Index Librorum Prohibitorum

Remembrance plaque on the Marktplatz in Neustadt an der Weinstrasse, reading: Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings. (Heinrich Heine, 1820) In memory of the book burning by the National Socialists on May 14, 1933

Remembrance plaque on the Marktplatz in Neustadt an der Weinstrasse, reading: Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings. (Heinrich Heine, 1820) In memory of the book burning by the National Socialists on May 14, 1933

The Index Librorum Prohibitorum (“List of Prohibited Books”) was a list of publications deemed heretical or contrary to morality by the Sacred Congregation of the Index (a former Dicastery of the Roman Curia); Catholics were forbidden to read them.

There were attempts to ban heretical books before the sixteenth century, notably in the ninth-century Decretum Glasianum; the Index of Prohibited Books of 1560 banned thousands of book titles and blacklisted publications, including the works of Europe’s intellectual elites. The 20th and final edition of the Index appeared in 1948; the Index was formally abolished on 14 June 1966 by Pope Paul VI.

The Index condemned religious and secular texts alike, grading works by the degree to which they were seen to be repugnant to the church. The aim of the list was to protect church members from reading theologically, culturally, or politically disruptive books. Such books included works by astronomers, such as Johannes Kepler’s Epitome astronomiae Copernicanae (published in three volumes from 1618 to 1621), which was on the Index from 1621 to 1835; works by philosophers, such as Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781); and editions and translations of the Bible that had not been approved. Editions of the Index also contained the rules of the Church relating to the reading, selling, and preemptive censorship of books.

The canon law of the Latin Church still recommends that works should be submitted to the judgment of the local ordinary if they concern sacred scripture, theology, canon law, or church history, religion or morals. The local ordinary consults someone whom he considers competent to give a judgment and, if that person gives the nihil obstat (“nothing forbids”), the local ordinary grants the imprimatur (“let it be printed”). Members of religious institutes require the imprimi potest (“it can be printed”) of their major superior to publish books on matters of religion or morals.

Some of the scientific theories contained in works in early editions of the Index have long been taught at Catholic universities. For example, the general prohibition of books advocating heliocentrism was removed from the Index in 1758, but two Franciscan mathematicians had published an edition of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica (1687) in 1742, with commentaries and a preface stating that the work assumed heliocentrism and could not be explained without it. A work of the Italian Catholic priest and philosopher Antonio Rosmini-Serbati was on the Index, but he was beatified in 2007. Some have argued that the developments since the abolition of the Index signify “the loss of relevance of the Index in the 21st century.”

J. Martínez de Bujanda’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum, 1600–1966 lists the authors and writings in the successive editions of the Index, while Miguel Carvalho Abrantes’s Why Did The Inquisition Ban Certain Books?: A Case Study from Portugal tries to understand why certain books were forbidden based on a Portuguese edition of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum from 1581.

Emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicaea. The burning of Arian books. (Illustration from a compendium of canon law, ca. 825, MS. in the Capitular Library, Vercelli)

Emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicaea. The burning of Arian books. (Illustration from a compendium of canon law, ca. 825, MS. in the Capitular Library, Vercelli)

European Restrictions on the Right to Print

The historical context in which the Index appeared involved the early restrictions on printing in Europe. The refinement of moveable type and the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg circa 1440 changed the nature of book publishing, and the mechanism by which information could be disseminated to the public. Books, once rare and kept carefully in a small number of libraries, could be mass-produced and widely disseminated.

In the 16th century, both the churches and governments in most European countries attempted to regulate and control printing because it allowed for rapid and widespread circulation of ideas and information. The Protestant Reformation generated large quantities of polemical new writing by and within both the Catholic and Protestant camps, and religious subject-matter was typically the area most subject to control. While governments and church encouraged printing in many ways, which allowed the dissemination of Bibles and government information, works of dissent and criticism could also circulate rapidly. As a consequence, governments established controls over printers across Europe, requiring them to have official licenses to trade and produce books.

The early versions of the Index began to appear from 1529 to 1571. In the same time frame, in 1557 the English Crown aimed to stem the flow of dissent by chartering the Stationers’ Company. The right to print was restricted to the two universities (Oxford and Cambridge) and to the 21 existing printers in the city of London, which had between them 53 printing presses.

The French crown also tightly controlled printing, and the printer and writer Etienne Dolet was burned at the stake for atheism in 1546. The 1551 Edict of Châteaubriant comprehensively summarized censorship positions to date, and included provisions for unpacking and inspecting all books brought into France. The 1557 Edict of Compiègne applied the death penalty to heretics and resulted in the burning of a noblewoman at the stake. Printers were viewed as radical and rebellious, with 800 authors, printers and book dealers being incarcerated in the Bastille. At times, the prohibitions of church and state followed each other, e.g. René Descartes was placed on the Index in the 1660s and the French government prohibited the teaching of Cartesianism in schools in the 1670s.

The Copyright Act 1710 in Britain, and later copyright laws in France, eased this situation. Historian Eckhard Höffner claims that copyright laws and their restrictions acted as a barrier to progress in those countries for over a century, since British publishers could print valuable knowledge in limited quantities for the sake of profit. The German economy prospered in the same time frame since there were no restrictions.

Early Indices (1529–1571)

The first list of the kind was not published in Rome, but in Catholic Netherlands (1529); Venice (1543) and Paris (1551) under the terms of the Edict of Châteaubriant followed this example. By mid-century, in the tense atmosphere of wars of religion in Germany and France, both Protestant and Catholic authorities reasoned that only control of the press, including a catalog of prohibited works, coordinated by ecclesiastic and governmental authorities, could prevent the spread of heresy.

Paul F. Grendler (1975) discusses the religious and political climate in Venice from 1540 to 1605. There were many attempts to censor the Venetian press, which at that time was one of the largest concentrations of printers. Both church and government held to a belief in censorship, but the publishers continually pushed back on the efforts to ban books and shut down printing. More than once the index of banned books in Venice was suppressed or suspended because various people took a stand against it.

The first Roman Index was printed in 1557 under the direction of Pope Paul IV (1555–1559), but then withdrawn for unclear reasons. In 1559, a new index was finally published, banning the entire works of some 550 authors in addition to the individual proscribed titles: “The Pauline Index felt that the religious convictions of an author contaminated all his writing.” The work of the censors was considered too severe and met with much opposition even in Catholic intellectual circles; after the Council of Trent had authorized a revised list prepared under Pope Pius IV, the so-called Tridentine Index was promulgated in 1564; it remained the basis of all later lists until Pope Leo XIII, in 1897, published his Index Leonianus.

The blacklisting of some Protestant scholars even when writing on subjects a modern reader would consider outside the realm of dogma meant that, unless they obtained a dispensation, obedient Catholic thinkers were denied access to works including: botanist Conrad Gesner’s Historiae animalium; the botanical works of Otto Brunfels; those of the medical scholar Janus Cornarius; to Christoph Hegendorff or Johann Oldendorp on the theory of law; Protestant geographers and cosmographers like Jacob Ziegler or Sebastian Münster; as well as anything by Protestant theologians like Martin Luther, John Calvin or Philipp Melanchthon. Among the inclusions was the Libri Carolini, a theological work from the 9th-century court of Charlemagne, which was published in 1549 by Bishop Jean du Tillet and which had already been on two other lists of prohibited books before being inserted into the Tridentine Index.

Killing the Scholars and Burning the Books, anonymous 18th century Chinese painted album leaf; Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

Killing the Scholars and Burning the Books, anonymous 18th century Chinese painted album leaf; Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

Sacred Congregation of the Index (1571–1917)

In 1571, a special congregation was created, the Sacred Congregation of the Index, which had the specific task to investigate those writings that were denounced in Rome as being not exempt of errors, to update the list of Pope Pius IV regularly and also to make lists of required corrections in case a writing was not to be condemned absolutely but only in need of correction; it was then listed with a mitigating clause (e.g., donec corrigatur (forbidden until corrected) or donec expurgetur (forbidden until purged)).

Several times a year, the congregation held meetings. During the meetings, they reviewed various works and documented those discussions. In between the meetings was when the works to be discussed were thoroughly examined, and each work was scrutinized by two people. At the meetings, they collectively decided whether or not the works should be included in the Index. Ultimately, the pope was the one who had to approve of works being added or removed from the Index. It was the documentation from the meetings of the congregation that aided the pope in making his decision.

This sometimes resulted in very long lists of corrections, published in the Index Expurgatorius, which was cited by Thomas James in 1627 as “an invaluable reference work to be used by the curators of the Bodleian Library when listing those works particularly worthy of collecting”. Prohibitions made by other congregations (mostly the Holy Office) were simply passed on to the Congregation of the Index, where the final decrees were drafted and made public, after approval of the Pope (who always had the possibility to condemn an author personally—there are only a few examples of such condemnation, including those of Lamennais and Hermes).

An update to the Index was made by Pope Leo XIII, in the 1897 apostolic constitution Officiorum ac Munerum, known as the “Index Leonianus”. Subsequent editions of the Index were more sophisticated; they graded authors according to their supposed degree of toxicity, and they marked specific passages for expurgation rather than condemning entire books.

The Sacred Congregation of the Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church later became the Holy Office, and since 1965 has been called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Congregation of the Index was merged with the Holy Office in 1917, by the Motu Proprio “Alloquentes Proxime” of Pope Benedict XV; the rules on the reading of books were again re-elaborated in the new Codex Iuris Canonici. From 1917 onward, the Holy Office (again) took care of the Index.

Holy Office (1917–1966)

While individual books continued to be forbidden, the last edition of the Index to be published appeared in 1948. This 20th edition contained 4,000 titles censored for various reasons: heresy, moral deficiency, sexual explicitness, and so on. That some atheists, such as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, were not included was due to the general (Tridentine) rule that heretical works (i.e., works that contradict Catholic dogma) are ipso facto forbidden. Some important works are absent simply because nobody bothered to denounce them. Many actions of the congregations were of a definite political content. Among the significant listed works of the period was the Nazi philosopher Alfred Rosenberg’s Myth of the Twentieth Century for scorning and rejecting “all dogmas of the Catholic Church, indeed the very fundamentals of the Christian religion”.

Abolition (1966)

On 7 December 1965, Pope Paul VI issued the Motu Proprio Integrae servandae that reorganized the Holy Office as the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Index was not listed as being a part of the newly constituted congregation’s competence, leading to questioning whether it still was. This question was put to Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, pro-prefect of the congregation, who responded in the negative. The Cardinal also indicated in his response that there was going to be a change in the Index soon.

A June 1966 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith notification announced that, while the Index maintained its moral force, in that it taught Christians to beware, as required by the natural law itself, of those writings that could endanger faith and morality, it no longer had the force of ecclesiastical positive law with the associated penalties.

Pedro Berruguete: Saint Dominic and the Albigensians

Pedro Berruguete: Saint Dominic and the Albigensians. A dispute between Saint Dominic and the Cathars in which the books of both were thrown on a fire and St. Dominic’s books were miraculously preserved from the flames.

Censorship and Enforcement

The Index was not simply a reactive work. Roman Catholic authors had the opportunity to defend their writings and could prepare a new edition with necessary corrections or deletions, either to avoid or to limit a ban. Pre-publication censorship was encouraged.

The Index was enforceable within the Papal States, but elsewhere only if adopted by the civil powers, as happened in several Italian states. Other areas adopted their own lists of forbidden books. In the Holy Roman Empire book censorship, which preceded publication of the Index, came under control of the Jesuits at the end of the 16th century, but had little effect, since the German princes within the empire set up their own systems. In France it was French officials who decided what books were banned and the Church’s Index was not recognized. Spain had its own Index Librorum Prohibitorum et Expurgatorum, which corresponded largely to the Church’s, but also included a list of books that were allowed once the forbidden part (sometimes a single sentence) was removed or “expurgated”.

Continued Moral Obligation

On 14 June 1966, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith responded to inquiries it had received regarding the continued moral obligation concerning books that had been listed in the Index. The response spoke of the books as examples of books dangerous to faith and morals, all of which, not just those once included in the Index, should be avoided regardless of the absence of any written law against them. The Index, it said, retains its moral force “inasmuch as” (quatenus) it teaches the conscience of Christians to beware, as required by the natural law itself, of writings that can endanger faith and morals, but it (the Index of Forbidden Books) no longer has the force of ecclesiastical law with the associated censures.

The congregation thus placed on the conscience of the individual Christian the responsibility to avoid all writings dangerous to faith and morals, while at the same time abolishing the previously existing ecclesiastical law and the relative censures, without thereby declaring that the books that had once been listed in the various editions of the Index of Prohibited Books had become free of error and danger.

In a letter of 31 January 1985 to Cardinal Giuseppe Siri, regarding the book The Poem of the Man-God, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (then Prefect of the Congregation, who later became Pope Benedict XVI), referred to the 1966 notification of the Congregation as follows: “After the dissolution of the Index, when some people thought the printing and distribution of the work was permitted, people were reminded again in L’Osservatore Romano (15 June 1966) that, as was published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis (1966), the Index retains its moral force despite its dissolution. A decision against distributing and recommending a work, which has not been condemned lightly, may be reversed, but only after profound changes that neutralize the harm which such a publication could bring forth among the ordinary faithful.”

Changing Judgments

The content of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum saw deletions as well as additions over the centuries. Writings by Antonio Rosmini-Serbati were placed on the Index in 1849 but were removed by 1855, and Pope John Paul II mentioned Rosmini’s work as a significant example of “a process of philosophical enquiry which was enriched by engaging the data of faith”. The 1758 edition of the Index removed the general prohibition of works advocating heliocentrism as a fact rather than a hypothesis.

Listed Works and Authors

Noteworthy figures on the Index include Simone de Beauvoir, Nicolas Malebranche, Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel de Montaigne, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Victor Hugo, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, André Gide, Nikos Kazantzakis, Emanuel Swedenborg, Baruch Spinoza, Desiderius Erasmus, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, René Descartes, Francis Bacon, Thomas Browne, John Milton, John Locke, Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Blaise Pascal, and Hugo Grotius. The first woman to be placed on the list was Magdalena Haymairus in 1569, who was listed for her children’s book Die sontegliche Episteln über das gantze Jar in gesangsweis gestellt (Sunday Epistles on the whole Year, put into hymns). Other women include Anne Askew, Olympia Fulvia Morata, Ursula of Munsterberg (1491–1534), Veronica Franco, and Paola Antonia Negri (1508–1555). Contrary to a popular misconception, Charles Darwin’s works were never included.

In many cases, an author’s opera omnia (complete works) were forbidden. However, the Index stated that the prohibition of someone’s opera omnia did not preclude works that were not concerned with religion and were not forbidden by the general rules of the Index. This explanation was omitted in the 1929 edition, which was officially interpreted in 1940 as meaning that opera omnia covered all the author’s works without exception.

Cardinal Ottaviani stated in April 1966 that there was too much contemporary literature, and the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith could not keep up with it.

A member of the SA throws confiscated books into the bonfire during the public burning of "un-German" books on the Opernplatz in Berlin. In 1933, Nazis burned works of Jewish authors, and other works considered "un-German", at the library of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft in Berlin.

A member of the SA throws confiscated books into the bonfire during the public burning of “un-German” books on the Opernplatz in Berlin. In 1933, Nazis burned works of Jewish authors, and other works considered “un-German”, at the library of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft in Berlin.

Wikipedia – Index Librorum Prohibitorum

List of Book-Burning Incidents

Book Burning

Internet Archive: Digital Library

Open Library

Project Gutenberg

Philosophy Should Care about the Filthy, Excessive and Unclean

Thomas White | Aeon Ideas

Philosophy traditionally has been about ‘higher’ questions: what is knowledge? What is the meaning of justice? What is the nature of ultimate reality? These questions soar above the petty concerns of the everyday and reach towards a realm of pure ideas. But can the ‘unclean’ – dirt, mud, bodily wastes, the grime of existence – be relevant to the philosopher’s quest for wisdom and the truth? Philosophers don’t often discuss filth and all its disgusting variations, but investigating the unclean turns out to be as useful an exercise as examining the highest ideals of justice, morality and metaphysics.

In his dialogue Parmenides, Plato gives us an inkling of the significance of philosophising about the unclean, which he names ‘undignified objects’, such as hair, mud and dirt. The young Socrates, at this stage but an entry-level philosopher, is discussing the foundations of reality with the venerable Parmenides. While this encounter between these philosophers about ‘undignified objects’ is brief, it is profound, for it shows how insightful thinkers use digressions and marginal comments to demonstrate that not everything is as clearcut as system-builders – including even Plato – might think.

Parmenides quizzes Socrates about whether the theory of ideal forms – the argument that particular material objects have correlated ideal patterns, which are the perfect forms of the imperfect things – can include mud and dirt. Can there be a perfect form of filth? Taken aback, Socrates confesses that he is troubled by this point because it seems to lead to nonsense: ‘perfect filth’ is contradictory. Instead, Socrates prefers to return to discussing the higher ideals of ‘goodness’ and ‘beauty’. Confronted by Parmenides with the unseemly facts of mud and dirt, he takes refuge in the beautiful – unlike Antoine Roquentin, the protagonist in Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophical novel Nausea (1938), who, in confronting the ugly facticity of the world, obtains a glimpse of actual, albeit repugnant, reality.

Socrates’ puzzlement at how to explain the very lowest (dirt, mud) in terms of the very highest (ideal forms) suggests the limitations of the dualistic, two-world theory that has formed the basis of several millennia of Western thought. The unclean’s ‘undignified objects’ represent a kind of outer twilight zone – a metaphysical no-man’s land – that eludes overarching theories about the meaning of reality. The very resistance of filth’s inclusion into a master philosophical system serves as a cautionary note, and a lesson in Socratic humility, warning the ambitious and overeager intellectual to slow down. Do not try to assimilate every aspect of our diverse experience into grand explanatory narratives. The unclean’s raw existence is a great intractable that rudely interrupts a philosopher’s thinking when it fails to fit neatly into the theory of forms, thus forcing the philosopher to curb hasty, ambitious generalisations, and think even harder and more clearly. (The classicist Edith Hamilton, in her introductory notes to Parmenides, suggests that Plato attacked his own theory of Platonic ideas in order to know the truth, not to defend his own preconceived views.)

Parmenides’ concerns about the limits of the theory of forms presages the empiricist Francis Bacon. In Novum Organum (1620), he argued similarly for the limits of intellectual speculation, and about the dangers of creating idols out of promiscuously generated philosophical systems by exceeding speculative boundaries:

The understanding must also be cautioned against the intemperance of systems, so far as regards its giving or withholding its assent; for such intemperance appears to fix and perpetuate idols, so as to leave no means of removing them.

In our own day, Slavoj Žižek in his book Disparities (2016) echoes the Parmenidean point about how the unclean can disrupt our comfortable theories about reality: ‘[S]hit remains an excess which does not fit our daily reality.’ An experience of disgust in the presence of the filthy and unclean disturbs our sense of systems and order, causing a ‘disintegration’ of our metaphysical understanding of reality, ‘the very ontological coordinates which enable [us] to locate an object “out there”.’

Like Plato, Žižek uses allusions to the unclean to alert the reader to how repugnant, discordant facts can undercut a particular vision of reality. He also expands the use of the metaphor of filth to call our attention to something else closer to his heart: the failings of our modern political discourse. Bacon warned us of intellectual intemperance, but Žižek uses references to the unclean to warn us of modern political intemperance. In the cases of Plato, Bacon and Žižek, the philosophical issue raised is about boundaries and the implications of transgressing them.

In the unclean, Žižek finds the ultimate metaphor for the dumbing down of political thought and speech, a way of understanding the collapse of modern political discourse – itself an echo of Plato’s critique of the false, that is, ‘sophistical’ use of political language – in which ‘public vulgarity’ is used without shame.

He begins his argument with a scene from a surreal film from 1974 in which people at a dinner party defecate in public:

We probably all remember the scene from Luis Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty in which relations between eating and excreting are inverted: people sit at their toilets around the table, pleasantly talking, and when they want to eat, they silently ask the housekeeper: ‘Where is that place, you know?,’ and sneak away to a small room in the back.

Political figures today, Žižek argues, are committing the verbal equivalent of this public defecation. They are violating traditional, unwritten rules and boundaries that are used to guide public conduct by making outrageous statements that were once taboo. ‘They are a clear sign of the regression of our public sphere,’ he writes in Newsweek in 2016. ‘Accusations and ideas that were till now confined to the obscure underworld of racist obscenity are now gaining a foothold in official discourse.’ And citing Georg Hegel’s notion of Sittlichkeit – the ‘the thick background of (unwritten) rules of social life … that tell us what we can and cannot do’, Žižek further observes that ‘These [unwritten] rules are disintegrating today: what was a couple of decades ago simply unsayable in a public debate can now be pronounced with impunity.’

A discharge of verbal political filth has changed the public sphere into a kind of collective public toilet for language users – lurid speeches full of nasty ignorance, blatant vulgarity and raw prejudice. Plato and Žižek, with some tacit support from Bacon, use the notion of the unclean in similar ways to offer, implicitly, practical advice about how humans should conduct themselves: be wary of intemperately overstepping limits by chasing overweening ambitions, whether intellectual or political, which soil clear thinking and logic, and/or corrupt language, politics and ethics. Discussions of lowly filth, and all of its disgusting variations, are not merely the province of vulgarians, but seem to offer life lessons for everyone, not just philosophers.Aeon counter – do not remove

Thomas White is a Wiley Journal contributing author, whose philosophical and theological writings have appeared in print and online.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

To Avoid Moral Failure, Don’t See People as Sherlock Does


Suspicious minds; William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes (right) and Bruce McRae as Dr John Watson in the play Sherlock Holmes (c1900). Courtesy Wikimedia

Rima Basu | Aeon Ideas

If we’re the kind of people who care both about not being racist, and also about basing our beliefs on the evidence that we have, then the world presents us with a challenge. The world is pretty racist. It shouldn’t be surprising then that sometimes it seems as if the evidence is stacked in favour of some racist belief. For example, it’s racist to assume that someone’s a staff member on the basis of his skin colour. But what if it’s the case that, because of historical patterns of discrimination, the members of staff with whom you interact are predominantly of one race? When the late John Hope Franklin, professor of history at Duke University in North Carolina, hosted a dinner party at his private club in Washington, DC in 1995, he was mistaken as a member of staff. Did the woman who did so do something wrong? Yes. It was indeed racist of her, even though Franklin was, since 1962, that club’s first black member.

To begin with, we don’t relate to people in the same way that we relate to objects. Human beings are different in an important way. In the world, there are things – tables, chairs, desks and other objects that aren’t furniture – and we try our best to understand how this world works. We ask why plants grow when watered, why dogs give birth to dogs and never to cats, and so on. But when it comes to people, ‘we have a different way of going on, though it is hard to capture just what that is’, as Rae Langton, now professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge, put it so nicely in 1991.

Once you accept this general intuition, you might begin to wonder how can we capture that different way in which we ought to relate to others. To do this, first we must recognise that, as Langton goes on to write, ‘we don’t simply observe people as we might observe planets, we don’t simply treat them as things to be sought out when they can be of use to us, and avoid when they are a nuisance. We are, as [the British philosopher P F] Strawson says, involved.’

This way of being involved has been played out in many different ways, but here’s the basic thought: being involved is thinking that others’ attitudes and intentions towards us are important in a special way, and that our treatment of others should reflect that importance. We are, each of us, in virtue of being social beings, vulnerable. We depend upon others for our self-esteem and self-respect.

For example, we each think of ourselves as having a variety of more or less stable characteristics, from marginal ones such as being born on a Friday to central ones such as being a philosopher or a spouse. The more central self-descriptions are important to our sense of self-worth, to our self-understanding, and they constitute our sense of identity. When these central self-descriptions are ignored by others in favour of expectations on the basis of our race, gender or sexual orientation, we’re wronged. Perhaps our self-worth shouldn’t be based on something so fragile, but not only are we all-too-human, these self-descriptions also allow us to understand who we are and where we stand in the world.

This thought is echoed in the American sociologist and civil rights activist W E B DuBois’s concept of double consciousness. In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), DuBois notes a common feeling: ‘this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity’.

When you believe that John Hope Franklin must be a staff member rather than a club member, you’ve made predictions of him and observed him in the same way that one might observe the planets. Our private thoughts can wrong other people. When someone forms beliefs about you in this predictive way, they fail to see you, they fail to interact with you as a person. This is not only upsetting. It is a moral failing.

The English philosopher W K Clifford argued in 1877 that we were morally criticisable if our beliefs weren’t formed in the right way. He warned that we have a duty to humanity to never believe on the basis of insufficient evidence because to do so would be to put society at risk. As we look at the world around us and the epistemic crisis in which we find ourselves, we see what happens when Clifford’s imperative is ignored. And if we combine Clifford’s warning with DuBois’s and Langton’s observations, it becomes clear that, for our belief-forming practices, the stakes aren’t just high because we depend on one another for knowledge – the stakes are also high because we depend on one another for respect and dignity.

Consider how upset Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters get with Sherlock Holmes for the beliefs this fictional detective forms about them. Without fail, the people whom Holmes encounters find the way he forms beliefs about others to be insulting. Sometimes it’s because it is a negative belief. Often, however, the belief is mundane: eg, what they ate on the train or which shoe they put on first in the morning. There’s something improper about the way that Holmes relates to other human beings. Holmes’s failure to relate is not just a matter of his actions or his words (though sometimes it is also that), but what really rubs us up the wrong way is that Holmes observes us all as objects to be studied, predicted and managed. He doesn’t relate to us as human beings.

Maybe in an ideal world, what goes on inside our heads wouldn’t matter. But just as the personal is the political, our private thoughts aren’t really only our own. If a man believes of every woman he meets: ‘She’s someone I can sleep with,’ it’s no excuse that he never acts on the belief or reveals the belief to others. He has objectified her and failed to relate to her as a human being, and he has done so in a world in which women are routinely objectified and made to feel less-than.

This kind of indifference to the effect one has on others is morally criticisable. It has always struck me as odd that everyone grants that our actions and words are apt for moral critique, but once we enter the realm of thought we’re off the hook. Our beliefs about others matter. We care what others think of us.

When we mistake a person of colour for a staff member, that challenges this person’s central self-descriptions, the descriptions from which he draws his sense of self-worth. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with being a staff member, but if your reason for thinking that someone is staff is tied not only to something he has no control over (his skin colour) but also to a history of oppression (being denied access to more prestigious forms of employment), then that should give you pause.

The facts might not be racist, but the facts that we often rely on can be the result of racism, including racist institutions and policies. So when forming beliefs using evidence that is a result of racist history, we are accountable for failing to show more care and for believing so easily that someone is a staff member. Precisely what is owed can vary along a number of dimensions, but nonetheless we can recognise that some extra care with our beliefs is owed along these lines. We owe each other not only better actions and better words, but also better thoughts.Aeon counter – do not remove

Rima Basu is an assistant professor of philosophy at Claremont McKenna College in California. Her work has been published in Philosophical Studies, among others.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

How do we Pry Apart the True and Compelling from the False and Toxic?


Stack of CPU’s. Shawn Stutzman, Pexels

David V Johnson | Aeon Ideas

When false and malicious speech roils the body politic, when racism and violence surge, the right and role of freedom of speech in society comes into crisis. People rightly begin to wonder what are the limits, what should be the rules. It is a complicated issue, and resolving it requires care about the exact problems targeted and solutions proposed. Otherwise the risk to free speech is real.

Propaganda from Russian-funded troll farms (boosted by Facebook data breaches) might have contributed to the United Kingdom’s vote to exit the European Union and aided the United States’ election of Donald Trump as president. Conspiracy theories spread by alternative news outlets or over social media sometimes lead to outbreaks of violence. Politicians exploit the mainstream news media’s commitment to balance, to covering newsworthy public statements and their need for viewers or readers by making baseless, sensational claims.

In On Liberty (1859), John Stuart Mill offers the most compelling defence of freedom of speech, conscience and autonomy ever written. Mill argues that the only reason to restrict speech is to prevent harm to others, such as with hate speech and incitement to violence. Otherwise, all speech must be protected. Even if we know a view is false, Mill says, it is wrong to suppress it. We avoid prejudice and dogmatism, and achieve understanding, through freely discussing and defending what we believe against contrary claims.

Today, a growing number of people see these views as naive. Mill’s arguments are better suited to those who still believe in the open marketplace of ideas, where free and rational debate is the best way to settle all disputes about truth and falsity. Who could possibly believe we live in such a world anymore? Instead, what we have is a Wild West of partisanship and manipulation, where social media gurus exploit research in behavioural psychology to compel users to affirm and echo absurd claims. We have a world where people live in cognitive bubbles of the like-minded and share one another’s biases and prejudices. According to this savvy view, our brave new world is too prone to propaganda and conspiracy-mongering to rely on Mill’s optimism about free speech. To do so is to risk abetting the rise of fascist and absolutist tendencies.

In his book How Fascism Works (2018), the American philosopher Jason Stanley cites the Russian television network RT, which presents all sorts of misleading and slanted views. If Mill is right, claims Stanley, then RT and such propaganda outfits ‘should be the paradigm of knowledge production’ because they force us to scrutinise their claims. But this is a reductio ad absurdum of Mill’s argument. Similarly, Alexis Papazoglou in The New Republic questions whether Nick Clegg, the former British deputy prime minister turned Facebook’s new vice president of global affairs and communication, will be led astray by his appreciation of Mill’s On Liberty. ‘Mill seemed to believe that an open, free debate meant the truth would usually prevail, whereas under censorship, truth could end up being accidentally suppressed, along with falsehood,’ writes Papazoglou. ‘It’s a view that seems a bit archaic in the age of an online marketplace of memes and clickbait, where false stories tend to spread faster and wider than their true counterpoints.’

When important and false beliefs and theories gain traction in public conversation, Mill’s protection of speech can be frustrating. But there is nothing new about ‘fake news’, whether in Mill’s age of sensationalist newspapers or in our age of digital media. Nonetheless to seek a solution in restricting speech is foolish and counterproductive – it lends credibility to the illiberal forces you, paradoxically, seek to silence. It also betrays an elitism about engaging with those of different opinions and a cynicism about affording your fellow citizens the freedom to muddle through the morass on their own. If we want to live in a liberal democratic society, rational engagement is the only solution on offer. Rather than restricting speech, we should look to supplement Mill’s view with effective tools for dealing with bad actors and with beliefs that, although false, seem compelling to some.

Fake news and propaganda are certainly problems, as they were in Mill’s day, but the problems they raise are more serious than the falsity of their claims. After all, they are not unique in saying false things, as the latest newspaper corrections will tell you. More importantly, they involve bad actors: people and organisations who intentionally pass off false views as the truth, and hide their nature and motives. (Think Russian troll farms.) Anyone who knows that they are dealing with bad actors – people trying to mislead – ignores them, and justifiably so. It’s not worth your time to consider the claim of someone you know is trying to deceive you.

There is nothing in Mill that demands that we engage any and all false views. After all, there are too many out there and so people have to be selective. Transparency is key, helping people know with whom, or what, they are dealing. Transparency helps filter out noise and fosters accountability, so that bad actors – those who hide their identity for the purpose of misleading others – are eliminated.

Mill’s critics fail to see the truth that is mixed in with the false views that they wish to restrict, and that makes those views compelling. RT, for instance, has covered many issues, such as the US financial crisis, economic inequality and imperialism more accurately than mainstream news channels. RT also includes informed sources who are ignored by other outlets. The channel might be biased toward demeaning the US and fomenting division, but it often pursues this agenda by speaking truths that are not covered in mainstream US media. Informed news-watchers know to view RT and all news sources with skepticism, and there is no reason not to extend the same respect to the entire viewing public, unless you presume you are a better judge of what to believe than your fellow citizens.

Mill rightly thought that the typical case wasn’t one of views that are false, but views that have a mixture of true and false. It would be far more effective to try to engage with the truth in views we despise than to try to ban them for their alleged falsity. The Canadian psychologist and YouTube sensation Jordan Peterson, for example, says things that are false, misogynistic and illiberal, but one possible reason for his following is that he recognises and speaks to a deficit of meaning and values in many young men’s lives. Here, the right approach is to pry apart the true and compelling from the false and toxic, through reasoned consideration. This way, following Mill’s path, presents a better chance of winning over those who are lost to views we despise. It also helps us improve our own understanding, as Mill wisely suggests.Aeon counter – do not remove

David V Johnson

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

Ibn Tufayl and the Story of the Feral Child of Philosophy


Album folio fragment with scholar in a garden. Attributed to Muhammad Ali 1610-15. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Marwa Elshakry & Murad Idris | Aeon Ideas

Ibn Tufayl, a 12th-century Andalusian, fashioned the feral child in philosophy. His story Hayy ibn Yaqzan is the tale of a child raised by a doe on an unnamed Indian Ocean island. Hayy ibn Yaqzan (literally ‘Living Son of Awakeness’) reaches a state of perfect, ecstatic understanding of the world. A meditation on the possibilities (and pitfalls) of the quest for the good life, Hayy offers not one, but two ‘utopias’: a eutopia (εὖ ‘good’, τόπος ‘place’) of the mind in perfect isolation, and an ethical community under the rule of law. Each has a version of human happiness. Ibn Tufayl pits them against each other, but each unfolds ‘no where’ (οὐ ‘not’, τόπος ‘place’) in the world.

Ibn Tufayl begins with a vision of humanity isolated from society and politics. (Modern European political theorists who employed this literary device called it ‘the state of nature’.) He introduces Hayy by speculating about his origin. Whether Hayy was placed in a basket by his mother to sail through the waters of life (like Moses) or born by spontaneous generation on the island is irrelevant, Ibn Tufayl says. His divine station remains the same, as does much of his life, spent in the company only of animals. Later philosophers held that society elevates humanity from its natural animal state to an advanced, civilised one. Ibn Tufayl took a different view. He maintained that humans can be perfected only outside society, through a progress of the soul, not the species.

In contrast to Thomas Hobbes’s view that ‘man is a wolf to man’, Hayy’s island has no wolves. It proves easy enough for him to fend off other creatures by waving sticks at them or donning terrifying costumes of hides and feathers. For Hobbes, the fear of violent death is the origin of the social contract and the apologia for the state; but Hayy’s first encounter with fear of death is when his doe-mother dies. Desperate to revive her, Hayy dissects her heart only to find one of its chambers is empty. The coroner-turned-theologian concludes that what he loved in his mother no longer resides in her body. Death therefore was the first lesson of metaphysics, not politics.

Hayy then observes the island’s plants and animals. He meditates upon the idea of an elemental, ‘vital spirit’ upon discovering fire. Pondering the plurality of matter leads him to conclude that it must originate from a singular, non-corporeal source or First Cause. He notes the perfect motion of the celestial spheres and begins a series of ascetic exercises (such as spinning until dizzy) to emulate this hidden, universal order. By the age of 50, he retreats from the physical world, meditating in his cave until, finally, he attains a state of ecstatic illumination. Reason, for Ibn Tufayl, is thus no absolute guide to Truth.

The difference between Hayy’s ecstatic journeys of the mind and later rationalist political thought is the role of reason. Yet many later modern European commentaries or translations of Hayy confuse this by framing the allegory in terms of reason. In 1671, Edward Pococke entitled his Latin translation The Self-Taught Philosopher: In Which It Is Demonstrated How Human Reason Can Ascend from Contemplation of the Inferior to Knowledge of the Superior. In 1708, Simon Ockley’s English translation was The Improvement of Human Reason, and it too emphasised reason’s capacity to attain ‘knowledge of God’. For Ibn Tufayl, however, true knowledge of God and the world – as a eutopia for the ‘mind’ (or soul) – could come only through perfect contemplative intuition, not absolute rational thought.

This is Ibn Tufayl’s first utopia: an uninhabited island where a feral philosopher retreats to a cave to reach ecstasy through contemplation and withdrawal from the world. Friedrich Nietzsche’s Zarathustra would be impressed: ‘Flee, my friend, into your solitude!’

The rest of the allegory introduces the problem of communal life and a second utopia. After Hayy achieves his perfect condition, an ascetic is shipwrecked on his island. Hayy is surprised to discover another being who so resembles him. Curiosity leads him to befriend the wanderer, Absal. Absal teaches Hayy language, and describes the mores of his own island’s law-abiding people. The two men determine that the islanders’ religion is a lesser version of the Truth that Hayy discovered, shrouded in symbols and parables. Hayy is driven by compassion to teach them the Truth. They travel to Absal’s home.

The encounter is disastrous. Absal’s islanders feel compelled by their ethical principles of hospitality towards foreigners, friendship with Absal, and association with all people to welcome Hayy. But soon Hayy’s constant attempts to preach irritate them. Hayy realises that they are incapable of understanding. They are driven by satisfactions of the body, not the mind. There can be no perfect society because not everyone can achieve a state of perfection in their soul. Illumination is possible only for the select, in accordance with a sacred order, or a hieros archein. (This hierarchy of being and knowing is a fundamental message of neo-Platonism.) Hayy concludes that persuading people away from their ‘natural’ stations would only corrupt them further. The laws that the ‘masses’ venerate, be they revealed or reasoned, he decides, are their only chance to achieve a good life.

The islanders’ ideals – lawfulness, hospitality, friendship, association – might seem reasonable, but these too exist ‘no where’ in the world. Hence their dilemma: either they adhere to these and endure Hayy’s criticisms, or violate them by shunning him. This is a radical critique of the law and its ethical principles: they are normatively necessary for social life yet inherently contradictory and impossible. It’s a sly reproach of political life, one whose bite endures. Like the islanders, we follow principles that can undermine themselves. To be hospitable, we must be open to the stranger who violates hospitality. To be democratic, we must include those who are antidemocratic. To be worldly, our encounters with other people must be opportunities to learn from them, not just about them.

In the end, Hayy returns to his island with Absal, where they enjoy a life of ecstatic contemplation unto death. They abandon the search for a perfect society of laws. Their eutopia is the quest of the mind left unto itself, beyond the imperfections of language, law and ethics – perhaps beyond even life itself.

The islanders offer a less obvious lesson: our ideals and principles undermine themselves, but this is itself necessary for political life. For an island of pure ethics and law is an impossible utopia. Perhaps, like Ibn Tufayl, all we can say on the search for happiness is (quoting Al-Ghazali):

It was – what it was is harder to say.
Think the best, but don’t make me describe it away.

After all, we don’t know what happened to Hayy and Absal after their deaths – or to the islanders after they left.Aeon counter – do not remove

Marwa Elshakry & Murad Idris

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

Climate Strikes: Researcher explains how Young People can Keep up the Momentum

Harriet Thew, University of Leeds

As part of one of the largest environmental protests ever seen, over a million young people went on strike on Friday March 15 2019, calling for more ambitious action on climate change. Inspired by Greta Thunberg, a Swedish school girl who protested outside the Swedish parliament every Friday throughout 2018, young people in over 100 countries left their classrooms and took to the streets.

The previous #YouthStrike4Climate on February 15 2019 mobilised over 10,000 young people in over 40 locations in the UK alone. Their marches, chants and signs captured attention and prompted debates regarding the motivations and methods of young strikers. Many were criticised by those in the government and the media for simply wanting an opportunity to miss school.

My PhD research explores youth participation in climate change governance, focusing on the UN climate negotiations. Between 2015 and 2018 I closely studied the Youth Climate Coalition (UKYCC) – a UK based, voluntary, youth-led group of 18 to 29 year olds – which attends the international negotiations and coordinates local and national climate change campaigns.

Members of the UK Youth Climate Coalition protest in London.
Harriet Thew, Author provided

My research shows that young people are mobilised by concern for people and wildlife, fears for the future and anger that climate action is neither sufficiently rapid nor ambitious. Young people need to feel as though they are “doing something” about climate change while politicians dither and scientists release increasingly alarming projections of future climate conditions.

The strikes have helped young activists find like-minded peers and new opportunities to engage. They articulate a collective youth voice, wielding the moral power of young people – a group which society agrees it is supposed to protect. All the same, there are threats to sustaining the movement’s momentum which need to be recognised now.

Challenge misplaced paternalism

The paternalism that gives youth a moral platform is a double-edged sword. Patronising responses from adults in positions of authority, from head teachers to the prime minister, dismiss their scientifically informed concerns and attack the messenger, rather than dealing with the message itself.

You’re too young to understand the complexity of this.

You’ll grow out of these beliefs.

You just want to skip school.

Stay in school and wait your turn to make a difference.

Striking may hurt your future job prospects.

The list goes on …

This frightens some children and young people into silence, but doesn’t address the factors which mobilised them in the first place. These threats are also largely unfounded.

Read more:
Climate change: a climate scientist answers questions from teenagers

To any young person reading this, I want to reassure you, as a university educator, that critical thinking, proactivity and an interest in current affairs are qualities that universities encourage. Over 200 academics signed this open letter – myself included – showing our support for the school strikes.

Don’t ‘grow up’

Growing up is inevitable, but it can cause problems for youth movements. As young people gain experience of climate action and expand their professional networks, they “grow out of” being able to represent youth, often getting jobs to advocate for other groups or causes. While this can be positive for individuals, institutional memory is lost when experienced advocates move on to do other things. This puts youth at a disadvantage in relation to other groups who are better resourced and don’t have a “time limit” in how long they can represent their cause.

Well-established youth organisations, such as Guides and Scouts, whom I have worked with in the past, can use their large networks and professional experience to sustain youth advocacy on climate change, though they lack the resources to do so alone. It would also help for other campaigners to show solidarity with the young strikers, and to recognise youth as an important group in climate change debates. This will give people more opportunity to keep supporting the youth climate movement as they get older.

Grow the climate justice movement

Researching the same group of young people for three years, I have identified a shift in their attitudes over time. As young participants become more involved in the movement, they encounter different types of injustices voiced by other groups. They hear activists sharing stories of the devastating climate impacts already experienced by communities, in places where sea level rise is inundating homes and droughts are killing livestock and causing starvation.

The climate justice movement emphasises how climate change exacerbates racial and economic inequality but frequently overlooks the ways these inequalities intersect with age-based disadvantages. Forgetting that frontline communities contain young people, youth movements in developed countries like the UK begin to question the validity of their intergenerational injustice claims.

Indigenous people often inhabit the frontline of impacts from pollution and climate change.
Rainforest Action Network/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Many feel ashamed for having claimed vulnerability, given their relatively privileged position. Over time, they lose faith in their right to be heard. It would strengthen the entire climate movement if other climate justice campaigners more vocally acknowledged young people as a vulnerable group and shared their platform so that these important voices could better amplify one another.

With my own platform, I would like to say this to the thousands who went on strike. You matter. You have a right to be heard and you shouldn’t be embarrassed to speak out. Have confidence in your message, engage with others but stay true to your principles. Stick together and remember that even when you leave school and enter work – you’re never too old to be a youth advocate.

Click here to subscribe to our climate action newsletter. Climate change is inevitable. Our response to it isn’t.The Conversation

Harriet Thew, PhD Researcher in Climate Change Governance, University of Leeds

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

African Art in Western Museums: It’s Patrimony not Heritage


Detail from a 16th-century bronze plaque from Benin, West Africa, held at the British Museum, London. Courtesy the Trustees of the British Museum

Charlotte Joy | Aeon Ideas

Museums with colonial-era collections have always known about the brutal parts of their biographies. But, through acts of purification via historical distance, they have chosen to ignore them. Museum directors now have to re-think their position as defenders of their collections in light of a different political agenda that locates people and their patrimony in a precolonial, yet radically altered, landscape.

When learning about cultural heritage, you will be directed to the etymology of the words ‘heritage’ and ‘patrimony’. Whereas ‘heritage’ invokes inheritance, ‘patrimony’ leads us to patriarchy. In French, patrie refers to the homeland, the fatherland, and during colonialism vast swathes of West Africa were brought under this French conceptual model in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Objects taken from West Africa (the periphery) and brought back to the centre/metropole were therefore conceptualised as part of the coloniser’s national identity. They were used in a series of Great Exhibitions and expos to gain support for the colonial project before entering national and private collections throughout Europe.

The immediate paradox here is that, whereas objects from the periphery were welcome in the centre, people were very much not. Since the independence of West African countries throughout the late 1950s and early ’60s, the retention of objects and the simultaneous rejection of people has become ever more fraught. Young undocumented migrants from former French colonies stand metres away from the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, a museum in Paris full of their inaccessible patrimony. The migrants are treated with contempt while the objects from their homelands are cared for in museums and treated with great reverence. The migrants will be deported but the objects will not be repatriated. The homeland is therefore only home to objects, not people.

Sub-Saharan Africa has a unique demographic profile. By 2050, it is projected that the region will be home to the 10 countries with the youngest populations in the world. Most Western leaders would like to see strong and stable states in West Africa, states that can provide their citizens with jobs, cultural pride and a reason for staying in their countries and building new futures. The return of objects from museums could become central to this nation-building, undoing some of the harm of the colonial project and supporting emerging creative economies.

The objects taken from West Africa during the colonial period indexed many things, most of them problematic and racist. Some objects acted as a catalyst for the creative work of Western artists, and consequently entered the artistic canon as prompts and props (seen in the background of artists’ studios such as that of Pablo Picasso). The objects that Picasso encountered at the Palais du Trocadéro in Paris were the impetus for his ‘African period’ at the beginning of the 20th century, which produced one of his most famous works, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907).

Beyond the influence that non-European art had on many Western artists, some objects, such as the Benin Bronzes (looted by the British in 1897 from the Kingdom of Benin, in current-day Nigeria) entered global art history on their own merit, as unrivalled technological and artistic accomplishments. This recognition came about only after a difficult period of skepticism, when art historians expressed doubt that African artists could produce work of such sophistication.

Thus, the way in which African objects are held and displayed in Western museums can tell us a lot about the legacy of colonialism and the West’s ambivalent relationship towards its former colonies. But it cannot be said to provide generations of young people in sub-Saharan Africa with a rich cultural repository from which to draw.

Regardless of the politics of return, over the next few decades people born in sub-Saharan Africa will be brought up within a vibrant cultural milieu of art, photography, music and film. However, as colonialism was a humiliating experience for many formerly colonised people, it is not hard to see why regaining control over their patrimony would be a step towards the beginning of healing. The return of cultural objects would allow meaningful access to art and cultural knowledge that could fuel the creative economies of these young nations.

The acts of return in themselves are a symbol of strong contrition, re-opening the dialogue on past wrongs to better establish relationships for the future. It seems that behind proclamations of the complicated nature of the process of return lies this more difficult truth. Human remains have been returned from museums to be reburied with dignity. Nazi-looted art has been seized from unsuspecting collectors and returned to Jewish families. Now is the time for colonial patrimony to be reckoned with because patrimony indexes the biographies of those who made and acquired the objects, drawing their descendants into moral relationships in the present. It is now not a matter of if but when objects will be returned, and whether this happens with good grace or through a fractious period of resistance.

The museums’ ‘cosmopolitan’ defence, made for example by Tiffany Jenkins in Keeping Their Marbles (2016), is that only by juxtaposition in global centres can we truly make sense of global art and the experience of being human. This might be true to some extent but the juxtapositions in themselves are problematic: for example, the British Museum houses its Africa collections in the basement. Museums are also bursting at the seams, and what isn’t displayed is housed in vast stores. To date, the logic of the museum is not one of access and display but of acquisition and retention. The defenders of the museum’s patrimony, the trustees, are appointed on the understanding that their primary role is to protect collections for future generations, narrowly defined within the model of nation states. Perhaps if trustees of museums could rethink their role to include descendants of the colonised, as well as the colonisers, they could help reshape a heritage ethic that is alive to the challenges of global demographics.Aeon counter – do not remove

Charlotte Joy

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Tools for Thinking: Isaiah Berlin’s Two Concepts of Freedom


Maria Kasmirli | Aeon Ideas

‘Freedom’ is a powerful word. We all respond positively to it, and under its banner revolutions have been started, wars have been fought, and political campaigns are continually being waged. But what exactly do we mean by ‘freedom’? The fact that politicians of all parties claim to believe in freedom suggests that people don’t always have the same thing in mind when they talk about it. Might there be different kinds of freedom and, if so, could the different kinds conflict with each other? Could the promotion of one kind of freedom limit another kind? Could people even be coerced in the name of freedom?

The 20th-century political philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1909-97) thought that the answer to both these questions was ‘Yes’, and in his essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ (1958) he distinguished two kinds of freedom (or liberty; Berlin used the words interchangeably), which he called negative freedom and positive freedom.

Negative freedom is freedom from interference. You are negatively free to the extent that other people do not restrict what you can do. If other people prevent you from doing something, either directly by what they do, or indirectly by supporting social and economic arrangements that disadvantage you, then to that extent they restrict your negative freedom. Berlin stresses that it is only restrictions imposed by other people that count as limitations of one’s freedom. Restrictions due to natural causes do not count. The fact that I cannot levitate is a physical limitation but not a limitation of my freedom.

Virtually everyone agrees that we must accept some restrictions on our negative freedom if we are to avoid chaos. All states require their citizens to follow laws and regulations designed to help them live together and make society function smoothly. We accept these restrictions on our freedom as a trade-off for other benefits, such as peace, security and prosperity. At the same time, most of us would insist that there are some areas of life that should not be regulated, and where individuals should have considerable, if not complete, freedom. A major debate in political philosophy concerns the boundaries of this area of personal negative freedom. For example, should the state place restrictions on what we may say or read, or on what sexual activities we may engage in?

Whereas negative freedom is freedom from control by others, positive freedom is freedom to control oneself. To be positively free is to be one’s own master, acting rationally and choosing responsibly in line with one’s interests. This might seem to be simply the counterpart of negative freedom; I control myself to the extent that no one else controls me. However, a gap can open between positive and negative freedom, since a person might be lacking in self-control even when he is not restrained by others. Think, for example, of a drug addict who cannot kick the habit that is killing him. He is not positively free (that is, acting rationally in his own best interests) even though his negative freedom is not being limited (no one is forcing him to take the drug).

In such cases, Berlin notes, it is natural to talk of something like two selves: a lower self, which is irrational and impulsive, and a higher self, which is rational and far-sighted. And the suggestion is that a person is positively free only if his higher self is dominant. If this is right, then we might be able to make a person more free by coercing him. If we prevent the addict from taking the drug, we might help his higher self to gain control. By limiting his negative freedom, we would increase his positive freedom. It is easy to see how this view could be abused to justify interventions that are misguided or malign.

Berlin argued that the gap between positive and negative freedom, and the risk of abuse, increases further if we identify the higher, or ‘real’, self, with a social group (‘a tribe, a race, a church, a state’). For we might then conclude that individuals are free only when the group suppresses individual desires (which stem from lower, nonsocial selves) and imposes its will upon them. What particularly worried Berlin about this move was that it justifies the coercion of individuals, not merely as a means of securing social benefits, such as security and cooperation, but as a way of freeing the individuals themselves. The coercion is not seen as coercion at all, but as liberation, and protests against it can be dismissed as expressions of the lower self, like the addict’s craving for his fix. Berlin called this a ‘monstrous impersonation’, which allows those in power ‘to ignore the actual wishes of men or societies, to bully, oppress, torture them in the name, and on behalf, of their “real” selves’. (The reader might be reminded of George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), which shows how a Stalinist political party imposes its conception of truth on an individual, ‘freeing’ him to love the Party leader.)

Berlin was thinking of how ideas of freedom had been abused by the totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, and he was right to highlight the dangers of this kind of thinking. But it does not follow that it is always wrong to promote positive freedom. (Berlin does not claim that it is, and he notes that the notion of negative freedom can be abused in a similar way.) Some people might need help to understand their best interests and achieve their full potential, and we could believe that the state has a responsibility to help them do so. Indeed, this is the main rationale for compulsory education. We require children to attend school (severely limiting their negative freedom) because we believe it is in their own best interests. To leave children free to do whatever they like would, arguably, amount to neglect or abuse. In the case of adults, too, it is arguable that the state has a responsibility to help its citizens live rich and fulfilling lives, through cultural, educational and health programmes. (The need for such help might be especially pressing in freemarket societies, where advertisers continually tempt us to indulge our ‘lower’ appetites.) It might be, too, that some people find meaning and purpose through identification with a wider social or political movement, such as feminism, and that in helping them to do so we are helping to liberate them.

Of course, this raises many further questions. Does our current education system really work in children’s best interests, or does it just mould them into a form that is socially and economically useful? Who decides what counts as a rich and fulfilling life? What means can the state legitimately use to help people live well? Is coercion ever acceptable? These are questions about what kind of society we want to live in, and they have no easy answers. But in giving us the distinction between negative and positive freedom, Berlin has given us a powerful tool for thinking about them.Aeon counter – do not remove

Maria Kasmirli

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Philosophy Can Make the Previously Unthinkable Thinkable


Detail from Woman at a Window (1822) by Caspar David Friedrich. Courtesy Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin

Rebecca Brown | Aeon Ideas

In the mid-1990s, Joseph Overton, a researcher at the US think tank the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, proposed the idea of a ‘window’ of socially acceptable policies within any given domain. This came to be known as the Overton window of political possibilities. The job of think tanks, Overton proposed, was not directly to advocate particular policies, but to shift the window of possibilities so that previously unthinkable policy ideas – those shocking to the sensibilities of the time – become mainstream and part of the debate.

Overton’s insight was that there is little point advocating policies that are publicly unacceptable, since (almost) no politician will support them. Efforts are better spent, he argued, in shifting the debate so that such policies seem less radical and become more likely to receive support from sympathetic politicians. For instance, working to increase awareness of climate change might make future proposals to restrict the use of diesel cars more palatable, and ultimately more effective, than directly lobbying for a ban on such vehicles.

Overton was concerned with the activities of think tanks, but philosophers and practical ethicists might gain something from considering the Overton window. By its nature, practical ethics typically addresses controversial, politically sensitive topics. It is the job of philosophers to engage in ‘conceptual hygiene’ or, as the late British philosopher Mary Midgley described it, ‘philosophical plumbing’: clarifying and streamlining, diagnosing unjustified assertions and pointing out circularities.

Hence, philosophers can be eager to apply their skills to new subjects. This can provoke frustration from those embedded within a particular subject. Sometimes, this is deserved: philosophers can be naive in contributing their thoughts to complex areas with which they lack the kind of familiarity that requires time and immersion. But such an outside perspective can also be useful. Although such contributions will rarely get everything right, the standard is too demanding in areas of great division and debate (such as practical ethics). Instead, we should expect philosophers to offer a counterpoint to received wisdom, established norms and doctrinal prejudice.

Ethicists, at least within their academic work, are encouraged to be skeptical of intuition and the naturalistic fallacy (the idea that values can be derived simply from facts). Philosophers are also familiar with tools such as thought experiments: hypothetical and contrived descriptions of events that can be useful for clarifying particular intuitions or the implications of a philosophical claim. These two factors make it unsurprising that philosophers often publicly adopt positions that are unintuitive and outside mainstream thought, and that they might not personally endorse.

This can serve to shift, and perhaps widen, the Overton window. Is this a good thing? Sometimes philosophers argue for conclusions far outside the domain of ‘respectable’ positions; conclusions that could be hijacked by those with intolerant, racist, sexist or fundamentalist beliefs to support their stance. It is understandable that those who are threatened by such beliefs want any argument that might conceivably support them to be absent from the debate, off the table, and ignored.

However, the freedom to test the limits of argumentation and intuition is vital to philosophical practice. There are sufficient and familiar examples of historical orthodoxies that have been overturned – women’s right to vote; the abolition of slavery; the decriminalisation of same-sex relationships – to establish that strength and pervasiveness of a belief indicate neither truth nor immutability.

It can be tedious to repeatedly debate women’s role in the workforce, abortion, animals’ capacity to feel pain and so on, but to silence discussion would be far worse. Genuine attempts to resolve difficult ethical dilemmas must recognise that understanding develops by getting things wrong and having this pointed out. Most (arguably, all) science fails to describe or predict how the world works with perfect accuracy. But as a collective enterprise, it can identify errors and gradually approximate ‘truth’. Ethical truths are less easy to come by, and a different methodology is required in seeking out satisfactory approximations. But part of this model requires allowing plenty of room to get things wrong.

It is unfortunate but true that bad ideas are sometimes undermined by bad reasoning, and also that sometimes those who espouse offensive and largely false views can say true things. Consider the ‘born this way’ argument, which endorses the flawed assumption that a genetic basis for homosexuality indicates the permissibility of same-sex relationships. While this might win over some individuals, it could cause problems down the line if it turns out that homosexuality isn’t genetically determined. Debates relating to the ‘culture wars’ on college campuses have attracted many ad hominem criticisms that set out to discredit the authors’ position by pointing to the fact that they fit a certain demographic (white, middle-class, male) or share some view with a villainous figure, and thus are not fit to contribute. The point of philosophy is to identify such illegitimate moves, and to keep the argument on topic; sometimes, this requires coming to the defence of bad ideas or villainous characters.

Participation in this process can be daunting. Defending an unpopular position can make one a target both for well-directed, thoughtful criticisms, and for emotional, sweeping attacks. Controversial positions on contentious topics attract far more scrutiny than abstract philosophical contributions to niche subjects. This means that, in effect, the former are required to be more rigorous than the latter, and to foresee and head off more potential misappropriations, misinterpretations and misunderstandings – all while contributing to an interdisciplinary area, which requires some understanding not only of philosophical theory but perhaps also medicine, law, natural and social science, politics and various other disciplines.

This can be challenging, though I do not mean to be an apologist for thoughtless, sensationalist provocation and controversy-courting, whether delivered by philosophers or others. We should see one important social function of practical ethicists as widening the Overton window and pushing the public and political debate towards reasoned deliberation and respectful disagreement. Widening the Overton window can yield opportunities for ideas that many find offensive, and straightforwardly mistaken, as well as for ideas that are well-defended and reasonable. It is understandable that those with deep personal involvement in these debates often want to narrow the window and push it in the direction of those views they find unthreatening. But philosophers have a professional duty, as conceptual plumbers, to keep the whole system in good working order. This depends upon philosophical contributors upholding the disciplinary standards of academic rigour and intellectual honesty that are essential to ethical reflection, and trusting that this will gradually, collectively lead us in the right direction.Aeon counter – do not remove

Rebecca Brown

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Why Amartya Sen Remains the Century’s Great Critic of Capitalism


Nobel laureate Amartya Kumar Sen in 2000, Wikipedia

Tim Rogan | Aeon Ideas

Critiques of capitalism come in two varieties. First, there is the moral or spiritual critique. This critique rejects Homo economicus as the organising heuristic of human affairs. Human beings, it says, need more than material things to prosper. Calculating power is only a small part of what makes us who we are. Moral and spiritual relationships are first-order concerns. Material fixes such as a universal basic income will make no difference to societies in which the basic relationships are felt to be unjust.

Then there is the material critique of capitalism. The economists who lead discussions of inequality now are its leading exponents. Homo economicus is the right starting point for social thought. We are poor calculators and single-minded, failing to see our advantage in the rational distribution of prosperity across societies. Hence inequality, the wages of ungoverned growth. But we are calculators all the same, and what we need above all is material plenty, thus the focus on the redress of material inequality. From good material outcomes, the rest follows.

The first kind of argument for capitalism’s reform seems recessive now. The material critique predominates. Ideas emerge in numbers and figures. Talk of non-material values in political economy is muted. The Christians and Marxists who once made the moral critique of capitalism their own are marginal. Utilitarianism grows ubiquitous and compulsory.

But then there is Amartya Sen.

Every major work on material inequality in the 21st century owes a debt to Sen. But his own writings treat material inequality as though the moral frameworks and social relationships that mediate economic exchanges matter. Famine is the nadir of material deprivation. But it seldom occurs – Sen argues – for lack of food. To understand why a people goes hungry, look not for catastrophic crop failure; look rather for malfunctions of the moral economy that moderates competing demands upon a scarce commodity. Material inequality of the most egregious kind is the problem here. But piecemeal modifications to the machinery of production and distribution will not solve it. The relationships between different members of the economy must be put right. Only then will there be enough to go around.

In Sen’s work, the two critiques of capitalism cooperate. We move from moral concerns to material outcomes and back again with no sense of a threshold separating the two. Sen disentangles moral and material issues without favouring one or the other, keeping both in focus. The separation between the two critiques of capitalism is real, but transcending the divide is possible, and not only at some esoteric remove. Sen’s is a singular mind, but his work has a widespread following, not least in provinces of modern life where the predominance of utilitarian thinking is most pronounced. In economics curricula and in the schools of public policy, in internationalist secretariats and in humanitarian NGOs, there too Sen has created a niche for thinking that crosses boundaries otherwise rigidly observed.

This was no feat of lonely genius or freakish charisma. It was an effort of ordinary human innovation, putting old ideas together in new combinations to tackle emerging problems. Formal training in economics, mathematics and moral philosophy supplied the tools Sen has used to construct his critical system. But the influence of Rabindranath Tagore sensitised Sen to the subtle interrelation between our moral lives and our material needs. And a profound historical sensibility has enabled him to see the sharp separation of the two domains as transient.

Tagore’s school at Santiniketan in West Bengal was Sen’s birthplace. Tagore’s pedagogy emphasised articulate relations between a person’s material and spiritual existences. Both were essential – biological necessity, self-creating freedom – but modern societies tended to confuse the proper relation between them. In Santiniketan, pupils played at unstructured exploration of the natural world between brief forays into the arts, learning to understand their sensory and spiritual selves as at once distinct and unified.

Sen left Santiniketan in the late 1940s as a young adult to study economics in Calcutta and Cambridge. The major contemporary controversy in economics was the theory of welfare, and debate was affected by Cold War contention between market- and state-based models of economic order. Sen’s sympathies were social democratic but anti-authoritarian. Welfare economists of the 1930s and 1940s sought to split the difference, insisting that states could legitimate programmes of redistribution by appeal to rigid utilitarian principles: a pound in a poor man’s pocket adds more to overall utility than the same pound in the rich man’s pile. Here was the material critique of capitalism in its infancy, and here is Sen’s response: maximising utility is not everyone’s abiding concern – saying so and then making policy accordingly is a form of tyranny – and in any case using government to move money around in pursuit of some notional optimum is a flawed means to that end.

Economic rationality harbours a hidden politics whose implementation damaged the moral economies that groups of people built up to govern their own lives, frustrating the achievement of its stated aims. In commercial societies, individuals pursue economic ends within agreed social and moral frameworks. The social and moral frameworks are neither superfluous nor inhibiting. They are the coefficients of durable growth.

Moral economies are not neutral, given, unvarying or universal. They are contested and evolving. Each person is more than a cold calculator of rational utility. Societies aren’t just engines of prosperity. The challenge is to make non-economic norms affecting market conduct legible, to bring the moral economies amid which market economies and administrative states function into focus. Thinking that bifurcates moral on the one hand and material on the other is inhibiting. But such thinking is not natural and inevitable, it is mutable and contingent – learned and apt to be unlearned.

Sen was not alone in seeing this. The American economist Kenneth Arrow was his most important interlocutor, connecting Sen in turn with the tradition of moral critique associated with R H Tawney and Karl Polanyi. Each was determined to re-integrate economics into frameworks of moral relationship and social choice. But Sen saw more clearly than any of them how this could be achieved. He realised that at earlier moments in modern political economy this separation of our moral lives from our material concerns had been inconceivable. Utilitarianism had blown in like a weather front around 1800, trailing extremes of moral fervour and calculating zeal in its wake. Sen sensed this climate of opinion changing, and set about cultivating ameliorative ideas and approaches eradicated by its onset once again.

There have been two critiques of capitalism, but there should be only one. Amartya Sen is the new century’s first great critic of capitalism because he has made that clear.Aeon counter – do not remove

Tim Rogan

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.