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Democratic Reforms • Philosophy For the People • Fighting Back Religiously • Outside Derrida • Art & Soul • More Happiness From Philosophy • Problem Problems
Dear Editor: In PN 101, Amy Pollard asks whether Plato, in The Republic, was intending to propose a new political system or rather to provoke questioning and reform of Athenian democracy. The overall structure of the book’s argument, however, strongly suggests a third intention as more central to Plato’s concerns.
The central question the dialogue addresses is stated in Book I (331): ‘What is Justice?’. In Book II (368) Socrates asserts that Justice can be an attribute either of an individual or of an entire city. He therefore proposes to consider the question in relation to a city, since “Justice may exist in greater proportions in the greater space, and be easier to discover” than it would be if we probed into a single mind. His subsequent elaborations about the characteristics of a just city occupy most of the rest of the dialogue. But at the conclusion of this discussion (Book IX, 592) Glaucon remarks that this imagined city “has its being only in words; for there is no spot on earth, I imagine, where it exists.” To this Socrates replies that his proposals should rather be thought of as “a pattern for him who wills to see, and seeing, to found a city in himself. Whether it exists anywhere or even will exist is no matter. His conduct will be an expression of the laws of that city.” In other words, rather than being about how to reform politics, the principal purpose of the dialogue is to show people how to reform themselves as individuals, in order to become Just. The latter is something we can all do; the former is a fraught project, liable to failure.
Peter Benson, London
Dear Editor: In Issue 101, Mark Tan describes and promotes a series of Platonic programs for aspiring politicians to engage in with the aim of improving them so that our contemporary cynicism against politics reduces. In the following article, Huong Nguyen cites a theory that democracies must also take into effect the “economic, social and cultural conditions” involved in their building. I think Tan’s project of reducing political cynicism would work much better if it also involved a wider look into how economic relations affect governments and politicians: rather than proposing a series of ancient hypotheses to perfect politicians, we should look into the socioeconomics that can inevitably corrupt politicians regardless of education. For example, Marx articulated a theory of the state being an instrument of class rule. If we live in capitalist societies, and capitalism controls the state, then politicians who enter this state will always be affected by capitalist values.
Dino Mehic, California
Dear Editor: Rousseau thought that democracy was a good idea, but unworkable. Plato recommended an intellectual aristocracy, with ‘philosopher kings’ using psychological manipulation to make the populace think they were living in a democracy. This is similar to the situation we’re living in today – only instead of his intellectual aristocracy, we have a plutocracy, with the plutocrats using psychological manipulation to make us think we’re living in a democracy. You can’t fool all the people all the time, but if you can manipulate most of the people most of the time, you’ve got it made.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking plutocracy. As John Jay said, the people who own the country should be running it. I certainly don’t want the man on the street running my country. What we have to do is convince the plutocrats that it would be in their best interests to narrow the income gap and distribute the necessities of life on a more equitable basis.
Ray Sherman, Duarte, CA
Philosophy For the People
Dear Editor: Loved Andrew Taggart’s ‘Philosophy In The Popular Imagination’ in PN 101. ‘Philosophy’ has become a bit of a buzz word. It’s common in coffee-enhanced conversation and beer-induced debate. Taggart points out that people are taking themselves too seriously when they start proclaiming ownership of ‘personal philosophies’. I agree: surely an opinion does not automatically transcend into a philosophy? I think we need to be more philosophical about our own thoughts, and not immediately claim them as having some kind of intellectual status. One opinion is no greater or more academically worthy than another.
Linda Nathaniel, Sydney
Fighting Back Religiously
Dear Editor: In Issue 100 (Letters page), Tracey Csmereka cites me as saying that because there are many religious beliefs, no religious belief is true. However, I did not write that; I wrote that “one might say this” – but the burden of my article was that because one could not know which of them were true, like Camus, I had decided not to base my life on such uncertainty.
Tracey then states that because there are many moral beliefs I must have the same position here and hence I must be a moral nihilist if I want to be consistent. But the issue of morality is different. It is true that there are many theories of moral beliefs, but I might argue one of two positions: (a) many philosophers have argued that moral judgments are statements of preferences of various sorts, and I can prefer one of them; or (b) because I believe one is necessarily forced in life to act in cases that can be deemed either ethical or unethical, I must choose one sort of reaction, even though I can’t be sure it’s the correct one.
Prof. Van A. Harvey, Stanford
Dear Editor: I am not surprised that Michael Langford in Issue 101 objects to my dismissive review of the Bible. Langford is a professional theologian, and I am reminded of H.L. Mencken’s warning that you will never persuade a man of the truth of any proposition if his salary depends upon him upholding the opposite. Unfortunately for his case, however, Langford does not specify how much of the old (Biblical) paradigm he would like us to believe. He tells us that much of the Bible is poetry, mythology and moral fable. I have no problem with that claim. Then he says that some bits of the Bible are historically accurate, but other bits aren’t. Of course we would like to know if the supernatural episodes belong in the former category or the latter, but Langford does not broach that topic.
Langford crams a lot of speculation into his last sentence, where he invokes “the possibility (not certainty!) that the universe is the product of a creative intelligence, and… hope for an afterlife is… a viable aspiration” but speculations about possibility carry no weight. All kinds of things are possible. We have to look for evidence to decide which things are probable. And if the improbable things are linked together in a paradigm, we should dump that paradigm and find a better one.
Les Reid, Edinburgh
Dear Editor: In his article ‘Taking Issue with the God Issue’ (Philosophy Now 101), Raymond Tallis criticizes two defences of theism given in Philosophy Now 99. With respect to Chappell’s use of religious experiences; it is one thing to take these seriously, as I do; it is another thing to say that theists “have overwhelmingly good experiential evidence that there is a God.” Here my position is superficially similar to that of Tallis, because the meaning of ‘God’ is not simply given by the foundational experiences; it is, as it were, filled out by tradition and interpretation. However, all the great religions have historical roots in a combination of (i) certain foundational experiences, and (ii) reflection on these experiences, either by the founders or by their immediate followers, so that the two aspects of the argument for theism are inseparable. When Tallis argues that empirical arguments about causation work within the system, he is correct; but the whole point of metaphysical argument is that the ‘evidence’ (if that is the right word) concerns how the ‘whole’ is interpreted. As with the logical positivists, one can reject all such discussions as meaningless, but these philosophers are not the focus of my complaint. In many disciplines, instead of mathematical or scientific ‘proof’, we seek rational grounds in factors such as internal and external consistency, (here, see David Raphael, Moral Philosophy, p.6). and in this context we can understand why equally able and knowledgeable philosophers frequently disagree, although they all may use ‘rational’ argument in a process that involves: (i) laying out the grounds for the position that is defended, (ii) presenting opposing views in their most robust form and not in caricature, and (iii) countering the most obvious objections. Following this process, we might be able to agree that there are several rational options, although we personally agree with only one of them. Political thought provides another example of where internal and external coherence provide part of a rational ground. For example, Richard Hare showed how Nazi ideology was irrational, in part because of a lack of external coherence, in its racist theory (Freedom and Reason, pages 172, 215). In my book The Tradition of Liberal Theology I argue that a search for coherence should lead Christians to adopt Greek Orthodoxy’s rejection of ‘original guilt’ – because in addition to being based on a Latin mistranslation, this belief is incompatible with moral responsibility (a point also argued by Abelard).
Prof. Michael Langford, Oxford
Dear Editor: It is interesting to consider why Raymond Tallis will never be able to logically disprove the existence of God (‘Taking Issue with the God Issue’; Issue 101), just as those theists he replies to can never prove God’s existence. This is because God is actually a metaphysical postulate used by the theists to explain their experience of the world. As a result, the theists must always find God within manifestations of the world; on the other hand, an atheist such as Tallis has constructed an explanation of the world that actively denies this possibility. Without using tautological arguments, neither of these camps can prove nor disprove this postulate from within their derived systems of thought. Since both systems are able to satisfy their respective advocate’s experiences of the world, we need an alternative test to evaluate the merits of these two systems. One method is to consider the scope of their application. The God Postulate has the advantage that human life is seen as emerging from a creative plan, and consequently is given meaning and purpose. In contrast, the scope of the atheistic theory provides us no ultimate source, reason or purpose. To my mind, these limitations mean that the atheist vision of our place in reality is always going to be inferior to the theist’s vision.
Steve Brewer, St Ives, Cornwall
Dear Editor: In Issue 100, Peter Benson attempts to defend Derrida against those who credit him with an untenable theory of language which denies that it refers to the outside world. The problem is that Derrida himself often invites such an interpretation – indeed, his most notorious pronouncement is “Il n’y a pas de hors-texte” (literally, “there is no outside-the-text”). It is also evident that Derrida draws on literary texts such as those of Mallarmé, whose aim precisely is to sever language from reference to anything outside itself in the interest of creating a sort of self-referential verbal music. Clearly, any sort of philosophy of language that anchored itself in this sort of thing would be stymied from the start, given that this is an untypical use of language. Indeed, in general, a language that was incapable of referring to matters of fact would be of little use for communication, and a non-starter from an evolutionary point of view.
Benson attempts to exculpate Derrida from such an extreme position, but it remains the case, as Benson admits, that Derrida denies the possibility of a direct unmediated fit of language and reality, pointing to a supposedly unsustainable ‘metaphysics of presence’. One might have some sympathy with this if one’s model of language were that of avant-garde poetry, but if one starts with the everyday language of cats sitting on mats, of tax returns, and of much of science, the fit seems to be direct and unambiguous enough. Indeed in some cases it has to be. For example, instructions on how to use medicines have to be such that they do not admit of multiple interpretations. The interesting question here is not whether language refers to the external world but how it does. It is hard to see that Derrida has anything to say – anything, at least, that makes much sense – on such issues.
Benson takes up Derrida’s elusive notion of the grammé – this putative unit of language supposedly characterized by a fusion of absence and presence – and asks whether, once human beings have died out, any mark that remained would still be a grammé. But what hinges on how one answers this question? What difference would it make? The world is no doubt divided between those like Benson who see profound metaphysical issues at stake here, and those who find only linguistic quibbles without any perceivable significance. If one is doubtful whether most of Derrida’s questions are more than pseudo-questions, Benson fails to convince otherwise.
Roger Caldwell, Wivenhoe, Essex
Art & Soul
Dear Editor: Akilesh Ayyar’s article in PN 100 concerning the deep psychic significance of expression in the encounter with art and image reminded me of the work of James Hillman, the American psychologist of the archetype, in particular his seminal work, Re-Visioning Psychology (1975). Hillman countered the tendency of modern psychology to be rationalistic, materialist and reductionist with a psychology based upon the recognition of the role of image, myth, history, biography and story in ‘soul-making’ or allowing the archetypal and therapeutic elements of the deeper psyche to ‘see through’ these elements and manifest within our self-knowing and existence. Hillman’s ‘soul’ is not a supernatural entity, but “a perspective rather than a substance, a viewpoint toward things rather than the thing itself. This perspective is reflective; it mediates events and makes differences between ourselves and everything that happens. Between us and events, between the doer and the deed, there is a reflective moment – and soul-making means differentiating this middle ground.” I suggest that Gilles Deleuze’s ‘signs’ as espoused by Ayyar are akin to Hillman’s ‘reflective moment’, which leads us on a path of soul-making; or Ayyar put it: “The idea of the Proustian translation of signs takes a mundane world and makes it magical, full of meaning.” You do not hear much of Hillman these days; he has been smothered in an avalanche of dry behaviourist perspectives.
Peter Marstin, Canberra
More Happiness From Philosophy
Dear Editor: I have a quick response to the ‘On Happiness’ piece by Siobhan Lyons in Issue 100. Lyons has discussed an interesting and perennial philosophical current, but has also touched on a hot cultural button, especially in America. Many people’s conception of happiness is a sort-of Huxleyan state of blissful ignorance. Hit your six-minute abs, do five-minute pilates, seventeen-day diet, etc. And psychological or ‘spiritual’ happiness comes in the conveniently facile form of pseudo-meditation (and pseudo-profundity): one just need ‘smile at your self’. I completely agree that this form of ‘happiness’ is an obnoxious and clearly superficial one; but I would argue that this is not ‘real’ happiness. I would call the philosopher’s journey maybe one of ‘unease’ or confusion or perplexity. This, in my view, is not unhappiness: it leads to a more robust concept of happiness, as opposed to just pleasure. If necessary, we should work to redefine ‘happiness’. This is a worthwhile project, because the philosopher’s journey is anything but ‘unhappy’.
Brannon McConkey, Tennessee
Dear Editor: In Issue 99, your philosophical science correspondent Massimo Pigliucci says that consciousness is a problem for science. He then points out that scientific explanation lies in a different category from ‘experience’. But surely the hard problem is to explain how experience, subjectivity, comes about in a world taken to consist of blank objects; or how come there is this other category, that of experiencing? Pigliucci suggests that it is simply complex behaviour, but this is misleading – complex behaviour is a manifestation of subjectivity, and is not identical with it.
Another way of putting it is this: how does something – the fact of experience – arise from nothing – the supposed absence of experience from the material world? The answer must be, as it always has been, that nothing will come of nothing: so subjectivity, the ground for experience, simply cannot spring from nowhere – it must be there in the first place.
It may be that Pigliucci is making the point (as have Thomas Nagel and others) that in excluding mental properties our definition of ‘physical’ is lacking; but if so, it is surprising that he does not end up opting for panpsychism. As it is, he just sounds like somebody who has not really understood the chasm the mind-body problem is.
Bob Williamson, London