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Relatively Different • Brief Struggles • Evil Ideas • Virtually Descartes • Irish Murdoch • ‘We’ and ‘They’ Are One • More Meaningful Messages • No Time Except the Present
Dear Editor: I read with great interest Professor Mark Couch’s essay, ‘Should Kant Be Canceled’ in Issue 148. As someone who finds the Cancel Movement distressing and self-defeating, I am in sympathy with the general thrust of his opposition to ‘canceling the past’. However, I don’t think Prof. Couch did his mission justice by arguing that just as we would not cancel Einstein’s Theory of Relativity because Einstein made some inappropriate statements we also should not discard Kant’s enormously influential ethical theory just because he wrote an essay arguing for the superiority of the white Europeans over other races. The difference between Einstein’s and Kant’s cases is neither trivial nor incidental. While the former’s objectionable statements concerned matters that did not touch on explaining the physical world, the latter’s writings not only touch directly on morality, their articulation illustrates a violation of the very laws Kant was himself advocating. To be sure, hypocrisy does not an argument invalidate; but it does place in jeopardy the moral integrity of the person putting the argument forward, and since the argument is about morality, it seems to me that we may want to do more digging into the integrity of Kant’s argument than simply dismiss his unpleasant stand with a wobbly similitude. Does this mean that we should cancel Kant? No. Does it mean we should scrutinize whether Kant’s ethics is a fantasy which doesn’t work in the real world, given that its own creator was not able to abide by it? Perhaps.
Ahmed Bouzid, U.S.A.
Dear Editor: David Austin’s Brief Life of C.L.R. James (PN Issue 148) was very welcome. James is an important thinker, and his book Black Jacobins is a masterpiece. At a time when the legacy of slavery is being discussed, it is important to be reminded that slavery was ended not just by white philanthropists, but because slaves fought for their own liberation.
Austin is right to recall that James was a Trotskyist. I heard James speak on the fiftieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution on a platform alongside three Trotskyists. He agreed with them that the Russian Revolution had, albeit briefly, offered a real alternative to the system that existed East and West. But Austin’s stress on James’ opposition to Stalinist totalitarianism tends to obscure the significance of James’ argument that Russia was a ‘state capitalist’ society. The main point about this idea, as developed by James and some of his contemporaries (Raya Dunayevskaya, Tony Cliff), was that the society in Russia was essentially the same system that exploited and oppressed workers in the West.
It is true that James rejected the idea of the ‘vanguard party’, but he continued to greatly admire Lenin (see his article ‘Lenin and the Vanguard Party’ at marxists.org/archive/james-clr/works/1963/lenin-vanguard.htm). Certainly James had nothing whatever in common with Western ‘anti-Communists’. His close comrade John La Rose (after whom a road in London has just been named) was a founder of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, which welcomed the defeat of US imperialism. James’ followers in 1960s London were deeply involved in campaigns to support council tenants resisting crippling rent rises. To his dying day, James opposed all capitalisms, East or West.
Ian Birchall, North London
Dear Editor: May I add some ideas to Tristen Taylor’s stimulating discussion of the nature of evil in Issue 148?
Actions are evil when they intentionally cause unnecessary, undeserved distress to others. Deliberate inaction has the same moral significance when it has the same effect; so does intentionally taking away someone’s happiness. We experience evil as individuals, not as groups. Even when we suffer because we are members of a group, we feel the distress ourselves. When we feel the suffering of another person, we still feel the distress personally. Entities without feelings cannot suffer, but what happens to them affects sentient beings. It is natural, even desirable that we should feel more the distress of those close to us and sacrifice more to save them from it. We naturally care more for our own children than for those of others, and more for humans than for other animals.
Sometimes it is necessary and justified to cause distress. We cause lesser distress to many to confer great benefit on a few. We may be taxed to support cancer care, for example. Or we allow a few to make great sacrifices to benefit the many. Soldiers are injured saving a nation from invasion. It is also right to punish those guilty of evil actions to deter them and protect others. Unfortunately, precise definitions do not help us to make specific decisions. What will be the effect of a proposed action? When is distress unnecessary or undeserved? Whose distress should be more important to us? And how much should we suffer ourselves to save others?
Allen Shaw, Leeds
Dear Editor: In his interview in Issue 148, David Chalmers claims that what’s experienced within virtual reality is as real as ordinary physical reality. He also claims that this undermines Cartesian scepticism. I disagree.
I would say that Descartes’ sceptical approach was right: I can’t correctly deny the existence of my own consciousness, but neither can I absolutely know whether any of the things that appear in that consciousness have any physical existence outside it. If what I perceive is virtual reality, or a simulation, then that means firstly that what I perceive, although it may appear to be physically real, is by definition not physically real; secondly, that there is a real physical mechanism generating the VR. But even if I perceived such a mechanism, I couldn’t know whether it existed outside my consciousness any more than I can know that about any other physical object. So VR doesn’t change the basic situation in terms of what I can really know exists. The only things I can really know to exist are my own consciousness and its contents.
That doesn’t mean that the quest for understanding ends here. Like Descartes, I believe that from the knowledge that consciousness exists we can work out some other remarkable things.
Peter Spurrier, Halstead
Dear Editor: While I really enjoyed Stephen Leach’s essay about Iris Murdoch in Issue 148, Murdoch was not an English philosopher and novelist as stated [added by me, not Dr Leach – Ed]. Although Murdoch did spend most of her life in England, she was born in Dublin. Her Irishness may have been very much of the Anglo- variety, but she never forgot her roots. As she said, “People sometimes say to me rudely, ‘Oh! You’re not Irish at all! But of course I’m Irish. I’m profoundly Irish and I’ve been conscious of this all my life, and in a mode of being Irish which has produced a lot of very distinguished thinkers and writers” (From a Tiny Corner in the House of Fiction: Conversations with Iris Murdoch, Gillian Dooley, ed, 2003).
Neil Forsyth, Co. Dublin
‘We’ and ‘They’ Are One
Dear Editor : Thank you for this opportunity to reply to Mr Daniel Jonas about his criticism of my Brief Life of Spinoza in Issue 147, in particular his complaint that Jews are used as symbols of good and evil in the arguments of others, to our detriment.
I categorically reject the practice, when it comes to theological or political orthodoxy of any kind, of painting those who profess it in colors black, imagining ourselves by contrast knowledgeable and good, instead of being so. I believe this is the thrust of Spinoza’s Treatise on the Improvement of the Intellect as regards knowledge. One is oneself the Other with prejudices in need of sifting-through in order that knowledge should be panned out. Relatively undeveloped in my article is that Spinoza contradicts himself in this as regards morality, as he cannot consistently reject the Jews as Other and also feel that morality will take care of itself.
The penultimate two lines of my article observe that Spinoza had negative things to say about the Jews, and endeavored to cease considering himself one. But if we would not be condemned as a caricature of ourselves, neither should we condemn him as an irredeemable apostate, since charity is of the nature of piety, and Spinoza shows himself able, on occasion, to appreciate the latter. I am glad Mr Jonas spares me as ignorant, rather than vicious.
Brad Rappaport, New York
Dear Reader: Last issue we printed a letter pointing out that in Issue 147 Brad Rappaport was wrong to cite Orthodox Judaism as condemning Spinoza, especially since Orthodox Judaism is a nineteenth-century development. The phrase ‘Orthodox Judaism’ was added by our editors and not by Mr Rappaport himself. We apologise to him.
Rick Lewis, Editor-in-Chief
More Meaningful Messages
Dear Editor: Congratulations on Issue 147, the ‘Happiness and Meaning Issue’, which gave much food for thought at the start of a new year. The editorial comments struck a particular chord, suggesting philosophers should be able to provide anybody who asks with something about life and its meaning. But reading the brilliant visions of the likes of Heraclitus and Hegel can distract from the importance of the prosaic. I would propose a humbler philosophers’ purpose: seeking and calling out the myriad micro-truths of our daily lives. Whether this relates to a newspaper headline, a flippant comment in a conversation, questionable logic in a work report, or navigating children’s schoolyard quarrels, there is a role for the philosopher. This role is first to seek out the truth underlying such day-to-day tribulations, and then to bring a more thoughtful approach to bear on the situation. The philosopher’s skill-set goes beyond just ascertaining the facts of a proposition or applying logic to it, to examining its context, concepts, ethics, and assumptions – especially where these may call into question one’s orthodoxy. In a world beset by divided narratives, intellectual intolerance, and distorted information, this approach has never been more important. If a purposeful life is a happy life, then we could do a whole lot worse than a life invested in a process of pursuing and promoting truth.
Mary Jane Streeton, Taringa, Queensland
Dear Editor: I found Farah Abdessamad’s, ‘What is Guilt?’ in Issue 147 to be a fascinating read. I believe most of us are guilty of inaction. I mean, we could do more. Of course, some of us achieve greatness and do great things. Some of us are very generous and altruistic. But many of us are guilty of emotional laziness. We could be more kind. We could ring to see how our neighbours are on a regular basis. If a neighbour is in Covid isolation, we should call to see how they are. We often think about connecting with people, but are guilty of inaction when it comes down to it.
Linda Nathaniel, Sydney, N.S.W.
Dear Editor : I very much looked forward to reading Issue 147, ‘The Happiness & Meaning Issue’, to see if there were any insights from our philosophers at large. Sadly, I was dismayed, but not surprised, to read that a well-known philosopher (Bertrand Russell), who spent his life studying philosophy, could not give a concise and cogent answer when asked about the purpose and meaning of life. Rick Lewis’s point in his Editorial that “if the philosophers can’t provide at least some clue as to what life… is all about, then what is the point?” is a very telling comment on philosophy. Philosophical thoughts are supposed to provide plausible answers to ease the existential angst we may experience when we try to answer such questions – which, philosophers generally agree, unfortunately cannot be definitively answered.
Many philosophers including René Descartes (1596-1650) and George Berkeley (1685-1753) have also questioned our perception of reality. No wonder philosophical concepts and thoughts are so complex and confusing to the masses, when we don’t even know whether own perceptions of our realities are really true or not! It is difficult to arrive at any lasting philosophical truths if they’re built from a house of cards. Welcome to the thought-provoking world of philosophy!
Tony Yep, P.Eng, Calgary, Alberta
No Choice But Philosophy Now
Dear Editor: I think the ‘Happiness & Meaning’ issue of Philosophy Now comes closest to philosophically addressing the issues that most people find relevant in their everyday lives. People generally seek purpose through their jobs, their relationships, their families, even if they don’t articulate it. Inherent in this endeavour is the unspoken belief that they are largely in control of their own destiny. This is why I found Dylan Skurka’s review of the movie Minding the Gap in the same issue the most pertinent and possibly the most relevant to my own experience (which also benefits from more than half a century of hindsight). My personal circumstances weren’t as dire as the real-life protagonists of that documentary film, but I could identify with their circumstances all the same: I remember when I left school I also had a fatalistic attitude towards life – that things just happened. I’m not sure when it occurred, but I had an epiphany, and took ownership of my personal problems and my general negativity. At some point I realised that while I could blame childhood circumstances for my situation, I was the only one who could change it.
This is critically dependent on an belief in free will. I like something that Raymond Tallis once wrote: “Free agents, then, are free because they select between imagined possibilities, and use actualities to bring about one rather than another.” For me, the key word here is ‘imagined’. Free will is when we can imagine a future that we attempt to bring about. What we imagine is certainly affected by our past, our emotions, and our intellectual considerations; but that doesn’t make our choices predetermined.
Paul P. Mealing, Melbourne
Dear Editor: Raymond Tallis delves into serious matters in his article on ‘From Dust to Dust’ in PN Issue 147. First, there is the matter of the second law of thermodynamics, which claims that everything tends towards less order.
Despite this being the case in most of the physical world, when it comes to organic matter, things seem to become more and more ordered. Mistakes/mutations in replications lead to increasingly ordered organisms. Single celled organisms have developed into incredibly complex multicellular beings. And when we get to higher animals, something extra happens: multicellular beings achieve subjective experience, and new possibilities arrive. These new beings have become able to alter things in the world according to what they want to do. A causal world, based on what went before, has become a world of future possibilities – a world we ourselves create, partially at any rate.
“Eventually, however, disorder triumphs”, says Tallis. Dust to dust. There is however a sense in which even the dust doesn’t completely go to dust. In a biological sense we aren’t isolated individuals. The engine of biology doesn’t ‘care’ about the individual, as long as the species (or higher levels) keeps going, and order continues. Our dust is part of a greater dust, just as our social selves are part of a larger social entity. We are born and die as social beings, leaving behind us the continuing social entity of which we have been part. That’s an optimistic thought. Perhaps the future isn’t so bleak.
So there are at least three ‘wonders’: that there emerged out of the dead physical world self-replicating cells which gradually became more complicated; that in the more complicated of these organisms there emerged experiencing subjects; and that some of these subjects developed ways of life and language, enabling visions of the future that can change the physical world – adapt it to their own designs. Despite the second law of thermodynamics.
Richard Challis Bousfield, Copenhagen
Dear Editor: Thank you for your letter about renewing my subscription. However I am struck by your phrase ‘if you choose to renew’. The question is surely whether I renew or not, not whether I ‘choose’ to. That is, I am aware of my reasons and feelings gradually forming about the magazine and its contents, but not of some mysterious switch which has the last word.
This is a serious matter because ‘choice’ is routinely used as a mask to hide what the powerful are up to. Why should a rich man feel responsible for the poor when the poor man has ‘chosen’ his lot? If you ask me why I subscribe or not, there’s a chance of learning something. If it’s just my ‘choice’, thinking stops there.
In the current issue you reference your printers saying they had no choice but to increase their charges. They were right. What they had was alternatives, all but one of which would have unacceptable consequences. The price rise was inevitable if the business was to survive.
I suggest to readers that if they cut out the concept of choice from their vocabulary they won’t miss it, and their thinking will be cleaner and more effective. Talk about reasons, preferences, alternatives, votes, actions. Drop ‘choice’ in the bin.
Tom Chamberlain, Newark
No Time Except the Present
Dear Editor: I am responding in 2021 to an article on time ostensibly published in 2022! But I was surprised that in her article about time in Issue 147, Nurana Rajabova made no mention of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, which indicates that space and time are not the discrete entities she discusses but are inextricably linked as spacetime, and, thus, cannot be considered discretely. There are also interpretations of quantum theory from which time vanishes, suggesting that time is something that we create to try to comprehend the universe. Finally, and perhaps flippantly – in his novel Slaughterhouse 5, Kurt Vonnegut created the planet Tralfamadore, and to the Tralfamadorians time was laid out ‘like the Rocky Mountains’, such that all of time could be viewed in totality.
Having for many years taught physics to young people aged 11 to 18, the concept of ‘time’ engages their imaginations and allows them to speculate creatively and usually with enjoyment and enthusiasm. The kinds of arguments based on ‘presentism’ and ‘eternalism’, which Ms Rajabova sets out are arguments with which young people can engage, and would enable them to get some kind of ‘meaning’ and ‘happiness’. Thus, in my opinion, the article succeeded in the aim of Issue 147 to explore those themes.
Alasdair Macdonald, Glasgow