Are people getting better? An interview with Webb Keane on ETHICAL LIFE

From inner city America to the Inuit Arctic, from evangelical Christians to ardent feminists, our increasingly diverse and global society means, as Webb Keane puts it, that “everyone’s aware that their values aren’t the only ones in town.” How then, does one exercise the distinctly human tendency to take an ethical stance toward oneself and everyone else? Which values can be said to be universal? Is it innately human to apply ethics, or is it strictly a product of one’s cultural and historical context? Keane, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, took some time to answer questions about his new book, Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories.

Keane jacketWhat’s new about Ethical Life?

WK: This book brings together research findings across a wide range of fields that rarely communicate with one another. So one thing that’s new is the wide net it casts. It takes in developmental psychology, the microsociology of conversation, ethnographies carried out with everyone from inner city crack dealers and to hunters in the rain forest, and histories of feminism, evangelical religion, and communist revolution. Along the way, it brings philosophers into the conversation, and takes occasional sideglances to cognitive science and neuroscience. Usually when a book covers so much territory, it tries to do one of two things. One approach is to give us a kind of encyclopedia: there’s this, and this, and this. Another is to claim there’s one big explanation, like for example, it all boils down to your DNA. Well this book takes a different tack. It says that each of these different angles on human ethics tells us something that can’t be reduced to, or explained by, the others. But none of them are complete in themselves. So the book explores the borderlands where they meet each other. For instance, psychology shows us that the impulse to seek out other people’s intentions is shared by all humans, and is very deep; philosophy tells us why intention-reading is essential to ethical judgments; ethnography explains why some communities will emphasize intention-reading while others suppress it; and history traces out how it comes to be that one society, at one point in time, ends up finding intentionality fascinating, while another takes it to be a source of anxiety—and what happens when people actively try to change their own ethical system.

Can you explain the title?

WK: I use the term ethical “life” because I think it’s important that ethics isn’t just a set of rules or ideas that you consult from time to time. It’s built into the very flow of everyday life. It’s part of your emotional equipment, your sense of self, and of your ability to have relations to other people, as well as to the words and habits and institutions you get from living in a particular society at a particular time. Notice that this list ranges across all the fields I’ve mentioned: psychology, social interaction, history. “Ethical life” means that an ethics saturates even quite ordinary activities.

Some people say that the foundation for ethics and morality is religion. Isn’t this so?

WK: It follows from the proposition that ethics is built into ordinary life that it’s not based on religion as such. Anthropologist will tell you that even very traditional religious communities always have their village atheists, yet the village atheist also participates in ethical life. And of course many philosophical systems have tried to base ethics on non-religious principles like reason. Still, it’s also true that religions have played a huge role in the development of ethical systems. One chapter of the book looks at examples from Christianity and Islam to show how they construct and inculcate a very distinctive style of morality. But they do so by drawing on raw materials that are already part of everyday life, and then transforming them in certain characteristic ways.

But at least we can say ethics is the specialty of philosophers and theologians, so why would an anthropologist be talking about this?

WK: Anthropologists have two mandates. One is to understand people as they actually are—warts and all–and not as we think they should be, which can sometimes put us in the company of some pretty nasty characters. The second mandate is to begin by trying to see people from their own points of view. Our job doesn’t stop there, but making that our starting point means we have to grapple with ethical intuitions that we may find foreign or even repugnant. As I see it, the traditional role of the philosopher or theologian is not to carry out empirical research to discover what ethical life actually is, but rather to say something about what it should be, and to justify that view. Now certainly there are many philosophers and theologians who are in deep conversation with social scientists, and vice versa—I hope you can see this dialogue going on in my book–but most of us end up observing that division of labor, and work at different sides of the questions. And one of the things this book says, with which many philosophers and theologians may disagree, is that there’s no guarantee that we can find a single set of unifying principles that everyone will agree to, or that history is leading us to converge on a shared ethics.

Is it human nature to be ethical?

WK: Yes and no. One the one hand, ethical life is a dimension of ordinary human existence across the board. It draws on certain capacities and propensities that all children develop early in life, and that all societies respond to and develop in one way or another. The book stresses the very basic elements of ethics, like seeing yourself from your interlocutor’s perspective or having a sense of reciprocity and fairness, which are features of life everywhere. On the other hand, this book also argues that these basics do not amount to a full-fledged ethics until people have some way of recognizing that that’s what they are: that there’s something ethical at stake. And this depends on all sorts of social dynamics which necessarily vary from time to time and place to place. They have a history. Moreover, every community has some values which are likely to conflict with one another, such as freedom and equality, or justice and charity. The balance between them is likely to shift from one context to another. Which is one reason why we’re not likely to end up with a single set of shared ethical principles.

Well, if ethics isn’t just a universal set of rules, is the end result ethical relativism?

WK: The short answer is “no.” This is the other side of the coin in the answer to the previous question: there are limits to how far any ethical system can ignore or go beyond the raw materials with which it’s working. Simply in order to make sense of one another, people have to act in ways that others can interpret, and there are cognitive, linguistic, and sociological constraints on this. Moreover, just recognizing that other people have very different moral intuitions doesn’t exempt me from having certain commitments. If I’m going to play soccer, I have to care about the outcome even if I’m aware that there are people out there who don’t know or care about soccer (but, say, who do care about basketball). But no amount of knowledge about the different games is going to give me an objective basis for declaring that the game I’m playing is the one that should really matter. We can’t expect our scientific knowledge about ethics to provide us with a superior position from which to we can prove to everyone else that our ethical intuitions are the correct ones.

The last section of your book is about historical change. Many of us would like to know, are people getting better?

WK: That really depends on what yardstick you want to use to measure progress. On the one hand, it’s clear that people around the world are more and more likely to have dealings with others from different backgrounds, and to see some connection to people who aren’t right next door. So two things follow. First, everyone’s aware that their values aren’t the only ones in town. And second, the potential scope of their ethical concern is expanding. Alongside this is the rise of universalizing ideals, like the concept of human rights. On the other hand, this doesn’t necessarily mean people are becoming more cosmopolitan—sometimes they just circle the wagons and double down on racial, national, or religious exclusiveness, insisting that some people are not due objects of my ethical concern. So, again, I don’t think we’re going to find any guarantees out there. But it does look like the friction generated when different ethical worlds rub up against one another can charge up new ethical ideas and provoke us to make new discoveries about ourselves.

Webb Keane is the George Herbert Mead Collegiate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter and Signs of Recognition: Powers and Hazards of Representation in an Indonesian Society.

An interview with Edmund Fawcett about “Liberalism: The Life of an Idea”

Fawcett jacketIs liberal democracy in need of a serious overhaul? As we release the paperback of Liberalism: The Life of an Idea, (which includes a new preface), Edmund Fawcett took the time to answer some questions about his book, including whether liberalism means different things in Europe than it does in America, where exactly liberal democracy comes from, and what about it is in need of repair.

Why liberalism and why a history?

EF: My book’s topical for a simple reason. Where liberal democracy exists, it badly needs repair. Where it doesn’t, it is losing appeal. Nobody disputes that. What’s harder is to say what liberal democracy is and why it matters. Oddly, few books tell us. Mine does both. We need to see where liberal democracy come from. We need to see what we risk losing. As history, my book looks ahead by looking back.

What makes your book on liberalism different?

EF: It looks past disputed, misleading labels like “freedom” or “the individual” to what liberals really care about and aim for. It combines history and ideas. It foregrounds French and German liberals, too often ignored. It handles tricky academic disputes–in politics, economics and philosophy–in a readable, non-academic way. It holds a complicated, 200-year story together through lives and thoughts of exemplary thinkers and politicians.

Don’t Europeans and Americans mean different things by “liberal”?

EF: Not really. On the American right, it’s true, “liberal” is a term of abuse. On the European left, “liberal” means a lackey of neo-capitalism. We can’t, though, let sloganeers hog the argument. France, Germany and the US are liberal democracies. China and Russia are not. Everybody understands what those two sentences mean. Nobody seriously disputes that they are true. The meaning problem with “liberal” is a side issue.

Some reviewers found your liberal tent too big, your idea of liberalism too loose.

EF: Funny complaints for a book on liberalism. It’s not a sect or creed. Inclusiveness ought to be a liberal virtue. Seriously, Liberalism set out four key ideas that unite liberals and tell them apart from their rivals, then and now: resistance to power, faith in progress, equal respect for people and acceptance that social conflict was inevitable, but containable. I distinguished liberalism from democracy, often confused, and described how in the 20th century liberal democracy grew out of historic compromises between the two.

In your big cast of more than 50 characters, name some favorites.

EF: In the 19th century, the thinker John Stuart Mill, for trying hardest to hold together liberal conflicting elements together. Lincoln for his power of liberal words. In the 20th century, Lyndon Johnson for the liberal capacity to change and Germany’s Willy Brandt for the ability to admit national wrong. And now? It’s hard to see one’s own time. Giants are only visible looking back. A fair guess: today’s liberal giants won’t all be white, US-European and male.

What is new in your preface to the paperback?

EF: I answer criticisms, some fair, some not fair. I clarify points of mine that led to misunderstandings. I stress that why I wrote the book–challenges to liberal democracy from inside and out–strikes me as even more pressing now than when I began. I explain that I left out critics and alternatives to liberalism from right and left. Those topics were too vast for one book, though I’m turning to conservatism now.

Edmund Fawcett worked at The Economist for more than three decades, serving as chief correspondent in Washington, Paris, and Berlin, as well as European and literary editor. His writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Guardian, among other publications.

Vote, or else? Jason Brennan on why moral obligations shouldn’t be enforced

Jason BrennanEthicist Jason Brennan is writing a series of posts for the PUP blog offering unique perspectives on ethics, voting, not voting, democracy, public policy and strategy. He is currently Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, and is writing Against Politics, under contract with Princeton University Press. You can read his first post on “why smart politicians say dumb things” here–PUP Blog Editor

Turnout in American elections is low compared to some other advanced democracies. Should we force people to vote?

Brookings Institute analyst William Galston thinks so. In a recently published Op-Ed at Newsweek, Galston offers a host of arguments on behalf of compulsory voting.[1] None of the arguments are very good.

Galston’s right about one thing: Compulsory voting works. It’s clear that compulsory voting does in fact get more people to vote. But everyone agrees that alone isn’t enough to justify compulsory voting. A basic tenet of liberal democracy, or, really, fundamental human decency, is that it’s wrong to force people to do anything without a strong justification for doing so. Thus, proponents of compulsory voting bear a strong burden of proof. They must produce some reason why it’s permissible to force people to vote.

Does Compulsory Voting Lead to Moderation?

Galston argues that moderates are underrepresented. People belonging to ideological extremes are much more likely to vote than people with middle-of-the-road views. He claims that compulsory voting would thus lead to more moderate political outcomes.

He’s right that moderates vote less. Ample empirical work (e.g., see Ilya Somin’s Democracy and Political Ignorance for a review) shows that political moderates participate less than people with more extreme views. But, that same work also shows that this is because political moderates care less about politics, hold their beliefs more weakly, and also are less informed about politics.

But does compulsory voting actually lead to more moderate political outcomes? The available research (e.g., see Sarah Birch’s Full Participation for a review of the empirical literature) does not support this result. Perhaps it’s because the extremes already tend to balance each other out, and what we actually get from Congress or the president are moderate outcomes and compromise positions.

Indeed, it’s not clear compulsory voting does much of anything. It has no significant effect on individual political knowledge, individual political conservation and persuasion, individual propensity to contact politicians, the propensity to work with others to address concerns, participation in campaign activities, the likelihood of being contacted by a party or politician, the quality of representation, electoral integrity, the proportion of female members of parliament, support for small or third parties, support for the left, or support for the far right.[2]

Is Voting an Enforceable Duty?

Galston believes you have a duty to vote. I disagree,[3] but suppose he’s right and you do have a duty to vote. It doesn’t follow from the mere fact that something is a moral obligation that it’s permissible to force people to do it.

On the contrary, many moral duties—aside from duties to avoid violating others’ rights—are unenforceable. You might have moral duties to keep promises, to be nice to strangers, to buy your mom a birthday present, to be faithful to your boyfriend or girlfriend, to give to charity, to improve your moral character, to apologize for your past wrong-doing, to avoid becoming a member of the KKK, and to avoid using racist language. Nevertheless, these moral obligations are unenforceable—it would be wrong for the government to force you to fulfill these duties, even though they are (Galston and I both agree) moral duties.

So what makes voting special? Why is it an enforceable duty, rather than an unenforceable duty?

Galston says that voting is an expression of gratitude, which makes his defense of compulsory voting all the more perplexing. We often owe it to each other to express gratitude. If you buy me a present, I should say thanks. But in general, the duty is express gratitude is unenforceable. If I don’t send you a thank you note, you shouldn’t call the police and ask them to throw me in jail.

The Public Goods Argument: Are Non-Voters Free Riders?

In an earlier New York Times Op-Ed, Galston describes non-voters as free-riders: “Requiring people to vote in national elections once every two years would reinforce the principle of reciprocity at the heart of citizenship.[4] The idea here is that people who don’t vote are like people who don’t pay their taxes. Non-voters benefit from the good government provided for them by voters, but they don’t do their part in helping to provide that good government. That’s unfair. So, just as it’s permissible to force everyone to pay her fair share of taxes, maybe it’s permissible to force everyone to pay for good government by voting.

On the contrary, I think Galston has an overly narrow view of how citizens fulfill their civic obligations.

Imagine Superman were real. Now imagine Superman never votes or participates in politics. Imagine Galston said to Superman, “You’re a jerk. You free ride off of voters’ efforts. You benefit from good government but don’t do your part.” Superman could respond, “Remember all the times I saved the world? That’s how I did my part.”

Let’s take a less extreme case. Suppose there is a medical genius, Phyllis the Physician. Phyllis is such a genius that she produces new medical breakthroughs hourly. If Phyllis cares about serving the common good, helping her fellow citizens, or paying off some “debt to society”, she has little reason to vote. An hour at the voting booth is worth less than an hour at the lab. Now, imagine Galston said to Phyllis, “You’re a jerk. You free ride off of voters’ efforts.” Phyllis could respond, “No, I’ve paid voters’ back by producing my research. I don’t owe them anything more.”

Superman and Phyllis are extreme cases that illustrate a general point. Each of us in our daily lives as workers, artists, managers, parents, truckers, musicians, priests, teachers, or whatnot, does things that make distant others better off. We’re not just taking; we’re giving. We’re already doing things that make it so that the world and our fellow citizens are better off with us than without us.

There’s no obvious reason to assume that non-voters specifically owe a debt to voters, that the only way we citizens can “pay” for good government is to vote, or that the only way to avoid free-riding on voters’ efforts is to vote ourselves.  If we have a debt to society, or a duty to compensate voters for their efforts, we could instead hold that this debt can be paid, and that voters can be compensated, any number of ways. For any given citizen, given what other citizens are doing and are good at doing, there will be an optimal mix of political and non-political ways for her to pay her debt. For some citizens, this will mean heavy political engagement at the expense of other pursuits. For other citizens, it will mean complete disengagement so as to free the citizen to pursue non-political activities. For most citizens, the optimal mix will be some combination of political and non-political engagement.  Though each citizen might contribute in different ways, they can all pay their debts.

The Best Argument for Compulsory Voting

In the end, the best argument for compulsory voting begins by noting that under a voluntary voting regime, the people who choose to vote are unrepresentative of the population at large.

Voters and abstainers are systematically different. The old are more likely to vote than the young. Men are more likely to vote than women. In many countries, ethnic minorities are less likely to vote than ethnic majorities.[5] More highly educated people are more likely to vote than less highly educated people. Married people are more likely to vote than non-married people.[6] Political partisans are more likely to vote than true independents. In short, under voluntary voting, the voting public—the citizens who actually vote—are not fully representative of the voting eligible public. In general, the privileged are proportionately more likely to vote than the underprivileged. The worry, then, is that because the privileged are more likely to vote, government is likely to be unfairly responsive to their interests. Because the underprivileged are less likely to vote, governments are likely to ignore or underrepresent their interests.

As Galston summarizes the argument:

The second argument for mandatory voting is democratic. Ideally, a democracy will take into account the interests and views of all citizens. But if some regularly vote while others don’t, officials are likely to give greater weight to participants. This might not matter much if nonparticipants were evenly distributed through the population. But political scientists have long known that they aren’t. People with lower levels of income and education are less likely to vote, as are young adults and recent first-generation immigrants.[7]

Let’s put the argument in a more rigorous form. Let’s call this the Demographic Argument for Compulsory Voting:

1.     Voters tend to vote for their self-interest.

2.     Politicians tend to give large voting blocs what they ask for.

3.     When voting is voluntary, the poor, minorities, the uneducated, and young people vote less than the rich, whites, the educated, or older people.

4.     If so, then under voluntary voting, government will tend to promote the interest of the rich, of whites, and of the old, over the interests of the poor, of minorities, or of the young.

5.     Under compulsory voting, almost every demographic and socio-economic group votes at equally high rates.

6.     Thus, under compulsory voting, government will promote everyone’s interests.

7.     Therefore, compulsory voting produces more representative government.

8.     If compulsory voting produces more representative government than voluntary voting, then compulsory voting is justified.

9.     Therefore, compulsory voting is justified.

This argument appears powerful and persuasive at first glance. Nevertheless, as I’ll explain in my next post, it’s unsound. It rests on a number of false empirical assumptions.

Note, however, that Galston cannot consistently advance both the Public Goods and the Demographic Argument for Compulsory Voting. The Public Goods Argument treats voters as cooperators. One person’s vote tends to benefit others, while abstention comes at their expense. The Public Goods argument says that non-voters take advantage of voters. But the Demographic Argument treats voters as competitors. One person’s vote tends to harm other voters (by reducing the power of their vote), while abstention helps them (by strengthening the power of their vote).  The Demographic Argument assumes that non-voters advantage voters, while voters take advantage of non-voters.

At most, one of these arguments is sound. If the Public Goods Argument is sound, then when I (a privileged, upper-middle class, married, white, heterosexual, cisgendered male) abstain, most voters should be mad at me. But if the Demographic Argument is sound, then when I abstain, I do women, blacks, Latinos, the poor, the unemployed, and so on, a favor, by making it more likely the government will represent their interests rather than mine. Galston can’t have it both ways.


[2] Sarah Birch, Full Participation: 140; Benjamin Highton and Raymond Wolfinger, “The Political Implications of Higher Turnout,” British Journal of Political Science 31 (1) (2001): 179-223, 179.

[3] See Jason Brennan, The Ethics of Voting (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), chapters 1 and 2.

[4] William Galston, “Telling Americans to Vote, or Else,” New York Times, 6 November 2011, SR9.

[5] In the United States, African Americans typically have a lower overall turnout than whites. However, there is some evidence that, once we control for socioeconomic status and other factors that influence voting turnout, African Americans actually vote in higher rates than whites. For instance, African Americans vote less than whites, because they are more likely to be poor, not because they are African American. However, this probably does not matter for the purposes of the Demographic Argument. See Jan E. Leighley and Jonathan Nagler, “Individual and Systematic Influences on Voter Turnout: 1984,” Journal of Politics 54 (1992): 718-40.

[6] For a review of the empirical literature establishing the claims of this paragraph, see Jocelyn Evans, Voters and Voting: An Introduction (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2004): 152-6.

[7] Galston, “Telling Americans to Vote”: SR9.

Kierkegaard in Space

Earth from Space-NASA image

NASA image: Earth as viewed from outer Space

Andreas Mogensen is the first Danish astronaut. Mogensen was sent to the International Space Station for a ten-day mission on September 2, 2015. As the first Dane in space, Mogensen brought a number of items typical of Danish culture to share with his fellow astronauts. These items included: some Legos, some Danish ryebread-based porridge, and readings from Hans Christian Andersen and the 19th century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. The Kierkegaard reading was from his popular and very accessible work, The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air, published in 1849.

As explained in the British newspaper, The Guardian:

“Prof Niels Jørgen Cappelørn, from Copenhagen University, recommended Kierkegaard’s classic The Lily of the Field and the Bird of Air, telling the Guardian: “It’s all about silence, obedience and joy – something I thought would be an inspiration in space – and an important theme in these texts is passion, which you need to be an astronaut.”

Mogensen, who was to read a ten-minute selection from the work to his fellow astronauts on board the spacecraft, brought along a first edition of Kierkegaard’s work, but because the work was written in Danish, Mogensen also brought along University Connecticut Kierkegaard scholar and translator Bruce H. Kirmmse’s recent English translation of the work to read aloud to his audience. Kirmmse’s translation of The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air is slated to be published by Princeton University Press in February 2016.

Floating in the black void of space hundreds of miles from Earth, one might have thought Mogensen would have chosen Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling or The Concept of Anxiety. But his fellow astronauts may just be glad he didn’t bring The Seducer’s Diary.
Rob Tempio is Executive Editor for Philosophy and Humanities Group Publisher. He oversees the Press’s many Kierkegaard publications.

An interview with Robert Holub on “Nietzsche’s Jewish Problem”

Nietzsche’s views about Jews and Judaism have been subject to considerable debate over the last century, though an increasingly popular view today holds that he was a principled adversary of antisemitism. In Nietzsche’s Jewish Problem, Robert Holub argues that evidence from Nietzsche’s published and unpublished writings and letters reveals that he in fact harbored anti-Jewish prejudices throughout his life. Recently, Professor Holub took the time to discuss his findings:

How did you become interested in the topic of Nietzsche’s relationship to Jews and Judaism?

Holub jacketRH: Philosophical accounts of Nietzsche have traditionally ignored his connections to discourses and movements in the late nineteenth century. In the early 1990s I embarked on a project that considered Nietzsche a “timely meditator,” someone who was participating in discussions of issues of his era. The book I hoped to produce would focus on his views on various social and scientific matters, among them the working class and socialism, women and feminism, German nationalism, colonialism, evolution, eugenics, and thermodynamics. One of the issues that interested me most was his relationship to Jews, Judaism, and anti-Semitism. The discourse about Jews and the place of Jews in German society underwent a dramatic change in the last few decades of the nineteenth century, and I wrote an article in 1995 placing Nietzsche’s views on the “Jewish Question” within this context. But when I went into academic administration – first as a dean, then as a provost and finally a chancellor – I put the entire book project on the back burner. Returning to these issues in 2012 when I came to the faculty of Ohio State, I found that my essay from 1995 was an inadequate account of Nietzsche’s views on Jews and Judaism, and that to deal with these matters in an appropriate fashion would require a book-length monograph. So I took a break from my larger project to present a fuller account of Nietzsche’s relationship to the Jewish Question. The result was Nietzsche’s Jewish Problem.

Why has this topic been so contentious over the years?

RH: There was controversy over Nietzsche’s views on Jewry from the very beginning. Some anti-Semites of his time believed he was sympathetic to their cause because his publisher was a noted anti-Semite and his sister had married a leader of the anti-Semitic movement. Moreover, Nietzsche was associated with Wagnerian ideology, which had obvious anti-Jewish dimensions, and remarks in many of Nietzsche’s writings could easily be understood as Judeophobic. But Nietzsche also rejected in the most categorical fashion what he understood as anti-Semitism, and many aphorisms, especially during his middle period, could easily be regarded as philo-Semitic. If not for the Holocaust, however, which forced a reevaluation of all German intellectual history, the topic might have remained a footnote to Nietzsche’s philosophy. Postwar treatments of his writings have generally taken his remarks on anti-Semitism to be Nietzsche’s definitive view on Jews and Judaism, and blamed any association of Nietzsche with Judeophobia on his sister or on the distortions of Nazi interpretations. The controversy over this topic is thus the result of the peculiarities of German history combined with Nietzsche’s apparently contradictory positions on the Jewish Question.

Why have previous treatments of this issue been unsatisfactory? Why did you feel that there was a need for your book?

RH: Most previous accounts were partisan and selective in their methodology. Reading them, one has the impression that they came to the material with something they wanted to prove and then sought evidence in Nietzsche’s writings. When Nietzsche became associated with National Socialism in the Third Reich, for example, you can detect a canonical interpretation of his views on Jews supported by the identical citations from his writings. In the postwar period, his condemnation of anti-Semitism was thrust into the foreground, and other, more questionable, comments on Jewry were ignored. Previous accounts were therefore partial in both senses of this word, and I felt that a new study was needed that would examine all the material, and, above all, that would situate Nietzsche’s remarks in the context of the nineteenth-century discourse on Jews and Judaism.

What role did the Nietzsche-Wagner relationship play in Nietzsche’s views on Jewry?

RH: Wagner was a decisive influence on Nietzsche in the late 1860s and early 1870s, and Nietzsche’s admiration for the composer extended into ideological realms. It appears that Nietzsche wanted to adopt and reinforce various views Wagner held on political and social issues, and we find Nietzsche in one of his early talks on Socrates and tragedy identifying Socratism with the Jewish press. Wagner, we should recall, had republished his Judeophobic essay “Judaism in Music” in 1869 at a time when Nietzsche and Wagner were very close. So it is perhaps not surprising that Nietzsche chose to emulate Wagner’s views on the pernicious affect of Jews on German culture. Nietzsche had begun to develop anti-Jewish attitudes prior to his acquaintance with Wagner, but these sentiments intensified and were reinforced as their friendship grew. And it is likely that Nietzsche’s break with Wagner, which was generally not recognized in the larger German public until the late 1880s, accounts for some of Nietzsche’s altered public, and largely favorable, pronouncements about Jews in the years from 1878-1885. Wagner is a key to understanding Nietzsche, whether the philosopher was adopting the Meister’s views of purposively opposing them.

You maintain that Nietzsche was against anti-Semitism, but at the same time you claim that he harbored anti-Jewish sentiments. How is this possible?

RH: I think the status of anti-Semitism in Nietzsche’s thought and writings has been a major source of confusion. Anti-Semitism for Nietzsche was a political movement that arose in the early 1880s. It was associated in his mind with crude and rancorous sentiments. It was also a movement that placed Nietzsche in an uncomfortable position with regard to his publisher and his sister. So Nietzsche was over-determined to disdain anti-Semitism. This categorical rejection of anti-Semitism, however, did not stop him from harboring views we would consider anti-Jewish, since Nietzsche, as well as contemporaries, like his friend Franz Overbeck, continued to identify Jews with unfavorable character traits, and saw the necessity of finding a solution to the Jewish Question. Nietzsche’s rejection of anti-Semitism and his anti-Jewish sentiments were not in contradiction for him. Indeed, they define his attitude toward Jews and Judaism.

Should Nietzsche be regarded as a forerunner of National Socialism and its racist ideology?

RH: There are strong arguments against considering Nietzsche as a precursor of National Socialism. Perhaps the two ideological pillars of Nazism were ardent nationalism and virulent anti-Semitism, and Nietzsche evidences neither of them. He was nationalistic and Judeophobic during his Wagnerian period, but he never embraced these tenets passionately and without reservation. On the other hand, Nietzsche did admire strong and dictatorial leaders, such as Napoleon; he detested democracy, parliamentary rule, and equal rights. And he flirted with eugenics in his later years, although it was never a racially based eugenics. So arguments can be made for and against this proposition. Of course Nietzsche was established as a precursor of National Socialism by Nazi philosophers and ideologues, but we should remember that some party members found it difficult to integrate him into their outlook. We should also recall that Nietzsche in his own time was vehemently opposed to any collective undertaking, whether it was on the right or the left of the political spectrum. It is difficult to know how he would have reacted to the rise of fascism in Germany several decades after his death. One of the main points of my book is that speculation of this sort is useless, and that the lens of National Socialism has contributed to a less than optimal scholarly record of Nietzsche’s views on Jews and Judaism. We can only determine with some degree of certainty where Nietzsche stood with regard to political manifestations he actually confronted in the nineteenth century.

How does your book change our views of Nietzsche as a philosopher?

RH: This question is difficult to answer. Many of Nietzsche’s most important contributions to philosophy have scant connection to his views on Jews and Judaism. So there is the temptation to regard these issues as secondary in considering Nietzsche’s philosophy and unimportant for any evaluation of his thought. Indeed, many of the most prominent philosophers in the German tradition expressed views on Jewry that were as bad as, or worse, than anything Nietzsche had to say about the subject. But we should also consider that philosophers possess a way of thinking about the world, and that part of Nietzsche’s way of thinking about the world contained stereotypes about race, gender, and ethnicity that he was unable to overcome. It would be foolish to regard everything Nietzsche wrote as contaminated by racism; but it would also be foolish to consider that his reflections on matters both historical and abstract were completely unaffected by the manner in which he approached the Jewish Question.

Robert C. Holub is Ohio Eminent Scholar and Professor of German at Ohio State University and former chancellor of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The author of several books on nineteenth- and twentieth-century German literary, cultural, and intellectual history, he is also the editor of editions of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals and Beyond Good and Evil.

Read chapter one here.

Washington Post highlights historic clash between Einstein and Bergson on the nature of time

2015_Einstein_bannerWith the 100th anniversary of the general theory of relativity coming up in November, Einstein is popping up everywhere. Yesterday’s Washington Post ran a terrific feature on Einstein books, including three of our own: Hanoch Gutfreund and Jürgen Renn’s The Road to Relativity, Einstein’s Relativity: The Special and the General Theory, and Jimena Canales’s The Physicist and the Philosopher.

One of the most fascinating chapters of Einstein’s public life revolves around an encounter he had with Henri Bergson, the renowned philosopher, on April 6, 1922, in Paris. It was on this day that Einstein and Bergson publicly debated the nature of time, touching off a clash of worldviews between science and the humanities that persists today. The philosopher Bergson argued that time was not merely mechanical, and should be seen in terms of lived experience; Einstein dismissed Bergson’s psychological notions as irreconcilable with the realities of physics. The Physicist and the Philosopher tells the remarkable story of how this explosive debate between two famous thinkers created intellectual rifts and revolutionized an entire generation’s understanding of time.

Nancy Szokan’s piece in Washington Post recounts the dramatic collision:

In The Physicist and the Philosopher, Canales recounts how Bergson challenged Einstein’s theories, arguing that time is not a fourth dimension definable by scientists but a ‘vital impulse,’ the source of creativity. It was an incendiary topic at the time, and it shaped a split between science and humanities that persisted for decades—though Einstein was generally seen as the winner and Bergson is all but forgotten.

Bergson and Einstein, toward the end of their lives, each reflected on his rival’s legacy and dedication to the pursuit of truth: Bergson during the Nazi occupation of Paris and Einstein in the wake of the first hydrogen bomb. Referencing Einstein’s quest for scientific truth, Hanoch Gutfreund recently had an article in the Huffington Post on how Einstein helped shape the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (home of the Albert Einstein Archives online):

On the occasion of the opening of the university, Albert Einstein published a manifesto “The Mission of our University”, which generated interest and excitement in the entire Jewish and academic worlds.

It states: “The opening of our Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, at Jerusalem, is an event which should not only fill us with just pride, but should also inspire us to serious reflection. … A University is a place where the universality of human spirit manifests itself. Science and investigation recognize as their aim the truth only.”

Read the rest here.

November’s big anniversary serves as a reminder of the enduring commitment to scientific investigation that continues at The Hebrew University and centers of learning all over the world today.

Read sample chapters of The Physicist and the Philosopher here, The Road to Relativity here, and Relativity here.

You can find information on the Digital Einstein Papers, an open access site for The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, comprising more than 30,000 unique documents here.

On moral philosophy and moral comedy – Harry Frankfurt on The Daily Show

As Jon Stewart wraps up his 16 year stint on The Daily Show this week, I can’t help recalling fondly the time I escorted one of his unlikelier guests—the moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt—to an appearance. It was 2005, and Harry, an emeritus professor at Princeton, and I, a brand new publicist, had been caught off guard by early interest in his philosophical treatise, On Bullshit. The book, apparently unencumbered by its unprintable title, would go on to become an international phenomenon, spending 26 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, where it would peak at number one. The Daily Show was one of the first major venues to take interest in the book, which started its meteoric rise as a quirky, unassuming title from our mid-list. We’d expected it might raise a few academic eyebrows, but were unprepared for the journalistic outpourings from all corners. “This book will change your life”, wrote Leopold Froehlich in Playboy, seeming to mean it. Bullshit’s time had come.

On BSComedy Central’s invitation was met with equal parts excitement and trepidation. It was one thing to watch, baffled, as the book reviews piled up, quite another to send Harry into the glare of the mainstream media. Jon was, after all, formidable in his way, and Harry, for all his facility with the ironic and profound, was not particularly well-versed in comedic pop culture. His inquiry was as serious as it was sincere, and he was reluctant to “bullshit” about the topic he had so carefully treated. Our visit to The Daily Show marked my first time in a green room of any sort, and I spent most of it holding my breath. Harry was wonderfully refreshing to work with—thoughtful, modest, and genuinely surprised, at 76, that his work had generated interest outside of philosophy journals. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was getting him into.

If we were at all intimidated about the encounter to come, we needn’t have been. Jon paid us a backstage visit before the show, and conducted a class act interview that was charming, incisive, and thoughtful. Above all, I remember that Jon was respectful, parsing, between laughs, the distinguishing characteristics of bullshit, and the way it corrodes the truth. Harry was graceful and wry, the book became an overnight sensation, and the rest is history.

Harry, now the author of the new book On Inequality, has in the years since his own interview, commented on Stewart’s remarkable effectiveness and impact on people, including his famously successful on-air critique of Crossfire:

Stewart and Frankfurt parted ways as two very different figures nonetheless dedicated to raising the level of discourse: Frankfurt the renowned scholar who dared to qualify bullshit, and Stewart the journalist who made it his life’s mission to illuminate, lampoon it, and ultimately demand more of its propagators. I count myself fortunate to have crossed paths with them both.

–Debra Liese

Medieval Relativisms by John Marenbon

In a commencement speech at Dickinson College yesterday that focused on the virtues of free speech and free inquiry, Ian McEwan referenced the golden age of the pagan philosophers. But from the turn of the fifth century to the beginning of the eighteenth, Christian intellectuals were as fascinated as they were perplexed by the “Problem of Paganism,” or how to reconcile the fact that the great thinkers of antiquity, whose ideas formed the cornerstones of Greek and Roman civilization, were also pagans and, according to Christian teachings, damned. John Marenbon, author of the new book Pagans and Philosophers, has written a post explaining that relativism (the idea that there can be no objective right or wrong), is hardly a post-modern idea, but one that emerged in medieval times as a response to this tension.

Medieval Relativisms
By John Marenbon

Pagans and Philosophers jacketRelativism is often thought to be a characteristically modern, or even post-modern, idea. Those who have looked more deeply add that there was an important strand of relativism in ancient philosophy and they point (perhaps wrongly) to Montaigne’s remark, made late in the sixteenth century, that ‘we have no criterion of truth or reason than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the country where we are’ as signalling a revival of relativist thinking. But the Middle Ages are regarded as a time of uniformity, when a monolithic Christianity dominated the lives and thoughts of everyone, from scholars to peasants – a culture without room for relativism. This stereotype is wrong. Medieval culture was not monolithic, because it was riven by a central tension. As medieval Christian thinkers knew, their civilization was based on the pagan culture of Greece and Rome. Pagan philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, were their intellectual guides, and figures from antiquity, such as the sternly upright Cato or Regulus, the general who kept the promise he had given to his enemies even at the cost of his life, were widely cited as moral exemplars. Yet, supposedly, Christian truth had replaced pagan ignorance, and without the guidance and grace provided for Christians alone, it was impossible to live a morally virtuous life. One approach to removing this tension was to argue that the pagans in question were not really pagans at all. Another approach, though, was to develop some variety of limited relativism.

One example of limited relativism is the view proposed by Boethius of Dacia, a Master in the University of Paris in the 1260s. Boethius was an Arts Master: his job was to teach a curriculum based on Aristotle. Boethius was impressed by Aristotelian science and wanted to remain true to it even on those points where it goes against Christian teaching. For example, Christians believe that the universe had a beginning, when God created it, but Aristotle thought that the universe was eternal – every change is preceded by another change, and so on, for ever. In Boethius’s view, the Christian view contradicts the very principles of Aristotelian natural science, and so an Arts Master like himself is required to declare ‘The world has no beginning’. But how can he do so, if he is also a Christian? Boethius solves the problem by relativizing what thinkers say within a particular discipline to the principles of that discipline. When the Arts Master, in the course of teaching natural science, says ‘The world has no beginning’, his sentence means: ‘The world has no beginning according to the principles of natural science’ – a statement which is consistent with declaring that, according to Christian belief the world did have a beginning. Relativizing strategies were also used by theologians such as Henry of Ghent, Duns Scotus and William of Ockham to explain how some pagans can have even heroic virtue and yet be without the sort of virtue which good Christians alone can have.

These and other medieval relativisms were limited, in the sense that one reference frame, that of Christianity, was always acknowledged to be the superior one. But Boethius’s relativism allowed pragmatically a space for people to develop a purely rational scientific world-view in its own terms, and that of the theologians allowed them to praise and respect figures like Cato and Regulus, leaving aside the question of whether or not they are in Hell. Contemporary relativists often advocate an unlimited version of relativism, in which no reference frame is considered superior to another. But there are grave difficulties in making such relativism coherent. The less ambitious medieval approach might be the most sensible one.

John Marenbon is a senior research fellow at Trinity College, University of Cambridge, honorary professor of medieval philosophy at Cambridge, and a fellow of the British Academy. He is the author and editor of many books, including Abelard in Four Dimensions, The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Philosophy, The Cambridge Companion to Boethius, and Medieval Philosophy: An Historical and Philosophical Introduction.

PUP authors to appear at philosophy and music festival, How the Light Gets In

The world’s largest philosophy and music festival, How The Light Gets In, is back at Hay-on-Wye in Wales on May 21. Over the course of 11 days and 650 events, this year’s theme, “Fantasy and Reality”, will be explored through a variety of creative expression, including poetry, debates, film, and music.  Total Politics calls this festival “Europe’s answer to TED”. This year promises to be extra special: their entire new Riverside site will be home to a special new music venue, The Hat, which will be hosting long-table banquets and parties. You can find the full program here, and be sure to check out the following presentations by Princeton University Press authors:

5/23/15: In Search of the Self, Simon Blackburn, Colin Blakemore, Mary Midgley. Robert Rowland-Smith hosts.

5/24/15: The Really Real, Simon Blackburn, Philip Blond, Myrian Francois-Cerrah. Hilary Lawson hosts.

5/25/15: Vanity Fair, Simon Blackburn, George Galloway, Margaret Heffernan, Suzannah Lipscomb. Ritula Shah hosts.

5/26/15: Your Life in Your Hands, Clare Carlisle, Ann Furedi, John Harris. Afua Hirsch hosts.

5/26/15: In Place of Prejudice, Clare Carlisle, Naomi Goulder, John Harris. Afua Hirsch hosts.

5/26/15: Mind Misreadings, John Harris.

5/27/15: The Future of Money, Nigel Dodd.

5/28/15:Being Free and Making Choices, Nigel Dodd, Elaine Glaser, Julian Le Grand. Jacques Peretti hosts.

5/28/15: How to Be Human, Julian Le Grand, Finn Mackay, Neel Mukherjee. Elaine Glaser hosts.

5/28/15: The Fantasy of Money, Sarah Bird, Nigel Dodd, Kieron O’Hara. Jacques Peretti hosts.

5/28/15: Democracy, Freedom and Choice, Julian Le Grand.

5/31/15: The Infinite Boom, Michael Howard, Ann Petitifor, Robert Shiller. Isabel Hilton hosts.





Happy Birthday, Søren Kierkegaard

Lowrie jacket5-8 Kierkegaard_TheSeducersDiaryIntroversion has been having a moment of late, and today happens to be the birthday of one of the world’s most famous—and brilliant—introverts. To quote the (excellent) copy for A Short Life of Kierkegaard by Walter Lowrie, Kierkegaard was “a small, insignificant-looking intellectual with absurdly long legs, a veritable Hans Christian Andersen caricature of a man.” In life, he often hid behind pseudonyms, and yet, he remains one of the most important thinkers of modern times. Read about Kierkegaard’s turbulent life in this classic biography (literary duel? Check. Tragic love affair? Check.) or sample The Seducer’s Diary, which John Updike called, “An intricate curiosity—a feverishly intellectual attempt to reconstruct an erotic failure as a pedagogic success, a wound masked as a boast.”

Happy Birthday, Søren Kierkegaard.

Read Chapter 1 of The Seducer’s Diary here.

Read the Introduction to A Short Life of Kierkegaard here.

Untranslatable Tuesdays – Media


To mark the publication of Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, we are delighted to share a series of playful graphics by our design team which illustrate some of the most interesting terms from the Dictionary. For week six in the “Untranslatable Tuesdays” series we present Media/Medium (of communication):

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the recognition of a family resemblance between the various “implements of intercommunication” meant that they could be compared and contrasted in profitable new ways. . . . The term “mass media” found its niche in scholarly articles by such influential American midcentury thinkers as Hadley Cantril, Harold Lasswell, and Paul Lazarsfeld. But European philosophers resisted this tendency. . . . For Sartre, Adorno, and their contemporaries, “mass media” was less an untranslatable than an untouchable sullied by intellectual and institutional associations with American cultural imperialism. . . . This resistance was soon exhausted. . . . Cognates like “multimedia,” “remediation,” and “mediality” proliferate globally. This reflects less the dominance of English than the collective urgency of an intellectual project. (Ben Kafka)


Untranslatable Tuesdays – Work


To mark the publication of Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, we are delighted to share a series of playful graphics by our design team which illustrate some of the most interesting terms from the Dictionary. For  the fourth in the “Untranslatable Tuesdays” series we present Work, with an abridged entry by Pascal David:

FRENCH       travail, oeuvre

GERMAN     Arbeit, Werk

GREEK       ponos, ergon

LATIN         labor, opus

The human activity that falls under the category of “work,” at least in some of its uses, is linked to pain (the French word travail derives from the Latin word for an instrument of torture), to labor (Lat. labor [the load], Eng. “labor”), and to accomplishment, to the notion of putting to work (Gr. ergasomai [ἐϱγάζομαι], Lat. opus, Fr. mise en oeuvre, Eng. “work,” Ger. Werk), which is not necessarily the oppo­site of leisure but can be its partner. With Hegel, work (Ger. Arbeit) becomes a philosophical concept, but it designates self-realization (whether the course of history or the life of God) rather than a reality that is exclusively or even primarily anthropological.

What does work mean to you?