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Press (For) Freedoms • Sleepy Security • Denier-Denier • Viva Santa! • The Author Strikes Back • Artful About Arthur • Pointing Out the Obvious To Tallis? • Epistolary Enhancements • Far Right? Very Wrong

Press (For) Freedoms

Dear Editor: I found Professor Schönecker’s article in Issue 135 defending academic freedom interesting, but I believe that he has neglected to take something important into account. We must bear in mind that many opponents of free speech don’t share the same liberal values, preferring a more markedly left-wing approach. This approach includes the idea that ‘freedom of speech’ is a means for an established, dominant, privileged class to maintain hegemonic power over minority groups. (I should point out that not all on the left think this). Those who hold this belief oppose freedom of speech by claiming it’s not possible: rather, speech is always subject to the interests of the dominant class. Put simply: what’s lacking is an argument in favour of freedom that accepts an inequality of power exists, and that those who benefit from this are always in a position to make use of ‘freedom of speech’ in an attempt to dominate all corners of society.

Let’s assume we accept the claim that modern liberal society is fundamentally unequal, and that these inequalities are maintained via a kind of manipulation. By accepting this claim (I realise it’s contentious), we agree that there’s some kind of hidden power at work in society. If so, not only can no-one claim to know social truth, but no-one can claim to be entirely free from the effects of the hidden power. Anyone who claims to know what the problems are and how they might be engaged with must admit that their ideas might be a product of the ruling hegemony. On these grounds, no-one can assume any idea to be free from the sphere of influence of the ruling power.

There are three major possible responses to this: the first is that we engage with each other in constant discussion; the second, that we go to war with each other to decide which view should dominate; the third is that we acquiesce in the belief that we can never be free from the effect of power, and give up political activism. The first is infinitely preferable, on the grounds that neither of the other options offer a way to begin to work out whether any ideas are a genuine alternative to a dominant system of thought. It might be objected that we shouldn’t feel that we need to include in our discussion whatever ideas the rulers espouse. If the point is to work out how to free ourselves from such authority, it seems reasonable to exclude the ideas it uses to maintain its dominance. Unfortunately, if we have accepted there’s some kind of hidden power at work, we can’t assume to know in advance what form it takes or what ideas it has produced. For all we know, it may espouse its own ideas superficially, and its real dominance is established by the inadequacy of alternatives. To put it simply: anyone who believes that hidden power is at work in society should also believe that any ideas about how it works, along with ideas of how it can be resisted, may themselves be products of hidden forces. Such people should welcome free discussion. If power is everywhere there’s no reason to believe that it hasn’t found its way into the more attractive alternatives. I believe this is a good left-wing case for academic freedom.

Alastair Gray, Brighton

Dear Editor: The article ‘Protecting Academic Freedom’ by Dieter Schönecker in Issue 135 raises a number of issues. Firstly, in exercising a right, one has the accompanying responsibility of giving due consideration to likely consequences. Schönecker’s article does not present any assessment of consequences of holding seminars with right-wing politicians such as Jongen and Sarrazin.

There is also the need to separate Schönecker’s personal justification for his actions from his attempts to defend academic freedom. There are a number of questions to which I would like an answer before making any judgement as to whether he is justified: Who were the other speakers invited to the seminars (i.e., is his claim of overall balance justified?); Who was the intended audience – the public, undergraduates, or post-graduates?; Was this the first time he had been involved in such a controversy? Further, it would be reasonable to seek a counter account of the same dispute from the Dean or Rector of his school.

Schönecker refers to the ‘alleged’ right-wing backgrounds of Jongen and Sarrazin. The use of the term ‘alleged’ implies that Schönecker is not convinced that either has such a background. However, Schönecker also informs us that Jongen is a senior figure in the Alternativ für Deutschland. It is known that a considerable proportion of the membership of the AfD hold racist views. Hence, to have achieved his position, Jongen either holds racist views himself or is tolerant of AfD members who are racists. In that light, Schönecker’s doubt over the politics of Jongen must also be questioned.

Michael Shaw, Huddersfield

Sleepy Security

Dear Editor: Brandon Robshaw’s article on burqa banning in Issue 135 mentions that in Aesop’s fable the sun was better than the wind in getting someone to take their coat off. This jogged an old memory. Some years ago, one of my Saudi students turned up with her male guardian in tow. I thought his auditing the course without paying a fee was a bit of a cheek; but before I could confront him, he fell asleep in the first seminar, and then was never seen again. I thank Dr Robshaw and Aesop for assuring me that it was the sun shining in my classes and not my delivery that got him off my hands.

Michael McManus, Leeds


Dear Editor: I wish to express my consternation that a professor of philosophy, Wendy Lynne Lee, should support the value-laden term ‘climate change denier’ (‘Dewey & Climate Denial’ in Issue 135). She does not define this concept, but a ‘climate change denier’ would appear to be anyone who questions the assumptions that (a) the planet is heating up unusually, and (b) that this is caused primarily by CO2 emitted by the burning of fossil fuels. These are matters of scientific observation which may or may not be true. However, if a person may not question them without condemnation, what becomes of Karl Popper’s principle of falsifiability ?

Worst of all, perhaps, the word ‘denier’ is habitually associated with ‘holocaust denier’. The application of the term is to imply an appalling moral deficit.Those who wish to live in a peaceful, reasonable and rational world should decry the use of the term ‘climate change denier’.

Rosie Langridge, London

Viva Santa!

Dear Editor: We live under the tyranny of ‘the offended’, so bravo to Joe Biehl (PN 135) for exposing the Grinches who feel the need to ‘out’ Santa. In any case, the existence of Santa Claus was legally confirmed in a US court case, which can be followed in the 1947 documentary, Miracle on 34th Street.

Terry Hyde, Yelverton, Devon

The Author Strikes Back

Dear Editor: I am replying to two letters that appeared in Issues 134 of PN, appearing under the title ‘The Clone Wars’; and to three in 135 entitled ‘I Do Not Agree’. I wish to point out that most of the matters they raise are resolved by carefully considering the definition of ‘identity’ provided in my article, ‘DNA & The Identity Crisis’ (Issue 133). ‘Identity’ is the sameness of a person at all times or in all circumstances; the condition or fact that a person is itself and not something else. In the case of clones, the nuclear DNA may be identical, but it reacts differently if the cellular fluid (cytoplasm) into which it is embedded (i.e., the host) differs from that of the donor. Even in cases where the same nuclear DNA is introduced into similar host cells, subsequent development will differ as the environment encountered by the developing cells differs. Consider, for example, epigenetic reactions. In short, even cloned individuals will never be identical. With DNA, science provides a means of defining sameness in the individual, as well as answering the conundrum provoked by the Ship of Theseus about the replacement of physical constituents. This does not assume that questions about the nature of consciousness, or the soul are answered. Nor does it assume anything about nature versus nurture.

Raymond M. Keogh, Ireland

Artful About Arthur

Dear Editor: With reference to Dennis Vanden Auweele’s excellent article on Schopenhauerian ethics in Issue 134, as a terminal optimist I would to like to offer an alternative ‘glass half-full’ interpretation of some of the essential contentions.

Schopenhauer’s depiction of the human condition as being driven relentlessly by insatiable desires (or to quote Jefferson, ‘the pursuit of happiness’), might more appropriately be described as a drive for ‘purpose’. Hedonistic desires are merely one of a range of pursuits that people may take to this end.

Schopenhauer viewed our perpetually-tortured ‘willing self’ as the only knowable part of the greater world or ‘ atma’. He saw solace therefore as coming either from the temporary distraction provided by art, or through compassion, which he rather jovially depicted as the recognition of being part of all suffering, not just one’s own. But to suggest that time spent with art offers a brief reprieve from our relentless pursuit of desire misses, I think, an important point. From personal experience I would speculate that art in its highest form can provide a platform by which our separate ‘willing selves’ can experience a taste of our unified common self (atma). Although Schopenhauer advocated pursuit of ‘inner warmth’ to avoid the need for closeness with other human beings, perhaps unwittingly he sought out art not for distraction but because the sense of connectedness to that which is greater than the individual mortal self was profoundly consoling.

The suggestion that mere recognition of the suffering ‘other’ could bring consolation has again somewhat missed the point. The linking of the individual’s inherent drive for pleasure to a ‘purpose’, namely addressing the desires of others – of separate beings who are nonetheless fellow parts of the atma – can provide us with a sense of transcendence beyond our isolated, finite selves. By serving to meet even one of a fellow being’s desires, we can create a positive legacy to the whole beyond our own brief existence – and herein lies a path to human satisfaction.

Let’s drink to that.

Mary Jane Streeton, Brisbane

Dear Editor: In Sam Woolfe’s article, ‘Philosophical Outlook & Mental Well-Being’ in Issue 134, it’s virtually a given that pessimism is an accurate assessment of reality, in contrast to rose-tinted Pollyanna glasses. Woolfe doesn’t even acknowledge an opposing view. Rather, pessimism has an air of moral seriousness.

Woolfe discusses ‘anti-natalism’, the idea that, given the supposed preponderance of suffering over pleasure in life, one would have been better off never having been born. I attended a talk by an author, Peter Heinegg, making this very argument. In the question period I asked him, “So why not just kill yourself?” His reply was, “Squeeze the damn fruit till it’s dry – why would I throw it out before I’m finished?” So this nattering nabob of negativism found life worth living after all!

Pessimism may have been realistic in the 1819 of Schopenhauer’s book, when the vast majority of people did live in abject squalor, with all the suffering he talked about. If you look at graphs of human lifespans, average incomes, etc., they’re virtually flat for millennia, up till then. But after that, they go practically vertical. So there has in fact been tremendous progress, giving most people today far better quality of life; as thoroughly documented in Steven Pinker’s recent book, Enlightenment Now. Pinker shows that today an optimistic outlook better reflects reality, whereas pessimism is actually grounded in misconceptions about our world. This was also shown in an excellent 2009 book, The Case for Rational Optimism, by Frank S. Robinson.

Frank S. Robinson, Albany, NY

Pointing Out the Obvious To Tallis?

Dear Editor: I read Raymond Tallis’ article on ‘Religion & Evil’ (#134) with much sympathy and interest. I would like to add a few remarks under the heading ‘Pointing Out the Obvious.’

For a person with an active religious faith, the only reasonable reply to the association of religion with the history of human wickedness is to say that any religion which sanctions or inspires wickedness is bad religion; and bad religion is failed religion, in the same sense that bad science is failed science and bad philosophy failed philosophy. We must distinguish religious practices from religious ideals. Prof Tallis’s essay is mostly concerned with religious practices; but he does fairly point out that history has as many examples of good religious practice as it has of bad. He also points out that much of our history of wickedness is the result of political ambition and other factors, combined with nominal religious faith (the two often go hand in hand). We know that politics is not going away, and we can be reasonably sure that religion is not going away anytime soon, either, so our task must be to think more carefully about our ideals, and try to improve our practices. We have made real progress, but much work remains. For a philosopher of religion, the task is to think as clearly and carefully as one can about the question of the existence of God, of the possible definitions of God, and whether any God is necessary. Religious freedom is intimately related to intellectual freedom. What is the point of having either freedom, if one is not willing to exercise it?

My political philosophy is progressive conservatism. We should conserve those values which we have learned from history to be worth protecting, while at the same time working to create a better society to pass on to the next generation. I have decided that my philosophical thinking should have the same character and intent. And my reading of Raymond Tallis’ article has led me to think that he holds the same general conviction.

D.N. Dimmitt, Lawrence, Kansas

Dear Editor: I invariably find Raymond Tallis’s ideas and arguments stimulating. ‘On Measurement’ in Philosophy Now Issue 133, about the human ability to comprehend the Universe to the degree that we do, was no exception. Tallis rightly points out that without an ability to measure natural phenomena the task of science would never have got off the ground, let alone reached the heights of finesse with which we are all familiar. I have a slightly different perspective, however. There are relationships inherent in the natural world that have deep significance, and without our comprehension of the often complex mathematics that underpin these relationships, our comprehension of the natural world would be deficient. Without measurement the relationships would be unknown; but they exist independently of our measurements, in the same way that mathematics itself exists independently of our minds. Tallis gives us a discourse on the evolution of units of measurement based on human attributes such as arms, feet and hands. But the discovery of constants of nature led to so-called ‘natural units’ which underpin our comprehension of the Universe at all scales from the cosmic to the infinitesimal. Mathematics has uncovered secrets of the Universe that defy our common-sense view of the world, and measurements confirm their veracity.

Paul P. Mealing, Melbourne

Epistolary Enhancements

Dear Editor: While reflecting on the topic of human enhancement, as discussed in Issue 134 by Susana Badiola and Daniel Faggella, I came across this passage in The Perennial Philosophy (1945) by Aldous Huxley: “Because technology advances, we fancy that we are making corresponding progress all along the line; because we have considerable power over inanimate nature, we are convinced that we are the self-sufficient masters of our fate and captains of our souls; and because cleverness has given us technology and power, we believe, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that we have only to go on being yet cleverer in a yet more systematic way to achieve social order, international peace, and personal happiness.” The idea that we can make ourselves happier by incorporating tools into our bodies is similarly a mirage, I think. Like any new technology (or like a new tattoo) the excitement lies mainly in the novelty. Soon enough, this wears off, and we’re back where we started. The ‘human enhancement’ project may be stopped cold when the first lawsuits come in from people who discover that they aren’t, in fact, any happier; or from designer babies who resent having been treated as accessories by their parents.

Paul Vitols, North Vancouver

Far Right? Very Wrong

Dear Editor: The review in Issue 134 by Joe Smith of the book, Dangerous Minds: Nietzsche, Heidegger, & the Return of the Far Right leaves me baffled. Smith explains that the book’s author defends his stance against those who suggest that Nietzsche was apolitical. Personally I do find Nietzsche apolitical, and that most who argue the opposite base their opinion on a false image of him (corrected by the work of Walter Kaufman). So I prepared to write this letter, and in doing so re-read the review. But wait! Smith, in his own review, offers statements about Nietzsche that demonstrate very well the absurdity of aligning Nietzsche with the Far Right. He tells us that, “Nationalism draws [Nietzsche’s] ire as much as anything else; he found anti-Semitism ridiculous, and he recommends continually seeking new, shifting perspectives to understand the world. Most fundamentally, Nietzsche is clear in his firm rejection of any kind of herd mentality, left, right, or center.” Smith is correct. So he should rewrite the review and speak the truth: as for Nietzsche (but not Heidegger), the premise of the book is a crock!

David Wright, Sacramento, CA

Dear Editor: Using Leni Riefenstahl’s film Triumph of the Will as an example, Stuart Greenstreet makes a case that a work of art which expresses values with which we disagree is bad art (Issue 132). Greenstreet argues that form and content are bound together in a work of art, and so a work cannot be judged without considering the moral value of its content. He also claims that to evaluate a work on the basis of its formal properties without discussing its content is not ‘morally acceptable’. I agree that both form and content must be taken into account. Greenstreet proposes that ‘formalism’, where a work is judged on technique, organisation, production values, creativity, and innovation, is a way of avoiding taking the subject matter into consideration when assessing the artistic value of a work. I concur. However, taking into consideration the content as well as the form of a work does not entail making a judgement on the moral, intellectual or social worth of the matter presented: it means determining what the content is, then assessing how successfully the manner in which it is presented conveys it to the audience. So I disagree with Greenstreet that a work should be judged on its ‘moral vision’. Even if the values it expresses are abhorrent to us, its value as art rests on the skill with which it expresses those ideas. It can be ‘morally’ bad, socially objectionable, or intellectually deficient, but still great art.

Patrick O’Callaghan, Bray Park, Queensland

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