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Thoughts on Minds • Plumbing and Modesty • Decline and Rebirth • Niesche Nietze Nietzsche Now • Free Won’t • Sympathetic Fallacies • Pain, Happiness & Conceptual Art
Thoughts on Minds
Dear Editor: I was fascinated to read in Peter Stone’s review of Daniel Dennett’s book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back in PN Issue 129 that the book was actually written by a crowd of tiny robots! Amazing! Think of the logistics required to get them all to work together coherently, particularly when it seems that none of them speak English!
However, my amazement changed to concern when I thought about the royalties that the book will earn. Dennett has admitted that the tiny robots wrote the book, but he’s still claiming to be the author! Clearly he intends to keep the royalties to himself instead of ensuring that the tiny robots get what is rightfully theirs. Sadly, Philosophy Now appears to be colluding in the swindle by crediting Dennett with sole authorship in all its headings and listings. I trust that PN will print a correction in the next issue, acknowledging the true authorship of the book [the robots, Ed]. Indeed, it would be highly commendable if PN were to go further and initiate legal proceedings against Dennett on behalf of the robots. I feel certain that many readers would willingly contribute to that worthy cause.
Les Reid, Edinburgh
Dear Editor: ‘The mind is an illusion!’ ‘Mind is flat!’ But if there is no mind, then there’s no manic depression, there’s no anorexia/bulimia, no attention surplus disorder, and I’ve been wasting my time with all those doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists – all those fellow selves who have tried to help me, myself and my brain work better. All those psychoprofessions will not exist if this nonsensical idea takes hold. The flat mind idea is as silly as the flat earth hypothesis. Was my husband ‘illuded’ (that obsolete word fits here) when he turned me in to the medical authorities? Was all that pain nothing? That action nothing?
So here I sit at the bottom of the pond trying to flatten my mind. Damn, that isn’t working. I stayed up all night trying to bend it shapeless, make it into a floor. My medical specialists have been working on my brain chemistry to ease my mind, to control my actions, which are a product of my mind, generated by my brain. I might be ignorant, mad, or not even exist; but I’m not stupid.
Kate Stewart, Bellthorpe, Queensland
Dear Editor: Regarding Stephen Anderson’s review of Markus Gabriel’s book I Am Not A Brain in PN Issue 129:
I’m going against the grain.
A mind is not a brain.
There’s something that’s unique
Of which I dare not speak.
We know that we know.
And have the ability to show:
We can direct our evolution
By offering a solution.
We’re not just instinctive
We’re also self-reflexive.
We can think twice
And don’t need to pay the price
Of thinking that we’re ‘mere’,
With no need of being sincere.
We can start to be responsible
And not accept the inevitable.
There’s no need to use an excuse
To cover up our abuse.
We could start to transcend
And we’d soon begin to mend.
Through activating our wills
We might cure all our ills.
Plumbing and Modesty
Dear Editor: Carol Nicholson’s account of Mary Midgley’s scholarly contributions in her obituary in Issue 129 includes what might be Professor Midgley’s most memorable metaphor: philosophy can be understood as a form of plumbing, in that bad smells force us to “re-examine the deep infrastructure of our life as a whole… to find confusions and conflicts that are causing the serious problems in the pipes.” This work is something “we all do all the time.”
As a consequence of training and practice on inanimate devices, plumbers’ efforts produce worthwhile results: sinks are cleared, showers are installed and bathroom taps get replaced. In a plumber’s busy week, dozens of customers might be satisfied – and without much discussion on the precise nature of their technical difficulties. But problematic communities hold considerable variety: the detail of a group’s logic, language, values and aims may not match anything discussed in tutorials at Cambridge, Newcastle, or Harvard. So should practical philosophers adopt a distinctly modest stance when rolling up their sleeves and knocking on new doors, confident some toolbox of concepts is the one lay people need to think deeply about confusions in attempts to improve their life as a whole?
Neil Richardson, Kirkheaton
Decline and Rebirth
Dear Editor: In PN 130, Daniel Kaufman gives a useful account of the decline of philosophy as an academic subject. But to a large extent, this has resulted from wider changes in the role assigned to universities within capitalist societies.
The nature of this change is even more evident in the UK than in the US. A principle has been explicitly adopted by the British government that the purpose of a university course is to enhance the future earnings potential of its students. Unsurprisingly, philosophy has not come out of this assessment very impressively. Currently under discussion is a plan to refuse student loans for such ‘low value’ courses. The intended effect of this will be to close down departments of philosophy and many other ‘arts’ subjects.
But, as Kaufman makes clear, the end of academic philosophy will not entail the end of interest in the subject. Popular curiosity about philosophy is, if anything, on the increase. So perhaps it is time for philosophy to leave the shelter of academia and return to the public square – the agora – where it began? That is where today the need is greatest for logical arguments and challenges to received assumptions. Philosophy Now, as a non-academic publication, is ideally placed to help support this transition.
Peter Benson, London
Dear Editor: My perspective on Daniel Kaufman’s discussion on ‘The Decline & Rebirth of Philosophy’ is of an outsider. But I think the major problem with philosophy as it’s practiced today, as a purely academic activity, is that it doesn’t fit into the current economic paradigm which tacitly governs all value judgements of a profession or an activity. In other words, it has no perceived economic value either to corporations or to governments. On the other hand, everyone can see the benefits of science in the form of the technological marvels they use every day. Yet I would argue that science and philosophy are joined at the hip. The same people who benefit from the magic of modern technology are often unaware of the long road from the Enlightenment to the industrial revolution, through the formulation of the laws of thermodynamics, followed closely by the laws of electromagnetism, followed by the laws of quantum mechanics, upon which every electronic device depends. Plato’s Academy was based on Pythagoras’s quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. In Western culture, science, mathematics and philosophy have a common origin.
John Wheeler, best known for coining the term ‘black hole’ in cosmology, said, “We live on an island of knowledge surrounded by a sea of ignorance. As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.” I contend that the ‘island of knowledge’ is science and the ‘shore of ignorance’ is philosophy. In other words, philosophy is at the frontier of knowledge, and because the sea of ignorance is infinite, there will always be a role for it. The marriage between science and philosophy in the Twenty-First Century is about how we are going to live on a planet with limited resources. We need a philosophy to guide us into a collaborative global society that realises we need Earth more than it needs us.
Paul P. Mealing, Melbourne
Dear Editor: Re. Daniels Kaufman’s article, the decline and rebirth of philosophy are topics close to my heart. With decline the philosophers still known to the general public are the old guys like Plato and Aristotle. Many have also heard of the Hebrew philosopher, Solomon, with the wisdom of Solomon being a well known phrase. The definition of a philosopher was more fluid back then, with Solomon being a king as well as authoring Ecclesiastes, and Aristotle a proto-scientist. Prophets are presented in the Hebrew Bible as wise ones, philosophers, politicians, advisors whom the king of the day would consult before embarking on a battle. For example, the prophetess Deborah who sat under a palm tree giving advice to all Israel (Judges chap.4). I am struggling to come to my point here, but I think it’s what a lecturer in Chinese philosophy said (while babysitting for me): it’s all getting very atheistic. I think her point was that the mysticism of the old philosophers was more fun.
A philosophy lecturer at Glasgow University always stopped and told a joke mid lecture just for fun. In her tradition I tell a wee story mid letter. It’s true. Some time ago, when the professors lived in Professor’s Square at Glasgow, a bunch of the general public argued over a point of philosophy in a nearby pub. At chucking out time they went en masse to The Square to ask the philosophy professor there to settle the point. When they knocked on a door the housekeeper answered and they asked her if this was the professor’s house. Yes, she replied, bring him in.
We modern philosophers need to return to the fun, to chew the fat as they say up my way. I didn’t progress in academic philosophy after my degree (no surprise) but I certainly use what I learned to spout forth in pub, cafe and Kirk, but isn’t that (re)birthing philosophy?
Kristine Kerr, Gourock
P.S. This letter is a bit chaotic, but birthing is a messy business.
Niesche Nietze Nietzsche Now
“What doesn’t kill you will make you stronger”,
Says Nietzsche, who’s not around any longer.
Facing all kinds of miseries and bane
Instead of stronger, he went insane.
However, what’s truly disturbing and very sad,
Spelling his name will make the rest of us mad.
Wolfgang Niesielski, USA
Dear Editor: I was intrigued by Taylor Dunn’s article ‘The Free Will Pill’ in Issue 130. It’s a good example of a thought experiment. However, there’s a flaw in the argument for determining the moral case for or against taking a pill that will give you free will. True choices can only be made after this pill is taken. But true choice is a prerequisite of being a moral agent. Hence the person is not a moral agent before the pill is taken – so cannot make a moral choice about taking it! So deciding whether I ought to take this pill is as meaningless as deciding whether I ought to be born.
Russell Berg, Manchester
Dear Editor: As a devoted Humean, I would be remiss if I refrained from pointing out John Shand’s logical mistake in arguing for voluntary euthanasia for humans in Issue 129. Simply, he commits what my philosophical hero dubbed the ‘is-ought’ fallacy: you can’t derive a prescriptive statement from a descriptive one. In this specific case, just because it’s true that we are putting animals that are suffering to sleep, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we ought to do the same concerning humans. Of course Shand may reply, why shouldn’t we? To which I would answer the onus is not on me to prove a negative. The fact is he cannot prove we ought to allow voluntary euthanasia for humans just because we practice it on animals.
Tracey Braverman, Brooklyn, NY
Pain, Happiness & Conceptual Art
Dear Editor: I found Trevor Pateman’s critique of conceptual art (PN 129) less than convincing. Conceptual art probes the boundaries around art and raises difficult questions about how we classify something as art. That act seems invaluable in itself. The labelling matters.This is why Marcel Duchamp’s urinal labelled ‘Fountain’ was so important.
Trevor claims that you have to experience art first-hand to respond to it ‘appropriately’. This raises the question, what is an ‘appropriate’ response to any work of art? Most people consume art second-hand: they buy prints that are copies, not originals. They may enjoy the copy even if they haven’t seen the original. Is that an ‘appropriate’ response to art? I would argue ‘yes’. It still enables pleasure or study. Much of Richard Long’s landscape art is subject to decay, being outdoors. This leaves us to rely on photographs of it and the opinions of authors and critics. It’s great to visit a work of art in a physical location, but is it vital? And is being influenced by a critic or an author’s explanation bad, if we can’t see the work of art in person? I say no.
When we view any work of art we do so through preconceived ideas about art, artists and art galleries. We rely on teachers, lecturers, authors, critics, newspapers and magazines to help us understand the ‘meaning’ or significance of a piece of art, even if we do look at the art later. We also understand art by recognising cultural codes from everyday life. We can’t stand in the physical presence of art and free our minds from everything outside it.
Curiously, Trevor Pateman’s article in PN is an example of a critic trying to influence our view of conceptual art and its meaning by discussing seeing artworks, most of which we may never see.
Graeme Kemp, Shropshire
Dear Editor: In ‘The Case Against Conceptual Art’, Trevor Pateman’s main, and as it seems sole argument, relies on the fact that in order to experience conceptual art “you just need a description spelling out the idea that the actual artwork itself was created to illustrate.” His conviction that the actual artwork simply illustrates an idea reveals his misunderstanding of conceptual art’s essence.
Even Pateman must agree that conceptual art somehow differs from other types of art – otherwise, his ‘case against conceptual art’ is a rather futile endeavour. But Pateman doesn’t fully accept the implication of the distinction, since it means that ‘properly’ appreciating conceptual art differs from ‘properly’ appreciating, say, sculptural art.
So what counts as conceptual art’s essence? According to pioneering conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth, “Conceptual art, simply put, has as its basic tenet an understanding that artists work with meaning, not with shapes, colours, or materials” (The Art Bulletin, 78(3), 1996, pp.407). Sol LeWitt, another renowned conceptual artist, declares that “Ideas can be works of art” (Artforum, 5(10), 1967, p.82). Similar thoughts were uttered by, for instance, Lawrence Weiner, Terry Atkinson, Lucy Lippard. But if indeed the idea is the artwork, then what is the art object presented to us?
It’s hard to disagree with the principle that in order to communicate an idea, one has to present that idea. Thus, if an artist wants to expose an idea as an artwork, she or he will have to find a proper way of presenting it. However, this doesn’t turn the form of presentation into the actual artwork: the form of presentation simply works as an instrument that guides us towards the actual artwork, which is the idea.
Although I don’t necessarily disagree with Pateman that you best experience art at first hand, I would like to point out that experiencing art as an idea differs from experiencing conceptual art’s form of presentation. It turns out that Pateman is right when he answers his own (semi-) rhetorical question “How can you love the piece if you haven’t seen it? All you can love is the idea of it”. Well, that’s exactly how one ought to appreciate a piece of conceptual art!
Lowie Geers, Brussels
Dear Editor: I am grateful to Dr Alexander Joy in Issue 130 for mentioning my work and identifying my system, Painism, as the most promising consequentialist ethical approach for the future. Painism is to do with the happiness of others, but art is very much part of this. A report in The Times (18 Dec. 2018) highlights the immense power that visual art can have in causing human emotional and physiological reactions, some healthy and others dangerous. Music probably even more so.
Your editorial ‘The Functions of Art’ (Philosophy Now 129), is a brilliant summary but I worry on one point, when you list the functions of contemporary art as including “investment, prestige, and virtue signalling.” Surely the basic function of art remains the happiness it causes? Chiefly, as you indicate, this happiness is caused by beauty. The love of beauty is innate within all of us and is linked with sexual attractiveness, the beauty of song and the sight of comfortable and supportive landscape. Thank goodness beauty is staging a come-back, and the belief that art is only an efficient means of expressing ideas or concepts is in retreat! As Trevor Pateman writes in the same issue, “a painting is made to be seen.” One could add “and concepts are made to be talked about.” I believe the perception of beauty, skill and imagination remain the three main sources of the happiness to be derived from visual art.
Dr Richard D. Ryder (Author: Speciesism, Painism and Happiness: A Morality for the 21st Century)