RIP Norman Geras

Norman Geras, prolific blogger and professor emeritus of politics at the University of Manchester has passed away at the age of 70. He had been suffering from prostate cancer. Norm was best known as a political theorist whose oeuvre included books on Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg and Richard Rorty. (He also served on the editorial boards of the New Left Review and the Socialist Register.)

I chanced upon Norm’s blog after he and I had a short online exchange in response to a minor quasi-theological debate triggered by Yoram HazonyI had written a post responding to  a piece by Hazony in the New York Times; so did Norm. Corey Robin sent me  Norman’s post, and I emailed or tweeted him, pointing him to mine.

On Norm’s blog, I found out that besides writing on politics, he also wrote on cricket. (As I blog on cricket too, and consider myself a pretty serious fan, I was immediately hooked.) In particular, Norm maintained a section titled ‘Memories of Cricket: a series of recollections of incidents, notable and not so notable, in the history of cricket, with each personal recounting supplemented by descriptions of the same event from books in Norm’s voluminous collection. Shortly thereafter, Norm asked me if I would contribute a memory of my own to the collection. I agreed, and contributed one of an event I had heard and read about for years before I ever saw it on video: David Hookes’ five fours off Tony Grieg in the Centenary Test. As a token of his appreciation, Norm offered to send me signed copies of his two books on the 1997 and 2001 Ashes. I thoroughly enjoyed reading them and am glad they sit on my shelves.

I never met Norm and so, did not know him personally, but did have some email contact with him, and felt like I had established a rapport of sorts. I knew there were some political differences between us. (For instance, our opinions on the 2003 invasion of Iraq and perhaps some of the claims of the Euston Manifesto.) But he always seemed to me to be infected with a deep concern for many of the same political ends that I was sympathetic to. He just had a different conception of the actions required to achieve them. Where I found myself disagreeing with him, I still found his arguments carefully constructed and often quite persuasive.

Because I found his writings thoughtful and provocative it was inevitable that I would respond to him on this blog. I did so a little while ago, with a post on the differences he had with Glenn Greenwald and Terry Eagleton on the question of whether the ‘explanation’ of a heinous act constitutes a ‘justification’ or an apologia of sorts for it. Writing it helped clarify my thoughts on an often  vexing topic.

In his last days, Norm, perhaps sensing the end was near, was on a tear on his blog. If you’ve never looked through its archives, you really should.

RIP Norm. I hardly knew you, but I’m glad we made contact, even if only for a little while.

Does Explanation Constitute Justification? Geras Contra Greenwald and Eagleton

And does it thereby also run the risk of shading into apologia when the event being explained is one that would strike some as a heinous act? In response to the Woolwich killing of a British soldier by machete-wielding assailants, Glenn Greenwald thinks not. Terry Eagleton agrees (in a fashion). Norman Geras disagrees. (As the links in that Geras post and his responses in this interview will show, this is not a new concern for him.)


I know exactly how some people reflexively try to radically distort the argument beyond recognition in order to smear you as a Terror apologist, a Terrorist-lover or worse, all for the thought crime of raising these issues. To do so, they deceitfully conflate claims of causation (A is one of the causes of B) with justification (B is justified). Anyone operating with the most basic levels of rationality understands that these concepts are distinct. To discuss what motivates a person to engage in Action B is not remotely to justify Action B.


It is rather because [those who would condemn apologia] imagine, in their muddled way, that to explain an event is to excuse it. Those who point to the dead of Iraq and Afghanistan are surely doing so as a devious way of justifying the slaughter of a young soldier outside his barracks.

Do they also think this about the crimes of Hitler or Stalin? Are they really suggesting that historians who delve into the origins of fascism are secret Nazi sympathisers, or that to lay bare the causes of the Gulag is to exonerate its architects? The problem for these commentators is that if an event can be explained, it must be rationally motivated, and that sounds uncomfortably close to endorsing it. To call an action rational, however, is by no means to justify it.


First, Eagleton is right: you can explain a bad event without being an apologist for it. But, second, you can also purport to explain something precisely in order to excuse it. Or: To understand is not necessarily to condone, yet it just might be. The logic here isn’t difficult to grasp; not all people are academics, but some people are academics. Etc. It is also the case that what presents itself as historical explanation can sometimes have a plainly apologetic function. I recommend to Eagleton’s attention the so-called Historians’ Dispute – the Historikerstreit – in West Germany (as was) in the late 1980s, and the contributions to it in particular of Ernst Nolte.

Geras goes on to draw an uncomfortable analogy:

Imagine men who commit rape and say, ‘I did it because she was asking for it; you should have seen how she was dressed, and flaunting herself, etc.’ [But my interlocutor] says that one must concede some rationality to these men and to their explanation for their acts of violence against women, otherwise one has denied the possibility of rational explanation as such – even though plenty of men don’t rape women, however dressed, and even though those who do do so justify their actions by reference to a pernicious belief system…[my interlocutor] always quick to explain (without justifying) the likes of the Woolwich killing or of the Boston bombings, nearly never, if they ever, make any effort to explain (without justifying) the use by Western governments of torture and extraordinary rendition. They do not urge upon people the need to understand torture as a response to what the jihadists do, on the grounds that if we fail so to understand it, we’ll lose all grip on rational explanation…

But, you know, to explain is not to justify. Well, sometimes it isn’t. But sometimes it is to condone or attempt to mitigate or get people to look away from what you don’t want them to notice.

Geras is right that some explanations function as excuses; after all our anger at a miscreant does often ebb once he explains why he did what he did. Why else would we offer explanations for actions of ours that meet with disapproval?  That said, the disagreement between Greenwald, Eagleton and Geras is perhaps at a more fundamental level.

To provide an explanation of something is to make it more comprehensible in the light of beliefs already held. An ‘explanation’ of a comet’s tail in language comprehensible to a graduate student in physics will not be one to a schoolboy untutored in the barest notions of astrophysics; an atheist looking for  an explanation of his beloved’s death will not find a theological explanation couched in terms of God’s ‘plan’ satisfactory.  This definition also implies merely providing the cause of an event will not be sufficient if that cause itself is incomprehensible; one convinced that a malevolent terror is on the loose will not be convinced that the medical cause for a loved one’s death provides any explanation whatsoever.  For these unsatisfied folk, the world retains its inexplicability even after the explanation is provided, one that might be satisfactory to someone else. The subject of an explanation has an active role to play in making that explanation a good one.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that Geras does not consider these particular recountings of the causes and motives of the Woolwich killer to be explanations at all: they do not locate the event in the proper or correct network of causes, motives and actions; the killings remain mysterious on their accounts. The correct explanation, for Geras, of the Woolwich killing must include explicit reference to a host of factors left out by Greenwald and Eagleton; it is the incompleteness, the lack of comprehensiveness of the explanations offered by Greenwald and Eagleton, that for Geras turns them into apologia. In the rape and torture examples, those who reject the putative explanations as apologia are doing the same; they don’t consider them explanations at all. Consider, for instance, that someone had ‘explained’ the Woolwich killings in purely biological/physiological/physical terms (if this was at all possible).  We would scarcely consider this an explanation; we understand the right language of explanation for this act will be drawn from elsewhere (politics, theories of violence, history and so on). That ‘explanation’ would sound like apologia to Greenwald and Eagleton.

Eagleton on Sex and Sexuality: Fun, and Not-So-Much (Respectively)

In yesterday’s post, I offered a couple of critical remarks in response to Stanley Fish‘s review of  Terry Eagleton‘s Reason, Faith and Revolution. Those remarks were directed at a pair of passages excerpted from Eagleton. Today’s  post features Eagleton too, but cast as reviewer, not reviewee, on everyone’s favorite topic: sex (and the considerably more serious business of sexuality).

In reviewing Hal Gladfelder’s Fanny Hill in Bombay: The Making and Unmaking of John Cleland (‘Grub Street Snob‘, Londong Review of Books, 13 September 2012), Eagleton writes:

Sexuality is not to be confused with sex. Sex is what people do, whereas sexuality is largely the province of the intelligentsia. Sex can be fun, but sexuality can be serious stuff. Academic writing about it hardly ever captures its amusing, even farcical dimensions, whatever it is that makes it such a perennial subject of curiosity and intrigue. Hearing that two people can be sleeping together can often provoke a spontaneous grin, provided neither of them is your partner. Even so, sex and sexuality are hardly on different planets. Most of those who write on sexuality have sex lives themselves, and thus tend to practice what they preach. Studying sexuality is always at some level self-study, rather as writing about popular culture, for most of the students who do it these days, involves watching movies and TV shows they would have watched anyway. There is thus a convenient continuity between’s one’s academic and one’s actual life, as with a psychiatrist who is an expert on his own psychosis.

The contrast between sex and sexuality, between the doing and the writing about it, is of course quite acute, rather as there is one between jokes and humor and their academic analysis. In the case of sex and sexuality the problem is compounded by the fact that sex is a pretty undignified business. Rarely, if ever, as we have found out for ourselves, do its physical expressions ever match the highly stylized, graceful, in slow-motion, couplings of the screen–whether large or small-or the novel. Academic writing about sexuality has thus had to put a wrap on these rough edges and cloak itself in stately (or incomprehensible) prose. This leads to the scarcely believable situation of academic talks on sex that do not elicit as much as a single giggle from their audience. The titles of talks and papers on sexuality attempt to make up for this–Eagleton helpfully provides ‘Putting the Anus back in Coriolanus as an example and I can point to ‘Unzipping the Monster Dick: Deconstructing Ableist Penile Representations in Two Ethnic Homoerotic Magazines’–but they might be fighting a losing battle given the overwhelming likelihood that the prose on display will be turgid and uninspired. In part, this is just because this is academic writing, but here, I suspect the subject matter induces reticence even in those bold enough to venture into its precincts.

A smart academic would find a way to write racily about sexuality. I’m not about to start, but I wish someone would.

Fish on Eagleton on Religion

Stanley Fish reviews Terry Eagleton‘s Reason, Faith and Revolution in The New York Times and approvingly quotes him contra the excesses of Christopher Hitchens:

[T]he fact that religion and theology cannot provide a technology for explaining how the material world works should not be held against them, either, for that is not what they do. When Christopher Hitchens declares that given the emergence of “the telescope and the microscope” religion “no longer offers an explanation of anything important,” Eagleton replies, “But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It’s rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.”

This is a peculiar remark to make. Religion might not be in the business of offering explanations for natural phenomena now, but that is because it has, over an extended period, as a tactical and strategic move, ceded that explanatory function to science. Its history suggests that it has often seen itself in the business of offering explanations and indeed, comprehensive theories of the world that begin at its beginning and go on till its end. Hitchens’ remark is crude in suggesting the religious are only motivated by a desire to seek the kind of comforts made possible by technology but Eagleton’s suggestion that the description of religion is entirely misguided ignores the historical role that religion has played in the lives of its adherents in years gone by.

The same considerations apply to another one of Eagleton’s passages quoted by Fish:

[B]elieving that religion is a botched attempt to explain the world . . . is like seeing ballet as a botched attempt to run for a bus.” Running for a bus is a focused empirical act and the steps you take are instrumental to its end. The positions one assumes in ballet have no such end; they are after something else, and that something doesn’t yield to the usual forms of measurement. Religion, Eagleton is saying, is like ballet (and Chekhov); it’s after something else.

Again, one can provide metaphorical and non-realist readings of religion that do not see it as an explanatory theory but it is not clear such readings do full justice to the way that practitioners of religion see it, as a system which makes the world coherent. But systems which seek to provide such clarity are, contra Eagleton and Fish both, attempts to explain the world. If those systems are found wanting, it is because rival explanations for the same phenomena they claim to make comprehensible are found more satisfying, more able to do justice to the desiderata posed by the explanandum.

The move to cast religion as a non-explanation of anything is an interesting defensive move in light of the criticisms made of its extravagant ontological and ethical claims but it is not one that strikes me as likely to be successful. If religion did not seek to explain the incomprehensible then what comfort could it provide to the faithful? If you arrive at religion with a mystery and leave with one, then it hasn’t distinguished itself from the rest of this mysterious existence of ours.