quick notes from his lecture at the BL last night.
It’s an odd thing to notice first about a philosopher, but he is less spectacularly fat than I remember him, though still substantial. When I last interviewed him, in the late Eighties, he struck me as whale-like. Perhaps I was just unused to American sizings in those days, my eyes still calibrated to the way Swedes looked before fast food. Perhaps it was the contrast with his mind, which has muscles on its muscles. I had expected someone who looked like Colin McGinn: the philosopher as tough.
His manner was mild, rigorous, professorial. My train had broken down, so I came in late. He was lecturing about two philosophers I have never read: Rosenzwieg and Lukacs; I have at least heard of Lukacs. Rather than trying to capture an argument whose start I missed, which depends on knowledge of philosophers I have not read, I’ll note a couple of obiter dicta:
* this is always a most unfair move to make in a philosophical discussion,but I don’t in the least mind being unfair.
* Plain persons are all of them potential and many of them actual philosophers, whether or not in the mode of professional culture.
* Any seriously meant question about the ends of life in a secularised culture sound like and sometimes are, a cry of pain. Psychiatric textbooks sometimes list as among the signs of an incipient breakdown, the asking of metaphysical questions. I have given some reasons why this might be sensible.
* For those who forget the questions, the answers become everything.
* If you read the Treatise, you will find an astonishing number of echoes of Pascal — at the same time we know that Hume loathes Pascal. I take it that Hume is someone who found questions about the ends of life quite extraordinarily painful, and found a way of getting away from them partly into philosophy, and partly by becoming an English gentleman, because English gentlemen don’t in general ask questions about the meaning of life.
* You always need to be rigorous enough for the question that we’re dealing with.
* What in fact you need to do with texts [in philosophy courses] is to learn to reconstruct them so they become maximally compelling.
He was, as I say, enormously polite, even when someone got up and started lecturing him on Aristotle at A level standard and the rest of the auditorium squirmed deliciously. Anyone who had actually read any of MacIntyre’s famous books would know that Aristotle has been one of the foundaitons of his thought. But even here, he was gentle. He did briefly and brutally disembowel someone who asked about Cornel West and Harvard, just lowering his head to toss and gore them before the question was half asked.
Right at the end — he had been refusing to rigorously to condemn Lukacs for his decline into Stalinism — he said: “In general in our culture people make far too many moral judgments all the time. This is very bad for moral judgments as well as for the people who are making them.”
“Had I been part of the allied military government in South West Germany in 1945 I would have done everything in my power to have Heidegger executed. This is not because I don’t think he was a great philosopher. He was a great philosopher, who committed a crime against humanity.”
“I say this to show that I am prepared to make moral judgements.”