The 2007 French best-seller

Some years ago, I read the wonderfully titled How to talk about books you haven’t read (Pierre Bayard, 2007) (and yet, I actually read it from start to finish). Actually, Bayard’s book isn’t quite about the kind of non-reading I had in mind. The reading I will describe is, in fact, largely a digital reading exercise – and should be entirely digital. Most of the steps I show below could only be done with a digital resource.

Let’s start with a claim, a hypothesis, an essay title, whatever you like. Here is a quick run-through of my workflow for tackling such a claim. The question I chose was: Did the Enlightenment lead to Bolshevism and Nazism?

You would think such a statement to be rather trite, even facile, but it appears to be a widely held attitude among some present-day thinkers. Richie Robertson, in his recent survey The Enlightenment (2019), references John Gray. Here, for example, is Steven E Aschheim, writing in the TLS of Jan 21 2022 about Isaiah Berlin:

Berlin turned to the history of ideas and assumed a certain continuity between traditional tyranny and totalitarianism. Bolshevism and Nazism alike had their roots in an ongoing Rousseau-influenced tradition of positive liberty.

TLS, Jan 21 2022

Here, hedged about with qualifiers such as “influenced” and “tradition”, is the claim. To be precise, the statement doesn’t say that Rousseau said anything like this; only that a “Rousseau-influenced tradition” contained this idea. I’ll pass over the complexity that this is a reviewer stating what Isaiah Berlin said – let’s assume these are the words of Berlin (we’ll check that out later).

Positive liberty, for those not familiar with the term (I certainly wasn’t), is Berlin’s distinction in his essay “Two Concepts of Liberty”. I looked this up on Wikipedia, and like a dream, there was an entry, and it was reasonably intelligible. “Negative liberty” means you aren’t prevented from doing something. “Positive liberty” means an agency (such as the government) assisting you to achieve an ideal. So, I guess, student grants would be an example of positive liberty: not just preventing you from studying, but providing a way for you to realise your wishes. I imagine, therefore, that “positive liberty” might have meant the totalitarian regime provided a context in which German citizens could feel, for example, superior to other races.

To be sure of what Berlin was saying, I looked on the Web for summaries of “Two Concepts of Liberty” – there were at least five available. In the absence of reading the whole essay, they would provide an outline

Did the idea of “positive liberty” match anything in Rousseau? At this point, I read the Blinkist summary of The Social Contract, which they say would take me 12 minutes to read, and actually took around 20. This gave me a clear overview of the book, but I wanted to see something more specific: were examples of negative and positive liberty in Rousseau?  

I then turned to A Rousseau Dictionary (N J H Dent, 1992, which sadly I only have in a print edition), where in the useful essays on “freedom”, Dent points me to specific relevant passages in The Social Contract. It’s undoubtedly true that Rousseau describes positive liberty, even justifying the use of force: “quiconque refusera d’obéir a la volonté générale y sera contraint par tout le corps” –“concerning the general will, anyone who refuses to obey will be forced by the whole body to do so”.   That’s pretty explicit; nonetheless, I think it is twisting Rousseau to see his writing as a justification of totalitarianism. But that would be the topic of my essay, which I can now begin writing – but that’s for a different post.

To summarise, my method of study here was:

  1. Read a claim, in this case “Bolshevism and Nazism … had their roots in a Rousseau-influenced tradition of positive liberty”.
  2. Identify the relevant work(s) that relate to this idea – in this case, Berlin’s ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, and Rousseau’s The Social Contract
  3. Use Blinkist  (or similar) to run over the main argument of this work.
  4. Use a specialist reference work or dictionary (where one exists) to identify passages in the work that related specifically to the claim. This is the approach, for example, used by Wikipedia in its entry for “positive liberty”, which quotes from the relevant article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Idefally, use the full-text index in the digital version to check for sure if a phrase is present or absent in the work.

You can see from the above, that at no point do I read the entire work – not in English, nor in the original French. People might claim I have missed things, but on the other hand, by drawing on others’ study and presentation, I can get to the heart of the work sooner and more precisely than I would otherwise. The whole exercise took my little more than an hour.

How could the process be improved? By having more digital resources, and better links. I still haven’t engaged with Berlin and understand just what he means in his essay on liberty; but, unfortunately, Blinkist doesn’t have a summary of Berlin’s essay “Two Concepts of Liberty”. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Blinkist moving towards more academic content of this kind when adding more reviews.

Another improvement would be to make more use of the wealth of reference content available, but usually in the wrong format or medium. Most major thinkers have a dictionary or encyclopedia dedicated to them, with links to primary sources. In contrast, Wikipedia is a bit hit-and-miss. A publisher who combines reference content, articles and books, and primary sources in a reasonable annotated edition will in the future provide lots of added value. And a far more effective way to write about books you haven’t read.