Your complimentary articles
You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.
You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please
Peeling Off The Labels • Barking Up The Wrong Dogma • Derrida Sometimes Makes Sense • Fifty Shades of Truth • Reviewer Brought to Book • The Good Friends of Bad Company • Not Believing or Believing Not • Further Physicalist Philosophy Fights
Peeling Off The Labels
Dear Editor: At last! A brave soul prepared to throw snowballs at the bastions of politically correct philosophy! Anja Steinbauer, I applaud you (Editorial, Philosophy Now 127)! Philosophy is philosophy. It has no need of silly labels like ‘analytical’ and ‘continental’.
Cedric Richmond, Nottingham
Barking Up The Wrong Dogma
Dear Editor: I’m not an academic, but my special interests (for want of a better term) are the philosophies of science and mathematics. Not surprisingly, I often cite authorities such as Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrodinger and Richard Feynman, along with many other luminaries who are not quite so famous. As Dr Grant herself points out in her article on ‘Dogmas’ in Issue 127, if one is referring to such authorities in the context of presenting one’s own thoughts in the form of a discussion, then that is hardly dogma. Dogma is when discussion is disallowed. My definition of philosophy is ‘argument augmented by analysis’, and I contend that it is the analysis component that separates such argument from dogma. But what happens when science becomes political, as is the case with climate change? Opponents of climate change might call it a ‘dogma’ (though most seem to refer to it as a ‘hoax’). This is a case where we’re dependent on expertise most of us don’t have. But that’s not the exception; it’s the norm with virtually all scientific knowledge. Few PN readers (I assume) use the Large Hadron Collider, nor do most of us operate giant motor-driven telescopes.
We trust science because in Western societies around the globe it’s given us the infrastructure and tools we depend on to live a good life. However, political ideology can suddenly transform this trust of science into unquestionable dogmatism; and dogma, almost by definition, shouldn’t be trusted, just as Dr Grant advises. By contrast, sometimes what people call dogma isn’t dogma, but a lengthy process of investigation that has been stigmatised by those who oppose its findings.
Paul P. Mealing, Melbourne
Derrida Sometimes Makes Sense
Dear Editor: My long-lost notebooks, used reluctantly at Hartlepool Grammar School in the mid-Sixties, were probably a pitiful mess. How could a youngster spend five years at one of the town’s finest institutions and leave having accomplished so very little? As Derrida stressed (see Mike Sutton’s article, PN 127), texts and contexts change through time. So at least now I’m curious about turning the dusty pages from an unrecoverable academic decade.
Derrida’s scant advice for enthusiasts of deconstruction is for them to constantly challenge the meaning of concepts: can any given set of words mean something else? But as Voltaire noted, it is madness to think of one thing too intently – here, an urge to constantly reword text. To fret about the insubstantiality or fluidity of meaning of a phrase such as “this chair is black” seems unreasonable. Such phrases permit meaningful action in the real world. The phrase could be found in the ever-changing history of some group – say, a bursar and tutors discussing illustrated pages of a furniture catalogue.
Neil Richardson, Kirkheaton
Dear Editor: Regarding Mike Sutton’s article on Derrida, it is surely not so surprising that “in principle there can be no arena of certainty.” We’ve already confronted this idea in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus (6.54) and in his later essay On Certainty; but for very different reasons to Derrida. For Wittgenstein “there is no subjective sureness that I know something.The certainty is subjective, but not the knowledge” (OC). But for Derrida both the certainty and the knowledge are unavailable: they are not legitimate concepts to use in meaningful discourse.
Wittgenstein’s stance at least allowed us to continue to elucidate, clarify, and use concepts, even if they are problematic. But Derrida has given us a world where there are no fixed meanings at all. Nietzsche said, “God is dead.” Derrida said language is not dead, exactly, but infinitely more complex and elusive than we could ever have imagined.
Much of what Derrida says does, in fact, make sense. It’s true there are an infinity of interpretations of texts in the old sense. But for Derrida, interpretation needs quite a different method.
Very briefly, Derrida thinks of language as essentially fluid; a constantly evolving system of signs where the relation of word and reality is primarily a matter of oscillating binaries (words of opposite meaning, such as good/bad). These binaries are susceptible to time, place, and individual consciousness, so they cannot be fixed. The vital flaw in our previous thinking was to treat them as if fixed and then to prioritize them (for example, good is better than bad). For Derrida the binary terms are neutral, and the closure of meaning suspect. This is why we can only deconstruct a text to identify and isolate the various determinants, hoping to thereby catch a trace or glimmer of what is hidden.
I can see how something similar goes on in poetry. Here words oscillate all the time (although we call it nuance), and certainly metaphor plays a crucial role (to be master of metaphor is by far the best, said Aristotle in his Poetics). And that texts resist closure is the whole point of poetry. But this of course is not what Derrida means. I think I understand what he’s saying, just; but I can’t visualize it in action. What we need, and urgently, is a demonstration of deconstruction as Derrida would do it, with philosophical texts. Until then I can go no further. I only hope that PN readers can help me out?
It is also true that words rarely do what we want them to do. We can never fully anticipate the words we will use when we write, even when confident that we know what we want to say. And often we do not know what we want to say until we’ve said it. Writing is indeed a mysterious business. Nevertheless we still feel we have agency and intention. It is we who speak or write the words. But what if the words speak us? What if it is the language that determines the (illusory) sense of agency and intention? Derrida seems to be saying this, too.
Let me add that something that unsettles habitual practice is often a good thing. Habit is a great deadener, after all. Derrida’s chief aim is to develop a method to reveal hitherto unacknowledged difficulties in texts. He is working in language, not reformulating it, and that seems a good thing too. However, I resist quite violently the idea that language actually determines reality. It’s given us enough trouble as it is.
I leave you with a metaphysical joke, ‘The Wooden Fence’, about meanings:
“The fence was absolutely dumbfounded
Each post stood there with nothing around it.
A sight most terrible to see.
They charged it with obscenity.”
Margaret White, Buckinghamshire
Fifty Shades of Truth
Dear Editor: In recent books by Steven Pinker (Enlightenment Now), Hans Rosling (Factfulness), and others, there’s been an avalanche of cheerfulness about humanity, and optimism about its future. Raymond Tallis is riding this wave of positivity in his condemnation of John Gray’s contrarian gloominess or “malign pessimism” (Philosophy Now 127).
There are at least three main ways of understanding this debate: via the correctness and interpretation of the data; what the data imply about the future; and what they say about human nature.
For the sake of brevity let’s just consider the population data. Rosling tells us that population trends are ‘reassuring’. The rate of population growth has fallen because of declining fertility (defined as average number of children per woman). But he doesn’t mention that in many poor countries, such as Bangladesh, the decline is due to millions of homeless couples losing their land to rapacious landlords and moneylenders, and so being unable to afford the large families needed to obtain a bare minimum of economic security in such circumstances. Neither is continued decline in population growth globally assured. Most countries of sub-Saharan Africa continue to grow much faster than richer low-fertility countries such as Britain, so they constitute an ever-higher proportion of the world’s population. So global fertility decline may go into reverse, despite fertility falling in many countries. Thus a proper understanding of population trends leads to the conclusion that the data are often misleading, do not imply optimism about the future, and say nothing positive about the underlying human behaviour about which Tallis is so optimistic. Neither do the surveys of Rosling, Pinker and others consider the growing risks to which humanity is exposed through the operation of an increasingly exploitative political economy. Global warming, antibiotic resistance, destruction of the material and social commons, and the threat of nuclear war, are some of these risks. Only in the past couple of months we’ve seen the world on the brink of nuclear war in both Korea and (less well appreciated) in Syria too, when the US military attacked a Syrian army base, ignoring the pleas of the Russian government.
The moral paralysis which Tallis claims to be the result of John Gray’s ‘malign pessimism’ is a far less serious threat to humanity than the hubris bred of the unjustified complacency of the likes of Pinker, Rosling, and even Tallis himself.
Neil Thomas, Cardiff
Dear Editor: Perhaps Raymond Tallis was a little unfair to John Gray in Issue 127’s ‘Fifty Shades of Black’. Surely the impossibility of meaningful progress is beautifully illustrated by Professor Gray’s recycling of essentially the same idea in every book and opinion piece he has produced over the last two decades?
David Bourn, Newcastle upon Tyne
Reviewer Brought to Book
Dear Editor: I read Peter Stone’s review of Chris Knight’s book Decoding Chomsky in Issue 127 with some frustration. Stone seems to have missed the importance of the contradictions that Knight identifies in the definition of Noam Chomsky as a public figure. As an anarchist, Chomsky must be opposed to all aspects of militarism; yet, as a linguist, his research has been extensively funded by the US military. As an anarchist, he must be opposed to cults of personality; yet as a linguist he seems content to be treated with a reverence which is disturbingly dogmatic (see for example James McGilvray’s Introduction to The Science of Language, 2012). That there should be an anarchist who is ‘leading’ is an oxymoron; but Anthony Arnove’s cover notes to The Essential Chomsky (2008) describe him as ‘a pre-eminent public intellectual’ and ‘the leading dissident voice in the United States’. The question this raises is about how an individual permits this about themself when they must be theoretically opposed to it. Knight attempts to look fairly at Chomsky’s contradictions, seeking out a single person behind the very different anarchist and linguist personae. It is not the job of the book to explain Chomsky’s many linguistics models, as Stone complains is lacking. Knight makes it clear on the first page of the Preface that he has no training in theoretical linguistics; so why expect the book to be about that? The clue is in the title: Decoding Chomsky, not Decoding Generative Linguistics. Knight fully discloses his own positions and agenda: he is a Marxist – so expect Marxist commentary; and he is an evolutionary anthropologist, so expect Chomsky’s linguistic positions to be examined in terms of evolution and anthropology.
In the review, Stone describes Chomsky as “both a central figure in the field of linguistics and a leading public intellectual.” These seem to accord with how Chomsky projects his personae; but do they truly represent the person behind those personae? I think Knight makes an interesting and compelling argument of how the person works behind the personae. I also think there is a simple test of whether an academic anarchist is trying to be consistent, or just offering lip-service: Is most of their academic publishing free-to-view? I leave it to others to check that out here.
Martin Edwardes, London
The Good Friends of Bad Company
Dear Editor: I was puzzled by the thrust of Tim Delaney’s Editorial in Issue 126, including the title, ‘Anyone who has good friends is a success’. I think it’s entirely possible to assume that Stalin, Pol Pot, Hitler, Musssolini, Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, Mao Tse Tung, Charles Manson, various serial killers, leaders of the Ku Klux Klan, ISIS, and other terrorist organisations, etc, all had very good friends. So that makes them successes? Would we hold them up as examples of how to be successful? I hope not.
Jackie Hayden, Wexford, Ireland
Not Believing or Believing Not
Dear Editor: Roger Caldwell’s article on Scepticism in Issue 126 raises a common objection to radical scepticism, that it cannot be lived by. I’m not a radical sceptic myself, but I see that as no objection at all.
I distinguish between believing that one cannot know that the world exists and believing that it in fact does not exist. In the former case there is no reason for one’s behaviour to be affected. In the latter case, such a sceptic must believe that he’s subject to a very detailed and inescapable hallucination. If believing, for example, that traffic is an illusion, he walks straight into its path, he will suffer the illusion of an accident and the ‘illusion’ of pain. Thomas Reid is quoted as referring to the man who “pretends to be a sceptic… and prudently keeps out of harm’s way as other men do.” But such prudent behaviour does not imply inconsistency. It seems rational that a sceptic would want to avoid even the illusion of pain. And can one even distinguish between the illusion of pain and real pain?
I suspect that the attempts of Diogenes, Reid, Moore, and others, to simply swat scepticism aside stemmed from their frustration at being unable to bring rigorous philosophy to their aid in conclusively dispatching such an apparently silly idea, so offensive to common sense.
Dave Mangall, Cheshire
Further Physicalist Philosophy Fights
Dear Editor: I agree with much, though not all, of what Grant Bartley says in ‘Why Physicalism is Wrong’ in Issue 126. His argument relies on his definition of ‘physical’ as meaning a thing which is never fully revealed in experience. If that definition is accepted, and given that experience is ‘fully experienced’, then, by definition, experience isn’t physical. However, I’m not sure his argument (at least in the form he gave it) is quite irrefutable. His definition might be questioned for various reasons. For example, he might need to show that it is necessarily true of all the things which we would call ‘physical’ that none of them could ever be fully experienced by any kind of consciousness. That might not be easy, and those who believe in an omniscient consciousness might disagree with him. Another possible problem is the question of whether some components or attributes of physical things could be fully experienced. Moreover, some might claim that physical things could include some things which are fully experienced as well as other things which aren’t. Bartley says that such claims would make the term ‘physical’ meaningless, but I think that would depend on whether we use his definition. However, it may well be that a version of Bartley’s argument could successfully deal with these issues.
I certainly agree with him that physicalism can be logically refuted. (I have an alternative argument, which I believe clearly does this, that can be seen at www.notphysical.net). I also agree with Bartley that the way that experiences exist is as experiences; that is, subjectively. However, there seems to me to be a logical problem when this is combined with his belief that the mind’s contents are created by brain activity. How can experience be caused by a brain, unless experience and brain co-exist in the same reality; and how can they co-exist in the same reality if experience only exists from its own subjective perspective? Here, logic seems to conflict with our normal beliefs.
Peter Spurrier, Halstead, Essex