Monday, 26 January 2009

Counterknowledge follow up

My attention has been drawn to a blog entry by Damian Thompson: In the ensuing discussion, he responds to my recent review of his Counterknowledge. The remarks are brief and dismissive:
I read Tim Wilkinson's long critique of Counterknowledge ages ago. He makes some good points, but since the book is aimed at people holding his views I'm hardly surprised that he doesn't like it. And, however shaky my grasp of philosophy, one of Britain's leading philosophers *did* write the following: "This excellent little book, if supplemented by a single brief sentence - a draft of which I offer below - should be put in the satchel of every secondary school child, in the departmental pigeonhole of every undergraduate, and in the hands of every officer of every quango called Ofsomething. Widely enough read and clearly enough understood, it might save us from the tsunami of misinformation, misinterpretation, falsity, error and distortion that infects our culture in the guise of conspiracy theories, spurious history, alternative medicine, and much other cock-and-bull besides - all of which Damian Thompson calls 'counterknowledge' and which he debunks with great clarity and efficiency." AC Grayling took issue with my not including religion as counterknowledge, which is fair enough, given his own atheism.
It's unclear what, if any, specific 'views' this vague innuendo is supposed to prompt readers to project onto me. Thompson can't mean just that I disagree with him, can't be saying that it is unsurprising that I disagree with him since I don't agree with him. Thompson clearly means to invoke some unspecified disreputable opinions of mine important enough to eclipse the mere correctness of my arguments ('He makes some good points, but...' But what?). This is both insulting and in a way creepily Kafka-esque ('The Brief Annoyance', though, rather than 'The Trial').

More importantly, in turning to the question why I may be expected to dislike his book, Thompson bypasses substantive questions entirely. This is in keeping with his general approach in Counterknowledge, which is tacitly premised on the notion that some ideas need not be examined before being dismissed. The appeal to the authority of 'leading' philosopher A C Grayling is an example of a  complementary - and equally benighted - stance of Thompson's: favoured ideas - in this case his own - should be accepted without examination, since they emanate from or have been endorsed by an 'authority'.

Certainly, Grayling's review starts in glowing terms. But what is the 'single brief sentence' needed to make the book required reading for secondary school pupils, with a top-up for those who continue to university and, for some reason, a second or third dose for those who find employment in statutory bodies tasked with regulating privatised utilities? A quick web search reveals it as: 'No religious claim escapes the strictures about counterknowledge so eloquently here described.'

I won't press the point that since, as Grayling accepts, this statement would contradict much of what Thompson has to say about religion, substantial excision would be required if the additional sentence were not just to introduce a new contradiction into this latter-day Little Red Book. What is of some interest is that most of Grayling's review consists of criticism of religion, and specifically of Thompson's failure properly to address its place in relation to 'Counterknowledge'.

In response Thompson returns to explaining away, rather than meeting, criticism. This time, though, he faces the dilemma of whether or not to bite the hand that both feeds and chastises him. So we have a deflection rather than an outright dismissal of the criticism: it's 'fair enough' for Grayling to respond in this way, given his atheism.

At this point, one is reminded of the subjectivist or relativist excesses of the postmodern trends Thompson affects to despise. If it is 'fair enough' (i.e. fair comment, justified) for Grayling to berate Thompson at length for his treatment of religion, then doesn't that mean that Thompson is wrong? Not at all - for it is Grayling's atheism that makes his remarks 'fair enough': that's his truth, Thompson seems to say, and I respect it.

The intellectual contortions that lead Thompson to this apparent abandonment of logic and the objective stance are the direct consequence of trying to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds when it comes to the matter of religion. And Thompson has been there before, as I pointed out in the 'major religions' section of my review.