anthony kenny

Correspondence with Anthony Kenny

In April 2011, Howard Gardner published Truth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed: Educating for Virtues in the Twenty First Century. The book received positive reviews, the fullest one by Alan Ryan in the New York Review of Books. A paperback version of the book, with a new preface, and a new subtitle, “Educating for the Virtues in the Era of Truthiness and Twitter” was published in the fall of 2012.

In addition to reviews, Gardner has received provocative letters from colleagues. From time to time we will post these exchanges:

Sir Anthony John Patrick Kenny, FBA is an English philosopher whose interests lie in the philosophy of mind, ancient and scholastic philosophy, the philosophy of Wittgenstein and the philosophy of religion. He is noted for having made a significant contribution to Analytical Thomism. He is a former President of the British Academy and of the Royal Institute of Philosophy. Currently, he serves as one of the executors of the Wittgenstein’s literary estate.

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Dear Howard, 

Your book on Truth, Beauty and Goodness reached me recently by a somewhat roundabout route.  I spent today reading it and I write to say how much I enjoyed it and how greatly I agreed with most of it. Almost everything you said seemed to me true, and indeed some of it obviously true.  It is very sad that obvious truths need to be stated firmly these days, but clearly there is such a need, and it is good to you to have met it.  Perhaps the truths seem more obvious here because I think British universities have not been as much wounded by postmodernism as American and continental ones have.  But your other bugbear, the digital media, is something I had clearly not taken the measure of.

Among the things I particularly liked in your book was the distinction between neighbourly morality and the ethics of roles.  I think that is much more useful than the philosophical distinction I grew up with between  morality (what one should and should not do) and ethics (the second-order study of the language of morality). The chapter I enjoyed most and profited most from was A Promising Start. As a grandparent one is particularly fascinated by children’s gradual appropriation of epistemological and moral concepts – as a parent one is too much involved as a participant in the process to be a competent observer. The area where I was least in sympathy with you was aesthetics: I am  much less tolerant than you are of conceptual art.

I had a number of philosophical quibbles – largely terminological.  I don’t think of truth, goodness, and beauty (the “transcendentals”) as being virtues, but as being values. In Aristotelian fashion I think of the virtues as being human qualities or characteristics that enable us to engage with the transcendental values.  Again, I don’t like talk of “multiple truths”. Of course, there are many different kinds of truths, arrived at by different kinds of investigation. But I don’t think – as talk of multiple truths may suggest, and as talk of “double truth” did suggest in the Middle Ages – that something can be true in one discipline (e.g. theology) and false in another (e.g. philosophy or science).

As a very inadequate thank-offering I attach a contribution I made just before Christmas to a conference at Christ’s College Cambridge on evolution in ethics.

With best wishes for the new year, and hope that our paths may cross again before too long.

Sincerely,

Tony Kenny

 

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Dear Tony,

Many thanks for taking the time to comment. I think that the word ‘values’ describes my undertaking as well as the word ‘virtues’ and perhaps avoids some of the problems, so I accept this as a friendly amendment. I also agree that ‘multiple truths’ should not be seen as opening the door for a positing of contradictory truths. What may appear to be contradictions are more likely to be different definitions or operationalizations across disciplines—for example, causality in history is quite different from causality in physics or in psychology.

Perhaps because of my involvement as a board member with New York’s Museum of Modern Arts, I am more favorably disposed than you are, to conceptual art. Still, I should mention that when I was recently asked by Jeff Koons to write an essay for a catalogue connected to a forthcoming retrospective, I declined to do so…it was ‘a bridge too far’.

Our own research on morality/ethics confirms the view that you attribute to the Stoics (in your fine Christ Church essay)—recognition of increasingly wider circles of humanity, as one ages. This empirical trend makes especially intriguing those rare young people who identify with the whole human race, or even with all living beings. (It’s less surprising that some of us oldsters narrow our circles, a la Evelyn Waugh). My own thinking has been affected by the writings of the American political scientist Alan Wolfe. He claims that 20th century Americans are the first known population to believe widely in ‘moral freedom’—each of us has the right to develop his or her own morality and no one else has the right to pass judgment on that idiosyncratic sense of morality. This claim may reflect the incredible diversity within America, with so many mixed marriages and so many changes of religious affiliation. Our ‘global’ world may have as many centrifugal as centripetal forces at work. My current work on ‘good work’ is an effort, no doubt Quixotic, to look for common values.

I’m honored to have you as a reader and as a friendly critic.

With all good wishes for the Near Year,

Howard

 

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