April 28, 2003

Cleaning the Stove

John Holbo blogs the site run by admirers of the late Australian philosopher David C. Stove. I've been exceedingly fond of Stove's philosophical essays for years --- I vividly remember chancing upon The Plato Cult, and Other Philosophical Follies in the Berkeley undergraduate library, in the spring of my freshman year, and sitting down to browse it on one of the hideous orange couches, and continuing read through the afternoon and into the night. I bought a copy of my own the next day, and probably re-read it five or six times of the next few years, along with the rest of Stove's then-published books. Stove was a relentlessly, and consciously, destructive writer, and the great thing about him as a stylist was his always-astonished impatience with the thought that anyone could be that stupid, that (to use a word he'd never have touched) clueless. (The appeal of a such a style to an over-clever seventeen-year-old boy needs, I trust, no elaboration.) You can see this near its best in "What Is Wrong with Our Thoughts?", the closing essay of The Plato Cult.

About many philosophical topics, I think Stove was dead right (see, e.g., "Idealism, a Victorian Horror Story" in The Plato Cult, or "What Is Wrong with Our Thoughts?" again). In others, I find his defenses of unfashionable positions entertaining and refreshing, but often find he's not being fair to his opponents. (E.g.: he can be rather misleading about what Popper actually thought. And his work on probability and the reliability of induction assumes, crucially, uniformly and without even seeming to realize it's an issue, that all samples are independent and identically distributed. This is, of course, a very strong version of the "uniformity of nature" assumption he claims to be trying to undermine!) Since these tend to be areas where I know the material a lot better, I find this a bit disturbing, but only a bit.

Then there are the topics where I long to be able to pour Stovian contempt down upon his head for being so stupid, so in the grip of invincible ignorance: to name two, Darwinism and feminism. On the first, he was, sadly, on the same level as creationist drivellers, though at least many of them have the excuse of being too stupid to grasp the elementary facts of life, which Stove manifestly was not. (See his "So You Think You Are a Darwinian?", and the reply by Blackburn, which really doesn't go far enough --- it would be easy, if tedious, to construct an essay which matches every charge Stove makes against evolutionary biology with a parallel, and equally baseless, charge against classical mechanics.) On women, his claims are (to steal a line from Hume) "so absurd, as to elude the force of all argument" --- compare his "The Intellectual Capacity of Women" with Jenny Teichman's "The Intellectual Capacity of David Stove" [PDF]. Now, the simple fact is that politically Stove was a dreadful reactionary: which is to say, he had an unwavering committment to what he imagined was the society of his grandfathers' day. (See his bathetic essay "Cricket and Republicanism", which I can't bear to link to.) So it's easy to see why he'd think such dreadful nonsense about women, and even easy to see why he'd occasionally take his accumulated discharged bile, give it a tincture of philosophy, and put it in an essay-shaped bottle. Reactionaries are often very hostile to Darwin, because they think that if evolution is right, then we live in a Godless, purposeless universe, which does not underwrite anyone's values, much less those of the imaginary grandfathers. But Stove thought we lived in such a world anyway, so his anti-Darwinism must've been sheer folly: a sad and disturbing thought.

Since his death, Stove has been taken up by the culture-warrior crowd around Commentary and New Criterion --- reactionary, to be sure, but also, supposedly, defenders of the tradition of Great Thoughts which Stove held in such contempt. The result is that his worst productions, like "The Intellectual Capacity of Women", have been vigorously pushed and republished; evidently our conservatives feel that they can overlook vicious, well-written attacks on faith, if the same source also produces vicious, well-written attacks on equality and fairness. For my part, I wholeheartedly recommend reading Stove, especially The Plato Cult, for the wonderful style, the lessons by example in rhetoric, and the attacks on cluelessness. His ventures beyond philosophy are valuable, too, for reminding the reader that you may be gifted with eloquence, intelligence, learning and spirit, and none of them will help if you're determined to make a fool of yourself.

Manual trackback: Omniorthogonal

Learned Folly; Philosophy ; The Running-Dogs of Reaction

Posted at April 28, 2003 18:35 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth