Last week Pope Francis, who is on something of a roll, assured atheists that they could get into heaven. As one of the unchurched and the disbelieving, I appreciate this expression of good will without finding the news especially consequential. There’s enough to worry about as it is, this side of death.
But the pontiff’s timing is impressive. Ronald Dworkin’s Religion Without God, the philosopher’s first posthumous work, appeared in bookstores a few days before Francis made his statement -- even though Harvard University Press listed it as an October book. (When he succumbed to leukemia in February, Dworkin was a professor of law and philosophy at New York University and an emeritus professor of jurisprudence at University College, London.) Surely it’s a matter of providence at work, or at least of synchronicity, depending on which way you’ve staked that existential wager.
I call it Dworkin’s first posthumous book, not on the basis of inside information, but from the certainty somebody is bound to raid the Nachlass of any figure so prominent in Anglo-American discussions of the philosophy of law across four decades.
Even a fairly stringent assessment of him as someone more esteemed outside his discipline than in it -- ever the complaint when someone is just too visible as a public intellectual -- ends up conceding that he did play a catalytic role, at times. Much of the commentary since his death seems to echo Dworkin’s own recollection of serving as Learned Hand’s clerk: “I disagreed with everything he said, but he was a very good person to have to argue with.” (By the way, a book bringing the philosopher’s and the judge’s ideas together for comparison seems like a project full of interesting possibilities.)
Religion Without God is based on the three Einstein Lectures that Dworkin gave at the University of Bern in Switzerland in December 2011. The lecture series began in 2009. The speakers rotate, from year to year, between a physicist, a mathematician, and a philosopher. Einstein’s occasional remarks about God (the things he actually wrote and said, not the kudzu-like apocrypha) are the seed crystals for the lectures, rather than their topic.
According the publisher’s note, Dworkin “planned greatly to extend his treatment of the subject over the next few years” but “had time only to complete some revisions of the original text,” although the volume closes with a fourth piece, “Death and Immortality,” shorter than the lectures, which bears no indication of when it was written. It begins on a mordant note, as if in reply to the Pope: “When Woody Allen was told that he would live on in his work, he replied that he would rather live on in his apartment.”
For a while I suspected that Religion Without God might be a very late installment in the New Atheism saga, and on that basis gave it wide berth. All the polemical gunpowder has run out on both sides. The very prospect of another battle -- Dworkin v. Dawkins! -- sounded as appealing as a sawdust burrito or an afternoon in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Life is too short.
Happily the lectures are nothing of the kind. Arguments for or against the existence of God (or gods, if you prefer) form no part of Dworkin’s project. He takes it as a given that the dispute will continue, as it must, at varying degrees of heat and lucidity. But he also takes as important and meaningful that some forms of atheism are as deeply shaped by the numinous as any religious faith.
“Numinous” is the term Rudolf Otto coined in The Idea of the Holy (1917) to name an overwhelming experience of the grandeur, power, order, significance, and strangeness (“otherness”) of the universe, or of being itself. It can be blissful, and it can be terrifying. Religious mystics have no monopoly on the numinous. Physicists and mathematicians have written about it, for example, and one of the passages from Einstein quoted by Dworkin expresses it in a forceful manner:
“To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in the most primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong to the ranks of devoutly religious men.”
On another occasion, Einstein said, “He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.” Dworkin stresses that while monotheists may understand numinosity as a revelation of the power and awe-full reality of the Creator, it does not, as such, compel belief in a personal deity (what Dworkin refers to, from time to time, as “the Sistine god,” in honor of Michelangelo’s rendition).
Einstein, for one, dismissed the idea of such a Supreme Being existing prior to, and apart from, the universe. He said so repeatedly, although believers kept construing his remarks about “belong[ing] to the ranks of devoutly religious men” to the contrary. The physicist thought of himself as a kind of pantheist, along Spinoza’s lines. The difference between pantheism and atheism is arguably one of shading -- and Dworkin subsumes Einstein’s perspective under the rubric “religious atheism,” which would also apply to beliefs such as Ethical Culture and some kinds of pacifism.
“Religious atheism” is not meant to be an ironic label; the author shows no interest in it as paradoxical. Dworkin’s point is that a sense of “life’s intrinsic meaning and nature’s intrinsic beauty” runs deeper than one’s judgment of the source or intelligibility of that meaning and beauty. Values “are real and fundamental, not just manifestations of something else; they are as real as trees or pain.” The theist understands meaning, beauty, goodness, and other values to be the intentional creation or the commandment of a higher being, who thus merits our worship, or at least our very close attention. To live a good and meaningful life means living in accord with the divine purpose.
But for the religious atheist (which is to say, for the author himself) that is getting things more or less backward. Dworkin seems to have reached the same conclusion as Descartes on a matter that bothered the earlier thinker in his final years, as mentioned in Steven Nadler’s The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter (discussed in this column).
In short: Is something good – or (true, beautiful, just, etc.) because God wills it? Or is it the other way around? What if the bearded man on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel decided that theft, murder, and cannibalism were totally fine, and even to be encouraged? Would that make them good? If not, then in some sense we have accepted that right has priority even over divine might.
Thus concluded the theist Descartes, as did the religious atheist Dworkin. There is much that I am scanting in Dworkin’s book here, in the interest of time, but that should provoke enough thought, and elicit enough invective, for now. Let me end this column, as it began, with a look to the afterlife. In a symposium at the Boston University School of Law a few years ago, Dworkin announced that he’d had a glimpse of paradise:
“Lots of people, including among them among the most distinguished philosophers and lawyers in the world, have come together to discuss a book of mine. As if that weren’t good enough, they discuss it before I’ve actually finished writing it so I can benefit from what they say. That isn’t the best part. The best part is that I don’t even have to die.”
The implication, by contrast, is that hell is all about the deadlines.
CourseSmart, the digital publishing company founded by higher education publishers, today announced options to make renting and purchasing educational materials more flexible. Previously, the company only allowed customers to rent e-textbooks for 180 days -- a window that is now being expanded to half a dozen options ranging from a 60-day rental to purchasing the book outright. CourseSmart also introduced Subscription Packs, which allow students to fill six slots in a "digital bookshelf" for a flat fee of $200.
"There’s a lot that’s to be said about how digital can save students money," CourseSmart CEO Sean Devine said. "Instead of going out and spending hundreds of dollars on textbooks ..., you can come to one place."
CourseSmart is also working with its publishing partners to add more interactive elements, like embedded videos and multiple choice tests, to its e-textbooks, Devine said.
"One of the criticisms of e-textbooks to date has been that they don’t add a lot of value -- except perhaps saving students money," Devine said. "There’s a fair amount of convergence going on beween what was previously a flat textbook and the more interactive, digital products. It’s our belief that digital products in the future will look more like this."
Cambridge University Press will power its learning management system with technology from Knewton to teach English to students around the globe, the two companies announced on Thursday. Knewton will work with the publisher to build a series of English Language Training (ELT) products for the Cambridge LMS platform, which serves about 250,000 students. As part of its expansion plans, Knewton will also open an office in London that will coordinate the company's work in Africa, Europe and the Middle East.
Introductory college biology textbooks prepare students – even those who don’t plan to become doctors – to take medical school examination tests, while devoting little attention to such topics as evolution, a new study shows.
Steven Rissing, professor of evolution, ecology and organismal biology at Ohio State University, analyzed eight commonly used introductory biology textbooks and found that all closely followed the curriculum suggested for pre-med students by the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). All texts included at least 50 percent of the primary MCAT biology content specifications within the first 30 percent of text.
Over all, they put a heavy emphasis on molecular and cellular biology while underemphasizing “big issues,” such as personalized medicine, evolution and climate change, that have more relevance to students who don’t plan on being medical doctors, Rissing said in a news release. “We need to have biology education for citizens and voters, not just for future doctors.”
There are no easy solutions to these problems. Nevertheless, we think that a more public-facing academy is a necessary, if insufficient, response. Public engagement helps to demonstrate the value of research. It also helps to generate a larger audience for scholarly research and therefore potentially more revenue for publishers. We are not suggesting that research intended for a broader audience can or should supplant research targeted at the scholarly community. But we think there is room for more scholars to demonstrate that their expertise is important outside their subfield.
We have a new book on the 2012 presidential election, The Gamble, that provides one model for public engagement. The book was designed to be an accessible academic account of the election, written in real time and published within a year of the election itself — standard timing for books focused on the general public, but an unusually short time frame for a scholarly book. Together with our publisher, Princeton University Press, we structured the project so that we could enter into the ongoing public discussion about the election alongside pundits and journalists — via continuous analysis and writing, serializing the process of peer review, and accelerating the final mechanics of publication.
Our experience writing this book suggests to us that there are underutilized opportunities for both scholars and their publishers to innovate on traditional modes of academic writing and thereby bring scholarly research to a much larger audience. We joked over the past two years that part of "the gamble" was simply writing the book itself. We believe that this gamble has paid off, and we offer our story in hopes that it might encourage others to roll the dice. We think this sort of project can benefit scholars, publishers, and the broader public alike.
Why We Wrote the Book
The book was motivated by two goals. The first was simply to tell the story of what promised to be a lively and competitive election. The second goal was to amplify the voice of political science in the conversation about the election—from events on the campaign trail to explanations and interpretations of the election after it was over.
Journalists typically write the history of American presidential elections, a history built on their access to decision-makers in the campaigns. We believed that the social scientific study of campaigns, with its emphasis on systematic data and statistical analyses, adds something important. Whereas journalistic accounts effectively capture why campaign principals made the decisions they did, a political science account can better determine whether those decisions mattered.
The problem, however, is that political scientists — like most academics — usually work too slowly to have much influence. Science takes time, and so the first academic articles might appear about 18 months after an election. Academic books may take two to three years or even longer. By this point it is too late. The conventional wisdom about the election has congealed — whether it is correct or not — and journalists, commentators, and voters are already thinking ahead to the next election. After the 2004 election, for example, the misinterpretation of a single question on the exit poll led some commentators to attribute President George W. Bush’s victory to his appeal among "values voters."
We wanted to be different. We wanted to write an academic book, but with a journalist’s faster metabolism.
How We Wrote the Book
In August 2011, we pitched the book to several different presses. In February 2012, we signed a contract with Princeton University Press. In August 2012, the first two e-chapters of the book were made available for free by Princeton Press. In January 2013, a third e-chapter was released. In April 2013, a fourth and final e-chapter debuted. In September 2013, the print edition of the book will be published — including revised versions of the e-chapters as well as four additional chapters. Looking back at our drafts of the initial and final chapters, we wrote the entire book in about a calendar year. How were we able to do this?
Like Lennon and McCartney, we got by with a little help from our friends. Their help was most evident in the data we were able to obtain at no cost — weekly survey data from the firm YouGov, daily data on media coverage from the firm General Sentiment, data on candidate advertising courtesy of The Washington Post, and multiple other datasets from generous colleagues. These data were necessary to make our book stand apart from other accounts of the campaign. Most importantly, we received these data promptly and continuously, allowing us to do analysis while the campaign was under way.
Second, we wrote about our findings in public forums during the campaign itself. This writing had several benefits. It helped ensure that the book would be completed in time. It allowed us to elicit responses to our argument that, at times, led to revisions and corrections — a sort of crowdsourced peer review. And it put our perspective into the conversation happening in the moment. We found blogs to be the ideal venue for doing this because they allowed us to write and publish with minimal editorial delay and to get feedback in comments threads under each blog post. We contributed to The Monkey Cage, YouGov’s Model Politics, Campaign Stops and FiveThirtyEight at The New York Times, and Wonkblog at The Washington Post.
Finally, and perhaps most important to the successful completion of the book, was the innovative plan devised by Princeton University Press (PUP), which certainly took a gamble as well. Our editor at the project’s inception, Charles Myers, convinced us that the book would be more accessible to a non-academic audience if it had a chronological narrative at its core, rather than the thematic structure that academics often favor. Then, as we completed drafts of individual chapters, PUP sent them out for peer review, rather than waiting until we had finished the entire manuscript. PUP had secured reviewers in advance and requested a tight turnaround. PUP also produced the multiple e-chapters that allowed the book to be partially serialized. In their view, having these e-chapters — and giving them away for free — would help build interest in the book. Over 2,000 copies of these chapters were downloaded from Amazon, in addition to an untold number of PDF copies downloaded from the PUP website or The Monkey Cage. Several colleagues assigned these chapters to their students, circulating them further.
PUP also accelerated the process of producing a print volume — giving us stringent deadlines that we had to meet. We managed to do this with modest success, although we created delays by adding a new chapter at the 11th hour and by fine-turning analyses for weeks on end. But ultimately, we finished the manuscript in time to produce a book that would be published alongside, or even before, the journalistic accounts. PUP deserves credit here as well, as it is taking them only three months to turn that final manuscript into a book available for purchase.
What impressed us throughout this process was the press’s flexibility and willingness to innovate. The press showed how to take the existing model of scholarly publishing — one centered on peer review — and modify that model to produce a book that was still rigorous but also timely and, we hope, lively.
Did “The Gamble” Pay Off?
We believe that it did. We sought to tell the story of this election, and we believe that our account provides a novel perspective that challenges much conventional wisdom. More than a few commentators argued that the underlying economic and political fundamentals were not in Obama’s favor. We show that this was untrue: the economy was growing fast enough for the incumbent to be favored. Many commentators also saw the Republican primary as a search for "anybody but Romney." We show that this was also untrue. The many anybodies — Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, etc. — surged largely because of temporary increases in media coverage of them, and not because Republican voters had any underlying hostility toward Romney himself.
After the election, commentators were quick to attribute Obama’s victory to his superior campaign. We show that the effects of things like campaign advertising and field organizing were likely not large enough to account for Obama’s victory. We also call into question many prevailing interpretations of the election — that it augured a Democratic realignment, that it suggested a profoundly "Liberal America," that it suggested the Republican Party needed a complete overhaul. On the whole, the 2012 election was very much what extant political science research led us to expect. It showed that a book building on and elaborating that research could make a useful contribution.
We also sought to be part of the conversation among journalists and commentators, and we felt included in that conversation. This was reflected in opportunities and invitations to contribute to media outlets — such as our collaboration with Ezra Klein to develop a forecasting model for Wonkblog. It was reflected in the willingness of high-profile journalists and commentators to endorse the book. It was reflected in ways in which commentators chose to engage with political science in their own writing. Even when they disagreed with us, with other political scientists, or with their conception of what "political scientists say," it was better than being ignored.
Of course, we will have a better sense of whether our book has any particular impact after it is out. But regardless we believe — although it is difficult to measure — that political science ideas and findings are much more in the bloodstream of campaign journalism and punditry than they once were.
John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University. Lynn Vavreck is an associate professor of political science and communication studies at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Philosophers have lives; saints have legends. No miracles are associated with Simone Weil (1909-43), and a glance at reference books on philosophy finds her listed alongside Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, her classmates at the École normale supérieure. But she looks odd in their company -- in any company, really. Frail but indomitable, she was in the world but not quite of it.
French intellectuals of her generation wrote essays on Marxism and the Spanish Civil War, while she worked in a factory and went to the front as part of an antifascist militia. She had an extraordinarily acute (some would say morbid) awareness of the depths and the extent of human suffering; it made comfort seem like complicity. Combine that sensitivity with her conviction that our world is the diminished or faulty image of a realm in which truth and justice are real and absolute – a Platonic notion, flecked perhaps with Gnostic elements -- and you have someone with a vocation, rather than a career.
Weil died at the age of 34, under what seem to have been suspiciously beatific circumstances: she succumbed to tuberculosis after months of refusing to eat more than the rations available to the French compatriots under German occupation. Her collected writings, which run to several stout volumes, range from pacifist essays and interventions in trade-union debates to reflections on atheism and mysticism (not entirely antithetical terms, in her experience) and studies of classical Greek literature and philosophy. Most of this work remained unpublished during her lifetime, apart from scattered essays in journals of no wide circulation.
At a couple of points in Julia Haslett’s film “An Encounter with Simone Weil,” the camera focuses on a few lines of a manuscript, the words in French and Greek. Her handwriting appears small, precise, and highly concentrated – like Weil herself, by all accounts. “She was apparently unacquainted with doubt,” wrote Raymond Aron, a philosopher and political journalist who knew her in the 1920s, “and, although her opinions might change, they were always thoroughly categorical.” His choice of words may allude to one of Weil’s nicknames from their student days: “The Categorical Imperative in Skirts.”
“An Encounter with Simone Weil,” billed on its Facebook promotional page as “a documentary by Julia Haslett,” made the rounds of film festivals in 2011, and in the meantime the director (a visiting associate professor of cinema and comparative literature at the University of Iowa) has screened it at two dozen colleges and universities throughout the United States. It will be available on DVD and various digital platforms sometime in the next few months. Upon request, the director sent me a screener, indicating that she had just finished work on the French language version. The film is already available in Italian, with the German and Japanese translations due out this fall, and a Korean version in the works.
“Encounter” is at least as much a personal essay as a biographical portrait. Haslett’s fascination began when she came across a quotation from one of Weil’s letters: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” It was an ideal point of entry, given how often Weil’s aphorisms sound like one of Pascal’s Pensées, and also how much moral and intellectual significance the word “attention” turns out to have in her work.
But it also carried a strong personal connotation. In the voiceover Haslett tells us of her father’s suicide when she was young, and in a video clip her brother discusses his struggle with anxiety and depression. “My father's death taught me that if I don't pay attention, someone might die," she says -- an enormous burden to have to carry.
Although Weil cannot be said to lighten the load, she at least understood the stakes. “The capacity to give one's attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing,” she says in another passage that Haslett quotes. “It is almost a miracle; it is a miracle.”
In short order she read Francine Du Plessix Gray’s biography of Weil (published by Penguin in 2001) in a single sitting. "Here was this brilliant, deeply ethical young woman speaking truth to power, putting her body on the line for her convictions, and providing such an incisive critique of political and economic power,” she told me an in e-mail exchange. “And yet I'd never read her. That despite studying philosophy, religion, and history at Swarthmore College -- an institution that embodies the Weil-like values of rigorous intellectual inquiry and a deeply held commitment to social justice.”
In recounting Weil’s period as a left-wing militant in the early years of the Great Depression, “Encounter” shows Haslett going over film footage of mass demonstrations in the archives of the French Communist Party – searching, almost desperately, to catch a glimpse of Weil in the crowd, but with no luck. She visits the apartment building in New York where Weil lived for a few months in 1942, and interviews the (very) few remaining people who knew Weil, as well as one of the editors preparing her collected works.
The effort to establish a connection with the philosopher even extends to having Soraya Broukhim (an actress with some resemblance to Weil) read enough of Weil's work to improvise responses in a mock interview. The sequence is odd. By the end, the situation has become unmistakably awkward for both parties. When Broukhim complains that Haslett seems to want answers she can’t give, the effect is strangely revealing. For a moment, it’s not quite clear whether she’s doing so in character, as Weil, or in real life.
To call Haslett’s quest a kind of pilgrimage would be tempting, if not for the most striking thing about the film: its emphasis on her as a secular figure and an activist. Most people who become interested in Weil do so through the theological side of her work. Even her appeal for nonbelievers, such as Albert Camus, comes in large measure from an awareness of her "tortured prowling outside the doors of the Catholic Church, like a starving wild animal,” to borrow the poet Kenneth Rexroth’s apt characterization.
Weil’s spiritual writings “are certainly the reason she gets studied in this country,” Haslett acknowledged by e-mail. “For example, many of the annual meetings of the American Weil Society are held at theological seminaries and most participants are religious scholars or at least people of faith.” But for the director, “it was the way she combined such an incisive critique of power and her willingness to sacrifice everything to tell the truth as she knew it (by directly experiencing that about which she wrote) that drew me in so completely.… She became a guide for me through the very dark first decade of this century, when our politicians were dispensing with the truth and our media wasn't holding them accountable.”
The film gives due attention to Weil's religious passion, but suggests that her mystical turn came after deep disillusionment with radical politics. Haslett seems largely uninterested in the very difficult matter of Weil’s relationship to Judaism. (Her parents were so completely assimilated into French secular culture that they neglected to mention this element of her identity until she was about 10 years old). And the director treads lightly around the topic of Weil’s mental health, although she does briefly consider the possibility that the final period of self-denial may have been a kind of suicide by self-starvation.
Haslett makes her resistance to certain aspects of her subject’s life and thought explicit, saying in one voiceover that she felt “betrayed by Weil’s turn toward God.” This does not detract from the value of the film in the least.
On the contrary, ambivalence and discomfort are essential to any meaningful encounter with Weil. To borrow a remark by T.S. Eliot, whose grounds for admiration were as different from Haslett’s as they could be: “I cannot conceive of anybody agreeing with all of her views, or of not disagreeing violently with some of them. But agreement and rejection are secondary: what matters is to make contact with a great soul.”