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The Function of Cynicism at the Present Time

Written by Roger Crisp

Last month, Helen Small, Merton Professor of English Language and Literature, gave a fascinating and wide-ranging presentation in the New St Cross Special Ethics Seminar Series, on the function of cynicism at the present time. She is currently writing a book on the topic with the support of a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship.

Small approaches cynicism initially from two angles: history and psychology. Cynicism began in the ancient world with philosophers such as Diogenes, who is said to have lived in a tub and, when Alexander the Great inquired what he wished from him, asked the king to get out of his light. Modern cynicism, however, though it can trace its origins to the Greeks, is best understood psychologically. Cynics are inclined to be suspicious of the apparently idealistic or other-regarding motives of others, believing that human motivation is largely self-interested. Their views, then, tend to be negative, critical, anti-idealist, anti-political, and ‘realist’ (in the sense of that term used in international relations). And they often take philosophical critique more seriously than most professional philosophers: philosophy, as Foucault suggested, should be a ‘lived practice’, not merely one professional, institutionalized activity among others.

Small’s own project focuses on cynical criticism of public morality within literature and philosophy from 1830, primarily in Britain, continental Europe, and the United States. Admitting she is attracted to the flair of cynic style (verbal impudence, shamelessness, acerbic wit, epigrams, anecdote, and vulgarization), she  will examine not only those standardly thought of as broadly cynical – Nietzsche, Carlyle, Thackeray, Rorty, and Williams – but writers who are rightly thought of as idealistic but who also adopt cynical methodology for certain purposes: Arnold, George Eliot, Dewey, and even Foster Wallace. Cynicism, she suggests, is in all of us to a degree, and – properly regulated – can count as an intellectual virtue. (There is a lot of recent philosophical work on trust; perhaps we should also be thinking about appropriate distrust.)

Small is a scholar of J.S. Mill, and like Mill understands how critical culture can keep the truth vibrant and secure, as well as puncturing falsehoods and creating conditions for new discoveries. But she is also well aware that cynicism can go too far. As with most forms of scepticism, excessive cynicism can be self-undermining or self-defeating, resulting in the questioning of the cynic’s own motives. But it is at just this point that the cynic should insist on the separation of motivation from content. As Small points out, the current and worryingly widespread hostility to liberalism results from a recognition by critics that allegedly progressive and tolerant principles have been used by the élite to secure their own power rather than extend it to others. But that is no criticism of liberalism, just as what happened in the Soviet Union does not undermine Marxism. Even hypocrites can tell the truth, and cynicism about liberals should not be confused with scepticism about liberalism itself.

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7 Comment on this post

  1. Thanks to Roger for the post and Helen for being the source of it. I wonder however, whether cynicism is really a form of scepticism.
    For IMHO the difference between the sceptic and the cynic lies essentially in this: the sceptic challenges, doubts, questions, but is able to be convinced by facts, reasons and arguments (when they exist). The cynic is almost impossible to win over, because at root his arguments are ad hominem, or ideological, ie directed not at objective phenomena but the subjective reasons for belief or propagation of belief.
    The cynic of course prefers to present himself as a sceptic, but a good test could always be to ask what it would take for him to change his mind….

  2. Thanks, Anthony. That is a nice point. I was using the term ‘scepticism’ rather loosely, to refer to various forms of doubt. So I’d see your distinction as one between two forms of scepticism, broadly construed. The difference is in practice going to be one of degree rather than kind, since presumably there might be evidence regarding someone’s beliefs that the cynic could take into account, sometimes after the fact. Imagine that I advance some self-sacrificial ideal. A cynic might claim that I’m doing this hypocritically, to encourage others to admire me. But if I then make some major sacrifice (e.g. of my life), the cynic may change their mind. But I quite agree that cynics do tend to me more dogmatic than most people — and I suspect this will be borne out in Helen’s study.

  3. Roger, your mention of a “self-sacrificial” act is intriguing. Let’s say you succeeded in forming a world-wide movement to solve the otherwise insoluble problems of overpopulation/climate change, with all the world’s seniors and all those who believe life gets better after death vowing to “drink the Kool-Aid” in public at midnight, to do what is ethically the right thing and save the planet for future humans and other animals. As a cynic I would sneer that they’re never going to keep their promise to suicide, but then if they did I would discredit its ethical component by pointing out that, like suicide bombers, they honestly believed they’re going to heaven/paradise.

    But I’d be skeptical that their act would have the desired effect., because it might.

  4. Thanks, Simon. Yes, you’re right — there is no knock-down argument against psychological egoism. But there are evolutionary reasons to expect us not to be psychological egoists, and some apparently sincere non-believers in the afterlife have sacrificed themselves for an ideal or for others.

  5. Thanks, Roger. Wouldn’t a knock-down rebuttal of psychological egoism be that in an emergency, brain scientists tell us, we act a tenth of a second before we even become aware of what we’re going to do? You’re right that evolution needs us to act, not philosophise first; tigers don’t. We’re wired to pull our hand off a hot stove a fraction of a second before our brain sends the message to our consciousness.
    Not that we’re robots: there’s no little game controller sitting in our head. It’s us. And you’re right that some atheists give their lives to help others, so cynicism is unjustified there. Add to these the child martyrs who aren’t sure they’ll meet the 72 virgins but are hopeful, and know that blowing themselves up will give their poor family a welcome cash bonus.
    And perhaps a boasted belief in the afterlife is little more than a pious hope. (Myself I can’t even imagine an afterlife better than life on Earth.) A cynical joke makes this point: A couple die and find themselves at the Pearly Gates. An angel escorts them to their magnificent new apartment, with fine furniture, TV, a pool, hot-tub, barbecue and everything they could want, including drinks and meal service. The angel bows out and the husband turns on his wife, “You idiot! We could have been here 20 years ago if you hadn’t made us eat all that tofu and kale!”

  6. Thanks, Simon. Yes, psychological egoism has to be restricted to chosen actions, and also tweaked to cover weakness of will and other problems. Great joke — and it makes a serious point!

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