Decision Concerning MS ‘On the Common Saying: “This May be True in Theory, but it does not Apply in Practice”.’ // Author: Immanuel Kant

Dear Professor Kant,

Thank you for submitting your MS ‘On the Common Saying: “This May be True in Theory, but it does not Apply in Practice”‘ to The Journal of Practically Applied Ethics. We have now received referee reports, and on the basis of these will not be proceeding with publication. I have appended reports below.

The main complaint was that too little was done, and too late, on the main issue of interest: the possibility of applying principles of international right in a cosmopolitan framework. Perhaps in future you should abandon the earlier parts of this article, and concentrate on articulating a theory of international relations in response to the established ius gentium accounts offered by Pufendorf, Grotius, and Vattel. This might help you get beyond Hobbes, which all your reviewers agreed currently represents a disproportionate influence on your thought.

With regards,

The Editor.

[…]

Referee 1

The MS proposes to examine the relationship between theory and practice in three key areas: individual morality, political duty, and the rights of states. An examination of this sort is certainly over-due. There can be few scholars working in the field today who have not felt aggrieved at the remarks of friends and colleagues that theory is fine, but practical experience knows best. And this MS starts well: emphasising that judgement is the irreducible link between theory and practice, and that there can ipso facto be no theory of judgement. Yet hopes of an appropriately Aristotelian emphasis on phronesis are soon dashed as a peculiarly idiosyncratic approach takes over.

Regarding the role of theory in relation to moral practice, the author initially seems concerned with repeating his established views against a recent critic of his. Yet it readily becomes apparent that the real claim being made here is that the best way of making moral judgements is to follow the dictates of duty. The author’s argument boils down to the contention that it is harder to make judgements based on calculations of consequences, than on the contents of duty. This, however, is support by the most inadequate of examples. It may be true that a child would answer that stealing is simply wrong – but so what? An adult wants to know why it is wrong, what it means for there to be a duty not to steal, and how we come to know and act upon that duty. Given the author’s own introduction, he of all people should know that judging as regards to the content of duty is no easier than judging with regards to consequences. The claim that his own moral theory thus vindicates the usefulness of theory to practice by showing us the path of duty is unduly self-aggrandising, and achieved only by begging the question quite spectacularly.

As regards the connection between theory and practice in politics, the author apparently sets out to deliberately mislead. The section is entitled ‘Against Hobbes’, but this is manifestly Hobbes’s system in the skimpiest of new guises. (The influence of Rousseau is also apparent, as evidenced by a conception of the General Will, but one I must confess to finding incomprehensible.) Ultimately, the author’s position is the same as Hobbes’s notorious conclusion: that the sovereign must be absolute. The only difference is that we are reassured that Hobbes’s tyrannical system will be avoided because citizens may write public letters of disapproval. They are not, however, allowed to do anything practical to resist tyranny. Instead they must trust that their leader will always act in line with what he can sincerely imagine would be the General Will, if such a thing could be known. Given recent events in France, one is disappointed by the author’s reactionary attitude. Rather than vindicating the rights of man, and the collective right of the people to live under a free republic, he opts instead to be a sorry comforter for the old politics of despotism. This is political theory 140 years past its sell-by-date.

The final section shows promise but is fundamentally under-developed. The author appears to presuppose a providential conception of nature whereby mankind is inevitably progressing to a higher plane of cosmopolitan world peace. Yet no better reason for believing in this is given than that the author cannot bear the thought of a directionless world in which all is the play of chance. This is hardly adequate. Perhaps some more explicit teleological justification would help, say with regards to man as an animal with a natural function or direct appeal to the role of God as creator. In any case, I am confused by the author’s stance given his earlier Hobbism. If the author follows Hobbes in his theory of the state, and yet desires the attainment of international peace, does he therefore advocate a world state? Yet Hobbes is explicit that a world state is unnecessary and anyway impossible. I would like to see the author work out this aspect of his thought. However, a fundamentally different work is manifestly required for what is interesting here to be properly brought out.

[…]

Decision Concerning MS “A Treatise of Human Nature”// Author: Mr David Hume, Esq.

Dear Mr Hume,

I write regarding your recently submitted MS “A Treatise of Human Nature: Being An Attempt To Introduce The Experimental Method of Reasoning Into Moral Subjects”. I regret to inform you that after receiving reviewer reports, we will not be proceeding with publication.

Thank you for considering the Review of Philosophy. I hope this does not deter you from publishing with us in future.

Referee 3

The author proposes to advance a ‘science of man’ based on ‘experience and observation’, claiming in his introduction to march up to, and even conquer, the ‘central fortress’: ‘human nature itself’. Perhaps predictably given such bold claims, the pudding lacks proof in the eating. This MS promises much, but achieves little.

Problems start in the introduction. The account of Bacon’s scientific method is a caricature, whilst the claim that human understanding can be experimentally verified in the mode of the sciences is simply assertion without fact. Moreover, the author claims a hotchpotch of recent authors – Shaftesbury, Locke, Mandeville, Butler, Hutcheson – as having put this so-called ‘science of man’ on a ‘new footing’. Yet these writers share no common method, let alone the author’s, and would all be scandalised to be put on a par with the notorious Dr. Mandeville.

Regarding the main body of the work, there are three separate projects presented here, unconvincingly run together as one unified ‘scientific’ argument. The main problems stem from the author’s idiosyncratic account of causation. The author seems to believe that causation depends not upon the facts of the physical world, but upon his own imagination. (Hardly very scientific…) This peculiar doctrine that there is no such thing as causation appears to be presupposed by the author in all his subsequent reasonings, and yet is clearly undermined by those very reasonings. The author admits that human actions have consequences and we attach moral judgements to these – is this not to re-admit causation in its most blatant form? One despairs of such self-defeating arguments. Much the same could be said of the author’s self-refuting attack upon reason, one clearly dependent upon the faculty he wishes to call into question.

The middle part of the MS is perhaps the most doggedly earnest, but by turns equally unsatisfying. The author appears to subscribe to some sort of Epicurean framework of psychology, whereby we are propelled from pains and drawn to pleasures. Pride and humility get particularly extended treatment, though I frequently failed to see the relevance of the discussion. The author goes so far as to state that entering into the debate ‘that has so much excited the curiosity of the public’ is wide of his present purposes. This seems on the one hand clearly false, and on the other frustrating: why not tell us something relevant to frontline research, rather than offering long digressions into psychological speculations that cannot be proven? As for the author’s innovation of the concept of ‘sympathy’, I fail to see how this improves upon Professor Butler’s recent work on non-egoist motivation and our correlate reasons for action.

The third part of the MS seeks to discuss moral and political questions. Altogether far too much is attempted. The best parts here relate to the claim that reason cannot motive us to moral action. Alas, these arguments border on plagiarism: they have clearly already been advanced by Mr Hutcheson in his Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections. The rest of the argument asserts that moral distinctions are a function of taste, and that politics is nothing more than a product of human opinion. What results is not a theory of morality, or a theory of politics, but a sociology of human conduct with a recommendation for good breeding. There is ultimately no normative pay-out here, so I do not see how it can be considered a contribution. (As for the claim that justice is an ‘artificial’ virtue, this is simply Hobbes’s political theory newly clothed – and false for the same well-known reasons.)

I can therefore recommend only rejection. In future, the author might help him or herself by writing in a less inaccessible manner. Shorter sentences couched in the format of easily digestible essays for a non-specialst audience might be a better vehicle for those ideas here that are worth salvaging.

Decision Concerning MS “De Motu”// Author: Bishop Berkeley

Dear Bishop Berkeley,

First I would like to thank you for your submission of the manuscript of your De Motu. I am afraid to say that we have limited space and so, given the referee report which I have attached below, we will not be able to move forward with publication at this time.

Yours,

The Editor

***

Referee Report

The author’s manuscript purports to overturn what all right-thinking men accept to be the foundations of modern natural philosophy. It is thus not surprising that his attempt falls flat. First off, we should deal with his assertion that terms such as ‘force’ and ‘gravity’ as used by contemporary natural philosophers are in some way ‘occult’. The author has simply misunderstood modern natural philosophy. Gravity and force are not, as the author asserts, ‘abstract’ ideas at all. As we have known since Galileo, if a body is dropped from a height it will accelerate at a constant rate. This very concrete phenomenon is what we modern natural scientists call ‘gravity’. Gravity is not an abstract idea, but rather a part of God-given nature. If the author would care to consider this once again, I am sure he will see that he is in error, and has simply misunderstood the issues at play.

The author goes on to make bizarre assertions to the effect that motion is not contained in bodies themselves, but rather in the minds observing them. Does the author seek to deny the existence of reality itself? Yet it is reality that we natural philosophers deal with. It seems the author wishes to sow the seeds of scepticism and doubt in the minds of men. He should not be given the opportunity to do so in a journal for right-thinking people. Likewise, the author’s assertions that ideas of absolute space have no content seem – to this reader at least – to be more of an attempt to spread doubt and dissent, rather than to engage constructively with modern natural philosophy.

This reader was particularly disturbed by the author’s insistence that motion should not be considered independently, and should rather be thought of in relation to time and space. Newton was quite clear that motion need only be considered in terms of infinitesmals, and in thus doing so should be taken alone as our object of study. Progress in natural philosophy will continue in this direction, regardless of whether the author tries to confuse gullible men with his ideas of relative motion, time, and space. Future generations will look back on the work of modern natural philosophy, and agree that Sir Newton’s accomplishment was revealing the God-given final truths of the physical universe. Proceeding from the notion that time, motion and space are relative? One is astounded by the lack of modernism the author is prepared to countenance in his inability to understand natural philosophy.

This referee advises that the author’s manuscript not be published.

This is a guest post by Philip Pilkington

Decision Concerning Application to the University of Oxford

Dear Mr. Ayer,

Thank you for attending interviews earlier this month. I am writing now to let you know that after careful consideration it has not been possible to offer you a place at Christ Church College to read Classics, and hereby inform you that your application is no longer under consideration by any of the other colleges at Oxford.

It is not our practice to provide detailed feedback to applicants. However, your application was unusual in a number of respects, and in this instance the admissions tutors and I have decided to provide you with full justification for their choice in anticipation of a disturbingly well articulated and precocious letter appealing the decision.

Despite your politically undesirable privileged upbringing, the tutors were initially impressed by the penetrative nature of your written work, interview answers, and womanising of the Master’s wife. However, the admissions tutors were both surprised and offended to hear you challenge the analytical strength of their assessment methods. This was clearly inappropriate behaviour.

Your attempt to offer a more rigorous standard by which we might verify the strength of interview candidates has confused several members of the philosophy and divinity faculties, who, dumbfounded, are presently trying to avoid elimination. You may wish to know that the university is actually considering implementing your new testing methods for next year’s candidates. If this goes ahead, this will be the first time that Oxford has had clearly defined entry criteria, and for this many of your contemporaries will thank you.

However, I have determined that in light of your own assessment methods, your prima facie excellent written work does not even come close to meeting the criteria required for entry; its assertions were rendered neither probable through experimental research nor conceptually sound by some tweed-clad don in an antique armchair. It is based on this conceptual inconsistency that the college have decided categorically to reject your application.

I do realise how disappointing this will be, though I am not particularly sorry not to have better news about your application here. Furthermore, I will not patronisingly remind you that competition for places at Oxford is extremely strong. I should nevertheless point out that you may not invoke a conception of justice or morality in forming an argument for appealing our decision. Such ideas are now considered literally meaningless by the admissions office.

I hope, however, that you will be comforted over Christmas by the fact that any disappointment you may feel is nothing more than mere emotion. You should not, therefore, spend time in trying to reason through or come to terms with our decision since this exercise would inevitably be devoid of analytically verifiable content.

If there is a discrepancy between the decision detailed here and that detailed by UCAS, please do not inform us, since the existence of UCAS in the early Twentieth Century is highly improbable, though not logically impossible. I wish you a logically positive non-religious holiday.

 

Yours sincerely,

 

Tutor for Admissions

 

Christ Church College, Oxford.

 

Post submitted by Edmund

Decision Concerning MS “Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livy”// Author: Signor N. Machiavelli

Dear Signor Niccolò Machiavelli,

Thank you for submitting to the Journal of Civic Humanist and Republican Studies. Your MS has now received readers’ reports, and an editorial decision has been made. I regret to inform you that we will not be considering publication. Below I append referee comments for your information. I hope this does not deter you from seeking publication with the Journal in future.

Sincerely,
The Editor

[…]

Referee 3:

The MS proposes to investigate the conditions of a successful republic in the context of Italian city-state independence, offering analyses of the notion of liberty, the composition of government, and  strategies for achieving success domestically and internationally.

As well as being over-ambitious in what it can hope to achieve, the MS suffers from several debilitating problems. Although ostensibly a commentary on the first ten books of Livy’s Ab urbe condita, one quickly realises that the substance of the text is anything but. Rather than a work of history, it is clearly political theory in disguise. But political theory according to who? A roman influence is manifest. But is it Tacitus or Seneca the author takes his lead from? And then there is the question of Aristotle, whom one feels should feature but appears conspicuous by his absence – though, again, it is hard to tell. In sum, too much confusion is generated by the format.

I was perplexed by the author’s concept of liberty. We are told that citizens can only be free if they both rule themselves internally and are free from external domination. The author seems to think that this constitutes a distinctive position. But would even the most minimalist defender of negative freedom disagree? Where is the interesting, substantial point of difference? Surely it is conceptually downstream, at more refined levels of analysis the MS does not explore.

Similarly what is the instrumental value the author attaches to liberty? Is it valuable only for its own sake, or is it that free states are in the best position to conquer their neighbours, and will hence survive the longest? It is unclear whether this is a manifesto for civic freedom or a handbook for imperial conquest. The lengthy and tiresome digressions into military tactics do not help on either score.

Finally, the author is imprecise and careless with key terms. “Virtù” and “Fortuna” are frequently invoked, but we are never provided with a clear definition. The former in particular appears strikingly distinct from any received notion of virtue – but we are left guessing as to why exactly this is so. Similarly, empirical claims are made with too much sweep and lack of care. Is it really true that all republics are either conquering or defensive? What about those that trade? Even if the claim is granted, does it necessarily follow that because (another un-argued assertion) all republics eventually become corrupted and fall, the best way to delay the inevitable is to engage in martial conquest? Our author dislikes the republic of Venice. Small wonder: it seems a manifest counter-example to his basic views. Dismissing it with slander is not an argument, nor is it enough.

If the author wishes to improve, I suggest reworking these ideas in a clearer, well-established idiom. Why not a ‘mirror for princes’ work? Given the present state of Florentine politics, that would certainly have more relevance and interest to the Journal’s readership than the present effort.

[…]

Decision Concerning MS “A Theory of Justice”// Author: Dr. J. Rawls

Dear Dr. Rawls,

Thank you for your MS “A Theory of Justice”, submitted to Philosophy of Politics Review on 07/02/71.

It contained some lively ideas and interpretations, although at times the dryness of the prose took away in enthusiasm what it may have granted in clarity. I read it with some interest, though I’m afraid to say I found myself dissatisfied.

Your insistence on the separateness of persons assumes, without sufficient warrant, too Kantian a basis. The majority of Utilitarian theorists working in the field will be unmoved by this premise. As for your attempt to revive social contract theory via a model of hypothetical agreement, I cannot see this gaining any traction with other researchers: to turn a phrase, a hypothetical contract isn’t worth the paper it’s not written on. Finally, there is a distinct lack of engagement with relevant scholarship in the field. As far as I can see you do not refer to the work of a single living author in the main body of the text, whilst your footnote references to Sidgwick’s The Methods of Ethics are excessive and disproportionate vis-à-vis contemporary output. Surely something published within the last 5 or 10 years is worthy of direct consideration?

I therefore regret to inform you that the Journal will not be proceeding with publication. I hope this does not deter you from considering us as forum for your research in future.

Sincerely,

The Editor.

Decision Concerning MS “The World as Will and Representation”// Author: Dr A. Schopenhauer

Dear Dr. Schopenhauer,

Thank you for your submission “The World as Will and Representation” to Idealism Studies. It is a lively and interesting piece, displaying an impressive breadth of learning and a commendable willingness to engage with non-Western approaches. However, I regret to inform you that I have decided not to proceed with publication.

Although I applaud your attempt to go further than Kant in attempting to say something more concrete about “the thing in itself”, I was unconvinced by your solution to the problem of the unknowability of the noumenal. You claim that everything is in fact a striving, undifferentiated “Will” that desires to be manifested in the phenomenal, and is brought into differentiated being by our perceiving it. Yet by your own criteria this solution must fall back upon some notion of causation: the Will causes us to look at things, thus bringing those things into existence. But causation is necessarily something which pertains only to the differentiated phenomenal. The world may well be Representation, but I do not see that it is Will. Have you really surpassed Kant by sneaking into his transcendental fortress via a secret tunnel, as you claim? I think not.

Revealingly, your attempted solution leads to glaring absurdities. Flowers, we are told, are beautiful because they desire to be brought into existence by having us look at them. How then do you explain dog excrement, cockroaches, and the French? Similarly, you say that paintings must evoke calm, for beauty is the temporary silencing of the eternal striving of the Will. Accordingly, paintings of food must be prohibited insofar as they arouse desire and appetite – with the exception of fruit, because fruits are flowers and thus beautiful. Yet surely an apple is as appetising to a hungry man as a potato? And wouldn’t the appropriate solution to this predicament be to stipulate that one must only look at paintings after dinner? (More complex issues, admittedly, are raised by the depiction of classical nudes.)

On a less formal note, I feel I ought to offer, as a relatively senior scholar to an able (but it seems to me) misguided junior academic, some words of advice. There is more to life than philosophy. But ironically, by sampling life’s wider delights one may find one ultimately does better philosophy. I understand it is your habit to live permanently in hotel rooms, dining always alone in restaurants. Might I suggest getting out and about a bit, perhaps finding a place of your own? Enjoy the company of your peers; delight in music as a gregarious experience! You may find that life isn’t all that bad: that the striving Will can be calmed. And try and meet some women (but please, not the sort who charge; carrying on down that route will lead you only to the infirmary). You never know, they might turn out not to be quite as bad as you think.

Regards,

The Editor