AS WELL AS.

I was reading Tony Judt’s NYRB “Leszek Kołakowski (1927–2009),” an obituary for a man I was not as aware of as I should have been, when I was caught up short by this quote from Kołakowski: “A mere feeling of responsibility is a formal virtue that by itself does not result in a specific obligation: it is possible to feel responsible for a good cause as well as an evil one.” I had to reread it to realize what he was saying, and I wasn’t absolutely sure until it was glossed by Judt in the following paragraph:

This simple observation seems rarely to have occurred to a generation of French existentialists and their Anglo-American admirers. It may be that one needed to have experienced firsthand the attraction of utterly evil goals (of left and right alike) to otherwise responsible intellectuals in order to understand to the full the costs as well as the benefits of ideological commitment and moral unilateralism.

The ironic thing is that the phrase I’ve bolded uses “as well as” in the way I’m used to and understand easily; A as well as B puts the emphasis on A, the marked element, while B is the unmarked, expected term. If I were editing the first quote, I would automatically rewrite it to “it is possible to feel responsible for an evil cause as well as a good one.”
Now, of course you could say that Kołakowski was not a native speaker of English, but it seems to me I’ve seen this use fairly frequently in recent years. So I turn to the Varied Reader: which form seems more natural or transparent to you?

Comments

  1. My impulse is the same as yours: I had to backtrack to try to understand the sentence, and I still wasn’t sure what he meant. I assume he meant what your rewrite takes him to mean: that a sense of responsibility isn’t necessarily a good thing. But as written it seems to be saying that it isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

  2. I found it both easy to parse and more natural than your suggested revision. To me, the expected idea is that of feeling responsible for an evil cause, the unexpceted element is the idea of feeling responsible for a good one. Seldom would I hear anyone say, “who is responsivle for this?” if the “this” being enquired about was something positive. That’s my two annas anyway.

  3. rootlesscosmo says:

    A lot of Kolakowski’s work (and I’m an enthusiastic admirer of Main Currents of Marxism–thanks, Cosma) was originally in Polish or German. I wonder what idiom was translated as “responsible for” and whether it might not have been more closely rendered by “responsible to;” I wonder if “as well as” is translated from “sogleich wie,” which may not imply the marked-unmarked distinction Hat perceives (as do I) in “as well as.” (If the original was in Polish then I haven’t a clue.)

  4. A little Google/Amazon search brings up ‘Translated from the German by Wolfgang Freis from “Die Intellektuellen,” a lecture delivered over Bavarian radio, 1982. Revised by the author in English.’

  5. I’ve a bigger problem: I don’t understand what’s being said in any of the three forms.
    My main problem: How can you feel responsible for a cause?
    That just doesn’t make any sense to me.

  6. Actually, I’ll go further than that.
    “A mere feeling of responsibility is a formal virtue that by itself does not result in a specific obligation”
    What’s a formal virtue?
    Why would a feeling of responsibility have anything to do with virtues?
    Why imply that on most occasions feelings of responsibility result in a specific obligation?

  7. michael farris says:

    manolis, guessing (and knowing Polish) he’s not talking about feeling responsible for a cause but responsible for supporting a cause (and in Polish responsible lines up heavily with ‘guilty’ or ‘fault’)

  8. Manolis, what’s ‘formally virtuous’ about a “sense of responsibility” is that that sense entails a personal assumption of having caused some effect, regardless of any ethical or moral distinction in the effect. In this case, “virtue” would be ‘owning’ causality itself, as distinct from ‘having caused something good AS OPPOSED TO something bad’. The “obligation” would, then, be whatever that consequence ‘obliges’ from one.

  9. michael farris says:

    Also, for what it’s worth, ‘formal’ and ‘formally’ in Polish often mean something like ‘theoretical’, ‘theoretically’ ‘on paper’ etc
    So I understand ‘formal virtue’ as ‘virtue in theory, not necessarily so in practice’.
    That’s making a lot of assumptions (about the implications of words in Polish over time and how that may have influenced his German and how that got translated into English).
    If I weren’t working today I’d try to track down some quotes in Polish which might make it clearer.

  10. John Emerson says:

    Perhaps “a formal virture” is like what Kant called (IIRC, per Whitehead) an “imperfect obligation”, where ethics tells you that you mist do the right thing, but cannot tell you exactly and specifically what the right thing is in every case.

  11. your sense- mistaken, if I understand you- that Judt has misunderstood Kolakowski.
    No, no, I didn’t think he had misunderstood him; rather, he helped dispel my own misunderstanding. And of course I should have realized the piece was translated; I’m wondering now if English is Wolfgang Freis’s first language.

  12. David Marjanović says:

    German sowohl A als auch B works the same way: B is much more likely, but not guaranteed, to be the surprising new information.

  13. I took “responsibility for a cause” to mean “responsibility for furthering the cause [in which one believes]“, rather than “responsibility for the consequences of the cause”, and was equally, though differently, bewildered.
    Hat, the best of your blog’s many virtues is the opportunity to see into the minds of thoughtful and intelligent people who see things quite differently from me.

  14. marie-lucie says:

    German sowohl A als auch B works the same way: B is much more likely, but not guaranteed, to be the surprising new information.
    It seems to me that the opposite is true in French: eg Je m’adresse aux femmes autant qu’aux hommes “I am addressing women as well as men”, implying that the word for women is emphasized, men being the default interpretation. I always thought it was the same in English, but perhaps the word women would be italicized in English if it was the one emphasized?.

  15. Hat, the best of your blog’s many virtues is the opportunity to see into the minds of thoughtful and intelligent people who see things quite differently from me.
    My sentiments exactly.
    I always thought it was the same in English
    It is as far as I’m concerned.

  16. John Emerson says:

    I would like to move that the extent possible, this blog should feature thoughtful and intelligent people who see things quite differently from John Cowan.
    Is there a second? Perhaps by acclamation?

  17. marie-lucie says:

    Surely you don’t want to block thoughtful and intelligent people who might also see things the same way as John Cowean?

  18. John Emerson says:

    In deference to Cowan’s wishes, I think that we should.

  19. David Marjanović says:

    It seems to me that the opposite is true in French: eg Je m’adresse aux femmes autant qu’aux hommes “I am addressing women as well as men”, implying that the word for women is emphasized, men being the default interpretation.

    This corresponds to a different German phrase: Ich wende mich an die Frauen genauso wie an die Männer – in English I’d say “just as well as”, bold for emphasis.

  20. David Marjanović says:

    …Oops. I used boldface for two different kinds of emphasis. I meant that in the English, I’d pronounce “just” with audible emphasis.

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