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Lettres Françaises • Questioning Absolute Freedom • Communication Communications • Identity Issues • Patent Absurdities • Being Both There & Here • Refutable Wisdom • Personality-Free God • Spotting Spock
Dear Editor: I appreciated your special issue on contemporary French philosophy (107). Yet it seems to me one might have expected an additional article that would have provided a comprehensive overview and an attempt to set French philosophy in context. Why didn’t you mention the Sokal affair, that seems to me to be rather central to the whole issue? Why didn’t you mention Jacques Bouveresse, one of the leading philosophers in France today, not a public philosopher, but the only French philosopher who is highly respected outside of France, as far as I know? Finally, is it not the case that the French tradition in philosophy after Descartes is a tradition of essayists, of moralists, or of what English-speaking people call philosophes – that is to say, intellectuals who have very little to do with philosophy? You acknowledge that French philosophy is part of public life, yet it is not part of international academic philosophy. Didn’t Crane Brinton write in his history of Western ideas that what characterises French philosophy throughout history is that it lacks depth? The putative limits of French philosophy stem from the fact that philosophy is taught in the Faculty of Letters and not in an independent School of Philosophy, and consequently, French philosophers have no particular scientific education, and no education in contemporary logic. When they do make use of it, as did Kristeva and Lacan, it appears they do not have a clear understanding of what it’s about – as shown by Sokal and Bricmont (Fashionable Nonsense) as well as Jacques Bouveresse (Prodiges et Vertiges de l’Analogie).
Lucien Karhausen, Paris
Dear Editor: Two writers, in successive issues of Philosophy Now, have summarized Hegel’s philosophy in almost identical terms. David Macintosh (PN 106) and James Alexander (PN 107) both claim that (to quote the latter) in Hegel’s thought “theses are opposed by antitheses generating syntheses, which in turn become new theses.” This is an easily remembered and frequently quoted formula. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear in any of Hegel’s writings, and it seriously misrepresents his views. In particular, the word ‘synthesis’ was never used by Hegel except when he was criticising “a mere synthesis” as something completely different from his idea of dialectical development. Indeed, if a thesis and an antithesis are completely opposed to one another, it is very difficult to see how any ‘synthesis’ between them could be achieved, nor even a “compromise” (as Macintosh suggests). On the contrary, it is just such a situation of complete blockage that, according to Hegel, prompts the development of a new perspective at a higher level. This is the Hegelian dialectical process, for which he used the untranslatable German term ‘Aufhebung’, sometimes rendered into English as ‘sublation’, but never as ‘synthesis’. Furthermore, the result of this process does not become a new thesis, then generating an antithesis. Rather, the new perspective splits into two opposing aspects to form the new dialectical situation. Hence, contrary to what Alexander says, Alain Badiou is perfectly correct to characterize Hegel’s view of history as a successive series of ruptures, and not a continuity.
The use of the misleading ‘thesis/antithesis/synthesis’ formula originates in an inaccurate book about Hegel, published after his death. It has unfortunately obscured discussions of Hegel’s philosophy ever since. It is time to banish the word ‘synthesis’ from the Hegelian lexicon, so that we can understand what he actually said.
Peter Benson, London
Dear Editor: Could I make a few observations on Peter Benson’s piece on ‘French Post-Marxism’ in Issue 107? His “control of the [media] code” reference reminded me of Propaganda by Edward Bernays (1928), which founded the philosophy of PR and advertising. Very much the foundation of ‘Newspeak’.
Advertisers do not create needs, they create wants on behalf of producers, who desire consumers to want what they produce whether or not it is socially useful. But we do indeed need tools for critical reflection and for perspectives on our consumer society. So Baudrillard and Stiegler are very useful. And as Jesus is quoted in Luke 12:15, “Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”
Barry Watson, Glasgow
Questioning Absolute Freedom
Dear Editor: Phil Badger (‘Je Suis Libéral’, Issue 107) makes some useful and valid points, but his argument suffers from a defect of all liberalism, namely the utopian fantasy that we live in a world of free individuals undivided by wealth and power. We don’t. Thus, if I offend the proprietor of a large newspaper, they will have prompt recourse to the libel laws and expensive lawyers. But if the proprietor’s newspaper offends asylum seekers or people living on benefits, they have little chance of redress.
While there are a few rich Muslims in Britain and France, most Muslims are situated in the lower levels of the social hierarchy. In France in particular they are marginalised, notably in the education system, by dress and dietary codes. So I shall continue to try to (legally) offend Bill Gates and Richard Branson, David Cameron and Ed Miliband [British politicians], without imagining that this activity has anything whatsoever in common with mocking the religious beliefs of an oppressed minority.
Ian Birchall, North London
Dear Editor: Phil Badger’s article in Issue 107 on rudeness and intolerance in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders prompts me to write to state my disagreement with what he says.The depiction of Muhammad as a cartoon caricature Arab by Charlie Hebdo was insulting in a racist manner, as were the Danish cartoons. Charlie Hebdo does manage to be insulting all the way round. Someone who looks like Dominique Strauss-Kahn as a Jewish caricature is depicted in bed with some black teenage girls saying how much easier life is in Libya than New York. These lurid cartoons would be illegal under Britain’s race laws, which I support.
In my opinion these cartoons are reminiscent of the anti-Semitic cartoons in magazines like Der Stürmer or Libre Parole, which flourished in Europe before and during the WWII. Let us remember that under Otto Streicher (sentenced to death at Nuremberg), Der Stürmer made the journey from drawing Jews as the incarnation of evil to advocating their annihilation. Speech actions involving insult and mockery are sometimes a prelude to actions of murder.
I am not an absolute liberal myself because I believe a right to speak goes hand in hand with a duty to account for what you say. Furthermore, it is wrong to be emboldened by the thought that you may never have to meet the people you insult. Rather, people should behave as if they might do so in the near future.
Chris Gould, Norwich
Dear Editor: I am writing in response to Henry Back’s letter in Issue 106. Mr Back claims that an ISIS fighter holds “totally understandable and justified” moral reasons for “cutting the head off a totally innocent British bystander” on the grounds that this Jihadi’s family “were killed by combat airplanes from the UK.” What Mr Back overlooks are the reasons for UK military action. He therefore misses the moral difference between inadvertently killing some innocent people whilst targeting the guilty, and deliberately killing innocent people.
Keith Gilmour, Glasgow
Dear Editor: Not being a philosopher, merely a civil engineer, I sometimes struggle with the concepts put forward in your magazine, but I do know the difference between a quote and a misquote.
At the time this issue was first raised, various media people were looking for a chance to get at the Bishop of Durham. They seized an opportunity to beat him about the head by misquoting him. I think you’ll find that what he actually said was “The Resurrection was more than just a conjuring trick with bones.” This is very different, you will agree, from the popular version quoted by Phil Badger, missing out the ‘more than’. Not quite as eye-catching, I admit; but the truth often isn’t!
Iain Hampson, Midlothian
Dear Editor: Could it be that Derrick Grover (‘The Problem of Communication’, PN 107) is not familiar with Wittgenstein’s Tractatus? Grover’s example of “the limitations of language” is that of a court case where the jury’s understanding of the details of a car accident was revolutionised by the provision of a map. The Tractatus famously deals with what can be shown rather than said, and Wittgenstein’s picture theory of language may well have been based on his reading of a description of a Paris court case, in which a car accident was depicted by the use of models (see Wittgenstein’s Notebook 7 for September 1914).
In his last paragraph, Grover asks whether it would be “beneficial for philosophy texts to be written so that the theme of a sentence is presented first, and then qualifications to that theme listed in a logical order.” Is not that exactly what Wittgenstein was doing in his numbered sections and subsections of the Tractatus?
Richard Newell, Exeter
Dear Editor: The demand for clarity of a particular kind, such as is made by Derrick Grover in his article ‘The Problem of Communication’ in Issue 107, is not uncommon among critics of philosophical style, and it’s one that I’ve heard from many mathematician friends of mine. However, I consider it to be based on a misunderstanding of what philosophy is, and it results in a limiting of what it can do regulated solely by ease of comprehension. It is certainly possible to see where the criticism is coming from, and at whom it takes aim: Hegel, Heidegger, Lacan, Foucault, Deleuze and Derrida, among others, are the most common targets of this criticism, given that their works are generally quite difficult to read. But unlike mathematics and most sciences, philosophy is not and need not be concerned with simplicity. In fact, simplicity can often serve to obscure the thoughts the thinker wishes to articulate. A common mistake is to treat simplicity and clarity as interchangeable; however, whilst clarity intends to represent and describe, simplicity is more of a tool of translation. As such, to simplify a philosophical point in the way suggested by Grover can be tantamount to translating it rather than showing it. This isn’t to say that simplifying cannot help people start engaging with certain philosophers; but it is in no way sufficient for developing a more detailed understanding of their thought.
Philosophy, contrary to what some people demand, should not necessarily be ‘easy’. Work is required in order to understand the nuances of each thinker and their ideas; but although many texts might present us with a challenge akin to scaling Everest or swimming the English Channel, the work we are willing to put in will help us undertake the challenge (and there is a certainly humility to be found in accepting that we might not succeed).
Lastly, I find it interesting that many texts are written in a difficult style. It is as if the thinkers want only the most dedicated and hard-working readers to be able to engage with them. I don’t see this as a problem. There is no elitism involved in asking the reader to do some work. Would it be as acceptable for me – someone who does not understand even the most basic of mathematics – to demand that all mathematics be easy to read and not require work? How about asking experts in Quantum Theory to get rid of all their jargon and only use everyday language?.
Alastair Gray, Univ. of Sussex
Dear Editor: I was intrigued by Joshua Farris’s article in Issue 107 on the various theories concerning our sense of continuous identity and self.
One of the ideas he discusses is the role of memory, which I believe he underestimates. Memory may not be the whole answer, but what he fails to point out is that without memory there would be no sense of self at all. In fact, whilst we need long-term memory to give us a sense of continuity from childhood to adulthood, we also need short-term memory to actually experience consciousness.
There are documented incidents that confirm this. For example, people who suffer trauma or who are knocked unconscious sometimes behave in a manner suggesting that they are conscious, yet later have no recall of it. Heavy alcohol consumption can have the same effect. There is also evidence from people suffering a particular form of amnesia that they live in a continuous present because they are unable to create new memories. This doesn’t mean that they have no sense of self, but that they’re stuck in time – as described by Oliver Sacks in his book The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat.
Paul Mealing, Melbourne
Dear Editor: Alejandra Mancilla’s argument against patenting genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in ‘A Can of Tomato Juice in the Sea’, Issue 107, founders on her assertion that GMO patents violate the proviso that an acquisition of property must not make anyone worse-off. “After all,” she wrote, “if you turn something that could be simultaneously enjoyed by many into something exclusive, you are making many people worse-off.” In the case of a patent, however, the ‘something’ is a new thing that no one could have enjoyed, simultaneously or otherwise, without the creative efforts of the inventor. Thus a GMO patent holder merely receives temporary ownership of a novel variety of a species. All the species that existed before the invention remain in the public domain. Indeed, the new variety will be added to the public domain when the patent expires. Nevertheless, Mancilla presented two reasons why she believes GMO patents might make people worse-off. First, she raises the issue of cross-pollination between GM crops and traditional varieties, stating that this process might “lead to the homogenization of plant varieties.” This reasoning does not explain why patents should be denied for crops that do not cross-pollinate, such as corn. For crops that do, growers have methods for keeping cross-pollination to negligible levels. Besides, cross-pollination is not unique to GM crops, and the fact that traditional varieties have not already caused homogenization suggests this is not a real danger. Even if GM or traditional crops were to cause homogenization, growers could turn to government and academic germplasm repositories to restore genetic diversity. Second, Mancilla claims GMO patenting may eventually result in growers paying “for the use of seeds that historically were part of the common patrimony of mankind.” This statement appears to be predicated on the assumption that growers still routinely save seeds for planting. In fact, modern farmers often buy both patented and unpatented seeds. One need only survey websites of seed companies to see that, despite thirty-five years of GMO patenting, an abundance of patented and unpatented varieties is available. GMOs offer growers more options, not fewer.
It’s ironic that a copyright notice was appended to Mancilla’s article criticizing intellectual property rights. Using patents to protect GMOs is no different in principle from using copyright law to protect her article, with the exception that the patents will expire in twenty years whilst the monopoly enjoyed by Mancilla and her heirs may last more than a century.
Stephen Push, Virginia
Being Both There & Here
Dear Editor: In his letter in Issue 107, Werner von Kuensberg states that I mistranslated Martin Heidegger’s key term Dasein as ‘being there’. He claims that it means ‘being here’. If I were in error, I would be in very distinguished company. ‘Being there’ is the standard translation of Dasein by his commentators: see, for example, Polt, Inwood, Dreyfus, to list the three that lie readiest to hand in my study. Dasein is of course a complex term that also means ‘existence’ and ‘human being’, but ‘being there’ is its core meaning. And my argument (for reasons set out at length in my monograph on Being and Time – and elsewhere ) still stands.
Raymond Tallis, Stockport
Dear Editor: The German word for ‘here’ is ‘hier’, There are two words for ‘there’: ‘da’ meaning rest or motion in a comparatively undefined space; and ‘dort’, rest at some distance. So to quote F.J. Stopp’s A Manual of Modern German: “da is not always English there, but also here.”
Dr David Howard, Shropshire
Dear Editor: Arnold Zuboff takes a simplistic approach to relativism in his article ‘Theories that Refute Themselves’ in Issue 106. Many philosophical positions are valid in some scenarios and it is frequently not so much a question of taking a polar position, as Zuboff does in his article, but more a matter of finding the appropriate limits of useful application for a philosophical method. For instance, his claim that relativism accepts that all competing views are somehow equally true or valid is only the case if these views exist in isolation and there is no framework in which to judge or evaluate these views. Part of my job is to create attribute sheets for soft drinks. The sense of smell and taste of these products depend on the sensitivity of our organoleptic receptors, so there are no objective, universal attributes for the quality of these drinks which could be agreed on by all possible sentient entities in the universe. Other sentient entities on other worlds might pick up different chemicals, or be more or less sensitive to certain chemicals than humans are. However in my job I can dismiss all non-humans when devising these attribute sheets since they are not likely to buy the products. Hence I am starting to build a framework. In this framework, certain descriptions are more useful than others, thus more valid. An example would be describing the smell of mango juice: it would be more valid for us humans to ascribe it a tropical fruit aroma rather than a peppermint aroma or a spicy ginger aroma. However just as we mix up the scent of almonds and cyanide, an alien might mix up the scent of mango and ginger.
Russell Berg, Manchester
Dear Editor: I enjoy reading your magazine as a clear-thinking respite from the chaos and inconsistencies of my normal everyday life in academia. However, this month my respite was ruined by the contents of Arnold Zuboff’s article ‘Theories That Refute Themselves’ and the conclusion of Dale DeBakcsy’s ‘Recovering from Rorty’, both in PN 106. As a scientist, one might imagine that I fully support their arguments on objectivity, but this is simply not the case. When I write a paper reporting a series of experiments I do not for an instant imagine that I am describing the way the world works. Instead I am constructing an argument that I think, in all probability, is a good explanation of the phenomena I have observed. Indeed the longer one is a scientist the less certain one finds themselves about almost anything. All we really achieve is a better understanding of an ever more elaborate web of theories that seem to be roughly consistent with each other. Rather than truth claims, we have probability claims. This seems to be similar to the idea Zuboff referred to as pragmatism, but without his hidden self-refuting objectivity premise: if we say that everything is believed with a certain probability, it is not inconsistent to say that the claim “everything is believed with a certain probability” is itself probable. As probabilities can be 100%, this (probable pragmatist?) theory is both consistent with the truth claim “there are such things as objective judgements” and the opposite “there are not such things as objective judgements”, neatly side-stepping Zuboff’s entire argument! Indeed the argument could be summarised as “there probably is no such thing as objective truth… but then again I could be wrong”!
Simon Kolstoe, Southampton
Dear Editor: A number of the articles in Issue 106, and also Grant Bartley’s Editorial, tend to reinforce the premise that human beings are “reasoning animals.” It is also indisputable that our philosophical reasoning is based on logic. Moreover, as Bartley points out, logic “is concerned with what is thinkable through language.” But we do not all speak the same language. Language being a system of symbols, each language could possess different sets of symbols, or the meaning attributed to a symbol may differ from one language to another. Do these limitations of language and mathematics also restrict the efficacy of logic, thus constraining our understanding of the world? This thought echoes Kant’s caution that our inability to accommodate the illogical could limit our comprehending the world beyond our minds. This could also be the reason why mystics deliberately include apparent contradictions while talking about the nature of reality, to signal to us the possibility that reality transcends ‘true or false’ dichotomies, and there could be a third position which could take up both opposites and something else too. This third position is to be found in the interstices of the ‘true and false’ antinomy. A classic example is the Zen koan about the sound of one hand clapping.
Given this, there are two ways of looking at what is proposed by these mystics and thinkers: if and when the normal true or false rules do not apply, ultimate reality should be viewed as something non-rational, and we just accept it for what it is. On the other hand, if we believe that there is nothing in the universe that is not explicable using reason, then mystics can be accused of trying to make mugs of us by using their ‘beyond reason’ postulate as an epistemological escape clause.
Venkat Ramanan, Brisbane
Dear Editor: I was reading the article ‘The Gods of Spinoza and Teilhard de Chardin’ in Issue 106 of Philosophy Now. According to Teilhard, the universe is evolving towards the Omega Point. The Omega Point will transcend and become independent from the universe, turning into something which some may call God. The attributes of Omega really struck a discord with me: “Autonomy, actuality, irreversibility, and transcendence, but not, apparently, personality.” This really got me thinking, ‘does God have a personality?’ I personally find this idea of God both boring and worrying. How can God empathise with me if he does not have a personality? I hope that if God does exist, he has a personality. I think that the pagan gods are far more interesting; however I just do not believe in them, and I find myself becoming more and more atheist as time goes by – for I cannot believe in a God with no personality, and logic and reason prevents me believing in pagan gods. Thanks to this article, I have been worrying over this issue for the past week!
Sarah Anderson-Cheshire, Southend-on-sea
Dear Editor: Steven Umbrello suggests that Mr Spock is a Stoic (Issue 106). I have always thought of Spock as a utilitarian. He makes this explicit at the end of the film The Wrath of Khan when to justify his self-sacrifice he says that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. Dr McCoy, on the other hand is a virtue ethicist who often talks about what is the human thing to do. As Captain Kirk gets advice from both men (often conflicting), many episodes of Star Trek are debates in moral philosophy: the viewer is asked to consider whether Spock’s weighing up of consequences is coldly calculating or shows a true concern for sentient beings; or if McCoy is complacent in his attitudes, or right to express a morality based on what we find of value in a virtuous human being.
Rebecca Linton, Leicester
Dear Editor: Re: ‘Star Trek’s Stoics: The Vulcans’ by Steven Umbrello. Epictetus the Stoic: “There is only one way to happiness, and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.” Vulcan Proverb: “In accepting the inevitable, one finds peace.” AA Serenity Prayer (after St Augustine): “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” Steven Umbrello: “Whether or not Gene Roddenberry created the Vulcans with the Stoics in mind will forever remain unknown.” How about whether or not Gene Roddenberry created the Vulcans with Alcoholics Anonymous in mind?
Ray Sherman, Duarte, CA