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Remarks Re: Marx • Looking@Locke • Free For All • Wrong Footed On Ought v Is • Making Not Much of a Difference • Ethics of Future Groups • Elements of Spinoza • A Stand on Rand • Artful Dodging • Plumb This

Remarks Re: Marx

Dear Editor: The collection of articles on Marx in PN 131 makes a useful contribution to discussion in Britain, especially at a time when Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is being accused (quite erroneously) of being a ‘Marxist’. But perhaps your debate would have been more fruitful had there been at least one piece from a supporter of Marxism. It reflected many widespread notions about Marxism that actually come from Karl Popper’s attack on him in The Open Society & Its Enemies. This is a pity, since Popper’s knowledge of Marx was itself quite limited and most of his references to Marx were taken from Emile Burns’ Handbook of Marxism (1935), an official Communist Party manual of the Stalinist period. Popper reveals little knowledge of the rest of Marx’s work or of later Marxists. Thus Popper tells us that Marx calls his theory ‘dialectical materialism’. But he didn’t: Marx never used the term, which was invented by Plekhanov.

Popper famously claimed that Marx was guilty of ‘historicism’ – defined as “the idea that history has a pattern, a purpose and an ending, and that it moves inexorably toward that end according to certain laws.” But while Popper measures Marx against the standards of the natural sciences, which can be judged by their ability to predict, for Marx human history could not be approached with the same methods as the natural sciences. Marx did make predictions – some of them injudicious – but they were not his central concern. Marx was primarily concerned with encouraging action, to change the world: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point however is to change it.” And far from believing in an inexorable end to history, Marx argued in the Communist Manifesto that throughout history, class struggle “ended either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” Today, in the age of nuclear weapons and climate change, ‘common ruin’ looks like an all too probable outcome.

Ian Birchall, London


Dear Editor: A couple of points about Alessandro Colarossi’s ‘Locke’s Question to Berkeley’ in PN 131, in which the author defends Locke over Berkeley.

Colarossi makes the common mistake of saying that Locke’s so-called ‘secondary qualities’ are sensations of objects. This is wrong. In fact Locke says primary and secondary qualities are both qualities of things: the secondary are ‘powers’ in things to produce sensations, not the sensations themselves. One difference between primary and secondary qualities is that our sensations of the first resemble them, and our sensations of the second don’t; but neither type of quality are sensations.

Colarossi, through Locke, then objects to Berkeley that objects “contain a great deal more complexity than is apparent to our senses… For instance… atomic structure.” Berkeley wouldn’t deny this, if by ‘our senses’ we mean human senses. For Berkeley, an object is a construction from all actual and possible perceptions of it, by all possible perceivers, human and non-human, and the ultimate complexity of objects is contained in the mind of God; and this reality (such as atomic structure) is unveiled to us as we investigate scientifically, which God wants us to do. So there can be far more complexity in any object than is revealed to our senses.The primary objection to Berkeley isn’t that he doesn’t regard objects as complex enough, but that his explanation of their complexity, in terms of actual and possible experiences from the mind of God, seems implausible, or otiose.

Robert Griffiths, Surrey

Free For All

Dear Editor: I have a couple of issues with Taylor Dunn’s article ‘The Free Will Pill’ in Issue 130. First is the explanation of free will Dunn and many philosophers indulge in. They follow Occam’s brother’s razor: ‘Never choose the simplest answer when a more confusing one is available’. But we all have free will, we just choose not to use it, due to our inhibitions, personal ethics, and all the self-imposed restrictions we adopt in order to survive in civilized society. So, in that regard, we do not use the free will we all have. My second issue is that Dunn’s hypothetical Free Will Pill already exists and so isn’t hypothetical at all. Millions of people take them every day. They’re called opioids. They block your inhibitions, subvert your thinking and self-discipline, and open the door to using your free will because you now have no regard for the consequences of any decision you make. Free will, or not free will? I choose not!

D.H. Socha, Dartmouth, Massachusetts

Wrong Footed On Ought v Is

Dear Editor: In Book VII, Chapter 16 of Politics, Aristotle’s notion of how children ought to be treated is the opposite of Philippa Foot’s in her note in Issue 130. He writes, “There should be a law to prevent the rearing of deformed children.” So he takes for granted that infanticide is sometimes correct. Many Greek states exposed newborn infants to die if they were unacceptable for whatever reason to the father. The Greeks took for granted that it is up to Dad, having regard to what ought to be done for the state, what sex or robustness of child ought to survive, or whether it ought to be killed. Foot on the contrary takes it for granted that if a child is born, it must be nurtured. There is something wrong with someone, says Foot, if they do not feel they ought to care for an infant. Aristotle might say the same about someone who does not know they ought to take the interests of the community into account or ought to respect the authority of the father. Surely the difference between the Greeks and Foot is that different oughts have been slipped into the reasoning?

Michael McManus, Leeds

Dear Editor: David Hume told us that we cannot get an ought from an is. He did not say that we cannot have any oughts; we just cannot get them from the ises. So from what can we get them, then? From our own preferences and desires (or “passions”, as David Hume called them). We may indeed find Philippa Foot’s owl (Issue 130) that cannot see in the dark ‘useless’, unable to hunt where and when it ‘ought’ to, unlikely to survive for long and have offspring; but here is the thing: The owl is under no obligation to do any of those things, to be useful, to be like other owls, as much as we might prefer it to be and think it ought to be. We may care about the owl, but Nature does not. As the great German poet Johann Wolfgang Goethe reminded us: “… unfühlend ist die Natur” (Nature is unfeeling). It does not care about this or any owl, or whether there are owls at all: Most species that ever lived are extinct, and no amount of oughting can bring them back.

Axel Winter, Queensland

Dear Editor: I wouldn’t be much of a philosopher if I’d have committed the Humean is-ought fallacy as Tracy Braverman says I did (Letters, 131). And of course, I haven’t. I did not argue from the fact that we put animals to sleep in certain circumstances to the conclusion that we should therefore put humans to sleep in the same circumstances. I say that normative moral arguments lead us to think that putting animals to sleep in certain circumstances is morally right (indeed there would be something morally wrong if we did not sometimes do so); therefore, for it to be morally wrong to do the same for humans in the same circumstances there would have to be a relevant moral difference between animals and humans. I then go through possible candidates for such a relevant moral difference, and show that either there is no difference, or none of them amount to something that should, morally speaking, lead us to treat humans differently from animals.

John Shand, Manchester

Making Not Much of a Difference

Dear Editor: The article ‘Homo Faber’ by Raymond Tallis in PN 130 is a classic example of ‘moving the goal posts’. It happens every time studies show advanced thinking or self awareness in non-human animals. Tallis concludes that humans are cognitively distinct from other animals. As his argument is set out in both philosophical and scientific terms, I will address both.

Science often produces conclusions that are challenged for years before they are accepted by the majority. Years ago it was believed that most animals were not self-aware and that this line was only crossed by humans and the great apes. Then dolphin and elephant studies showed that they recognize their reflected images in mirrors. This was well accepted, with most people concluding something like, “Well, after all we knew they were smart, and they are mammals.” But recently there have been similar studies done using a small reef fish called a Wrasse which passed the test like the dolphins. The difference between human and animal awareness of self appears to be in degree, not in simple absence or presence.

Tallis states that in our tool use humans transform naturally occurring materials in a way not seen in the animal world. What about parrots, who eat clay before they eat poisonous fruit in order to neutralize the toxicity? He refers to the essential nature of a division of labour as an admirable trait that humans possess over animals (except bees and ants?); but does not consider the fact that by definition, specialization means that some individuals will lack certain skills. He admits that New Caledonian crows use tools, but dismisses that use by stating that the tools are not “housed in a common store for use by authorized members at some indefinite future time.” It sounds like he wants to see them set up a shared tool co-op! At best this displays his preference for collective social structures, but it has nothing to do with tool-making. He states the following: “At its heart is the uniquely joined or collective intentionality of human consciousness”; but again, this has nothing to do with tool use, nor is it exclusive to humans when, for example, it is compared to the highly coordinated and intentional cooperative manner in which a school of fish of a flock of birds moves in unison in order to escape predators.

Tallis shows that the degree of complexity in human cooperation and tool use is extraordinary, but he fails to show that there is a difference in kind from that of tool use in other animals; only in degree. In my opinion, as a species we are not as special as we like to suppose.

Will Evans, by email

Ethics of Future Groups

Dear Editor: Alexander Joy’s efforts to pin down future ethics in PN 130 are laudable yet unsuccessful. Painism fails to account for the harms suffered by groups of individuals that exceeds the sum total of their individual suffering. Yet harms are frequently magnified when suffered by an entire group. The Holocaust didn’t just kill individual Jews: it destroyed families and communities. It went beyond a collection of individual harms, to an existential harm suffered by a community as a whole. The same can be said of slavery. Any adequate moral theory must be able to aggregate harm in order to account for this reality.

John Stuart Mill succeeds at this where both Bentham and Painism fail. According to Mill we minimize harm and maximize pleasure as a community by adopting rules that take the interests of both minority and hegemonic groups into account. Mill’s Rule of Liberty provides a framework for protecting the interests of minority groups from harm suffered as a group, as in cases like the Holocaust and slavery. And when we look at future generations as a group, the same principles apply. Our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren are either here now or will be here soon. As such, their interests are already important to us. We demonstrate this fact by our actions on a daily basis. Their problem is that they are a group that can’t speak for themselves. Mill’s Rule Utilitarianism provides a framework for us to take their interests as a group into account in our moral decision-making.

Barnett B McGowan, JD, Ohio

Elements of Spinoza

Dear Editor: In his article in Issue 129, ‘A Forgiving Reason’, Tim Weldon considers which philosopher Sherlock Holmes would be a follower of, and decides on Blaise Pascal. Admirable as this choice is, I think he missed his man: it’s not Pascal, it’s Spinoza. Holmes’s reliance on leaps of intuition does not resemble Pascal’s ‘instincts of the heart’ as much as it does Spinoza’s ‘third type of knowing’, which takes in large patterns of causality or logical connection (the same thing for Spinoza), and does so with speed and certainty. Holmes dispassionate but humane character matches Spinoza’s too; as well as his capacity for a stunning level of contemplative absorption and intellectual precision. The description of Holmes as “a little too scientific for my tastes – it approaches to cold-bloodedness” which Weldon quotes from A Study in Scarlet surely describes many readers reaction to Spinoza better than to Pascal. We should also consider that a key brilliance of Holmes, beyond his grasp of empirical deduction and science, is psychology. Holmes himself says that psychology is the advanced matter for consideration in the art of deduction, beyond more ‘elemental matters.’ Spinoza’s mastery of the logic of human emotion and motivation outshines Pascal. It is also perhaps worthy of note that Pascal was a traditional theist, which I have a hard time imagining Holmes being, and which we know Spinoza was not. Lastly, Holmes marches fiercely to his own drum in a way matched by few philosophers other than the excommunicated heretic Spinoza. I suspect that if Holmes had published philosophical treatises, he too might have had to go underground to safely publish his thoughts. So with all due respect to Pascal, if there was a philosophical tome on Holmes’ bookshelf I suspect it would be the Ethics, not the Pensées.

Matthew Gindin, Vancouver, BC

A Stand on Rand

Dear Editor: In regard to the Brief Life of Ayn Rand in Issue 130, when I saw the subtitle ‘Martin Jenkins traces the life of a self-made woman’ I expected to learn something. Unfortunately, the article had little to do with Ayn Rand’s life or her philosophy, Objectivism. Rather it was a rehash of long recycled gossip, invective, and falsehoods. It is clear that Jenkins took all, or nearly all, of his information for his article from the 1986 pseudo-biography The Passion of Ayn Rand, written by a woman who hated Ayn Rand, as he repeats numerous personal and professional smears lifted directly from that book. He fails to accurately present the life of Ayn Rand or her philosophical position on a number of issues.

In the future, when an author wishes to write an article on Ayn Rand or her philosophy, may I suggest contacting the Ayn Rand Institute in California? The Institute houses the Ayn Rand Archives, a collection of all her personal papers, which are open to all serious writers. If readers wish to gain an accurate assessment of Ayn Rand’s life, they may wish to purchase A Companion to Ayn Rand in the Blackwell Companions to Philosophy Series. In an appendix, the author takes to task the undercurrent of malice and mendacity in The Passion of Ayn Rand. And if one wishes to read the best scholarly work on Rand’s philosophy, one could not do better than turning to the work of the Ayn Rand Society, a professional body associated with the American Philosophical Association (Eastern Division). The Society has recently had its third volume on Ayn Rand’s philosophy published by the University of Pittsburgh Press: Foundations of a Free Society.

Ray Shelton, Glendale, California

Dear Editor: A point about your editorial, ‘Question Marx’, in Issue 131: As you probably know, the formula ‘From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’ pre-dates Marx, although his use of it gave it greater currency. Unlike to you, to me this principle has always seemed to be a truly terrible basis for any society to adopt. The best exposition I know of what is wrong with it is in Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged (1957). Rand imagines what would happen if a factory were to be run on this principle. The passage is in Part 2, Chapter 10. (I’ve never read the whole of this huge novel, but I came across this section in a book of selections from her writings and it impressed me more than anything else I’ve read of hers. I was instantly convinced!)

Peter Benson, London

Artful Dodging

Dear Editor: Lowie Geers, in Letters, PN 131, says I offer only one argument against conceptual art in PN 129. That’s true. But I have two others up my sleeve.

Geers reminds us of the manifesto claims of conceptual artists: ‘Ideas can be works of art’ (Sol le Witt) and so on – from which he concludes that the embodied work is simply “an instrument which guides us towards the actual art work, which is the idea”. Unfortunately, it rarely works like that. The embodied works are usually just too opaque to ordinary understanding: it is the manifesto or the gallery notes which guide us from the thing to the idea. Without the crib sheet, we are often simply baffled.

There are exceptions. When Banksy recently arranged for one of his screen prints to self-destruct just as it was sold for a million in a public auction, the act was transparent enough to guide us to the kind of ideas which might have inspired it. Bravo, Banksy!

Banksy’s act also leads to my second argument. Most conceptual art is best looked upon as a type of prank. A prank is a gratuitous act which requires a certain amount of imagination to think up, and some boldness to perform. The aim is to make a point or set off some critical thinking. Borat (Sacha Baron-Cohen) is a famous contemporary prankster. But Borat does not rely on public funding, and he makes people laugh. The pranks of conceptual artists may require some imagination and boldness – for example, in vast scale or expenditure – but the yield to audiences is very small. That is why the audiences are pretty thin on the ground.

Trevor Pateman, Brighton

Plumb This

Dear Editor: Neil Richardson’s letter in Issue 131 about Mary Midgley’s plumbing metaphor reminded me of John W. Gardner’s comment on the same subject: “The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water” (Forbes Magazine, August 1st, 1977).

Martin Jenkins, London

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