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November 08, 2007

A. C. Grayling's Towards the Light is a weak book in support of a strong cause: it suffers from two major defects - bad history and bad philosophy, argues David Womersley: Towards the Light - A. C. Grayling

Posted by David Womersley

Towards the Light: The Story of the Struggles for Liberty and Rights That Made the Modern West
by A. C. Grayling
Pp. 338. London: Bloomsbury, 2007
Hardback, £20

A. C. Grayling's Towards the Light is a book of history written by a philosopher. But, argues David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - it suffers from two defects: bad history and bad philosophy.

It is very unfortunate to write a weak book in support of a good cause, because of the comfort such a book provides to the cause's enemies: "well, if that's the best that can be said for it . . . "

Many people will find Grayling's cause in Towards the Light a good one. His book is written to stir up resistance towards the gradual encroachments on our liberties which are being perpetrated by the governments of the West (notably those of the United States and the United Kingdom) in the name of security. The mantra of our politicians and their spokesmen, namely that preserving the security of the nation is so clearly the primary responsibility of government that its pursuit trumps all other duties, is roundly denounced by Grayling (p. 269):

The security of the public is certainly a high duty of government; but it is not the highest one. Its highest duty is the protection of individual liberties.
Like much else in Towards the Light, this is a contention about the end of government which is boldly asserted rather than convincingly argued. If it is an error, it is at least an amiable one. The problem with Towards the Light is not the cause it is written to support, but how it goes about supporting it. It suffers from two defects: bad history and bad philosophy.

Grayling is by profession a philosopher, but he has on this occasion decided to write a book of history, albeit one composed under the rubric of what Grayling calls Thucydides' "wonderful insight" (p. 7) that history is philosophy teaching by examples. Towards the Light offers a narrative of the cause of freedom, extending from the Reformation to the very recent past. It reveals a chain of progress, rather like one of those genealogies from the less-frequented pages of the Old Testament: liberty of conscience begat liberty of enquiry, and liberty of enquiry begat political liberty (see p. 105).

So although Grayling appears to acknowledge what he calls (p. 222)

the multiple character of history - the negative with the positive,
his whole proceeding in Towards the Light is deeply reliant upon a quite different conception of history: one which sees it as process (even "the historical process": p. 160, my emphasis) rather than sequence, and as single tendency towards an objective ("history was moving gradually but inexorably their way", he says on p. 197 of the agitating working classes of nineteenth-century Britain) rather than as multifarious accumulation of circumstances.

This can be made to work only by ignoring inconvenient truths. So Locke is represented here by the Two Treatises and the Letters Concerning Toleration; but not by the definitely illiberal constitution he wrote for Carolina. The American War of Independence and the French Revolution are both presented as aligned struggles for liberty (for Grayling is committed to the idea of the "indivisibility of liberty struggles": p. 207), despite the very different conceptions of rights and liberty which were at work in those two events. Grayling mocks those in the past who subscribed to anthropocentric views of the world, and condescendingly brushes aside those who have held "essentially comfortable beliefs" (pp. 59 and 83). But what could be more anthropocentric and comfortable than the premise of Towards the Light, namely that the story of human history since the early sixteenth century has been the story of the inexorable flourishing of liberty?

At this point, Grayling wants to have his cake and eat it, because he wants also to inject a note of apocalyptic menace. The liberty bequeathed to us by "the historical process" is about to be lost thanks to the legerdemain of our politicians. Suddenly we move from a teleological view of history to an idea of history as terribly, alarmingly, contingent.

Swapping historical horses like this in mid-race doesn't look like the kind of conceptual move we would naturally associate with an argument conducted at the highest pitch of scrupulousness, and indeed it is accompanied by other instances of slack argumentation which it is surprising to find in the work of a professional philosopher. For instance, Grayling attacks those academics who have subjected the concept of rights to sceptical interrogation by invoking the hideous atrocities perpetrated in the Nazi death camps (p. 12):

These were the bleak and desperate circumstances that prompted the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights three years later, a fact evidently forgotten by those in comfortable academic studies who employ the casuistries of their trade to prove that the concept of human rights is empty.
The tabloid-like swipe at "those in comfortable academic studies" is of course beneath both comment and contempt. More shocking, though, is Grayling's apparent belief that strong emotional motivation for a measure endows it with conceptual substance and integrity. Nobody denies that the experience of the mid-1940s impelled the leaders of the Allied powers strongly and naturally towards the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But that strong and natural desire does nothing to impart content and solidity to the idea of universal human rights.

Similarly, Grayling defends the notion of universal, natural and inalienable human rights on what he calls the "arrogatory theory of rights", which he describes as follows (p. 261):

experience and rational reflection show what is required to give individuals the best chance of making flourishing lives for themselves, and these framework requirements we institute as rights in order to make the chance of such flourishing available. It is as simple, yet as profound, as that.
But if universal, natural and inalienable human rights are nothing more than "the result of decisions to regard them as such" - if, that is to say, they are simply deemed to be so, then they cannot be universal, or natural, or inalienable, because there was a time when they were not so deemed. If they are the result of human decisions, then subsequent human decisions can amend or abolish them.

These defects in historical thought and precision of argument are seasoned by a sprinkling of errors and blunders. Apparently in antiquity (p. 238):

religion played no part in the formulation of ideas about ethics and politics
- has Grayling not read Antigone? Apparently Locke's Two Treatises were written as a justification of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (pp. 127-28): but is Grayling unaware of Peter Laslett's discovery, now over forty years old, that Locke composed the Two Treatises in the early 1680s, and that therefore, however they may have been read when they were eventually published in 1689, we can be certain that they were not composed by Locke as a justification of 1688?

Some of the footnotes are woefully thin. Few readers will feel that the effort of turning to the back of the book is adequately rewarded by nuggets of scholarly gold such as the following notes, both given in their entirety (n. 6 to ch. 7 and n. 8 to ch. 8):

Such is the lesson of Machiavelli's The Prince.


The long debate about identity cards in Britain is comprehensively covered in media reporting, accessible online.

If the story is true that Gordon Brown read this book in proof and has since quarried it for his speeches, Grayling should take this as evidence, not of his influence, but rather of how unintimidating - indeed, convenient - his lightly-researched and flimsily-argued book is to Downing Street. The biographical note on the rear dust-jacket flap says that Grayling
believes philosophy should take an active, useful role in society, rather than withdrawing to the proverbial ivory tower.
The traditional way in which philosophers have made themselves useful has been by speaking truth to power. This is what Grayling has tried to do in Towards the Light, but he has forgotten that when philosophers forsake the ivory tower and come to speak in the agora, they should not leave behind them the crafts of argument and scholarship which give force to their opinions.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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Reply to David Wormsely

Professor Wormsely’s review of my ‘Towards The Light’ invites, if it does not merit, an answer: as follows.
Disagreement in the realm of ideas, when responsible, is always welcome; we might learn something from it. Professor Wormsely says he does not disagree with my overall contentions, but asperses the way I reach them. There is then at leas a disagreement about approach.
On the way, however, he finds reason also teach me how to suck various eggs, although they come from my henhouse and not his. This I choose not to mind; I am content to allow Professor Wormsely all the historical and philosophical expertise he, as a Professor of another discipline altogether, implicitly asks us to assume he has, for all enquiry should be open to all of us, and we are entitled to our views accordingly. I can even forgive his ignorance – on which, more shortly – for this too is a function of human limitation, which we must accept.
But what we cannot forgive, especially not in the holder of a professorial post in an academic discipline which requires the exact opposite, is inattentive reading. If Professor Wormsely is not guilty of this, then he is guilty of something as bad: an intention to misrepresent.
I make it crystal clear that I offer a perspective on modern Western history – something that might legitimately and informatively be written from a variety of perspectives – in terms of the developments in a family of intimately related ideas, those of liberty of conscience, of enquiry, and of the person, together with the accumulating thinking about the rights whose possession and exercise are constitutive of them. I make it clear that I take a description of some of the crucial moments in the evolution and extension of these ideas to be instructive both as to the ideas themselves and to the emerging political and intellectual orders that have increasingly come to embody them. I take it that not even Professor Wormsely thinks this incorrect – that he would deny (for the simplest example) that the common man lacked the vote in the sixteenth century and has it now, that the change was gradual and can be traced, and that the same points apply to the realisation in practice of associated ideas that have changed the lives of people in Europe’s world in that period.
Professor Wormsely might think that things happened otherwise; he might have some post-modern reason for not calling this a ‘process’ when so much of it was a matter of campaigning, conscious striving, and planned endeavour, and when it was attended by so much perfectly intelligible literature. If he indeed thinks things were otherwise (accident? good luck?) let him explain his view, but let him not get away with calling what he disagrees with ‘bad history’ because he thinks differently.
If he does not think differently then his complaint is even more a function of lazy reading. For example: he charges me with failing to see the differences between the American and French revolutions. Let him put his spectacles on and try the relevant pages again, to see not only that I do no such thing, but specifically seek to make a more important point, namely, one about the commonalities in the thinking that was involved in both.
As to the jibe about ‘bad philosophy’: his own inattentive (or disingenuous) reading betrays him sadly here. Throughout I insist that the progress that has indisputably been made in the extension of liberty has suffered many setbacks and continues to face serious threats. One of the worst potential current setbacks arises from the fact that the governments of our own liberal democracies have begun to dismantle some of our liberties in the name of security. The point is simple and testable; Professor Wormsely thinks he sees me changing horses in mid-stream here; so he is either not following the argument or wishes not to.
On Professor Wormsely’s ignorance, one point suffices. He needs to dip into the extensive literature on human rights, to say nothing of certain influential late trends in moral philosophy, to see that the very notion is contested and frequently dismissed mainly by people who, in their comfortable academic studies presumably like the good professor’s own, have not felt the business end of electric-cattle prods, or been arrested for their opinions and tortured or shot, and the like. He finds it ‘shocking’ that I take oppression and torture to be a reason for defending conceptions of rights: I find his saying this worse than shocking in its turn, but downright contemptible. That he is neither reading carefully nor thinking straight is established by his attributing to me the view that ‘universal, natural and inalienable human rights are nothing more than "the result of decisions to regard them as such",' when he has just quoted me as saying ‘experience and rational reflection show what is required to give individuals the best chance of making flourishing lives for themselves, and these framework requirements we institute as rights in order to make the chance of such flourishing available.’ Which part of ‘experience and rational reflection’ and which part of ‘these framework requirements [derived from that experience and reflection] we institute as rights’ he does not understand I do not know; but if he is capable of grasping what is meant then it is bad philosophy indeed to infer from it that I hold that our grounds for instituting regimes of rights are arbitrary or shallow. Moreover, in thinking so he shows that he knows little about the relevant feature of debates about the nature and making of law, and about the history of ideas of rights; this peeps indecently like naked flesh through the rags of his criticism.
My book is addressed to the general reader. It is a typical, easy, and boringly common cheap shot, and the worst sort of donnish snobbery, to complain about footnotes. And inevitably: Professor Wormsely does so complain! He wishes to see a book for the general reader laden with an apparatus. Now, there are no footnotes in his review. Why not? Another dereliction on his part? Or because a review is not quite the format for them? My book provided the minimum required, and if they are not enough for the good professor I am content that he should lament at will.
I repeat that whereas robust debate is always acceptable, this sort of review, the result either of poor attention or a prior determination to find fault, is not. Must do very much better, Professor.

Posted by: Anthony Grayling at November 9, 2007 10:00 PM
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