Tony Judt On A Pair Of Intellectual Sins

In The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron, and The French Twentieth Century (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1998, p. 121), Tony Judt writes of Albert Camus:

One of the things that he had to come to dislike the most about Parisian intellectuals was their conviction that they had something to say about everything, and that everything could be reduced to the kind of thing they liked to say.

Of the two intellectual sins made note of here, the former seems more forgivable than the latter. Moreover, it is not a specifically ‘intellectual’ failing (and certainly not restricted to only those that live within Parisian precincts); the desire to make our opinions heard on every topic imaginable seems a rather more universal striving. We are a loquacious species, prone to issuing a series of rich, detailed, reports on what we observe in both the inner and outer dimensions. We thrive on communication and theorizing, on seemingly endless chatter; even our silences are understood to be pregnant with meanings and are instantly analyzed as such. We valorize the novel and the personal essay–perhaps even the tweet and the ‘status’–and esteem their creators as among our finest. So long as this incentive scheme remains in place, those who speak and write will continue to hold forth, and with ever greater ambition.  When history and philosophy and autobiography cannot contain these strivings, they spill over into fiction. Or vice-versa.

The sin of indiscriminate reduction is another matter altogether. It insists on an unimaginative pigeonholing of our experiences into rigid, unbending templates; the rich multiplicity of possible perspectives vanishes into a monochromatic view.  Discourse–the supposedly unending stream alluded to above–narrows. The bit about the lack of imagination is crucial; it is reductionism’s greatest sin. It lazily insists on returning all conversations to the same terminus. Again, intellectuals are not the only ones to stand indicted of this failing, but their sin is greater. For they are supposed beneficiaries of education, that great ‘broadening’ of the mind; the ignorant’s failure to move beyond the confines of their illiteracy is more comprehensible.

If we had to extend our tolerance to these failings let us err on the side of generosity and encourage the possibilities of the former. Richer rewards await us there.

Note: The supposedly old saw about hammers and nails is, according to Wikipedia, possessed of a relatively recent academic etymology:

Abraham Maslow, The Psychology of Science, 1966, page 15 and his earlier book Abraham H. Maslow (1962), Toward a Psychology of BeingI suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.

Similar concept by Abraham Kaplan, The Conduct of Inquiry: Methodology for Behavioral Science, 1964, page 28: I call it the law of the instrument, and it may be formulated as follows: Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.

Labeled “Baruch’s Observation” (after Bernard Baruch) in The Complete Murphy’s Law: A Definitive Collection (1991) by Arthur Bloch.


Mass Incarceration And Teaching Philosophy Of Law

This coming spring semester, as in the just-concluded fall semester, I will be teaching Philosophy of Law. As I get down to thinking about my syllabus, one imperative seems overriding: I must ‘do more’ on mass incarceration (and related topics like the theory of punishment and the death penalty.) No topic seems more important, pressing, and urgent in today’s United States. In the face of the brutal particulars of mass incarceration (and the racism and War on Drugs that animate and sustain it), the highly theoretical particulars of the traditional debates in the philosophy of law–the nature of law according to natural law and positivist theories, legal reasoning, the interpretation of legal texts–seem curiously context-free, unanchored to empirical particulars pertaining to the lives of actual legal subjects. (To be sure, legal realist, critical legal studies, critical race, and feminist legal theories do animate and make concrete these discussions considerably; they also inject a much-needed dose of historical and political perspective.)

With these considerations in mind, a tentative outline for the upcoming semester’s syllabus suggests itself to me: begin with Lon Fuller‘s The Case of the Speluncean Explorers, using it to animate–or as my friend Cathy Kemp likes to say, ‘ignite’–discussions on natural law, positivism, and statutory interpretation; move on to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes‘ classic The Path of the Law; follow this up with H. L. A. Hart‘s The Concept of Law (almost certainly not in its entirety), and then, switching gears, move to Michelle Alexander‘s The New Jim Crow and  Albert CamusReflections on the Guillotine. (As noted, this is an outline; I will supplement this basic structure with some selected case studies that will help illustrate the central issues at play in reasoning by analogy and precedent, and the dominant theories of constitutional interpretation.)

Needless to say, this is a pretty idiosyncratic syllabus, and I might be accused by many philosophers of law of leaving uncovered a host of topics that have traditionally been of interest to that demographic: rights, justice and equality, responsibility, legal procedure and evidence, torts, property, contracts etc. My syllabus shows a clear bias toward public law and ignores private law altogether; there is no critical legal studies; some traditional philosophers will be appalled to see Camus in this reading list; and so on. (The alert reader will have noticed however, that the first four topics on that laundry list cannot but occur, implicitly or explicitly, in a discussion of mass incarceration like the one undertaken in The New Jim Crow.)

I remain resolutely unapologetic about these omissions though. My syllabus will strike a reasonable balance between the ‘theoretical’ and the ‘applied’, and more to the point, it will bring into my classroom, that moral, political, and legal atrocity–mass incarceration–that is not only America’s greatest modern embarrassment but also, in some ways, the most relevant topic of all as far as my students’ lives are concerned.  I’d consider this the strongest reason of all in favor of its displacement of traditional material.

Camus On The Death Penalty And The Right To Make Amends

In Reflections on the Guillotine Albert Camus writes:

Deciding that a man must have the definitive punishment imposed on him is tantamount to deciding that that man has no chance of making amends….none among us can settle the question, for we are all both judges and interested parties. Whence our uncertainty as to our right to kill and our inability to convince each other….Now, we have all done wrong in our lives….There are no just people merely hearts more or less lacking in justice. Living at least allows us to discover this and to add to the sum of our actions a little of the good that will make up in part for the evil we have added to the world. Such a right to live, which allows a chance to make amends, is the natural right of every man, even the worst man. The lowest of criminals and the most upright of judges meet side by side, equally wretched in their solidarity. Without that right, moral life is utterly impossible. None among us is authorized to despair of a single man, except after his death, which transforms his life into destiny and then permits a definitive judgment. But pronouncing the definitive judgment before his death, decreeing the closing of accounts when the creditor is still alive, is no man’s right. On this limit, at least, whoever judges absolutely condemns himself absolutely.

The strongest ‘practical’ i.e., quasi-consequentialist argument against the death penalty is that it it is irreversible. No amends, no reparations can be made to the condemned if the sentencing is incorrect; the price that might be paid for the satisfaction of the impulse to seek retribution is too high.

To that familiar argument, Camus adds two interesting embellishments. First, there is the Biblical ‘let him who is without sin cast the first stone’, which indicts the accusers and condemners of inevitable hypocrisy and sanctimony (there is an interesting echo here of Tolstoy‘s reading of the Gospels’ ‘Judge not, condemn not’ in My Religion).

And then there is a ‘right to live, which allows a chance to make amends’ for past wrongdoings, which Camus describes as a ‘natural right of every man’. The denial of the right to live, to make amends, amounts to a premature condemnation, a denial of the right to live  a ‘moral life.’

These are novel rights. (They might especially seem novel in the context of an agent accused of a crime terrible enough to warrant consideration of the death penalty.) But their grounding seems clear enough: we are condemned to be free, to bear the burden of our actions’ consequences, to live a life of trials, of making choices. There is no afterlife; this is all there is, the here and now. This world is the only one in which our wrongs may be redressed by us. And since we are all together, condemned to the same fate, the same imperfections present in varying degrees in each of us, we owe a duty to our fellow beings to allow them this chance at redemption.