The Philosophical Library

Rick Lewis on libraries, philosophical classics, unexpected discoveries and the challenges of a digital age.

I remember our school library mostly as a place to keep warm and shelter from the rain and playground bullies. It did, however, contain an eclectic selection of books of varying vintages, and idly browsing them gave me my first taste of what it is like to make unexpected discoveries in literature. Once I found a translation of The Clouds, by Aristophanes. That was the satirical play that Socrates blamed, at his trial in 399 BC, for having influenced public opinion against him. But back then I had barely heard of Socrates so I found Aristophanes’ witty send-up of the philosopher and his students a little difficult to follow. A couple of shelves further up, one wet Tuesday, I found an astronomy textbook from the late 19th century, that included a section explaining why space travel would always be impossible (because in space there is no air to push against). And one day I discovered a book by Albert Einstein. It wasn’t his excellent popular guide to his own Theory of Relativity. Called Out of My Later Years, it was a collection of essays on all sorts of topics in morality, religion, culture and international politics. It may be the nearest that Einstein came to writing an actual philosophy book, unless you count General Relativity itself as being philosophy. (And why not? Isn’t it a dazzling triumph of metaphysics, developed from basic underlying axioms with ruthless clarity, despite the counterintuitive conclusions, until it finally gives us a completely new understanding of the universe?)

A library is a place where you expect the unexpected and a single passing reference can send you off to another book on another shelf, and each book might contain dross or might contain a whole universe of thought. But I had forgotten that book of Einstein’s essays until recently I accidentally made contact with its publishers, and discovered that the reason they publish this and six other books by Albert Einstein is rather interesting. So of course I felt I should share it.

Einstein leaving a dinner party in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1951
It seems that after he emigrated to the United States in 1933 Einstein kept a particular affinity for German language and culture. In New York he made contact with other German-speaking refugees and immigrants, among them a Romanian-born philosopher called Dr Dagobert D. Runes. Like Einstein, Runes was a humanist, a civil rights activist and an admirer of Baruch Spinoza. The two become close friends. Runes knew almost everyone in émigré circles, and hit on the idea of publishing books by the brilliant European exiles he knew. In 1941 he launched The Philosophical Library to do just that. Apart from Out of My Later Years (1950), the seven books by Einstein that he published included several collections of letters, one of which is a book of Einstein’s correspondence with his translator discussing how best to translate various passages of Einstein’s work. The value of this to anyone trying to clarify Einstein’s meaning on different points is obvious. Then when Runes himself edited a Spinoza Dictionary, Einstein wrote the foreword.

The Philosophical Library continues today, still based in New York City but now under the direction of Dagobert Runes’ daughter Regeen, who remembers playing ‘hide-and-go-seek’ with Einstein when she was a small child. Over the seventy years of its existence the company has published more than 2,000 titles, mainly on philosophy, psychology, history and religion. Like the library at my old school, its catalogue is charmingly eclectic, but includes works by 22 Nobel Prize winners. Apart from Einstein’s books its best-known publications include Tears and Laughter by Kahlil Gibran, Classical Mathematics by Max Planck, the English edition of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, and works by Karl Barth, Martin Buber, Bergson, Dewey, Simone de Beauvoir, Jaspers, Royce and many others.

As technological change accelerates and independent publishing companies either fold or merge into giant corporations that bestride the oceans, the survival of small-scale philosophy publishing depends on discovering models which work both financially and in terms of meeting the needs of readers. The Philosophical Library uses two such models. Firstly, it publishes classics from its vast back-catalogue as e-books, as this avoids much of the financial risk involved in printing and distribution. Secondly, it offers a ‘print-on-demand’ service, whereby it arranges the printing of a single copy of a book once it has received an order.

The Philosophical Library manages an astonishing legacy of 20th century classics. By contrast, Project Gutenberg takes a completely different approach for older books which have passed out of copyright in the United States, which happens 70 years after the death of the author. The books are scanned and proof-read by an army of volunteers and around 45,000 are now available for free download, though only about 100 of those are philosophy books. The project’s founder, Michael S. Hart, passed away in 2011 but his legacy marches on. Finally I should mention another great project for public domain works: LibriVox. This is a website containing free audiobooks, recorded by volunteers. Its collection includes around 300 philosophy titles and it is a great resource both for visually impaired people and anyone else who likes to listen to books.


How to Read Philosophy?

What follows is an extract from a forthcoming book called AQA AS Philosophy by Gerald Jones, Dan Cardinal & Jeremy Hayward – an engaging, student-friendly textbook designed to help UK high school students embrace and enjoy philosophy at AS level. It seemed such a useful guide that we decided to print it here as well.

Introductory textbooks like this try to summarise and clarify some incredibly complex and significant ideas. But we cannot capture the depth and richness of the original texts and reading these gives you a chance to get your intellectual teeth into the ideas of Western philosophers in their own words.

As if you needed to be told, philosophy is hard. […] It is hard because philosophical ideas and arguments themselves are so complex, so subtle and nuanced, and they rely on a web of understanding that reaches back more than two thousand years, past Hume and past Descartes, past Aquinas and Anselm all the way to Plato, Aristotle and Socrates. It is also hard because philosophers are not always the clearest of writers:

Lord Macaulay once recorded in his diary a memorable attempt – his first and apparently his last – to read Kant’s Critique: “I received today a translation of Kant… I tried to read it, just as if it had been written in Sanskrit”.

We can excuse the fact that many of the classics of philosophy were written before the Twentieth Century, when the fashion was for longer sentences, which can be hard to follow. Even if we set aside their long-winded style, such works aren’t always clear in their explanations, they often don’t refer to their source-material and sometimes introduce technical jargon to try to express their new ideas.

But there things you can do to help overcome some of the difficulties of reading them. First, don’t try to work it all out by yourself. Philosophy is a discursive subject; in other words it is about engaging with the thoughts and opinions and arguments of others, about debating arguments and clarifying concepts with others, and experimenting with these ideas to see where this takes you. So we recommend, when you read and analyse these texts that you compare your analysis with other people in your class and your teacher, as well as with the summary that we ourselves have made of the texts. Secondly, we have also developed an interpretative framework, some philosophical ‘lenses’, which can help clarify what’s being said, and which you can use to see beneath the surface of the text and start to understand what these philosophers are trying to say.

Philosophical Lenses

Below are five lenses which will help you make sense of the original philosophical texts. Take each lens in turn, and apply it to the text, then move onto the next one. If you use all five lenses, and end up with a short, structured summary of what you think the main ideas are then you are well on your way to understanding the extract.

Context: When was this extract written, who wrote it, and why did they write it?

• Talk to your teacher to find out more about the book that this extract is from.

• Go online to get a sense of the biography and stories behind the person who wrote it.

• Go online and search for the book at the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (IEP) to get a summary of its overall argument.

• Find out what is happening in the book immediately before and after the extract.

Vocabulary: What words appear to be used in a technical way?

• Underline and make a note of those words that seem difficult to understand.

• Check in the glossary or index of this book to see if they’re explained in this book.

• Talk to your teacher or classmates about the meaning of these words.

• Look up these words in a dictionary of philosophy (remember ordinary dictionaries may only record the ordinary meanings of these words, not the philosophical meanings).

Concepts: What are the recurring ideas in this extract?

• Once you’ve sorted out the vocabulary, what ideas are being examined in this extract?

• Check to see if you’ve encountered these ideas before (again look in the glossary or index).

• Write down a sentence summarising each idea in your own words.

• Talk to your classmates about how the ideas connect with one another in the extract.

Argument: What indicators are there that this extract contains an argument?

• Find signposts that a conclusion is being drawn (therefore, thus, and so, it follows, hence)

• Look for key words indicating whether reasons are being given (because, following, from what’s been said)

• Identify the premises, evidence and assumptions on which the argument is being built

• Check for other signs of argument (however, but, if… then)

• Refer back to the bullet points at the end of the ‘Arguments for the Existence of God’ section for further questions you could ask, to help tease out the argument.

• If the extract is not an argument, then what is it: an explanation, or a criticism, or a conceptual analysis, or something else?

Structure: How could you break the extract down into separate, numbered, ‘chunks’?

• Try numbering in the margins the main points that are being made.

• Use the signposts that you’ve identified to break down the extract into chunks

• Try drawing the ideas on a page, possibly as a ‘mind-map’.

• Write these chunks in your own words.

• Now try rewriting the paragraph as if you were a philosopher (which you are!) by writing down the chunks, in your own words, which flow in order 1, 2, 3, etc.

Paperback Aug 2014 9781471835353 £24.99. Visit to find out more and enter the code WK0002844 at the checkout to claim an exclusive 20% discount for Philosophy Now readers.

Does Philosophy Get Out of Date? (And I am back from my hiatus :) )

Mary Midgley says philosophy is about understanding the context and about understanding how we came to be where we are.

I started to wonder about this topic some time back when rumours reached me that, in some universities, no philosophy was being taught except what had been published in the last twenty years. These rumours were hard to check and clearly practice is very variable. It seems cars have been seen in the States with bumper-stickers bearing the message, ‘Just Say No To History of Philosophy’. And Gilbert Harman at Princeton had a notice to that effect outside his office door. It also emerges that the term ‘History of Philosophy’ has changed its meaning. It is now being used to describe all study of older writers, not just study with a historical angle. So Harman’s idea is that you shouldn’t read them at all and should certainly not take them seriously. At Cambridge, a student recently told a friend of mine that he had spent his whole undergraduate career without reading a word of Aristotle, Descartes or Kant. At this, (said my informant) “my heart sank.”

Well, so does mine. But we need to ask just why our hearts sink, and we should ask too what the people who make these changes are aiming at? Wondering about this, I remembered some things that happened in the Thatcher years, when cuts first began to threaten universities. Administrators, sternly told to economize, saw that the quickest way to do it was simply to close small departments. This would also enable them to harmonize with the mystique of ‘centres of excellence’ which was then in fashion. These centres were supposed to be big schools in which the study of a given subject would be so well covered that no other departments elsewhere would be needed at all. Thus, ideally, all the physics could be done at Manchester, all the economics at LSE, and all the philosophy (if any was still needed) at Oxford.

Since philosophy departments were usually small, universities did indeed start to close them. Eight of them in Britain went in the end. As one after another vanished, it struck me that nobody was saying that this ought not to happen. Nobody was suggesting that the subject was important in itself – that universities needed to teach it, that, if they stopped doing so they would become, in some sense, hardly universities at all. Fired by this thought I wrote to a number of the eminent philosophers of the time saying, in effect, “Do something! Write to The Times (which was what one did in those days). Let people know that this is important.’’

Nothing much came of this, but one of the replies that came back still strikes me as significant. I didn’t keep it because it made me so cross, but I remember perfectly well what it said. It came from that very distinguished Oxford philosopher Michael Dummett, and he told me flatly that it was wrong in principle to try to preserve all these provincial academic departments. Philosophy, he said, was a serious and highly technical subject which should only be studied at its own proper level. Any less professional approaches to it were useless and might even do harm. And what Dummett meant by the proper level is clear from a well-known passage in his writings where he said that “the proper object of philosophy” had only been finally established with the rise of “the modern logical and analytical style of philosophizing.” This object, he said, was… “the analysis of the structure of thought, [for which] the only proper method is the analysis of language.” And, not surprisingly, he thought this business of linguistic analysis had now become a highly technical pursuit – something increasingly like nuclear physics – which could only be carried on by people specially trained in it

The question Dummett raised is about the aim – the point, the proper object of philosophy. What are we actually trying to do? And it strikes me at once that, when Socrates talked about the great dangers that threaten human life, he didn’t actually mention the danger of unexamined thought or unexamined language. What Socrates warned us against was an unexamined life. And it is surely the attempt to examine life as a whole, to make sense of it, to locate its central confusions and resolve its big conflicts, that has been the prime business of traditional philosophy. Only quite lately has a quite different pattern of philosophizing caught on – a pattern that is modelled closely on the physical sciences and is reverently called Research. In those sciences, progress can be seen as consisting in accumulating a string of facts, in moving on from one empirical discovery to another. This seems often to be imagined as a mining operation, a steady process of digging through the intervening strata to reach the truth – the precious metal that lies hidden far beneath. In this process, the obstacles that have been removed are, of course, only of passing concern. Once they have been conquered they become irrelevant to the enquiry. That is why, to a physicist, past physical discoveries often have only a mild historical interest. His business is always with the next discovery. This accounts for his exclusive concentration on the latest journals, and also for the very revealing metaphor of the ‘cutting edge’ of research.

Now of course this sort of progress does happen and it can go on usefully for a long time. But, even in physical science, it is never the whole story. It can only work so long as there is a given linear pattern, a preset journey which will go reliably from A to B and so on to the end of the alphabet in the expected direction. Even in the sciences, that pattern isn’t always there. Often the next important discovery is going to crop up somewhere quite different – right off to the side of the expected route. Some awkward character such as Copernicus or Einstein or Faraday or Darwin mentions a new thought which calls for a quite new direction, a new way of envisaging the subject. Similarly, Peter Higgs has explained that the work by which he discovered his famous Boson was right off his official line of research, and if it had been noticed that he was doing it he might have been in for trouble. The reason why these people can make their unexpected forays is that they themselves have been looking at things differently. They have found new standpoints from which entirely unexpected things can be seen.

How is this possible? Historians sometimes treat these achievements either as something inevitable or as a kind of miracle due to individual genius. (This is why some misguided people demand a further dissection of Einstein’s brain, as if that would explain his discoveries.) But what is really happening is something both more obvious and more interesting. It is that these original thinkers have stood back from their local problem. They have placed it in its wider context and thought about how it connects with the surrounding scenery. They have been using telescopes rather than microscopes, so they can deal with a larger subject-matter. In short, they have been philosophizing.

This business of looking at life as a whole – finding wider contexts to give sense to our immediate problems – is philosophy’s distinctive activity. It is what makes it a genuinely important occupation, in fact an occupation that matters to all of us. Philosophy is not just one speciality among others. It’s a kind of conceptual geography which looks at the relation between the subject-matters of various ways of thinking and tries to map it. The reason why some philosophers become well-known is not that they have discovered new facts but that they have shifted the whole standpoint of thought. Philosophers have repeatedly brought absurdities to the attention of their age by displaying current customs against a new background and pointing out the strange assumptions that are distorting them. After this, new ways of thinking become possible.

Portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Édouard Lacretelle
For instance, when Rousseau started his book on the Social Contract by saying, “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains”, he was lighting up some crashing discrepancies between theory and practice which had to be investigated if current problems were ever to be properly dealt with. Similarly, when this same Rousseau pointed out the strangely unnatural way in which babies were being reared – babies who were removed from their mothers, bandaged onto boards and handed over to carers who might well not care much about them – people started to notice anomalies in their whole idea of what nature is, and how it relates to our species. These anomalies had never struck them before. More immediately, they also started for the first time to pay some serious attention to small children, as they have gone on doing ever since.

It is interesting that our forefathers apparently could not see through these previous muddled ways of thinking until someone like Rousseau pointed them out. The assumptions that had produced these earlier customs simply persisted till some shock was delivered – till they were plainly stated in a form that could be grasped and made more workable. This shows how deeply our thought depends on a mass of unstated assumptions, very much in the way that our physical life rests on the hidden shifting masses of the earth beneath us. We don’t notice these assumptions till things start to go wrong – until, so to speak, the smell coming up from below is so bad that we are forced to take up the floor-boards and do something about it. This is why I have often suggested that philosophy is best understood as a form of plumbing. It’s the way in which we service the deep infrastructure of our life – the patterns in life that are taken for granted because they have never been noticed. This is something both deeper and more outward-looking than just examining the structure of our current thought and language, which seems to be what Dummett was calling for.

Another useful piece of plumbing was done in the late seventeenth century, when John Locke worked out the concept of Tolerance. During most of that century people throughout Europe had assumed that they must not tolerate disagreement. If they couldn’t agree on a single truth about religion, they must just go on fighting till they did, and meanwhile individual heretics must all be converted or punished. The idea that different opinions could perfectly well be allowed to exist side by side was seen as a culpable weakness, leading to anarchy. What eventually struck Locke, and what he managed to express in his writings, was that this system of competing dogmas can’t work because the truth is simply too complex. Nobody ever has the whole truth, and people who grasp different bits of it can, in fact, perfectly well live peacefully together. Indeed, that may be the best way of putting the various partial truths together in the end.

This ‘discovery’ was not, of course, (as scientific discoveries sometimes are) simply a matter of finding a brand-new ready-made fact, such as that the Earth goes round the Sun. It was much more like inventing a new musical instrument and working out how to play it. Locke and the people who worked with him had to learn how to tolerate what had previously seemed intolerable, and how to do business with people they had previously thought were outside the pale. They had to learn, too, how to look at the outer borders of this toleration and decide what must still be regarded as intolerable.

Letter Concerning Toleration
Original title page of John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration (1689)
In fact, toleration, like all big philosophical ideas, is a very complex instrument, as hard to play as the cello or bassoon, which is why we still have so much difficulty learning how to handle it properly and why we still need to go on thinking out the ideas behind it. And the other ideals round which we try to structure our lives, ideals such as equality, freedom, compassion, fraternity or sisterhood, justice – are all as complicated as they are attractive. Yet they all have to be thought out and used together by the whole orchestra,

These ideals were, of course, central to the message of the Enlightenment, a message which we now assume is the obvious framework for any decent human life. But the Enlightenment story itself wasn’t always obvious. It didn’t drop ready-made out of a machine called History. It had to be invented, devised with a great deal of hard, grinding work by philosophers like Locke and Rousseau and it has had to be thought through with increasing labour up to the present day. In every age, more work of this kind is needed because the truth about the world is endlessly complicated.

• • •

Are we getting any clearer now about what is the real aim of philosophical enquiry? One thing that is already clear surely is that it can’t be at all like the aim of any physical science. Physical sciences spiral inward and down onto particular bits of the truth, which sometimes are ready-made facts, while philosophy ranges indefinitely outward looking for new connections – new ways of thinking and living. So it is quite proper for nuclear physicists to know more and more about less and less. But philosophers are supposed to do almost the opposite – to find links that will restructure the whole scope of our experience and allow us to live differently. Their use is to extend our range. They can bring a landscape in sight that nobody even knew existed.

Of course the contrast between these two forms of thought is not complete because (as we have seen) physical scientists do sometimes have to widen their views in order to shift their focus, and philosophers too must sometimes deal with detailed technical questions. But in their general balance these two approaches really are opposed – not because they are at war, but because they serve quite different needs. Nuclear physicists are normally addressing a limited audience of specialists – people who already share much of their knowledge and want to know more about a particular aspect of it. But the philosophers’ business is something that concerns everybody. Philosophy aims to bring together those aspects of life that have not yet been properly connected so as to make a more coherent, more workable world-picture. And that coherent world-picture is not a private luxury. It’s something absolutely essential for human life,

John Locke (1632-1704)
World-pictures – perspectives, imaginative visions of how the whole world is – are the necessary background of all our lives. They are often much more important to us than our factual knowledge, as may be seen in the case of climate sceptics whose traditional views remain unchanged whatever new evidence appears that seems to disprove them. We all have these background pictures and we usually get them half-consciously from the people around us. We often don’t ask where they came from. But, if we do ask, we shall probably find that they have been shaped by earlier philosophers who have influenced our tradition. For us, at present, that often means the prophets of the Enlightenment, people like Locke, Rousseau, Descartes, Hobbes, Hume, Mill, Marx and Nietzsche. This earlier philosophy does not get obsolete. Far from that, it’s still vigorously alive. It has shaped the way we think. It has deep roots in the soil of our lives and it goes on developing there in its own characteristic way until somebody comes along and rethinks it. That is why people who refuse to think philosophically so often end up trapped in bits of earlier philosophy that they have unconsciously taken on from their predecessors.

The alternative to being enslaved by past thought in this way is to attend directly to what these earlier philosophers actually said and to see how it relates to our life today. If we do this, we shall often find that these people’s message was far more subtle than the crude versions of it that are still working in the tradition. In fact, it is still throwing out shoots that can help us today. The reason why these philosophers caught the attention of their times was (as I have said) not just that they had solved particular problems but that they had lit up life from unexpected angles. They suggested, not just new thoughts but new concepts, distinctive approaches, whole new ways of thinking. Of course none of these new approaches solves all problems, but each of them gives us a fresh stance, fresh tools for the endless balancing act by which we try to understand our confusing world We can see how influential these suggestions still are, not just because people today often still quote from (say) Marx or Nietzsche or Plato or Buddha for their illustrations, but because current thinking as a whole is still often visibly shaped by these people; coloured through in a way that the people using it now are no longer aware of.

So, how can it be plausible to think that they are out of date and we can now forget about them? How could it not be necessary for us to attend to these still influential factors in our lives? The point is not just that – as I’ve suggested – we need to check their details to protect ourselves against distorted versions of their message that are still working in our tradition. We need also to attend to these mighty trees themselves for their own sake. We need to understand them because they have shaped the whole way of life that we still live by. They are still active features of our present life, parts of the tangled forest through which we are still travelling. In fact, the reason why we need to learn about the history of philosophy is just the same as the reason why we need to learn about the rest our history; namely that, without grasping the past, we can’t hope to understand the present.

On the political scene this is obvious. We know that, if we haven’t grasped the past history of the ravenous way in which Western nations competed to gobble up other countries during the nineteenth century, we can’t hope to understand why so many people in those gobbled countries still feel so bitterly resentful towards ourselves. Historical epochs don’t just succeed one another randomly like successive spinnings of a roulette wheel. They are phases in a continuum, organically connected, so that you often really cannot understand where you are now without grasping how you got there.

And if this background is necessary for understanding politics it is still more necessary for our moral and intellectual life. Without it, we can’t really make sense of current conflicts. In particular, any student who is now expected to study the philosophy of the last twenty years without being told about the long sweep of history that produced it is surely doomed to frustration. And this student has all the more right to resent that frustration because (as we have seen) it affects not just his or her knowledge but their whole world-view, their imaginative understanding of life. We need to grasp the story of our past intellectual evolution so as to understand where we are today, just as badly as we need to know about our past biological evolution.

Philosophy, in fact, is not just one specialized subject like another, something which you need not take up unless you mean to lecture on it. Instead it is something we all do all the time, a continuous, background activity which is likely to go badly if we don’t attend to it. In this way it is perhaps more like driving a car or using money than it is like nuclear physics. And perhaps it is more like music than it is like any of these other occupations. Anyway, like good music, good philosophy does not easily get out of date.

© Dr Mary Midgley 2014

Mary Midgley lectured at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne until 1980. Her best known books include Beast and Man; Wickedness; The Ethical Primate; Science and Poetry and a memoir, The Owl of Minerva. She was given Philosophy Now’s 2011 Award for Contributions in the Fight Against Stupidity.

The 30 Harshest Philosopher-on-Philosopher Insults in History

The 30 Harshest Philosopher-on-Philosopher Insults in History


We’ve amused ourselves for a while now at Flavorwire with our ongoing survey of internecine mud-slinging in various areas of the arts: musicians, actors, authors, and filmmakers have all provided rich entertainment in the manifold ways they’ve fought amongst themselves. But for truly epic bitchiness and egotism, you need look no further than that most storied and venerable of academic disciplines: philosophy! The history of Western thought is peppered with thinkers taking aim at their peers — sometimes in a genteelly intellectual manner, and sometimes… um, less so (yes, Friedrich Nietzsche, this means you). Here are 30 of the best, from Aristotle to Žižek.

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Prison doesn’t work

Stuart Greenstreet on the abysmal failure of theories about crime and punishment.

Prison doesn’t work. Theories about the punishment of lawbreakers fail in practice because they disregard the real conditions of people’s lives.

The apparatus of criminal justice exists to secure a society in which everyone is free to do pretty well as they wish so long as they don’t inhibit others from doing as they wish – provided, that is, that we all obey the law. Nevertheless, prison does not work for the great majority of offenders because all the evidence shows that far from cutting the level of crime, prison actually increases it. I display some facts about offenders’ lives in the panels below. They are from a report called Reducing Re-offending by Ex-prisoners (2002) prepared by the Social Exclusion Unit (SEU) of the British government, but the pattern is similar all over the Western world.

The SEU’s research helps us to see why most criminals go on offending again and again. The empirical evidence it offers supports the hypothesis that entrenched criminal habits are strongly associated with the worst kinds of upbringing.

The typical prisoner seen in the SEU’s data was raised in a family used to crime and imprisonment. His school life was ruined by truanting, exclusion and being taken into care. (95% of the UK’s prison population of 94,000 is male.) He is too illiterate and innumerate for all but the most menial employment. His bad state of mental and physical health is aggravated by addiction to drugs or alcohol or both. He is poor, dependent on state benefits, and constantly in debt. He has no settled home-life.

Here is the SEU’s own conclusion:

“Many of those in prison come from the most socially excluded groups in society. Many will have grown up in backgrounds where serious violence, drug and alcohol abuse are commonplace experiences. Few may have known the security of a stable home or done well at school. Crime may be seen as a survival strategy, as inevitable, or the only means of getting the things that others have.” (para.11.1)

In large measure, then, prisoners are more sinned against than sinning. Is it right that they alone should be held responsible for offences they would probably not have committed but for their bad luck of being born into the kind of circumstances that dispose men to crime?

If an offender is not ultimately responsible for the way he is, perhaps he shouldn’t be jailed for what he does. But are character traits immutable? Perhaps someone with a bad moral trait should respond to reasons to change – should see why that trait is spoiling his life. But how realistic is it to expect hardened re-offenders to go straight? They were brought up in poverty and chaos, starved alike of love, order and discipline, some even mentally scarred by violence and sexual abuse. Recall the SEU’s conclusion: a career of crime is their ‘survival strategy’, or they see it as ‘inevitable’. Maybe these men in many cases really are incapable of change. Two out of three offenders are reconvicted within two years; each released prisoner who gets reconvicted commits at least five crimes while he is free. Do we need more evidence of this widespread incapacity? A childhood of abuse and neglect can leave a person psychologically damaged to such an extent that it is naïve to hold them morally responsible for their traits, or expect them to change their ways. Ill nurture tends to predispose men to crime, and imprisonment to make them persist in it. The SEU found that having a job, a home and a stable family are strongly associated with reducing the likelihood of ex-prisoners re-offending, and that a jail sentence actually weakens these protective factors:

“Too often a prison sentence does not cure the causes of crime, but aggravates them. Instead of helping prisoners to connect with jobs and become included in society again, it can take away the employment, housing and family links, and leave prisoners virtually destitute, on the road back to prison.” (para. 16.2)

One ex-prisoner told the SEU, “It’s true what they say: your sentence begins the day you get out.” It’s not irrational for a destitute prison-leaver to choose to return to crime if it is his only survival strategy.

Sing Sing Prison
At work in Sing Sing with the warden and friends
Sing Sing Prison Picture © Baines News Services

The disastrousness inherent in the failure to develop political and social theories based on a firm grasp of the real conditions of people’s lives is nowhere more plain than in the practice of punishing lawbreakers. It is clear that the quest for an ideal theory of legal punishment – a theory constructed without reference to such conditions – is futile. This futility is perhaps most highly evident in the social contract theory of punishment, which holds that punishment is justified not because it is either retributive or rehabilitory, but because it is a necessary means of defending freedom.

The Injustice of John Rawls

The American philosopher John Rawls defended this ancient doctrine in his classic work A Theory of Justice (1971). There could be no just society if lawbreakers were allowed to go unpunished, he argued, since it is a prerequisite of a just society that every citizen should be held responsible for their conduct. We must understand that “the principle of responsibility is not founded on the idea that punishment is primarily retributive or denunciatory. Instead it is acknowledged for the sake of liberty itself” (p.212). This may be right as a theory of punishment. But when it is applied to the real conditions of offenders’ lives, its defects are appalling, as we have seen in the statistics quoted.

Rawls is best known for a thought experiment he invented to try to establish the principles of justice which should govern a society. We must imagine ourselves in an ‘Original Position’ behind a ‘Veil of Ignorance’. This means that to establish the just principles for society, we have to imagine what principles we would choose if we did not know anything about the position we would hold in it – whether we were rich or poor, male or female, black or white, etc. Rawls says that until the veil is lifted we know nothing about how well each of us is fitted by natural endowment, health, education, or social position, or even gender, to achieve the best outcomes. We are disposed by a risk-averse nature to guard against the worst possible outcomes, he argues, so that our own rational self-interest drives us to choose principles of justice which would favour the worst off. Rawls is thus led to his ‘Difference Principle’: that unless there is an unequal distribution of income and wealth that makes both the most advantaged and the least advantaged better off, then an equal distribution of benefits is to be preferred.

According to the Difference Principle, the gains garnered by naturally gifted or socially privileged individuals do not belong exclusively to them, but should be treated to as a common fund, and available for redistribution. The Principle is in effect an agreement to treat the spread of the natural talents and acquired abilities among all individuals as collective assets. But here Rawls’ principles of justice clash harshly with his social contract justification of punishment. In Rawls’ own words, the Difference Principle would ensure that:

“no one gains or loses from his arbitrary place in the distribution of natural assets or his initial position in society without giving or receiving compensating advantages in turn… That we deserve the superior character that enables us to make the effort to cultivate our abilities is also problematic; for such character depends in good part upon fortunate family and social circumstances in early life for which we can claim no credit. The notion of desert does not apply here.” (A Theory of Justice, pp. 87 & 89)

Now contrast this passage with the following lines about crime, later in the same book:

“a propensity to commit such [illegal] acts is a mark of bad character, and in a just society legal punishments will fall only upon those who display these faults.” (p.277)

But if some people owe their ‘superior character’ to fortunate family and social circumstances, then isn’t it equally the case that others owe their ‘bad character’ to unfortunate circumstances? And if the fortunate do not deserve the advantages from having a good character, why should the unfortunate deserve the disadvantages from having a bad one?

Rawls actually grants that they do not deserve them. To lawbreakers “one can only say: their character is their misfortune” (p.504). It is their misfortune because they do not deserve punishment for offences which they were led to commit by a badness of character for which they themselves are not to blame. It is their bad luck to have punishment fall upon them, since none of us deserve our initial starting place in society, nor how we were raised. Unfortunately, however, offenders have nevertheless to be punished in order to preserve liberty in a just society.

The parties to the (theoretical) Original Position where the principles for society are chosen would surely agree that laws must be enforced. But if they agree to share one another’s fate for the distribution of income and wealth, shouldn’t they agreed to do so for the purpose of criminal culpability as well? The reasoning is entirely symmetrical. Behind the Veil of Ignorance no one can know if they will be born into the kind of circumstances that lead to a life of crime, so shouldn’t the parties behind the Veil apply the Difference Principle to punishments as well as to the sharing of assets? Shouldn’t they, logically speaking, agree to treat the distribution of natural and social defects as a collective liability, just as they treat natural and social benefits? Because character traits depend in large part upon family and social circumstances in early life, favourable or otherwise, for which we can claim no credit or deserve no blame, it is therefore unjust to let retribution fall exclusively upon persons of bad character. Rawls’ reasoning on punishment obviously contradicts the rest of his argument. Rather, the arbitrariness of talents and character undermines desert in respect of both the distribution of wealth and of criminal punishment. It would be just to share the misfortune of offenders. And since offenders are punished even if they don’t personally deserve it, imprisonment, especially, is unjust.

Rates of incarceration and re-offending (approx.) prisoners / 100,000 population

Solving Crime

The evidence in the SEU’s report points to an overwhelming conclusion: crime is largely the penalty of poverty and ignorance, just as typhoid is the price of foul drinking water. Imprisonment tinkers with the symptoms of crime, aggravates the causes of crime, and thus perpetuates crime.

It would be very foolish to suppose that poverty and ignorance could be wiped out in the lifespan of even several governments. That result would require a set of policies, consistently maintained over many decades, and purposely designed as a Grand Project to eradicate the conditions in which people feel driven into criminal careers as their only survival strategy. For such a project to be fulfilled it would need to be backed up by a binding compact between the major political parties.

One possible analogy is with a great flood prevention project in Holland known as the Delta Works. In January 1953, all of south-west Holland, from Rotterdam to Flushing, was covered by a North Sea flood that killed around two thousand people in one night. The South Holland coast region is home to four million people, most of whom live below normal sea level. The loss of life in a catastrophic flood here was very great because there’s hardly any warning time with North Sea storms, so mass evacuation wasn’t a realistic option. In response to the flood, the Dutch government decided to build a storm surge barrier that would reduce the length of coastline exposed to the sea by 700 kilometres (435 miles). This work was sustained until the work was declared officially finished nearly sixty years later in 2010. The Dutch people were politically committed to see the project through, no matter how long it took, or which government was in power, or what it cost. The Delta Works has been called one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.

If imprisonment were the answer to crime we would be closing prisons not opening more. On the contrary, all the evidence shows that imprisonment tends to induce re-offending. It is absolutely evident from the SEU’s research that prison produces negligible impact on re-offending at enormous social and economic cost: in Britain the government has put the cost of crime by re-offenders alone at around £11billion a year to victims and the nation.

Men are sent to prison by judges not connected socially or even geographically to those they sentence, and who are thus insulated from the consequences of their decisions. ‘How to punish?’ is instead best answered where the offenders and their victims live. Every community should accept its share of responsibility, and work to eradicate local conditions that foster bad character and crime. Education, housing, healthcare and job programmes prevent offences and reintegrate offenders. It is on these things and on reparations that money should be spent, not on imprisonment.

© Stuart Greenstreet 2014

Stuart Greenstreet earned his living as a business manager and writer before taking up philosophy at Birkbeck College, London. After graduating from the Open University he did further philosophy at the University of Sussex.

Family Background of Convicted Prisoners

Prisoners are far more likely than the general population to have grown up in care, poverty, or an otherwise disadvantaged situation. Compared with men and women in the general population, prisoners were:

• 4 times more likely to have run away from home as a child.

• 13 times more likely to have been taken into care as a child.

• 2.5 times more likely to have a family member convicted of a criminal offence.

The latter two characteristics interact. Around 125,000 children in Britain are affected by imprisonment each year. Many are taken into care, fostered, or adopted as a result of a parent’s imprisonment, and this increases the likelihood of their becoming offenders themselves.

Nearly half of all prisoners say that they have lost contact with their families since entering prison. Many are sent to prisons far from their homes.

Education and Employment of Convicted Prisoners

Most prisoners have had their experience of school disrupted by truanting and exclusion, and leave school at the first opportunity, with no qualifications. Compared with the general population, convicted prisoners were:

• 10 times more likely to have been a regular truant.

• Nearly 25 times more likely to have been excluded from school.

• Nearly 3 times more likely to have left school at sixteen or younger.

• Nearly 4 times more likely to have left school with no qualifications.

• 23% of male and 11% of female prisoners attended a special school compared to only one per cent of the general population.

• 48% of prisoners have a lower level of reading ability than an 11-year-old; 65% have lower numeracy skills; and 82% have lower writing skills.

Low skills feed into low employability: only half of prisoners have the reading skills, less than one-third the numeracy, and one-fifth the writing skills necessary for 96% of all jobs.

Employment reduces the risk of re-offending by between a third and a half. But two-thirds of prisoners arrive in prison from unemployment. Unemployment in the general population is normally between 5% to 8%. Among prisoners (in the 4 weeks before imprisonment) it is 67%.

The same proportion have never experienced regular employment or having a job that was really worth having. Over one in seven say that they have never had a job at all.