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Leon Kass is disingenuous

January 12, 2010

I haven’t read much of his writing, but based on this essay, Leon Kass is sort of a blowhard.  That’s mostly just a complaint about style, but the content also betrays a certain self-satisfied disingenuousness.

First off, he’s got a couple different balls in the air:

  1. The humanities tackle Big Questions that science just can’t answer on its own, questions like “What makes an organism into a unified whole?”, “What is a human being, really?”, and “How should we live?”
  2. You need more than knowledge to live a Good Life.
  3. Great Books, including religious ones, and the Bible in particular, offer valuable assistance in answering the Big Questions.

All good points, points that reasonable people should (and probably already do!) agree on regardless of how they come down on the Big Questions. That’s because all three points are perfectly compatible with a plethora of different Big Answers. What bothers me about the essay is that Kass has his own Big Answers, and, most importantly, he tries to pass them off as reasonable inferences from the unobjectionable premises above, when in fact they are nothing of the sort.

Well, what are Kass’s Big Answers?  On first pass, they’re either elementary, obscure, or vague.  On the nature of the human organism, the key lesson is that the body’s various activities, in which we might include things diverse as sight, appetite, anger, and thought, are not fully intelligible through science alone, but instead require humanistic reflection on the lived experience of such activities:

Sight and seeing are powers and activities of soul, relying on the underlying materials but not reducible to them. Moreover, sight and seeing are not knowable through our objectified science, but only through lived experience. A blind neuroscientist could give precise quantitative details regarding electrical discharges in the eye produced by the stimulus of light, and a blind craftsman could with instruction fashion a good material model of the eye; but sight and seeing can be known only by one who sees.

Even the passions of the soul are not reducible to the materials of the body. True, anger, as ancient naturalists used to say, is a heating of the blood around the heart or an increase in the bilious humor — or, as we now might say, a rising concentration of a certain polypeptide in the brain. But these partial accounts, stressing only the material conditions, cannot reveal the larger truth about anger: Anger, humanly understood, is a painful feeling that seeks revenge for perceived slight or insult.

As a bit of metaphysics, Kass’s conclusion is controversial and his argument for it suspect. But of course Kass’s main point is more pragmatic than academic: that we live better, richer lives when we attend to the experience of anger, not just its biological basis. That might be true even if anger were reducible to biology as a matter of metaphysics. In any case, my point is that even if you accept Kass’s precept and the philosophy behind it whole hog, you really haven’t accepted very much. It’s at most the prelude to an Answer: you’ve established what the Answer is not, namely a certain biological explanation, but not what it is.

Things improve a bit when Kass turns to ethics, where he is an unabashed Aristotelian:

We are inclined today to praise as excellent one or the other of two human types.  Utilitarians [sic] esteem the shrewd and cunning man who knows how to get what he wants. Moralists [sic] praise the man of good will, the well-intentioned or good-hearted fellow bent on doing good. But these views, Aristotle shows us, are both inadequate.The highest human excellence in the realm of action requires both that one’s intentions be good and that one’s judgment be sound. Never a slave to abstract principles or rules of conduct, never a moral preener espousing ‘ideals’ or doctrines, the prudent man knows that excellence really consists in finding and enacting the best thing to do here and now, always with a view to the good but always seen in light of the circumstances. He is truly a man for all seasons and occasions.

Ignore the fact that Kass apparently doesn’t know the meanings of the words ‘utilitarian’ and ‘moralist.’ Even if you accept his ethics wholesale, you simply haven’t accepted very much. As before, you know where the Answer isn’t, namely in moral principles, but not what it is.

The last in Kass’s triad of Big Questions is the proper form of human culture. Kass spends most of this part of the essay giving us reading lists: on eating, see Herodotus, Erasmus, and Isak Dinesen; on romantic love, see Kierkegaard, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen; on these and everything else, see the Bible.  So Kass kindly tells us where the Big Answers may be found but is obscure about what they are. He does offer a few concrete prescriptions drawn from the Bible–don’t get too wrapped up in money, retain a sense of wonder at the world, respect the sanctity of the family–but as before these points are so basic and broad as to be almost empty. The hard, important work begins only when we move beyond such truisms.

If on first pass Kass’s Answers are a bit elusive, on second pass a thesis emerges: for Kass, the pursuit of the Big Questions through Great Books is the Big Answer. This is why Kass says so little of substance and spends so much time telling us what to read and what not to read: the Good Life is just one spent reading Great Books. This is how Kass performs the feat of drawing a coherent set of lessons from a bunch of wildly disparate texts: the texts are themselves the lesson.

This view has both attractive and repulsive features. It’s attractive because it recognizes as valuable something that really is valuable, namely the pursuit of the Big Questions. And it’s especially seductive to academics because it elevates their work ethically above all others. But it’s also pat and self-regarding and suspiciously self-congratulatory when spouted from the mouth of an academic. It also directly contradicts most of the classic texts it purports to venerate. To take the most obvious example: reading Great Books is not what Jesus would do.

But whatever the merits of the Great-Books-as-Big-Answer thesis, it simply cannot be deduced from the premises 1) that there are Big Questions and 2) that the Great Books can help us answer them. That the Great Books help us toward or even contain Big Answers does not imply that they are the Answer.  In fact, if you agree that knowledge is only one component to living a good life, you should be as wary of fetishizing humanistic as scientific knowledge. If Kass is trying to obscure this point, as I suspect he is, then despite his high-minded aims he is probably doing the public more harm than good.

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