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News: October/November 2019
Locke doc shock in Maryland • Žižek says something controversial again • French MPs debate sex and bioethics — News reports by Anja Steinbauer
John Locke Manuscript Found
It is rare to have breaking philosophy news from the 17th century, yet this is exactly what has happened. Independent scholar J.C. Walmsley has discovered a hitherto unknown manuscript by British philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) in an archive at St John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. The document, written in Locke’s own distinctive hand, is believed to date from 1667-8. Locke is widely revered as one of the intellectual ancestors of liberal democracy, particularly thanks to his book Two Treatises on Government. In addition, his powerful arguments for freedom of religion in A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) later helped convince Thomas Jefferson to build the separation of church and state into the US Constitution. Locke, though, appeared like most of his contemporaries to draw the line at tolerating Catholics, due to their supposed attachment to a foreign potentate making them a dangerous threat. Yet the newly discovered manuscript, which is headed ‘Reasons for tolerating Papists equally with others’, was written more than twenty years earlier and shows that Locke in his younger years thought Catholics might indeed be entitled to full toleration. St John’s College have put the manuscript online at: digitalarchives.sjc.edu (search for Locke).
Bryan Magee, the British philosopher known for his popular TV programmes on philosophy, died on 26 July aged 89.
An authority on the philosophy of Schopenhauer, Magee believed in the importance of bringing philosophy to a wider audience. He also saw the potential of philosophy to be both entertaining and relevant to people’s lives, to improve the quality of their thinking. He was fond of making a simple but important point: “Ignorance is ignorance, not a licence to believe what we like.” His television programmes in the 1970’s and 80’s included The Great Philosophers series, which was also published as a book. It provided viewers and readers with an accessible introduction to the history of Western thought and included appearances by leading contemporary thinkers such as Isaiah Berlin, Iris Murdoch, Noam Chomsky and Martha Nussbaum.
In the next issue of Philosophy Now we will bring you a more in-depth obituary.
In August a former philosophy professor, Dr Jerome Segal, announced that he is standing as a candidate for President of the United States in 2020.
In 2018 Segal founded a new socialist party called Bread and Roses, named after a slogan used by striking workers during the 1912 Lawrence textile strike. He gathered the 10,000 signatures needed to officially register it in his home state of Maryland, and it is for this party that Segal has announced his candidacy. He said he would not stand in swing states to avoid taking votes from a Democratic candidate running against Donald Trump. He believes that third parties should gain more prominence in US politics and furthermore wishes to “add something to the current political discourse that is lacking.” Segal, who is also president of the Jewish Peace Lobby, previously taught in the philosophy department of the University of Pennsylvania and is now a senior research scholar at the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies.
Ecology of Fear?
The post-Marxist philosopher and provocateur Slavoj Žižek has ruffled feathers by arguing that we must not give in to useless, self-indulgent feelings of personal guilt about the state of our planet. Commenting on reactions to the forest fires raging in the Amazon, Žižek noted that uncertainties remain concerning what is truly happening to the planet. In an opinion piece on The Independent news website he wrote: “…we will know for sure what is going on only when it is too late. Fast extrapolations only hand arguments to climate change deniers. We should avoid at all costs the trap of an ‘ecology of fear’, a hasty, morbid fascination with looming catastrophe.” This fascination, he believes, has the potential of turning into a “predominant form of ideology in global capitalism, a new opium for the masses”, replacing traditional religion. Žižek believes it to be “fetishist” and unhelpful in coming to sound conclusions about environmental issues.
French Bioethics Bill
A French parliamentary commission is currently debating reforms of bioethics legislation. Various lively arguments are raging, such as that concerning medically assisted parenthood for lesbian couples and single women. One of the most controversial issues, however, is the practice of assigning a sexual identity to intersex babies by means of surgery. Intersex infants are those born with biological variations which, according to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, cause them not to “fit the typical definitions for male or female bodies.” Surgery is often performed on such babies to make them fit one of the two categories. Laurène Chesnel, a representative of the Inter-LGBT association, asked the government to “put an end to the mutilations performed on intersex infants.”
Geneticist Philippe Berta defended the practice: “If these decisions are not taken, the child’s growth and their future will be extremely complex. This choice is not made randomly, but based on biological and genetic markers.”
The French Intersex and Allies Association hopes the new bioethics law will forbid surgery on intersex children, unless needed for the baby’s health. “It’s very important for us that the state itself, with an official law, says that this is not legal. The case of intersex children is clearly not aligned with human rights values. This is an opportunity for the law to progress on the situation of intersex children,” a spokesperson for the Association said.
The discussion continues.