Sam Harris has made his short eBook Lying (2011) available to download for free. Make the most of this opportunity and read it. It will only take you an hour or so. For those of you who cannot spare an hour, here’s a five-minute review and five-minute criticism. To the review.
In good philosophical fashion, Harris opens his essay with a definition of lying: ‘To lie is to intentionally mislead others when they expect honest communication’ (p. 4).
The expectation that others have about a particular piece of communication is important, Harris contends. When, for example, someone greets us in the street with a ‘Hi, how are you?’ an acceptable response is ‘Well!’, even when we aren’t well. Although such a response may be deceptive, Harris argues that it’s not a lie because both parties understand that the communication is intended as a greeting. By responding with ‘Well!’ you’re not intentionally misleading your interlocutor. They don’t expect an honest reply.
The Oxford English Dictionary cites a circa 1915 letter by Percy Wyndham Lewis as the first use of the term ‘bullshit’. Lewis used the term as coarse slang for rubbish or nonsense — nonsense that is eloquent yet insincere. Harry G Frankfurt’s 2005 essay ‘On Bullshit’ explores the meaning of bullshit in more depth.
So, what is bullshit? Well, to bullshit is not to lie, Frankfurt argues. Liars have a concern for the truth insofar as they must know what is true to proffer what is false. The truth-teller and the liar are therefore ‘on opposite sides … in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands’.
The truth-value of a statement is of little interest to the bullshitter. The bullshitter is indifferent to how things really are, but hides his nonchalance. He makes assertions that suit the occasion, without concern for their correspondence with the truth. This is the ‘essence’ of bullshit. And it is dangerous because the normal concern for truth becomes ‘attenuated or lost’ as bullshit takes hold. The liar is certainly opposed to truth, but he is not as great an enemy of truth as the bullshitter. Bullshit is corrosive.
John Gray’s (2008) Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia diagnoses the West’s ‘modern malady’: we are suffering an acute case of eschatological thinking. Having over-indulged on the myth of an End-Time (a coming apocalypse or, in secular parlance, the end of history) we’ve fallen ill. Our primary symptom is political violence, brought on by a mistaken belief in our mandate to bring about the telos or purpose of history. But violence justified by reference to fulfilling history’s purpose has one problem: history has no purpose.
Once you believe you’re privy to the purpose of history there is no reason to tolerate ignorance. All are to be brought into the light, by force if need be. History takes precedence over man and will not tolerate those who stand in the way. This is the grand delusion underlying our modern malady. We believe that history has a meaning, that we’re justified in using violence to bring history to its culmination, and that it is possible to do so through an act of human will (Gray 2008a, p. 38).
Gray captured the essence of this delusion while in Australia for the 2008 Sydney Writers’ Festival:
The old slogan ‘You can’t have an omelette without breaking eggs’ misses out the fact that you can break millions of eggs and still not have a single omelette. And that’s, in a way, the history of the twentieth century.
Immediately upon seeing the title of this recent work by Michael Allen Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity, you may think, ‘Here’s another conservative attempting to show that the modern era did not radically break with religion like we moderns commonly assume – another regressive intellectual wishing to denounce secularism as not-so-secular’. ‘Perfect’, I say. On first appearances, arguments like Gillespie’s are prone to two weaknesses.
Firstly, if someone argues that modernity has theological origins they cannot also argue that the corruption of the West, the permissive nature of modern society and so on and so forth are the product of modern secularism (a complaint common among regressives). Why? Because secularism does not exist by this thesis. Secularism is just theology in public-sphere clothing. This is the minor weakness.
‘The central theme of Hobbes’s political thought is the unity of the state’ (p. xi). With this, Bobbio begins his defence of Hobbes and, following that, his defence of unity. We live in an international state of nature. Despite the auspices of the United Nations the system still functions on a ‘balance of terror’ (p. xii), so the central question for those seeking perpetual peace, on Bobbio’s account, is the one that has troubled Natural Law theorists for centuries: How do we get from the state of nature to a civil society?
In chapter 1 Bobbio schematises the two main traditions within political philosophy that deal with this problem – Natural Law theory (Hobbes, Locke) and what Bobbio terms the Aristotelian tradition (Aristotle, Bodin, Althusius, Marsilus of Padua, Sir Robert Filmer). The former typically present two stages of the state formation process – the state of nature and civil society – and use a social contract or similar device to justify the move into civil society. The Aristotelian tradition, contrariwise, presents the family as the model for state formation. This tradition holds that the family is the natural social group in the state of nature – proof that humans have the ability to cooperate as an organisation, however small. Families then form villages, and villages in turn form civil societies. The main idea separating the two traditions is that for the Aristotelian tradition the state is natural while for Natural Law theorists the state itself is a synthetic product of human reason. The ‘reactionary’ charge against Natural Law theory, as Bobbio stresses, is that the state is only synthetic or unnatural when viewed as a product of an imaginary contract between imaginary free and equal individuals (pp. 20-21).
Quentin Skinner’s work as an historian focuses on the history of political philosophy. His particular interest is in understanding how historical ideas represent the real-world issues that concerned past political philosophers. Skinner turns to the classic texts of political philosophy to provide insight into the political situation and political ideas their authors wished to address. For Skinner, however, these texts contain more than just the thoughts of past philosophers. These classic texts are also ‘deeds’ in the sense that they are polemical interventions in the debates of the time (2002). For us to interact with these texts is to do more than engage in historical surveys of ideas. Such interactions expose the present to unfamiliar ideas that have the potential to influence the way we understand the world. Whenever one confronts a classic text, Skinner argues (2002), the basic question will always be ‘What are the appropriate procedures to adopt in the attempt to arrive at an understanding of the work?’
Hobbes and Republican Liberty (2008) is Skinner’s most recent interpretation of Hobbes’ political philosophy. As an interpretive work, Hobbes and Republican Liberty validates Skinner’s methodological claim that texts must be understood as deeds. Skinner’s understanding of Hobbes’ works as polemical interventions in the ideological context of their time provides fresh insights into the development of Hobbes’ thought. These insights are the evidence for his central hypothesis that Hobbes’ works present distinct conceptions of liberty, but that when considered in chronological order these conceptions reveal an underlying development of Hobbes’ thought. By applying his interpretive approach to Hobbes’ work, Skinner also hopes to repudiate the claim that Hobbes’ oeuvre presents a single conception of liberty.