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Editorial The Functions of Art
hat is art for? The question of art’s function is prominent in this issue. Can it be used to challenge tyranny, or to make us better citizens? Plato certainly thought that contemplation of beauty could lead you closer to seeing ultimate truth. Could art similarily lead you to see moral truth, between individuals or for society? Schiller thought so, as Francis Akpata explains. And Justin Kaushall tells us how Adorno thought radical art could seismically shift awareness, and so fight fascism (and, for Adorno, capitalism too). Among other things, Immanuel Kant’s 1790 book the Critique of Judgement is concerned with beauty in art. Kant is considering how we make judgements, and one of the big questions in art used to be why and how we judge a work of art to be beautiful. But nowadays beauty is no longer art’s chief focus. This is at least in part because the function of art has changed. You can track art’s function, very basically, by looking at who pays for it. In the medieval West, the artistic depiction of religious ideas was paid for by the Catholic Church – so the function of art was to exalt the divine and educate the mostly illiterate faithful. Later the aristocracy started paying artists to display their wealth, status and learning in their portraits. Then the rich bourgeois merchant classes brought art for a decorative display, again of taste and status. Nowadays, what’s at the leading edge of art is decided by galleries, and the functions of this art include investment, prestige, and virtue signalling. The primary concern about the art with which the high-end dealers currently deal, is its marketing. In our info-overloaded world, the publicising and selling of creative work is often a bigger problem than its creation. High art has been evolving for decades to accommodate this need. This is one reason why so much new art we see in galleries is concerned with provocation or shock: whether it’s dead sheep, or dirty unmade beds, or stacks of oranges you can eat (all real artworks). Shock is what’s perceived to be necessary to gain attention in the modern market, and indeed that may be the case. Also, art now increasingly attracts artists who like doing that sort of thing. Away from such artful dodgers, talented artists of all kinds pour their souls into less shocking work but you won’t have seen most of it. In this postmodern age, beauty is just one ideal among many pursued by artists, and is also seen as being a bit Eighteenth Century. Since the art sellers and curators are competing among themselves to display their fashionability, the need for high art to be ‘in the lead’ has eclipsed other artistic values. In this way, the primary point of an artwork is now not its aesthetics (aisthetikos is Greek for ‘sensation’) or how pleasing it is to the senses – what used to be called ‘taste’ – nor is it necessarily how profound the ideas being communicated are: it 4 Philosophy Now December 2018/January 2019
is its novelty. So perhaps we can’t really blame the art world for rewarding shock not talent. It’s required to make a living. Many leading galleries seem to agree that as technical brilliance has been amply demonstrated throughout art’s long history, it’s unnecessary to see it demonstrated again just for its own sake. What is still interesting about art, however, is the concepts it can explore. So let’s just concentrate on the concept, says the most fashionable thinking about art. This has led us to conceptual art – art where the concept behind it, rather than the artist’s technique or a pleasurable effect, is prominent. A work needn’t be beautiful, nor conspicuously well made; it just needs to be clever. Trevor Pateman’s article pertly critiques this conceptual approach to art. Well, the most precise medium for conveying concepts is probably language. This would make novels the ultimate form of conceptual art. Fiction is often said to be telling lies to convey a deeper truth or to explore deeper questions. We consider some of these deeper questions in this issue, including one of the most foundational: What is happiness and how can we achieve it? Vincent Kavaloski looks at the way this question is asked in the novels of Leo Tolstoy. Indeed, novelists often explore ethical ideas through the crises and dilemmas their characters endure, and Tolstoy’s exploration of happiness evidently falls into this category. But fiction can make philosophical connections in other ways too. Here we look at intuition versus reason in Sherlock Holmes, and at various philosophical themes in The Name of the Rose, including William of Ockham’s famous metaphysical shaving kit. Profundity and self-reflection are two of the defining qualities of great art, so really it can hardly help exploring philosophical themes. Many of the articles in this issue show how some past thinking about art can be reapplied to contemporary problems: not only finding happiness, but fighting regrettable social trends and building a better world. In this issue I think you’ll find much that philosophy has to say about literature and other arts is useful for life in our overstuffed yet underfiltered information age. Let me also mention the two articles taking different perspectives on Hegel’s theory of history. I find Hegel an interesting philosopher not because I think he was right about how history works, but just because he has a systematic theory of human history. To me this is just the sort of ambitious and fundamental topic philosophers should be interested in. There is also a ‘perception versus reality’ theme scattered throughout this issue – about which fundamental topic the great Kant again had a lot to say. Indeed, you might want to play a game of ‘Where’s Kant?’ as you read this issue. Award yourself a point every time you spot him. Grant Bartley
• Berggruen Prize given to Martha Nussbaum • Confusion over approval of dog experiments • Roger Scruton to chair housing design body News reports by Anja Steinbauer is best known for his biography of the 12th-century philosopher Maimonides.
Nussbaum Wins Berggruen Prize The 2018 Berggruen Prize for Philosophy & Culture has been awarded to philosopher Martha Nussbaum. Nussbaum, whose approach is inspired by her background in classical Greek philosophy, is widely known for her work on the emotions, on ethics and aspects of political philosophy. Her development of the ‘capabilities approach’ as a conceptual alternative to other models of human well-being in economics has been influential and much debated. She is a prolific writer, author of 25 books and over 500 articles. The 2018 Berggruen Prize decision marks the second year in a row that the prize, which has only existed for three years, has been awarded to a woman. Onora O’Neill, last year’s recipient, is a famous moral philosopher who has made important contributions to the philosophical discussion of ‘trust’, and who has served as chair of the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission. Joel Kraemer dies Joel Kraemer died on 11 October 2018. He was the John Henry Barrows Professor of Islamic and Jewish philosophy at the University of Chicago, and also held appointments at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Yale University and Tel Aviv University in Israel. He was a fellow of the American Academy for Jewish Research. As you will have gathered, he was a prominent scholar of Islamic and Jewish philosophy. Kraemer was famous for his work on the cultural transmission of classical Greek ideas to the Islamic world. He
Scrutonising Design of Homes? The British Government has appointed an official commission to raise the debate about the importance of beauty and good design in new housing development. According to a press release, the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission is intended to “tackle the challenge of poor quality design and build of homes and places.” It will suggest policy solutions so that new developments meet the needs and expectations of members of the community, to “help grow a sense of community and place, not undermine it”. It will be chaired by conservative philosopher Professor Sir Roger Scruton, known for his writings on innumerable philosophical issues, especially aesthetics, ethics and the philosophy of Kant. He is also a defender of traditional architecture and a critic of some contemporary styles in architecture, such as those of Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid. Communities Secretary James Brokenshire said Scruton was uniquely qualified because he was a world-leading authority on aesthetics, but opposition MPs swiftly called for Scruton’s dismissal because of past remarks about sexuality, religion and other matters. Vets Dept Resumes Vivisection Vivisection, or medical experimentation on live animals, remains a crucial issue in applied ethics with important real life relevance. A spokesman for the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has announced that former VA Secretary David Shulkin gave verbal approval for restarting experiments on dogs, on the very day he was fired by Donald Trump in March. Shulkin himself denies having done so. The department argues that the testing was approved because it will help doctors find new ways to treat wounded soldiers. Researchers running the experiments will
remove sections of the dogs’ brains that control breathing, sever spinal cords to test cough reflexes and implant pacemakers before triggering abnormal heart rhythms. Critics in Congress and animal welfare campaigners argue that the experiments are cruel and unnecessary. New Research on Moral Identities In new research at Northwestern University Professor Touré-Tillery, whose research is at the intersection of motivation and self-perception, has identified a crucial issue in moral behaviour. The research was reported in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. As people perceive themselves differently in the different roles they fulfil in their lives, e.g. a parent, a manager, a friend etc., these self images make a difference to their moral choices. “We all have different identities that we label ourselves with,” Touré-Tillery says. “What we were looking at in our study is not so much what those labels are or how many there are, but whether people think of themselves the same way across those identities.” The researchers found that people who perceive their personalities as constant across their roles are more likely to behave ethically than those who think of themselves as different in each role. Being moral matters more to this first group because if they behave immorally, it affects how they see themselves in general, Touré-Tillery explains. Wanting to avoid that negative self-image can motivate people to behave better.
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The Secret of Sherlock Holmes’ Success
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Tim Weldon detects links between Sherlock Holmes and Blaise Pascal in the operation of intuition.
ow did the most famous fictional detective in history triumph over evil in over fifty celebrated cases? To what – or to whom – might we attribute his success? Holmes’ creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle self-admittedly modelled Holmes’ manner and methods on the man for whom he was once a clerk, the eminent Scottish surgeon Joseph Bell (1837-1911). Of course we should give full credit to Bell’s extraordinary powers of observation and deduction. However, a careful reading of Sherlock Holmes’ adventures reveals that there is more to his case-solving than can be explained by Bell’s inspiration alone. Holmes’ Schooling
Rightfully, much has been made of the cognitive prowess of Sherlock Holmes: his command of common sense, minutiae-driven observation, dogged focus, summary appraisals, and power to synthesize. From what philosophical school (if any), to what system (if applicable), and to whom, among the great thinkers of history, is he indebted? Given Holmes’ citizenship and environs, one could reasonably start with the philosophical tradition known as British Empiricism, and link Holmes with, say, the thought of John Locke (1632-1704) or David Hume (17111776). The above habits of thought are certainly characteristic 6 Philosophy Now December 2018/January 2019
of Empiricism, as are Holmes’ interest in science and reliance on experimental evidence. Or perhaps we should look a little further away, in space and time? Perhaps Holmes’ careful systematic skepticism springs from the skeptic René Descartes (15961650)? Also, given the times, we mustn’t forget religion. That Holmes was familiar with Scripture is as established as is his use of logical reasoning and his ironclad morality. Do his methods then reveal a kinship with the medieval metaphysical realist, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1275)? Or one could head south and back through more than two millennia, to link Holmes to Aristotle himself, since both men demonstrated proficiency in the natural sciences and in metaphysics. Or, given Holmes’ temperament, choice of cases, and dramatic flair, is it more accurate to say that he belonged to the Romantic school? It is my contention that Holmes and his methods defy easy association with any school of thought or thinker; yet in the end they come to side most closely with the philosophy (although not necessarily the theology) of one thinker – someone closer to Holmes’ French ancestry than British, and more in line with his artistic side than scientific: Blaise Pascal. Using support from the stories, I hope to demonstrate the philosophical kinship between Holmes and Pascal, and in so doing pinpoint the cognitive source of Holmes’ unbridled success.
Arts & Letters Intuitive Bloodlines
In the story ‘The Adventure of The Greek Interpreter’ (1893), Holmes and Watson can be found discussing “how far any singular gift in an individual was due to his ancestry and how far to his own early training.” To which Holmes responds: “My ancestors were country squires, who appear to have led much the same life as is natural for their class. But nonetheless, my turn that way was in my veins, and may have come with my grandmother, who was the sister of Vernet, the French artist. Art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms.” So it is in the French heritage of Sherlock Holmes that we discover his greatest inheritance, and much like his great uncle, even a certain artistic genius, although not as a painter (or a violinist, for that matter). Sherlock Holmes, French? Artistic genius? How can this be? In popular culture, Holmes personifies a stereotypical association of the modern British mind with empiricism: wholly observant, properly dispassionate, ever rational and quantitative; in other words, the true scientist. Such characteristics truly carry the day for the mathematician, the microbiologist, the actuary, and the accountant. Even in the area of detection, some of Holmes’ cases were seemingly solved by what could be gleaned from a magnifying glass or microscope rather than musings produced from an armchair (and Holmes is the only fictional inductee into Britain’s Royal Society of Chemistry). With modern achievements in forensic science and, for example, forensic ballistics, solving crime today has become a matter for the laboratory. Yet given the complexity of crime and its origination from human flaws, and taking into account the presence of evil (as Holmes would admit), there is more to crime-solving than simple empirical assessment. And like any good detective, Holmes was a moralist. Good and evil colored his world as they defined his métier . Evil is as mysterious as it is manifest, and in figuring out how goodness is to prevail, one needs more than a tally of physical evidence. In reality as in literary fiction, detectives are famous for pivoting from a hunch, or on instinct or gut feeling – all synonymous with intuition. In fact, a detective’s hunch is nothing more or less than a hypothesis as yet unconfirmed. So Holmes’ methods at once include and transcend measurements, diagrams and graphs, numbers, and formulae. From the Latin intueri , ‘to look at’, intuition is ultimately a mystery in origin and operation. However, I suggest that detectives use intuition to solve cases, and would be at a disadvantage if they did not. In its capacity to point the way, intuition can break a case wide open and prove a stepping stone for its solution. No one knew this more than Sherlock Holmes, with his ability to reason through the material evidence of a crime and intuit beyond it. But to best understand this, we must turn to the genius of his philosophical soul-mate, Blaise Pascal.
alone, as by it he re-opened (and left open) a door to a question that dates back to antiquity: Is reason the sole source of and vehicle for truth? Can anything give me knowledge apart from or in addition to calculation, deduction, and inference? Few in history have been able to make such a statement about going beyond reason from such credible foundations, with such an impressive resumé. Reported to have discovered for himself the first thirty-two propositions of Euclid at the age of twelve, Pascal published his first mathematical work at seventeen, went on to invent a calculating machine, and was heralded for his experimentation with vacuums, atmospheric pressure, and probability theory. He even designed a public transport system, by horse carriage [see Brief Lives , Issue 125, Ed]. The majority of Pascal’s writings were not on philosophy or theology, but on mathematics, science and technology. (Small wonder then that a programming language was named after him.) But just as Pascal understood the inestimable value of mathematical and scientific reasoning, he understood its limits. Towards the end of his short life, scientific matters bothered him little, whilst philosophy and theology concerned him greatly. “Things should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler,” said Albert Einstein. And unlike those famous thinkers whose work is defined by expansive thought in prolix tomes, Pascal’s genius is found in his simplicity. On the origin of humanity’s existential discontent (and this may be equally applicable to our criminal inclination) Pascal writes: “I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” (Pensées §136, trans. A.J. Krailsheimer). In outlining the way we think, Pascal proposed that the mind is two-tiered and operates along two tracks, though not
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A Philosopher of Finesse
“We know the truth not only through our reason but also through our heart,” begins the French mathematician and philosopher Pascal (1623-1662) in Section One (Chapter Six) of his greatest work, Pensées (Thoughts , 1670). The influence of Pascal on modern philosophy is invaluable for this proposition December 2018/January 2019 Philosophy Now 7
Arts & Letters without the necessary intersection: “We know the truth not only through our reason but also through our heart. It is through the latter that we know first principles, and reason, which has nothing to do with it, tries in vain to refute them. The skeptics have no ot her object than tha t, and they work at it to no purpose… For knowledge of first principles, like space, time, motion, numbers, is as solid as any derived through reason, and it is on such knowledge, coming from the heart and instinct, that reason has to depend and base all its argument. The heart feels that there are three spatial dimensions and that there is an infinite series of numbers... Principles are felt, propositions are proved, and both with certainty though by different means.” (§110)
Furthermore, for Pascal, the course of mathematical thinking (ésprit de geometrie), with its logic and calculation, travels along the rational track, while what we intuit or judge (esprit de finesse) advances by way of summary evaluative supposition emanating from our hearts (or as we might say in more modern terminology, from our unconscious). The effects of the former are more credible owing to their transparency to the data. However, the latter, ever mysterious in both source and operation, is capable of judgment by preceding and transcending data. Whether in matters of beauty – why does the painter choose one color over another, this scene or setting rather than that?; or of good and evil – why would anyone, how could anyone commit murder? – intuition is exercised for the sake of a qualitative or evaluative understanding. As Pascal scholar and translator A.J. Krailsheimer explains: “Just as lines, squares and cubes (or x, x2, and x3) cannot be added together as being of different orders, so in the realm of human knowledge that which is proper to the body (the senses), to the mind (the reason), and to the heart are of different orders and must be carefully distinguished if error is to be avoided. The heart, in Pascal’s scheme, is the appropriate channel for intuitive knowledge, for apprehending pre-rational first principles and assenting to supra-rational
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propositions, as well as for emotional and aesthetic experiences.” (p.22, Pensées, Penguin Edition, 1966.)
How difficult it must have been for Pascal, the eminent mathematician, so dependent upon logical demonstration, to advance the theory of an alternative and in the end, superior faculty of judgment! And intuition is judgment. Pascal writes, “Intuition falls to the lot of judgment, mathematics to that of the mind” (§513. Note that here, as was his habit, Pascal uses what has been translated as ‘mind’ – la raison – interchangeably with mathematical reasoning – ésprit de geometrie). How true this is for the detective, for whom so much is at stake. In the solving of a criminal case, hypotheses must be made and attended to, and ultimately judgments must be offered and acted upon, with every subtlety accounted for in between. In his heart, Holmes understood this as he exercised his intuition with unparalleled success. The Heart of a Detective
Holmes’ interests were as varied as his clientele, ranging from bee-keeping to Baritsu (or Bartitsu, an eclectic martial art). They inspired exhaustive research and attention, especially when connected with a pressing case. The diligence and intensity with which Holmes pursued the truth was often mistaken for aloofness, even officiousness. “Holmes is a little too scientific for my tastes – it approaches to cold-bloodedness,” observes Young Samford in A Study in Scarlet (1887). Even Dr Watson reproached his old friend, saying “You are really an automaton – a calculating machine” (The Sign of Four , 1890). But in truth Holmes was anything but cold-blooded, and his manner anything but machine-like. In disposition he was every bit the bohemian: unconventional in profession, hours and habits (some unhealthy), temperamental, ever-inclined to drama (“Some touch of the artist wells up within me, and calls insistently for a well staged performance,” Holmes reminds us in The Valley of Fear , 1915), and drawn to the outré – hellhounds, vampires, etc. He was capable of love (of the woman) – but only of the courtly type. This reveals the thoroughly romantic disposition of a medieval knight errant – or of a Victorian-era detective who lives to right wrongs. In method, Holmes’ stock-in-trade empiricism is literary legend: “You know my method. It is founded upon the observation of trifles” (‘The Boscombe Valley Mystery’ 1891). But once the evidence was gathered, through observation and the collection of clues, the greater difficulty lay ahead: divining motive, character analysis, moral implications – all that exceeds the grasp of any data-driven scientific analysis. As Holmes was to say: “Like all other arts, the Science of Deduction and Analysis is one which can only be acquired by long and patient study, nor is life long enough to allow any mortal to attain the highest possible perfection in it. Before turning to those moral and mental aspects of the matter which present the greatest difficulties, let the inquirer begin by mastering more elementary problems” ( A Study in Scarlet ). Holmes’ labelling of Deduction and Analysis (note the capitals) as both science and art places him squarely in Pascal’s philosophical backyard, as does his theory of the moral and mental aspects of a crime. At the scene of a crime, Holmes could no
Arts & Letters more intuit the origin and type of a footprint than he could identify tobacco ashes by intuition; but data doesn’t commit crimes. Holmes must also reckon with what transcends the immediate data – the human factors, such as love, hate, avarice, lust, ambition, jealousy, and other nefarious motives that inspire wrongdoing – and ultimately this will provide the conduit to solving the crime. He must also reckon on how virtues and vices are revealed in or concealed by the subtleties of human behavior, from furtive glances to pregnant pauses. This is all the work of intuition. Holmes professed such intuitive ability from the beginning. He admitted as much to Watson when the latter wondered just what a consulting detective does in the first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet . Holmes answers that his clients “are all people who are in trouble about something, and want a little enlightening. I listen to their story, they listen to my comments, and then I pocket a fee.” “But do you mean to say… that without leaving your room you can unravel some knot which other men can make nothing of, although they have seen every little detail for themselves?” “Quite so. I have a kind of intuition that way.” Holmes’ achievements derive from his uncanny ability to balance the physical evidence of a case – the objective data – with its often more challenging subjective truths, into a single coherent judgment. Specifically, he was able to account for both what can be reasoned to and what can’t be, with gimlet precision. ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’ (1892) highlights as much, as we shall now see.
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A Season of Forgiveness “I had called upon my friend Sherlock Holmes upon the second morning after Christmas, with the intention of wishing him the compliments of the season.”
‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’ is Holmes’ only Christmas case. The setting, introduced by Watson, is noteworthy. The virtues and sentiments of the season provide the backdrop for the story: discussions of love and demonstrations of forgiveness, conversion, charity and reverence, however implicit, give the adventure its uniqueness among the canon. So too does Holmes’ mindfulness of the season and his manifest understanding of what Christmas means with its capacity to transform lives. Given its existential import then, the Christmas theme provides the best milieu for Holmes to exercise his intuition about the human psyche. The plot begins with the curious presence of an unloved hat. “The matter is a perfectly trivial one,” Holmes challenges Watson, “Here is my lens. You know my methods.” “I can see nothing,” Watson’s replies, as he studies the hat. Holmes responds, “That the man was highly intellectual is of course obvious upon the face of it, and also that he was fairly well-todo within the last three years, although he has now fallen upon evil days. He had foresight, but has less now than formerly, pointing to a moral retrogression, which, when taken with the decline of his fortunes, seems to indicate some evil influence, probably drink, at work upon him. This may account also for the obvious fact that his wife has ceased to love him.”
There is far more to the hat than meets Watson’s eye, then. From an easy rendering of the appearance of the hat, including Holmes’ then-fashionable dabbling in the pseudoscience of phrenology (that it is obvious that the man was highly intellectual is because the hat was quite large), the great detective moves from analysis to judgment: ‘evil days’, ‘moral retrogression’, ‘evil influence’, and an unloving wife are pronouncements emanating from intuitive understanding. Although each of these judgments is supported by physical evidence – for example, that the hat has “a week’s accumulation of dust” translates into the December 2018/January 2019 Philosophy Now 9
Arts & Letters
loss of a wife’s affection – implicit in Holmes’ judgment is an understanding of good and evil, of moral and immoral, and of love which necessarily transcends the evidence. If this case is to be solved, Holmes has to depend upon his intuition. When the owner of the hat returns, Holmes’ judgments are confirmed, giving the cogency and credibility necessary for him to evaluate additional clues: a bungling commissionaire and a Christmas goose – the latter producing the priceless gem of a burgled Countess. But although ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’ is named for that royal swag, Holmes is able to judge the stone in its proper context: “Who would think that so pretty a toy would be purveyor to the gallows and prison?” Balancing every nuance, his understanding of contrast unfailing, Holmes then reveals the true implications of the case with all its moral weight: “Remember Watson, that though we have so homely a thing as a goose at one end of this chain, we have at the other a man who will certainly get seven years’ penal servitude unless we can establish his innocence. It is possible that our inquiry may but confirm his guilt; but in any case we have a line of investigation which has been missed by the police, and which a singular chance has placed in our hands. Let us follow it out to the bitter end.” As winding as it is wintry, Holmes’ line of investigation means, on the one hand, attending to every place where evidence is to be had, and on the other, interacting with every person involved. His perceptive finesse – the ability to size up straightaway the personality or psychological profile of anyone 10 Philosophy Now December 2018/January 2019
connected with the case – proves indispensable to the freeing an innocent man. Holmes’ encounter with the primary suspect is the story’s best example of his people skills. Tracking the trail of the gemfilled goose back to its irascible seller, Holmes and Watson come face-to-face with their primary suspect, “a little rat-faced fellow.” To expedite the inevitable, Holmes hails a cab for the trio and proceeds to lead the thief to confession by degrees: “But pray tell me, before we go farther, who is it that I have the pleasure of assisting?” The man hesitated for an instant. “My name is John Robinson,” he answered with a sidelong glance. “No, no; the real name,” said Holmes sweetly. “It is always awkward doing business with an alias.” A flush sprang to the cheeks of the stranger. “Well then,” said he, “my real name is James Ryder.” Holmes stokes the tension with a silent half-hour ride to Baker Street, wherein, before the home fireplace, he produces Ryder’s glistening, erstwhile booty: “The game’s up, Ryder,” said Holmes quietly, “Hold up, man, or you’ll be in the fire! Give him an arm into his chair, Watson. He’s not got blood enough to go in for felony with impunity.” Ryder’s subsequent confession of the burglary, replete with the details and name of an accomplice, is only punctuated by kneeling contrition: “For God’s sake, have mercy… think of my father! Of my mother! It would break their hearts. I never went wrong before! I never will again. I swear it. I’ll swear on a Bible. Oh, don’t bring it into court! For Christ’s sake, don’t.” Holmes considers the penitent Ryder, lecturing and listening and eliciting more information about the crime, before unexpectedly saying: “Get out!” “What sir! Oh, Heaven bless you!” Holmes’ admittedly curious rationale for releasing the thief is due to a shift in focus – again emanating from his intuition. With the framed man guaranteed his freedom, Holmes’ mind, and heart, turned to the plight of Ryder. Holmes’ decision is a hunchinspired bet that Ryder will henceforth be guided by penitence. The wager is no whim. Steeped in the spirit of Christmas, Holmes’ decision was inspired. Ryder’s genuine plea for mercy, in Christ’s name, has to be met with forgiveness: Ryder’s future life, even his very soul (not to mention the soul of Holmes) depends upon it. As Holmes explains to Watson, “This fellow will not go wrong again; he is too terribly frightened. Send him to jail now, and you make him a jail-bird for life. Besides, it is the season of forgiveness.” F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” The sentence could have been written for Holmes. For in ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’, the world’s greatest detective displays the brilliant, albeit paradoxical, mind of one who is able to exercise reason capable of forgiveness, and forgiveness that is reasonable. Surely, this is the mark of a mind, and of a man, who is as endearing as he is noble. © DR TIM WELDON 2018
Tim Weldon currently serves as Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Theology at the University of St Francis in Joliet, Illinois. He can be reached at [email protected]
Arts & Letters
Ockham’s Rose Carol Nicholson looks at philosophical themes in The Name Of The Rose. (WARNING: CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS.)
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mberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose (1980) was tions.” Most academic critics interpret it as a ‘postmodern’ novel, an international bestseller that sold fifty million but Eco didn’t entirely approve of the label. He had distanced copies “which puts it in the league of Harry Potter , himself from postmodernist theories of interpretation, arguing and ahead of Gone with the Wind, Roget’s Thesaurus , that in the last few decades, ‘the rights of the interpreters’ have and To Kill a Mockingbird ” (Ted Gioia, postmodernmystery.com). been overstressed at the expense of ‘the rights of the text’. He Combining elements of detective fiction, the historical novel, wrote, “I have the impression that [the term ‘postmodern’] is the philosophical quest and the father-son initiation tale, the applied today to anything the user of the term happens to like.” novel has appeal for many different kinds of readers. In the blurb Indeed, so much scholarly attention has focused on the poston the first Italian edition, Eco wrote that he wanted to reach modern aspects of The Name of the Rose that other themes have three different audiences – “the largest market, the mass of relabeen neglected, although they are likely to be of more interest tively unsophisticated readers who concentrated on plot; a second to the general reader. So fear not, gentle reader, in this article I public, readers who examined historical novels to find connec- will not talk about postmodern theory. Instead I will explore the tions or analogies between the present and the past; and a third philosophy of William of Ockham as a key to understanding the and even smaller elite audience, postmodern readers who enjoyed philosophical dimensions of the novel. ironic references to other literary works and who assumed that Two Williams a good work of fiction would produce a ‘whodunit’ of quotaEco’s detective, William of Baskerville, is a Franciscan monk who at first appears to be a medieval version of Sherlock Holmes. His name even echoes The Hound of the Baskervilles . His disciple and scribe, a young Benedictine novice, is named Adso, which sounds a little like Watson. In appearance too Baskerville resembles Holmes – he is tall and thin with sharp, penetrating eyes and a somewhat beaky nose – except that Baskerville has fair hair and freckles. Like Holmes, who used cocaine to alleviate boredom between cases, Baskerville occasionally takes drugs, chewing on mysterious herbs that he learned about from Arab scholars. “A good Christian can sometimes learn also from the infidels,” he tells Adso, “but herbs that are good for an old Franciscan are not good for a young Benedictine.” At the beginning of the story, Baskerville astonishes a group of monks with a dazzling display of Holmesian methods when he figures out that they are searching for the Abbot’s runaway horse and also correctly identifies the location, size, and even the name of the missing horse, based on his observations of minute details and his knowledge of texts describing medieval equestrian ideals. However, when Baskerville investigates a series of murders in an Italian monastery, it becomes clear that he is not a Holmes clone. For one thing, he is less sure of himself and more skeptical about his own methods. Holmes rather arrogantly says, “I never guess. It is a shocking habit – destructive to the logical faculty” (The Sign of the Four ). Baskerville, on the other hand, says that guessing is the essence of his method. In the case of the horse, he tells Adso, “When I saw the clues I guessed many complementary and contradictory hypotheses.” His method of detection is neither deduction nor induction, but what the American pragmatist philosopher C.S. Peirce called ‘abduction’ – a process of making conjecRose tures and eliminating those which are impossible or unnecessary. by Paul Gregory Another way in which Baskerville differs from Holmes is in his attitude toward women. In The Sign of Four , Holmes notoriously announces, “Women are never to be entirely trusted – December 2018/January 2019 Philosophy Now 11
Arts & Letters not the best of them” – which Watson rightly dismisses as an atrocious statement. Baskerville, on the other hand, is portrayed as a proto-feminist with liberal ideas about women and sexuality that contrast sharply with the traditionalist views of Adso, who refers to “that sink of vice that is the female body”, and the elderly monk Ubertino, who believes that “it is through woman that the Devil penetrates men’s hearts!” Baskerville retorts, “I cannot convince myself that God chose to introduce such a foul being into creation without also endowing it with some virtues.” Baskerville’s differences from Holmes are due to the influence of his (non-fictional) friend, William of Ockham (12881347), whose radical philosophy laid the groundwork for the modern era and was partly responsible for bringing about the end of the medieval worldview. (Eco initially considered Ockham for his detective, but gave up the idea because he didn’t find him a very attractive person.) While he was still a student at Oxford, Ockham’s brilliant lectures transformed philosophy, but he never completed his degree because he was summoned by Pope John XXII to Avignon for questioning. In 1327, the year in which The Name of the Rose is set, Ockham faced fifty-six charges of heresy, and was excommunicated after escaping to the protection of Emperor Louis of Bavaria. This put an end to his academic career, and he spent the rest of his life as a political activist advocating freedom of speech, the separation of church and state, and arguing against the infallibility of the Pope. Ockham found the Pope’s pronouncements opposing poverty in monastic orders “heretical, erroneous, stupid, ridiculous, fantastic, insane and defamatory. They are patently perverse and equally contrary to orthodox faith, good morals, natural reason, certain experience, and brotherly love.” The Pope (who was the richest man in the world at the time) responded by threatening that “he was prepared to burn a town down to smoke Ockham out.” Ockham probably died of the same outbreak of the plague that kills William of Baskerville at the end of the novel. If he hadn’t, he might have met a more fiery fate. Ockham’s Sharp Thinking
William of Ockham is best known for his famous ‘razor’, which is simply the principle of simplicity or parsimony in making judgements. As Baskerville expresses the principle, “Dear Adso, one should not multiply explanations and causes unless it is strictly necessary.” In The First Deadly Sin (1973), Lawrence Sanders gives the most succinct summary of the principle: “Cut out the crap.” In Ockham’s time there was a lot of scholastic crap to be cut. This small tool made a big difference in slicing away the elaborate ideas of essential forms, hierarchies and teleologies that was the intellectual foundation of the Medieval European world. Ockham himself used his principle of simplicity of explan ation to make a strong case for nominalism, the idea that the world consists entirely of individual things, with no so-called ‘universals’ existing outside the mind (such as, for example, an essential ‘blueness’ in which all blue things partook). Nominalism pro vided the foundation for Ockham’s belief in free will, which he thought could not be limited by pre-existing essences, inviolable laws of nature, or even an omnipotent God. In Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages (1987) Eco sums up the implications of Ockham’s philosophy by saying, “If man no longer sees a given order in 12 Philosophy Now December 2018/January 2019
William of Ockham by Stephen Lahey
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things, if his world is no longer encompassed by fixed and definite meanings, relations, species and genera, anything then is possible. He finds that he is free, and by definition a creator.” Ockham was also skeptical of Aristotle’s definition of man as ‘the rational animal’, and he suggested that we might as well define human beings as ‘the risible animals’ – those animals who are capable of laughter. This idea is important in The Name of the Rose, because Jorge, the blind librarian, despises laughter for its power to undermine fear of authority, and because the only surviving copy of Aristotle’s lost work On Comedy plays a major role in the solution of the mystery. It follows from Ockham’s nominalism that if there is no essence of man, then there is no essence of woman either. Rather, there are only individual men and women and the ideas in our minds about them (which are fallible and subject to change). Ockham did not write much about women, but we do know that he questioned the natural supremacy of men and argued for a greater role for women in the church. Baskerville understands the gender implications of Ockham’s nominalism, and he is the only character in The Name of the Rose who is able to see women as individuals rather than versions of the archetype of either the Blessed Virgin or the diabolical temptress. A House of Desires
There is much talk about sex in the novel, but little actual sex, because the monks in the abbey have no contact with women,
Arts & Letters and their desires for each other are necessarily hidden. In the one explicit sex scene Adso loses his virginity in the kitchen one night to the only woman in the novel. She’s a beautiful young peasant, and the novice monk falls in love with her. When Adso confesses his sin, Baskerville responds with kindness, “You must not do it again, of course, but it is not so monstrous that you were tempted to do it… For a monk to have, at least once in his life, experience of carnal passion, so that he can one day be indulgent and understanding with the sinners he will counsel and console… is not something to vituperate too much once it has happened.” After learning that his lover had snuck into the monastery to trade sexual favors with the ugly old cellarer for a few scraps of food, Adso is horrified and exclaims, “A harlot!” Baskerville gently corrects him: “A poor peasant girl, Adso. Probably with smaller brothers to feed.” Adso is heartbroken when she is burned a s a witch, though he does not even know her name. The nameless girl is significant in the story as a symbol of innocent suffering, and her fate teaches Adso a hard lesson about the injustice of the world, foreshadowing Baskerville’s own conclusions at the end. Baskerville sees even his enemies as individuals, understanding how in each of them their sexual desire has been differently twisted into fanatical lust for money, power, or knowledge. He explains to Adso that there are many kinds of lust that are not only of the flesh and can be far more dangerous. The Pope lusts for riches; and Bernard Gui, the overly zealous Inquisitor, has “a distorted lust for justice that becomes identified with a lust for power.” Baskerville says that those who truly love knowledge understand that “The good of a book lies in its being read”; but lust simply for books, “like all lusts… is sterile and has nothing to do with love, not even carnal love.” The monastery’s library “was perhaps born to save the books it houses, but now it lives to bury them.” Baskerville concludes that Jorge’s lust for power, disguised as love of God, has turned the library, whose purpose should be to share knowledge rather than hoard it, into a ‘sink of iniquity’. The novel can be read as a study of the seven deadly sins as different forms of lust, each illustrated by one of the characters. Even Baskerville realizes at the end that he has fallen into the sin of intellectual pride, and he laughs at his folly. He had imagined that the murders followed a pattern based on the Book of Revelation, but this conceit led him astray and prevented him from solving the mystery in time to save the library from burning down. He asks, “Where is all my wisdom, then? I behaved stubbornly, pursuing a semblance of order, when I should have known well that there is no order in the universe.” Adso is confused so Baskerville says, “It’s hard to accept the idea that there cannot be an order in the universe because it would offend the free will of God and his omnipotence. So the freedom of God is our condemnation, or at least the condemnation of our pride.” Thus the most devastating implications of Ockham’s method become clear to Baskerville when he sees from this that the razor is double-edged – it destroys certainty in God as well as certainty in the order that science tries to impose on the world. Baskerville adds, “Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from the insane passion for the truth.” Baskerville’s laughter at himself frees him from the most dangerous form of lust, then – his certainty of having found the truth.
The burning of the library is symbolic of the destruction of the Medieval worldview, for which some historians give Ockham the credit (or the blame). Afterwards, in giving Adso his spare pair of glasses, Baskerville symbolically passes on his knowledge and curiosity. By showing that the books are destroyed but the love of learning lives on, Eco confounds common prejudices concerning the Medieval period. He writes that “everyone has his own idea, usually corrupt, of the Middle Ages” ( Rose, postscript, p.535), which was saddled with a bad name by the Renaissance that followed. Rather than the apparent dogmatism and immobility of the period, it was actually a time of “incredible intellectual vitality” and “cultural revolution.” It is astonishing to realize that the separation of church and state and the equality of women are not modern ideas, but originated in the Middle Ages. And many centuries before David Hume, Ockham criticized the idea of a necessary connection between cause and effect; and even more centuries before Karl Popper, Ockham understood the scientific method as a process of conjecture and refutation. Ironically, contemporary scholars have claimed to discover in The Name of the Rose ‘postmodern’ ideas about knowledge and truth that are at least eight hundred years old. Unlike the traditional detective novel, The Name of the Rose does not offer comfortable reassurance of the triumph of good over evil and order over chaos. It also makes readers uncomfortable by showing us a picture of fourteenth century Europe, in all of its brilliance and horror, as a mirror of our own age. Eco writes, “The fundamental question of philosophy… is the same as the question of the detective novel: Who is guilty? And any true detection should prove that we are the guilty party” ( Ibid ). I don’t claim to understand this cryptic statement, but I’m guessing that it may be intended to accuse modern readers of not being honest about the darkness of our own era. In The Name of the Rose, Jorge deliberately destroys Aristotle’s book on comedy - at the cost of his own life - to stop others from reading it. In a 1996 interview with Theodore Beale, Eco said, “Even our times have been full of dictatorships that have burned books. What does it mean, the Salman Rushdie persecution, if not to try to destroy a book? Even today we have this continual struggle between people that believe certain texts are dangerous and must be eliminated. So my story is not so outdated, even though it takes place in the Middle Ages. We are not better” (umbertoeco.com). I suspect that few readers will agree with Eco that our civilization has made no moral progress in the past millennium, but I think he is right that his story is not outdated. The seven deadly sins are still alive and well, as are the pompous intellectuals, greedy politicians, and lustful priests. We guard our libraries with laws and pay walls that prohibit public access to knowledge, and persecute those who leak information. We don’t burn people at the stake any more, but we have our own methods of torturing heretics. Eco’s novel pokes fun at our arrogant modern (or postmodern) sense of superiority, and challenges us to look with the skeptical and compassionate eye of William of Baskerville, the humble Holmes with a heart, at the cruelty and hypocrisy of the world we have made, and to laugh at ourselves. © DR CAROL NICHOLSON 2018
Carol Nicholson teaches philosophy at Rider University in Lawrenceville, NJ. Her article, ‘Rorty's Romantic Polytheism’ will be published in the Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Richard Rorty . [email protected]
December 2018/January 2019 Philosophy Now 13
Arts & Letters
Can Art Fight Fascism? Justin Kaushall considers Adorno’s argument that radical art radically changes consciousness.
t a time when populist movements are on the march throughout the world, why should we pay attention to art? Isn’t it self-indulgent to concern oneself with art, music, or literature when the foundations of society and of the international order are being shaken? Or can art itself really change the world? Art Protests
Let’s look at what art can and can’t do in terms of politics. An example: in 2016, the artists Richard Serra, Cindy Sherman, Louise Lawler, Joan Jonas, and Julie Mehretu argued that it was appropriate to protest President Trump’s inauguration by symbolically closing art museums and galleries across the United States. The artists stated that the protest would not be “a strike against art, theater or any other cultural form. It is an invitation to motivate these activities anew, to reimagine these spaces as places where resistant forms of thinking, seeing, feeling and acting can be produced.” The proposition caused controversy. In the Guardian newspaper (9th January 2017), Jonathan Jones argued that the protest merely demonstrated “shallow radical posturing by some very well-heeled and comfortable members of a cultural elite.” In other words, since the artists are not taking a personal risk, their political protest fails. Jones continues: “Let’s face it: art and serious culture are completely marginal to American life. Closing museums is not likely to have any effect on those who support [Trump].” Jones ends by stating: “The real reason art strikes and fine words at the Golden Globes are futile is that they cannot do justice to the danger the world is in.” According to Jones, then, art cannot express the horrors of the world adequately. He implies that any artwork that claims to be radical merely sidesteps the concrete danger faced for instance by those who protest on the streets against nuclear war, social prejudice, or police violence, risking arrest, prison time, harassment, or death. At worst, artists face immaterial danger – for instance, by creating artworks that experiment with colour or line; or a work that inspires an emotional response but little else; or by developing new artistic techniques that may challenge audiences, but which only a tiny minority actually experience. In light of all this, why don’t we just accept that art is powerless in the social and political sphere? Why don’t artists just accept that they will always remain on the sidelines of radical politics? The German critical theorist (and music critic) Theodor W. Adorno would have rejected Jones’ argument. Adorno (19031969) defended art’s capacity to make us aware of violence (as it appeared in capitalism and fascism), and its power to express suffering and hope which cannot be fully communicated in language. Art may resist injustice; not through directly achieving practical change, but by forcing the audience to become aware of the violence that governs their own history and the social order within which they and we are trapped. Art’s unique mode of resistance involves provoking thought rather than action. For Adorno, 14 Philosophy Now December 2018/January 2019
modernist artists such as James Joyce, Arnold Schoenberg, Samuel Beckett, Paul Celan and Pablo Picasso were able to indirectly resist society’s unethical practices through reconfiguring the individual’s experience, and showing us how our capacity for rational thought has been subverted by society into irrationality. He argued that commercial art (pop music, Hollywood films, TV shows, popular novels, etc.) fails to challenge social and historical norms because it merely follows public demand. It is often infantile and formulaic. It fails to articulate any distance from society, and so is incapable of changing individual consciousness. For example, popular folk music strives to reinforce national and cultural identity through repeating narratives with which most listeners already identify (In America, for instance, these narratives might involve strength, independence, freedom, selfreliance: generally speaking, individualism). Radical art must resist assimilation into the status quo. According to Adorno, its purpose is to incite an experience of otherness – of that which falls outside the audience’s social-cultural norms. While living in exile from the Nazis in the 1940s, Adorno wrote: “there is no longer beauty or consolation except in the gaze falling on horror, withstanding it, and in unalleviated consciousness of
George Orwell by Woodrow Cowher 2018
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George Orwell, who literally fought fascism as a volunteer in the Spanish civil war before writing Animal Farm and 1984.
Arts & Letters negativity holding fast to the possibility of what is better” ( Minima Moralia, 1951, p.25). He meant that the traditional idea of beauty should no longer govern artists’ production of artworks. Such beauty claims to promote peace and harmony and to allow transcendence from the everyday. In reality, however, it passes over the violence that circulates beneath the surface of polite society. One might think here of those airbrushed ads on billboards that seek to cover over the reality of institutionalized misogyny or sexual violence. Instead, true art should attempt to (nonviolently) imitate the violence of society in order to express it. Such an attempt can be seen in the dissonance of Schoenberg's music. Schoenberg, in order to express historical violence through aesthetic form, produces a new formal technique for composing music: the twelve-tone system. This system works by rejecting harmony. Instead, dissonant works express the difference - the qualitative uniqueness - of their constituent tones. The opposition between the particular tones expresses social violence. For Adorno, true artworks – those that do not shy away from expressing suffering – are dissonant, enigmatic and difficult to understand. When we reflect on a Beckett play, for example, we realize that what ordinarily passes for rationality in capitalist society (the practical desire to gain as much as possible for as little effort as possible, for instance) is but a distorted version of true rationality, which is not governed by practical-instrumental imperatives, but which instead enables philosophical reflection and the experience of otherness and difference. Art Challenges
So how can art fight fascism? First, although radical, challenging art is somewhat marginal to Western life, it does not need a large audience in order to have some destabilizing effect. In his article doubting art’s political usefulness, Jones implied that the only experiences that count culturally or politically are ones that can be measured on a mass scale. Yet even if a single individual feels shock and horror when looking at, say, Picasso’s Guernica, the painting can be said to have achieved its effect. Adorno’s philosophy is explicitly formulated to resist pragmatism. Rather, “only what does not fit into this world is true” ( Aesthetic Theory, 1970, p.76). Adorno is saying that truth is in fact a moral category. This allows a true artwork to avoid conformity and express individuality, difference, or possibility. When it adheres blindly to social categories, the work may achieve a measure of apparent popularity, but it loses something too. Adorno argues that ethical action requires independence of mind and critical thought as well as the experience of particularity (that is, of a thing’s qualitative or material uniqueness). How is art able to reach or enable this concept of moral truth? This brings me to the second reason why art is capable of resistance: artworks do not communicate ideas through concepts that have already become the well-worn currency of everyday speech. Rather, artworks express truth through poetic or artistic language which must keep a distance from ideology or from conventions that have been simply accepted rather than critically examined. So Adorno thinks that the best modern art works express dissonance: that is, horror and suffering. As he observes: “Celan’s poems want to speak of the most extreme horror through silence. Their truth content itself becomes neg-
ative” ( Aesthetic Theory p.405). In this way art may indeed ‘do justice’ to the damaged state of the world. Adorno would further argue that since capitalism strongly compels individuals to value objects in monetary terms regardless of their intrinsic value or usefulness, true works of modern art should construct objects that are useless, and yet which have intrinsic (and non-quantifiable) value. So he arguesagainst making artworks explicitly political because that would mean that they’ve become instruments instead of autonomous constructions. For instance, although Percy Bysshe Shelley is a great poet, some of his best known works ( England in 1819, Masque of Anarchy…) to some extent use poetry to communicate a political point of view. By contrast, John Keats’ work uses themes that are part of tradition in order to criticize tradition without turning the artwork into a political tool (see for instance, To Autumn, and the famous Ode to a Grecian Urn). For the same reasons, Bob Dylan is less effective an artist than Beethoven. The latter challenges our experience more than the former because he is less overtly political. This argument may appear elitist, yet for Adorno that’s beside the point. An artwork’s autonomy from society enables it to critique society – specifically, through allowing a subject to realize what an object not determined by instrumental reason (or hegemonic exchange-value) would look like. Thus any work that is not sufficiently autonomous – for instance, commercial TV shows, which rely on corporate sponsors and formulaic storylines, or most popular music, which again uses melodies that can be easily digested and recalled without much effort – must fail as art. Similarily, overtly political art tells the subject what to think, through providing a blueprint to which her experience must conform. Autonomous art, on the contrary, allows the sub ject to experience otherness on its own terms. It opens, rather than closes, critical thought. Art Opens
A universal concept is incapable of completely encompassing all the particular features of an actual object. Adorno calls this the non-identity of concept and object ( Minima Moralia p.127). We encounter this when we realize that our experience has certain conceptual blind spots – that for example, we cannot always adequately describe the material features of objects in language. Similarly, certain artworks have a significance that may be experienced but which cannot be described conceptually. Concepts obscure particularity rather than expressing it. Art can open us up to experiences of otherness. But such experiences are precisely what fascism wants to shut down and deny. How does non-identity appear aesthetically? It might show up in the art gallery when we stand baffled before an apparently impossible, strange, or puzzling work – such as Méret Oppenheim’s Object , constructed in 1936: a teacup, saucer, and spoon, all covered in fur. Modern art provides an experience of otherness that cannot be determined by conventional categories. For another example, take the first stanza of the well-known poem Death Fugue by Paul Celan (probably written in 1945): Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night we drink and we drink
December 2018/January 2019 Philosophy Now 15
Arts & Letters Letters we shovel a grave in the the air where you won’t won’t lie too cramped cramped A man lives in the house house he plays with his vipers vipers he writes writes he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margareta he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling he whistles his his hounds to stay close close he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground he commands us play up for the dance.
Can this poem be easily put in an aesthetic category such as beautiful, sublime, ugly, nasty, nice, weird, or cute? First, let me note that since all of those categories are very highly specified in normal cultural use, they must be revised so tha t they are not mere cultural fantasies or projections. Second, on Adorno’s Adorno’ s account, accoun t, aesthetic aesth etic categories ca tegories should not n ot be considcon sidered to be subjective emotional responses. Instead they must be considered to be features of the object itself. Only from this perspective may we progress towards an understanding of the artwork’s inner constitution, its capacity for expression and truth-production, and its illusory surface. Méret Oppenheim’s Object 1936
Now let us move on to the fourth way t hat art may resist fascism. Artworks may inspire us to experience hope and possibility and possibility at a time when despair and hopelessness seem inevitable. Adorno provides provides a rare rare glimpse glimpse of positivity positivity when he writes: “Perhaps the true society will grow tired of development and, out of freedom, leave possibilities unused, instead of storming under a confused compulsion to the conquest of strange stars” ( Minima Minima Moralia Mor alia p.156). Fascism and capitalism both attempt to control nature (‘the conquest of strange stars’) – to harness otherness so that it may be easily identified, assimilated, and controlled. Through its radical form, art pushes back against this drive to dominate the world. For example, Paul Celan’s work breaks break s many of the rules rul es that govern gover n traditional traditi onal poetry: poetr y: he sometimes coins new words, and rather than giving us a straightforward straightforwa rd message, he challenges us to manufacture a message to take away from the t he poem. His poetry resembles a code more than a narrative – moreover, it’s a code that cannot be broken. As Adorno writes in Aesthetic in Aesthetic Theory (unfinished at his death in 1969): “A cryptogram of the new is the image of collapse; only by virtue of the absolute negativity of the collapse does art enunciate the unspeakable: unspeakabl e: utopia” (p.41). Art may indicate utopia – that is, the possibility of another world in which there is no longer a need for radical social critique – through developing new forms or techniques that individuals have never 16 Philosophy Now Now December 2018/January 2019
experienced before. Only by negating the existing forms – through art, for instance – might utopia begin to be visible. Wait a second, you might migh t reply: reply : Why should sh ould I care about a bout utopia? Well, Adorno’s concept of utopia is strictly negative: it is a limiting concept which reminds us that every act of criticism logically entails a case in which the negated elements do not exist. In other words, the possibility of criticism implies the possibility of progress. This brings me to to the final reason reason why art may resist fascism. Art is i s able abl e to critically criti cally think about society, society , and so indicate in dicate a autonomous from society and better one, because it is partially autonomous from history. Artworks potentially provide a means of or refuge for independent social critique. Such a critique may not bring about practical change – for instance, it cannot reverse a President’s executive orders. However, a critique involves thinking, which pushes against the blind acceptance of pervasive values. So although they may seem impotent compared to mass protest movements, radical works of art are important precisely because they do not use the same power or force that rules society. The fact that artworks cannot bring about change is in fact one of their virtues, because it means that they lie outside the logic of society. Instead certain artworks may help us see beyond the utilitarian structures that govern everyday experience. “Every work of art is an uncommitted uncommitted crime,” mused mused Adorno Minima (Minima Moralia p.111). In other words, an artwork is potentially an act of sabotage against an intolerable social order. Yet since such an artwork is autonomous from those rules and norms that govern the social order, it cannot change reality. The work’s truth is expressed aesthetically, not practically. For Adorno, thinking is implicitly a form of resistance, and all practical activity requires thought and judgment if it is to avoid blindness. Of course, not all artworks are progressive or part of the avant-garde. Adorno argues that many Soviet realist paintings remain mere propaganda: they fail to develop a formal technique that remains autonomous from society. Some Surrealist paintings or poems remain sexist or misogynist because they objectify the female body, or repress the undeniable influence of women artists, art ists, writers, writers, and intellectu intellectuals. als. And remembe rememberr that that the genius genius Richard Richard Wagner Wagner was was also also a notorious notorious anti-Se anti-Semite, mite, and his his operas operas express express the fascist desire to return to a mythical Aryan past. Art Abides
Human beings, like artworks, inhabit two worlds at the same time: the actual and the possible. What compass should we use to direct our course in such turbulent times? Samuel Beckett indicates a directionless direction: “You must say words, as long as there are any, until they find me, until they say me, strange pain, strange sin, you must go on, perhaps it’s done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll I’ll never know, in in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” (Trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable , 1959, p.418). © JUSTIN NEVILLE KAUSHALL 2018
Justin Neville Neville Kaushall is completing his his PhD at the University of Warwick. He lives in Edinburgh.
Arts & Letters Letters
The Case Against Conceptual Art Trevor Pateman makes the case for the prosecution.
ara Baume’s A Line Made By Walking (2017) is an impressive piece of recent autobiographical fiction. In it, the narrator repeatedly sets herself the task of identifying a work of art – usually a work of conceptual art – which relates relates to whatever whatever topic she’s she’s currently currently thinking thinking about. about. Some of the works are well-known, such as Tracey Emin’s My Emin’s My Long’s A Line Made By (1967), Bed (1998) Bed (1998) and Richard Long’s A By Walking Walking (1967), but most are more obscure. Though at the end of her book Baume urges us to go to the works ourselves, she has accidentally illustrated the main weakness of conceptual art: you don’thave don’t have to see it (or otherwise experience it) in order to respond to it. You just need a descripti description on spelling spelling out the idea – the thought thought – that the actual artwork itself was created to illustrate. Conceptual art is basically illustration, and that is its weakness and banality as art. That is to say, the realisation of the idea may often be elaborate and costly, and sometimes fleeting, but it is usually pretty much irrelevant. We can debate the concept all night with only a nod to the work which illustrate illustrated d it. There There is really really no need for us to confront the work itself (if indeed it still exists to be confronted). Baume says as much herself, through her protagonist Frankie: “Works about Time, I test myself: Christian Marclay, The Clock, 2010. A 24-hour film, film, a collage collage of extracts… extracts… Each extract represents a minute of the day… I have never seen it for real. Right the way through from beginning to end. I don’t imagine many people have. Nevertheless, I love this piece. I love the idea” (p.181). How can you love the piece if you haven’t seen it? All you can love is the the idea of it. That’s almost certainly enough; if you already love it, it would almost certainly be a waste of your time to watch it. And you certainly don’t need twenty four hours to get the idea. Back in 1997, as part of the Turner Prize show, London’s Minutes on a large Tate Gallery showed Gillian Wearing’s Wearing’s Sixty Minutes on screen. This is a video in which a group of people are lined up and asked to stand stock still for sixty minutes while they are filmed by a static camera. It would have caused a log-jam in the gallery if visitors had paused for sixty minutes to watch it. The most a gallery correctly assumed that everyone would give it at most a few minutes, to get the get the general idea, idea, and then move on. I sat crosslegged on the floor (no seats provided) for nineteen minutes, outlasting every other visitor in that period by at least seventeen minutes. What would we say about a cinema film which could not hold its audience for more than a few minutes, after which they would all leave because they had got the general idea? Put differently, Baume could simply have made up the majority of the many conceptual art pieces to which she refers in her novel; novel ; and in a work of fiction, who could object to that? There would have idea. But we would simply laugh at someone who been no loss of idea. said of her novel, “I have never actually read it from beginning to end. But I love this work. I love the idea.” Art is something somethi ng you have to experience experien ce at first hand to respond to it appropriately. You would make a fool of yourself
Toffee Apple by Da Luigi, 2018
if you started to talk about a painting pain ting or a film or a play by saying, “I haven’t seen it but my wife has, and she says…” A picture in a book isn’t enough, either, because for visual artworks there are, at the very least, problems of scale and natural light. So conceptual art fails as art because it invites us to respond to it without experiencing it. Not so long ago I wrote a critical piece about a painting by a Dutch portrait painter, Simon Maris (1875-1959), which had been re-titled by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam: they had changed its Fan . From the title from Young Negro Girl to Young Girl with a Fan. museum’s museum’s online images I was able to argue that both titles missed the fact that the ‘girl’ was wearing a gold band on her ring finger. Surely she was a married woman? Though re-titled with much attendant publicity, no one appeared to have looked at the painting . Then I travelled travelled over over to Amsterda Amsterdam m to look at it for myself. myself. As I entered the room in which it was displayed there was a fairly dramatic shock awaiting me. What had looked like a cheerful yellow bonnet in all the reproductions now suddenly dazzled me as if it were a golden golden halo. In consequen consequence, ce, what I had hitherto hitherto thought thought of as a fairly formal portrait suddenly took me in another direction, towards the tradition of what are called ‘Black Madonnas’ – portraits or statues of the Virgin Mary with a haloed black face. The sight of the halo in this this case case also reminded reminded me me of of my my own own conviction: a painting is meant to be seen; and there is really no other way of seeing it properly than standing in front of it. In Painting as an Art , Richard Wollheim (1987) said that he was only going to write about paintings which he had not only seen but spent time with; he gave a guide figure of three hours per painting. That bears bears some some thinking about in a world where a sixty minute minute video in the the Tate Gallery Gallery holds the attention of viewers for two minutes at most, and Sara Baume’s narrator can claim to l ove a work she has never never even seen. seen. © TREVOR PATEMAN 2018
Trevor Pateman’s essay ‘Young Girl With A Fan?’ is in his book The Best Best I Can Do Do (2016). He develops materialist ideas about art in Materials in Materials and and Medium: Medium: An Aesthetics Aesthetics (2016). December 2018/January 2019 Philosophy Now 17
Arts & Letters Letters An Architectural Architectural Fantasy Fantasy by Dirck van Delen, 1634
Creating the Beautiful Society Francis Akpata explains how Schiller saw art as a path to utopia.
he Athenian soldier and statesman Themistocles (523-458 BC) once said, “I cannot fiddle but I can build a great state out of a little city.” How do we build, better than a great state, a beautiful society? When one hears the term ‘beautiful society’ it may conjure images of a well-designed city, highly educated people dressed in elegant garments, or somewhere people glamorously affirm their higher social status. This was not, however, the vision of the German Romantic philosopher Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805). Friedrich Schiller’s beautiful society is one where where humanity humanity has progres progressed sed from a state state where where people people are primarily motivated by their natural needs – he calls this the sensu the sensuous ous will – will – to a higher state where their primary incentive is the moral will – will – that is, where citizens behave in a harmonious, unified manner out of a natural inclination. More specifically, specifical ly, in the beautiful society, people no longer experience the conflict between the sensuous will and the moral will. The absence of this conflict makes them stand apart from people in other societies because they now possess what Schiller describes as a ‘beautiful soul’. And 18 Philosophy Now Now December 2018/January 2019
they are able to develop beautiful souls by being exposed to great works of art, since great art sets them free from their sensuous wills wills and and enabl enables es them to embrace embrace the rational rational and moral moral will. will. The Artist Recreation of Character
This was a new idea about the function of art. Schiller’s predecessor Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) described art very differently, arguing that a beautiful work of art produces pleasure in a disinterested observer. Kant argued that a great work of art objectively stimulates this pleasurable feeling. feeling. That is to say, for us to see that an object is beautiful is not just to give in to our personal inclination; rather, the pleasure we feel is something anyone will experience if they approach the work of art in the right fashion. If like Kant we come to see art primarily as a source of pleasure, we need to ask, “What’s so special about that? How do we distinguish art from football, cricket, bird-watching or eating a good meal? Why is art different from other pleasurable endeavours? To put it bluntly, why should we care about art?” Schiller's answer is that continual exposure to art has a signifi-
Arts & Letters cant effect on the individual. It brings about a balance between things into existence. Art encourages that ability: the poet achieves our two fundamental drives – between our desire for sensation and it using words, the director through film, and the sculptor by bringour desire to reason as manifest in the moral will. Anyone able to ing figures to life from stone. This ability to imagine, facilitated achieve this harmonious balance is a beautiful person. A beautiful by art, is beneficial to society. Through art, the artist expresses person has developed the capacity both to act morally and better ways that humanity can exist. A reflection on art leads to enjoy the pleasures the world has to offer. This interto an internal discussion through which we re-examnal equilibrium sets them free because they are not ine our society and its values. After watching Arthur dominated either by strife or by puritanical moral Miller's play The Crucible, we are compelled to rectitude. According to Schiller, a person who reconsider the way in which we typecast people. has achieved this balance is complete. So Schiller When we read Wilfred Owen's poetry, we symhad moved away from Kant’s experiential pathise with soldiers and the victims of war. Bob account of beauty to a functional one, although Marley's music encourages us to disregard our he had chosen a function we would not normally differences and unite. During an artistic expeassociate with art. And unlike Kant, who in his rience, we are able to utilise the breadth of our imaginative capacity. The experience of a work of Critique of Judgement (1790) concentrated on the beauty of natural objects, Schiller was more interart (especially I think in fiction or drama) brings to Schiller ested in the inner beauty of the human soul. life the notion that other people are as real as ourselves, Schiller recommended this exposure to the arts in his most and so we are able to better identify with other individuals. substantial philosophical work, Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Works of art enable us to see the world from the perspective of Man (1794), where it is part of a developed political theory. In others. The world no longer revolves around us: we can hold a every person there is a ratio of the sensuous will to the moral/ratiobalance between achieving our own goals, acknowledging the nal will, and it is detrimental for either will to dominate the psyche. struggles of others, and contributing to society. Yet governments seem either to tolerate or enhance this imbalBecause neither fundamental human drive – to the senses or ance. To Schiller, most societies do not have true political and to reason – dominates the beautiful person, he or she is selfeconomic freedom, and this absence of true freedom prevents determining. He or she can decide when to strive for (say) wealth, people developing the rational/moral will. Political regimes either and when to be virtuous. It is art that enables anyone to achieve directly or indirectly encourage their citizens to live in an overly this control. During an artistic experience we change our sensuous manner that corrupts their moral growth. Exposure to response to things in the world. Therefore it is the job of the aesthetic experience brings the balance about. Exposure to art artist to present improving ideas in a manner attractive to the brings about the good person because during our artistic experiperceiver who, in turn, must develop sensitivity to what is placed ence we are shielded from the deleterious pressures of society. before them. When we read a well-written novel or poem, or When we look at a painting or listen to music, for example, we go really look carefully at some beautiful painting or sculpture, it through a period of non-practical engagement with the world, and may open us towards new and positive social ideals, which we in this way can improve the equilibrium of our character. will recognise and internalise. Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) reinforced this view, arguSchiller’s goal in encouraging exposure to art was always the ing that the aesthetic experience is one way we can achieve a aesthetic state that can lead to the formation of the beautiful socihiatus from the harsh realities of existence. Every day we strugety. The beautiful society is a place where people are moved by gle and compete, we experience loss and have to live with dislove, virtue, benevolence, honour and chivalry. He said the “aessatisfaction. Schopenhauer believed that when we read a poem thetic state makes society possible because it satisfies the will of or contemplate a wonderful painting we experience a break from all through the nature of the individual”. Through exposure to the continual strife which dominates life. art, individuals are no longer simply self-regarding; they become capable of internalising other people’s realities. Schiller also Why Art Works Work thought that we must achieve an aesthetic state before we can Schiller stressed that we are not merely physical objects, nor aniachieve a moral state. It is the imaginative leaps taken in the aesthetic state that allow us to reach the freedom of the moral state. mals whose primary objective is survival. Rather, we are self-conPeople are free in the moral state because their wills are domiscious beings who describe ourselves through our experiences, and nated neither by their sense nor by mere arid calculation. A whole we can express self-consciousness only by achieving some balance society of such people would strive for social improvement. among the varied multitude of experiences with which our enviIf Schiller is correct both in his goals and in the means to them, ronments confront us. As human beings we function by adopting ideals, which to different degrees focus the drives to sense or to then the way forward is clear. To achieve the beautiful society we reason. The expressions of different ideals may oppose each other. need to recognise the importance of our artistic experience. We Some ideals might demand absolute practicality, whilst others must not be obsessed solely with mundane or political or ecodemand contemplation. We are able to achieve a good sense of nomic issues. Instead we must achieve a balance between our self only by attaining a sense of harmony. As Schiller wrote, we desire to succeed in worldly affairs and the desire to engage with aim to “bring harmony to the variety of appearances and to affirm works of art that enables us to develop beautiful souls. © FRANCIS AKPATA 2018 [our] person amid all the changes of [our] condition.” I would add that human beings have the unique ability to imagine or visualise: Francis Akpata is Chief Executive Officer of Majlis Energy. He we look at the world around us and contemplate how to bring new studied philosophy and theology at King’s College London. December 2018/January 2019 Philosophy Now 19
Leo Tolstoy by Woodrow Cowher
HAPPY TOLSTOY © WOODROW COWHER 2018 PLEASE VISIT WOODRAWSPICTURES.COM
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Arts & Letters be all-consuming. But eventually Levin’s torment is transformed into joy – not by a new philosophy, but by a peasant reminding him of “what he already knew: not to live to satisfy his own desires”, but to live for the “life of the soul”. This ‘life of the soul’ that redeems Levin from suicidal despair can’t be fully disclosed by reason or words, he says; but as a lived principle it rejects greed, warfare, luxury, hypocrisy, hate, and power-mongering – all the things that Tolstoy saw as corrupting human life. Instead it promotes generosity, love, simplicity, peace, and forgiveness. Tolstoy later summarized this thinking thus: “the happiness of life is to be attained, not by the striving of each being toward his own personal happiness, but by a united striving of each creature for the good of all the rest.” This, he thinks, entails the renouncing of a demand for individual happiness, especially our animal desires for physical pleasure: “Love is love only when it is the sacrifice of self.” J.S. Mill summed the situation up thus: “those are only happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness.” To do this is to follow the ‘law of the good’ disclosed by all world religions. This kind of altruism may not bring happiness as such directly; but it can bring moral meaning to one’s existence, demonstrating that life is not empty but rather filled with high purpose; and one side effect of this is ‘soul happiness’ – an abiding gratitude for the gift of life. And current research in positive psychology supports the idea that those who live to do good tend to be happier and healthier than those who simply indulge themselves: see for instance Why Good Things Happen to Good People by Jill Neimark and Stephen Post (2007). In his later years Tolstoy boldly tried this radical pathway, but admitted constant personal failure, partly due to his own lustful character, and partly due to his being a land-owning Count. As his long-suffering wife Sophie noted: “My beloved husband consists entirely of contradictions.” In his early eighties Tolstoy made a final attempt to escape his contradictions by abandoning his home and family in the
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middle of the night and heading for a monastery. But he sickened and died along the railroad line. His last words were said to be: “Keep searching, never stop searching.” This principle he lived without contradiction to the very end. Tolstoy’s Extremism
In both his life and his writings, Tolstoy explored polar opposites and their interconnections: war and peace; hedonism and renunciation; poverty and wealth; happiness and despair. This is one element of his greatness as a novelist. But in his ethical teachings this dualism frequently results in the fallacy of the false dilemma: either one lives through one’s degrading animal instincts (lust, greed, power), or one renounces them altogether for a monastic austerity. In much of his life he vacillated obsessively between these two extremes. He seems to have overlooked (at least in his later life) the ‘middle way’ taught by Aristotle, Confucius, Buddha, and many other wise teachers. Plato, for example, teaches neither egoism nor altruism but rather the harmonizing of our desires through virtue and reason. In his famous metaphor in the dialogue Protagoras , the self is a chariot pulled by two horses working at cross-purposes. The dark horse representing physical desire pulls against the white horse representing virtue. But both are necessary to pull the chariot; so the charioteer, representing reason, guides them to work together in the direction of the good. This image avoids Tolstoy’s either/or dichotomy by acknowledging the contradictory elements in the human soul and providing a harmonizing guide. It assumes that we will continue to have the powerful opposing drives (or pulls) of the desire for food, sex, etc, and also for social acceptability; but they need not be out-of-control if guided by a practical reason which can look ahead, distinguishing short-term objectives from long-term goals. Tolstoy, on the other hand, seems to lack faith in the guiding power of reason and tortures himself with his vacillation between two strong opposing human forces, sensuality versus spirituality. “I could be happy if I were different from what I am,” he writes. A sad insight. In conclusion, Tolstoy’s accurate insight is that the singleminded pursuit of one’s own happiness brings narcissism and enslavement to chaotic desires, which in turn brings disharmony, frustration, conflict with others; in a word, unhappiness. On the other hand, pursuing a larger moral meaning, such as peace, kindness, justice, or human betterment, gives us transcendent purpose in life and thus a long-term sense of satisfaction. But Tolstoy’s ultimate oversight is his frequent either/or assumption which overlooks the middle way between the extremes of egoism and altruism, incorporating some element of both. Despite his own lustfulness, Tolstoy gradually begins condemning sex, eating, and other bodily desires as low ‘animal’ activities. This radical mind-body ethical dualism is another example of the false dilemma: either live completely in the soul or completely in the body. Tolstoy’s torment in later life seems to flow from his vacillation between these two extremes, with little or no rest in the middle. So was Tolstoy finally a victim of his own utopian dualism? Perhaps. But we need not follow him there. © VINCENT KAVALOSKI 2018
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Vincent Kavaloski is Professor of Philosophy and Integrative Studies at Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin. He also facilitates Socrates Cafés and public discussions on peace, justice and human rights.
Hermann von Helmholtz by Hans Schadow, 1891
Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894) Dylan Daniel looks at the philosophical insights of a remarkable scientist.
ermann von Helmholtz is a name that is not uttered frequently enough anymore. But this remarkable scientist, and philosopher, contributed to modern thought a veritable treasure trove of concepts and inventions. His mind had an uncanny way of attacking a problem at several levels simultaneously, yielding extraordinary results. He invented and popularized the ophthalmoscope, participated in describing non-Euclidean geometry, published across many disciplines, including physiology, psychology, physics, and philosophy, and in 1995 the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centers was created to commemorate his myriad contributions to science. Yet perhaps the greatest innovation to which Helmholtz contributed is still being developed in philosophy, psychology, and the neurosciences: a deep understanding of the human mind. Hermann von Helmholtz was born in Potsdam, Prussia, on August 31, 1821. As a boy, he was neither particularly wealthy nor endowed with any particular social standing. His father was a high school teacher, and so young Hermann had been the beneficiary of an excellent education despite the modest means which accompa-
nied it. He began his academic career in an army medical school, choosing to practice medicine because of the pay that came with it, in spite of his significant interest in both physics and mathematics. His M.D. thesis proved that nerve fibers allowed ganglion [brain] cells to communicate with one another, earning him both a precocious doctorate and affording him some credibility as a researcher. In 1843 Helmholtz graduated from medical school and moved to Potsdam, where he set up a laboratory in the barracks. He married Olga von Velten at this time, but soon was discharged from the military due to his obvious gift for scientific enquiry. The couple had children two children, Richard (18521933) and Ellen Ida Elisabeth (1864-1941), who followed their father’s dedication to science with keen interest. Family life for von Helmholtz was never top priority, but he displayed a keen interest in his children and loved to discuss science with them (this pattern was apparent in his friendships as well). According to Helmholtz’ son, Richard, “it was chiefly at meals and out walking that we saw him… It gave him keen pleasure to show us any natural phenomenon…” ( Hermann von Helmholtz, Koenigsberger, p.221). Indeed, Helmholtz was a December 2018/January 2019 Philosophy Now 23
Brief Lives model citizen and father for his day, even though he focused upon science to a degree which allowed it to dominate his interactions with his family and his large network of friends. Although he had more formal training in physiology than in physics, Helmholtz wrote On the Conservation of Force with help from the physiologist Emile du Bois-Reymond, and submitted it to the nascent Academy of Physics in Berlin in 1847. The paper was well received, proving that the understanding Helmholtz possessed of physics and mathematics was extremely advanced. Not yet even thirty, young Helmholtz had already made major contributions to both physics and physiology. Helmholtz rose through the ranks of German academia from his initial position as a Professor of Physiology at Konigsberg (1849-55) to Bonn (1855-58), to Heidelberg (1858-71). He then began to focus upon physics, in which field he was a Professor at the University of Berlin (1871-77), and at the Military Institute for Medicine and Surgery (1877-1887). In 1887, he became the founding President of the Physicalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt in Berlin, a post he held until his death in Berlin in 1894, at the age of 73.
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Eyeball in 1890
During his impressive career, Helmholtz held chairs in three different disciplines – physics, physiology, and anatomy – and published papers in these fields as well as in mathematics, philosophy, music theory, and aesthetics. His understanding of physics made it simple for him to conduct a measurement of the actual speed of the transmission of an action potential [an electric pulse] along a nerve fiber, which was a major contribution to the field of physiology. Prior to this test, it was believed that the speed of transmission of a nerve impulse was the speed of light; but instead of 300,000 km per second, it turned out to only be about 26.4 meters per second! Interdisciplinary understanding – a motif in his life – is what led Helmholtz to make advancements in the sciences. And Helmholtz’ interdisciplinary excellence came from his exceptional talent for philosophical questioning and clear-minded reasoning, coupled with the means to empirically test hypotheses. Sight, Sound and Reality
Philosophically, Helmholtz was a rather devout pupil of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). His most significant break from Kant came in his investigation of non-Euclidean geometry. Otherwise, like Kant, he believed that space (among other things) was not a fact of the world beyond the human mind and instead has to do with our perception. 24 Philosophy Now
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One of Kant’s central philosophical conclusions was the inaccessibility of the ‘ding-an-sich’, or ‘thing-in-itself’ – what something (or the world) is like in itself independent of our perceptions of it. It was this concept that led Helmholtz to be interested in the neuroanatomy of perception; and his twin interests in the mechanics of sight and hearing led to some of his most remarkable scientific discoveries. Let’s have a quick look at each of Helmholtz’ major scientific phases in an attempt to learn more about the workings of the mind behind them. Helmholtz developed an interest in vision at an early stage in his career, and he discovered that the living retina of the human eye is in fact pink. The black of the pupil had puzzled scientists for a long time, and it was generally accepted that this was due to the shape of the eye – the pupil, after all, is a focusing device, designed to let in light rather than let it out. However, getting a look at the living retina was a difficult proposition for exactly this reason. A need existed to peer into the eye without damaging it, and Helmholtz’ invention of the ophthalmoscope advanced optical care by satisfying this need. During his research into this, Helmholtz became intrigued by some related questions to do with our capacity for sight. How did the retina transmit the information it received to the conscious mind? The optic nerve was the most obvious answer to this question, but upon investigating it, more questions arose. Where did the nerve impulses go? How did the mind become aware of them, giving rise to consciousness of a given visual input? Even now, with all our technological advances, there is not yet a complete account of the brain’s generation of consciousness. Yet we know a lot. We know now for example that the fatty sheath encasing each nerve fiber has breaks in it every so often which allow potassium and sodium ions to interact, providing a chemical reaction which propels an electric current along the fiber until it reaches the end, the synapse of a neuron, where it causes the release of neurotransmitter chemicals. This either encourages the next neuron in the sequence to fire a pulse, or inhibits it from doing so. We also know that the area for the processing of visual information is at the back of the brain. After visual perception, Helmholtz’ next natural subject of inquiry was auditory perception. Helmholtz studied the cochlea of the inner ear in great detail, at first fascinated by the ridges within it. Later, his attention turned to the fine hairs which lined the interior of the organ. This interest once again had a lasting impact upon human understanding. Hearing, as we know today, is caused by vibrations being picked up precisely by these small hairs. Information concerning these vibrations is then (again) transmitted by nerves to specific areas in the brain. However, from a philosophical perspective, perhaps the most interesting aspect of each of these anatomical accounts of the acquisition of sense-data is what they lack. None of them involves anything from the outside world making it into the brain, or even getting closer to it than mere contact with a nerve ending. This even Helmholtz knew. And as both Helmholtz’ audio and visual perception research revealed ways to fool the senses, this further supported a gap between external objects and the mind perceiving them. Helmholtz was eventually led to argue that perceptions are signs rather than objective accounts of the data taken in. Indeed, for him the world had faded away from immediate access, and what was left in the mind was a mental
Brief Lives model of the world (including a model of the body) which allowed actions to be taken and consequences to be evaluated. The effect of prior action as observed via the senses, when incorporated into our mental model, shaped our future action. And practice at a musical instrument, for example, allowed the mental model to be more effectively mapped onto the body, so that playing an instrument became easier and the music sounded better. This was a bit of a tough pill to swallow for some philosophers. It is entirely likely that a fair amount of Helmholtz’ disdain for philosophy came from the skeptical attitude he attracted from philosophers who preferred to argue about conceptual issues while neglecting the empirical discoveries he was making. However, philosophical thought was behind a great deal of the scientific achievement Helmholtz produced during his life, and continues to play a major role in the field to which his work helped give rise – that of neuroscience. Indeed, in the light of his deep grasp of these complex phenomena, it might be fair to call Helmholtz ‘the father of neuroscience’.
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between appearance and reality. Helmholtz then used his physiological knowledge to update Kant’s thinking to say that although we have no direct access to the thing-in-itself, we do receive information about it which allows our brains to update the model our minds have of it, and so the world. Research into the workings of the senses and nerve fibers allowed Helmholtz to construct this theory, just as today cognitive neuroscientists test and research various ideas related to it. Modern cognitive neuroscience has so far been unable to improve on his observation that “Inductive inferences, as acquired by the unconscious work of memory, play a prominent part in the building up of concepts” (Koenigsberger, p.428). This seminal idea of the influence of the unconscious on the brain’s construction of our thought is (again) the direct offspring of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and the science of Hermann von Helmholtz. Perhaps Helmholtz’ most remarkable intellectual feat was his characterisation of the human brain as a ‘prediction machine’. In modern times, Kent Berridge and Terry Robinson have done incredible research into the physical mechanisms of human motivation, looking at dopamine-sensitive neurons which are involved in predicting a given action’s outcome. These neurons increase or decrease their activation level in future situations based upon the accuracy of their latest prediction, thus continually improving the accuracy with which we can make predictions. This gives us some empirical evidence affirming Helmholtz’ prediction machine idea.
Philosophy as a Source for Science
Eyeball in 2018
H D A I R A H L L A B E Y
Helmholtz’ Mental Life
In his book Descartes’ Error (1994), the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio poked holes in Cartesian Dualism. Descartes’ famous theory is basically a vision of the physical human body as being controlled by a non-physical soul or mind which is fundamentally separate from it. He believed the mind interacts with the body through the brain’s pineal gland, a position long since scientifically invalidated. For Damasio, cognitive neuroscience has now removed the various elements of thought from the black box of ‘mind’ and placed them in the body, where a clear and verifiable account of their workings is easily accessible. We are familiar with some components of the body, such as muscles, bones, hearts and lungs and livers, but other parts still mystify us, particularly the brain. The staggeringly difficult problem of tracing the functional connectivity in the brain provides little in the way of yielding elegant verifiable accounts useful for the details of the inner workings of consciousness. In this situation, the Kantian insight developed by Helmholtz is still very cuttingedge. Even Damasio might agree with Helmholtz’ idea that minds map our bodies and generate mental images of ourselves and the world around us by constantly recording and comparing images (percepts) generated by neuronal interactions. The key to this understanding came from Kant’s distinction
For me the most interesting aspect of Hermann von Helmholtz’s life is the extent to which he borrowed from philosophy to inform ground-breaking, awe-inspiring scientific studies in a variety of disciplines. It is as though his gifted mind decided at an early age to test Kant’s problem-set in any ways possible, and the rest of his studies were a natural consequence of this interest. From the concept of an unconscious inference of ideas, to the physiological study which fleshed out his ideas of perception, Helmholtz was an example of excellence in philosophy as well as science. Helmholtz seems to have suffered a stroke at the end of his career, which led to a period of dementia that lasted about two months until September 8, 1894, when the brilliant man finally died. “His early death… was felt not merely as an irreparable loss to science, but as a national misfortune,” wrote his long-term friend, Emil du Bois-Reymond. Although his physics has been partly pushed aside by Einstein, Helmholtz’ ideas have shaped and molded modern science, and his insights have made profound impressions upon many of the greatest thinkers of the past hundred and fifty years. By understanding the philosophy of perception, Helmholtz was able to gain an unprecedented level of insight into the mind doing the perceiving, via means both theoretical and empirical. Now, over a hundred years after his death, science is beginning to allow researchers to test some of his most brilliant insights. © DYLAN DANIEL 2018
Philosopher and writer Thomas Dylan Daniel graduated from Texas State University with an MA in Applied Philosophy and Ethics. His book Formal Dialectics is available now at cambridgescholars.com/formal-dialectics. Enter code DIALECTICS20 to receive a special discount! December 2018/January 2019 Philosophy Now 25
MARY MIDGLEY (September 13, 1919 – October 10, 2018) Carol Nicholson on a remarkable ethicist and Philosophy Now contributor.
ary Midgley, one of the leading and most illuminating moral philosophers of our time, published her last book (What is Philosophy For?) only a couple of weeks before her death on October 10 at the age of ninety-nine. Raymond Tallis prai sed the book as a brilliant, lucid, and witty assault on the distorted world-view of our age and a compelling defence of philosophy as the discipline that is needed to rescue us. Midgley read widely in the history of philosophy as well as in the sciences and the humanities, and she was too open-minded to be affiliated with any particular school of thought. She was celebrated as having one of the sharpest pens in the West, pulling no punches in her criticism of the claims that traditional philosophy is obsolete and that modern science has a monopoly on the truth. After raising three sons with her husband Geoffrey Midgley, also a philosophy teacher, Midgley taught at Newcastle University for many years, and it was not until near the age of sixty that she began writing the work that would make her famous. In 1978 she published Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature. This was the first of over a dozen books she wrote alongside hundreds of articles during the next forty years on a wide variety of topics including human nature, ethics, science, animals, and the environment. Her prose is remarkably clear and free of jargon, making her work accessible to the general reader as well as academic specialists, and she had a gift for using vivid imagery to illustrate abstract philosophical concepts. Perhaps her most memorable metaphor is the suggestion that philosophy can be understood as a form of plumbing. Our thinking depends on unstated assumptions that we don’t notice until bad smells come up from below the floor, and we’re forced to reexamine the deep infrastructure of our life as a whole to find the central confusions and conflicts that are causing the serious problems in the pipes. Midgley thought that this kind of plumbing has always been the main job of philosophy, and it never goes out of date. It’s something that we all do all the time. In another apt figure of speech, Midgley described philosophy as “conceptual geography.” She saw mind and matter not as two kinds of stuff but as two ways of mapping the relations between various ways of thinking about different kinds of questions. The relationship between thoughts and brain states is analogous to the way in which thunder and lightning are different ways of perceiving a single reality. We use both sight and touch to navigate the world, and neither sense is truer than the other any more than the inside of a teapot is more real than the outside. These clever metaphors and analogies exemplify a cen-
26 Philosophy Now December 2018/January 2019
tral theme in Midgley’s writings, the need to balance the scientific analysis of things into their parts with the more holistic perspective that philosophy can provide. In Are You An Illusion? (2014) she insightfully discussed Iain McGilchrist’s idea in The Master and his Emissary that the two hemispheres of the brain deliver to us different versions of the world. The left brain focuses attention narrowly and precisely, while the right brain takes a broader point of view and evaluates the relevance of the parts of experience in light of the larger context. Midgley pointed out that scientific reductionism distorts our experience by rejecting altogether the validity of the perspective of the right hemisphere, resulting in a kind of tunnel vision. The left hemisphere on its own can see only the pieces that make up the world and therefore insists that physics tells us the whole truth about reality. But physics, like every particular science, is in Midgley’s words “a one-sided story, an abstraction, a view seen through a single window.” In The Solitary Self (2010) she identified another symptom of left-brain obsession in the reductive individualism of the concept of the ‘selfish gene’. According to Midgley, this is a serious misinterpretation of Darwin, who viewed all organisms as interdependent parts of complex ecosystems rather than isolated atoms in a mythical Hobbesian state of nature. She argued that we need to use our entire brain with both halves working together, so philosophy and the sciences should complement each other rather than competing for the prize of a one-dimensional ultimate truth. An example of this kind of cooperation between scientific research and philosophical vision is the Gaia hypothesis that the Earth can be viewed as a living organism, an idea that Midgley defended as an enormously fruitful suggestion. Her final answer to the question “What is philosophy for?” is that its aim is not at all like that of the sciences. Scientists are specialists who study parts of the world, but philosophy concerns everybody. It tries to bring together aspects of life that have previously been unconnected in order to make a more coherent world-picture, which is not a private luxury but something absolutely essential for human life. I never met Midgley, but she spoke powerfully to my condition, and I shall miss her as if she had been one of my dearest friends. At a time when philosophy departments in many universities are being drastically cut or eliminated, her message is urgently important, and I hope that it will be heard for as long as there is human life on earth. © PROFESSOR CAROL NICHOLSON 2018
Carol Nicholson has been teaching at Rider University in New Jersey for over 40 years. The Rider Philosophy Department has recently been cut in half from four full-time faculty members to two.
Mary Midgley by Gail Campbell 2018
December 2018/January 2019 Philosophy Now 27
The History Man
Hegel on History
A “world soul on horseback” by Jacques-Louis David, 1805
Lawrence Evans rationally interprets Hegel’s rational interpretation of history.
e are often taught that history is nothing but the record of past events. Yet Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) thought that world history was not just a random sequence of happenings but progressed rationally, according to a specific purpose. This has led some to the mistaken belief that Hegel thought history followed some predetermined path, such that his philosophy could somehow reveal the future course of events. This misconception has often been accompanied by the accusation that Hegel sought to impose his own metaphysical scheme onto the historical facts, to conform them to his theory. I will argue that these are gravely mistaken views; and also that Hegel can be exonerated from the idea that he believed in ‘the end of history’, which is to say, the idea that history was fulfilled in his own particular historical moment.
evolution of Geist attaining consciousness of itself , since the very nature of spirit is freedom. Hegel also refers to Geist as the ‘world spirit’, the spirit of the world as it unveils itself through human consciousness, as manifested through a society’s culture, particularly its art, religion and philosophy (Hegel calls this triad the expression of the ‘absolute Spirit’). As Hegel puts it in the Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), spirit is the “ethical life of a nation.” For Hegel, then, there is rational progress in history only in so far as there is progress of the self-consciousness of the spirit of the world through human culture in terms of the consciousness of freedom. It is crucial however that Hegel does not mean by ‘freedom’ merely the unrestricted ability to do whatever we like: in the Philosophy of Right (1820) Hegel calls that type of freedom ‘negative freedom’ and says it’s an intellectually immature way to understand freedom. What Hegel means by freedom is instead closer to Immanuel Kant’s idea, in which a free subject is someone who How Hegel’s Theory of History Works Hegel’s philosophy of history is most lucidly set out in his Lec- self-consciously makes choices in accordance with universal printures on the Philosophy of World History, given at the University of ciples and moral laws, and who does not merely pursue personal Berlin in 1822, 1828 and 1830. In his introduction to those lecdesires. Hegel claims that if the individuals of a nation merely tures Hegel said that there is reason in history because ‘reason pursue their own gratification, this will lead to the eventual colrules the world’; hence world history is the progress of reason. lapse of the nation. What does Hegel mean by reason in history? He has in mind The aim of world history is the development of the self-cona ‘teleological’ account – the idea that history conforms to some sciousness of spirit, which is the self-consciousness of freedom. specific purpose or design (this idea is also called ‘historicism’). The crucial point – and this is the key Hegelian twist – is that He compares this with the Christian notion of providence. His- the world spirit does not have a conscious aim which it sets out to torical analysis, from the Christian perspective, reveals God’s achieve; rather, the aim only becomes known through the spirit governance of the world and world history is understood as the achieving its aim. So the purpose of history can only be underexecution of His plan. Hegel has a very idiosyncratic idea of God, stood retrospectively. That is to say, to understand historical which he calls Geist – meaning ‘spirit’ or ‘mind’. A philosophical development, one has to know the result in order to then trace understanding of the progression of world history enables us to back the factors which led to it. As Hegel explains, historical know this God, to comprehend the nature and purpose of Geist. necessity then emerges through the historical contingency; or as For Hegel, the purpose or goal of history is the progress of the we might say, the result then gives its cause the appearance of consciousness of freedom. Progress is rational in so far as it cor- necessity. For example, let’s say that I catch the 8.30 train to responds to this development. This rational development is the work. Assuming the train is on time (an unrealistic expectation, 28 Philosophy Now December 2018/January 2019
The History Man I know), and given that I do arrive at work on time, then it was necessary that I caught my train; but this does not mean that I was always going to catch the train... In the same way, the point is not that for Hegel history is predetermined, but rather that the purpose of history can be realised retrospectively. What’s more, the realisation of this purpose is the purpose of the very process of history! We can also see from this that Hegel not only intends to explain how the past has influenced the present, but also the influence the present has on our interpretation of the past. Hegel points out that the task of philosophy is not to prophesy or make forecasts. Instead, philosophy always arrives too late. As he famously writes, “the owl of Minerva flies only at dusk.” In other words, philosophy (or ‘wisdom’, hence his reference to the Roman goddess of wisdom) can only analyse history retrospectively, from the standpoint of the present. So Hegel does not think that his philosophy of history should be imposed on the facts. On the contrary, he stresses that we must examine the facts of history (or indeed the facts of any other matter) as they present themselves, that is, empirically and for their own sake. We can then derive our philosophy (or wisdom) from these facts, without imposing any metaphysical preconceptions on them. This also means that although Hegel sees reason in history, this reason can nonetheless only be completely understood philosophically when the goal of history is complete. Hegel perceives world history to have developed according to a dialectical process. Hegelian dialectic is often described this way: “a thesis provokes its opposite idea – its antithesis – and together they give rise to an idea that combines elements of both – their synthesis .” But Hegel never used that terminology, although it does convey some sense of what he had in mind. Hegel himself called the main feature of the dialectic Aufhebung , a word with meanings including ‘to overcome’ or ‘cancel’ or ‘pick up or preserve’. To try to render several of its meanings, as well as the technical connotation Hegel intended, it’s often translated as ‘sublation’. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines this as “to negate or eliminate (something) but preserve as a partial element in a synthesis.” Any imperfect idea, and in particular, any incomplete concept of freedom, contains within itself its own contradictions, and sublation is the process whereby these contradictions come to be unified in a higher principle. Thus in a Hegelian dialectical process there is a conflict between a concept and its external opposite which develops into an internal contradiction where the concept struggles with itself, and through this struggle the concept is overcome and simultaneously preserved in a unification with its contradiction at a higher level. Then the new concept produced in this way undergoes the same process again, and so on, so history progresses in a sort of spiral. To understand this, though, it’s best to look at how Hegel discussed actual history. What Hegel’s Theory of History Is
To describe the development of the consciousness of freedom, Hegel divides world history into three major cultures or epochs. In the tyrannical age, which Hegel thought was characterised by the pre-Greek ‘Oriental’ world, people know that only one person, the ruler or despot, is free. Then the Greeks and Romans
know that some persons – the citizens – are free. Finally, the Germanic peoples (that is, Western Europe), through the influence of Christianity, know that all persons, or human beings as such, are free. It is crucial to understand that Hegel doesn’t merely want to show that the amount of freedom has increased over the course of history, but that the concept of freedom itself has fundamentally changed. And if there has been development in the concept of freedom, there will also have been development in the nature of spirit, since spirit is characterised by freedom. In more detail, Hegel distinguishes this development into four particular stages. In the Oriental world, the people knew that only the ruler is free. Since the spirit of freedom was therefore immanent or manifested only within a single individual, whose freedom was realised by an accident of birth, this freedom is thus merely arbitrary. Moreover, people were unaware of the subjective freedom within themselves; and so Hegel considers this the ‘childhood’ period of the development of spirit. The consciousness of subjective freedom first appeared in the Greek world; but even the Greeks did not realise that all human beings as such are free. The ethical life (or absolute spirit) of the Greeks was distinguished by an underlying satisfaction with convention. People lived in relative harmony with the norms and traditions of society. Yet still this was an inherently self-contradictory way of life, for people did not question the state’s customs, morals, rights and so on, and so they still lacked a sufficiently developed self-consciousness. In Greek society there was therefore an inherent tension between indi vidual freedom and the universal principles of the state. Hegel compares this tension with adolescence. It took the figure of Socrates to encourage people to reflect on the accepted notions of ethics, and thus for the spirit to re-awaken itself. In the subsequent period of the Roman Empire, subjective freedom was recognised in terms of the introduction of formal rights for citizens. But this notion of freedom was too abstract, above the concrete, everyday world of citizens. Hence, spirit was in a stage of self-alienation. True freedom only emerged with the rise of Christianity in the Germanic world, when freedom was understood as the very essence of humanity. So Christianity is important for Hegel, since it is only through the figure of Jesus Christ (whom Hegel calls the ‘God-man’) that human beings find the essence of spirit within themselves and overcome their alienation from God (that is, from the world spirit). For after Christ dies on the cross he is ‘sublated’ into the Holy (or divine) Spirit (which for Hegel means the community of believers, or ‘Christendom’ as we might call it). Christianity was at the fore of intellectual life throughout the Middle Ages. However, Hegel saw Medieval Christianity as an archetype of what he called the ‘unhappy consciousness’, due to what he perceived as the failure of the Church to mediate between individuals and God. It took a particular world-historical moment, namely the French Revolution, for spirit to become truly self-conscious; to escape ‘abstract’ freedom and realise ‘concrete’ freedom through the laws as they applied to the people. Even near the end of his life Hegel remained jubilant about the French Revolution, describing it as “a glorious mental dawn.” So the world spirit has developed dialectically throughout history by a series of struggles with itself. Spirit can only overcome its stage of alienation from itself through realising this very alienDecember 2018/January 2019 Philosophy Now 29
The History Man ation. Each stage was therefore entirely necessary in the development of spirit’s self-consciousness, but the necessity of each stage can only be realised retrospectively.
Hegel before history
The End of History
What drives the world spirit towards a full consciousness of freedom? And how do individuals become aware of the goal of history, that is, this fulfilled consciousness? For Hegel, world history is driven by ‘world-historical indi viduals’; so-called ‘great men’ such as Socrates, Julius Caesar, or Napoleon. They alone are able to influence the tides of history and drive forward the self-consciousness of freedom. In a letter written to his friend Friedrich Niethammer in 1806, Hegel described Napoleon with adulation as ‘a world soul on horseback’. However much these world-historical individuals are inclined to pursue their own interests, they are unknowingly used by spirit to move towards the realisation of its own selfconsciousness. Hegel refers to this as the ‘cunning of reason’. But how then can the pursuit of their own interests by worldhistorical individuals be a result of the working of reason in history and so aid the development of freedom? Hegel’s answer is ingenious. He notes that any individual who actively supports a historically-prominent cause is not merely a self-interested party who seeks their own satisfaction; they must also be actively interested in the cause itself . And this cause, being a manifestation of a given stage in the progress of reason’s history, must result in overall progress towards the realisation of human freedom. Some – notably Francis Fukuyama – have taken Hegel to mean that, because the goal of history as the self-consciousness of human freedom had been achieved in his time, the world had reached ‘the end of history’. We must be careful to keep in mind the way Hegel is using the word ‘history’ here – which is, of course, the unfolding of reason in the progress of the consciousness of freedom. For Fukuyama, this realisation of freedom actually occurred with the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, signalling the end of Communism in Europe and the triumph of liberal democracy over all alternative systems of government. Fukuyama’s particular notion is then that liberal democracy is the final form of society embodying the self-consciousness of freedom. There is, however, nothing to suggest that Hegel would have endorsed anything like the particular kind of liberalism prevalent in modern society. Hegel saw in liberalism - especially in the French liberal government in his own time - a tension between individual rights and social unity. It seems that Hegel himself rejected liberalism as an ideology, because he believed that it would lead people to selfishly put their individual interests above the universal principles which uphold the state; and so liberalism, at least in his own time, could not be a stable socio-economic and political system. “This collision,” Hegel writes in the conclusion of his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, “this problem is that with which history is now occupied and whose solution it has to work out in the future.” It is also important to note that Hegel does not mean ‘the end of history’ in the sense that historical development finishes with his historical moment in Europe. Indeed, with regards to the actual content of world history, and the recent surge in his own time of American independence, Hegel insightfully remarks that “America is therefore the country of the future, and its world-historical 30 Philosophy Now December 2018/January 2019
importance has yet to be revealed in the ages which lie ahead…” The fact that Hegel mentions ‘the future’ in the specific context of world history in these last two quotes is of particular interest here, for it suggests that this was not merely a gesture but something systematic. Hegel does not pretend to have knowledge of what lies ahead; even if the consciousness of freedom is now fully manifested in the world, this does not mean that the future must therefore be already written. On the contrary, Hegel believes that because history is contingent there are no foregone conclusions concerning the future. And these points surely demonstrate that Hegel did not believe that liberalism was the ‘end of history’, nor that in any conceivable way history ended at his particular historical moment. What Hegel means by an end to history is not that there are to be no further developments: instead, the goal of history has been achieved: the world is now conscious of freedom, and the world spirit knows itself as the ultimate reality – what Hegel refers to as ‘absolute knowing’. To conclude, I have tried to clear up some common misconceptions about Hegel’s philosophy of history, particularly about his idea of historical necessity. I have argued that for Hegel, history is not determined and closed, and thereby at an end, but is instead both contingent and radically open. The past is preserved in the present to the extent that it has shaped the present in the development of the self-consciousness of human freedom that we now have. This understanding is the Hegelian legacy we need today. © LAWRENCE EVANS 2018
Lawrence Evans has a Master’s degree in philosophy from the London School of Economics, and is currently a research student in the philosophy department at University College London.
The History Man
The Trouble with Hegel Chris Christensen thinks Hegel shouldn’t have stopped where he did.
egel’s philosophy will always undergo revivals because he appeals to those with a bent for reason and a yen for metaphysics, and Hegel dishes that combo out in spades. This is illustrated by his work The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), parts of which Theodor Adorno called “literally incomprehensible.” Hegel’s contemporary and bitter rival Arthur Schopenhauer called him a charlatan who purposely wove his words into tangled vines of verbiage to mask his philosophical shortcomings. Still, to his admirers who have waded through the Phenomenology it is a metaphysical masterpiece. My trouble with Hegel lies elsewhere: in his Philosophy of History, (1837), where Hegel traces the development of the ‘consciousness of freedom’ through several countries over three thousand years. In the Introduction Hegel boils down his theory to one famous statement: “The history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom.” Freedom and consciousness are absolutely central to Hegel’s philosophy, so let’s see what he means by those terms. This will require dipping a toe into the Phenomenology to find Hegel’s meaning of ‘consciousness’, and looking into Philosophy of Right to find his meaning of ‘freedom’. As a guide I will use Peter Singer’s excellent exposition, Hegel (1983). But first I want to provide some background for Hegel’s motivation. Much of the difficulty in Hegel’s work stems from his purpose: he sought to dismantle a monumental work of philosophy, Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781), where Kant used reason to determine its own limits. Our senses are bombarded with stimuli – raw data which our minds receive and shape and organize, creating our perception of reality. There is an objective reality out there, which Kant called the ‘thing-in-itself’. As we can’t access that reality directly, but only filtered through our perceptions, the ‘thing-in-itself’ is beyond the scope of science and even reason, so it will forever be a mystery. Despite this, Kant knew that the mind thirsts for ultimate reality: “That the human mind will ever give up metaphysical research is as little to be expected as that we should give up breathing,” he wrote. Hegel set out to prove Kant wrong. Like his contemporaries Fichte and Schelling, he felt that philosophy could find and understand Kant’s thing-in-itself. Hegel viewed philosophical progress from a distance. He saw competing philosophies, including Kant’s, as each contributing over time to what he called ‘the progressive unfolding of truth’. This is important to understanding Hegel; all the work produced by him, his predecessors and successors, make up a whole. He beautifully illustrates this in his metaphor of a fruit tree: the buds are gone when they burst into blossom; then the blossoms, as they disappear, produce the fruit, revealing the truth or purpose of the tree. He sees the progress of history, similarly, as being a gradual unfolding of the truth through the interplay of ideas. He believed it has a purpose and an ending: the liberation of humanity.
But before we tackle his philosophy of history, let’s first look at what he means by consciousness. The Phenomenology of Spirit
Phenomenology is the study of phenomena or ‘things made manifest’; so the title of this book means the study of how spirit or consciousness manifests in the world. Hegel’s purpose here was to examine “the relationship between objective history and the subjective development of individual consciousness.” What goes on in the realm of consciousness as it progresses through history? Consciousness, according to Hegel, began as a simple form that finds itself inadequate, so must develop into another form; “and this in turn,” writes Singer, “will also prove inadequate and develop into something else, and so the process will continue until we reach true knowledge.” Kant’s thing-initself will then be known. This process involves the emergence of self-consciousness, which Hegel says cannot exist in isolation; it needs contrast, something outside of itself – another consciousness. That something is foreign and seen as threatening, so a lovehate dynamic comes to the surface in the form of desire. As Singer writes: “To desire something is to wish to possess it and thus not to destroy it – but also transform it into something that is yours, and thus strip it of its foreignness.” One therefore seeks recognition from the Other (consciousness). This leads to strife – hence Hegel’s Master-Slave dynamic, in which one consciousness contends with the other until the objective (the Other) melds with the subjective (oneself). Eventually a kind of universal consciousness comes into being where the self realizes that it’s part of a larger consciousness in a community of others. At this point the progress of the consciousness of freedom reaches the end, which Hegel called Absolute Mind or Absolute Spirit. Now, what does Hegel mean by ‘freedom’? Philosophy of Right
Hegel begins the Philosophy of Right (1820) by discussing the classic liberal form of freedom – the absence of restrictions. Here the individual is free to make choices without interference by others. Hegel found this form of freedom shallow. He wrote, “If we hear it said that the definition of freedom is ability to do what we please, such an idea can only be taken to reveal an utter immaturity of thought, for it contains not even an inkling of the absolute free will, of right, ethical life, and so forth.” For Hegel, the key word in freedom is choice. But what is choice based on? That is a question unasked by most of freedom’s adherents. But, as Singer writes, “Hegel does ask, and his answer is that indi vidual choice, considered in isolation... is the outcome of arbitrary circumstances. Hence it is not genuinely free.” In a phrase, we are not free when our choices stem from randomly conditioned desires. So when are we truly free? When our choices are based on “the social ethos of an organic community,” says Singer, interpreting Hegel. A quote by British philosopher F.H. Bradley, who adopted Hegel’s idea of an organic community, December 2018/January 2019 Philosophy Now 31
The History Man best sums up the meaning of choice based on community: “The child... is born not into a desert but into a living world. ... He learns... to speak and here he appropriates the common... tongue that he makes his own... and it carries into his mind the ideas and sentiments of the race... and stamps them in indelibly. He grows up in an atmosphere of example and general custom... The soul within him is saturated… has built itself up from, it is one and the same life with the uni versal life, and if he turns against this he turns against himself.” (F.H. Bradley, Ethical Studies, Essay V )
So for Hegel, genuine freedom is connected to the freedom of others, where the subjective and the objective meld into one. Now armed with a rough understanding of Hegel’s view of freedom and of consciousness, we can proceed to his chronological and geographical journey through history. Philosophy of History
Hegel wanted to prove that history is a rational process governed by an ultimate design. If history is governed by reason, what then propels it toward the full consciousness of freedom? According to Hegel it’s driven by strife or conflict, not so much between armies as between ideologies. The Philosophy of History was originally a series of lectures at the University of Berlin ending a year before his death in 1831. Lawrence Evans in his article describes the different epochs or stages of history according to Hegel. What is striking is Hegel’s choice of examples to illuminate the progress of the consciousness of freedom through human history. His book’s title might as well have been The Philosophy of History through Geography, because his examples from his earliest epoch are from the East, later epochs are illustrated by cultures a little further west, and so he continues until he reaches Prussia, where history apparently ends and freedom reigns. Hegel’s first epoch he actually calls ‘Oriental Despotism’ and he takes the prime examples of it as being ancient China and India. In this historical stage, he says, people had no consciousness of freedom of their own, law and morality being imposed from above. Only the rulers are free. Scholars might quibble with his characterisation of entire complex civilisations as ‘despotism’. It’s perhaps fair to say that Hegel isn’t too interested in details or a balanced exposition of ancient societies he just wants to give a broad description of how history unfolds. Moving further west and forward in time Hegel next comes to Persia, a theocratic empire where the first stirrings of the consciousness of freedom can be seen. The sun is worshipped, and it shines on all; on ruler and subject alike. This is the beginning of ‘true history’, says Hegel, albeit in its infancy. Then westwards again to classical Greece, which becomes the first stage in the true consciousness of freedom. Its democracy allows freedom for many, but the social system is based on slavery. Still, philosophy and independent thought, free of the state religion, gently nudge humanity along the path of the consciousness of freedom. The reason and individuality cultivated by the Greeks moves west in history’s next stage, the Roman Empire. There it brings about tension between the authorities and the individual. Persons with a penchant for free thought took refuge in Stoicism, Skepticism, or Epicureanism – schools 32 Philosophy Now December 2018/January 2019
of thought that Hegel regarded as limited, if not negative. The consciousness of freedom receives a huge boost from the rise of Christianity, which eventually weakens the Roman Empire. The Catholic Church taught its members that they were made in the image of God; that they possessed infinite value and an eternal destiny. Hegel called this ‘religious self-consciousness’; the feeling that the world is ultimately spiritual, not material. But the Church grows corrupt, its hierarchy indulges in greed, lust, and indolence – perversions of the true religious spirit. The subsequent strife sparks the Reformation, which Hegel regards as the launch pad to the end of history. Martin Luther preachs that a person doesn’t need elaborate ceremonies and trappings, and can develop a personal relationship with God without the need of the Catholic Church. In this way individual conscience could determine truth and reason. The Reformation laid the groundwork for the next stages – the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Reason ruled here, and Hegel rejoiced: “Never since the sun has stood in the firmament and the planets revolved around it had it been perceived that a man’s existence centers in his head, i.e. in thought, inspired by which he builds up the world of reality... not until now had man advanced to the recognition of the principle that thought ought to govern spiritual reality. All thinking beings shared in the jubilation of this epoch.” Then heads began to roll, literally, as the Revolution turned to terror and the guillotine. Putting Reason on a pedestal isolated from the community had brought about the failure of the French Revolution, according to Hegel. Freedom was postponed while the rule of power took over, embodied in Napoleon. Nonetheless, some of the Revolution’s beneficent principles were carried into Germany with Napoleon’s invasion. (But that is eastwards !) In Hegel’s homeland, Prussia, ordinary citizens gained certain rights, such as freedom of movement and property, and offices of the state were opened to qualified citizens. But the parliament was weak, most people had little or no say in government, and the king could impose strict censorship. Despite these restrictions, Hegel believed that freedom is best nurtured through a constitutional monarchy. The monarch (in his case Frederick William III) embodies the spirit and desires of the governed, who have now become free. Hegel thus declares his own Prussian society the final stage of the development of the consciousness of freedom. The Trouble With Hegel
Considering Hegel’s expansive view of freedom, his deep exploration of consciousness, and the majestic arc of his theory, this conclusion is disappointing, to say the least. What happened to the westward movement? Hegel, the great champion of speculative thought, should not mind a bit of speculation from me at this point. Recall that Hegel’s purpose is to lift the veil from Kant’s thing-in-itself. Whether he succeeds or not is irrelevant; he believes he has. As Bryan Magee writes in Confessions of a Philoso pher (1999), “Hegel believed that total reality consists of a single something, Geist (mind or spirit), which is going through a process of change and development towards a goal of self-consciousness.” So let’s assume the thing-in-itself that Kant claimed would forever be a mystery is none other than the world spirit
K U . O C . T T O T S L L I B . W W W T I S I V E S A E L
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How great works of art are named.
as the progress of the consciousness of freedom. In Hegel’s terms, it is objective reality; and its process, and its ending, are inevitable. Hegel does not create the process; he discovers it. Indeed, if allowed to follow its course, history could not end in the Prussian state; it would continue its westward path. Hegel is aware of this. There is an elephant in his study; the United States. As he sits in his armchair, he tries to ignore it, but his own world consciousness – or conscience – will not allow it. So Hegel attempts to hide it. In the book of his lectures on the philosophy of history, Hegel does not mention the United States, or its Constitution, in the main text. In the final pages of the text he briefly mentions Britain’s constitution and parliament; but he dismisses Britain as being preoccupied with commerce and industry centered on the spirit of empire “to form connections with barbarous peoples, to create wants and stimulate industry, and first and foremost to establish the conditions necessary to commerce, viz. the relinquishment of a life of lawless violence, respect for property, and civility to strangers.” But what about the United States? Philosophy of History contains a 103-page Introduction. Tucked in on pages 84-86 of my copy (translated by J. Sidree in 1944), Hegel concedes that the US Constitution explicitly pro vides freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly to express grievances, among other protections and rights. He even points out that “there is a President... who for the sake of security against any monarchical ambition, is chosen only for four years” (my emphasis). This screams out that Hegel’s consciousness of freedom is heading west. Hegel must find a way to escape this conclusion. He finds it in Europe’s need for interaction between states due to their close proximity. True statehood can only be gained through such interaction, just as true self-consciousness can only be gained through
interacting with others. Because America has immense room for expansion, it could not yet develop true statehood. Hegel makes this explicit: “Only when, as in Europe... the inhabitants, instead of pressing outwards... press inwards upon each other, will America form a compact system of civil society, and require an organized state.” He concludes that “America is therefore the land of the future... and as a land of the future it has no interest for us here, for as regards History, our concern must be with that which has been and that which is.” The US declared its independence in 1776; Hegel lectured on the philosophy of history during the 1820s. It seems that a mere half-century of existence did not qualify the US for the status of “that which has been.” But I quibble. Hegel missed a more salient argument against fitting the States into his scheme – slavery in America. Of course Greek democracy was based on slavery; yet Greece was thought by Hegel to be at the beginning of the march of freedom. I believe Hegel inserted his commentary on the United States in the Introduction to the Philosophy of History as a way of preempting considering the US as the next stage of the consciousness of freedom. Hegel knew who buttered his bread (or at least paid for the butter) – King Frederick William III. So to protect his privileged status in Prussian society, Hegel declared Prussia the culmination of the march of freedom. Nonetheless, I still admire Hegel’s expansive view of freedom and his deep exploration of consciousness. He said history unfolds as the interaction of ideas – and many of the most influential philosophers ever since have themselves been profoundly influenced by Hegel’s ideas. © CHRIS CHRISTENSEN 2018
Chris Christensen is a delivery driver in Portland, Oregon, where he studies philosophy and takes lessons in algebra from his wife, Bobbie. December 2018/January 2019 Philosophy Now 33
Putting Animals & Humans To Sleep John Shand doubts there is a moral difference.
eterinarians call it PTS, a sad but sometimes necessary duty. If the practice of having animals put to sleep when they are in chronic pain or distress is so right for animals, how can it be so wrong for humans? Humans are animals, after all. From here on, when I write ‘animals’, I’ll mean non-human animals. On seeing certain cases of human suffering, those who favour allowing human voluntary euthanasia sometimes say, “You wouldn’t treat an animal like that.” Usually this reaction is waved away as viscerally understandable but not to be taken seriously. Yet this waving away is accompanied by the same thought on both sides of the argument – namely, that there is something special, elevated, or certainly different about human beings. Should voluntary euthanasia be legal? The pro-euth anasia side supposes that if you may be treating an animal well in respect of PTS, then surely you should want to do the same thing – and more so – in respect to humans, given our special qualities. The anti-euthanasia side supposes there is something special about human beings that means we should not be treated like animals as regards PTSlike actions towards us. For it to be true that in the same or similar circumstances PTS is right in the one, animal, case, and wrong in the other, human, case, there has to be a relevant moral difference. Moreover, for it to be so right in one case and so wrong in another case, there would have to be a substantial, even glaring, moral difference. Without this, the distinction in treatment with respect to PTS and some kind of euthanasia cannot be morally justified. So, to be clear, for PTS to be wrong in the case of humans yet right in the case of animals, there has to be a relevant moral difference and that moral difference has to be substantial. Here I will argue that there isn’t anything like that. First we may set aside questions of free will. Claiming that animals do not have free will is irrelevant, since those who
oppose euthanasia usually contend that the free will argument for euthanasia (“It’s my choice, I can do what I want with my life”) is not decisive in commending it. So they already agree that free choice is not a the morally decisive factor here. One possible line for the anti-euthanasia side, is to say that human beings have some special standing among living things – a bare fact of status which means that their treatment should not be like that of other creatures, generally, and in respect of euthanasia in particular. But it is very hard to explain what that special standing might be in any way that would con vince everyone. Someone might argue that human life is sacred in a way animal life is not. But for that to carry weight, one would have to accept some kind of divinely-ordained ordering of values. Many don’t accept that, simply thinking the divine to be a fantasy. Even if one goes down that road, this objection to euthanasia becomes an unargued fia t , and so it no longer constitutes an argument against euthanasia. Indeed, even if we did engage with such a view, it’s difficult to see what could make the required difference, making us sacred while animals are not. A soul? Hardly something clearly present and agreed-upon that could provide the moral difference necessary. Free will? This has already been shown to be irrelevant to the discussion. So we need to look elsewhere to resolve the dispute. But what could provide the resolution? The claim that people might manage to manipulate the euthanasia system – bumping people off against their wishes, or without their agreeing to it, or under some other bad circumstances – raises a practical rather than an ethical problem. It might lead one to conclude that PTS was in practice alright for animals but too dangerous to be legalised for humans; but it could not logically lead one to the conclusion that in princi ple PTS is morally right in some circumstances for animals but euthanasia morally wrong in all circumstances for humans. One might think euthanasia too difficult to implement in prac -
When does PTS become immoral?
34 Philosophy Now December 2018/January 2019
HOUSEHOLD ARTICLES, ANIMALS ETC' BY
FR. SCHMIDT. WELLCOME COLLECTION .
tice while also thinking that it could be morally desirable in some circumstances. Furthermore, the practical situation might change. So practical considerations could not r ule out euthanasia as a moral imperative. So this line does not get the euthanasia’s firmest opponents what they want: a timeless moral objection to euthanasia in all cases. We might be supposed to be responsible for certain animals in a way we are not for other human beings. Clearly this responsibility has very circumscribed limits, not extending to wild animals in most cases, nor to nature red in tooth and claw generally. But a putative responsibility for animals in our care which might permit us to request PTS for their benefit can hardly be used as an argument against permitting voluntary euthanasia for humans. All this ar gument could imply is that no-one should be obliged to take part in administering it – and no-one is arguing that. We might be said to be indifferent to the kind of considerations that would prompt PTS for our pet animals when the same considerations apply to humans. But this is a very odd position when one thinks about it, for it suggests that if euthanasia is in play at all, we should give more care and consideration to animals requiring euthanasia than to humans in the same circumstances. Connected to this ‘responsibility’ line of thought is the idea that a key difference between human beings and animals is that humans are capable of a kind and level of thought, reflection and communication that animals are not. This might indeed be a key difference between us and other animals in some ways, without it being a moral difference. And insofar as it might be considered to be morally relevant, it does not help the case of those who suppose PTS is morally permissible for animals but voluntary euthanasia impermissible for humans. Again, quite the opposite. If anything, the appeal to human reason and superior cognitive capacity calls into doubt the right to have animals PTS rather than the moral permissibility of voluntary euthanasia for humans. Our moral justification for being allowed to end the lives of sick animals might be considered weakened precisely because they cannot grant their reasoned consent to it, whereas humans can consent to euthanasia. This moves us on naturally to a consideration of suffering. But surely in this case all the arguments run heavily in favour of allowing human PTS. Suffering takes various forms, but let’s just concentrate on the main three: pain, self-perceived loss of dignity, and fear of death. If one were basing an argument for PTS or euthanasia on a consideration of these three features, then surely it is obvious that the human capacity for pain is at least equal to the capacity of other animals, and moreover greater in respect of at least two of them. This makes the imperative for human euthanasia greater, indeed far greater, than the imperative for animal PTS under this argument. We can’t plausibly suppose that human beings suffer pain less than animals – say, dogs, cats, horses – and we might argue that they experience it more, but there is no need to argue that, even. Equality of suffering would be enough to show that sensitivity to pain cannot provide a relevant moral difference between humans and animals in disallowing euthanasia while allowing animal PTS.
We must distinguish between the moral and practical issues involved in euthanasia.
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In respect of the potential for self-perceived indignity, clearly human beings are streets ahead. We have the capacity for self-perceived indignity in greater, perhaps, vastly greater measure than animals, and in any case certainly not less. No amount of talk (and one often hears it) of palliative care being done right eliminating such indignity is entirely persuasive. Since we are talking about self-perception, this is a staggeringly dubious and high-handed claim: the perceived indignity may be just a matter of having to have such help from others at all. This leaves the fear of death. Although it might be quite convincingly argued that all higher mammals are capable of such a fear, there is no question that humans with their extended capacity for imagination and for positioning themselves within their lives and in a wider world can be much more acutely aware and fearful of it. The possibility of well-administered legal euthanasia may allow us to see death as something of our own timing rather than as an unchosen destination. If suffering owing to our fear of dying can be reduced in this way by euthanasia, or indeed just by the availability of it, then the moral argument runs in favour of offering it. It certainly doesn’t run the other way. Often in philosophy looking at a closely related case illuminates a more difficult problem. So I think it proves here. One has to conclude therefore that if PTS is so right for animals, then euthanasia must be right at least for some humans. © DR JOHN SHAND 2018
John Shand is an author and a Lecturer in Philosophy at the Open University. His books include Philosophy and Philosophers: An Introduction to Western Philosophy (Routledge, 2002), Arguing Well (Roultledge, 2000), and, as Editor, A Companion to Nineteenth-Century Philosophy (Blackwell, 2019). December 2018/January 2019 Philosophy Now 35
Philosophy: A Call to Action Calvin H. Warner asks if philosophy can improve our lives.
ustice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is to systems of thought,” wrote John Rawls in A Theory of Justice (1971). This simple comparison elucidates the central task of philosophy rather well. It seems just as plain to me that happiness is the central value of human existence. But as with truth and justice, determining that happiness is good is hardly an accomplishment: the tricky part is to understand what happiness actually is . Yet knowing what happiness actually is also falls short of telling us how we can attain it; and if we can’t do that then we have missed the point altogether. So what has philosophy to say here? Philosophy is somehow presently both in a Golden Age and in a Dark Age. In the Western world, thousands of salaried philosophers write hundreds of books each year, protected by some of history’s most robust freedoms of speech. Yet many outsiders lament that much of this prodigious output is commentary on commentary, and many academics are writing only for a handful of readers in their own sub-speciality. My diagnosis is that philosophy has disengaged from its most critical subject matter, largely because of institutional pressures to publish on niche topics rather than on issues that might interest the public. If you think that esoteric research with an audience approaching zero is a better use of philosophers’ time than contributing to the public’s understanding of their world, then we disagree deeply about the purpose of philosophy. I do agree with A.J. Ayer that philosophy is the analysis of concepts; but I have long felt philosophy does itself a disservice by neglecting some of the most interesting concepts. Mind, self, language, ethics, and beauty are all deeply fascinating concepts with a rich philosophical tradition; but love, humor and happiness are just as important. Further, as Ben Franklin (supposedly) wrote, “well done is better than well said.” Our interpreting the world, to dance around Marx, is a good start; but if we believe what we write, the point, surely, is to then engage with the world and improve it. Happiness has been variously defined by philosophers. John Stuart Mill considered happiness the output of an equation: pleasure minus pain – with higher-order pleasures (enjoying art or writing philosophy) to be given a higher weighting than lowerorder ones. Aristotle thought happiness was found in achieving eudaimonia or ‘good spiritedness’ – an inward state of contentment reached, at least in part, by a life of moderation. Thoreau discovered that happiness could not be caught by pursuing happiness itself, but instead by focusing on reconnecting with our innate selves, the part lost in our transition to modernity – to oversimplify, by unplugging ourselves. Aquinas said happiness is knowing or attaining God. Nietzsche’s views are certainly too complex to distill into a bumper sticker; but ‘striving toward a higher level of self-actualization’ would be a good start. Kant, for his part, does not view happiness as a core value; but if you hap-
36 Philosophy Now December 2018/January 2019
pen to find contentment in the rigor of living a life according to the harsh dictates of pure rationality and duty, there’s no sin in that. Jesus and the Buddha have much in common, including a conception of the good life that includes the rejection of wealth in favor of a commitment to service and spiritual seeking. What is absent from all these great thinkers is the cult of conspicuous consumption that today has such a grip on the Western mind. Modern people are drowning in debt, unhealthy, depressed, anxious over political and economic instability, alienated in their work, stressed by their commutes, their families, their meager retirement savings, and (whether they know it or not), longing to reconnect with nature, community, and their true, passionate selves. The West’s canonical philosophers have varied cultural backgrounds, but they have all understood that we cannot consume our way to happiness. It’s not leisure and convenience, but work or other striving that make us happy. The key is that the work be aligned with our passions, skills and interests, so that what we produce is something in which we take pride and purpose. Thoreau wrote in Walden (1854) that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” We must acknowledge that, in our exorbitantly wealthy world, there is still deep poverty and inequality throughout the globe. But at the same time, we must realize that so much of our desperation in the Wealthy West is self-imposed, and it is in an awakening from the dogmatic slumber of consumerism that we will be able to pave the way to our freedom. It turns out we can live frugally, and instead of a bigger house or nicer car, we can buy our freedom and take up work in a craft we enjoy (say, philosophy) or spending more time with those we care about most. There is something pure and natural in gardening instead of buying fast food, or walking to work instead of driving. These pleasures require an investment of time, an intentional structuring of one’s day; but to borrow from Pete Adeney, how slothful have we become that we prefer to scoot about in gasoline powered chairs rather than use the bodies God or nature has blessed us with? There is much analysis yet to be done concerning the gap between our modern surplus and human happiness. But the radical work of standing in the way of a culture charging in the wrong direction has always been the role of the philosopher – yet not in the pages of exclusive journals where we write in highly technical jargon behind a paywall that only university libraries can afford. It is up to us philosophers whether we will continue in our current pattern and become extinct by budget cuts and underemployment, or if we will reclaim our place in the cultural discussion by standing up for truth, sanity, and happiness. © CALVIN H. WARNER 2018
Calvin H. Warner holds an MA in Philosophy from Georgia State University, where he also taught Introduction to Philosophy. He currently attends Vanderbilt University Law School.
I Hate Philosophy At least Gray Kochhar-Lindgren can be philosophical about it.
eing an academic, my hatred of philosophy is, of course, something that hitherto I have only confided to the closest of my friends, and even then only after three glasses of Agiorghitiko at the little beachside taverna on Mykonos after spending the day beneath the summer’s scorching sun wandering around the ruins on Delos. Intoxicated, I can tell the truth. Sober, I lie. I am now drunk: I hate philosophy; I despise philosophy; I loathe philosophy. You already know why I hate philosophy. It is all as monotonously predictable as the fact that x, y, and z follow one another, and as surely as the sun will rise each morning. There is, then, no reason to read further. Go: live your life, experience its beautiful fullness, and for heaven’s sake leave the obsessive-compulsive minutiae of philosophy behind. (Why, by the way, do they all have to write in such an unnecessarilycomplicated manner? Can’t they just be clear, distinct, and get to the point?) If you can have the good common sense and the courage to do it, this would be the sunniest of decisions – a decision made at noon, and one that will lead you to a new vigor and health. Thinking makes us ill-tempered and confused; thinking riddles us with parasites of ideas. Thinking is a parasite. Philosophy is the essence of sickness. Go. Be happy. Be hale and healthy. Get outside. It is, to my dismay, far too late for me. “But why?”, you ask (as if you understood freedom, the form of questioning, and all that that entails). Why this hatred of philosophy to the very essence, to the very ground and foundation of my being? The trap has now been set. Once you step into the labyrinth, you cannot step out, for the labyrinth is not a maze with an inside and an outside. The set-up is an immersion, and it will crush us in its pitiless jaws. This is its cruelty. Why? A simple question – one small word; but it invites a response that is not only interminable – there is simply not enough time and space to set out the response – it is also a question which has infinite complexity. There is a fundamental imbalance between my (and our) capacity and the force of the question. If in any way I attempt to answer this ‘Why?’ – it looks so innocent, doesn’t it, so beguiling? – then I am doomed to philosophy. But if I refuse, then I cannot take the next step of freeing myself, and this time I hope for good, from philosophy… I hate philosophy because it takes on problems that are too big for itself, that it can never adequately address, and that exceed its own self-definitions and methodologies. It is immeasurable, and it thereby cracks all of our attempts at measuring out our lives through taking the measure of measurement. I hate philosophy
because it is so repetitious : it continues to take on the same old questions time-and-time again. It’s like a dog trying to get comfortable, restlessly circling around on its rumpled fireside rug. The eternal return grinds us down to dust and ash. Not only is it so boring that it drives us out of our minds, it’s also completely useless, producing nothing – nothing at all – of ‘Escaping value. My scientific and business friends simply Criticism’ shake their heads, with some pity to be sure, and amiably scoff. The insoluble. The unprogressive. The intractable. The impossible. All those tiny prefix negations. That’s not the way, they assure me, that real knowledge works; and it sure as hell isn’t the way capital works. What, pray tell, is monetizable about such niggling around the a priori ? “What kind of job do you want?” they would always ask, eyebrows slightly raised, ever since I caught the bug: “What are you going to do with philosophy?” It’s excessive, repetitious, and useless. I hate it. Be a philosopher and not only will you know nothing and produce nothing, but you will also be poverty-stricken. Philosophy, connected indissolubly as it is with both eros and ethics, is always poor. It wants but it cannot have what it wants because what it wants recedes as thinking approaches it. This receding, to be sure, makes room for more thinking – if ‘more’ is the right word here – but there is never the satisfaction of possession: never the “I have you and now, at last, I can use you for my own ends!” Instead, we are possessed by philosophy – we are stricken; and how embarrassing is this admission in this age of the blasé? All eros and ethics can do is open doors and windows, make room for whatever is to appear, and to greet whatever it is as it appears and goes. There is no power at work here – of politics or money or media. It’s just cracking open the window, letting in a little air, a little light. That’s pitiful; it makes me gnash my teeth and want to weep. I hate philosophy for many other reasons as well, and I can give reasons for those reasons, but I am exhausted at the moment. I do wonder, though, what the ‘at’, the ‘the’, and the ‘moment’ signify in that phrase; how these random sounds in a historically constrained language operate to indicate a condition of experience that places time in conjunction with a moodful state of the body – ‘exhausted’. I am exhausted, ergo I cannot, at the moment, do more. This hatred, though, runs deep, and will, I’m sure, incite me at some point (and who knows, perhaps the point will turn into a line and the line will learn to fly) to return to the site of the wound and to touch, again, upon t he loathsomeness of that enigma called ‘philosophy’. © PROF. GRAY KOCHHAR-LINDGREN 2018
Gray Kochhar-Lindgren is a Professor at Hong Kong University.
December 2018/January 2019 Philosophy Now 37
A Moral Education
The Ethics of Education in the Secular State Andrew Copson considers some ethical problems for secular education in a pluralistic world.
efinitions of what makes a state ‘secular’ vary, but three aspects are common. First, a secular state is one in which there is separation of religious institutions from the institutions of the state and no domination of the one by the other. Second, a secular state seeks to maximise freedom of thought, conscience, and religion for all, with everyone free to manifest their beliefs within the limits of public order and the rights of others, and to change their beliefs. Finally, the state treats everyone equally and does not discriminate against or privilege individuals on grounds of their worldview, religious or non-religious. Almost a third of states in the world are secular in their constitutions according to these criteria, and many more are in fact secular even if constitutionally religious, in practice functioning not through their vestigial religious establishments but through democratic means. Even more states – over 90% of the world’s states – constitutionally reflect at least one aspect of secularism, in that their laws espouse a guarantee of freedom of religion or belief. If a state is going to take its constitutional secularism seriously, what might that mean for its education system? Controversies about education have been a feature of secularism since its beginning. The rise in official state secularism coincided with the construction of many state school systems. Education moved from being the preserve of parents and informal communities (often religious) to being the concern of a class of trained specialists funded by public taxes. In many states today there are mixed systems, with some schools being secular (in that, for example, they admit children of all backgrounds and do not discriminate on religious grounds) and some not. Given the first aspect of secularism I outlined – the separation of state institutions from religious ones – it is obvious that the educational systems are non-secular in countries as diverse as Iran and Ireland. One particular favoured religious organisation has active involvement in state schools, and, whatever else it may be, the curriculum is a tool of religious instruction. In many other states too, it is the unsecularised part of the curriculum that seeks to deal with moral development, often taught through a religious framework. Some secularists believe that some models of state-provided religion-based moral development are legitimate. For example, what if all religious organisations are given equal rights to par38 Philosophy Now December 2018/January 2019
ticipate in state schools? If religious organisations are allowed to run separate confessional classes in state schools, as they do in Belgium, or even run separate state schools, as in England, isn’t this equal treatment consistent with secularism? To make it fair, provision could be made in proportion to the number of parents in the schools that followed each religion. In this way, no one religion would dominate the institution unfairly, and everyone would be treated equally without discrimination. An obvious objection is that many parents have non-religious worldviews. But to cater for them, humanist organisations could also be involved, as they are in the Netherlands and parts of Germany. Some secularists would defend such a system. Still, there may be good reasons to think that it would still not be compatible with secularism. The first is that it does not allow for real-time changing patterns of belief and affiliation. It could not react promptly to such changes, and so would privilege those religions or beliefs that are strong at the time the system is initiated or updated. This would provide some groups with recognition and resources whilst protecting them from the effects of waning popularity. At the same time, new worldviews would find it difficult to grow and gain recognition or equal treatment. So, in its attempt to maximise freedom, this system could actually inhibit freedom of belief. Second, no state would be able to run such a system fairly. There are so many denominations of Christianity alone that providing a whole school for every one of them, or even a regular class in a shared school wherever a denomination is represented by a parent, would be completely unfeasible. Even more challenging, although some people think of religions as homogenous (‘Catholics believe this...’, ‘Buddhists believe that...’), the reality is that individuals are not so simple. One person may identify as a Catholic but believe in reincarnation and not think that contraception is sinful. She may be married to someone who identifies as a Muslim but in some of his beliefs sympathises with aspects of pantheism and at home keeps Christmas because of his upbringing. Belief and practice are so individual that to provide a school that catered for each parental situation without discrimination would be absolutely impossible. Third, it is not right to focus solely on parents: children’s interests are as much the concern of secularism. The right of children
to freedom of religion or belief (at least in line with their developing capacity) would at a minimum suggest that the education system provided by the state should be free of religious assumptions on contested questions such as the basis of morality or the purpose of life, and certainly that it should not enforce specific beliefs or practices. Going further, if secularism really seeks t o protect freedom of conscience, we could argue that the state’s educational system should equip children with the ability and the experience to choose. This means that the school should teach about religions and non-religious worldviews in a fair and balanced way, allowing no confessional instruction, and actively seeking to equip children with the critical skills needed to make up their own minds about what they’re being taught. This is the thinking behind the Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1989. Article 13 declares: “The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child’s choice”; while Article 14 says that states “shall respect the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.” The Convention also says that parents can “provide direction to the child in the exercise of his or her right in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child.” But it does not say that the state has an obligation to provide this direction on the parents’ behalf. Finally, we come to the interests of the state itself. Secularism accepts that it may be necessary to limit individual freedom of action or belief to protect the rights of others or in the interests of public order, and also to educate children for the same reason. The state’s interest in social cohesion and equal citizenship comes into play here. The state can be argued to have a legitimate interest in ensuring that children who will become citizens together learn with and from each other from an early age so as to develop the skills, habits and attitudes of living together in a democratic society. In light of this, the secular state is justified in doing two things. First, in its own interests to secure social peace, it may legitimately inculcate certain minimum basic moral values necessary for life in society, such as peaceful co-operation. Second, it may teach about a range of religious and non-religious approaches to life in a fair and balanced way. There are good secular reasons for this: religions and humanism have had significant impact on human society and culture, and so constitute a necessary part of a full education. As traditions, they contain insights from which young people may learn; and they do constitute the actual worldviews of a child’s fellow citizens, of whom each child should acquire some knowledge, in order to improve mutual understanding. There will always be parents who plead their conscience to say that their children should not receive education, particularly religious or moral education, divergent from that in the home. But in states that take seriously the principles of fairness and freedom – for children no less than for anyone else – limiting this parental control is amply justified. © ANDREW COPSON 2018
Andrew Copson is Chief Executive of Humanists UK. His book Secularism: Politics, Religion, and Freedom was published by Oxford University Press in 2017.
IRIS MURDOCH (1919–1999) Perceive but not touch An abstract reality: God become the Good
erhaps better known as a philosophical novelist than as a philosopher, in her novels Iris Murdoch explored in intense depth the inner lives of her vast panoply of characters. In this she was an heir to the literary tradition that includes Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Proust. Murdoch also spent fifteen years teaching philosophy at Oxford University. She was born in Phibsborough, Dublin, moving to London with her family when just a few weeks old. As a student at Oxford, she met Ludwig Wittgenstein, discovered Plato, and did what many people did back then – joined the Communist Party. This proved problematic when in 1946 she won a scholarship to Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York: sensing in her a potential commie agitator, the Americans denied her a visa. She was later to visit the United States on numerous occasions, but always had to obtain a waiver from the authorities – once a commie, always a commie, as they liked to say. In fact, in later life, Murdoch’s philosophy was underpinned by a commitment to Plato rather than Marx, and to Plato’s belief in the existence of ideal Forms – abstract perfect archetypes of every flawed entity we perceive in the world. Murdoch believed that Goodness, or the Good, had an actual existence as one of these Forms, and that we are to live life as pilgrims who seek to move ever closer to it. As we do so, like Plato’s cave-dwellers emerging blinking into the sunlight, we move steadily away from a life of illusion, to a life of reality or truth. To Murdoch’s mind, this journey brings us not only nearer to the Good, but nearer also to God, since for her, goodness was best understood as a manifestation of God in the world. Having epitomised the life of the mind, and having believed that we ultimately come to know reality through the mind, Murdoch suffered the ignominy of having her mind taken from her: in her mid-70s, Alzheimer’s began its pitiless work of erasure. She died just a few years later. © TERENCE GREEN 2018
Terence is a writer, historian, and lecturer, and lives with his wife and their dog in Paekakariki, NZ. hardlysurprised.blogspot.co.n z December 2018/January 2019 Philosophy Now 39
Letters When inspiration strikes, don’t bottle it up. Email me at [email protected]
Keep them short and keep them coming!
DEAR EDITOR : Sandy Grant’s article on ‘Dogmas’ in Issue 127 reminded me of a comment a senior colleague made to me when I was a somewhat naïve and perhaps arrogant young lecturer. He said, “You would do well to remember, Colin, that there is a difference between being an authority and being authoritarian. The former knows what they are talking about, the latter is merely throwing their weight around.” I was suitably admonished and subsequently grateful for this remark. I believe its force stayed with me, for on reflection I had recognised his ‘authority’. The usefulness of the distinction could helpfully add to those made by Sandy Grant in her article because it seemed to me that ‘an authority’ and ‘being in authority’ do not have necessarily to be linked to dogma, whereas being ‘authoritarian’ does. Furthermore, whilst paying an authority ‘too much attention’ (p.26) can be problematic, seeking out an authority on a topic one is researching is a valuable strategy. It is a good starting point to ask, “Whom should I trust on this subject?” This question can be pursued typically by consulting bibliographies, references and footnotes. Of course one should attempt to read critically, but this takes a familiarity with a subject, practice and patience and, to begin with at least, reliance on an authority is no bad thing. And, in time, having learnt to read critically, it becomes possible to see how and why an author has become an authority, or just authoritarian. COLIN BROOKES LEICESTERSHIRE Brought to Book
DEAR EDITOR : Siobhan Lyons’ article ‘What Makes A Philosopher?’ in Issue 128 shows the role overlapping other chosen pursuits, e.g. for a comic to create fresh humour some serious thinking is required, just as philosophers apparently require wisdom and foolishness. 40 Philosophy Now
The latter group may well claim to grasp forces that impinge on members of a society, but so might politicians, town planners, economists and sociologists. Something of a contradiction arises when philosophers are advised to (somehow!) ‘read everything’ and also to not depend on an excess of knowledge. Well, avoiding an excess of knowledge is reasonable, but only in the sense that many excesses – water, alcohol, debt, pasta, money – are harmful. Dr Lyons’ inclusion of concepts sharpens this article; but perhaps key features of philosophical concepts should have been introduced, so distinguishing them from our everyday, taken-for-granted concepts, like schools and health centres. Professional philosophers may live for their theories, but what shapes the future of these ideas – applause from friends or tough criticism from folk keen to establish a patch? Maybe the general population will demand inclusion: how will the process of concept-design and application be done in a user-friendly way? NEIL R ICHARDSON K IRKHEATON Many Reasons For Worlds
DEAR EDITOR : With regard to ‘Why is There a World?’ in Issue 128: If there is a God, questions about God’s motives will inevitably be speculative because our perspective is narrow. And answers must accommodate everything for which God is purportedly responsible, directly or indirectly. So if God exists he must be ‘necessary being’. He must also have certain other absolute qualities: infinity, unity, free will, unified purpose, and so on. Speculation must also accommodate human experience; the physical universe of time and space; that we are made out of physical stuff; that we have minds, have an apparent free will; and are in a vague way aware of values such as truth, beauty, goodness, love and so forth. From neces-
December 2018/January 2019
sity, infinity, and unity, we get Leibniz’s deduction that God must create the ‘best possible universe’ – something that we have certainly not got on Earth. If we can imagine better – a hate-free world, for example – then so can God. I have written books and essays on the subject of why God created this universe, or indeed, anything at all. A quick summary: 1. ‘Best possible universe’ must be taken diachronically: It isn’t the best possible now (we are in time), but it will become so. 2. A physical universe of purposeless mechanism conjoined with limited, purposeful, value-sensitive free will must have something to do with the process of achieving the best possible universe. 3. This works when people freely use their will to instantiate values into the world: when they choose to revere truth, produce beauty, behave lovingly... 4. God created this particular universe to have partners in the achievement. Only thus will there come to be, eventually, the best possible universe as God conceives it – and nobody thinks bigger than God. If there were a better way to get there, God would have chosen it. M ATTHEW R APAPORT S AN FRANCISCO (author of Why This Universe?: God, Cosmology, Consciousness, and Free-Will ) DEAR EDITOR : In his article in Issue 128, Carlo Filice admirably lays out many of the elements involved in trying to answer the question ‘Why is There a World?’, and he puts forward a possible ‘penultimate’ answer. I would like to draw readers’ attention to my psychological theory, which provides a possibly ‘ultimate’ explanation for the co-existence of the physical universe of limitations and a state of fundamental, unlimited being. I was not considering universe-level states of being when I undertook the research that led to my developing the theory: I was researching the state of mind (in myself and in people generally)
Letters that compulsively and unconsciously denies awareness of its true state of being. I was motivated to research this because as a nonviolent activist I was constantly confronted with self-destructive behaviour (and not just by the Trumps of the world) without any adequate explanation for it. Like any good philosopher, I took my time (see Siobhan Lyons’ article in the same issue); but I was finally able to apply what I had learned in studying the individual and social self to the universe as a whole in a way that felt genuinely insightful. It was only when I thought to explain the universe in terms of insanity that everything finally began to make sense. Shocking though it may seem to both atheists and theists, the physical universe was created by an insane mind. This mind exists ‘without reason’ and therefore has no genuine cause, but blindly follows its own internal logic of compulsive self-contradiction. If you’d like to read more about my theory you can do so at: anitamckone.wordpress.com/articles2/the-unbelievable-truth. I’d love to hear from anyone who would like to comment on it. A NITA MCK ONE D AYLESFORD, V ICTORIA , A USTRALIA
to make the latter case. I see two liabilities here. Firstly, this ignores the relative relevance of various quantities, and it may amount to cherry-picking. For example, where are the statistics about any improvement in happiness or the perceived value of life? Maybe far fewer humans die in childbirth or infancy, and average life expectancy has increased dramatically: but has human misery thereby been reduced? Perhaps more people are more miserable than ever, and for longer than ever. Secondly, the numbers themselves can be misleading. For example, Tallis cites the statistic that “In the last twenty years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has dropped from 29% to 9%.” But that is 9% of a substantially increased population, so the comparison isn’t quite as favorable as at first glance. Even more telling is that the number of people in extreme poverty is still 687 million souls, which is equivalent to the entire human population when Voltaire wrote Candide back in 1759. Do we now live in a better real world? Numbers alone will not answer this. My main gripe with Tallis, however, is one he and I have grappled over before: his belief that non-human animals do not measure up to human beings in the cosmic scheme of things. If one Shades of Gray wants to talk about humanistic progress DEAR EDITOR : In his column in Philosoin the contemporary era, how can the phy Now 127, Raymond Tallis exquisitely exponential increase in animal suffering skewers John Gray’s Straw Dogs . I conand death at human hands during this sider both works to be polemics; but period be ignored? Sentient life as a Tallis’s is the better one, due to the con- whole is much worse off since the ascenstraints of writing a column. His argudancy of humanity, and it’s a trend that mentation has to be tighter, whereas shows no sign of changing for the better. Gray’s is comparatively thin because he Nevertheless, I agree with Tallis that had to fill a whole book. Nevertheless, I we should not therefore succumb to pescannot agree with Tallis in the end. simistic quietism. I rather favor the Gray’s central contention is that advice of the Bhagavad Gita, which (on a humanism, in the sense of a belief in the benign interpretation) counsels carrying special nature of humanity, is both false on with conscientious action without and dangerous, or at least futile. Tallis regard to the prospects. There are even refutes this logically and empirically. good instrumental grounds for doing so, First he points out that Gray is contrasince sometimes efforts do pay off dicting himself by basing his assertions against seemingly insurmountable odds. on human scientific accomplishments But this ethics can be pursued even in which, by Gray’s own reasoning, must the face of genuine hopelessness. be a hill of beans. Then Tallis seals the JOEL M ARKS deal by reference to a new book by Hans PROFESSOR E MERITUS OF PHILOSOPHY , Rosling which details the undeniably U NIVERSITY OF NEW H AVEN impressive progress humanity has made on so many fronts in recent times. DEAR EDITOR : I found Raymond Tallis’s One problem I see with Tallis’s brief item on Hans Rosling and John Gray in is that it relies on quantifiable measures Issue 127 thought-provoking and engag-
ing. But having worked for several years in researching, producing, and publicizing statistics, my response is cautious, because I am aware how easy it is to use them to bend them to one’s own message. For example, free-marketeers use such figures as Rosling used to assert how well capitalism benefits humanity to justify unfettered capitalism, markets and economic growth, and reject intervention to improve the lot of the many who remain in poverty. Reality is always more complex than statistics can ever fully encompass, and it is the real people behind the statistics, their lives and relationships, that matter. I suspect that Rosling was aware of this and not a naïve believer in automatic progress, his work showing that there is room for both optimism and pessimism, and therefore much for humanity to play for. I read John Gray’s Straw Dogs (2007) some years ago. Rather than ‘malign’, Gray seemed to me to be arguing that, without the Jewish/Christian assumption that human beings are created in God’s image, there is no reason to give Homo sapiens a privileged position amongst animals, or expect any particular behaviour from them as a species. Like all animals, they simply behave as they have evolved to behave. One could also conclude that this supports a broadly Nietzschean view that there can be no privileged position for any morality, intellectual system, or worldview (including secular humanism). It is also not self-evident why we must give a preferential place to human beings, care about others and further the common good of humanity. All of this requires reasoned consideration. In Straw Dogs, Gray claimed that there is no point in trying to do so, and he recommended particularly the ancient work of Zhuangzi, focussing on wu wei – a life of unattached, natural spontaneity within the natural flow of life. I do not believe that this is enough to enable us to pro vide a cogent and convincing response to meet the significant challenges that now face us. However, I have great respect for the long tradition of Chinese thought, including that of Zhuangzi, and it is significant that the Chinese have always used several philosophical approaches in tension, balancing the Daoist with the Confucian, Legalist, Mohist, various strands of Buddhist, and latterly, Western, thought. It is desirable, and possible, similarly to develop a humanistic consen-
December 2018/January 2019 Philosophy Now 41
Letters sus which can unite all committed to the progress of humanity, whether they be secular humanist, theistic, Buddhist, etc., and from varied philosophical traditions. This is increasingly urgent. TOM BERRIE LEICESTERSHIRE DEAR EDITOR : It seems to me that Raymond Tallis fails to appreciate the true root of John Gray’s work. Yes, much good has been realized in the last two hundred years or so, particularly in medicine, poverty alleviation, and the general provision of the necessities of life, much of which is due to technological development. What Tallis fails to mention is that these things have come at considerable cost to the natural environment. He says population trends are ‘reassuring’; but we cannot be happy that the mass of humanity together with the animals we have domesticated far out weigh the mass of the wild animal kingdom – completely overturning the position ten thousand years ago. This state of affairs is at the root of John Gray’s worldview. Moreover, Gray believes (as do many environmentally concerned people) that we are not doing anything like enough to turn the tide: even worse,we are unlikely to do so until it is too late. We have sown the seeds of our own destruction and are too concerned with ‘making life better’ by economic growth and technological advance to do anything about it. The end result of this neglect will be enormous loss of human life by starvation, disease, and conflict. Gray may have gone too far by referring to humanity as ‘slime’; but if it helps to awaken our will to do something, his pessimism will not be in vain. JOHN G AMLIN COLCHESTER Taking the Moral High Ground
DEAR EDITOR : Does anyone own the moral high ground now? Gerald Jones’ article ‘Moral Blind Spots’ in Issue 128 nails everyone’s self-justified ‘moral fabric’ as hypocritical: the centuries of sacrifices and slavery, murders for circus ‘entertainment’, torture of prisoners, genocide of ‘witches’, animal slaughter, unfettered consumerism, child labour, environmental destruction, and the smug minority of the very rich. But is our problem really our moral myopia, complacency, cognitive dissonance or 42 Philosophy Now
ignorance; or is it the shattering truth that humans committed the Holocaust, and, as a murderous species, we exist knowing of smaller genocides all the time? As Arthur Koestler commented, “If the past were admitted to weigh on its conscience, every nation would be compelled to commit hara-kiri.” MIKE BOR LONDON Derrida True Reader
DEAR EDITOR : It is flattering to be quoted. So I was gratified when Mike Sutton, in his article on Derrida in Issue 127, referred back to my essay in Issue 100. Nevertheless, I can’t agree with everything Sutton says about Derrida. In particular, his claim that Derrida thinks (this time quoting Hilary Lawson) that “there is no single meaning of the sentence ‘the chair is black’... And we will each conceive the meaning of the statement differently.” This leaves me wondering how human communication and collaboration would ever be possible. But I don’t accept that Derrida ever made such an assertion. If he did, I would need to know where and when; and I would require a quotation from Derrida, not Lawson. Derrida’s Of Grammatology uncovers the limitations of various theories about language, rather than showing any supposed limitations inherent to language itself. The book deconstructs the theories of Rousseau and Saussure; but one cannot ‘deconstruct’ a simple statement like ‘the chair is black’, nor has Derrida ever sought to do so. Margaret White in Letters, PN 128, asks for “a demonstration of deconstruction as Derrida would do it, with philosophical texts.” Happily, this request is easy to satisfy. Nearly all of Derrida’s essays are exactly that: analyses of particular philosophical texts through a deconstructive approach. So there are literally dozens to choose from. Good examples include: Plato’s Pharmacy which deals with Plato’s Phaedrus ; the discussion of Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Lan guage in Of Grammatology; the discussion of J.L. Austin’s theories in Signature, Event, Context ; and there are many more. You should always prepare yourself by first reading the texts he is talking about; and then hours of fascination await you! Derrida’s work is always engrossing, and is never as difficult as people pretend. PETER BENSON LONDON
December 2018/January 2019
DEAR EDITOR : This was inspired by the article about Heidegger on Celebrity in Philosophy Now Issue 125: Look at me! I’m on TV, Plain to view, for all to see. What you get is what you want. Paint by numbers, fill the gaps. Go to worship on an app. Buttons pushed. Adulation. Endorphin rush. Discernment, logic, truth, good taste; All crushed. Suspended critique floats in the air, Out the window, down the stairs. Insect queen she draws you in. Pheremone mediated, anything goes, Nothing’s a sin. Adored and adoring manacled, shackled. It’s the tally that counts, as the game becomes tactical. Numbers, degrees of being, equate to fame. Clicks, likes, tweets, Magazines, booked seats. It’s all the same. While the river of fame and celebrity gently seeps Into a God-shaped empty hollow within. Media fans the flames of fame, Dispensing glowing cinders of contagious fallacy. The question is, and we ask you now, Will you ever return to reality? Who can resist the Medusa’s call That holds all who see her tight in thrall? The poor, the sick, the dispossessed, Give not a rat for Selena’s dress. As for the rest, we fear them thus. With nothing to lose, next stop it’s us. Hyperactive, self obsessed. Tap dancing. Eighteen. Got long legs and sexy hips, Her name is formed by a thousand lips. But they know me not, Not who I am. Celebrity is such a sham. DR MIKE BUCK C ARDIFF
Philosophy Then Philosophy for the Young,
N O T F A R
G R E G N A L E
B L O R A
C Y B E G A M I
Peter Adamson on battles over the trivium and quadrivium.
round the world, teenagers are taking philosophy classes. For instance, French students take a philosophy exam at the end of their secondary education, and in 2008, Federal law in Brazil made the discipline compulsory for high school students. For ward thinking though such measures may be, they are also quite literally medieval. The forerunners of today’s French students at the early University of Paris, as well as their contemporaries in cities such as Bologna and Oxford, studied the ‘liberal arts’. You might know that these arts included three linguistic disciplines – the trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic (logical discussion) – and four mathematical topics called the quadrivium, namely arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. But you’ll probably be surprised to learn how young students at these Universities were. The beginning scholars were all of fourteen years old. Most of these kids had no intention of becoming philosophers. Many just wanted a basic education in literacy and numeracy which would allow them to find work as clerks. Those who stayed on for higher studies would specialize in law, medicine, or theology. Yet a lot of philosophical material was covered in the medieval uni versity curriculum. The trivium involved studying logic, philosophy of language, and epistemology, because their textbook for dialectic was the Organon (‘ Instrument ’) of Aristotle – so called because the works he devoted to these subjects were together seen as the indispensable tool for pursuit of philosophy and the sciences. In these ‘logical’ works Aristotle covered a wide range of issues, including the nature of knowledge and the way that language captures the world. Questions about language arose especially in the discipline of grammar. Here the basic goal was to get the young scholars reading and writing Latin; but at Paris a group of masters initiated the school of thought known as ‘speculative grammar’, which posited that the metaphysical structure of the world mirrors language: in
other words, grammatical distinctions reflect ‘modes of being’ possessed by things in the world. A simple example might be that nouns pick out substances, and adjectives pick out accidental properties of those substances. But it was dialectic, or logic, that most obviously led to philosophical reflection, albeit sometimes in surprising ways. In the fourteenth century a group at Oxford known as the Calculators began to model motion and other physical processes using mathematics. This was often in the context of writing about logic, because such models could be used to resolve paradoxical or sophistical arguments about change and motion (such as Zeno’s), and the schoolmen were deeply interested in paradoxes and sophisms, since the study of good argument technique among other things involved analyzing bad arguments to see where they have gone wrong. Logicians also devoted great energy to resolving the Liar Paradox: seen in a phrase like ‘What I am saying now is false’, which seems to be true if it is false and false if it is true. The art of avoiding self-contradiction reached its highest level of sophistication in a university activity called ‘Obligations’ – a question and answer game in which one player laid logical traps to trick the other into refuting himself. The masters and their students did not restrict their attention to logic and language, though. A wide range of Aristotle’s works were taught, including his writings on ethics and, most contentiously, his natural philosophy. Contentious, because Aristotle embraced the thesis that the uni verse is eternal, which was an unacceptable doctrine for medieval Christians. Here the masters were in a bind. By profession they were exegetes of Aristotle, but their faith required them to assert that the universe was created in time. One solution was to admit that natural philosophy has intrinsic limits. Since, as the name implies, it considers only natural causes, it takes no account of the possibility of divine, supernatural causation, which is what was involved in the creation of the world.
It’s a clever solution, as it would allow the masters to continue teaching and studying Aristotle while admitting that his conclusions were provisional and could be revised from a theological standpoint. But that stance was anathema to the Aristotelian theologian Thomas Aquinas, who wanted a perfect fit between philosophy and theology. Aquinas therefore insisted that (following the Jewish thinker Maimonides) there are no decisive rational arguments either for or against the eternal existence of the universe. When we remember how young and impressionable the students were, we may more easily understand the decision of church authorities in 1277 to condemn a range of doctrines being discussed at the University of Paris: it was akin to modernday political influence being brought to bear on high school curricula. But the condemnation sought to eliminate even discussion of the condemned theses, never mind their endorsement. The fear was in part that these young students would not appreciate the subtle distinction between entertaining a notion found in Aristotle for the sake of interpretive work, and actually embracing dangerous Aristotelian teachings as true. It’s pleasing to note that today’s French school system gives teenagers more credit. After all, the study of philosophy encourages an appreciation of exactly this sort of subtle distinction, and calls for flexibility of mind and a willingness to evaluate an opponent’s thesis fairly rather than insisting dogmatically on one’s own views. These habits of mind don’t seem to be in abundant supply among the adults of 2018. So maybe we should take our cue from the medievals and invest our hopes in the next generation, by giving them the chance to study philosophy. And by the way, teaching them Latin wouldn’t hurt either. © PROF. PETER ADAMSON 2018
Peter Adamson is the author of A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Vols 1, 2 & 3, available from OUP. They’re based on his popular History of Philosophy podcast.
December 2018/January 2019 Philosophy Now 43
We delve into the brain to look for the mind this issue as
Books From Bacteria to Bach and Back
by Daniel Dennett
IN 1997 THE I TALIAN newspaper Corriere della Sera interviewed Tufts philosophy professor Daniel Dennett about his work. The paper published the interview under the title ‘Si, abbiamo un anima. Ma é fatta di tanti piccoli robot !’: ‘Yes, we have a soul. But it’s made of lots of tiny robots!’ Dennett quotes this title in From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (2017), and with good reason, for it perfectly encapsulates both the argument of the book and the spirit in which it is offered. In From Bacteria to Bach and Back Dennett tells you a story about the human mind. It might not be the story you were expecting, and you may not like it, but Dennett hopes to convince you of it nonetheless. And it’s definitely a story worth hearing. The book attempts to explain how our minds work, and how they came into existence. For Dennett, these two questions are intimately related. “Many,” he writes, “of the puzzles (or ‘mysteries’ or ‘paradoxes’) of human consciousness evaporate once you ask how they could possibly have arisen – and actually try to answer the question” (p.9). He says philosophers waste their time trying to answer questions like these without a deep understanding of what science has taught us about the human brain. He does not claim to be a scientist himself, just a ‘wellinformed amateur’. Nor does he claim to have a fully worked-out theory of the human mind. What he offers instead in this book is “the sketch, the backbone, of the best scientific theory to date of how our minds came into existence, how our brains work all their wonders, and, especially, how to think about minds and brains without falling into alluring philosophical traps” (p.xiv). The last part turns out to be especially important, as we will see. Dennett is all-too-aware of the intellectual obstacles that can obstruct serious work on this topic. Comprehension is Advantageous
Dennett’s starting point is that humans are the products of natural selection. Our earli44 Philosophy Now
Peter Stone agrees with Daniel Dennett that we don’t know our own minds (or brains), and Stephen Anderson agrees with Marcus Gabriel that our minds aren’t brains. est ancestors lacked consciousness , but they clearly possessed various forms of competence. If they couldn’t perform many survivalrelated tasks, they wouldn’t have survived long enough to evolve consciousness. People sometimes forget this, thinking that competence requires comprehension. But most organisms do just fine without anything like the human ability to understand what they are doing. This point applies to machines as well as organisms: “IN ORDER TO BE A PERFECT AND BEAUTIFUL COMPUTING MACHINE, IT IS NOT REQUISITE TO KNOW WHAT ARITHMETIC IS” (capitals in original; p.55). Dennett dubs this ‘Turing’s strange inversion’. But Turing’s strange inversion creates an interesting question: “If competence without comprehension is so wonderfully fecund… why do we need comprehension…? Why and how did human-style comprehension arrive on the scene?” (p.59). “Comprehension,” Dennett contends, “is only made possible by the arrival on the scene quite recently of a new kind of evolutionary replicator – culturally transmitted informational entities: memes” (p.175). Memes – units of cultural information – like genes – units of genetic information – evolve by natural selection. Words are perhaps the best examples of memes. Language constitutes a form of software that got installed upon the hardware in our brains. The installation itself may have been a happy accident; but once installed, words proved incredibly empowering for their users, for language is “the launching pad of human cognition and thinking” (p.260). Without memes in general, and language in particular, our brains lack the tools necessary for our distinctive human achievements. Dennett quotes a line from Bo Dahlbom on this point: “You can’t do much carpentry with your bare hands, and you can’t do much thinking with your bare brain” (p.282). Language may have helped launch human cognition, but the launch was not guaranteed. Just as software can be installed upon mindless computers, so can much culture-borne information be “installed in brains without being understood ” (p.213); and as noted, our brains can do a lot without comprehension. But they can do more with
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it. Comprehension provides “the ability to treat whatever topic is under consideration as itself a thing to be examined, analysed, inventoried, thanks to our capacity to represent it explicitly via words, diagrams, and other tools of self-stimulation” (p.300). So unsurprisingly, Dennett thinks that evolutionary pressures played a critical role in the development of comprehension, as they do with all our abilities. Comprehension also allows us to rehearse our thoughts before we express them. This is critically important to us. All of us think things we don’t want to make known to others; but only comprehension permits us to engage in self-monitoring, allowing us to decide what information we share and with whom. “Communication,” Dennett argues, “requires a central clearing house of sorts in order to buffer the organism from revealing too much about its current state to competitive organisms” (p.342). And once enabled, the capacity for self-monitoring lets us do much more with our ideas: we can critically scrutinize them, make deliberate efforts to improve them, and so on. All of this requires memes – especially words – without which we simply would not have complex ideas to examine. “That,” Dennett writes, “is the triumph of the memes invasion: it has turned our brains into minds – our minds – capable of accepting and rejecting the ideas we encounter, discarding or developing them” (p.315). “Our thinking,” he concludes, “is enabled by the installation of a virtual machine made of virtual machines made by virtual machines” (p.341). That is to say, our intelligent minds are complex systems constructed out of less intelligent, less complex subsystems, each of which is constructed out of even less intelligent, less complex sub-subsystems, and so on; with the ultimate components being small simple automatons (neurons et al ) – tiny robots. It is these tiny robots that together make up whatever souls we have. We can now see, Dennett concludes, that “all the brilliance and comprehension in the world arises ultimately out of uncomprehending competences compounded over time into ever more competent – and hence comprehending – systems” (p.57). Book Reviews
Books The Gravity of the Situation
Dennett has made this point about the origins of mind many times before, and people react to it in very different ways. Many resist his approach, but I find this resistance hard to understand. Suppose you want to explain how the human mind works. Dennett tries to do this by figuring out how a bunch of things without minds could work together to function as a mind. If you don’t like this strategy, what’s the alternative? There are only two that I can see. The first is to treat the mind as some kind of irreducible substance that does not depend upon any mindless thing – something like a spirit or a soul that enters what would otherwise be a mindless human body. But this doesn’t explain the mind so much as push the problem one step back. Where does this spirit come from? How does it work? And how does it interact with the body it inhabits? (These are classic problems for Cartesian dualism.) The second alternative is to throw up one’s hands and give up on explaining the mind at all. This isn’t so much a solution to the problem as an abandonment of the search for one. Sadly, many people – including some philosophers – prefer to take the latter route, proclaiming mind an unfathomable mystery and stubbornly resisting any effort to explain it. As Dennett points out, “people care so deeply what the answers are [about consciousness] that they have a very hard time making themselves actually consider the candidate answers objectively” (p.11). At the heart of this resistance is a distorting force which Dennett dubs ‘Cartesian gravity’ (p.17) – the pull of the first-person perspective. We can examine most things from the third-person perspective (“look at that pigeon chasing that sparrow”), but we naturally adopt the firstperson perspective when thinking about ourselves (“I feel hungry right now”) – yet any scientific (that is, empirical) effort to explain how our minds work is bound by its thirdperson perspective, and therefore inevitably seems to leave something out. This is the line of thinking into which Cartesian gravity tries to drag Book Reviews
The Mystery of Ourselves by Cameron Gray, 2018 PLEASE VISIT PARABLEVISIONS.COM AND FACEBOOK.COM/CAMERONGRAYTHEARTIST
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Philosophy Now 45
Books us, and Dennett urges us to resist its pull. We do not have a privileged or infallible window into our own souls, he says; it is therefore hardly surprising that we do not see the robots at work: “Our access to our own thinking… is really no better than our access to our digestive processes” (p.346). The firstperson perspective is simply the ‘user interface’ for a particular app in the brain; and like any good app, it “exists in order to make the competence accessible to users – people – who can’t know, and don’t need to know, the intricate details of how it works” (p.341). We shouldn’t be surprised that the mind’s workings are a little mysterious to us; the evolutionary process operates on a ‘need-to-know’ basis, and our first-person perspective, limited and fallible as it is, is all that we need in order to take advantage of the amazing capacities our brains make possible. Science can tell us more about how our brains work and why; but only if we resist the Cartesian gravity that tells us we already know all we can know about who we are. Here, I think, Dennett is getting at something important. Philosophers rely heavily upon intuition to generate their arguments. As a result, they sometimes find it hard to accept the fallibility of those intuitions – especially the strongest ones. And what intuition could possibly be stronger than the one telling us that our first-person perspective – what it is like to be us – is unlike anything else? But philosophers would do well to remember all the other intuitions people have had that, however understandable at the time, proved to be faulty – for instance, that the Earth is flat. We have no choice but to make use of our intuition; but science can help us make proper use of it, recognizing its limitations and correcting it when it leads us astray. This is precisely the recommendation Dennett makes to us concerning consciousness, and it’s a useful corrective. It’s difficult to do justice to Dennett’s book in so short a space, and if you’re skeptical, it’s difficult to make his argument sound convincing. What would it take to convince you that your mind is made of tiny robots? Skeptical or not, anyone interested in how our minds work would do well to grapple with this rich and complex book. This is contemporary philosophy at its best. © PETER STONE 2018
Peter Stone is an associate professor of political science at Trinity College Dublin. • From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds, by Daniel C. Dennett, Allen Lane, 2017. 476 pages. $10, 978-0-241-00356-5 46 Philosophy Now
I Am Not A Brain
by Marcus Gabriel
W HEN THE PHILOSOPHER Thomas Nagel published his book Mind and Cosmos back in 2012 it was not particularly well received by many of his colleagues. Part of that reaction may have been occasioned by his subtitle, which was, ‘Why the Materialist NeoDarwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False’. Many feared that by criticizing materialism and Darwinism, Nagel would automatically reopen the field to theism, which a great many of them seemed quite anxious to prevent at any cost. A similar kind of anxiety can emerge whenever we get deeply into the philosophy of mind. It immediately precipitates us out of the realm of the securely physical, the stuff of popular science, and into a broader realm inhabited by supposedly spooky entities such as ‘selves’, ‘souls’, ‘values’, ‘volition’, ‘autonomy’, ‘consciousness’, and ‘perceptions’. A materialist might immediately feel as if they’re surrounded by ghosts: we’re no longer sure what anything reallyis : we cannot get a ‘self’ into a beaker, heat up our ‘values’ with a Bunsen burner, or pinch a ‘volition’ with Vernier callipers. So the tendency is for us to dismiss non-physical concepts outright. To study the brain, well, that’s real science; to speak of all this other stuff, well, that’s some kind of necromancy, or at best, mere metaphysics. Unfortunately for this reaction, we don’t live long at all without running into these spooky entities. All the time we rationalize, we use concepts, we refer to values, we consult our own volitions, and we routinely speak of ourselves as real selves. Even those who continue to deny the ultimate reality of all such conceptions do so. It seems the nonphysicalist philosophers of mind are onto something, then: the fact that we just can’t get a complete picture of human existence by confining our thinking merely to material entities. We need something more. Nothing-Buttery & Neurocentrism
Materialists generally argue that even apparently non-material entities and processes can all be reduced, in the end, to simple physical interactions. The kind of materialist reductionism that infects and inhibits the philosophy of mind at present is of a kind that has been affectionately dubbed ‘nothing-buttery’. You can detect nothing-buttery all over the place. You will hear in the press or on YouTube that the European Union is ‘noth-
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ing but’ closet totalitarianism; or on the other side, that public concerns over border integrity are ‘nothing but’ xenophobia; or that Hillary Clinton is ‘nothing but’ Bill’s cuckold; or that Donald Trump is ‘nothing but’ a new Hitler; that people are ‘nothing but’ the sum of their genetic and cultural background; or that all charity is ‘nothing but’ disguised egotism. Such simple-minded characterizations are the stock-in-trade of the news media, but one might hope that thoughtful types such as philosophers and scientists would not be so easily misdirected. However, in a few cases, they have proved little more skeptical about this abuse of language than the general public. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the philosophy of mind. There, discussions over the nature of mental activities have often followed a text dictated by neurocentrism. Neurocentrism is a materialist dogma that says that the human mind and everything that exists in relation to it must ultimately be explained in ‘nothing but’ material terms. The mind? It’s ‘nothing but’ the brain, we are told. A thought? It’s ‘nothing but’ electricity. The self? ‘Nothing but’ an illusion accidentally generated by neural activity… and so on. The conclusion of this discourse is instantly assumed: the mind and its contents are bound, at the end of the day, to turn out to be completely describable in terms of the material features of the brain itself. You are your brain. “No, I am not!” responds University of Bonn philosopher Markus Gabriel – and neither, by implication, is anyone else. In I Am Not A Brain (2017) Gabriel rejects neurocentrism, and sketches out what he calls ‘a philosophy of mind for the twenty-first century’. First, we must dispense with our illusions. What invites us to the neurocentric view, he says, is the fact that there is a scientifically undeniable coordination between the material features of the human brain and the mental stuff it produces. For example, we know that certain patterns of mental attention will induce predictable electrical patterns in the cranium, or that perceptions of reality can be altered through the ingestion of chemicals. This argues for some high degree of coordination between the activity of the materials from which the brain is composed and our various mental phenomena. Yet we must also recall that correspondence is not causation: or, as Gabriel says, that the activity of the brain stuff may be merely a necessary but not sufficient condition for the production of the mind stuff. Gabriel insists that this last postulate has not been taken seriously enough yet. The Book Reviews
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result is evident: our explanations for the human mind are badly afflicted with materialistic nothing-buttery. It may be theoretically satisfying for some people to believe that, say, their own intellect is nothing but a neurochemical crapshoot; but which one of us would feel satisfied to hear (or to offer) a profession of love that ran something like “Honey, I really hormone you”? Hormones may indeed be involved in what we call ‘love’; but to take them as the sum total of human affection is surely obviously too reductionist. It is the same with the mind and the brain. Negating Neurocentrism
Toward this end of the book, Gabriel talks about four major mind phenomena in which the holes in neurocentrism are most painfully obvious: consciousness, selfconsciousness, the self, and freedom. Freedom is particularly interesting to Gabriel. One very unsavoury implication of neurocentrism is the idea that human deciBook Reviews
sions are ‘nothing but’ the deterministic products of physical activities in the brain. As such, our thoughts and actions are not expressions of a real self who is making actual choices, or of any autonomous entity preferring or selecting among options, but only the inevitable end of a complex chain of material causes and effects that in principle stretch back to the dawn of time. So neurocentrism, if true, would eliminate from the universe not just freedom, but identity, rationality, values, and all such related manifestations of what many philosophers would regard as essential features of personhood. It would ultimately describe us as nothing but material accidents. As he picks among the four major topics of his concern, Gabriel intersperses entertaining subtopics, such as ‘Is the self a USB stick?’, ‘Are faith, hope and love just illusions?’, and ‘What is altruism?’ There is a lot of good philosophical investigation here, and he’s well worth the read. One mildly irritating feature of Gabriel’s
writing is his propensity for dropping fairly irrelevant opinions into his text, and without justifying them. For instance, he tells us we all ‘must know’ that Brexit and Trump are bad, gender theory is flawed (but maybe can be salvaged), climate change is man-made, and there is no afterlife. He also ends up taking certain of his own essential key concepts concerning the present discussion for granted – in particular, his conceptions of justice and morality, which he really does nothing to intellectually ground. In fact, Gabriel appears entirely uninterested in the question of how morality might be legitimately grounded. Those are significant oversights. However, Gabriel’s thesis, as his title suggests, is essentially negative. He is not so much telling us what the right way to view the self, or consciousness, or values might be, as he is making the case that a materialist, neo-Darwinist, neurocentric view of human beings is not going to provide us with all the answers in relation to the mind. He is more skilled at negating neurocentrism than at establishing exactly what the right alternative to it might be. There are, he insists, glaring holes in any such accounts; and, like Nagel before him, he is more eager to point them out than to supply the means to close the gaps. But that’s fair. The science of mind is still in its infancy. While the intense brainmapping research of recent years has taught us a great deal about the material conditions and correlations of consciousness, it has opened up a vast array of new questions about how it all interacts with the immaterial consciousness. Everybody admits that. However those philosophers and scientists who are called ‘eliminative materialists’ continue to hope that eventually, materials will count for everything. Gabriel’s book renders that hope faint. In fact, it really argues that it’s a basic category error even to imagine that everything could be expressed in materialist terms. When answers to the mysteries of human consciousness are found, they will have to be located at least in large part beyond the merely material. What that part is, Gabriel doesn’t spell out in any satisfactory way. But if chipping away at a mind-numbing fallacy is a good step toward an answer, then Gabriel has provided us with that. © DR STEPHEN L. ANDERSON 2018
Stephen Anderson is a philosophy teacher in London, Ontario. • I am Not a Brain: Philosophy of Mind for the 21st Century, by Markus Gabriel, Polity Press, 2017. 240 pages, $24, IBSEN: 978-0-300-22146-6
December 2018/January 2019 Philosophy Now 47
anta Claus: The Movie (1985) is without doubt, and intentionally or not, a bold statement about how capitalism hijacked Christmas. It did so at some point during the Twentieth Century and in much the same way that early Christians absorbed the Roman festi val of dies natalis solis invicti (‘The Birthday of the Invincible Sun’) on 25th December into their own ideas of divine birth in order to appease the party-going Roman public. Had Eric Fromm (German sociologist and philosopher, 1900-1980) lived just five more years, no doubt he would have seen this movie and shouted, “I know where they are coming fromm!” For Santa Claus: The Movie essentially embodies the central arguments of his 1955 book The Sane Society. Like other Frankfurt School philosophers such as Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, Fromm’s main concern was the alienation of humanity through the rise of consumerism. He expands on Marx’s description of a steadily growing dissociation of the worker from their work in industrial society, presenting a detailed story of how consumer culture causes widespread human alienation from life. He blames the totally profit-centred goals of big business in the 1950s. Add to this the arguments of Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man (1964) and Adorno’s essays collected in The Culture Industry (1991) and The Stars Down to Earth
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says “Bah humbug” to consumer society.
(2001), and the reasons behind the unstoppable spread of a consumer-orientated world in which ‘economic man’ is the dominant species, become devastatingly clear. The difference between the Twentieth Century’s ‘Super Capitalism’, as Fromm calls it, and the normal capitalism of the Seventeenth-to-Nineteenth Centuries, is that in the Twentieth Century West the market became the human raison d’être. Previously money had been a means to satisfy human ends; now it had become its own end, and the employee no more than an appendage to the economy. In Super Capitalism, people exist to serve abstract market forces. Fromm puts it neatly, saying that the faith society once put in God, it now invests in the market. Modernisation of the Means of Christmas Toy Production
So, what does the less-than-festive Frankfurt School have to do with Santa Claus: The Movi e? The School’s arguments are repeatedly illustrated by aspects of the movie. It’s not much of a stretch to say John Lithgow’s character B.Z. is the absolute personification of Fromm’s dehumanising Super Capitalist. Cigar munching, evil-cackling B.Z. puts profit before all other concerns. In B.Z.’s set up, both worker and consumer are merely one-dimensional tools, abstractions in the bigger acquisitive picture. Not only is
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he less concerned with the quality of his products than his sales figures, he is even willing to put potentially lethal toys on the market – provided he has a fall guy. His patsy takes the form of the unwitting elf Patch (Dudley Moore). Patch enters B.Z.’s scene already a convert to industrialisation. He has come to New York from the William Morris-esque Arts & Crafts-type workshop community of Santa’s Grotto. Santa is played by John Huddlestone – note his uncanny resemblance to a certain bearded Victorian radical. Patch had tried to introduce Fordism into the Grotto – that is, the automated mass production of toys rather than their craft production – with predictably shoddy results. Patch’s products literally fell apart, leaving kids with that familiar sinking feeling that there’s nothing in life of any real quality that’s free or magically comes down chimneys. But as Patch himself says when his complex machine starts wheeling and conveying toys at incredible speed: “This is the Twentieth Century!” Indeed, before Twentieth Century Super Capitalism, the competition ushered into the Grotto by Santa pitting Patch against the traditionalist Puffy for the position of chief helper didn’t exist in the same way. The precise questions of hierarchy and position, promotion and career progression that their competition explores, are tied to the Grotto’s potential place in the Twentieth Century that belongs to B.Z. and the Super Capitalists. Santa is short-sighted when he chooses Patch over Puffy based on the quantity of toys produced. By and large Santa remains medieval. From the hourglass indicating the passing centuries at the beginning of the film, it seems that Santa starts out in the Fourteenth Century and feels no need to update his manufacturing methods or infrastructure for six hundred years. In fact, the only change before Patch’s effort at industrialisation has been the addition of a merit system at the behest of Mrs Claus, which awards good children and punishes naughty children. This kicked in roughly around the Nineteenth Century because of a brat who liked torturing cats.
Film William Morris
A Christmas Advert
escape the bitter cold. Bringing Joe in to a safe and warm environment is only a matter of his acquiring the right appetites and desires. And when Cynthia leaves a plate of food and a can of Coca Cola outside for Joe, there’s nothing ambiguous about the label – as an emblem of Christmas, it infers warmth. (McDonald’s and Coca Cola both had promotional tie-ins with the movie.) The idea of a lack of any liveable life outside this system is reinforced by using New York to represent late Twentieth Century society. Outside of New York (or consumer Super Capitalist society), all we see are wastes of snow or depopulated mountain regions; or frozen Lapland itself, where Santa, Joe, Cynthia, and Patch even-
Leaving aside the anachronism of the Grotto, back in the big city we’re introduced to a homeless kid, Joe. Street-smart Joe has literally been left out in the cold; but he’s taken under Santa’s wing, and later befriended by B.Z.’s young niece Cynthia. In a pivotal scene, Joe peers through a window of a McDonald’s at middle-class families munching Big Macs. This evokes the traditional orphan peering-through wi ndow-i n-th e-snow-at- warm-festivehousehold scene; only here it is McDonald’s which frames the ideal Christmas desire. Joe does not yearn for the warmth of belonging to a family in festive spirits; it’s through brand affiliation that he can (momentarily)
tually retreat from the devouring selfcentred city. Our last view of B.Z. is of him hurtling into space, elevated by his latest product, candy that can make you fly. If we take the Twenty-First Century Christmas industry as any indicator, it’s safe to say B.Z. eventually returned down to Earth and went on to conquer Christmas. Santa may have saved Patch, Joe, and Cynthia by retreating with them into the pre-industrial William Morris hinterland of medieval Lapland. But the real sequel to this unsung socialist classic is B.Z.’s fantasy of ‘Christmas II’ come true: Black Friday. © CHRIS VAUGHAN 2018
Chris Vaughan is a writer currently living and working in Gibraltar. His fiction can be found at Ambit , The Lifted Brow and some other places. He writes reviews for The Rumpus, and has seen Santa Claus: The Movie at least twenty times.
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allis T in W onderland
Brains, Minds, Selves Raymond Tallis uses all three to show that he has all three.
t is over a decade since your columnist challenged the claim, made by several philosophers, that the self does not really exist (‘Saving the Self’, Philosophy Now Issue 63). Among them, Tor Norretranders called the self a ‘user illusion’ (The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size, 1999). To press home his message, Norretranders asserted that “the epoch of the ‘I’ is drawing to a close.” As usual, my arguments seem to have had little impact; the autocidal industry has gone from strength to strength. The claim that selves are constructs fabricated by people who are not selves is now almost mainstream in philosophy and psychology. Time, therefore, to resume the good fight to save the self from the autocides.
R E K A B E S I U O L
Y M A / M O C . M A R G A T S N I T I S I V E S A E L
P 8 1 0 2 R E K A
B Y M
C I H P A R
Last time round, I pointed out that the selfdeniers are usually contradicting themselves (or non-selves). I began with the most famous autocide of them all, David Hume. In his Treatise of Human Nature (22.214.171.124), he argued as follows: “For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself , I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat, or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I can never catch myself at any time without a perception and can never observe but the perception.”
David Hume concludes from this that ‘David Hume’ is nothing more than a succession of perceptions; a mere ‘bundle’ of experiences associated with one another. If this really were the case, then it would be difficult to know what meaning to give to the ‘I’ that appears four times in the passage just quoted, or to the ‘my’ and ‘self’ that he refers to as myself. A bundle or train of perceptions would not seem to have the capacity to rise above itself to proclaim that its selfhood is no more than the bundle or train of perceptions. That this charge of pragmatic self-refuta52 Philosophy Now
tion does not seem to cut much ice with autocides suggests that what is needed is not a counter-argument but a diagnosis to explain the otherwise inexplicable popularity of a view that cannot be stated without contradiction. Behind many autocides is a phobia – a fear that accepting the reality of the self means subscribing to Cartesian dualism or to the view that one is or has a soul, or at least its secular equivalent. This is, of course, nonsense. It is entirely possible, without invoking immaterial spirits, to acknowledge that the Raymond Tallis who was a junior doctor in 1973 and who is a retired physician in 2018 refers to the same self when he says ‘I’. Memory, the connectedness of experience, the continuity of characters traits, a distinctive body of knowledge and a repertoire of skills, supported by the cladding that comes from the world that acknowledges him as the same person, along with the ‘address’ (in the widest sense) that he has in that world, the offices he occu-
December 2018/January 2019
pies, the audit trail of his responsibility, and so on – these are sufficient to underpin a non-illusory, enduring self. What’s more, the connectedness is often self-affirming – most notably when RT takes justified ownership of his past experiences and the world in which they took place, and of his behaviour in that world. All of which is pretty obvious. So why does the idea of the self as an illusion have such a hold? It may be because the rejection of the notion that we are ghosts in a machine has created space for the idea that we are just a machine. The machine in question is the brain and the brain, being a material object, cannot host an immaterial self. More precisely, the self is an illusion created by the brain. Psychologist Nick Chater’s recent book, The Mind is Flat: The Illusion of Mental Depth and the Improvised Mind (2018) is devoted to this very idea. Indeed, more radically, he claims that even ‘mental depth’ is an illu-
sion: the surface is all that there is: “To believe that we have constructed a ‘picture’ of the visual world in our minds is to fall for the illusion of mental depth, hook, line, and sinker” (p.82). His idea of the mind is of something entirely ‘in-the-moment’, and indeed, without breadth: the mind is a pinpoint. If we disagree with this, it is because “almost everything we know about our minds is a hoax, played on us by our brains” (p.15). A hoax that Chater’s brain has mysteriously unmasked. The grounds for this extraordinary claim are worth examining. Take visual experience. Our visual focus is sharply concentrated in a minute area of each retina. You may feel that you are currently looking at a page of print, but what you are seeing is one word at a time, with everything else being ignored. Your sense that you have a visual field – corresponding, for example, to a view of a room or a landscape – is an illusion. The feeling that we are simultaneously grasping a ‘whole’ is the result of being fooled by our brain into thinking “that we ‘see’ the stable, rich, colourful world before us in a single visual gulp, whereas the truth is that our visual connection with the world is no more than a series of localized ‘nibbles’.”(p.54) And what applies to perception applies even more strongly to thought, feelings, to the exercise of our will, and to our sense of being unified or coherent selves. To imagine that our mind is more than fleeting fragments and to think of ourselves as having inner depths is therefore to fall victim to a Grand Illusion. The Illusion of an Illusion
Illusion? Hardly. After all, the richness of the world that we see is clearly not an illusion. The seething vista of events and objects that is the moment-to-moment appearance of the world around us clearly corresponds to reality; and so to see a rich world is not to be the victim of any illusion. I see a room or a landscape, as opposed to pin-pricks of sense data, because there is a room or a landscape to see. If there is an illusion, it is a little one, about the processes underlying visual consciousness, not about the objects of consciousness. But rather than even an illusion, since most of us are not up to speed with the latest research in the psychology and physiology of perception, it is merely an unawareness of those processes. Indeed, if we were aware of those processes as we looked around us, we would be distracted to the point of being blind. Anyway, all that psychology shows us is that at least one version of the representational theory of experience is bankrupt – and that
our visual experiences are not realist pictures in the head, mirror images of our surroundings. Psychology does not show us that our having an experience of a complex world is an illusion. In fact, if the mind were a succession of moments, and the idea of enduring mental phenomena, such as beliefs, were untrue, it is difficult to see how Chater could have become sufficiently together in order to write a book (which was presumably planned, researched, and written over many years) in support of those beliefs. In short, the existence of The Mind is Flat is itself the most decisive refutation of the thesis contained between its covers. Ludwig Wittgenstein famously argued that his method was to “pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is patent nonsense” – thereby undermining daft ideas that may have seemed like serious philosophical positions. We are indebted to Chater for doing something like this, albeit inadvertently. More importantly, he illustrates the absurdity of taking empirical science as having the capacity to overturn our fundamental intuitions about our own nature. The Mind is Flat also illustrates how reducing persons or selves to their brains – what we may call ‘brainifying’ the person – invariably involves personifying the brain and treating it as if it were, after all, a kind of self. The brain, Chater tells us, perpetrates “hoaxes”, “solves problems”, “is continuously scrambling to link together scraps of sensory information”, trying to organize and interpret them. All of this is, “in a very real sense mindless” – although (with a characteristic wobble) Chater asserts that we (italics mine) are “relentless improvisers, powered by a mental engine, perpetually creating meaning from sensory input.” How very like a self! At any rate, for Chater, the sense that we are extended in time is simply a report of “the brain’s interpretation” (p.176). Therefore: “talk of being conscious of one’s self is incoherent nonsense – ‘selves’, after all, aren’t part of the sensory world. And all ‘higher’ forms of consciousness (being conscious of being self-conscious), though beloved of some philosophers, are nonsense on stilts” (p.183). “There is the bit where you say it and the bit where you take it back” JL Austin once said caustically about philosophers who claimed to adhere to counterintuitive views. And Chater takes it back in spades. For example: “what makes each of us unique is our individual and particular history – our own specific trail of precedents in thought and action. We are each unique, in short, because of the endless variety of our layered
allis T in W onderland history of thoughts and actions” (p.202). Layered ? In a mind without mental depth? Time for the Self
We do not need psychologists to tell us that we won’t find the self by examining the brain and that brains are fundamentally different from selves. For example, the state of the brain at given time is confined to what it is at that time. It cannot reach out to its own past, not even to those past events that have shaped it, or to its future, or to the timeless zone of general meanings and facts that we take account of to make sense of our lives. The self, by contrast, is not temporally confined in this way. RT in 2018 is open to, aware of, RT in 1973 in the way that his body or brain is not open to its past. It is clear then that the brain does not have the wherewithal to hoax us and to coin the ‘illusion’ of the self with its various modes of self-consciousness. The brain is as temporally flat, as temporally depthless, as the mind according to Chater. Brains could fool us into believing that we are or have selves only, per impossibile, by borrowing the capacities that actual minds (persons, selves) have. That I am a self is hardly something I can be mistaken about. As Dan Zahavi has pointed out, we cannot take the subjective dimension of our experiential lives seriously without ascribing our experiences to a self as a “built-in feature of experiential life” (‘Consciousness, Self-Consciousness, Selfhood: A Reply to some Critics’ 2018). This seems unassailable. But, he adds, we mustn’t think of that self as something present in experience – either “as additional experiential object or as an extra experiential ingredient.” To do so would be to fall foul of Hume’s critique. Selfhood, Zahavi concludes, is inseparable from the quality that experience has of being first-personal, of being mine. I couldn’t have put it better myself. © PROF. RAYMOND TALLIS 2018
Raymond Tallis’ new book, Logos: The Mystery of How We Make Sense of the World has recently been published by Agenda.
December 2018/January 2019
Philosophy Now 53
uestion of the Month
Is The World An I
Each answer below receives a book. Apologies to the many entrants not included.
f course the world is an illusion! We see only a tiny part of so on, are in the mind so physical objects are in the mind, as these the electromagnetic spectrum, which is divided into colours objects just are their perceived properties. However, the existhat exist only in our brains. We hear only a limited range of vibra- tence even of our senses refutes Berkeley’s argument. Our senses tions, onto which we impose meanings the vibrations do not (and those of other living creatures) evolved because they enabled themselves contain. We have no idea what dogs and bees find so us to compete, survive and procreate in a challenging environinteresting, and vice versa. We feel as soft or solid what is nearly ment that already existed. This process could not work in Berkeall empty space, apart from a few fundamental particles in differ- ley’s world. A belief in evolution entails necessarily a belief in the ent arrangements. We can grasp directly only scales from around existence of a mind-independent physical world. So the physical one millimetre to one kilometre. We think that the present is world exists, but we don’t see it as it really is, but according to now, when we’re actually experiencing what happened half a sec- an illusion created by our senses. ond ago. Our personal, political, and ideological hang-ups and MICHAEL BRAKE, EPSOM, SURREY squabbles are blind to natural ecology and history – including the n answering this question it is helpful to distinguish between cells and DNA of our own bodies. Our heads are full of phantoms ontology – what exists – and epistemology – how we know what we impose on a world that is fundamentally indifferent to them. And yet that very indifference proves that the world is real! we know. The question has an ontological part, ‘Is there someOn the basis that once the impossible is eliminated what thing called the world?’, and an epistemological part, ‘Is my experemains must be the truth, the most convincing current hypoth- rience of this world false?’ The temptation is to conflate the two esis is that the world is made of information. This is abstract, aspects of the question into either a naïve realist position – “The spaceless, timeless, but can be consciously expressed only and nec- world exists and I experience it accurately” – or a naïve idealist essarily in viewpoints of a physical world. This world emerges in “Everything is an illusion” position. But it seems perfectly posa rational sequence of steps, its properties at each level depending sible to believe that an external world exists and at the same time on those of the level below. In a sense every emergent geometry believe that my experience of that world could be misinformative. and substance is illusory, yet it is also deeply real. To briefly expand: I seem to have experiences of something. I can break this something down, first into the different senses – DR NICHOLAS B. T AYLOR , LITTLE S ANDHURST sight, sound, smell, touch and taste – through which I experience n illusion is a false sense-impression of something. This defi- my body and other bodies that appear to be like mine. Further, nition is a good starting point, since I will argue that the world I experience the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics and exists, but that the sense-impressions we have of it are an illusion. science in making coherent, consistent, correspondent and prag John Locke (1632-1704) held that objects have what he called matic predictions about my experiences. This leads me to guess primary and secondary qualities . Primary qualities are those he con- that something outside of me – call it ‘the world’ – really does sidered to be intrinsic to the object: its size, solidity, shape, num- exist. However, I cannot help but also note that I only appreciate ber and position. Secondary qualities are not intrinsic but the this as a subjective being! However, no matter what the nature result of “a power in the object” to create a sense-impression: to of the world actually is, I only experience it through my senses create colours, sounds, tastes, smells, feels in our minds. and therefore can only know the world in these terms. I simply We can update Locke. What do exist independently of our have no idea whether this is a good representation of what the minds are objects consisting of molecules, particles, waves, forces. mind-independent world actually is. Furthermore, there will be These are devoid of colour, sound or any of the other secondary other equally appropriate ways of experiencing the world using qualities: the external world is dark, silent and colourless. Our sen- different senses of which I know nothing: to paraphrase Thomas sory apparatus – our sense organs, sensory nervous system and sen- Nagel, I can never know what the world is like from the perspecsory cortices – creates the illusion that the world is bright and tive of a bat. Finally, I don’t even have a sure way of knowing colourful by transforming the raw data provided by our senses into whether others, who seem like me, experience the world in the colours, sounds, tastes, smells, sensations of hot and cold (and same way. So, to summarise: No, that there is a world is probably pain). These secondary qualities didn’t exist until they were not an illusion, but my experience of it could well be one. invented by evolution. They evolved over time because those SIMON K OLSTOE, U NIVERSITY OF PORTSMOUTH organisms that had the most informative senses had an evolutionary advantage. s the world an illusion? I will first examine what is meant by Some idealists may disagree with these ideas and maintain, as ‘world’, and subsequently what is meant by ‘illusion’. People George Berkeley (1685-1753) did, that just as colours, sounds and typically do not differentiate between ‘the world’ and its percep-
54 Philosophy Now December 2018/January 2019
Is The World An Illusion?
tion. This is called ‘naïve realism’. But in the domain of philosophy it is essential to distinguish between Immanuel Kant’s noumenon (mind-independent reality) and the phenomenon (the sensory appearance of the world). All that is perceived is the phenomenon; the noumenon is an hypothesis used to explain the existence of the phenomenon. The sum total of the perceptions of the world constitute a model of the world; all that one knows of the world is a model. The logical processes by which perceptions can be combined to create this model are based upon pattern identification of the sense-data. (I discuss these processes in detail in my book The Pattern Paradigm.) So when one refers to ‘the world’ one is really referring to one’s model of the world. And while this model is only a model, it does enable one to interact effectively with the world (or model of the world) in order to meet one’s basic needs (and also, one’s not-so-basic needs). In this way the model of the world can be considered to be ‘real’ [Kant’s term for this is ‘empirically real’, Ed]. While everyone’s model of the world is different from everyone else’s, there is enough commonality for meaningful communication to take place. An illusion is created through having a temporary fault with the sense organs resulting in faulty sense-data, or by utilising a pattern from the sense-data that is significantly less than optimum. Such an illusion would not allow for effective interaction with the world, and hence not enable one's needs to be met. This is how it can be identified as an illusion and be distinguished from one's useful model of the world. So there is a qualitative difference between a model of the world and an illusion that is sufficient to conclude that the world, or at least one’s model of the world, is not an illusion. BRUCE R OBERTSON, W ESTMERE, A UCKLAND, N.Z.
he idea that although we may not be able to perceive reality directly we can at least make meaningful statements about it, was enough to spark David Hume’s doubts. Hume’s skepticism forged Hume’s fork. In this fork, Hume points out, first, that empiricism cannot deliver necessary truths: “Experience can teach us that something is the case but it cannot teach us that it must be the case.” According to Hume, reason is also ineffectual for delivering necessary truths about the world, as it only analyses definitions. Therefore, we cannot discover the way the world is through reason alone. Then Kant proposes his Transcendental Idealism to prove that we can know ultimate reality through reason. He suggests our reason can transcend direct observation to get behind the phenomena and also understand the necessary conditions of experience. Kant argues that if we analyze our experience of an object, we can conclude for example that an object is always presented as occupying space. In fact, it is necessarily true, because we cannot imagine any object without that object occupying space. Also, all our experiences occur in time Kant also agrees with Hume that we cannot derive the necessity of causal relations from experience alone, but we can know its necessity through reason. (Therefore, Kant’s answer to Hume is that there is a pure knowledge which is independent of experience, which he calls synthetic a priori truth.) Kant showed that space, time and causality, the very texture of existence, are not fully mind-independent realities, as Newton supposed, nor are they mere figments of our imagination, as Hume claimed. Rather the entire phenomenal world is an intermediary between that which exists only in the Is The World An Illusion?
mind, and reality as it exists in itself, independent of the mind. Using Hume’s own metaphors, I would say, that the world is real and that its representation is not “a bastard of imagination, impregnated by experience…” but a legitimate child of Reason, and this child is delivered by our experience as an objective necessity. NELLA LEONTIEVA , S YDNEY , N.S.W.
hen considering whether the world is an illusion, the first question that comes to mind is what we mean by ‘world’. Is it the material part – the molecules and atoms that make up our universe? Or is it the part that makes up human existence – our sense of self, our emotions, thoughts, and feelings? Let’s examine both aspects. Starting with the material world: consider first the fact that an atom is almost empty space. But the illusion gets deeper: quantum scientists are now strongly suggesting that all matter is made up of wavelike entities. If so, then our perception of reality is a major illusion. Now let’s examine human existence, starting with what seems like an unshakeable notion – the idea of ‘I’. Yet in the late 6th century B.C.E., Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, argued that there is no ‘I’ and the self is an illusion. Thanks to neuroscience and MRI scans, some scientists are now suggesting that the Buddha may have been right, since they have been unable to find in our brain a single entity that controls our decisions and analyses our thoughts and emotions. In fact those who practise meditation would confirm that your desires, thoughts and emotions cannot be considered a fixed ‘you’ since they come and go, replaced by a new wave of them every few seconds. What about free will? The debate around whether we have it may be endless, but many neuroscientists agree that our subconscious makes our decisions for us, while the conscious part of our brain creates a narrative for why we have made these decisions without us knowing the true reasons behind them; a fiction which has the purpose of explaining to the outside world our decisions and actions. So is the world an illusion? It seems the answer is yes, since both the material and immaterial aspects of our life are deceiving us on a daily basis. But aren’t we all fond of tricks? A LEX CLACKSON, BIRKENHEAD
dvaita Vedanta is a school of Hindu philosophy. Its idea of Maya is that perception is illusion. We humans are in temporal bondage, as our sensory perceptions and experiences of our body, and the consequential bodily attachments confound and obfuscate our true self. Self-realisation and liberation is possible by a method of Vedic self-enquiry requiring deep self contemplation through analytical negation – considering Neti Neti – that things are neither this, nor that; or, as Ramana Maharishi said, by repeatedly asking oneself the question ‘Who Am I?’ until the nature of Atma (our true self) is revealed and realized. This self-scrutiny (or Atma Vichara) is not to be done merely at an intellectual level, but is meaningful and beneficial at the experiential level too. True, a discriminating mind and intellect (Buddhi ) is essential for achieving self realisation. Upon attaining this self-realised state, where the boundary between one’s self and the universe disappears, one becomes an enlightened Jnani – one who has perceived the Para Brahman, the supreme reality of the universe, which is devoid of Maya. Advaita Vedanta does not preach renunciation of the empirical December 2018/January 2019 Philosophy Now 55
world, but leads us to an understanding and acceptance of the this also causes a problem, because something can only have some reality of Maya along with its natural ability to bind us to the length if there are other points between the two ends of that material world. This understanding and acceptance then natu- length. If there are, then it could always be further subdivided. rally leads us to Vairagya (detachment). So, without denying the So a finite number of divisions could always be further divided. existence of the illusory Maya, it is essential for one to understand Therefore, the number of possible divisions cannot be limited and experience, through self contemplation, the impermanence and must be unlimited, or infinite, after all. ( Anitya) of our body, our mind, and the objects and fruits of our So first we saw that finite lengths cannot be divided an infinite attachments on the one hand and the enduring permanence of number of times; and then we saw that they must be infinitely our true self on the other. divisible! Therefore, the very idea of finite lengths appears to DR A JAY K R. SHARMA , DELHI U NIVERSITY contradict itself. This means it cannot be correct. So finite lengths cannot be real – which means the physical world cannot he question of whether the world is an illusion resolves itself be real either, since it is composed of numerous features which into this: Is there a world which we perceive, however inac- have limited sizes. How can a planet with a diameter of roughly curately, which continues to exist when it is not perceived? 8,000 miles exist, if finite distances are impossible? One possibility is that the world is an idea in the mind, ultiPETER SPURRIER , H ALSTEAD, ESSEX mately, of God (the Bishop Berkeley theory). In this case, God would be the additional (and theologians would say ultimate) he idea that the world is an illusion tells us nothing. A word, reality. However, if God is real, he/she is real in so different a to mean something, must also not mean something else. We sense of the word that we would be justified in arguing that the understand illusion because we understand reality. To call everything an illusion would destroy the very concept of reality needed illusion created by God is actually the reality as we understand the concept. to establish what an illusion was in the first place. Therefore, it Maybe I am the only reality and I created the world as an illu- is better to ask, what is and is not real? sion (the solipsism theory). If I did so, I made a fine mess of it For people with common sense, the world is about as much (consciously or unconsciously); and anyway, if I am real and noth- an illusion as there is illusion in the sting of a bellyflop. I rememing else is, what am I? ber my first: it was P.E., and despite my stiff upper lip, the reality Maybe the world which I experience is an illusion I encounter that was radiating pink heat and pain from off my belly was in dreams (the Zhuangzi/butterfly theory). But my dreams screaming its testimony for all to see. These two hands of mine change, whereas the illusion is consistent. This suggests that the are also self-evidently real. So now we have three real things. If dreams are the illusion. anyone disagrees, then I would like to offer them, in friendly and Maybe I am the subject of an experiment in which other beings gentlemanly fashion, my hospitality at hearth and home, and then impose an illusion on my awareness (the Matrix theory). This is imprint on their belly a burning bright hand print. Extreme scepan untestable theory, but it seems improbable that such an exper- ticism usually has a shelf-life that is inverse to suffering. Many might take issue with my brute fact approach. That’s iment could be carried out without something going wrong and either ending the experiment or alerting me to it. The one thing OK, if we agree that all axioms are undemonstrable. Axioms are that reality and illusion have in common is that something always never deduced, they are assumed without proof because of the breaks down! problem of infinite regress. To ask justification for an axiom So, all theories that the world is an illusion carry difficulties would force us back to another proposition, and since that would with them. We cannot prove that the world is real; but, applying also require justification, we would be forced to go on ad infiniOckham’s razor, we can show that this is the theory with the tum. Where we take our leave from that infinite train is where fewest (if any) difficulties. we reveal our biases. That is why I stand with Nietzsche con M ARTIN JENKINS, LONDON cerning first things – that every great philosophy consists of the confession of its originator, and a species of involuntary and he following argument bears some similarity to arguments unconscious autobiography. But unlike Nietzsche, I believe that of Zeno of Elea, but is not the same. It concludes that the God is not dead. And that has made all the difference. Since my physical world cannot be real. God is the author of reality and history, I have no qualms about If the physical world exists, then, within that world, there are my belief being a confession and an autobiography. How could many distances, all of which are finite. Now, how many times can it be otherwise? So for all who are wondering what is really real… a finite length be subdivided into smaller lengths? Either an unlim- well, have I got good news for you! ited number of times, or a limited number of times. But dividing ENEREE GUNDALAI, H ANNOVER , GERMANY it an infinite number of times has a strange result. Assuming an infinite number of subdivisions means that each of the subdivisions must have zero length. If the length of the divisions were larger The next question is: Is Philosophy Still The Friend of than zero, the original finite length would only have been divided Wisdom? (Question suggested by Finn Janning.) a finite number of times. But, if the divisions each have zero length, Please give and explain your answer in less than 400 words. this means that if all the divisions are added together, the overall The prize is a semi-random book from our book mountain. length is zero! So something’s wrong. The idea that length can be Subject lines should be marked ‘Question of the Month’, and infinitely subdivided can't be right. must be received by 11th February 2019. If you want a This leaves the option that the length can only be subdivided chance of getting a book, please include your physical a finite number of times. That would mean that the smallest posaddress. Submission is permission to reproduce your answer. sible divisions would still have some length, however small. But,
56 Philosophy Now December 2018/January 2019
Is The World An Illusion?
The Light From Our Eyes Stephen Brewer wonders what’s in the (mind’s) eye of the beholder.
ax, Freya and Orin are in the café of a downtown contemporary art gallery. Freya is sipping a glass of oolong tea while gazing at a print of brightly colored circles. Max is reading his newspaper, drinking his black filter coffee, and eating a chocolate muffin. He looks over his paper and winces as Orin drops three teaspoonfuls of sugar into his espresso and gives it a vigorous stir.
Freya: Wait Max. Before you dismiss the
idea out of hand, you should listen to what Orin has to say. Orin, in what sense do you think our eyes and tongues illuminate the world?
650nm; but the light itself isn’t red. Similarily, sugar is just a chemical with a lot of readily released energy, but it’s not in itself sweet without us. The redness or sweetness is just in the way we react to them.
Orin: Well you tell me… Max, does light
Orin: So we produce the color red and the
itself have color, and is sugar itself actually sweet?
sweet taste in our minds, then. Max: How do we do that, then?
Freya: Just look at that! Even this print –
Max: Well, no: visible light is just electro-
which is number 16 of 25 – costs $2,500. magnetic radiation of different wave Who knows what the original’s worth? Per- lengths. That red circle over there is haps ‘Terry Frost RA’ was the first person reflecting light with a wavelength of about to think of painting just circles on a canvas… Still, it’s so fascinating that I just have to look at it. I wish I took an art degree.
Freya: To know that would mean solv-
ing one of the biggest mysteries of consciousness.
Max: [ pointing to an article in the paper ]:
Instead of being fascinated by colored blobs, you professors should be horrified by this report. It says that fifty per cent of American college students think you only see that picture – and everything else – because a light shines out of your eyes! How dumb is that? Orin: In fact, it’s interesting because they’re
supporting Plato’s ancient ‘extramission’ theory of perception. It is good to hear that our brightest and best students are still reaching the same conclusions as the ancient Greek philosophers and their Medieval scholastic followers.
3 1 0 2 R A N U
R D R O
M O C . O T O H P K C O T S I
Max: Nonsense! It’s listening to you and
the philosophy you teach them that gives these students such crazy ideas. How can they be so stupid as to ignore all the scientific progress over the past three centuries? It’s as if the Enlightenment never occurred and they still live in the Dark Ages. And the disproof of the idea is so obvious that even the dumbest student could test it – simply close your eyes and you won’t see anything.
© W E I
V Y R E L L A
Orin: Well, color and taste emanate from us;
so perhaps in that sense our eyes and also our tongues do in fact illuminate the world about us. Max: What utter drivel!
December 2018/January 2019 Philosophy Now 57
Orin: For the sake of the current argument, it doesn’t really
objects that now have value to us.
matter how we do it. All that matters is that somehow qualities such as redness or sweetness emerge in our minds as a result of highly complex operations in the brain.
Orin: Yes, and these valuations are not projected onto a screen
Max: So by some unknown mechanism the light from that pic-
ture produce a particular experience of red that floats around in my mind…
inside our minds, but onto the world itself. Max: So, now you’re saying we’ve invented the world. Still nonsense! Orin: But I’m not saying that Max. Our division of the world
Orin: Oh Max! Do our sensational experiences ‘float around in
ness must similarily be in the eye.
into objects is not an invention, because it requires there to be the real objects to act as the sources of the various forms of energy or chemistry that interact with our senses. Now, whether these mental qualities we impose upon these objects are invented by our minds or discovered , is a big philosophical question…
Orin: ‘Of course’? But when you scientists say sweetness is a prop-
Max: All the same, attaching these mental qualities to things
erty of the sugar, it’s not really a property of the sugar itself, is it? It’s better to say that it’s a property generated in your mind as a result of your tongue being in contact with the sugar. And to get that sensation requires your brain doing some pretty sophisticated processing of the information produced by the interaction of your taste buds with sugar molecules. So what does it mean to say that the taste is on the tongue?
is not the same as projecting light from our eyes!
your mind’ as you say? When you see a red color, or taste sweetness, where is that color or taste located? Max: Well the sweetness is on the tongue, of course; so the red-
Freya: That’s all very interesting, because that red circle,
although its redness is produced by my mind, is on the picture over there. It’s sort of pasted back onto the canvas by my mind – just like those circles were originally put on the canvas by the artist. Orin: Quite right. Somehow the mind projects these qualities
back onto the source of the stimulus… Sweetness goes into my cup of coffee and red onto that circle over there. Take the picture or the coffee away and the experience disappears…
Orin: Nevertheless, we are illuminating the world in much the same way as a manuscript is illuminated by the artist adding color and form to the plain text. Freya: It also has the effect of making the world a beautiful
and interesting place. It makes the world fascinating to us so that we want to explore it. Without this illumination, there would be no reason to enjoy the world, or even to reach out for it. Max: But these college students don’t see it that way. That’s
not what they’re saying. You’re only going to confuse the issue even more with this sort of talk. Orin: On the contrary, it is you scientists confusing them, by
Freya: And a pretty damn good one at that…
claiming that the world is full of inert objects neatly placed in time and space with us as mere disconnected observers of them. But the world which you maintain is the real one has no art or poetry in it, perhaps no reason for us to act on it at all. Obviously, it is the taste of sugar, not pure physics, which is causing you to down that muffin! And the artist, not the scientist, is the one capturing the real world full of beauty, color and passion.
Orin: I think we should see our minds as being at the intersec-
Max: I see your point. But if what you say is true, none of it’s
actually out there, is it? It’s in our minds . So, it has the appearance of being outside us, but let’s face it, it’s not. Instead, our experience of colour and sweetness and all the rest is an illusion.
tion of all these sources of energy, light and chemicals active in the physical world, adding qualitative value to them by generating the sensory mental experiences we have. These generated values are then projected back onto the source of the stimulation. But it’s only our minds that make the world full of color and taste. By adding such properties to all these different sources of energy or chemical stimulus our minds fill th e world with objects with different properties. Without these sensory valuations that our minds make, the world would only consist of boring forms of physical energy and chemistry.
With a noisy rustle Max turns the paper’s page. Licking the tip of his index finger, he picks up the crumbs from the plate with it and transfers them to his tongue. Freya, again gazing at the picture, gets up, crosses the room, and begins to trace out the shapes with a hovering finger. With a loud grunt Orin adds another spoonful of sugar to his untouched and by now cold coffee. With much rattling and clinking he gives it a vigorous stir; but Max makes no further response.
Freya: But for us this means it’s no longer an alien place inhab-
Steve Brewer is a retired biochemist and the author of The Origins of Self (2015), available for free download from originsofself.com.
ited by various impersonal forms of energy, but filled with 58 Philosophy Now December 2018/January 2019
© DR STEPHEN J. BREWER 2018