I See I • Mary Midgley, Human Being • Inveigled by Hegel? • Technology vs Progress • Mathematics vs Pascal • No Capital Letter • (No) Opium for the Masses? • Eradicating Vulnerabilities • No Christianity & Homosexuality
I See I
Dear Editor: In PN Issue 141, Raymond Tallis shows that it is relatively easy to argue against solipsism, the claim that I am the only experiencing subject, while all you others are zombies or illusions.
What has troubled many, though, is why the temptation to solipsism exists, and why some have been led in that direction. In The Blue Book Ludwig Wittgenstein points to the different uses of ‘I’ – one use refering to I on a level with others, where we all have objectively identifiable properties; the other use referring to the ‘neighbourless’ subject of my experiences. The trouble for Wittgenstein is, the subject being neighbourless, we cannot use our public language. In a series of lectures on solipsism in 1969, Prof. J.R. Jones (professor of philosophy at Swansea, 1952-1970) also pointed out that this level of ‘I’ is the level where death will end the world – as opposed to the other level, where death is an event in the world.
Also following on from Raymond Tallis in Issue 141: The natural world is generally regarded as being built up of elements, structured by laws. Human activity is, on the other hand, determined at least in part by plans for the future, based on possibilities. We are changing our planet and its environment through intentional activity. The universe then is not just determined by the inevitable succession of events, but also in a small way by our conceptions of future possibilities. That is at odds with a fundamental principle of science, cause and effect – which says that only a study of the past can say anything about the unfolding of events. This seems to imply the possibility of active intervention in the world not determined by physical causality.
We can’t know more about reality than we can put into words!
Richard Challis Bousfield, Copenhagen
Mary Midgley, Human Being
Dear Editor: I really enjoyed the article on Mary Midgley in Issue 140. Firstly, her admiration for Darwin does not stop at the purely biological aspect, but is consistently extended to the ethics of animals. We must move away from the idea that there’s a clear boundary between human and non-human animals. We are all branches of the same tree, and Midgley’s interest in animals testifies to wisdom because, indeed, we are animals.
Secondly, I find her plea for the integration of ways of thinking inspiring. An atomised vision can be problematic – in medicine, for example. Doctors are sometimes so focused on certain organs that they lose sight of the whole, the human being. The policy in the current corona crisis is another example of fragmentation. The focus is on figures of deaths and infections and how to reduce them, but relatively little attention is paid to the psychological consequences of isolation, especially for the elderly. The ethical aspects surrounding the right to education for children, when schools are being closed to constrain the virus, also receive little attention.
Thirdly, mankind will need to understand its connection with nature in order to survive. Radical individualism, inspired by some philosophers, politicians, and our economic system, will indeed lead to a dead planet. I hope that more people like Mary Midgley will be able to make their mark on science and public opinion. Midgley’s criticism of ‘cure-all explanations’ is a perfect counterbalance to the current culture of polarisation, fostered by social media, where there is little room for nuance.
Caroline Deforche, Lichtervelde, Belgium
Inveigled by Hegel?
Dear Editor: The theme of Issue 140 was Hegel and History. The first article, ‘G.W.F. Hegel: An Introduction’ by Matt Qvortrup, plunges us into the complexity of Hegel’s thinking. But what comes across immediately is the tone of Hegel’s thinking – the declarative, assertive tone of what I am calling the ‘top-down’ approach to philosophy. The top-down approach does not start with the value of an ordinary person like me, but at most, circles back to me with some token acknowledgement: ‘subjective freedom must be respected’.
Qvortrup admits others see Hegel differently than he does. He also defends Hegel against his critics, some of whom suggest Hegel was a fascist. Qvortrup’s defence seems to be that Hegel was after all a product of his time, and besides, he was more complicated than he seemed. But my point would be that all assumptions are deferred or put on hold in the name of other assumptions that leave me out of the equation: for example, the idea that complex ideas rule in some sense.
In the subtitle to Qvortrup’s article Philosophy Now actually comes close to including me. It says: “Matt Qvortrup observes the watcher of the world spirit.” Here we have a nod of recognition that each of us has the primary status of observing the observer, whether Qvortrup is observing Hegel, or we are observing Qvortrup, or we’re observing the workings of our own ‘self-consciousness’. Here we have a nod of recognition that I, the ordinary person, am the fundamental arbiter – not Hegel, not ‘philosophy’. It is not enough that Hegel said that “the history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom” and that “this real freedom consists precisely in giving to each moment of rationality its own consciousness.” Whatever Hegel is saying here, it is not enough, it seems to me, if I have to go through ‘complexity’ to get to a realization of my value.
Qvortrup does give a glimpse of a more enlightened Hegel (if we can go so far) when he talks about Hegel’s analysis of the conflict of wills. According to Qvortrup, Hegel says that “the master cannot gain adequate recognition from someone he does not recognize as his equal.” Further, through the process of interaction, the slave “becomes conscious of what he truly is” and “that he himself exists essentially and actually in his own right.” This is precisely the distinction we are looking for. But somehow we get the feeling that Hegel is using the distinction to promote ‘world history’ and his own construction of our place in it. “For Hegel, all people are the product of a gradual and evolutionary historical process” as Qvortrup states.
“Hegel… strove to create the ultimate philosophical system.” Qvortrup says, and asks, “Did he succeed?” But Qvortrup is asking us to judge Hegel on Hegel’s own terms. This is precisely the opposite of the distinction I am trying to make – that each of us has value, unmediated and unmitigated by Hegel or anyone else. We precede and take precedence over any dialectic of time or history or philosophy.
I would approach the other articles on Hegel in the same way. I would not only stand back from what Hegel said, I would also stand back from what Jack Fox-Williams, Michael Squire, and Slavoj Zizek say about Hegel. Are these writers owning their own fundamental philosophical assumptions? And do they say what those assumptions are? Or is philosophy a costume ball where the philosopher wears the mask of a dead person – or a mask of his own face?
W.L. Faulkner, Turner Valley, Alberta, Canada
Dear Editor: Among the letters in PN 141, two readers seek clarification about Hegel’s philosophy. This is hardly surprising for such a difficult thinker. Perhaps I can try to throw a little light on their questions? Peter Spurrier is familiar with Berkeley’s subjective idealism, in which nothing exists unless perceived by a mind. But this is different from Hegel’s objective idealism. His term Geist (better translated as 'spirit', rather than 'mind') does not refer to the mind of a specific individual, but to the field of concepts which can be grasped by different minds. The material world, he claims, is itself an embodiment of this field of concepts, which our minds are capable of thinking. Hence reality is knowable by us (in marked contrast with Kant’s views). Neil Richardson worries that many of our activities do not take the form of conflicts of opposites. He gives, as one example, decorating his home for Christmas. This is perfectly true. But putting up Christmas decorations is not a major historical event. It is when we are looking at historical shifts, or substantial social change, that the conflictual nature of human existence comes into focus. Hegel’s claim is that the result of these conflicts is not the victory of one side over the other, but the emergence of a new perspective which changes the way the conflict is viewed. Only in this way does history reveal an evolving structure, as a growing actualization of reason in the world. This is a decidedly optimistic view. However, Hegel does not think we can predict the time-scale on which this will happen, and we can only recognize these decisive shifts after they have taken place. Hence his famous metaphor of the owl of wisdom, which only takes wing at dusk.
Peter Benson, London
Technology vs Progress
Dear Editor: I was struck by the articles concerning Hegel in PN 140. But the central question of whether there is really Hegelian rational progress to world history remains. One of Hegel’s greatest philosophical successors, Edmund Husserl, highlighted this problem in sharp relief. As our technology and scientific understanding have accelerated, we have gradually lost sight of meaning and purpose. Progress, at least in the minds of many – including Francis Fukuyama, Yuval Noah Harari, Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, and Mark Zuckerberg – has become merely technological. This they seem to celebrate!
There was once an impetus for social progress alongside the scientific – almost as a complement to it – but this impulse seems to have been in terminal decline for over a decade. The dream of ‘universal human rights’ remains just that: a dream. It is thus not at all obvious whether substantial moral progress has been achieved. We may live longer, we may have access to more luxuries, we may even understand more about the material world – yet none of this necessarily improves the human condition.
To Hegel’s own idea of progress there is an even more troubling objection. With our contemporary knowledge of evolution, it is now clear that humanity has existed for at least 250,000 years. Depending on how we define ‘human’, we could conceivably stretch that back to three million years. Anything resembling Hegel’s idea of progress in human freedom and self-understanding would only seem part of our history since, say, 10,000 BC. It isn’t at all evident how we might proceed in a Hegelian analysis before that point. But while stopping short of the notion of prehistory as some kind of idyllic state (it was replete with suffering), it would seem that humanity had access to simpler and greater meaning during this period. Husserl and Hegel would have had little to say to our ancestors: for the prehistoric person, there may never have been a crisis of meaning, and no time for existential angst.
With the news about climate change, the destruction of our environment, and the continued spectre of atomic bombs, it would seem that Hegel’s hypothesis of the progress of human reason will soon be put to its greatest test. Indeed, if we destroy ourselves, his entire concept is turned on its head: we might wish that we’d never invented farming, and thereby property. Even Hobbes might have agreed if he saw current geopolitics. For the moment, any notion of historical progress seems to be in very bad shape. If we somehow persevere to finally create a quasi-Utopia, I’ll take my hat off to Hegel.
Anthony MacIsaac, Institut Catholique de Paris
Mathematics vs Pascal
Dear Editor: In Issue 139, Derek Leben presents an argument based on a premise that the total destruction of humanity would constitute an infinite loss. But would it? If the loss of a single human has a finite value, the loss of n humans will also create a loss having finite value, no matter how large n is. Indeed, most humans have already been lost, without almost everything having been lost by those of us who survive. Here we have proof that the value of a single human life is finite, and thus the loss of n humans, for any finite number n, must also be finite. The number of humans alive today, and in the future, is finite. So the value of the loss of all of them will be finite, not infinite.
There’s a second consideration. Suppose not only humanity but also the Earth is destroyed. Who or what of that which remains in the universe has suffered a loss? It would seem, no one and nothing. How can a loss which is experienced by no one be considered ‘infinite’?
An aside on Pascal’s Wager. It is logically conceivable that a God – if there be such – consigns what it considers to be foolish believers to ghastly Hell upon their deaths, and accepts into its company in glorious Heaven only those who have disbelieved what it considers to be religious nonsense. This possibility counteracts the gains and losses presented by Pascal, knocking the stuffing out of his Wager.
Steve Van Sickle, Yankton, South Dakota
No Capital Letter
Dear Editor: In the ‘Philosophical Haiku’ about Karl Marx (Issue 140), Terence Green pulled off the impressive feat of not mentioning the word ‘capitalism’ once. I notice that many commentators, like Green, choose to focus on Marx’s ‘political’ legacy, related to the notion of the inevitability of communism occurring as the next stage in history. In my view, this aspect of Marx is speculative and did not hold up to historical scrutiny, but his socio-economic analysis of the dynamics and consequences of capitalism is unsurpassed, and still very relevant to this day.
Anthony Murphy, The Netherlands
(No) Opium for the Masses?
Dear Editor: Frederik Kaufman concludes his excellent essay in Issue 140 by asking: ‘If there is a good reason for illegality [of drugs], what is it?’ Actually, it’s worse than that: drug policies continue to wreck countless lives, undermine governments throughout the Americas, and grossly misallocate scarce resources.
Although the US’s ‘War on Drugs’ officially began in 1971 under the direction of a paranoid and beleaguered president whose motives were questionable, it was rapidly endorsed by the polity as a whole. Laws passed in 1986 and 1994 with broad bipartisan support doubled down on the War that policymakers continually asserted they were on the verge of winning…whatever that meant. The War is still very much ongoing.
The War on Drugs should remind us that government initiatives always take on a life of their own, and also that we should be particularly wary of any effort that invokes a ‘war’ metaphor. Most importantly, we should always keep in mind that while broad bipartisan support for a particular measure might be a good reason for implementing a particular policy, it is certainly not sufficient reason.
Howard Landis, Naples, Florida
Dear Editor: I found Frederik Kaufman’s reflections about drug usage and its illegality in Issue 140 a quite gripping read, not only because of the case made, but because I enjoy a social issue debated from a philosophical perspective. This is not something we see very often in PN. I have been a continuous subscriber since Issue 128, and out of the twelve copies I own, only in two (140 and 138) did I find articles about purely social issues. These articles usually come under the ‘General Articles’ section, on which the reader may find articles about topics such as politics; purely philosophical themes; or even science. I enjoy those writings too. It is rather that I want to reveal my desire to read more articles about societal issues in PN. [The theme of 144 is set to be ‘Modern Moral Issues’, Ed.]
I take this chance to leave some social questions which I find thought-provoking, in the hope that they become guides to writers and a starting point for reflections: Should we give money to street beggars? What benefits would a society gain if all of its individuals had higher education? Why are there conflicts based on religion? Why can humans be corrupted? Should alcoholic beverages be prohibited in all circumstances?
David Alves, Madeira, Portugal
Dear Editor: In Issue 140 Lindsay Kelland wrote a compelling piece about using our emotional responses to vulnerability as the basis of ethical decision-making. Kelland’s article, however, did not make note of our desire to end preventable vulnerabilities. Certainly, economic vulnerabilities are something we should seek to overcome to make our world a more equal one. Scotland took a lead on this when it introduced a care package for new mothers including essential items for new-born babies, therefore allowing the most vulnerable to survive no matter the economic status of the mother. Scotland also tried to extend their eradication of economic vulnerabilities by asking the central British government for Universal Basic Income (UBI) – the idea of just giving everyone the money necessary to live. This was rejected by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. This rejection of UBI was disheartening to myself and other passionate supporters of the model. Among other things, UBI would ensure that those who are the most vulnerable have the finances to have a roof over their head. With necessities met, those who are currently vulnerable could work on themselves stress free. By looking at our emotional responses to vulnerable people, and the sickness we feel about preventable vulnerabilities, we should see UBI as a cure.
Ryan Fallon, Newcastle
No Christianity & Homosexuality
Dear Editor: There are at least 31,100 verses in the Bible. Of these, two in Leviticus condemn male homosexuality (the Jewish scripture says nothing about lesbianism); one in the New Testament’s Letter to the Romans condemns male homosexuality; and one in the same letter, female homosexuality. You don’t need to be a mathematician to see how important God considers the issue. On the other hand, fifteen verses of 1 Corinthians condemn women not covering their heads in worship – from which we may conclude that God is more concerned about whether you wear a hat in church than about what you do with your genitals.
May I make two suggestions? The first is that the obsession of conservative Christians with homosexuality (and sex in general) has more to do with their human reactions than with any revelation from God. The second is that Philosophy Now should follow God’s example, and devote as little space to the issue as the Bible does.
Martin Jenkins, London