The seductions of reason

June 26, 1998

ROUTLEDGE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF PHILOSOPHY. Edward Craig, editor. 8,136pp. Routledge. Pounds 1,695 (Pounds 1,995 with CD-ROM). - 0 415 07310 3.

Encyclopaedia" is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as "1. The circle of learning. 2. A work containing information on all branches of knowledge, usually arranged alphabetically." The latter definition dates from 1644, when it was still feasible to believe that all knowledge could be collated in a single conspectus. The last man who was reported to know everything died at the end of the eighteenth century. After that, encyclopaedias became irreversibly specialized. The scope of human knowledge having surpassed the binder's embrace, partiality will always be an irrevocable feature of expertise. We cannot now avoid eclecticism except through renunciation or regression.

In a subject at once so specialized and so diversified, what compendium could encompass all those with claims to being philosophers, or philosophes? The new Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy meets a multiplicity of postulants with a generous admissions policy. Its voluminous verbosity runs to some 6 million words (every one of which I have not read) compiled by a competent - "striving together in company" - international panel of exegetes under the general editorship of Edward Craig. The latter has exacted a high standard of clarity in exposition and has, in most cases, judged nicely how much space to allot to doctrines, ideas and individuals. The writing is never wilfully technical; solecisms and misprints are few: "there would be little point of doing social science" is an untypical inelegance in Russell Hardin's helpful article on Rational-Choice Theory.

It would be miraculous if one agreed with the choices and conclusions in all ten volumes, but - before offering qualifying quibbles - it is right to salute a monumental labour rarely laborious to use, always informative to read and diverting to browse. What is missing, inevitably, is the shaping spirit and single-handed genius to be found, for example, in Louis Jacobs's Companion to the Jewish Religion. The Routledge Encyclopedia has been compiled by a committee without either the premeditated scheme of the pious or the abbreviating iconoclasm of, say, the Vienna Circle (q.v.). The good news is that no axes are ground, the bad that there is not much edge. As in the Nile delta, what is gained in spread is lost, to some degree, in profundity.

It would be surprising, not to say reckless, for so vast an enterprise to have been undertaken without measured appreciation of its likely customers. Zeal for global reach sometimes involves arid stretches: several of the more general articles - for instance on Mexican and on Latin American philosophy - overlap without thickening our knowledge. Others are either diffuse (Charles B. Guignon on Existentialism does not find occasion, in nine pages, to mention A. J. Ayer's puncturing point that the whole enterprise is based on a misunderstanding of the verb "to be", which led Sartre to observe "Ayer est un con") or too specialized: is this the place for prolonged instruction in the pronunciation of Sanskrit and Tibetan words? In view of some unfortunate truncations and omissions, such digressions smack too loudly of marketing considerations.

If Professor C. E. M. Joad - a famous wartime Brains Truster, along with Bertrand Russell (who when invited to review one of Joad's books declined, saying "Modesty forbids") - has gone deservedly into the out-tray, John Anderson is unduly promoted, perhaps to lend persuasive force to reps doing the rounds of Australian university librarians. The absence of Kenneth Burke (except in the often sweetly opinionated bibliographies) is a mistake: his Grammar of Motives, especially his analyses of "scene" and "substance", deserves fuller recognition. The omission of Raymond Aron is ignobly matched by undue deference to Jean-Paul Sartre. Is a post-1989 encyclopaedia the place for implicit endorsement of the dated soixante-huitard notion that it is better to be wrong with Sartre than right with Aron? If Hannah Arendt's lucubrations on totalitarianism merit her inclusion, do we really need to hear again, at length, that Eichmann was "not . . . an evil man", or that his "evil deeds, although not done inadvertently, had no deeper meaning for him and were incidental to his murderous job"? Bhikhu Parekh lacks the nerve to assert, or the wit to hint, that Arendt's "understanding" of Eichmann might have been a function of her unspoken desire to exempt her Nazi lover, Martin Heidegger, from the damnation he deserved, not for his opinions but for his cowardice.

At the same time that metaphysical elaborations continue to be venerated, their critics are ignored. Marxism cannot, of course, be omitted, but why are we denied mention of L'Opium des intellectuels? Aron - who outshone Sartre as a student - wrote his anti-Communist manifesto knowing that it would lead to his ostracism by those who preferred not to disillusion Billancourt rather than to respect the truth. Aron embarrassed post-war gauchistes, just as La Trahison des clercs by Julien Benda (also uncited) challenged ideological opportunists of the entre-deux-guerres (Andre Malraux would be furious to discover that he is not even vilified here, although his aesthetics were, at one time, taken very seriously, not least by him). If it is said that neither Aron nor Benda was a proper philosopher, why should we accept the mystagogue Lacan and the modish Julia Kristeva (whose best work, Le Temps sensible, a study of Proust, is not mentioned in her bibliography)?

As far as English philosophy is concerned, it is a pleasure to see Charlie Dunbar Broad accorded respect. His cuttingly tolerant thought is well conveyed, but those who attended his lectures will notice how much of the flavour of a teacher cannot be discovered in any A to Z (a posteriori - a great place to start - to Zytkow J.). The charm of philosophy is not merely in published texts or theories; personality graces reason with seduction (what else made Socrates beautiful to Alcibiades, as Sartre was to Giacometti?) Broad, like A. C. Ewing (uncited), did not go with the Wittgensteinian flow; his meticulous scepticism was that of a man who took smiling pride in being discreetly exceptional. His lectures were notable both for their articulate preparation ("I shall now list seventeen objections to Berkeley's theory") and for the fact that he repeated everything he said, he repeated everything he said. As a result, I still have an almost complete rescription of his objections to Berkeley, and to other philosophers, though I cannot say that I remember any of them. His indexes - for instance that in Five Types of Ethical Theory - were the wittiest I know (eg, "England, Church of, The Author's respect for"). If Broad's breadth was remarkable, so was his narrowness; like one of his own category of "clever-sillies", he affected abiding admiration for the racial theories of the late Adolf Hitler. This did not prevent him asking me (and the Aryan Tony, now Professor, Becher) to dine with him in Trinity. Having written all his life on probability and physics, he confessed to us that, in old age, the sole remaining scientific experiment which it interested him to conduct was making yoghurt. "You see, boys, even under identical conditions, of temperature and so on, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't!" What print also does not reveal is that Broad agreed with Wittgenstein at least in one department: he too was a regular visitor to Scandinavia, where (I suspect) he found male company as amenable as Housman's in Venice.

No doubt, none of this should be in an encyclopaedia, but it indicates how much remains undescribed when philosophers are taken to be no more than marmoreal fountains of ideas. Even A. J. Ayer, the cocksman and Tottenham supporter, whose stylishness made the derivative Language, Truth and Logic seem original, made this mistake in his brisk, dismissive study of Wittgenstein; having discounted a philosopher's aura, it is often difficult to convey the reasons for his influence. Even Plato's literary genius could not "deliver" Socrates; to write of eironeia is not to catch its accents, still less its hesitations and pauses. What encyclopaedia can teach as a great teacher does? I may have Broad's notes in my files, but in John Wisdom's case - although I have no written record of a word he said - I have the voice, the anguish, the irony, in my head and, at argumentative times, in my hands (oh those Wittgensteinian manual brackets!) "Say it if you like, but be careful", is no bad slogan for philosophers.

The great stylists bring a flair to the game which no catalogue can capture. There was something so decidedly English about Wisdom's whimsical urgency that I cannot take him to have been merely a deutero-, still less a pseudo-, Wittgenstein. His hushed humour was almost indistinguishable from shyness, or slyness; the unpreparedness of his lectures seemed irresponsible, until you realized that he was inviting you to think along with him, to feel the elusiveness of the matter, the oddness of philosophy. He had a wincing distaste for definition as a prelude to discussion. Required by an insistently crass "tourist" to define "good", he was unusually nettled: "Suppose I said that 'good' was anything that added up to an even number, would that resolve anything?" Wisdom's literary excursions led him to use David Garnett's Lady into Fox to illustrate the way in which definition rarely worked when you needed it:

"At what point are we likely to say 'By Jove, look at that pointy nose, with the slightly russet bloom on it, she's definitely a fox now, isn't she?'" Wisdom did not captivate all of his audience.

Piers Paul Read records his disgust at the memory of the request for an example of a metaphysical question. The young Read proposed "Does God exist?", to which Wisdom responded, "Oh! Oh! I was thinking of something more along the lines of . . .'Is this a table?'" Wisdom did not subscribe to the modern view, "I publish, therefore I am important", but his influential Other Minds set the agenda for Ryle (properly valued here by William Lyons), while his series of articles on logical constructions are an essential part of the philosophy of his time. His essay/parable about the invisible gardener whose attentions may, or may not, account for the appearance of order in an overgrown park (or paradise) is a very English didactic myth about the existence, or non-existence, of God and, in particular, the argument from design. If the human mind is indeed immortal, and philosophy is what we shall do throughout disembodied eternity ("Tr s longue", said a French wit, "surtout a la fin"), I should be sorry to sit in on a celestial colloquium from which Wisdom had, as here, been edited out. He made the subject fun, which was less true of grim analysts who asked terminally deterrent questions such as, "Are facts irrevocably wedded to that-clauses?" I stumbled on some ben trovate surprises: for instance, the Ghanaian-born Anton Wilhelm Amo (c 1703-56), who learnt Dutch, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French and German and both argued bravely against slavery and lectured on Leibniz at German universities. After eventual "racial rebuff" in Europe, he returned to Ghana where, reverting to Ashanti tradition, he became a goldsmith and seer. Among mavericks who might have been expected to figure along-side him is the Triestine Carlo Michelstaedter, the precociously "Wittgensteinian" author of Persuasion and Rhetoric who committed suicide at the age of twenty-three, supposedly on the day he finished his remarkable "tractatus" ("Apesbeetheen" was his last word). Otto Weininger, who killed himself at the same age, also fails to make the cut, a more serious lapse, in view of his influence; he was the only Jewish philosopher cited approvingly by Nazi thinkers, on account of his self-hating dichotomies. T. E. Hulme's maverick Speculations (intelligent and proto-fascistic) might have earned him a mention too.

In the lavish mass of what remains, we are reminded that philosophy is a subject of unnerving and inexhaustible perplexity. The curious tourist may also wonder why, or whether, it is still of urgent significance. Is it a lubricant or a motor? Over forty years ago, Jean-Francois Revel (also not cited) asked the militantly impatient question "Pourquoi des philosophes?" In that long essay, the recently graduated normalien ironized on the smug way in which philosophers "discovered" conclusive evidence for conclusions to which they had already come. Is it not still odd that they so seldom surprise themselves? Even more rarely are they Popperian enough to go in search of reasons or evidence why they might be wrong. Plato, like Berkeley, used the dialogue form to give the appearance of taking objections seriously, but the chat was as rigged as a French presidential press conference. By actually refuting his own early self, Wittgenstein was as unusual as Frege was noble when confronting - not to say applauding - Russell's objections to what had been his life's work. Russell himself was never the same again after Wittgenstein worked the same trick with him, though he paid him back by omitting him from his History of Western Philosophy. (Russell included Byron - which Edward Craig's severity does not - perhaps less because they were both wicked lords than because Byron too was a moralizing amoralist who dreaded madness.) Whether or not Revel's juvenile polemic (like Gellner's Words and Things, which Gilbert Ryle notoriously disdained to review in Mind) was more than a clamorous claim to early fame, the programmatic circularity of an encyclopaedia is appropriate to a discipline which Wittgenstein famously asserted did not possess specific subject matter; one might philosophize, he suggested, but one could not pin philosophy strictly in its proper territory. Like the pronoun "I", the heart of the matter was systematically elusive.

Back in the 1950s, however, Philosophy seemed lean and mean and aggressively moribund. Whole departments were threatened with ignominious closure by those who might have staffed them. Metaphysicians were held to be either spurious or fraudulent ("misplaced poets" was the best that could be said for them). The exclamatory nature of ethics and aesthetics, the pointlessness of asking "why?", the futility of arguments about God or the Ultimate Nature of the Real, the comic vanity of intuitive (ha!) pretensions to "knowledge" when only science knew, the absurdity of bypassing ordinary language (the repository of sound sense) in favour of a "truer" vocabulary, all of these aberrations proved that there had to be better things to do - grinding the lenses of Science - than to rechop old logics.

Therapeutic positivism, we happy few believed, would massage away all the remaining cramps and cricks. Man would stand truer, if not taller, once he had jumped down from the shoulders of the giants who had given him a stilted conception of the world. In the event, the dog it was that died. Metaphysics (as Popper had warned, or promised) were more enduring, perhaps more useful, than Language, Truth and Logic. Ta meteora are still being considered: Possible Worlds (q.v.) may be, well, possible. New departments are opening: Women (see Feminist Ethics, Gender and Language, etc.) have a floor to themselves. The movies - did not Wittgenstein have a famous faible for the flicks? - provide texts more easily read than Aristotle's Metaphysics Lambda (about which I still dream in recurrent Tripos nightmares). Renascent philosophy spreads into Politics (Anthony O'Hear is excellent on Conservatism); Medicine (Noam J. Zohar on "Bioethics, Jewish" encapsulates the now generally inextricable interpenetration of religious and clinical proprieties); History, including "Chinese Theories of", elucidated by Philip J. Ivanhoe, and "Philosophy of", in which the deplorable return of Hegel to respectability, if never readability, is symptomized by Gordon Graham's haymaking swipe at The Open Society and Its Enemies; and Linguistics, where his specific eminence licenses, perhaps, Chomsky's wide-ranging and -raging opinions. This relentless, if not accelerating, torrent of doubt and certainty suggests that philosophy, whatever it may be (or not be), has never had such a boom.

Rene Girard (improperly uncited, when Mircea Eliade is included) would be unsurprised to note that religion and philosophy are still fr res-ennemis. Has he not reminded us that everything that man - the mimetic animal - thinks about is instinct with duplicity? The Catholic Church's recent "apology" to the Jews again displays the viavai continuo of buck-passing by accusing the Enlightenment of furnishing the warrant for genocide on which, in their turn, the enlightened read the signature of Christianity and hear the silence of the Pope. Must the same phenomena always admit different logics? Does the world keep changing, as Heracleitus declared, or does it never change, as Parmenides did, or both, as Plato proposed? The garrulous hell of the philosopher will surely be that of Jean-Paul Sartre, in whose Huis Clos the concluding imperative is "Recommencons" and the only available company is other solipsists.

Can the way forward ever avoid also leading us back? Philosophers such as Heidegger have often sought to purge themselves of cant, or abort the nightmares which they have not scrupled to furnish, by seeking to retreat to the fork in the path where We All Went Wrong (in a similar regression, Alistair MacIntyre's After Virtue sees the Enlightenment's incoherent ethics as the fall-out from the kind of exploded community which he, like his fellow neo-Thomists, imagines Aristotle to have commended). Was there ever, in fact, a time when societies lived by a single logic? Even the Spartans - Plato's ideal statesmen - had their nocturnal council, which does not argue a want of dissidence among the Equals. How clean of outside influence were Heidegger's pre-Socratics? Did not the Ionians' alarming neighbours, the Persians - with their aristocratic cult of truth-telling - have more influence on early Greek "science" than Germano-Hellenizing chauvinism cared to acknowledge, or honour?

Syncretism is endemic in human thought. Retrieval and innovation beat a circular path: as Heracleitus said, mischievously (or would he have said it?), "the road up and the road down are the same road". Can any retour aux sources retrieve the unalloyed truth about Being, if there is any? Can even an encyclopaedia avoid arri re-pensee, and should it? The antiquity of language means that, as was said by Althusser (too gently handled by Alex Callinicos) and as Paul de Man (down the drain) agreed, there can no longer be any such thing as an innocent reading, or an innocent (as against a naive) text. Blandness may be more proper to a work of reference than parti pris, but the price of uncritical tabulation is the regilding of tarnished reputations. I am not competent to judge the value of Teilhard de Chardin's scientifico-religious amalgam, but to omit reference to Peter Medawar's informed demolition is a serious flaw, as is the failure to mention Richard Webster (and Karen Horney) on Freud.

Is it significant that Leo Strauss is one of the few teachers seriously to exasperate his exegete here? Strauss "outed", so to say, the usually hidden agenda of philosophers and gleefully revealed (and endorsed) their systematic tendency to encode their dangerously true thoughts so that only the initiated can share them. This "elitism" elicits the usual boos from Shadia B. Drury, but how different is it from Berkeley's "we ought to think with the learned and speak with the vulgar"?

An indelible aspect of the ambiguity of language is the duplicitous ambition of those who use it. Power as well as wisdom has been the regular target of philosophers. In its pursuit, they can be graded along a scale which runs up, or down, from Diogenes, Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein at one end to, say, Plato, Russell, Hegel and Heidegger at the other. The integrity of the former set was fortified by an ascesis which involved the renunciation of worldly power and comfort: the coin-clipping Diogenes in his vat, like Wittgenstein in his indoor deck-chair, disdained fortune, though neither was indifferent to fame. However, when offered favours by Aristotle's most famous pupil, Diogenes asked only that Alexander the Great move out of his light. This anecdote, like the one which promises that he masturbated in public in order to draw cynical attention to the hypocrisy of others, is not mentioned in his decorous entry. There is less squeamishness in telling the story of Hypatia (ad 370-415) who combined "exceptional" beauty with enough nerve to "temper a love-sick student" by removing her bloody sanitary towel and throwing it at him with the words "This is what you really want, young man, and it is no good". This, we are told, rather surprisingly, "agrees with other descriptions of her as 'solemn' and 'virgin/unmarried' to the end". Film Studies (and Eternal Return) buffs will recall that Judy Holliday did something similarly philosophical when she threw her falsies at Darryl Zanuck, as she got out of his car, saying "Take the damn things, you've been trying to get your hands on them all evening".

If Wittgenstein agonized over supposed "sins" which Diogenes might have flaunted, he renounced a fortune and wore even professorial robes with the air of someone who would have preferred sackcloth and ashes. For all their paraded humility, those in the ascetic tradition do not necessarily lack desire to impress, and reform, the world; the gnomic, aphoristic style to be found all the way from Heracleitus to the early Wittgenstein both intimidates and seduces, beckons and repudiates uninitiated tourists. The article on Ambiguity here is dryly instructive on sentences of the order of "The girl hit the boy with a book", but it neglects, in an excess of caution, to speculate on the usefulness, as well as the logic, of ambiguity; the Delphic oracle contrived always to be right (at least until the Persians led the priestess to lose her balance) by, for famous instance, telling Croesus that if he attacked Cyrus he would "destroy a great empire". The riddle lies at the source of both poetry and philosophy (and its elucidation funds criticism); the obscurity of the oracle makes the journey to it, and the conclusions we draw, as enchanting as they are hazardous. The Sphinx warned of the dangers of insufficient wit, just as Plato did of the scandal of unduly loud laughter. How sweet, in the light of Ryle's view of him, in Plato's Progress, as a frustrated crowd-pleasing dramatist, that the latter was "shadowed", as it were, by a comic poet of the same name whose stock in trade was elegant eroticism!

The element of play embedded in deep thought, the addiction to paradox and scandal, is not sufficiently remarked here. Leo Strauss did have a point when he alleged that Socrates/Plato had no convincing refutation of Thrasymachus and that the whole of The Republic can be read as a concealment of that fact. Ruediger Safranski is no less bold, in his new biography, in suggesting that Heidegger was (partly?) joking in his humourless accounts of Dasein, in which his stammering (and Nazi-mocking) brother, who was also his archivist, revealed the element of Dadaism.

Karl Marx accused earlier philosophers of describing the world which he proposed to change, but he knew very well that description is a way of changing it. Philosophers at the Plato/Russell/Heidegger end of the axis have been less consistently loyal to disinterested speculation (a characteristic, D. H. Lawrence alleged, of Jews) than eager for literally leading parts in the world's game. Francis Bacon was not the first of them to discover, though one of the few to admit, that all ascent to power is by a winding stair, nor was he the last to take it. Paris was worth a mass to Henry IV, and philosophical autocracy a "Sieg heil" from Heidegger.

Disillusionment usually follows the tortuous climber's ambition: Plato did not find Dionysius II a satisfactory student and Heidegger, after his un-becoming (shall we say?) infatuation with Hitler was asked, quietly, by colleagues, "Back from Syracuse?" By a nice coincidence, Syracuse was not only where Plato learned the difference between theory and praxis, but also where the dangers of combining abstract thought with practical politics led to the death of Archimedes. Like the Alexandrian (and Manhattan project) scientists, he willingly lent his genius to military matters. Having supposedly concentrated the sun's rays in order to set fire to the approaching Roman fleet, however, he affected to care more for triangles (a Roman sergeant felled him all the same). The link between other-worldly theories and their mundane application seems almost fortuitous (unless God is a mathematician, as Stephen Hawking seems to believe, or a dialectician, as Hegel did), but there appears to be no impermeable division between the sublime and the mundane.

Applied philosophers may first win their spurs by undertaking arduous and abstract work - Principia Mathematica is an egregious instance - but this can be used to certify a genius which is then held to be authoritative in fields where its logical warrant does not necessarily run. Hence Wittgenstein advised that certain of Russell's works should be bound in blue, and be obligatory reading, while others (on morals, politics, etc) should be bound in red and put on the index librorum prohibitorum. Plato was not the first philosopher to seek access to worldly power (Anaxagoras was to Pericles what Lindemann was to Churchill), but he was the first to propose a blueprint for government. (Pythagoras' communities were more modest, and his ideas more homespun than normative.) Affecting to despise Peitho, Plato introduced into philosophy a strand of tendentious duplicity which has bedevilled it ever since. The gennaion pseudos (however emolliently translated by his fans as "the genealogical fiction") was a trick modified and appropriated by millenarian philosophers down the ages. Philosophy has regularly flirted with and sought to influence the princes who govern the world. How curious that the names of three of the most renowned pre-Socratics all began with Anax-, the Greek for king!

The charisma of Plato and Aristotle, in whom all ancient wisdom seemed to be incorporated, meant that Athens became the other pole to Jerusalem in the evolution of Christianity; syncretism and affectations of doctrinal purity have been typical of Western thought. The want of innocence to which Althusser drew flashy attention has been both the virtue and the bane of the civilization which has, it seems, now more or less conquered - or subverted - the world. From time to time, Savanarolan attempts have been made to purge society of its impurities, but the genius of Europe is happily hybrid; it lacks one fundamental principle. Duplicity has been its natural style ever since it helped itself, with both hands, to the religious and philosophical language and practice of the eastern Mediterranean. What seemed a flaw (to both popes and positivists) licensed a diversity as fruitful as it has, at times, been murderous. The Wars of Religion might have been avoided if there had been no Reformation, but who will claim that a single intellectual currency would not have impoverished thought? "And", "or", "but", "if" are the small words that sap all mental monoliths.

The comedy of philosophy is that its fire goes out unless certainty sparks scepticism. Its tragedy is that, again and again, philosophers - Plato, Hegel and Marx above all - have imagined that ultimate truths were available to them and that their keys could turn the lock of history. In consequence, what Auden (without irony at the time of its composition) called "the necessary murder" became a genocidal duty. Man seeks both rigour, in order not to be misled, and liberty in order not to be led. Philosophers, once they leave the hermetically abstract redoubts of logic and mathematics (or the self-validating schemes of religion), are to be judged by the honesty with which they confront their limitations as well as by the ingenuity of their revisions of the human condition. Men (and an increasing number of women) go round and round in hermeneutic circles. This encyclopaedia, grandiose but never definitive, testifies to both their nobility and their folly. Luckily, however, it can never offer the last word. Recommencons!

Frederic Raphael's Popper: Historicism and its poverty is published next month.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.