Vol. 3 No. 14 · 6 August 1981

Search by issue:

Academic Psychology

SIR: I enjoyed much of Geoffrey Hawthorn’s review (LRB, 18 June) of my book on Human Groups and Social Categories, and sympathised with it even more. The enjoyment came from the richness and variety of his metaphors. The sympathy was mainly empathy: what would I do in his place if a book of a kind I had never read before suddenly landed on my desk and I had the task of showing that I could be wise, intelligent, witty, informed and altogether Olympian about it? Hawthorn chose one (the only possible?) solution, which he himself described so well: ‘a game that could have been played with any of the human sciences … often unsporting in its moves and vicious in its outcomes’. But I exaggerate. In parts of his review he also shows a good deal of insight.

As he so rightly wrote, social psychology is ‘the human science which perhaps more than any other is claimed by some to be everything and by others to be nothing at all’, I think he and I agree that both these claims are nonsensical. This was one of the reasons why I published my book. The idea was to show that a modest contribution can be made by the subject to the unravelling of one of our most important problems, and that this can only be done if, some general ideas can be connected with some reliable data. Hawthorn understood this when he wrote that my tone is ‘far from arrogant’. There are chapters in the book which are ‘speculative’ and others which concentrate on providing empirical examples in setting out in some detail both the data and the methods used to collect them.

But then, much of the review is devoted to playing a game (or several games simultaneously?) the rules of which I do not begin to understand. I must confess that even after all these years in England, I can watch Wimbledon on TV with enormous pleasure, and am still totally lost when I try to discover what it is that people are doing when they slowly walk from one end to another of a cricket field and then suddenly start running at great speed. Hawthorn’s piece left me with the same feeling of helpless puzzlement.

It is always possible – and Hawthorn knows it as well as I do – to extract from their context some general statements made in a book in any of the human sciences and to contemplate with awe their apparent triviality. Four or five examples are used in Hawthorn’s review. I shall try to deal briefly with some of them. He seems to approve of a small experimental study in which it was shown that when two coins differ in value, their differences in size are exaggerated when these perceptions are compared with the perception of two discs of identical respective sizes which do not differ in value. Can this really be seen all the way from the Moon and does it tell us ‘little more than that the Earth is round’? Of course, the argument in the book was not concerned with this esoteric little phenomenon, but with its possible relevance to the understanding of some limited (and specified) features of social stereotyping. ‘Almost self-evident’?

It is because of these intriguing connections between apparently unrelated phenomena that, as Hawthorn wrote, I quoted ‘with approval’ a statement by two young social psychologists that ‘the social group is seen to function as a provider of social identity for its members through comparing itself and distinguishing itself, from other comparison groups, along salient dimensions which have a clear value differential.’ According to Hawthorn, I (‘once the critic of spurious scientism’) should not have given ‘such remarks the time of day’. Two questions to Hawthorn (or anybody else): in what circumstances which groups are selected for these comparisons and on which selected ‘salient dimensions’? A discussion of these questions was the whole point of the exercise.

I agree with Hawthorn when he thinks that one is stating the obvious in saying that ‘acting in terms of a group rather than in terms of self cannot be expected to play a predominant part in an individual’s behaviour unless there is present a clear cognitive structure of “us" and “them".’ But the statement is certainly not, as he writes, tautologous. Hawthorn simply missed the point (expounded at great length in the book): one of the prime conditions when people are ready to treat others indiscriminately in terms of their group membership rather than as individuals is when for a number of reasons (also specified in the book) there exists either the reality or the perception (or both) of not being able to move at will from one social group to another. When this happens, there exists a finite number of psychological strategies and some of the conditions when they may be expected to appear are also described in the book Where is the tautology?

The same kind of oversimplification enables Hawthorn to drag out of the text the incredibly dull statement that ‘ethnic stereotypes are relatively constant over time assuming no incident develops to change them.’ When I read it in his review, I felt thoroughly ashamed of myself (I did not even remember the sentence) until it occurred to me, as it must have occurred to Hawthorn, that a whole chapter of the book is devoted to a detailed discussion of the forms taken by social stereotypes and the functions they serve both for groups and for individuals. I was rather pleased with this chapter, because I think that it brings together in a new way a diversity of scattered ideas about social stereotypes. I would not have dared to write anything at all about stereotypes if I had no more to say about them than the bland idiocy he ascribes to me.

The conclusion of his review passeth understanding, at least as far as I am concerned. I found myself accused of the ‘liberal fallacy’: i.e. of assuming that any views that we, the noble liberals, do not share must be irrational. Here is a quotation from another text I wrote, which I use in this letter because of its brevity: but the same argument is made in the book under review. In this text, I was concerned with criticising the frustration-aggression approach to conflicts between groups and the derivation from it that a displacement of aggression causes hostility towards certain groups. ‘The hostility (or overt aggression, whenever this is possible) need not be displaced from another target which is, somehow, really believed to be the cause of trouble … Thus, it cannot be said that the Germans acted against the Jews in the Nazi period in spite of having identified the real causes of their troubles. Many Germans believed that Jews were a major cause of these troubles … ’

Finally, I wish to thank Hawthorn for his ‘compassion or [my] motives and admiration for [my] intent’. Both are misplaced. I was hit no harder than millions of other people, Jews or not Jews. I have not been, as he wrote, an inmate of a concentration camp, but a prisoner of war in Germany, which was often a very different fate. This is clearly and explicitly stated in my book. Why not reread the whole thing more carefully?

Henri Tajfel
University of Bristol

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 quote with malice. Nevertheless, in the limited overs of a short review, the moves are fast and can be seen to be dirty. I should explain those which Tajfel objects to. First, I did not intend to suggest that the result of the experiment with coins was self-evident. I intended, in what I can see was an ambiguous phrase, to suggest that once this result is extended to perceptions of people as members of groups, the extension itself can in retrospect be seen as such. That it can, of course, is a tribute to Tajfel’s original insight. Second, however, and more importantly, I remain unconvinced both by Tajfel’s strategy and by its outcome. The strategy, as we agree, is to propose laws or generalisations and then to state their conditions. Its difficulty is shown by his own example. This is that the indiscriminate treatment of members of one group by those of another (in the book itself, as I said, he talks of indiscriminate perception) is a function of real or believed immobility between the two groups in question. In the relevant chapter in the book (a chapter in which he also encourages social psychologists to be less modest in their claims) Tajfel gives as an example of this the relations between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. In itself, this may stand up. I do not know whether there are conversions there from one to the other. Tajfel himself presumes that there are not. But as an indication of a kind of example, it clearly does not stand up. What of Reformation Europe? Tajfel would no doubt wish to refine the condition of immobility. The outcome of such refinement, however, as I said in my review, would be to make the generalisations general only in name. This is what I mean when I say that in my opinion the whole strategy, the strategy of ‘hypotheticodeduction’, may for this subject be misconceived.

Finally, I apologise for not having been aware of what Tajfel had elsewhere written about the truth of apparently prejudicial beliefs. Nevertheless, in what he gives us of this in his letter, he fails to distinguish between the fact that many Germans believed Jews to be a cause of trouble and the truth or falsity of the belief that Jews were a cause of trouble. This was the distinction I was pointing to in my remarks about ‘the liberal fallacy’. I was moved to make them by the interesting but bizarre and, to me, irritating chapter in which Tajfel reports coloured students’ views of the treatment they had received in Britain in the early 1960s. Many of these views rested on fantastical beliefs. Many, though, rested on very probably true ones. Tajfel did not mention this. I take it to matter. Indeed, I take it to matter so much that I took too lofty a line about it. There, I concede a high no-ball, but perhaps in bad light.

Did Darwin get it right?

SIR: Dr Hallam’s comments (Letters, 16 July) on my article are a helpful contribution to the debate. I note that the disagreements between us, although important, are certainly not of a kind to suggest that he is supporting a new paradigm, incommensurable with neo-Darwinism, as suggested by Stephen Gould. His main point is that we should pay more attention to palaeontology, and to the major features of the fossil record, and perhaps somewhat less to the population genetics of flies and snails, when constructing our picture of evolution. I sympathise with his opinion. It is a great pity that, since G.G. Simpson, palaeontologists have contributed rather little to evolutionary theory, and most encouraging that there is now an active group determined to end this state of affairs.

There are, however, a few points on which I would take issue with him, or on which further clarification is needed:

1. Hallam defends Stanley’s book Macroevolution, and its reliance on data concerning species durations in the fossil record, on the grounds that such data do show that evolutionary rates have been slower in molluscs than in ammonites or mammals. I agree that species durations can show differences in evolutionary rates between major taxa, but that was not the question I was discussing. My claim was that the occurrence of stasis and punctuation could not be settled as Stanley attempted to settle it, and Hallam says nothing to alter my opinion. I should repeat that I am open-minded as to how frequent a pattern stasis plus punctuation in fact is, and that it is in any case an empirical question for palaeontologists to answer.

2. Hallam argues that if geographical variation within species commonly resulted in distant populations being so different that they should be regarded as distinct species, then more examples should be forthcoming than the old textbook example of the gulls which I quoted. Other cases of ‘ring species’ are known: for example, Clarke and Murray recently described a case in the snail, Partula. As Hallam implies, however, they are relatively rare. The reason for this is that it is rare for a species to form a ring, as the gulls do round the arctic, and not that it is rare to have terminal populations which are sufficiently distinct to raise doubts as to whether they should be classified as different species. Since Hallam quotes Mayr in a different context, let me quote from his Animal Species and Evolution: ‘We find that in every actively evolving genus there are populations that are hardly different from each other, others that are as different as subspecies, others that have almost reached species level, and finally still others that are full species.’

3. Hallam quotes Mayr’s observation that the natives of New Guinea recognise the same species of birds as do modern ornithologists as evidence for the discreteness and reality of species. This seems to me a misunderstanding. I do not for a moment doubt the reality of species, at least in sexually reproducing organisms, so long as one remains in the same place. The question at issue is whether this discreteness remains sharp when one travels about.

The point is important, so let m illustrate it with some personal reminiscences. I have always been fascinated by birds. When I was eight, my family moved to the country, and I learnt to recognise some dozen or so ‘kinds’ of birds which came to be fed in the winter. When, later, I was given a field guide, I was pleased to discover that my kinds corresponded to those in the book, although I had erred in thinking that the male and female blackbird were different kinds. Thus in a minor way I had confirmed the point that, for species in a given place, independent classifications come up with the same answer.

Things are quite different, however, if one travels about. On a recent visit to the US, I was much confused to discover that two easily distinguishable ‘Species’ of warblers listed in my field guide have been lumped into one, because they have been found to hybridise. In fact, ornithologists are regularly changing their minds about the status – good species or merely subspecies – of birds on the east and west coasts.

4. Hallam suggests that the sudden ‘punctuational’ change in the molluscs of Lake Turkana described by Williamson may have been caused by a breakdown of stabilising selection, and reminds me that there was an increase in variability of the populations during the change. I entirely agree. To me, the significant thing to emerge from Williamson’s work is that there is no reason to invoke any mechanism other than a change in selection pressure (from stabilising to directional) to account for an observed punctuational change.

More generally, I would certainly not rule out the possibility that genetic drift, chromosomal change and changes in regulatory genes acting early in development may have been important in evolution. Further, I do not regard population genetics as the only theoretical input needed for an understanding of evolution, although it is a necessary input. All that population genetics can do is to predict that if certain selection pressures operate on populations of particular kinds, then certain results will follow. Since it cannot in general predict what selection pressures will in fact operate, or what kinds of populations will exist, it cannot predict, or rule out, such phenomena as stasis or adaptive radiation, any more than Newtonian physics can predict the existence of meteorites or motor-cars. But meteorites and motor-cars obey Newton’s laws (so long as they do not go too fast), and species, whether in stasis or change, will, I believe, be found to obey the laws of population genetics. However, the theory of evolution will be richer if it incorporates theories of ecology and of development. Part of our present trouble arises because such theories, particularly of development, are sadly inadequate.

John Maynard Smith
University of Sussex

Getting it right

SIR: Professor Kermode’s central objection to my book, Interpretation, is that I beg the crucial question as to whether the meaning of a text is indeed logically tied to the author’s intention (LRB, 7 May). I do so, according to Kermode, in three ways:

a. Kermode seems to assume that, on my view, only the meaning of the text constitutes evidence of the author’s intention. ‘ “Any (and only) evidence of the author’s intention is … evidence for the meaning of the work." How do we come by such evidence except by divining the meaning of the text?’ I state in the Introduction very clearly how I am using the term ‘intention’, namely: what a man intended to convey is ‘what he meant by the words he used’ (or by his, or a speaker’s, utterance). So Kermode’s contention is that there cannot be anything which is evidence for what a man intended in this sense except the meaning of the text. But this is clearly not true. Surely an author’s beliefs (expressed elsewhere), his other works, parallel passages, diary entries, or remarks by the author in other contexts about his work, and so on, are all evidence, though, of course, not conclusive evidence, of what the author meant by the words he used (or by a speaker’s utterance or the whole work). Surely there is no merit in Kermode’s suggestion that this sort of information does not constitute evidence of what the author meant.

b. Kermode endorses Graham Hough’s view that what is not planned, premeditated or done with due forethought cannot have been intended. But we do not always or even typically plan out in advance, ‘with due forethought’ or ‘premeditation’ what specifically we will say to someone else in a casual conversation, for example. Surely our intentions are typically formed in the process of formulating the sentences we use. Often there is no specific ‘forethought’ at all. Yet we do not, for that reason, say that most of what we say is said unintentionally, or that we did not mean what we said. If this is true, then Kermode is wrong in claiming that I stretch the term ‘intention’ so that it will ‘include what in more ordinary language is said not to have been intended’.

c. Kermode claims that the distinction between meaning and significance, or my use of this distinction, begs the crucial question: ‘if you reserve the expression “meaning" for “what the author intended" (however you explain that), it follows that nothing you will not allow into that category can be called meaning.’ But I do not in fact regard the distinctions between meaning and significance as implying that the meaning of a work is what the author intended. Rather, I emphasise that ‘this distinction does not, of course, show that the assumption [that the meaning of a literary work is logically tied to the author’s intention] is correct. It may still very well be true that a literary work does not mean what its author intended and hence that “A Modest Proposal", for instance, is about inter alia the Vietnam War. What the distinction shows is that this does not follow from the fact that a work survives its age.’

Kermode implies that I evade what is in fact one of the central tasks of the book: i.e. to show that anti-intentionalist critics, in speaking of the meaning of a work, are in fact speaking about the author’s intention. He does not even mention the fact that I examine numerous and detailed examples of practical criticism by M.C. Beardsley, W.K. Wimsatt, J. Culler, M. Riffaterre, H. Bloom, C. Brooke-Rose. P. Szondi, H.R. Jauss, G. Hough, R. Jakobson and Lévi-Strauss, J. Wain, G. Dickie, J. Hospers, G. Hermeren, A. Isenberg, E. von Savigny, and others – all of whom reject the view that there is a logical connection between the meaning of a literary work and the author’s intention. Kermode does not offer the slightest evidence that in any of these cases I beg the question. As for Empson: although I may be mistaken in taking him as an exemplary anti-intentionalist, certainly the major anti-intentionalist theorists of the past two or three decades have regarded his critical practice as among the best examples of the kind of criticism they were concerned to promote.

Kermode mistakenly attributes to me the view that the meaning of Swift’s ‘Modest Proposal’ is ‘entirely a matter of Irish conditions in Swift’s own time’. Here is what I say:

Let us suppose, for example, that Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’ is merely about a certain unique historical situation [italics added] … This may not, of course, be true. I have made this assumption primarily to show that even an unduly restrictive view of what a literary work means is entirely consistent with the fact that a work may be of wider interest and of value to readers of later ages … Swift no doubt intended to say something not just about a situation of his own time, but about certain general human tendencies.

Kermode appears to have misunderstood my discussion of the role of the context in disambiguating utterances in ordinary discourse and in literary works. According to Kermode, I assume that an author can disambiguate his text in exactly the same way as a speaker his utterance an ordinary discourse. I do not assume or claim this. What I do argue is a. that the meaning of an utterance in a literary work, just as in ordinary discourse, depends on the speaker’s intention. I go on to argue b. that, though we cannot, of course, identify the speaker or a character in a literary work with the author, what the (or a) speaker means is what the author has him/her mean (intends him to mean). This may be wrong, of course, but it doesn’t follow from it that ‘a phone-call from Shakespeare … could … disambiguate Hamlet’ – if for no other reason than that an author’s statement about his intention is only one kind of evidence of intention and constitutes, as I emphasise, by no means incontrovertible evidence of his intention. But Kermode offers no argument or evidence for his claim. He simply asserts that Hamlet, ‘it might be maintained, is undisambiguable’. Sure, it might be maintained. All sorts of things might be maintained. But that does not give us a lot of reason to suppose that they are true.

Kermode contends that the last chapter is ‘the weakest’ because it doesn’t actually produce ‘the One Correct Interpretation’ of a work. Since I do not claim that we can in fact find the correct interpretation of any given literary work, I do not see what could lead Kermode to expect that I would produce such an interpretation. In any case, he seems to think that ‘this refinement of recognitive hermeneutics is without much use. If the correct interpretation, though it exists in principle, is in practice (virtually indeed in principle) undiscoverable, why should they [“plain men"] bother about it?’ Who said they should bother about it? Kermode seems to be unclear about the issue. The issue, after all, is not: ‘How can we help critics find the correct interpretation of a work?’ On my view at least, they know that already. The issue is whether or not interpretations can properly be characterised as ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’, or whether no sense can be attributed to these terms when applied to an interpretation. Kermode seems to be confusing Hirsch’s position with mine. Hirsch is indeed concerned to change what he takes to be the state of interpretive practice. I have no such ambition. My aim is rather to analyse critical practice, to bring out our tacit assumptions, our logical commitments, in speaking about the meaning of a work, not to make recommendations as to what critics ought to do.

Kermode claims that I am ‘a disciple’ of Hirsch’s. I find this somewhat strange, since I affirm, and try to establish, precisely what Hirsch denies: namely, that there is a logical connection between the meaning of a literary work and the author’s intention. Hirsch holds that there is no such connection and that a critic can set up any normative conception he likes as his criterion of what a text means. Of course, Hirsch recommends that we ought to interpret texts in accord with the author’s intention. But this is a position on a wholly different issue: i.e. what we ought to do, as opposed to what in fact (as a matter of logic) we do. Hence my view also cannot be characterised as ‘a strengthened form of the Hirsch doctrine’, since it is not ‘a form’ of Hirsch’s doctrine at all. I must gratefully decline Kermode’s compliment that my book ‘has the merit of not assuming a great deal that is often too crudely taken for granted’. For if his main objection is valid, then I take at least as much for granted as those ‘crude’ chaps he has in mind.

P.D. Juhl
Princeton University

As time goes by

SIR: Who is Brenda Maddox (LRB, 2 July) to insist that Ingrid Bergman strip naked or not at all? Why should she explain where all her Hollywood evenings went?

Miss Bergman should be thanked for telling all that she has. Let horrid biographers pick over her affairs/bank accounts/private letters when she has departed this world – and not before.

I say this as a horrid biographer.

Nigel Hamilton
Heveningham, Suffolk

Vive la France

SIR: In his review of Le Mot Juste (LRB, 18 June) Mr Eric Korn states that the expression bon vivant is not used in its language of origin. On the contrary, I have found it quite vivant in the three French-language countries I have been living in for over twenty years. Moreover, how does Mr Korn’s assertion tally with the fact that the phrase appears as an entry or sub-entry in the latest editions of all leading French dictionaries, including Petit Larousse Illustré, Lexis, Dictionnaire de la Prononciation du Français dans son Usage Réel, ‘Garand’ Robert, Dictionnaire du Français Vivant and Dictionnaire des Synonymes (Robert)?

Harry Cohen

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences