|PHILOSOPHY WITH ATTITUDE
by John Crace
The Guardian, March 22, 2003
There aren't many academics whose lectures have ever called for riot police. John Crace talks to Ted Honderich about his enemies of the left, right and centre.
If you can judge a man by his enemies, then the only definite conclusion you can reach about Ted Honderich is that he's always up for a ruck. It takes a certain genius to earn the implacable, simultaneous hostility of both the neo-Zionists and the Palestinians, but Honderich has managed it without much effort and, to complete the hat trick, he has become persona non grata for New Labour. It's a performance worthy of a premier league politician: for a philosopher it is truly remarkable.
For many years Honderich was Grote professor of philosophy at University College London, where he worked diligently and obediently -- "I prefer the word prudentially" -- on consciousness, determinism and political violence. His work was never safe but it attracted few critics outside the confines of Bloomsbury and Hampstead. Until he retired five years ago and became emeritus Grote professor. At which point the blue touch paper was lit and Honderich notably failed to stand back.
Photo by Jeff Morgan
Like any committed determinist, Honderich is reluctant to ascribe any direct causation between the liberation of retirement and his upping the ante of philosophical debate. "It is true that I might have been more careful in the past," he says, "but we are always far too eager to identify a single cause -- usually a human action -- in the hope of picking out something that is more explanatory. I would suggest there are many other factors rooted in my past, such as my father's unlettered communism, that may have played a part."
Even so. Honderich is also a consequentialist, which partly explains his hatred towards Tony Blair. "He is always asking to be judged by the morality of his intentions," he spits. "He doesn't understand that no one cares about his fucking morality. We judge him by the consequences of his actions. In any case, his morality is so muddy and ill-considered. I'm increasingly coming to the opinion that Blair's main problem is that he's not very bright." New Labour and Blair are leitmotifs that regularly punctuate his conversation and they're too entertaining to interrupt.
But as a consequentialist, even Honderich would have to acknowledge that one of the main upshots of his retirement has been controversy. The main trouble started in September 2002 with the publication of After the Terror, in which Honderich asserted the moral right of Palestinians to resist ethnic cleansing by the Israelis with terrorism. "I didn't set out to be controversial," he insists. "Rather that position was the logical conclusion of a basic argument on humanity." Needless to say, it didn't go down too well in some quarters. Honderich had promised to give £5,000 of his royalties to Oxfam, and a Toronto newspaper threatened to expose the charity for taking donations from a terrorist sympathiser. "The deputy director gave in to the threat," Honderich says, "thereby dishonouring the charity," though Oxfam argued it could not benefit from certain opinions in the book.
But this was just a few sparklers before the real fireworks began, with the book's German publication the following year. In August 2003, Micha Brumlik, director of a centre for Holocaust studies and professor of science education at Frankfurt University, wrote a letter in the Frankfurter Rundschau condemning the book as anti-semitic. The next day Jurgen Habermas, the leading German philosopher who had initially recommended the book for German translation, wrote a follow-up piece arguing that the book was not anti-semitic, though doing so in sufficiently apologetic terms to leave room for doubt. "Like any decent German," Honderich says, "who is placed close to a charge of anti-semitism, he was worried that some might rub off."
From here on things went manic. The publisher, Suhrkamp Verlag, announced that it was banning the book. Honderich mounted a vociferous campaign of self-defence while German TV crews were parked in the garden outside his Somerset home. "I called for Brumlik's sacking," he says, "because he had fallen well short of academic standards of decency.
"To call me an anti-semite was just a lie. My first wife was Jewish, I have Jewish children and grandchildren, and I have always gone on record as a supporter of the right of the state of Israel to exist. That's why the Palestinians are opposed to me. What I don't support is Israel's expansionism after the 1967 war."
Matters settled down a little when a Jewish publisher offered to publish the book, but even then Honderich's first lecture back in Germany turned out to be a bear garden. "There were riot police in the auditorium, plain-clothed protection for my wife and three sets of competing demonstrators," he recalls. "There were the neo-Zionists protesting about my original argument, the neo-Nazis protesting about the neo-Zionist protesters, and the residual legatees of the Baader-Meinhof gang who like to turn up anywhere. Still, we got through it somehow."
His reputation has recovered in Germany, but he's still had to fight off the neo-Zionists elsewhere. The Germans may take their philosophy more seriously than us Brits, but it hasn't stopped a few opportunists from trying to cash in. "I was recently accused of anti-semitism in a student magazine," he says drily. "That slur cost them £2,000 in legal fees and a full apology."
Honderich may be in for further trouble with his revised edition of the Oxford Companion to Philosophy. He's typically downbeat about his part in the original project. "I think I was only asked because I was considered reliable," he says. "Other philosophers had said they would do it and then failed to deliver on deadline. I imagine they thought it wasn't proper work for a philosopher."
This time round, free from the constraints of the academic circus, he's been free to make 300 additions, including "ableism" -- "it basically means being condescending to cripples" -- and "zombies". But it's the subtractions that will cause the biggest stir, as they are mostly philosophers who have failed to live up to their promise or with whom Honderich has had spats. He declines to list them -- "you could check both volumes" -- but he does offer an explanation. "There are bonds of civility we all owe to other people," he says. "If people break those bonds we are under a lesser obligation to maintain them ourselves."
Philosophy with attitude is an unusual proposition in British academia, but for most of his career he has been happy to play by the normal rules - even down to the practised air of abstracted dishevelment. He was brought up in Canada, the son of a Mennonite German father and a Scottish Calvinist mother, and was force-fed a religious diet for much of his childhood. "Even then I could see that nothing in religion could possibly be true," he says.
He came to England in 1959. "It was a choice of studying under Freddy Ayer at UCL or going to fucking Harvard," he laughs. "So it wasn't really a choice at all." His anglophilia has endured, and much of his career has been about conforming to the English philosophical traditions. Even those of dissent. "In the early 1960s, I went on a CND march with Bertrand Russell and staged a sit-down protest in Trafalgar Square," he remembers. "He brought a velvet cushion with him."
By the early 1970s, Honderich was fighting his way up the career ladder at Sussex. "My head of department suggested I should write a book on political philosophy," he shrugs. "I hadn't given it a moment's thought before then, but I wanted to keep him happy so I produced a book on the justification of punishment." This was well received and led to invites to deliver a paper in the US on political violence, and his reputation within this field in the UK was made - not least because there was no competition. "I was still the only philosopher considering acts of political violence at the time of 9/11."
Although it's this philosophical strand that has grabbed the most attention, Honderich has made lasting contributions in other, more conventional, areas of philosophical debate.
For a man who is becoming ever more radical and grumpy in old age, Honderich is surprisingly content within himself. The pain of falling short of his own high moral standards throughout his life has eased and he enjoys his new life in the west country. He still wakes up at 5am, though now with joy, not anxiety - "I get a remarkable clarity of thought at that time of day, even if many of the thoughts turn out to be misconceived" - and his lifelong fear of death has become less pathological.
This, needless to say, has nothing to do with refinding his religious roots. "The last time I prayed was when I was 14," he says. "A snow plough had covered a group of us under a mass of snow and I was praying to be rescued even as I lost consciousness."
So how come his rescue didn't reinforce a belief in the power of prayer? "The rescuer hit me on the head with his spade. I kind of thought that if there were a God the spade would have missed." Spoken like a true consequentialist.
Name: Ted Honderich
Job: Grote professor emeritus of the philosophy of mind and logic, University College London
Before that: lecturer in philosophy, Sussex University, 1962-4: lecturer, professor, Grote professor, UCL, 1964- 1998
Selected publications: Oxford Companion to Philosophy; Conservatism: Burke, Nozick, Bush, Blair?; After the Terror; On Determinism and Freedom; Philosopher: A Kind of Life
Likes: wine and old houses
Dislikes: Blair and New Labour
Married: with two children
The Robust Reply to Bullying, by Libby Purves, in The Times
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