Friday, March 10, 2006

Reason and Racism

I quoted at some length the other day from Dummett's preface to his book on Frege's philosophy of mathematics. The purpose of that quotation was to raise what I thought were interesting issues related to the every-growing demand put upon young scholars to publish or perish. While it is disappointing to me that my original post was so badly misunderstood by some of those who kindly took the trouble to read it, the experience has at least had the salutary effect of prompting me to go back and read some more Dummett, who was something of an inspiration to me while I was in graduate school.

Michael Dummett, who retired from the Wykeham Professorship of Logic at Oxford University in 1992, and who was knighted in 1999, has been a leading critic of the racist attitudes of his native Britain. He was raised in an Anglican family but like many young folks he regarded himself as an atheist by the time he was a teenager. In 1944, however, he was received into the Roman Catholic Church and remains a very orthodox Catholic. For those of us who have struggled with materialism and empiricism--and particularly within the context of departments of philosophy, where standing apart from the dominant orthodoxy is often an occasion for ostracism--it is refreshing and invigorating to know that some of the smartest people on the planet have no trouble accepting the ontological claims of the Christian religion. I suppose that if Daniel Dennett is right, the ease with which even these brilliant thinkers accept Christianity is nothing more than a manifestation of some inner psychic virus, but perhaps that does not matter, since if Dennett is right then every view of the world is nothing more than a manifestation of some inner psychic virus.

Although my interest in the philosophy of mathematics is not small, I did not sit down and re-read Dummett's book on Frege's philosophy of mathematics. I decided instead to read his book on Frege's philosophy of language, since that is the direction in which my own interests have a tendency to wander more often than not. Unfortunately, the difference in my relative interest in the two subjects is more than equally matched by the difference in the respective page counts in the two books (331 in the former, 708 in the latter).

Rather than bore folks with the details of the argument in Dummett's Frege: Philosophy of Language, I will regale you instead with an excerpt from the preface to that book (p. xii):
There is some irony for me in the fact that the man about whose philosophical views I have devoted, over years, a great deal of time to thinking, was, at least at the end of his life, a virulent racist, specifically an anti-semite. This fact is revealed by a fragment of a diary which survives among Frege's Nachlass, but which was not published with the rest by Professor Hans Hermes in Freges nachgelassene Schriften. The diary shows Frege to have been a man of extreme right-wing political opinions, bitterly opposed to the parliamentary system, democrats, liberals, Catholics, the French and, above all, Jews, who he thought ought to be deprived of political rights and, preferably, expelled from Germany. When I first read that diary, many years ago, I was deeply shocked, because I had revered Frege as an absolutely rational man, if, perhaps, not a very likeable one. I regret that the editors of Frege's Nachlass chose to suppress that particular item. From it I learned something about human beings which I should be sorry not to know; perhaps something about Europe, also.
Perhaps because of my view that they constitute one of the most important instantiations of that imago Dei that makes human experience meaningful and importantly different from other modes of existence, I have always found anti-Semitism towards the Jews to be one of the most offensive sorts of injustice. (A close second, at least for me personally, is racism against blacks. Dennett would no doubt dismiss this as just an artefact of my having an African-American daughter, but even when I was in junior high school I was enraged by expressions of racism against blacks. I did not know any blacks at the time, so I'm not all that sure where the feelings came from. Is it possible that I was simply outraged by the injustice?) With Dummett, I find myself perplexed whenever I encounter such an attitude in an otherwise rational person. Like Plato, I regard this sort of moral wrong an instance of ignorance of a certain kind, and in particular I regard it as a kind of ignorance that one ought to find more rarely in intelligent, well-educated persons.

But such expectations are not well-founded. The correlation between poor education and racism appears to be only very loose, and I have run into plenty of academics with advanced degrees who are also racists or bigots of one form or another. Readers of this forum will know, of course, that this kind of bigotry is often extended to Roman Catholics--there is a book that many of you will have heard of, written by another religious academic whom I admire: The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice, by Philip Jenkins (Oxford University Press, 2003). Jenkins ably illustrates how philosophical ideologies easily translate into real prejudice and, ultimately, injustice.

When smart people can make such obvious mistakes, and, what is more, act so outraged when their mistakes are pointed out to them, it is difficult to avoid falling into a kind of despair. Despair, however, is a sin against hope. Since I'm constantly telling my son that patience is a virtue, it would be more than a little hypocritical of me to abandon hope because of my own impatience, particuarly impatience with people and their little foibles. Racism is not a little foible, mind you, but no sinner is irreformable, and it is that fact that ought to be kept in mind, I suppose, if one is to maintain Christian charity. Indeed, it may be a particularly Christian form of charity, since the desire for punishment, revenge, retribution, seems so rampant in our culture. So perhaps the reasonable thing to do is not to give up on the racists, but to work harder to eradicate the conditions that lead to such deleterious failures of rationality as one finds in them.

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