Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

A Philosophical Investigation

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

A Philosophical Investigation

Article excerpt

Britain was always on the margins of 20th-century intellectual life. Edward Skidelsky on how the French and the Germans won the battle of ideas

The British public has an undiscriminating appetite for self-improvement. It has strong aspirations and weak tastes. Our education system imparts a desire for knowledge, but not the ability to satisfy it. This explains the central role in our culture of the pundit, the person whose job is to tell us what we should know. Museums offer us headphones, ordering us to look at certain paintings and to think certain thoughts. It is a similar marketing instinct that has inspired the academic publisher Routledge to reissue 30 of its most important books under the banner "Routledge classics". These are, by implication, the books that every "educated" person should have read. It is a cunning way of attracting a large clientele for works that would otherwise remain the preserve of a tiny clique of specialists. How many of the people who buy these books will actually go on to read them is another matter.

It is difficult for a reviewer to do justice to such a large number of very different books. One obvious starting point is to divide them up according to provenance. Three languages -- English, French and German -- are represented in roughly equal measure. When the collection is broken up in this way, an interesting fact emerges. Of all the books, by far the most important and influential are those written in German. Einstein's Relativity, Wittgenstein's Tractatus, Freud's Totem and Taboo and Weber's The Protestant Ethic all revolutionised their respective subjects. No other European nation has produced works of such centrality. Germany lies at the heart of 20th-century intellectual life.

Published between 1904 and 1921, these four books belong to that great intellectual upheaval known as the modern movement. All share, in different ways, the conviction that the world cannot be experienced directly, but only from one or another perspective. Motion, writes Einstein, is always relative; from the standpoint of the man in the train, it is the platform that is moving, capitalism, argues Weber, is neither natural nor inevitable; it is the offspring of a specific religious point of view. Wittgenstein gives expression to the general spirit of modernism in his famous dictum: "The limits of my language are the limits of my world." This explains why the last century was obsessed with language. The world is given to us through language; to purify language is simultaneously to cleanse our vision of the world. All philosophy, writes Wittgenstein, is Sprachkritik - critique of language. The political abuse of language in this century and the last has given Wittgenstein's dictum a practical urgency. If total itarian regimes can distort the world merely by distorting language, then Sprachkritik is no mere philosophical game, but an act of political resistance. This was well understood by both Orwell and Solzhenitsyn.

The nine French books in the Routledge collection occupy the next rung down from their German counterparts. The best-known of them are works of structuralism or post-structuralism, first published between 1961 and 1977. They include Foucault's Madness and Civilisation, Lacan's Ecrits , Derrida's Writing and Difference and Levi-Strauss's Myth and Meaning. In these works, the modernist emphasis on language has undergone a strange transformation. It is no longer we that speak language, but rather, to use Heidegger's gnomic formulation, language that speaks us. Language has assumed an existence independent of its speakers; it is a system of meanings over which we have no control. It cannot be changed, only analysed or "deconstructed". No encouragement to political struggle is to be found here: rather, the attitude is of ironic knowingness, redolent of the comfortable leftism of the Enarchs. Whereas the works of the early modernists are full of faith in human agency, a curious fatalism pervades these later writin gs. …

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