Ill deeds are doubled with an evil word.
—The Comedy of Errors. III, ii
The century just past had been both one of the most violent ever recorded—and also perhaps the highest flowering of civilized achievement since Roman times. A great war had just ended, and the danger of starvation and death had receded for millions; new discoveries in agriculture meant that many more people were surviving into adulthood. Trade was becoming more than a local matter; a pioneering Westerner had just re-established a direct connection with China. As well, although most recent contact with Europe’s Islamic neighbors had been violent, there were also signs that new intellectual contacts were being made; new ideas were circulating from foreign sources, putting in question truths that had been long established. Under these circumstances a scholar from one of the world’s most respected universities made—or said something that allowed his enemies to make it appear he had made—a seemingly-astonishing claim: that philosophy, reason, and science taught one kind of truth, and religion another, and that there was no need to reconcile the two. A real intellect, he implied, had no obligation to be correct: he or she had only to be interesting. To many among his audience that appeared to be the height of both sheer brainpower and politically-efficacious intellectual work—but then, none of them were familiar with either the history of German auto-making, or the practical difficulties of the office of the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
Some literary scholars of a previous generation, of course, will get the joke: it’s a reference to then-Johns Hopkins University Miltonist Stanley Fish’s assertion, in his 1976 essay “Interpreting ‘Interpreting the Variorum,’” that, as an interpreter, he has no “obligation to be right,” but “only that [he] be interesting.” At the time, the profession of literary study was undergoing a profound struggle to “open the canon” to a wide range of previously-neglected writers, especially members of minority groups like African-Americans, women, and homosexuals. Fish’s remark, then, was meant to allow literary scholars to study those writers—many of whom would have been judged “wrong” according to previous notions of literary correctness. By suggesting that the proper frame of reference was not “correct/incorrect,” or “right/wrong,” Fish implied that the proper standard was instead something less rigid: a criteria that thusly allowed for the importation of new pieces of writing and new ideas to flourish. Fish’s method, in other words, might appear to be an elegant strategy that allowed for, and resulted in, an intellectual flowering in recent decades: the canon of approved books has been revamped, and a lot of people who probably would not have been studied—along with a lot of people who might not have done the studying—entered the curriculum who might not have had the change of mind Fish’s remark signified not have become standard in American classrooms.
I put things in the somewhat cumbersome way I do in the last sentence because of course Fish’s line did not arrive in a vacuum: the way had been prepared in American thought long before 1976. Forty years prior, for example, F. Scott Fitzgerald had claimed, in his essay “The Crack-Up” for Esquire, that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” In 1949 Fitzgerald’s fellow novelist, James Baldwin, similarly asserted that “literature and sociology are not the same.” And thirty years after Fish’s essay, the notion had become so accepted that American philosopher Richard Rorty could casually say that the “difference between intellectuals and the masses is the difference between those who can remember and use different vocabularies at the same time, and those who can remember only one.” So when Fish wrote what he wrote, he was merely putting down something that a number of American intellectuals had been privately thinking for some time—a notion that has, sometime between now and then, become American conventional wisdom.
Even some scientists have come to accept some version of the idea: before his death, the biologist Stephen Jay Gould promulgated the notion of what he called “non-overlapping magisteria”: the idea that while science might hold to one version of truth, religion might hold another. “The net of science,” Gould wrote in 1997, “covers the empirical universe,” while the “net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value.” Or, as Gould put it more flippantly, “we [i.e., scientists] study how the heavens go, and they [i.e., theologians] determine how to go to heaven.” “Science,” as medical doctor (and book reviewer) John Carmody put the point in The Australian earlier this year, “is our attempt to understand the physical and biological worlds of which we are a part by careful observation and measurement, followed by rigorous analysis of our findings,” while religion “and, indeed, the arts are, by contrast, our attempts to find fulfilling and congenial ways of living in our world.” The notion then that there are two distinct “realms” of truth is a well-accepted one: nearly every thinking, educated person alive today subscribes to some version of it. Indeed, it’s a belief that appears necessary to the pluralistic, tolerant society that many envision the United States is—or should be.
Yet, the description with which I began this essay, although it does in some sense apply to Stanley Fish’s United States of the 1970s, also applies—as the learned knew, but did not say, at the time of Fish’s 1976 remark—to another historical era: Europe’s thirteenth century. At that time, just as during Fish’s, the learned of the world were engaged in trying to expand the curriculum: in this case, they were attempting to recoup the work of Aristotle, largely lost to the West since the fall of Rome. But the Arabs had preserved Aristotle’s work: “In 832,” as Arthur Little, of the Jesuits, wrote in 1947, “the Abbaside Caliph, Almamun,” had the Greek’s work translated “into Arabic, roughly but not inaccurately,” in which language Aristotle’s works “spread through the whole Moslem world, first to Persia in the hand of Avicenna, then to Spain where its greatest exponent was Averroes, the Cordovan Moor.” In order to read and teach Aristotle without interference from the authorities, Little tells us, Averroes (Ibn Rushd) decided that “Aristotle’s doctrine was the esoteric doctrine of the Koran in opposition to the vulgar doctrine of the Koran defended by the orthodox Moslem priests”—that is, the Arabic scholar decided that there was one “truth” for the masses and another, far more subtle, for the learned. Averroes’ conception was, in turn, imported to the West along with the works of Aristotle: if the ancient Greek was at times referred to as the Master, his Arabic disciple was referred to as the Commentator.
Eventually, Aristotle’s works reached Paris, and the university there, sometime towards the end of the twelfth century. Gerard of Cremona, for example, had translated the Physics into Latin from the Arabic of the Spanish Moors sometime before he died in 1187; others had translated various parts of Aristotle’s Greek corpus either just before or just afterwards. For some time, it seems, they circulated in samizdat fashion among the young students of Paris: not part of the regular curriculum, but read and argued over by the brightest, or at least most well-read. At some point, they encountered a young man who would become known to history as Siger of Brabant—or perhaps rather, he encountered them. And like many other young, studious people, Siger fell in love with these books.
It’s a love story, in other words—and one that, like a lot of other love stories, has a sad, if not tragic, ending. For what Siger was learning by reading Aristotle—and Averroes’ commentary on Aristotle—was nearly wholly incompatible with what he was learning in his other studies through the rest of the curriculum—an experience that he was not, as the experience of Averroes before him had demonstrated, alone in having. The difference, however, is that whereas most other readers and teachers of the learned Greek sought to reconcile him to Christian beliefs (despite the fact that Aristotle long predated Christianity), Siger—as Richard E. Rubenstein puts it in his Aristotle’s Children—presented “Aristotle’s ideas about nature and human nature without attempting to reconcile them with traditional Christian beliefs.” And even more: as Rubenstein remarks, “Siger seemed to relish the discontinuities between Aristotelian scientia and Christian faith.” At the same time, however, Siger also held—as he wrote—that people ought not “try to investigate by reason those things which are above reason or to refute arguments for the contrary position.” But assertions like this also left Siger vulnerable.
Vulnerable, that is, to the charge that what he and his friends were teaching was what Rubenstein calls “the scandalous doctrine of Double Truth.” Or, in other words, the belief that “a proposition [that] could be true scientifically but false theologically, or the other way round.” Whether Siger and his colleagues did, or did not, hold to such a doctrine—there have been arguments about the point for centuries now— isn’t really material, however: as one commenter, Vincent P. Benitez, has put it, either way Siger’s work highlighted just how the “partitioning of Christian intellectual life in the thirteenth century … had become rather pronounced.” So pronounced, in fact, that it suggested that many supposed “intellectuals” of the day “accepted contradictories as simultaneously true.” And that—as it would not to F. Scott Fitzgerald later—posed a problem to the medievals, because it ran up against a rule of logic.
And not just any rule of logic: it’s one that Aristotle himself said was the most essential to any rational thought whatever. That rule of logic is usually known by the name the Law of Non-Contradiction, usually placed as the second of the three classical rules of logic in the ancient world. (The others being the Law of Identity—A is A—and the Law of the Excluded Middle—either A is A or it is not-A.) As Aristotle himself put it, the “most certain of all basic principles is that contradictory propositions are not true simultaneously.” Or—as another of Aristotle’s Arabic commenters, Avicenna (Ibn-Sina) put it in one of its most famous formulations—that rule goes like this: “Anyone who denies the law of non-contradiction should be beaten and burned until he admits that to be beaten is not the same as not to be beaten, and to be burned is not the same as not to be burned.” In short, a thing cannot be both true and not true at the same time.
Put in Avicenna’s way, of course, the Law of Non-Contradiction will sound distinctly horrible to most American undergraduates, perhaps particularly those who attend the most exclusive colleges: it sounds like—and, like a lot of things, has been—a justification for the worst kind of authoritarian, even totalitarian, rule, and even torture. In that sense, it might appear that attacking the law of non-contradiction could be the height of oppositional intellectual work: the kind of thing that nearly every American undergraduate attracted to the humanities aspires to do. Who is not, aside from members of the Bush Administration legal team (for that matter, nearly every regime known to history) and viewers of the television show 24, against torture? Who does not know that black-and-white morality is foolish, that the world is composed of various “shades of gray,” that “binary oppositions” can always be dismantled, and that it is the duty of the properly educated to instruct the lower orders in the world’s real complexity? Such views might appear obvious—especially if one is unfamiliar with the recent history of Volkswagen.
In mid-September of 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency of the United States issued a violation notice to the German automaker Volkswagen. The EPA had learned that, although the diesel engines Volkswagen built were passing U.S. emissions tests, they were doing it on the sly: each car’s software could detect when the car’s engine was being tested by government monitors, and if so could reduce the pollutants that engine was emitting. Just more than six months later, Volkswagen agreed to pay a settlement of 15.3 billion dollars in the largest auto-related class-action lawsuit in the history of the United States. That much, at least, is news; what interests me, however, about this story in relation to this talk about academics and monks was a curious article put out by The New Yorker in October of 2015. Entitled “An Engineering Theory of the Volkswagen Scandal,” Paul Kedrosky—perhaps significantly—“a venture investor and a former equity analyst,” explains these events as perhaps not the result of “engineers … under orders from management to beat the tests by any means necessary.” Instead, the whole thing may simply have been the result of an “evolution” of technology that “subtly and stealthily, even organically, subverted the rules.” In other words, Kedrosky wishes us to entertain the possibility that the scandal ought to be understood in terms of the undergraduate’s idea of shades of gray.
Kedrosky takes his theory from a book by sociologist Diane Vaughn, about the Challenger space shuttle disaster of 1986. In her book, Vaughn describes how, over nine launches from 1983 onwards, the space shuttle organization had launched Challenger under colder and colder temperatures, until NASA’s engineers had “effectively declared the mildly abnormal normal,” Kedrosky says—and until, one very frigid January morning in Florida, the shuttle blew into thousands of pieces moments after liftoff. Kedrosky’s attempt at an analogy is that maybe the Volkswagen scandal developed similarly: “Perhaps it started with tweaks that optimized some aspect of diesel performance and then evolved over time.” If so, then “at no one step would it necessarily have felt like a vast, emissions-fixing conspiracy by Volkswagen engineers.” Instead—as this story goes—it would have felt like Tuesday.
The rest of Kedrosky’s thrust is relatively easy to play out, of course—because we have heard a similar story before. Take, for instance, another New Yorker story; this one, a profile of the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara. Mr. Bharara, as the representative of the U.S. Justice Department in New York City, is in charge of prosecuting Wall Street types; because he took office in 2009, at the crest of the financial crisis that began in 2007, many thought he would end up arresting and charging a number of executives as a result of the widely-acknowledged chicaneries involved in creating the mess. But as Jeffrey Toobin laconically observes in his piece, “No leading executive was prosecuted.” Even more notable, however, is the reasoning Bharara gives for his inaction.
“Without going into specifics,” Toobin reports, Bharara told him “that his team had looked at Wall Street executives and found no evidence of criminal behavior.” Sometimes, Bharara went on to explain, “‘when you see a bad thing happen, like you see a building go up in flames, you have to wonder if there’s arson’”—but “‘sometimes it’s not arson, it’s an accident.’” In other words, to Bharara, it’s entirely plausible to think of the entire financial meltdown of 2007-8, which ended three giant Wall Street firms (Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, and Lehman Brothers) and two arms of the United States government (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac), and is usually thought to have been caused by predatory lending practices driven by Wall Street’s appetite for complex financial instruments, as essentially analogous to Diane Vaughn’s view of the Challenger disaster—or Kedrosky’s view of Volkswagen’s cavalier thoughts about environmental regulation. To put it in another way, both Kedrosky and Bharara must possess, in Fitzgerald’s terms, “first-rate intelligences”: in Kedrosky’s version of Volkswagen’s actions or Bharara’s view of Wall Street, crimes were committed, but nobody committed them. They were both crimes and not-crimes at the same time.
These men can, in other words, hold opposed ideas in their head simultaneously. To many, that makes these men modern—or even, to some minds, “post-modern.” Contemporary intellectuals like to cite examples—like the “rabbit-duck” illusion referred to by Wittgenstein, which can be seen as either a rabbit or a duck, or the “Schroedinger’s Cat” thought experiment, whereby the cat is neither dead nor alive until the box is opened, or the fact that light is both a wave and a particle—designed to show how out-of-date the Law of Noncontradiction is. In that sense, we might as easily blame contemporary physics as contemporary work in the humanities for Kedrosky or Bharara’s difficulties in saying whether an act was a crime or not—and for that matter, maybe the similarity between Stanley Fish and Siger of Brabant is merely a coincidence. Still, in the course of reading for this piece I did discover another apparent coincidence in Arthur Little’s same article I previously cited. “Unlike Thomas Aquinas,” the Jesuit wrote 1947, “whose sole aim was truth, Siger desired most of all to find the world interesting.” The similarity to Stanley Fish’s 1976 remarks about himself—that he has no obligation to be right, only to be interesting—are, I think, striking. Like Bharara, I cannot demonstrate whether Fish knew of this article of Little’s, written thirty years before his own.
But then again, if I have no obligation to be right, what does it matter?