Saturday, 9 March 2019

Twenty 20th Century intellectual heroes, Part 1: from Jung to C.S. Lewis

I started thinking about this list while watching all those Bryan Magee interviews with philosophers I wrote about in a recent post. The main criterion for inclusion was that thinker had in some way affected the way I look at the world. The fact that many of them suffered professionally for swimming against the intellectual tide isn't necessarily germane, but I do tend to admire people who actually risk something in order to express their views: it strikes me that the reputation of many widely-admired public intellectuals these days rests on their willingness to boldly trumpet opinions that will do nothing but enhance their popularity and their careers - a phenomenon which seems to have turned British and American "satirists" into a pack of lickspittle establishment toadies. One more point before I start listing - including someone on the list doesn't remotely imply that I agree with everything they believe or believed (for example, I find Orwell's views on economics almost simple-minded).

1. Carl Gustav Jung 
The great Swiss antidote to Freud's unhealthy obsession with sex as the underlying motivation for everything we do: we're a lot more interesting and complex than that. The Jungian theories that have most affected me are those concerning the archetypes of the collective unconscious, that our subconscious isn't our enemy, and that dreams are its was of trying to help us, that we project those aspects of ourself we refuse to acknowledge onto others (The Shadow), and that a belief in God can be valid, rather than the result of ignorance and superstition (I've just finished reading Jung's Answer to Job, which, despite its reputation for obscurity and impenetrability, I found to be one of the most stimulating - if unorthodox - books about Christianity I've ever read).  Freud was undoubtedly a better writer than Jung - but Jung was a more profound thinker. I started by reading Freud (who depressed me), before turning to Jung, who taught me that the subconscious isn't a toxic cesspit comprised of our mental waste products.

2. Thomas Sowell
One of the greatest American minds of the last century, and an endless source of wisdom on a whole range of key topics, including economics, politics and race. His pithily-expressed view that left-wing intellectuals (i.e. the vast majority of Western academics) support harmful policies not because they think they will improve lives but because doing so makes them feel morally superior to the rest of us, explains why so many clever people say and believe such evidently stupid things, and why left-liberal policies almost invariably harm the very people they're supposed to help. As a working-class American black man raised in Harlem who became a Marxist before morphing into a committed right-winger, Sowell is a perfect example of a courageous academic who decided to speak the truth - based on his own experience and plain, undeniable, unemotional facts - rather than to advance his career and reputation by keeping quiet and toeing the establishment line.

3. Friedrich Hayek
The antidote to Keynesianism and socialist economics and their adherents, the greatest economist of the last century, and a believer in free markets whose fundamental criticisms of the idea of centrally-planned economies (i.e. that they invariably fail because they cut themselves off from the informational feedback loop provided by the market - see Venezuela) is unanswerable. The Road to Serfdom says it all.

4. George Orwell
An essentially patriotic and socially conservative left-winger whose experiences in the Spanish Civil War revealed to him the terrible, inhuman reality of Communism, and whose courage and contempt for fellow-travellers (including those ensconced at the BBC) led him to write two hugely influential novels and numerous articles warning against the evils of left-wing totalitarianism, even though doing so earned him the enmity of many fellow-leftists. (And his essays on popular culture - from the tradition of reading about juicy murders in the News of the World to the world of children's comics - were, of course, a delight.)

5. Roger Scruton
A philosopher whose career has suffered because of his unrelenting espousal of traditional conservative values, and one of the few right-wing academics willing to fight their corner in public.  (He'd be on this list even if he hadn't been my supervisor at university for three years.)

6. Ludwig Wittgenstein
There can't be many academics who spend the second half of their life repudiating the philosophical system they created during the first half. Philosophical Investigations may not now be held in such high regard as it was when I studied it at university, but its revolutionary view of how language actually works makes it the most intellectually stimulating work of 20th Century philosophy I have read (with his thoughts on subjects such as aesthetics and religion - mainly cobbled together from students' and colleagues' notes - not far behind). If I had a pound for every time I've heard a politician or political commentator commit a category mistake...

7. J. L. Austin
 Operating in roughly the same field as Wittgenstein, this Oxford philosopher, wittily and with a bracing dollop of Anglo-Saxon common sense, fought back against the pernicious, reductionist logical positivist view that only statements which could be proved to be true or false had any meaning.  While A.J. Ayer and his ilk were merrily dismissing all discussion of, for instance, religion, ethics and aesthetics - i.e. the stuff that really matters - as pointless, Austin was busily restoring its status. Sense and Sensibilia and How to Do Things with Words are both worth reading. (Tragically, Austin died at the age of 48.)

8. R.G. Collingwood
 I should have read this Oxford philosopher when I was a student, but I'm pleased I finally got round to The Principles of Art  (1938) a few years ago, because it defined (to my satisfaction, at least) the difference between art proper, pure entertainment, and craft - not, perhaps, a crucial issue for most people, but I've been worrying away at it for 45 years, on and off! An Autobiography (1939) and Idea of History (published posthumously in 1946) are also excellent - and writing this has reminded me I need to find time to squeeze Idea of Nature in at some stage.

9. Karl Popper
I was a young man when I first read The Open Society and its Enemies - a magnificent defence of democracy written while Popper languished in obscurity in New Zealand during the Second World War - and it had as profound an effect on my political views as Nineteen Eighty-Four. I wrote about Popper at some length here.

10. C. S. Lewis
The leadership of the Church of England doesn't seem particularly interested in religion these days, preferring to pontificate on the evils of Brexit, the gender pay-gap, racial inequality and, of course, the all-important issue of transgenderism. What any of these things have to do with God, I'm not sure. During periods when clergymen have become more obsessed with the gospel of progressivism than the actual Gospel, laymen and women have taken up the cudgels to keep the Christian faith alive - people like Dorothy L. Sayers, Malcolm Muggeridge and, most notably, C. S. Lewis. Lewis's works of Christian apologetics - e.g. Mere Christianity, Christian Reflections, The Problem of Pain and Reflections on the Psalms - have done more for my faith than everything said by every Archbishop of Canterbury during my lifetime times ten

Part Two of this post is available here.

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