Wednesday, July 06, 2022

We learn about the world by living in it

I misread something and went off in the wrong direction. Now I've gone off in a more appropriate one.
I still might need to tweak it.

Leiter links to this

Drawing and Thinking  We learn about a face by drawing it. What can that tell us about how we learn the truth by thinking?

How can one learn the truth by thinking? As one learns to see a face better if one draws it.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Zettel §255

This remark, like many of Wittgenstein’s, seems to arise from self-examination. The answer he gives suggests that he is concerned with learning just by thinking, and indeed with the particular kind of learning just by thinking that happens in philosophy (as opposed to, say, mathematics). He seems to be asking how such learning is even possible. What are we to make of his answer?...

Learning the truth just by thinking, as one does in philosophy, is analogous to learning to see a face better by drawing it, in at least the sense that they require analogous attitudes of humility.

Rationalism and empiricism are opposed. The rationalist defense of empiricism is not empirical.   

Truth is theological, metaphysical garbage, or it's poetry: the record of a full moral commitment to a view of the world described in granular specificity. Facts are for arguing and argument is social; the result is a product of that social activity. Truth is asocial and anti-political.  Leiter will never accept that his defense of truth is just another form of moralism, and I'm as sick of moralism as he pretends to be. 

I've used one quote from John Mortimer for years, as part of my jihad of lawyers and orators, poets and side-show barkers, against pedants and philosophers—poets are all priests of their own sect, and every one's a sincere ironist. But my source was Mortimer's obit in the NY Times, and I've finally gotten around to finding the original. I'll add it to the sourcing in the manuscript. And the timing is perfect. 

From Clinging to the Wreckage, 1984  

The trial of Last Exit took place eight years after the acquittal of Lady Chatterley. It was the only obscenity case in which witnesses were produced who said that they had been depraved and corrupted, or in which we were given an opportunity of seeing what a depraved and corrupted person looked like. Sir Basil Blackwell, the Oxford bookseller, said that he had certainly been depraved by the book, but as he was in his eighties at the time the matter didn’t seem to be of great practical significance. The Reverend David Sheppard, who had been Captain of the English Cricket Team, also gave evidence to the effect that he had not, metaphorically speaking, held his bat so straight after reading Last Exit to Brooklyn, but as he went on to become Bishop of Liverpool the damage, whatever it was, doesn’t seem to have been serious. In spite of the industry of a number of literary and clerical witnesses, the book was found to be obscene in its trial at the Old Bailey and the publishers were fined £100. So it came about that John Calder asked me to argue the Last Exit case in the Court of Appeal.

We were lucky in our Court. It was presided over by Cyril Salmon, whose casual way with a gold watch and leisurely stroll up to a cross-examination had led me to envious imitation when I was starting at the bar. I found myself standing up at a point where the two great concerns of my life, writing and the law, met and almost failed to recognize each other. Indeed I was trying to explain to three courteous and distinguished Judges the fundamental difference between writers and lawyers, which produces the basic fallacy of all censorship laws. The writer is bound to explore all areas of human experience. The whole of life must be open to his voyage of discovery, he must sail as far as he can and his only duty is to come back with the truth as he sees it. There can’t be ‘no go’ areas in the world of art, and the writer who cuts short a line of work for fear of shocking some people or ‘giving offence’ is untrue to his calling. But lawyers are trained on ‘no go’ areas. They are accustomed to find truth concealed behind barriers marked ‘inadmissible evidence’. They cannot accept that it’s a writer’s duty to reveal all truths however unpalatable. I tried my best to explain this to the Court of Appeal in the Last Exit case and the Judges listened with great care and attention. The proposition which must be elementary to all students of literature came to their Lordships as an apparent surprise. They looked like three poets who had just been told that you may not call expert evidence on the point the Jury has to decide. 

An easier argument in the case was that the descriptions of homosexual prostitution and drug-taking in the book were so revolting that, far from turning anyone on to such practices, they would cause a sharp upswing in the marriage rate and the consumption of unadulterated ‘Old Holborn’ tobacco. The Judges were impressed by this argument which became known as the ‘Aversion Theory’ and withstood the test of a good many obscenity cases. The Court also ruled out the more usual meanings of the word ‘obscene’ which the trial Judge had given them. Publishing a book that was merely disgusting, or immoral, or erotic, or rude was clearly not a crime: it had to be blessed with the mysterious ‘tendency to deprave and corrupt’. In the end the Court allowed John Calder’s and Marion Boyars’ appeal and set aside the conviction. Last Exit became a best-seller for a “short while and I was led into a new department of law which I, in my more elevated moments, called arguments about free speech, but most of the friendly hacks in the robing-room call ‘dirty-book cases’.

I became more and more aware of the gulf that is fixed between the law and any sort of literature. One of the most difficult things to explain to Courts is that writers don’t necessarily approve of their characters’ behaviour. Because Shakespeare wrote Othello and Macbeth it doesn’t mean that he approved of wife murder and the stabbing of house guests. The putting-out of Gloucester’s eyes in King Lear is a deeply disturbing, shocking and horrific scene; but it tells a terrible truth about man’s inhumanity to man. The purpose of a play, Shakespeare said, is to hold a mirror up to nature: censorship laws would ensure that the mirror is a rose-coloured distortion.

Courts are very unclear about the effect of books on readers. Reading is done in a world of the imagination which has, it would appear, little direct result on the reader’s behaviour. I suppose the worst crime is murder and murder is nowhere written about more freely than in the works of Agatha Christie. If books had the effect claimed for them by the censors, every English country house would have a bloodstained butler in the library, dead with a knife between his shoulder blades. James Bond, licensed to kill, is read about and enjoyed by millions of inoffensive people who catch the train to the office every day and have never killed anyone with a karate chop or slept with a Chinese air hostess. It has been said that it is a strange anomaly of the censoring attitude that murder is against the law, but it is no crime to write about it. Sex is not against the law, but to write about it has often been held a criminal offence.

Doing these cases I began to find myself in a dangerous situation as an advocate. I came to believe in the truth of what I was saying. I was no longer entirely what my professional duties demanded, the old taxi on the rank waiting for the client to open the door and give his instruction, prepared to drive off in any direction, with the disbelief suspended. The attempts of the law to control the written word seemed to me dangerous and likely to put our Courts of Justice in a somewhat ridiculous light. I suppose that writers should, in a way, feel flattered by the censorship laws. They show a primitive fear and dread at the fearful magic of print. 

One of the difficulties of laws which tried to control books and habits of reading was that they assumed that our society was as one, as it no doubt was in 1868 when Lord Cockburn made his resonant pronouncement, and not a loose federation of groups with their own languages, customs, taboos, freedoms, courting habits and senses of morality. In England the moral values of a group of retired army officers and their wives frequenting a golf course in Worthing are not the same as those of a crowd of art students in a Kings Cross squat. What appears permissible in the Surrey commuter belt, among bright young advertising men and their wives, would be looked on with horror by the Puritan Pakistanis of Bradford. Of course all these groups must be subject to a basic strongly enforced criminal law; they must not be allowed to assault or pillage or rape or rob one another. But in such a society, tolerance demands that no one group may be allowed to impose its own moral views, however strongly held, upon another; still less should they be able to use the severe sanctions of the criminal law to do so. The law, it has always seemed to me, is at its best when it is enforcing practical remedies for specific crimes; it is at its worst when it tries to enforce the morality of one group in society upon another which may, for quite sincere and logical reasons, refuse to accept it. 

And it is significant that the attempted use of force is all one way. I did not wish to compel any member of the Festival of Light to sit through Oh, Calcutta! or read Gay News, although they do appear, no doubt from the highest motives and in the spirit of martyrdom, quite prepared to submit themselves to such works in the call of duty. No one, in the whole chequered history of censorship, has ever questioned anyone’s right not to read a book, to stay away from a play or not to visit a cinema. No one has ever suggested the compulsory sale of television sets without the button necessary to switch them off if you don’t like the picture.

"We were lucky in our Court. It was presided over by Cyril Salmon, whose casual way with a gold watch and leisurely stroll up to a cross-examination had led me to envious imitation when I was starting at the bar. I found myself standing up at a point where the two great concerns of my life, writing and the law, met and almost failed to recognize each other." 

Cyril Barnet Salmon, Baron Salmon 
by Walter Bird, 
bromide print, 1 December 1964, 8 1/8 in. x 6 1/8 in. (205 mm x 155 mm) image size.
Commissioned, 1964


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