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December 23, 2000

   Philosopher's Stove

Against the Idols of the Age
by David Stove

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I took my first degree in Mathematics from a respectable English university. There was none of this American nonsense about majors and minors: we did three straight years of unadulterated math, math and math. In our third year, though, we were permitted to choose some electives from within the field of math. One of them, which I rather liked the sound of, was "Foundations," in which we were promised revelations about the philosophical and logical underpinnings of math. Is math true? Why is it true? How do we know? Why, exactly, is two plus two equal to four? Is two plus two equal to four in remote galaxies? Was two plus two equal to four before there were human minds to apprehend the fact? When (to borrow an illustration from Martin Gardner) two dinosaurs wandered to the water hole back in the Jurassic Period and met another pair of dinosaurs happily sloshing, were there then four dinosaurs at the water hole? Whose curiosity has not been snagged by these issues at some point in his life — generally around age nineteen? I signed up.

The course was taught by a man named Kneebone. I have not made this up: that was his name. It was, in fact, a name that inspired some awe in us undergraduates, as Professor Kneebone was one half of Semple and Kneebone — not a vaudeville act, nor a firm of seedy solicitors in a Charles Dickens novel, but joint authors of the definitive textbook on algebraic projective geometry (still in print, I note, in the "Oxford Classic Texts" series). Well, later in life Prof. Kneebone moved on from ruled quadrics and points at infinity to the more conjectural realm of "Foundations." His course came with a formidable reading list. It included, for example, the first 56 chapters of Principia Mathematica — at the end of which, if memory serves, Whitehead and Russell have just got around to defining the number "one." And because "Foundations" straddles the border between math and philosophy, there was one book of pure philosophy on the list: Kant's Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysic.

I remember that book well. It was reassuringly slim, in a fetching yellow-and-brown soft cover. Because it was so slender, and because, after two years of uninterrupted math, I did not believe that anything could be harder than math, I left it until almost the end of the course to read. Then one night, a couple of weeks before the exam, I finally opened it. I read the first couple of paragraphs. Not bad — I mean, you could see where the guy was going. I read a few more. I then realized I hadn't understood the opening as well as I thought I had, and went back and re-read it. Oh, yes. Forward again to pick up the thread, except that it all seemed different now … Ice-cold panic set in around page 10. I have no idea what this man is talking about. I finished the book somehow and scraped through the exam, but I swore a solemn oath that, as God was my witness, I would never again read a book by an academic philosopher.

I was true to my vow until a couple of weeks ago, when a friend pressed Against the Idols of the Age into my hands. I am normally averse to having books imposed on me, but in this case it was done with great sincerity of intention by a friend whose own writings I much admire, so I cleared some space one afternoon and settled down with it. The dreadful shadow of Kant still looming over me, the most I hoped for was that I might glean enough sense from the book to be able to get through a brief Christmas-party sort of conversation about it without embarrassing myself. In fact I read almost the whole thing, with much more pleasure than pain.

The book is a collection of essays by David Stove, who taught philosophy at universities in Australia in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. The topics are not all, in fact are mostly not, strictly academic. They are grouped under three headings. Section One consists of three essays attacking the anti-inductive philosophy of science developed by Karl Popper and various later writers: Thomas Kuhn, Imre Lakatos and Paul Feyerabend. Section Two is the least academic, and therefore, to me, the most fun: five essays on matters of culture, race and "gender." The last part of the book is made up of four essays on Darwinism and neo-Darwinism.

The bits I skipped were the most technical ones. Confronted with a paragraph that opens like this:

But consider the following schematic examples, in which a logical expression is sabotaged by systemic embedding …

I hear the heavy tread of the Sage of Königsberg coming up the driveway, and make a run for the back door, screaming: "No! I don't WANT to consider it!" But no more than ten per cent of the book is like this. The rest is fun.

It is fun because, in the first place, Stove is a very good writer. His prose has a lean, stripped-down style that makes it effortless to read even when he is walking you through quite complicated arguments. He is often very funny. His account of a red robin defending its territory on pp. 308-9 made me laugh out loud. Stove is here refuting the neo-Darwinian "theory of inclusive fitness," which asserts, if I have understood it correctly, that I, on behalf of my DNA, will sacrifice my own life to save two — but not fewer — of my siblings, four — but not fewer — of my half siblings, eight — but not fewer — first cousins, and so on.

He coins very pithy words and expressions: "puppetry theorists" for all those who tell us we are the helpless slaves of impersonal forces, and "cognophobes" for the kind of people who now control the Humanities departments at most of our universities, people who tell us that what we think we know is just a kind of fiction imposed on us by our race, our class, our gender and so on. I like "cognophobe" almost as much as I like Robert Conquest's "hesperophobe" … but the cognophobes and the hesperophobes — and, come to think of it, the puppetry theorists, too — are, of course, mainly the same people.

The book is also fun because Stove was — he died in 1994, by his own hand, while suffering from cancer — a great curmudgeon. He could not see a sacred cow without being overwhelmed by the desire to disembowel it. It is with a sort of heady glee that he takes on all the dull pieties of our age. The first sentence of the essay titled The Intellectual Capacity of Women reads as follows: "I believe that the intellectual capacity of women is on the whole inferior to that of men." Stove would in fact, if he had not settled into academia, have made a very good opinion journalist, a line of work whose skill set Auberon Waugh defined as "the vituperative arts."

Being fun to read is of course one thing. Is Stove actually any good? Is he, as Jeeves would have said, "sound"? Are his arguments convincing? Does he have anything original and true to tell us? Would his ideas, if universally adopted, add to civilization or subtract from it?

Setting aside the more severely academic topics, which I am not equipped to comment on, I would say that the answers are, with much qualification, all positive. Stove belonged to the grand tradition of British reductionist empiricism, deeply skeptical of large abstract systems and all-encompassing explanations. Typically Stovian is his observation that no sooner has some new causal agent been identified in human affairs than someone writes a book arguing that it is the only, or the only important, agent directing our destiny. So with St. Augustine and God's will, with Marx and "modes of production," with Freud and infantile traumas. So — according to Stove — with neo-Darwinists and their "selfish genes." Stove, I should add, was no Creationist. He agreed with Darwin on all fundamental points, but likes to point out that Darwin died as ignorant of genes as Julius Caesar did.

The problem with curmudgeonism is that it tends to swing out with abandon at any target that comes within range, without much discrimination. The problem with reductionism is its tendency to o'er-leap itself. Once you have started to enjoy the work of lopping off dead branches, it's hard to stop, and you may lose the power, or the will, to discriminate between dead branches and live ones. Here is Stove on Kant.

Kant's "discovery" went thus:  "Any property that a real x had, an imaginary x could have, and any property that an imaginary x could have, a real x could have."  So: "Existence is not a property." (Hearty applause, maintained steadily for 200 years so far.)

Cute, but I don't think this particular précis of Kant's ontology would have gotten me through Professor Kneebone's exam paper.

Often Stove falls into the philosopher's disdain for mere facts. This is the case in that essay on female intellectual capacity, for example. Psychometricians have for some decades been measuring the smartness of women, and the results are not in any doubt. Women have the same mean intelligence as men, but a smaller standard deviation. Their bell curve is narrower, men's is flatter, but the peaks are in the same place. There are thus more men in the "tails" of the distribution — more super-smart men than women, and more extremely dim ones, too. This fact is about as firmly established as the orbit of the moon, so that Stove's conclusions on the subject are plain wrong. Yet I still enjoyed the essay: he is really a very compelling writer.

Stove's fulminations against neo-Darwinism and those "selfish gene" theories of Richard Dawkins and E.O. Wilson are more difficult to pass judgment on without a deeper understanding of the issues than I possess. Steve Sailer, who is a much better biologist than I am (he is president of the Human Biodiversity Institute), has pooh-poohed Stove's opinions on neo-Darwinism in his own review of this book. If you are in two minds about whether you want to take up Against the Idols of the Age, I strongly recommend you to first read Steve on Stove.

Unless you take pains to keep up with all current intellectual controversies (I am sorry to say that I don't), the problem you face when evaluating a writer with polemical gifts as great as Stove's is that you cannot be sure, without reading the original, that the theory being dissected is in fact as presented. A demolition job is always fun to watch: but did the wrecking crew find the right building? I feel sure, for example, that if Dawkins's theory of "memes" is as presented by Stove, it is utter nonsense, but then, I have not read Dawkins. I am not entirely a tabula rasa for Stove's critiques, though. Taking in occasional books and articles — by, among others, the afore-mentioned Steve Sailer — I have developed a strong suspicion that neo-Darwinians are not anything like as close to the truth about human nature as they think they are. Reading Stove reinforced this, well, prejudice.

The editor of this volume is Roger Kimball, one of the depressingly small number of Americans who can, without any qualifications or reservations at all, be described as a conservative intellectual. Kimball discovered Stove for himself in 1996, and the book was entirely his own idea. He has provided a witty and by no means uncritical introduction, and also, in his acknowledgments, a brief account of the difficulties he had finding a publisher.

The responses were divided about equally between quivering pusillanimity and furious outrage … Almost every academic press these days has room for twenty-seven varieties of Queer Theory, eighteen contributions to "Cultural Studies,"  "Post-Colonial Studies,"  and other reader-proof versions of neo-Marxism, as well as fifty-two examples of "Feminist Readings of …"  (fill in the blank as desired). But anything that effectively challenges these orthodoxies is automatically excluded.

We therefore owe a debt not only to Roger Kimball for compiling this provocative and funny book, but also to Transaction Publishers for taking it on. Any book turned down by "more than a dozen" (as Kimball reports) commercial and academic presses on grounds of political incorrectness must be saying something right.