|BETWEEN BILLIARD TABLES AND TERROR: TED
This is the unshortened December 2008 interview by Mads Qvortrup, D.Phil (Oxon), of Ted Honderich, for the Danish newspaper Information. You can also turn to the interview as published in Danish along with readers' comments.
THE PHILOSOPHER TED HONDERICH BELIEVES THAT THE PALESTINIANS HAVE A MORAL RIGHT TO THEIR TERRORISM AGAINST NEO-ZIONISM WITHIN HISTORIC PALESTINE, BUT HE WOULD MUCH RATHER TALK ABOUT WHAT IT IS TO BE CONSCIOUS OF THE ROOM YOU'RE IN.
I notice him immediately as I roll up the escalator at Leicester Square
tube station. He is tall and well-dressed in a timeless sort of way that
is neither in fashion, nor out of it.
”Hi, you must be Ted Honderich”,
“And you must be Mads”, responds the tall philosopher and looks down at me.
We walk together to the Garrick Club -- of which Professor Honderich is a
member (recommended by Sir Isaiah Berlin no less). It is a classic club,
every bit as famous as its members and with that air of the past that we
sometimes associate with “Upstairs-Downstairs” and Brideshead Revisited.
But we are not here to talk about time gone by, but about contemporary
matters -- and, indeed, about philosophy.
Ted Honderich has been called the most important British philosopher of
our time. Grote Professor of Mind and Logic at University College, London
(UCL), now retired, he has written seminal works on the mind and consciousness,
determinism and free-will and the supposed justifications of punishment – but he is perhaps most known for he controversial views on terrorism and political philosophy.
He is a passionate thinker and wastes little time on small-talk. We launch
straight into a discussion about the deepest issues in epistemology and
"It’ll be sad for me if you don’t say something about my stuff on
consciousness. That is what I have put most of my time into -- and that is
what I’d hope to be remembered for if anything,' says Honderich. I promise
that we will get to that -- in due course.
But we start with the issue of practical philosophy. For although -- or perhaps because -- Honderich is an analytical philosopher who emphasizes ordinary logic -- clarity, consistency and validity, and completeness, as puts it -- he takes his point
of departure here in attitudes. Political philosophy -- as well as moral
philosophy generally -- starts for him in feeling. His most controversial book
After the Terror (2003) is no exception.
“I was watching television, and then I heard this Israeli fellow yet again, you know
the one who might become prime minister, what’s his name?” ”Benjamin
Netanyahu”, I say.
”Yes, that’s the fellow. Anyway, he stands there and keeps on saying in self-reverence that we are the democrats and the Palestinians are the terrorists and so that settles everything. That stupidity enraged me. Certainly I wanted to do something in aid of the Palestinians. That is how it started”.
The book became a bestseller -- and gained notoriety when a German academic
and Holocaust researcher Mischa Brumlik (who is Jewish) -- demanded that the book be withdrawn by the highly respected German publisher Suhrkamp Verlag, as it was -- allegedly for being anti-Semitic.
Jürgen Habermas -- who had recommended the book for publication --
immediately rejected the criticism, but did little else. The book was --
therefore -- withdrawn, though subsequently published in German by another
publisher -- and notably a Jewish publisher.
But the debate sometimes overshadows the content of the book itself -- and
the philosophical foundations upon which it builds. The notorious sentence
that so enraged the German academic and researcher was this one: "...the Palestinians have had a moral right to their terrorism as certain as was the moral
right, say, of the African people of South Africa against their white
captors and the apartheid state".
But why? Does Honderich -- famously a student of A. J. Ayer -- defend natural
rights? He says that he does not! It does not seem accidental that he is
Professor at an institution that was founded by Jeremy Bentham, a man who
famously uttered that “rights are nonsense and natural rights are nonsense on
stilts”. But Honderich does not share the Utilitarian doctrine of his
”Is reason alone baptized? Are the passions but the pagans of the soul?”
asked Søren Kierkegaard famously in the beginning of Enten-Eller (or
Either-Or). Far from claiming, of course, that Honderich is a follower of
Kierkegaard, there is a puzzling affinity between the Danish, 19th
century existentialist and the British 21st century analytical philosopher.
For despite their fundamentally different world views the two
thinkers share the view that passions, affections and emotions should be
readmitted to the pantheon of philosophical respectability.
”I fundamentally believe”, says Honderich, ”that all our moral, politics and the like derive from attitudes -- at bottom desires, sometimes desires for the good of others. But we can use reasoned argument to support some attitudes. Honderich readily admits that his belief was at least fortified by A. J. Ayer’s famous treatise Language, Truth and Logic, a book which developed the so-called emotivist stance, that moral philosophy is based on emotions, and that it is impossible to say that actions are good or bad as a matter of factual truth.
It is -- or so it seems to this interviewer -- partly on the basis of this
philosophical outlook that Honderich has developed the fundamental
idea, namely: The Principle of Humanity. To make a long story shorter, the Principle of Humanity argues that we should -- and can -- act according to the best available knowledge and judgments in order to getting and keeping people out of “bad lives”.
"According to the Principle of Humanity, bad lives, and good lives, are not
left obscured by the cant of our political classes, but defined in terms
of the fundamental desires of human nature, our fundamental human goods.
These are a decent length of conscious life, bodily or material well-being, freedom and power, respect and self-respect, the goods of relationship, and the goods of culture. It not a principle of respect, of which we have too much."
He goes on: “If the Principle of Humanity is an attitude, like all things
ranged against it, including the Word of God, it is also a moral truth. It
is such in virtue of being the principle to which we are all already
committed by our common human nature. One part of that nature is those shared
fundamental desires. Another part is our all having and depending on
reasons, these by their nature being general. You are committed to the
Principle of Humanity or something very like it, for a start, by your
justifying your escaping a bad life rather than somebody else's having a
still better good life, and your reason being by its nature general,
useable by all”.
As will be evident for those who read this with a philosophical mind, this
is a consequentialist doctrine, although evidently not a Utilitarian one.
A policy that is consistent with this is defined as “justified”, to use
Honderich’s own word. Consequently, Osama bin Laden’s terrorist attacks
cannot be justified as they do not lead to the reduction of “bad lives”.
The Palestinians -- on the other hand -- can claim that their actions are
consistent with the principle of humanity, as their actions are directed
against a power that sustains bad lives.
But he is a pains to point out that he is not opposed to Zionism. Indeed,
he defends it. “I take it and have always asserted that the Principle of Humanity
justifies Zionism, by which I mean the founding and any really necessary defense of
Israel in more or less its 1948 borders. The Palestinian terrorism that
the Principle justifies is terrorism within historic Palestine against
what I call neo-Zionism -- the taking from the Palestinians at least their
freedom in the last fifth of that homeland of theirs."
That emotions are important is -- as I politely point out -- nothing new in
moral philosophy. David Hume -- the 17th century empiricist philosopher --
once observed -- in A Treatise of Human Nature -- that "reason is, and ought
only to be the slave of the passions,” Honderich -- almost -- agrees, but he
is a bit more radical.
”Yes, that is his most famous sentence. I am not sure that I agree with
the ‘ought’, but I guess you can understand the piece of exaggeration that reason is the slave of the passions”, he says -- and then he moves out of an altogether unexpected tangent -- John Rawls concept of a “reflective equilibrium”.
“I am not”, he says, “a great admirer of John Rawls, or of any liberalism, but he has this idea that he calls 'reflective equilibrium'. It is that we have to compare general principles we arrive at theoretically with particular commitments in particular cases, including Palestinian terrorism. I agree with that, although not with Rawls on other matters”.
”And”, he continues, "it is not only at the end of a theoretical process
that we compare and contrast. It also works the other way. We start with some kind of passion -- as I did when I listened to the neo-Zionist mouthings about the awful plight of the Palestinians on the television. I then came to think, as I still do, that I could justify my feeling by reasoned arguments connected with the Principle of Humanity.".
It is not only in his political philosophy that Honderich has applied the
Principle of Humanity. In – what we might call his legal philosophy – he
used the same principle in the book Punishment: The Supposed
Justifications. In this, where of course punishment is justified only by its consequences, he makes a case for retribution as a valid if not significant argument for punishment. justification. This view -- to the consternation of some confused reformers -- does not rule out judges being influenced to a degree by retribution.
The position -- and Honderich is adamant in saying this, does not lead to
populism”. We can say, that Honderich -- though he does not say this himself
-- has succeeded in ‘baptizing the Passions’ but without relegating Reason.
”To me philosophy is not a particularly elevated activity. Unlike
‘Freddie’ (Alfred Jules Ayer was known as “Freddie” to his mates. Ed), I
do not think I am vain. Philosophy, as I have already said, is about
clarity, consistency and validity, and completeness”, says Honderich.
But are you then a system-thinker, like Hegel?
“No, I don’t have a system. But as an analytical philosopher I apply a
method -- and clear principles.
Honderich -- to use Sir Isaiah Berlin’s distinction -- is more of a fox then a
hedgehog; he does not “know one big thing”; rather he “knows many things”.
But that does not mean that he is equally interested in all areas. His
main recent contribution to philosophy is his work on consciousness. As he puts it, “if there were to be a bomb on the tube when I go home after this conversation, I might possibly have among my last thoughts that I wouldn't be finishing my book 'Actual Consciousness’.
His theory of consciousness is -- to be sure -- a unique contribution to
philosophy. Indeed, fellow philosopher, E. J. Lowe, called it 'a genuinely
new idea in the history of philosophy'. But this -- almost by its nature --
does not mean that it is a simple doctrine that can be readily
comprehended by the non-specialist, something which Honderich admits.
“My doctrine is what I call “radical externalism”. It is in opposition to
most other theories of on the subject, as these do not fail to satisfy a
list of criteria for an adequate theory of consciousness. So-called physicalism merely reduces consciousness to physical processes, and the traditional denial of it is just spiritualism, a kind of mystery, now boring as well.
“To try to solve this problem, I have put together a theory that takes
the actuality and subjectivity of consciousness into account."
But fundamentally his view is closer to physicalism than its denial?
“It certainly is. Radical Externalism can be called a near-physicalism. It
is based on the proposition that what it is for you to be conscious of the
place you are in, say the room, whatever explanation there is of this in
your brain and anywhere else, is for a room to exist in a defined sense -- for
there to be a certain state of affairs external to you, outside your
head”, says Honderich and points to the oversized billiard table by way of
The theory -- as I admit to Honderich -- is a bit advanced for me. And -- as he
admits -- quite a few of his colleagues have taken issue with the theory.
Indeed, Colin McGinn -- an English philosopher now in Miami -- has (in no less a journal than The Philosophical Review) denounced Honderich’s book On Consciousness as: running the “full gamut from the mediocre to the ludicrous to the
merely bad. It is painful to read, poorly thought out, and uninformed. It
is also radically inconsistent”. It seems that emotions also play a part in theoretical philosophy -- which is a vindication of sorts for Honderich’s philosophy.
He nods, smiles -- and says “such is philosophy-- read my reply on the
website. It is too long, but maybe it brings into focus what I can be excused for calling McGinn's conventional philosophical confusions and working-class resentments.”.
Outside the Garrick Club we shake hands and he disappears into the crowd.
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