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Critique & Cause • On Unhappiness • Saying Nothing • God Issues • Ought We To Survive? • Seeing Red • Arthur Danto Transfigured

Critique & Cause

Dear Editor: It is good to see my old warhorse Not Saussure. A Critique of Post-Saussurean Literary Theory (1988) being cited by Peter Benson (‘Derrida on Language’, Issue 100). As an attack on a then-dominant approach to language and literature in academic humanities, and on some gods of Parisian thought such as the two Jacques (Lacan and Derrida), it was as welcome as dysentery in a shared Jacuzzi, and was largely ignored. Unfortunately, Benson also overlooks the main thrust of my critique of Derrida (a seventy page chapter entitled ‘Walking and Différance’); namely that Derrida had misread Saussure. Derrida’s central argument was that Saussurean linguistics implied that human discourse could not be about a world outside of language. Hence his famous assertion that “there is nothing outside the text.” He arrived at this conclusion by confusing the signifier – which (as Saussure said) is a value internal to the system of language, and defined by its difference from other signifiers – with the sign as a whole. The sign as a whole, when in play (as when someone says or writes something) is not internal to the system of language – as Saussure himself emphasised. Therefore, there is something outside of the text: the reality referred to in the text.

When you scrape off the bad linguistics and worse philosophy from Derrida’s arguments in Of Grammatology, there remains merely the truism that language is not a mirror undistortedly reflecting, nor a transparent window revealing, extra-linguistic reality. Nothing to get terribly excited about.

Raymond Tallis, Cheshire

Dear Editor: I have to admit that upon reading Peter Benson’s article ‘Derrida on Language’ (Issue 100), I took a spiteful and vengeful pleasure in his critique of Raymond Tallis’s take on Derrida. While I respect and have learned a few tricks from Tallis, I have sometimes found him to be a little prudish and dismissive when it came to post-structuralist French philosophy, such as that of Derrida and Lacan. At the same time, and in all fairness, Tallis’s misrepresentation of Derrida (I defer to Benson’s authority on this) may provide a little less cause for the sanctimony that drove my ideological cheerleading. What needs to be considered is the French propensity towards free indirect discourse, which results in a body of text that encourages interpretations. As I see it, this approach creates artifacts that, like dreams and abstract art, find their meaning in the discourse going on around them. (Note that Lacan, early in his career, published in a French journal focused on the surreal.) I did not detect a lot of overlap in the three interpretative texts I’ve read on Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition; it was as if the three authors had read three different books of the same title. As has been pointed out about Deleuze, one of the problems with such obscurity is that most of the scholarly work done on it tends to focus too much attention on interpretation to establish any real foundation for critique of the thinking. I think the same can be said for Derrida.

We can, of course, penalize Tallis for working from an inferior interpretation of Derrida. But by the same token, we can also hold Derrida and his contemporary compatriots and their champions complicit, in that if they were so adverse to misinterpretation they could have explained themselves a little more clearly rather than watch everyone fumble around. It seems to me that what Tallis came up against is the intentional imperviousness of free indirect discourse to authentic critique, in that any issue you might have with it can only be an issue with your interpretation of it.

D. Tarkington, Omaha, Nebraska

Dear Editor: I was rather surprised by Raymond Tallis’s ‘Causes as (Local) Oomph’ article in Issue 100. It seems he (and apparently other philosophers as well) has given up on causality, writing, “we observe many items that we do not regard as causally connected… Causal connections are not universal.” I respectfully disagree. It may be true that the notion of causation may not clear the metaphysical hoops imposed by philosophers, but causation is the life-blood of nature. That is, nothing can occur in nature without cause (here ‘nature’ includes both the material and the cognitive worlds). There is no uncaused cause, no prime mover. Causation is necessary. And contrary to physicist Lawrence Krauss’s conclusion in his book A Universe From Nothing I believe that in nature something can come from nothing only if nothing is something! Parmenides had it right: ex nihilo nihil fit (“nothing comes from nothing”). Further, I understand causes to be mostly nonlinear, multifarious, complex, highly chaotic, and virtually incalculable.

Consider too that causes give rise to motion, and so to time, which is a measure of motion or change. And multiple causes are mostly chaotic, where chaos is “a small change at one place in a deterministic nonlinear system that can result in large differences to a later state” – ie the butterfly effect. This further complicates the notion of determinism.

Of course, causation is also fundamental to our mental processes, thereby rendering free will a construct. We come into the world with a lot of history already built in to our selves; a history over which we had no choice. As we mature, our perception and processing of the external environment adds to that history. But for all its complexity, the simple truth is that life plays out through a series of causes and effects recorded in our neurons and racing along the synaptic highways in our brains . In short, causation is the reason I am writing this letter and you are here reading it.

The late great Carl Sagan understood causality quite well. “If you want to make an apple pie from scratch,” Sagan declared, “you must first create the universe.”

Herb Van Fleet, Tulsa, Oklahoma

Dear Editor: In his review of The Things We Do and Why We Do Them by Constantine Sandis in Issue 98, Les Reid accuses determinists of missing the point in attacking the libertarians’ appeal to quantum mechanics in their defence of free will. The determinists think free will is being equated with uncertainty here, and gleefully point out that random events could not produce deliberate choices. However, Reid says, the libertarians’ point is rather that there’s a limit to the application of Newtonian ‘clockwork’ causality. The idea, I take it, is that quantum mechanics leaves room for free will, whereas Newtonian physics does not.

But there is a deeper difficulty that Reid seems to miss. Suppose I have reasons for doing something and reasons for not doing it. Now suppose that it is not predetermined whether I act on either set of reasons. I opt for one option over the other. Quantum mechanical or not, how does this differ from what I do being a matter of chance, of randomness? It is this that the libertarian needs to explain. Making room for free will is not enough.

Notice that I’m not simply assuming that there is no difference between free will and mere randomness (even if some determinists do simply assume this): it is just not clear what the difference is. There is an excellent exposition of this problem in Section 2 of Chapter VII of Thomas Nagel’s The View From Nowhere.

Ian Dearden, Burnley, Lancs

On Unhappiness

Dear Editor: Regarding Siobhan Lyons’ article ‘On Happiness’ in Issue 100: Are we happy yet? Of course not! Pessimism is far more fashionable. We have to prepare ourselves for disappointments and disasters. Pessimism has become the twenty-first century’s strategy of choice. It’s the coping mechanism we use when we’re not coping.

Linda Nathaniel, by email

Saying Nothing

Dear Editor: Robert Horner’s article on ‘How To Understand Words’ in Issue 100 brought to mind my attempts to get my students to understand fully the meaning of the word ‘nothing’. From the feedback I obtained from several classes, I was, in the main, successful. As a teacher it is imperative that one is understood, and this may be achieved through using analogies, demonstrations and visual aids. Understanding the concept of ‘nothing’ requires an approach reminiscent of Occam’s razor. So my students sit with their eyes closed while I ask them, “What do you see?” The answer is “nothing.” But I remind them that this is not the case. What they see is ‘something’: darkness. If they were to close their eyes lazing on a beach on a sunny day they may see red, the sunlight filtered through their eyelids, certainly not ‘nothing’. So, I say, let us begin again:

“Imagine you are looking up at the sky on the darkest night imaginable, surrounded by millions of bright points of light: the stars, planets and faraway galaxies.” [I pause whilst they imagine the situation.] “Now look at each point of light and imagine it being turned off, until there are no points of light in the sky. What you are left with is not ‘nothing’ because there is a black sky – which is still ‘something’. We now have to get rid of the black sky. How do we do that? Easy: you are imagining what your eyes are seeing; but turn your attention away from your eyes and concentrate on what you can see from the back of your head, where you do not have eyes! There is no black sky, no darkness – just ‘nothing’.”

Those students who managed to understand the meaning of ‘nothing’ were all of one mind: they were unable to use any words to describe their experience. They realised that the use of any word negated the experience. Like peeling away the layers of an onion, they had peeled away this world to arrive at an ineffable experience.

F. Russell Clampitt, Nesscliffe, Shrewsbury

God Issues

Dear Editor: William Lane Craig’s ontological argument in Issue 99 can be used to prove God does not exist. Consider: It is possible to create a consistent definition of reality that does not include God. Therefore God does not exist in some possible world. But WLC has already established that if God exists, he exists in all possible worlds. Therefore he cannot exist.

Peter Baines, by email

Dear Editor: William Lang Craig starts off his article in Issue 99 with an assumption he makes no attempt to justify. Referring to God as ‘He’, Craig represents God as male and a person. Why is God still seen by him in this way? That idea was invented by a people who didn’t even know the Solar System existed! These were innocent, ignorant people who lived by the cycles of the moon. It is easy to see why they imagined this God into existence, and how their perception of ‘him’ was then passed on through storytelling, to end up as the Bible.

Craig makes a good case for the idea that a single intelligence created everything that exists, and that creation began in an instant, also that the Creator put in place a set of governing principles that keeps the whole system in a kind of balance. However, what I find totally absurd is the idea that we think about that Creator in the same way as did our forebears. We have far greater knowledge of our beginnings! We now know that the visible universe is approximately 13 billion light years in radius. We also know it contains trillions of galaxies, each with billions of stars. All in all, creation is mind-numbing. The idea that the Creator of this universe might intervene in our lives if we pray hard enough seems totally irrational and deludedly conceited. I don’t see any reason such an intellect would be interested in us. Nor can I conceive of a single reason why we should think we are made in its image. The way humanity continues to misuse this planet, if ‘it’ is looking at all, it would see us as a plague to eradicate. There is no logic in hoping that the God-of-all-that-is will send back his son to save us from ourselves. That’s about as nonsensical as the Bible stating in Genesis 6 that God sent his sons down to Earth to take their pick of humanity’s girls to breed a race of giants! Even more disturbing is the commentary found in Exodus. Here this same ‘good’ God, after declaring his ten commandments, tells us how we should look after our slaves. He then tells us in what way we may sell our daughters into slavery.

Instead of this peculiar, unquantifiable, externalised God religions bow to, if we seek salvation it is more likely to be found among a multiplicity of controls within us. These differing moods that reside inside each one of us are what actually control our behaviour. The love that could be our saving grace is far better described as a combination of compassion and empathy. It is this spirit we each should be seeking to be our personal guide. It would take humanity as a whole to engage with the notion of love becoming the guiding light in hearts and minds; but we only need to realise that this is the only way to world peace.

I’d prefer to see love as my God, how about you? Also – philosophers please note – unlike the incomprehensible Creator of the universe, the existence of the God I’m referring to can be easily verified by our five senses. When it’s there, love is very evident: it can be felt, touched, smelt, seen and heard. Logically this spirit, love, is the only one that has the power to save us from ourselves.

Greg Bishop, Tasmania

Dear Editor: Thank you for your ‘God Issue’. Arguments for and against are varied and many, but it all comes down to this: one believes either that a concept as potent as, say, love, exists to be tapped into and is something larger than, and outside of, oneself, or else that it’s nothing more than chemical processes in one’s brain. There are no other choices. Great minds since Plato have deliberated them; but I suggest from personal experience that if one lives one’s life supposing the former, the universe becomes a wonderful, surprising place.

G.S. Payne, Clearwater, Florida

Ought We To Survive?

Dear Editor: The question of how to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ in Issue 99 is, I suggest, quite easily solved by evolutionary biology. Morality can be defined as a self-denial mechanism which enables teamwork by overcoming selfishness. It’s a nature and nurture instinct, very similar to our ability to use language, which also combines genetically inherited abilities with cultural learning. Morality combines a genetically inherited readiness for rules of social behaviour, already evident in little children, with cultural specifics. Moral oughts are tribal bonding factors, and they include charitable feelings. Some of these feelings are naturally more compelling than others. Obligations where a person’s survival is at stake are the most compelling, but their power is often diluted by remoteness of suffering. In other words, charity begins at home.

Without morality, cooperation would be impossible, society would collapse, and we would quickly become extinct. That’s as clearly an is as the fact that swans would become extinct if they did not preen their feathers. The moral ought is then derived from the ‘is’ as follows: for the human tribe to avoid extinction, it ought to enforce its rules of morality. This explanation requires no logical step change or category difference between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’; they’re both part of the same biological survival argument. A moral obligation, being a vital component of our cooperation mechanisms, is therefore clearly an is, and tells us what we ought to do.

Tony Wilson, Bradford on Avon

Seeing Red

Dear Editor: I want to comment on the controversy concerning whether Mary can know what red is like without ever having experienced red. (See ‘What Did Mary Know?’, in Issue 99.)

One of the problems English-speakers have in grasping this argument is that the English language contains only one verb ‘to know’. All other European languages contain two, one meaning ‘to know as a fact or abstraction’, the other ‘to know by acquaintance & experience’. Thus in French there are savoir and connaître, in German wissen and kennen. The distinction exists in non-Indo-European languages too, as in the Basque jakin and ezagatu. These are two quite different categories, relating to two quite different sorts of experience, and the absence of any distinction between them in English is unlikely to lead to clarity of thought, even among philosophers. The distinction used to exist in English, but the ‘other’ verb of knowledge (namely ‘to wot’) seems to have been mislaid at some point during the seventeenth century.

Obviously Mary cannot know what red is experientially without having experienced it; and since this is a different category from abstract knowledge, Jackson’s argument based on her story is perfectly correct. Conscious experiences cannot be reduced to abstract statements. I invite readers to consult Chapter 1 of my book Does It Matter? for a longer discussion.

Graham Dunstan Martin, Edinburgh

Dear Editor: I have been thinking about how important our senses must be for constructing and maintaining our self-perception and consciousness generally. During my musings I came up with the following thought experiment: Imagine we could grow a human brain in vitro in such a way that it can be kept physiologically healthy and active. This brain would be just like a normal human brain except that it has no sensory input – no visual or sound input, no pain, hunger or thirst, no way at all for this brain to perceive anything from outside itself. Would this brain be able to develop consciousness? And what would be the ethical concerns about putting this idea into practice?

Claudio Slamovits, Nova Scotia

Arthur Danto Transfigured

Dear Editor: On the News page of Philosophy Now Issue 99 we were informed of Arthur Danto’s death at 89. For many I suspect, and certainly me, he significantly influenced thinking about the nature of art, particularly through his The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (1981). However, his influence was as a critic of the ‘artworld’ account of the nature of art, rather than that account’s creator, as the report implies. The theory is more appropriately ascribed to George Dickie in his Art and the Aesthetic: An Institutional Analysis (1974).

The major thrust of Danto’s aesthetics is encapsulated in his choice of title, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, which has its origin in Muriel Spark’s novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. In it he points out that the Institutional Theory of Art does not address the question of why representatives of the artworld confer the status ‘artwork’ on some objects and not others. As he says early on in the book, the “institutional framework of the artworld… leaves unexplained [how certain objects] might have been elevated from a mere thing to an artwork” (p.5).

Danto’s positive theory is that objects are works of art if they have “qualities to attend to which [their] untransfigured counterpart[s] lack, and [toward which] our aesthetic responses will be different. And this is not institutional, it is ontological. We are dealing with an altogether different order of things.” (p.99) Failure to focus on the ontological status of artworks means that “we will systematically be forced into the worst formulations of the Institutional Theory of Art; that is, art which is so designated by the effete snobs of the artworld” (p.144).

Colin Brookes, Leicestershire


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