Geoffrey Hawthorn

Geoffrey Hawthorn is the author of Thucydides on Politics, among other books.

He​ ‘understands what you’re going to say better than you understand it yourself’, Gilbert Ryle said of the young Bernard Williams, ‘and sees all the possible objections to it, all the possible answers to all the possible objections, before you’ve got to the end of your sentence’. Williams’s declared enemies in philosophy –...

Plan it mañana: Albert O. Hirschman

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 11 September 2014

In June 1940​ a French lieutenant issued false passes. ‘Sauve qui peut,’ he said. ‘Il faut se débrouiller.’ Get out of this as best you can. Albert Hirschman would say that he’d been a débrouillard all his life. He’d left Berlin in 1933, sought an education in Paris and London, fought in Spain, worked in Trieste, fled back to France, enlisted,...

This is a book review: John Searle

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 20 January 2011

It’s striking nowadays to hear a philosopher say that ‘we want a unified account of our knowledge’; even more striking to hear him say ‘I think we can get it’; very striking indeed to hear this from a philosopher of language. That wouldn’t always have been so. A hundred years or so ago, there was great enthusiasm for looking closely at the structure of...

Anti-Magician: Max Weber

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 27 August 2009

More than most, Max Weber’s reputation reflects the aspirations of others. His wife, Marianne, did much to establish it in Germany, rapidly turning his articles and drafts into books and writing a biography. Liberal émigrés were what one of his American editors, Günther Roth, describes as its shock troops in the English-speaking world. Marianne’s biography...

Things Keep Happening: Histories of Histories

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 20 November 2008

A story, as John Burrow says of his own History of Histories, is selective. It looks forward ‘to its later episodes or its eventual outcome for its criteria of relevance’. Hence a difficulty:

The impulse to write history has nourished much effective narrative, and narrative – above all in Homer – was one of the sources of history as a genre. It would be a strange...

Baseball’s Loss: The Unstoppable Hugo Chávez

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 1 November 2007

In Venezuela at the end of June, Evo Morales, Hugo Chávez and Diego Maradona, three heroes of the people in Latin America, kicked off the Copa América. Morales, pleased with his dribbling, kept possession for rather longer than might have been thought polite. When he passed, Chávez, instinctive politician that he is, at once flicked the ball on to the feet of the Hand of God. (He originally wanted to be a baseball player. Football is not his game.) What was important was that his largesse had secured the Copa for his country, thereby strengthening his popular appeal at home, enhancing his determination to be a presence in Latin America, and allowing him to cast a mote, as he likes to do, in the eye of the United States.

From The Blog
6 March 2013

‘Por ahora,’ Hugo Chávez remarked on television after the failure of his coup in 1992. He would be gone ‘for the time being’. Within hours of his death yesterday, the tweet on the streets was ‘Chávez hasta siempre,’ Chávez for ever. Now that he’s really gone, will he stay? Few in Venezuela are likely to be saying ‘yes and no’. Unlike God in a place whose Catholicism is gaily pagan, an ebullient syncretism, carelessly superstitious and remarkably undark, at its best in street festivals, Chávez has not been an equivocal presence. Those whom the white upper classes used rudely to refer to as ‘los niches’, the brown, uneducated and poor, have unequivocally revered him. And the white upper classes have unequivocally not. Yet though Chávez was a perfect devil for the one, he was no true god, cultivating distance and lack of substance, for the other. He loved being out there, on the streets, often having slept overnight in a vehicle, popping up in front of a TV camera somewhere in the country on a Sunday afternoon, talking equably to whomever, going on for hours, inventing policies as he did so, and engaging his formidable charisma eye to eye rather than parading it from afar. Unlike Simón Bolívar, whom he did himself deify, his presence was all, as his absence in recent months was beginning to make clear.

From The Blog
22 July 2011

The problem is plain. If new loans to Greece are arranged, even at lower rates of interest, its debt will rise. If its existing loans are rolled over or sold, the rating agencies may declare default and jittery banks and other investors will expect more interest on new lending. But the solution this week is likely to involve a degree of both, in the hope that the compromise will not be too unpalatable to too many. The alternatives – for Greece to default completely and leave the Eurozone or for the zone to announce that it will move to a common fiscal and spending policy – are next to unimaginable.

From The Blog
29 June 2011

The figures are impressive. In December 2009, a poll of 217 drivers in Formula One, past and present, voted Ayrton Senna the best of all time. Three-quarters of more than 12,000 readers of Autosport agreed. Senna held records long after he was killed on the Imola circuit in 1994 and no one has yet matched his six wins at Monte Carlo, arguably the trickiest track of all. He devoted a good part of his $400 million fortune to a children’s charity in Brazil, the crowd at his funeral in São Paulo was the largest ever in the city, and on the sort of count that the medieval Church used to keep of shrines, it is said that his grave is visited by more people than those of John Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley combined. ‘Nothing,’ his headstone says, ‘can separate me from the love of God.’ And he was pretty. If ever there was a subject for film.

Hayek and His Overcoat

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 1 October 1998

There was an occasion on which the ruler of Balkh, in Central Asia, went to make war. Nomads, taking advantage of his absence, seized the city. The inhabitants put up a good fight, for themselves and their ruler, but lost. The ruler returned, despatched the invaders, and upbraided his subjects. War, he told them, was his business: theirs was to pay and obey. Their leaders promised not to repeat their lèse-majesté.

Top of the Class

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 8 May 1997

No theorist of what only a theorist would dare to call ‘modern society’ commands more attention in the anglophone world; no one is closer to the centre of the local ‘field of power’, as he would describe it, that is Parisian intellectual life. Pierre Bourdieu’s first book, his 1958 ethnography of the Kabyle of Algeria, was, it’s true, social anthropology done in the British manner: it talked of the social functions of ‘solidarity’. But even as he finished it, Bourdieu was being drawn to the very different theory of ‘practical ensembles’ that Sartre was directing against the orthodox Marxism-Leninism of the French Communist Party. His essays on Algeria in the early Sixties talked of a ‘solidarity’ fashioned in more adversarial circumstances. At the same time, Louis Althusser was trying to revive the Party’s materialism with his notion of the ‘ideological state apparatuses’ that did capitalism’s work with powers that were distinctively their own. Bourdieu was drawn by this, too. In 1972, he recast his thoughts on the Kabyle in a discernibly Althusserian Esquisse d’une théorie de la pratique. Five years later, in a revised English edition of that book, he settled on the view of what shapes social practices that has since guided his writings on class, education, post-Romantic art and the theory and practice of sociology itself.

Fifteen thousand candidates contested 545 seats in the Indian lower house, the Lok Sabha, in the May General Election. Four hundred million of the 590 million who were eligible to do so voted. It was the largest election in history. Yet it might have seemed odd. The Congress Government has been introducing far-reaching reforms. But the economy was not discussed. India has more than a third of the world’s poor. But poverty was not an issue. Congress’s secularism has been challenged by ‘Hindu fundamentalists’. But the Bharatiya Janata, the Party that’s been mounting the challenge, scarcely mentioned religion. The quarrels were more political than religious, and even where candidates from Congress itself were concerned, largely local and particular.

Diary: Watch the birdy!

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 2 November 1995

One of the more unusual companies in the British register has done what it set out to do. ‘Buntings and New World warblers’, the ninth and last and, at fewer than five hundred pages, much the shortest of its volumes of Birds of the Western Palaearctic, is out. Some wonder whether Western Palaearctic Birds Ltd might not have overdone it. Birding World, the magazine for the seriously obsessed, had already asked in 1992, when Volume VI was published, what anyone could do with the information that the Marsh Warbler–admittedly difficult to distinguish by sight alone–has been heard to go tchre(k), tek, tic, tchick, thec, tchuk and tuk, chrah, chah, chaar, tschaah, kärr-kärr and schräää schräää, tic-trrrr, tic-tirric, tec-krrret, trt schräit and tschätsch-tschätsch, tut t-t-t-trrrrr and tut-ut tut t-t-t-rrr. (And that’s not counting those in the separate section on ‘other calls’.) Who might want to know such things, and why?’

Hyenas, Institutions and God

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 20 July 1995

John Searle is in a café in Paris. The waiter arrives. ‘Un demi,’ Searle asks, ‘Munich, à pression, s’il vous plaît.’ The waiter brings the beer. Searle drinks it, puts a few francs on the table, and leaves. ‘An innocent scene’, he agrees, ‘but its metaphysical complexity is truly staggering, and its complexity would have taken Kant’s breath away if he had ever bothered to think about such things.’ Kant didn’t think about such things because, at the time, philosophers were obsessed with knowledge. ‘Much later,’ Searle observes, ‘for a brief, glorious moment, they were obsessed with language. Now this philosopher at least is obsessed with certain general structures of human culture.’

Diary: Tribute to Ayrton Senna

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 9 June 1994

Skill had been killing Formula One. In the early Nineties, Frank Williams and Renault had together been producing cars that were superior to the rest. The superior drivers wanted to be in them. Williams made more money, and their cars got better. The result was increasingly predictable processions round the circuits. Nigel Mansell won the championship in a Williams-Renault in 1992, Alain Prost in 1993. The interest in the past thirty races or more had been reduced to seeing whether McLaren or Ferrari or Benetton could change their tyres more quickly, and how many of those jostling in inferior vehicles at the back hit each other, ran off or broke down. The television audiences, which had risen to extraordinary heights by the mid-Eighties, were falling. Bernie Ecclestone, vice-president of the controlling Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, was said to be determined to stem the loss of income. Last year, Max Mosley, the FIA’s president, announced some changes. Williams’s advantages, which only one or two other teams could afford to emulate, would go. There was to be no more electronically controlled suspension to keep the cars level over bumpy tracks, no more traction control to stop their wheels spinning at the start or in the wet, no more automatic boosts to the throttle during gear changes, no more anti-lock brakes, and no more telemetry to allow technicians to adjust running cars from the pit. The top teams were furious. The rest were delighted. Competition, it seemed, might return to the track.

Capitalism without Capital

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 26 May 1994

Even at the end of his new book, it’s not clear where Edward Luttwak is coming from, as they say in his country. He leaves no doubt, however, about where he dreads coming to. Instead of being smoothed through ‘the spotless elegance of Narita or Frankfurt or Amsterdam or Singapore’, the hapless international traveller who comes into New York’s Kennedy Airport will walk into one of the tatty terminals that near-bankrupt airlines no longer maintain, mildly surprised at the naked plywood and unfinished gypsum board. He will stand in line for an hour or two at passport control, perhaps more if several planes have arrived, as everyone knows they will, together. Already unhappy at his luggage having been thrown off the belt by angry handlers, he’ll have to present it to an unhelpful customs official. And if he’s not transferring to an internal flight, in which case he’ll have to suffer clerks tapping in his connection with one finger, more angry ground staff, and another broken walkway, he’ll emerge to be bounced over potholes, past decayed public housing and corners piled high with garbage, until his smoking bus or audibly unsafe taxi, ‘usually driven by an unkempt, loutish driver who resembles his counterparts in Kinshasa or Islamabad rather than London or Tokyo, where licensing requirements are strict and dress codes enforced’, drops him in front of the beggars outside his Manhattan hotel. Safe at last in the lobby, he will pause before choosing one of the tours that now offers a drive past the drug dealers on the streets of the South Bronx.

Listen to the women

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 21 October 1993

The project of ‘developing’ the South, the countries of Latin America and the poorer former colonies of Asia and Africa, dates, as a deliberate project, from the Forties and early Fifties. It showed its origins. Economically, development meant industry. Adam Smith and Marx, it was assumed, were right. Output could most effectively be raised by moving as quickly as possible to capital-intensive mass production. David Hume’s alternative, to think in terms of a ‘product cycle’, of simple agriculture at one end and advanced manufacture at the other, and to position oneself at the point at which one could make the most of one’s endowments and of trade with other countries, was all but forgotten. Politically, development meant a directive state. The countries of the North had themselves recovered from depression and mobilised for war by bringing their economies under direct political control. There seemed no good reason, after that war, to suppose that for its development the South should not do the same. Politicians in the South concurred. They wanted to catch up, and were happy to have strong powers to do so.

False Alarm

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 13 May 1993

In The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, which touched the anxieties of conservatives as well as liberals at the end of Reagan’s expensive two terms in the White House, Paul Kennedy suggested that like other great powers before it, the United States was dissipating the resources that had made it great. It was in ‘imperial overstretch’. And its political system, like that of Britain earlier in the century, would make the decline more difficult to stop. But Rise and Fall, a critic said to Kennedy at the Brookings Institution in Washington in 1988, was too conventional a book. It mistakenly supposed that the problems we faced were the problems of states, and that the solution to them, if solutions there were, were political.


Geoffrey Hawthorn, 3 December 1992

For the past thirty years, New Left Review has been the most consistently interesting political journal in the country. And Perry Anderson, who used to edit it and still helps direct it, has been its consistently most interesting contributor. Like those who wrote for the two papers it replaced, the Communist New Reasoner and, later, Universities and Left Review, the contributors to New Left Review were provoked by the condition of what Tom Nairn called Ukania. But they distanced themselves from the old Ukanian Left. The country’s economy, they said, was in chronic decline, its politics were a comprehensive disaster, its society was stalled in defensive resentment, and there was no redemption to be had from what Anderson then saw as ‘the ferruginous philistinism and parochialism’ of its ‘long national tradition’. Sentimentally, he now recalls, they offended patriots (E.P. Thompson especially). ‘Intellectually, they disturbed canonical Marxist opinion, as transmitted from Capital. Politically, they nettled the Labourism of reformists and the ouvriérisme of revolutionaries.’


Geoffrey Hawthorn, 28 May 1992

Ben Macintyre had a question that few of us have had to face. How do you start a conversation with a lost tribe of Aryans? Having sweated and bumped his way into northern Paraguay, just beyond the confluence of the Aguaraya-umi and Aguaraya-guazu, Macintyre had at last arrived at a small valley, on the far ridge of which were some shacks. ‘That,’ said the man who’d brought him on horseback from the river boat, ‘is Nueva Germania.’ Macintyre had come to look for descendants of the Saxons whom Elisabeth Nietzsche and her husband had brought there in the 1880s. He put ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ into his Walkman – ‘to get myself in the mood’ – turned up the volume, took some food, and waited for an authentic German to show up. Soon one did, dismounted from his stallion, and introduced himself as Dr Schubert. It was time for the question. ‘What,’ Macintyre asked him, ‘are you doing here?’’

Schumpeter the Superior

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 27 February 1992

The greatest horseman in Vienna, the greatest lover in Austria, the greatest economist in the world. This, Joseph Schumpeter used to say, is what he’d set out to be. In one of them, he added, he’d failed. But he never said which. A horse, almost certainly, had let him down. He had a slightly lopsided walk, the result, it was said, of a fall. About women, there is less doubt.

Bitten by the love geist

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 30 January 1992

Max Scheler had a great deal to say. He would start philosophising, his last wife said, as he dressed. The public lectures which the Chancellor invited him to give in Berlin in 1927 often went on for four hours at a time. The question is whether this garrulous, romantic, reactionary Bildungsbürger who, like most of the Weimar mandarins, despaired at what he saw as the triumph of practicality over value – the victory of civilisation, as Spengler had famously put it, over culture – has anything to say to us. Francis Dunlop and, one assumes, his publishers, Roger Scruton and Jessica Douglas-Home, have no doubts. Scheler, Dunlop suggests, was addressing ‘a political situation not unlike our own … a breakdown of the old order, loss of the sense of community, triumph of material values, depersonalisation, anarchy in the spheres of education, culture and thought. He was, like us, especially aware of the loss of authority in modern society.’’

Poor George

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 7 March 1991

On 3 April 1986, at his filling-station in north Dallas, Billy Jack Mason was protesting about the fall in the price of oil. Cars came from as far as Waco, and by breakfast, the queue was six miles long. He was offering unleaded at zero cents a gallon. Reporters sought Billy’s opinion on the future. ‘That’s overseas. Nothing we can do about that till the Arabs get the price right.’ In less than six months the price of West Texas Intermediate, the standard for the futures market that had started three years before on the New York Exchange, had fallen by three-quarters. In the Seventies, American officials had gone to the Middle East to persuade the Arabs and the Iranians to get the price down. Now, Vice-President Bush – on a visit to support ‘moderate’ Arab states during the Iran-Iraq war – was asking them to get it back up again. American producers, not least in Texas, where Bush himself had founded an oil company, Zapata, in the Fifties, were suffering. The White House disavowed the Vice-President’s conversations in the Middle East. ‘Poor George,’ an aide observed to a journalist. The Reagan Administration’s solution was to let the market decide.

Top Dog

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 6 December 1990

An officer in MacArthur’s new administration walked into the Mitsui office in Tokyo in September 1945. ‘There it is,’ a manager said, pointing to a map of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere – Japan’s prewar plan for the region. ‘We tried. See what you can do with it.’ The Americans hesitated. Washington was at that moment more inclined to retribution than recovery. And the power of zaibatsu like Mitsui, huge family-owned conglomerates which had invested in Japan and its imperial territories in North-East Asia, produced matériel for the war, and come to control much of the country’s heavy industry and financial business, was incompatible with the ‘economic democracy’ the American administration wished to introduce. It started to dismantle them.’

Someone else’s shoes

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 23 November 1989

As Brian Barry suggests, the question of justice arises when custom loses its grip; when the prevailing social myth and what Stuart Hampshire calls its ‘fallacy of false fixity’ – that relations cannot be other than they are – is exposed. This is not to say that new fixed entities are never then proposed to replace the myth. Plato’s divisions of the soul and their reflection in the state, the liberals’ titles rooted in first possession, the Marxists’ resolution of real contradictions, and Moore’s directly intuited Good are only four of the more notorious past instances. But even if we were to regard suggestions of this sort and the arguments to support them as more than an intellectually elaborate way of ‘thumping on the table’, which Barry does not, they would, as he says, still leave us with the old puzzle of ‘how moral judgments can provide us with reasons for acting if they consist of reports about the existence of a peculiar set of objects’. They would leave us with ‘no sufficient place’, as Hampshire puts it, ‘for the distinction between theoretical reason and practical reason, between thinking about actualities and thinking about possibilities’. They are suggestions of a kind for which neither writer, quite rightly, has time.’

Informals of the world unite

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 9 November 1989

For an economic tract, Hernando de Soto’s book has had a remarkable success. It was first published in Lima, its subject, in 1986, but at once became a best-seller throughout Latin America. It is said to have been read with interest in China and the Soviet Union, and this summer de Soto was invited to Washington to discuss it with the American Treasury Secretary. De Soto says he was prompted to write it by Mario Vargas Llosa, who himself introduces it and has in effect made it his manifesto for the Presidential election in Peru next year.

Staying in power

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 7 January 1988

In November, Norman Tebbit spoke to the Financial Times of a ‘long revolution’, lasting perhaps twenty years. Nevertheless, he said, ‘when you’ve run through health and education, and had another hard look at the structure of welfare benefits, then it’s difficult to see where the revolution could go on from there.’ Indeed, the Conservatives could then perhaps ‘go back to being the party of saying everything is going reasonably well.’ Some of his colleagues are already saying it. Looking almost smooth – the Prime Minister, Peter Jenkins reports, has had occasion to tell him to ‘get a haircut’ – Nigel Lawson reassured his audience at the Mansion House in the autumn that revenues were high and the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement could soon be reduced to about a billion a year. Ten billion, he announced, can now be put aside for future ‘contingencies’.’

The Wrong Way Round

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 17 September 1987

‘The 20th century,’ Charles Sabel remarks in his essay in the collection in honour of Albert Hirschman, ‘has been a gigantic lesson in the transformability of theories, political programmes and institutions through their recombination in new contexts.’ It is a revealing remark. For although most of what now goes on in the ‘advanced’ societies – in what since the Bandung Conference of 1955 have sometimes been thought of as the First and Second Worlds – has indeed turned out to be very different from what was once expected; and although there is now also an even more varied Third World; that’s to say, although almost everything, event and context, has confounded expectation and will no doubt continue to do so – nevertheless the theories we have with which to understand, expect and direct it all are increasingly antique.’

Diary: Two Koreas

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 20 November 1986

The guidebooks still call Korea ‘the land of the morning calm’. I’d not expected that. I knew that, once, the country had been calm – and archaic, involuted and corrupt – and had been easy prey to Japan in 1910. But the Japanese had imposed their language, expropriated landlords, set up industries, and, with an efficiency and determination unmatched by any of the other colonial powers, given the place their own 20th-century shape. I knew that after they’d gone, the inattention of the USA and the USSR and the UN’s weakness had together allowed an invasion from the Communist North which had since divided the country. I knew that the Americans had subsequently made the South – the Republic of Korea, ‘the Rock’ – a front-line state. And I knew that in part for that reason, it had since been subject to tight and occasionally violent regimes which in the name of ‘freedom’ – but, in fact, on a Japanese model it couldn’t acknowledge and by means that would be the envy of many a Western socialist – had generated an economic growth unrivalled anywhere outside Japan itself. I’d also just been convinced by R.W. Johnson’s account of the downing of the Korean 747 in 1983. I’d not expected calm.’

Sociology in Cambridge

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 6 November 1986

Cambridge has re-appointed to its chair of sociology. The chair is still not established, and will have to be argued for again when it’s vacated. The argument for filling it at least once more was conservative: there has been a professor since 1970, there was a department of social and political sciences and a degree which included the subject, and these had to have a head. The consequence of filling it is conservative too. It is a determination to try to establish sociology by separating it still further from the subjects that are close to it. But this curricular victory will be intellectually empty. Sociologists have certainly abandoned the pretension to a scientific ethic which long made them so suspicious to others. Having done so, it is not clear that, left to themselves, they have left themselves much to say.

What’s wrong with the SDP?

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 21 November 1985

Those who voted for the Alliance at the last election tended to be as hostile as Tories to nationalisation. They were nearly as fierce about the Unions too. But they were well disposed to redistribution, as keen on creating jobs as those who’d voted Labour, and on several of the ‘moral’ issues markedly more liberal. Who are they? Tories had the vote of two-thirds of the managers in private concerns; Labour of two-thirds of the workers in public ones; the Alliance, of nearly half of all graduates. They are, in Julian Critchley’s description, ‘the examination-passing classes’. Decent people.

Hegel’s Odyssey

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 3 October 1985

Ottilie von Goethe recalled a lunch in Weimar in October 1827. Her father-in-law, as usual, had not bothered with the introductions.


Geoffrey Hawthorn, 15 November 1984

As yet, the Social Democrats have no historian. There have been a few breathless attempts to recall the more obvious events. Roy Jenkins’s memorable (and memorably pronounced) announcement in his Dimbleby Lecture of a runway ready for a take-off, the page of signatures in the Guardian, the Lime-house Declaration, and the constitutional convention in Kensington. There have been pieces – not least in this paper – which sketch the start of a political explanation – invoking the Parliamentary Labour Party’s inability to control the unions after 1960, the failure of the Campaign for Democratic Socialism in the 1970s, and the successes of the very differently-inclined Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, and the outcome of these and other changes in the new electoral college in 1981. There is the frequently flaunted economic fact that there is no future in Anthony Crosland’s sort of socialism because there is no firm future for the growth which – although less unequivocally than subsequent commentators have assumed – Crosland supposed adequate public spending to require. There have even been a few sociological reflections: Gareth Stedman Jones’s, for instance, which fix on the reforming middle class’s long and slow but now perhaps terminal loss of faith in the working class in whose name the reforms were to be made. But there has been, as yet, no connected account.’

What would socialism be like?

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 1 March 1984

Joseph Schumpeter had a refreshing sense of socialism. For him, it had almost no fixed sense at all. ‘A society may be fully and truly socialist and yet be led by an absolute ruler or be organised in the most democratic of all possible ways; it may be aristocratic or proletarian; it may be a theocracy and hierarchic or atheist and indifferent to religion; it may be much more strictly disciplined than men are in a modern army or completely lacking in discipline; it may be ascetic or eudemonist in spirit; energetic or slack; thinking only of the future or the day; warlike and nationalist or peaceful and internationalist; equalitarian or the opposite; it may have the ethics of lords or the ethics of slaves; its art may be subjective or objective; its forms of life individualistic or standardised.’ Of course, Schumpeter conceded, most who call themselves ‘socialist’ are in fact committed to one of these things rather than another, to peace rather than war, or to irreligion rather than religion. But if we wish to argue about which if any of these things are necessarily socialist, ‘we had better yield the floor to the only truly great performer in that field, Plato.’

Lord Vaizey sees the light

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 20 October 1983

Vaizey has no doubt at all. ‘They were the best.’ Hugh Gaitskell, Iain Macleod, Richard Titmuss, Anthony Crosland and Edward Boyle. They were all ‘clever, honest, admirable and honourable’. They were all, except Boyle, who was at school at the time, affected by the slump. They were all excited by the political changes and administrative advances of the war. Four of them entered the Commons soon after. They were all convinced that with Keynes, Beveridge, most of Whitehall, Transport House and even Smith Square behind them, they could do something towards a more decent society. They did not, of course, all always agree. ‘Crap merchant,’ said Crosland to Titmuss at Vaizey’s own wedding. But they were all radicals, and they were all, in Vaizey’s view, wrong. They ‘lacked the power to rethink fundamentally’. That would have required them, ‘perhaps’, ‘to approach questions from the right and not’, as they all did, ‘from the left’.

The Moral Life of Barbarians

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 18 August 1983

Spain was in doubt about its new dominion in the Antilles. In 1493, the Pope Alexander VI had granted Ferdinand and Isabel the right to conquer and also to enslave the inhabitants of the islands. But only two years later, Isabel was intervening to stop the sale of some that Columbus had sent back to Seville. It was not that she or anyone else objected to slavery itself. There was no moral problem, for instance, about buying Africans from the Portuguese. It was rather that she regarded the American Indians as vassals of her own crown and was clear, as she reminded the governor of Hispaniola in 1501, that they should be treated as well as the inhabitants of Castile itself. But she died, the Pope had decreed otherwise, and despite some revived resentment at his again presuming a temporal power, a junta of advisers called by Ferdinand in 1504 upheld the Pope’s view.


Geoffrey Hawthorn, 1 April 1983

By the time he was 34, Thomas Macaulay had had a fellowship at Trinity, practised law for a year or two, sat in the Commons for four, and been appointed to a seat on the Supreme Council in India. On the boat to Calcutta, he wrote to Ellis, he had read the Iliad and the Odyssey, Petrarch, Ariosto, Tasso, Don Quixote, Gibbon on Rome, Sismondi on France, Mill on India, ‘the seven thick folios of Biographica Brittanica’ and ‘the 70 volumes of Voltaire’. Once there, he took to ‘passing the three or four hours before breakfast in reading Greek and Latin’, started to reflect on politics at home, and decided to write his History of England. ‘For what is it,’ he asked, ‘that a man who might, if he chose, rise and lie down at his own hour, engage in any study, enjoy any amusement, visit any place, travel to foreign countries, consents to make himself as much a prisoner as if he were within the rules of the Fleet – to be tethered for 11 months of the year within a circle of half a mile round Charing Cross?’

Sexual Subjects

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 21 October 1982

In Diderot’s ‘Les Bijoux Indiscrets’, a man acquires a ring which has the power to make sexual organs speak. Michel Foucault says that he wants to make that ring speak for itself. (He sketched part of his project in this paper last summer: Vol. 3, No 9.) Sexuality ‘traces that line of foam which shows just how far speech may advance on the sands of silence’. To speak of it, to ourselves, to each other, to those who hire out their ears, is, we think (or Foucault thinks we think), to reach the root of our subjectivity. That is his interest in it. Speaking of sexuality is the present limit of that ‘immense labour to which the West has submitted generations in order to produce … men’s subjection: their constitution as “subjects” in both senses of the word’. It is the present limit of confession in a confessional civilisation. And in its pretended disillusion, it is the present limit of illusion. For ‘the subject’ is a construction, something that is produced in ‘discourse’, something which itself presents a question; something which cannot thus be taken, as it has so long been taken, in much Christian theology and in the secular philosophy which followed, as the touchstone of any answer to some other question.

Facts of Life

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 1 July 1982

Textbook writers set examinations. The rationale is clear, the interest transparent. In what in the United States is called ‘behavioural science’, such people have a standard first chapter and a standard first question. What is behavioural science the science of? In BS101, the standard first course, some more or less elaborate padding with examples of the answer ‘just that, behaviour’ will do. In BS201, however, candidates might be expected to have picked up the now conventional view in the post-empiricist philosophy of science (PS101) that to construct such a science, we not only abstract and generalise but also observe with categories that we ourselves bring to the behaviour that interests us. Behaviour, in the strict sense, is mute. By BS301, though, candidates might also have picked up the complicating view in the post-empiricist philosophy of the more deliberately human sciences that behaving humans often themselves describe what they do, and that such descriptions are not merely important additional information, but decisive. Human actions, in this view, are their descriptions. Indeed, by the end of BS301 candidates might find themselves steering, or simply veering, to the uncomfortable conclusion that there are two sorts of human science, one more or less behavioural, the other, as fashionable language now has it, hermeneutic: and yet that we set these two sorts of science up to deal with what on any moderately commonsensical view appears to be the same subject-matter. BS401 (and PS401) will only compound the problem. There, candidates might and arguably should be encouraged to abandon the view that an agent’s description of what he is doing has any cognitive privilege after all. ‘The difference between his description and ours,’ in Richard Rorty’s words, ‘may mean that he should not be tried under our laws. It does not mean that he cannot be explained by our science.’ Realism, the doctrine that things are as they are independent of any description of them, can only be false for things which just are their descriptions. For these, there is no conceivable fact of the matter. (For Rorty, any realism, if not false, is idle, since because of the interference of language we can never know that we know even the properties of things which have properties. This breezy bleakness does have the striking if solitary virtue of dissolving all claimed differences between the two sorts of science.) Nevertheless, the agent does still have his descriptions. The suspicion remains that unless we can actually talk to him and persuade him to change his mind, our own descriptions, if different, are still in some sense misdescriptions. They are our descriptions of him, but they are not descriptions for him. Here the arguments finally break out and break down. BS501 (and PS501 too) await their textbook writers.

Green Films

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 1 April 1982

Cary Grant sits down at a table with Ralph Bellamy and Irene Dunne in 1937 and says: ‘So you two are going to get married.’ It is The Awful Truth. Grant sits down at a table with Bellamy and Rosalind Russell in 1940 and says again: ‘So you two are going to get married.’ It is His Girl Friday. Asked what the Bellamy character in the film, the man who plans to marry his former wife, looks like, Grant replies: ‘Like that fellow in the movies. What’s his name? Ralph Bellamy.’ Jokes within jokes. Howard Hawks having a joke with Leo McCarey. Hawks perhaps treating McCarey’s The Awful Truth like the front page of a paper, something to be revised at speed in the light of new and startling developments. Hawks perhaps doing this to The Front Page itself, the play from which His Girl Friday comes. For His Girl Friday, the fastest of a set of wonderfully fast Hollywood films of the Thirties and Forties, not only moves by cut and splice at a pace that a play never can. It also, as the film it is, refers repeatedly to itself.

Ideal Speech

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 19 November 1981

Natural man is born free but is everywhere in chains. ‘Civilised man’, unfortunately, ‘is born and dies a slave. The infant is bound up in swaddling clothes, the corpse is nailed down in his coffin. All his life man is imprisoned by institutions.’ Optimists will insist, as Helvétius did to Rousseau, that ‘l’éducation peut tout.’ Pessimists will reply, like de Maistre, that sheep are born carnivorous but everywhere eat grass. How do we know, if the men we see around us and we ourselves are slaves, that natural man is free? By introspection, says Rousseau – in tracing, through biography, the simplicity of the heart and its all but inevitable degradation by society. The biography may be theoretical, as in Émile and the discourse on inequality, or literary, as in the character of Saint-Preux, for instance, in La Nouvelle Héloise, or literal, as in the Confessions.

Academic Psychology

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 18 June 1981

It is said that when the electors to a vacant chair of psychology met recently in a small but by no means undistinguished university, a university with some past distinction in psychology itself, their first inclination was to agree that the subject had ceased to exist and that the chair should not be filled. The philosopher argued that mental events just were indeterminate. A cumulative and convergent science of the mental was absurd. The biologist argued that physiological reductions were unfounded. Such misunderstanding and misuse of biology should be stopped. The sociologist argued that extracting the social from the individual, and often extracting the human too, pre-empted all realism. What was the point of artificial precision? This was, of course, a game that could have been played with any of the human sciences. It is a game, often unsporting in its moves and vicious in its outcomes, that is played with them all the time. In this case, there was a draw and the chair was filled.

Participation in America

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 6 November 1980

De Tocqueville feared, not for the failure of democracy in America, but for its success: not, like so many of his French contemporaries, for its propensity to release an unbridled égoisme, but for its propensity to ‘unbend the springs of action’ altogether. The citizen of the new republic, as Tocqueville saw him, ‘exists only in himself and for himself’; he neither sees nor feels the others; he is, in this chilly sense, free. But if he is not at once paralysed by the vast possibilities thereby opened up to him, he soon becomes perplexed by the problems of realising any of them alone. Born free, chained, and then re-freed, he is again constrained by the very lack of constraint.

Pareto and Elitism

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 3 July 1980

Elitists are a cheerless class and Vilfredo Pareto was no exception. He certainly led a cheerless life. He gave up a career as an engineer for writing and politics, but although he succeeded Léon Walras to the Chair of Political Economy at Lausanne he never obtained an academic post in Italy itself, and on the two occasions on which he stood for parliament in that country he was defeated (as he saw it) by corruption. He made a bad marriage to a Russian who left him for a servant and engaged him in litigation for almost all of the rest of his life. He lived out those twenty years in his villa at Céligny with increasing bitterness and sickness and a large number of Angora cats. He emerged at the very end once more to marry and to accept Mussolini’s invitation to join the League of Nations Disarmament Commission, but within a year, in 1923, he was dead.

Daughters, Dress Shirts, Spotted Dick

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 3 April 1980

An anthropologist friend despairs at his subject. It has, he says, collapsed into the assertion of necessary relations between brothers-in-law and beavers. It is obsessed with classification. He barely exaggerates. Its history, as Douglas and Isherwood proudly recall, has been one of ‘continuous disengagement’ from the ‘intrusive assumptions of common sense’. It is therefore scarcely surprising that perhaps the most insistent claim throughout this history, and at no time more insistent than now, is that the common sense of daily life itself, vernacular thoughts and actions, are not what they seem, that they contain within them or in some sense reveal a pattern, a structure, even a logic, which their agents do not know and which it is the task of the anthropologist to uncover, infer, impute, to in some way make plain.



13 February 1992

Rosalind Mitchison (Letters, 12 March) shoots each of her feet. I wrote the book she scorns in order to show the risk in the attitude she so nicely reveals: to try to know too much is to risk understanding less. How does a historian know when she knows enough? By considering the counterfactual implications of what she thinks she does know. What’s involved in doing that? Testing her explanations...

Sociology in Cambridge

6 November 1986

SIR: I understand Aidan Foster-Carter’s puzzle (Letters, 4 December). Perhaps I ran too many arguments too closely together. There is, as Foster-Carter says, a distance between social theory and much of what’s done as ‘sociology’. Nevertheless, the two enterprises have shared the conviction that there are distinctively social explanations of the goings-on that interest us; and...

The Miners’ Strike

6 September 1984

SIR: No one, surely, can be surprised at the fact that Arthur Scargill reviles the media. Most of them are unashamedly right-wing. Most of them simply assume that he is bent on ‘the destruction of the British way of life’ and say so in clichés of this kind. But in a paper like the London Review of Books it is, to say the least, disappointing to see a long line of such clichés...

Ideal Speech

19 November 1981

Geoffrey Hawthorn writes: I did not intend to suggest that Gillian Rose makes her case for Hegel just against Habermas. I intended to say that she makes it against varieties of what may be described as ‘neo-Kantianism’. Habermas, about whom I was writing in the review, happens to be one of the most recent and most impressive ‘neo-Kantians’. Nor did I intend to reduce her book...
Geoffrey Hawthorn writes: Professor Tajfel reads my review as cricket and not cricket. I was certainly a non-professional trying to understand a lifetime player. I was also trying to be a gentleman. I accordingly read every word of his form, marked the distinctive moves, and played no base ball. I did not misdescribe (I did not say that Tajfel had been in a concentration camp) and did not selectively...


3 July 1980

Geoffrey Hawthorn writes: Professors Field and Higley accuse me of misrepresenting their views, misreading their facts, and misunderstanding their remarks about method. I do remain puzzled as well as annoyed by their views. I still do not see how a recommendation to élites to realise their position and act accordingly, although in ways that these authors never explain, is self-evidently compatible...

Be Spartans! Thucydides

James Romm, 21 January 2016

Thucydides​ may well have been the first Western author to address himself to posterity. His forerunners – Homer and Herodotus, principally – show no awareness of a readership...

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Bernard Williams had a very large mind. To read these three posthumously published collections of essays (there will be a fourth, on opera) is an overwhelming reminder of his incandescent and...

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Certainly not the saddest for historians, according to Geoffrey Hawthorn’s wonderfully playful and intelligent book: rather, the most instructive. Hawthorn is intrigued by the philosophical...

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What’s wrong with poverty

John Broome, 19 May 1988

Welfare economics is concerned with what economic arrangements we should have, and what governments should do in economic matters. It is about right and good in economics. So it is a branch of...

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