Against the Idols of the Age, by David Stove

(reviewed by Susan Tridgell, Quadrant Jan/Feb, 2001)

Satire can be a formidable intellectual weapon, but it is rare to find it in the world of formal philosophical writing. In this anthology of the late David Stove's philosophical essays, satire sharpens every argument. Stove's targets were not just philosophers. The vilified include Charles Darwin and his followers, cultural theorists, Marxists, relativists and feminists as well as Plato, Berkeley, Kant, Hegel, Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, Feyerabend and many others. In an age which prides itself on being "transgressive", Stove shows up as the true iconoclast, attacking political, intellectual and cultural orthodoxies. Some of Stove's more important themes include his attacks on irrationalism, idealism, postmodernism and a range of conspiracy arguments (including neo-Darwinian arguments) which encourage a sense of human powerlessness.

Roger Kimball has drawn on the full breadth of Stove's published work for this volume. There are essays here from Anything Goes: The Origins of the Cult of Scientific Irrationalism, The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies, Darwinian Fairytales and Cricket Versus Republicanism. Readers of Stove's previous books will be delighted to meet again Stove's trenchant combination of scathing wit and intelligence; while for others, this well-selected anthology provides an excellent introduction to Stove's work.

Stove writes to both enlighten and outrage. Since he belongs to a rare and all-too-small tradition of true eccentrics, there is probably no person on earth who would agree with all of his opinions and many who would disagree with most of them. Whether you agree or disagree with his conclusions, however, his witty, razor-sharp arguments are a delight to read. What other philosopher, for example, would compare the success of a Kantian argument to the rabbit's success in over-running Australia? Some phrases are written with an ear for the horrified protest they will provoke: as when he describes the late 1960s as "those five fell years for Western civilization!" Other passages reveal his relish for the absurd and his talent for exposing it:

We . . . can now neither remember or imagine the confidence which Western civilization had for two hundred years invested in the finality of Newtonian physics, but it is scarcely possible to exaggerate it. The shock of disillusion, when it came, was correspondingly great. To philosophers like Popper, the moral was obvious: such excessive confidence in a scientific theory must never be allowed to build up again. The most "irrefutable" of all such theories has turned out to be not irrefutable at all: very well then, Popper will say, like the fox in the fable, that irrefutability, even if our theories could achieve it, would be a bad thing anyway. The parallel would be complete if the fox, having concluded that neither he nor anyone else could ever succeed in tasting grapes, should nevertheless proceed to write many large books about the progress of viticulture.

Philosophical pretentiousness is in unsafe company with Stove.

Stove's withering analysis of idealism from Berkeley through to present-day postmodern versions exposes both the intellectual poverty of its chief argument and its "Calvinist" or (as he puts it elsewhere) its "sado-masochistic" appeal. He notes the ubiquitous presence of the argument that "We can know things only as they are known to us, therefore We cannot know things as they are in themselves", and its efficacy in establishing idealism. He then goes on to wonder whether a realisation that "We can eat oysters only insofar as they are brought under . . . physiological and chemical conditions . . . THEREFORE We cannot eat oysters as they are in themselves" would have established gastronomic idealism. Why has an argument no better than the one about the oysters deceived so many, he asks? The appeal of this family of arguments (which he designates as "Gem" arguments) stretches far beyond idealist philosophy. In modern humanities departments, Stove notes, these arguments have gained almost universal acceptance:

The cultural-relativist, for example, inveighs bitterly against our science-based, Europe-centred, white-male cultural perspective. She says that it is not only injurious but cognitively limiting. Injurious it may be; or again it may not. But why does she believe that it is cognitively limiting? Why, for no reason in the world, except this one: that it is ours. Everyone really understands, too, that this is the only reason. But since this reason is also generally accepted as a sufficient one, no other is felt to be needed . . .

The widespread acceptance of the "Gem" arguments above merely sharpens Stove's attack, as he notes the way that students have been taught to "lisp in little Gems".

Throughout, Stove has an acute eye for argumentative sleights of hand, while his techniques of exposure are both ruthless and witty:

You offer people two propositions: "No one can act voluntarily except in his own interests," and "No one can act voluntarily except from some interest of his own." The second is a trivial truth, while the first is an outlandish falsity. But what proportion of people can be relied on to notice any difference in meaning between the two? Experience shows very few. And a man will find it easier to mistake the false proposition for the evidently true one, the more willing he is to believe that everyone is as bad as himself, or to belittle the human species in general. (Darwinians call the latter "bridging the gap between man and the animals.")

In commenting on other philosophers, he is similarly acerbic:

Nozick prefers those philosophical questions which "make us tremble." Well, he should love this one: which of us will not tremble before so mortal a question as "How is nature itself possible?" Kant has asked it, but will even he be able to answer it? If he cannot explain how nature is possible, there is little chance that anyone else will be able to do so. It may therefore even turn out that this is one of those cases in which the answer is "No how," and that nature is not possible after all. Wretched luck for nature if so.

Kimball has underlined this acerbity by providing an unusually good introduction to the volume, studded with some of Stove's funniest and most acid insights from earlier books and essays.

True to the spirit of his title (Against the Idols of the Age), Kimball has included two of Stove's most controversial essays, "On the intellectual inferiority of women" and "Racial and other antagonisms" in this anthology. Stove has often been personally vilified on the basis of these essays, so it may be useful to set them back in the context of his life. What relation did they have to his beliefs and actions? The link between these essays and Stove's life is not bigotry, but something else: Stove's absolute and some would say over-confident belief in the power of clear thinking to dispel prejudice.

Stove acquired a certain notoriety during his lifetime because of his outspoken opposition to affirmative action programs. Whereas affirmative action programs are generally accepted as good counteractive measures against subtle and often unconscious biases, for Stove affirmative action meant deliberately introducing a bias into thinking about people. He believed that each person's ability both could and should be judged without general biases of any kind. He responded scornfully to claims by feminists that the small proportion of female academics at Sydney University revealed biases in appointments. When he wrote that a philosopher in the midst of an argument would not notice whether the person they were arguing with was a man, a woman or a broomstick, he may have been mistaken about the way in which subtle biases might have influenced academic selection processes at Sydney University. (This is a matter which is open to debate and inquiry). But his comment was certainly entirely true of his own philosophical arguments. I can still remember the intellectual freedom his classes gave (a greater freedom than I have ever known before or since). As an eighteen-year-old girl in Australia in the mid-1980s, it was extraordinary to be addressed in exactly the same way, in the same tone, as the seventy-year-old male student sitting beside me. In David Stove's classes, bodies did not exist. Only minds mattered. Stove was thus able to hold a general belief that women were intellectually inferior, without it influencing his stance towards any individual, male or female. (He would have thought it ridiculous to allow a pre-conception to interfere with his judgement in this way).

While his comments about race fall into a similar pattern, there is a shortcoming in his cultural vocabulary which makes his views seem unusually outrageous. One of Stove's great strengths was that he was uninfluenced by prevailing fashions. His writing remained free of jargon and he despised the kind of opportunism shown by academics who adopt fashionable terminology or theories. However, some new fields of enquiry bring with them gains, and Stove missed out on one of these, as his writings on race show. Cross-cultural studies have provided ways of talking about other cultures which emphasise traits encouraged by culture, rather than racial traits. If Stove had drawn on some of this work in discussing his ideas, his essay would sound less offensive and possibly less utility-based (one of the weaknesses of the essay is an over-confidence that people's abilities can be measured). It would also be clearer, stronger and more precise: qualities Stove would have appreciated.

What every piece of writing in this book demonstrates, however, is Stove's belief in clear thinking: a belief which inspired both his fearlessness and his exasperation with academic obscurity and charlatanism. Ultimately, this belief gives his writings both their witty edge ("Feyeraband . . . enjoins the reader of Against Method, indeed he pleads with him, not to take what was written in that book too seriously. This was undeniably handsome, in fact irresistible, and for my part I willingly closed with the offer") and a certain note of cheerfulness, of optimism. In the long run, Stove seemed to believe, wit, common sense and clarity would prevail. To read his writings is to see that dream come irresistibly, enchantingly, true.