donner une grande visibilité au mouvement social et incarner ce qu’il appelait une “gauche de gauche”, c’est-à-dire une gauche refusant les compromis consentis, selon lui, par le Parti socialiste.

“Dix ans de pouvoir socialiste ont porté à son achèvement, nous déclarait-il en 1992, la démolition de la croyance en l’Etat et la destruction de l’Etat-providence entreprise dans les années 1970 au nom du libéralisme”. Face au silence des politiques, il en appelait à la mobilisation des intellectuels. “Ce que je défends, expliquait-il dans ce même entretien, c’est la possibilité et la nécessité de l’intellectuel critique”. Il ajoutait : “Il n’y a pas de démocratie effective sans vrai contre-pouvoir critique. L’intellectuel en est un, et de première grandeur”.

Ce combat contre le néolibéralisme sous toutes ses formes, Pierre Bourdieu y avait consacré ses dernières forces. De plus en plus, il s’efforçait de combiner la posture du savant et celle du militant en mettant ses connaissances scientifiques au service de son engagement politique. “Je me suis trouvé par la logique de mon travail, soulignait-il dans un de ses derniers ouvrages (Contre-feux 2, Pour un mouvement social européen), à outrepasser les limites que je m’étais assignées au nom d’une idée de l’objectivité qui m’est apparue comme une forme de censure”. Il se disait soucieux de “faire sortir les savoirs de la cité savante” afin d’offrir de solides bases théoriques à ceux qui tentaient de comprendre et de changer le monde contemporain.

Cette lutte passait aussi par une mise en cause des médias, que Pierre Bourdieu jugeait soumis à une logique commerciale croissante et auxquels il reprochait de donner la parole, à longueur de temps, à des “essayistes bavards et incompétents”. Dans l’une de ses dernières interventions, en 1999, il s’était adressé aux responsables des grands groupes de communication. Dans ces “Questions aux vrais maîtres du monde”, il affirmait notamment : “Ce pouvoir symbolique qui, dans la plupart des sociétés, était distinct du pouvoir politique ou économique, est aujourd’hui réuni entre les mains des mêmes personnes, qui détiennent le contrôle des grands groupes de communication, c’est-à-dire de l’ensemble des instruments de production et de diffusion des biens culturels”.

Il s’élevait contre cette mondialisation-là, refusant le choix entre la mondialisation conçue comme “soumission aux lois du commerce” et au règne du “commercial”, qui est toujours “le contraire de ce que l’on entend à peu près universellement par culture”, et la défense des cultures nationales ou “telle ou telle forme de nationalisme ou localisme culturel”. Loin des souverainistes, il plaidait au contraire inlassablement pour plus d’universel. En se prononçant pour “un mouvement social européen”, comme première étape d’un internationalisme bien compris, il défendait cet idéal, fidèle à son rôle d’intellectuel critique.

Il restait en même temps attaché à sa conception de la sociologie, telle qu’il avait exposée, en 1982, dans sa leçon inaugurale au Collège de France. “La sociologie n’est pas un chapitre de la mécanique, disait-il, et les champs sociaux sont des champs de forces mais aussi des champs de luttes pour transformer ou concerver ces champs de forces”. Il ajoutait : “Le rapport pratique ou pensé que les agents entretiennent avec le jeu fait partie du jeu et peut être au principe de sa transformation”. Contre tous ceux qui l’accusaient de donner trop de poids aux structures et de s’en tenir un déterminisme démobilisateur, il proclamait ainsi sa croyance en la liberté de l’homme. Sa vie et son Å“uvre sont là pour témoigner de cette forte conviction.

First Nozick, then Bourdieu. At a steady rate of one a day, this is startlingly similar to The Name of the Rose.

Robert Nozick, RIP

From the Harvard Gazette:

Philosopher Nozick dies at 63
University professor was major intellectual figure of 20th century
By Ken Gewertz, Gazette Staff University

rofessor Robert Nozick, one of the late 20th century’s most influential thinkers, died on the morning of Jan. 23 at the age of 63. He had been diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1994.

Nozick, known for his wide-ranging intellect and engaging style as both writer and teacher, had taught a course on the Russian Revolution during the fall semester and was planning to teach again in the spring. His last major book, “Invariances: The Structure of the Objective World,” was published by Harvard University Press in October 2001.

According to Alan Dershowitz, the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law and a longtime friend, Nozick had been talking with colleagues and critiquing their work until a week before his death.

“His mind remained brilliant and sharp to the very end,” Dershowitz said.

He added that Nozick was “constantly probing, always learning new subjects. He was a University Professor in the best sense of the term. He taught everybody in every discipline. He was a wonderful teacher, constantly rethinking his own views and sharing his new ideas with students and colleagues. His unique philosophy has influenced generations of readers and will continue to influence people for generations to come.”

Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers said of Nozick’s passing, “I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Robert Nozick. Harvard and the entire world of ideas have lost a brilliant and provocative scholar, profoundly influential within his own field of philosophy and well beyond. All of us will greatly miss his lively mind and spirited presence, but his ideas and example will continue to enrich us for years to come.”

Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Jeremy R. Knowles said, “Bob Nozick was a luminous and wide-ranging philosopher who engaged students and colleagues from across the University and beyond. The loss to philosophy and to Harvard is grievous.”

Philosophy Department Chair Christine Korsgaard described Nozick as “a brilliant and fearless thinker, very fast on his feet in discussion, and apparently interested in everything. Both in his teaching and in his writing, he did not stay within the confines of any traditional field, but rather followed his interests into many areas of philosophy. His works throw light on a broad range of philosophical issues, and on their connection with other disciplines. The courage with which he faced the last years of illness, and the irrepressible energy with which he continued to work, made a very deep impression on all of us.”

Nozick’s controversial and challenging views gained him considerable attention and influence in the world beyond the academy.

His first book, “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” (1974), transformed him from a young philosophy professor known only within his profession to the reluctant theoretician of a national political movement.

He wrote the book as a critique of “Theory of Justice” (1971), by his Harvard colleague John Rawls, the James Bryant Conant University Professor Emeritus. Rawls’ book provided a philosophical underpinning for the bureaucratic welfare state, a methodically reasoned argument for why it was right for the state to redistribute wealth in order to help the poor and disadvantaged.

Nozick’s book argued that the rights of the individual are primary and that nothing more than a minimal state – sufficient to protect against violence and theft, and to ensure the enforcement of contracts – is justified. “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” won the National Book Award and was named by The Times Literary Supplement as one of “The Hundred Most Influential Books Since the War.”

A former member of the radical left who was converted to a libertarian perspective as a graduate student, largely through his reading of conservative economists Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, Nozick was never comfortable with his putative status as an ideologue of the right.

In a 1978 article in The New York Times Magazine he said that “right-wing people like the pro-free-market argument, but don’t like the arguments for individual liberty in cases like gay rights – although I view them as an interconnecting whole. …”

Whether they agreed or disagreed with the political implication of the book, critics were nearly unanimous in their appreciation for Nozick’s lively, accessible writing style. In a discipline known for arduous writing, Nozick’s approach was hailed as a breath of fresh air.

He explained his approach in the article cited above: “It is as though what philosophers want is a way of saying something that will leave the person they’re talking to no escape. Well, why should they be bludgeoning people like that? It’s not a nice way to behave.”

Despite the notoriety and influence that his first book brought him, Nozick moved on to explore very different territory in his second book, “Philosophical Explanations” (1981). This need to be intellectually on the move at all times characterized his career. He once told an interviewer, “I didn’t want to spend my life writing ‘The Son of Anarchy, State, and Utopia.'”

In “Philosophical Explanations,” Nozick took on subjects that many academic philosophers had dismissed as irrelevant or meaningless, such as free will versus determinism and the nature of subjective experience, and why there is something rather than nothing. In dealing with these questions, he rejected the idea of strict philosophical proof, adopting instead a notion of philosophical pluralism.

“There are various philosophical views, mutually incompatible, which cannot be dismissed or simply rejected,” he wrote in “Philosophical Explanations.” “Philosophy’s output is the basketful of these admissible views, all together.” Nozick suggested that this basketful of views could be ordered according to criteria of coherence and adequacy and that even second- and third-ranked views might offer valuable truths and insights.

Nozick continued to develop his theory of philosophical pluralism in his next book, “The Examined Life” (1989), an exploration of the individual’s relation to reality that, once again, emphasized explanation rather than proof.

In his book, “The Nature of Rationality” (1995), Nozick asked what function principles serve in our daily life and why we don’t simply act on whim or out of self-interest. “Socratic Puzzles” (1997) was a collection of essays, articles, and reviews, plus several examples of Nozick’s philosophical short fiction.

His next work, “Invariances: The Structure of the Objective World,” (2001) looks at the nature of truth and objectivity and examines the function of subjective consciousness in an objective world. It also scrutinizes truth in ethics and discusses whether truth in general is relative to culture and social factors.

Nozick’s teaching followed the same lively, unorthodox, heterogeneous pattern as his writing. With one exception, he never taught the same course twice. The exception was “The Best Things in Life,” which he presented in 1982 and ’83, attempting to derive from the class discussion a general theory of values. The course description called it an exploration of “the nature and value of those things deemed best, such as friendship, love, intellectual understanding, sexual pleasure, achievement, adventure, play, luxury, fame, power, enlightenment, and ice cream.”

Speaking without notes, Nozick would pace restlessly back and forth, an ever-present can of Tab in his hand, drawing his students into a free-ranging discussion of the topic at hand.

He once defended his “thinking out loud” approach by comparing it with the more traditional method of giving students finished views of the great philosophical ideas.

“Presenting a completely polished and worked-out view doesn’t give students a feel for what it’s like to do original work in philosophy and to see it happen, to catch on to doing it.”

He also used his teaching as a way of working out his ideas, often leading to views that he would later present in book form. “If somebody wants to know what I’m going to do next, what they ought to do is keep an eye on the Harvard course catalogue,” he once told an interviewer.

Nozick, who grew up in Brooklyn and attended public school there, came to philosophy via a paperback version of Plato’s “Republic,” which he found intellectually thrilling. Nozick described the experience in his 1989 book, “The Examined Life” – “When I was 15 years old, or 16, I carried around on the streets of Brooklyn a paperback copy of Plato’s �Republic’; front cover facing outward. I had read only some of it and understood less, but I was excited by it and knew it was something wonderful.”

Nozick obtained an A.B. degree from Columbia College in 1959, and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Princeton in 1961 and 1963, respectively. After stints at Princeton and the Rockefeller University, Nozick came to Harvard as a full professor in 1969, at the age of 30. He became Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Philosophy in 1985 and in 1998 was named the Joseph Pellegrino University Professor.

Nozick was the recipient of many awards and honors, among them the Presidential Citation from the American Psychological Association in 1998, which described him as “one of the most brilliant and original living philosophers.”

Nozick was also a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the Council of Scholars of the Library of Congress, a corresponding fellow of the British Academy, and a senior fellow of the Society of Fellows at Harvard. He served as the president of the American Philosophical Association’s Eastern Division from 1997 to 1998, was a Christensen visiting fellow at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford University, 1997, and a cultural adviser to the U.S. Delegation to the UNESCO Conference on World Cultural Policy in 1982.

In the spring of 1997, he delivered the six John Locke Lectures at Oxford University. He held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.

He is survived by his wife, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, and his two children, Emily Sarah Nozick and David Joshua Nozick.

Nozick will be buried in a private ceremony. A memorial service is being planned for sometime in February.

Time for some serious retrospective activity…

Student Finance

My colleague Stewart is interested in anyone’s answers to the following questions about student finance:

1. Do you think the £1,075 p.a. fee is a deterrent to people from poorer backgrounds going to university?

2. Do you think current arrangements for student loans are a deterrent for these groups?

3. Do you think 17-18 year olds think differently about the financial burden associated with a debt that they leave college with, and a graduate tax that they might have to pay when they go into work to pay for the university education they had?

4. Do you think the amount of money, if any, the state gives to students who go to higher education (say in a grant) should be means-tested based on their parents’ income?

Answers to the weblog, please.