Open Season at All-Embracing…

You can tell that thesis reading is working for you when you are able to answer the question ‘Can you develop an Assurance View of Testimonial Transmission along Reliabilist lines?’ knowing that, a few months ago, most of those terms were seemed just like gobbledegook.

Anyway, that’s what I’m doing at the moment, so I recommend we make this post[1] ‘Open Season’ and you can ask, if you feel the want, all those questions you were denied when I ‘accidentally’ locked down this blog to comments.

1. I actually have substantial content, but I’m postponing posting it until Thursday for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. I have a headcold, if that helps make sense of any of it.


So, what’s it all about then?[1]

1. T.S. Eliot claimed a cabbie had told him that he (the cabbie) had asked Bertrand Russell this question and that Russell had been unable to provide an answer. Could we accept Eliot’s assurance that he had heard this from the cabbie or, assuming we can, the cabbie’s assurance that his conversation with Russell had taken place?

horansome says:

The temptation to give a really big answer to this is, well, almost overwhelming (not quite all embracing…) but I shan’t, mainly because it’s potential post material and partly because the headcold makes it hard for me to think in big paragraphs. Indeed, the word ‘paragraph’ is, frankly, too long to cope with at the moment.

Anyway. Should we trust Eliot? Well, not knowing much about his character I’m going to assume that he was generally reliable as a witness, in that he tended to accurately report events about his life. In that case we could assume that, yes, he had the conversation with the cabbie. But can we take from this that we’ve gained some information about Bertrand Russell? Well… I’m going to assume that this was a London cabbie. I’ve travelled by cab in London quite extensively and London cabbies are very bright but also prone to exaggeration. So I’d be likely to assume that the cabbie probably isn’t the best source for information about Russell.

But then we hit a snag. Did Eliot think the cabbie was sincere? I’d assume Eliot was a frequent user of cabs and he probably knew the kind of reporter he was dealing with when he was told the story about Russell’s inability to answer a question. So, presumably, Eliot, knowing London cabbies, would have needed some convincing as to the sincerity of the cabbie’s story. If Eliot thought the story was true then, presumably, trusting Eliot as we have thus far assume, we should probably trust the cabbie to.

Then again, Eliot might well have an unconsious weakness when it comes to celebrity gossip where he just automatically assumes it to be true and thus disregards his usual checks and balances. So, in that case, Eliot might well be an unreliable witness even if the story is true. The cabbie might well have flummoxed Russell but we can’t trust Eliot’s testimony to that fact because Eliot just isn’t reliable in these matters.

This answer is much longer than I thought it would be. Feel free to pose more quandaries or solicit further information; I’m off to feed my belly.

I have done some further research which reinforces your argument. Apparently, the anecdote was recounted by Eliot’s widow, Valerie, in a letter to The Times of 1970:

My husband, T.S. Eliot, loved to recount how late one evening he stopped a taxi. As he got in, the driver said: “You’re T.S. Eliot.” When asked how he knew, he replied: “Ah, I’ve got an eye for a celebrity. Only the other evening I picked up Bertrand Russell, and I said to him: ‘Well, Lord Russell, what’s it all about,’ and, do you know, he couldn’t tell me.”

So it is not just the reliability of Eliot and the cabbie we must consider but also that of Valerie. Of course, I found this information from a Google search so we also have to consider the reliability of the authors of the pages on which it is quoted. One page (which is run by a taxi driver for taxi drivers) at least mentions a reliable printed source, the Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations.

However, as I have found when dealing with testimony given by the likes of the Maxim Institute, often writers find their sources on Internet without checking their veracity, as I am doing now; the accessibility of unsourced information on Internet gives new layers of complexity to questions of testimony and reliability.

I hope you are feeling better.

horansome says:

Of course, we might also assume that as Russell’s answer (or lack thereof) seems a perfectly reasonable response to such an open question that we might consider the testimony to be good even if there are unreliable witnesses involved in the chain. Which is to say that Russell’s response is what we would expect of him (if that situation had actually occurred).

And yea, verily, people on the internet are unreliable in their source use; this seems especially true when it comes to critiquing people and their views. Cresswell recently quoted a Tibor Machan obit on Rorty (rather selectively, I might add) and seemed to conclude from that that Rorty was some (I’d have to say ‘the wrong’) kind of subjectivist. Admittedly, Cresswell is a Libertarian and taking epistemological advice from one of them is like taking aspirin because an actor (who plays a doctor) recommended it. Not to say that I’m a great Rorty fan, but even so, trite soundbites do not a condemnation make.

Tony Simpson says:

I wouldn’t personally give T S Eliot and his veracity the time of day. This is not because I think he was a liar but because he was a notorious anti-semite, an anti democrat, and a High Church Tory of the most reactionary kind, and I am always prepared to believe the worst of such people.

If you want a decent anecdote about Valerie Eliot however, then you can do worse that one recounted by Alan Bennett who was a childhood family friend of Valerie. One day Bennett’s mother was out walking in Leeds when she met Tom and Valerie and came home and said to Bennett: “I met Valerie on my walk with that new husband of hers, but I didn’t quite catch what he did”. Bennett says that he tried to explain the importance of The Waste Land in modernist literature but could see he wasn’t making any headway and so he said: “He won the Nobel Prize for literature.” To which his mother replied: “I’m not surprised. He was wearing a lovely overcoat.”

This, of course, raises the question of Bennet’s veracity but as he is gay and left wingish I am prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.

And by the way I didn’t find the Russell/cabbie story very clever or funny. If the cabbie had known anything about Russell’s thought he would know that not being able to answer the question posed was entirely consistent with it.

But that is the joke – the confrontation between the common-sense world of the cabbie and the world of the philosopher. One could not expect a cabbie to know anything of Russell’s thought but the cabbie could expect a great thinker to be able to answer big questions. The joke is not really at the expense of the cabbie or Russell, but highlights the gulf between the popular conception of philosophy and its academic reality.

Analysing jokes kills them, doesn’t it?

horansome says:

If the cabbie had known anything about Russell’s thought he would know that not being able to answer the question posed was entirely consistent with it.

Aye, that was basically the substance of my second response. Still, if we take the cabbie to be sincere in his amazement that Russell could not answer his question then we learn that a) the cabbie might recognise a celebrity but that doesn’t mean he knows what they are famous for and/or b) people really do ask stupid questions, don’t they?

I’m going to assume that your comment about not trusting Eliott but being willing to trust Bennett is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, because that’s a dangerous position to take, let alone advocate. So, assuming you are joking, it is interesting that people actually do this. It’s a form of Confirmation Bias and it often leads to disasterous results. It’s probably very relevant to the testimonial transmission of Conspiracy Theories, because people do seem to automatically assume that the Official View of an Event must be fraudulent and that the Conspiracy Theory view, which accords with a deep-seated mistrust of people in power, must be correct.

Of course, people who have lovely overcoats probably do deserve to win prizes. I have a great overcoat that only sees about three days service a winter in New Zealand but was my constant friend in London. It’s very Captain Jack (from TV’s ‘Torchwood’) but, unlike my current choice of ‘Doctor Who’ shoes, I can claim that I got the coat well before the show aired…

horansome says:

In re analysing jokes; I have a book on my reading list (the non-thesis related one, so who knows when I will actually get around to going through it) which is a proper linguistics book on the analysis of jokes. It either promises to be fascinating or to be the most boring book on the subject ever (the best book on the subject is, of course, ‘The Name of the Rose’).

lyndon says:

I suppose Russell could have responded in the spirit of both the question and philosophy by saying, “Who wants to know?”

You know someone wrote to Eco (so he says) pointing that the name of ‘The Name of the Rose’ appears to derive from a mistranscribed poem about Rome?

horansome says:

I wasn’t aware of that. It’s a book I keep meaning to re-read. I read it when I was about fourteen and most of the symbolism was lost on me. I just wanted to know who committed the murders but now I’d like to luxiariate in Eco’s dense plotting.

Strangely enough, even though the film ignores the meat of the book it still works. It’s a little like ‘The Ninth Gate,’ which takes the b-line from ‘The Dumas Club’ and turns it into the a-line. ‘The Dumas Club’ is a great book and it makes me wish I knew Spanish so I could read it in its native tongue. It’s also a great literary conspiracy theory centering around the quite plausible notion that a lot of Dumas was co-written with ‘lesser’ talents, the names of which have been lost to history… Or excised by the more devoted fans.

Tony Simpson says:

Yes, of course my comment about Elliot was a joke. As they truly say: He who laughs last, has it explained to him.

horansome says:

Good, good. Because I worry sometimes and that doesn’t help my already fragile sleeping patterns.