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Life is a Political Act • More Wisdom of Lovers • Alfons Grieder • Still Questing • Paradoxically Yours – Or Not • Self-Censorship vs Insensitivity • Shooting Sartre Full of Holes • Buddhist Phenomenology • Freed Speech • Are Philosophers Stoned?
Life is a Political Act
Dear Editor: With regard to the article ‘The Goodness of Existence’ in Issue 149, are the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain the only criteria upon which the goodness or badness of human existence is to be judged? What if you experienced a life full of pleasure but your way of living directly (or indirectly) contributed to the pain of others? And what about the continuation or extinction of humanity itself? Any honest listing of the damages that an individual can inflict upon the environment would need to place procreation at or near the top. So procreation is not intrinsically good as the article concludes. Rather, limiting the number of humans is good when viewed from the perspective of not exceeding critical planetary boundaries. It’s even better to limit the lives in question when they create unsustainable carbon footprints while depleting finite resources and contributing to ecological overshoot, resulting in climate catastrophe.
When industrial civilization collapses, the article’s conclusion that ‘existence is always a benefit rather than a harm’ will surely seem dated. Our question should be, what moral obligation do we have at present to coming generations? This is especially the case when the harm they suffer is increased due to our own short-sightedness in bringing them into existence on an untenably overpopulated and thoroughly ravaged planet.
Ward Stahmer, Sylvania, Ohio
Dear Editor: Tim Moxham (Issue 149 Reviews) believes that Rutger Bregman’s book Humankind: A Hopeful History contains an important message: we need to break free from what Steven Pinker calls ‘the Tragic Vision’ – Thomas Hobbes’ dogmatically pessimistic view of our nature. Bregman contrasts it with ‘the Utopian Vision’, Rousseau’s dogmatically optimistic view of our nature and bases his claim that most people are good on this belief of Rousseau’s, but transforms it into a hard fact. So I agree with Mr Moxham that Bregman’s book makes us think about his own position.
Bregman amazes his readers with the much more optimistic real story that inspired William Golding to write The Lord of the Flies. Yet Golding presents the Tragic Vision in his book. Moxham however is impressed by the true story Bregman uncovered, and which portrays the Utopian Vision. Sure, Bregman’s research is good; but it’s not proof that Golding was completely wrong. There are plenty of examples of shipwrecks whose survivors’ cannibalism support the Tragic Vision; but Bregman doesn’t name one. Instead, Bregman fills his entire book with all kinds of entertaining examples meant as ‘scientific proof’ that the Utopian Vision is correct. But all the white swans presented by Bregman are no proof that all swans are white. From time immemorial, according to Bregman, people have been misled by an elite that had an interest in promoting the Tragic Vision: writers (!), philosophers, scientists, and today especially, the media. They tell us we are mostly bad and we can’t trust each other, and therefore need an authority with whom we can enter into a contract, to give up some freedom and get (some) security in return. This elite manipulates the essentially good masses. This is the goal of a totalitarian state, as Hannah Arendt described; it distinguished the Third Reich from an ‘ordinary dictatorship’. Apparently Bregman’s readers are so happy to be told that they are good that they don’t notice this conspiracy! Incidentally, to govern ourselves according to Rousseau’s ideas is more difficult to explain and implement than according to Hobbes’s – as Rousseau might admit.
I find the way Bregman tries to salvage his claim of the progress of humanity after the Holocaust dangerous. Bregman describes Eichmann, its organiser, as a misguided, thoughtless victim of the totalitarian state. He did terrible things “because he thought it was the right thing to do.” How crooked and dangerous can you reason? Eichmann belonged to the Nazi elite, was a rabid anti-Semite, and needed only weeks to clear his conscience about his work. He was not ‘misled and thoughtless’. But even if he had been, he remains responsible for his actions. As do Bregman’s readers, whom he leaves with such a good feeling.
Bert Erwich, The Netherlands
Life is a frustration, what else could it be?
Some lack purpose and others just don’t see.
Some pray to God to alleviate the pain.
But like some animal we just stand in the rain.
That we lack purpose seems very plain:
Our intelligence is wasted on the money game.
We’re higher beings with reason and knowledge
Look around you and notice how people live.
You in your comfort, ask what you can do
To lift someone up and help them live like you!
We need a culture which won’t end in our demise.
As a species, we should want to stay alive.
My fellow humans, stop and think.
We are part of a world on destruction’s brink!
Temperatures rising and the world’s full of hate.
Pollution’s out of control while politicians debate.
Stand up today and be counted:
Tomorrow might be too late!
Clarence Underwood, Esparto, California
Dear Editor: I found your cover image for 149, adapting ‘The Plum Pudding In Danger’, a curious choice given the worries about the Ukrainian war preoccupying your opening editorial. We were all surprised by Russia invading Ukraine – but not because the plum pudding is being carved up between competing philosophies. It has already been greedily swallowed whole, by Karl Marx. It doesn’t matter where we sit on Marx’s scale, we have all tacitly accepted the assumptions of Marx’s philosophical model – that mankind is essentially materialistic and that every interaction we make is to gain or retain economic advantage. As Bill Clinton pithily summed it up, “It’s the economy, stupid.”
But who’s stupid now? Putin wasn’t ‘supposed’ to invade Ukraine: it makes no economic sense. Nor, for that matter, does Brexit. Until we stop looking solely through the foggy lens of economic interactions, we will continue to be blindsided by actual events in the world. There’s an irony that, as much as Marxists deplore wealth, they are continually wrong-footed by people who value things other than money.
Robert Frazer, Salford
More Wisdom of Lovers
Dear Editor: I was surprised that none of the authors of the pieces in the ‘Love Issue’ (PN 148) discussed ‘trust’ as a factor relevant to love in all its varieties. Humans are social beings: others define us. Most of us are in a range of communities with which we engage most days. Living in these communities requires trust for cohesion. Indeed, it is so pervasive that we are unaware of it most of the time, but the great majority of our interactions are predicated on trust. It is only the news media, which focus mainly on breaches of trust, that gives the misanthropic impression that we are a pretty nasty species. Perhaps news journalists should look in a mirror more often. Also, much of our literature and art deals with breaches of trust, and most of us at some time have probably been guilty of this to varying degrees, especially, but not exclusively, when we are growing up (Sorry, Mother!).
When others trust us, they’re respecting us, assuming that we will do the right thing in the circumstances – the thing they expect us to do. This respect from others, I would argue, engenders self-respect, and enables us to have, in the Scots phrases, ‘a guid conceit o oorsels’ and ‘pride o worth’. A ‘guid conceit’ is not self-centred boasting, it’s about recognising in ourselves that what we have done was the right thing to do: we can take a quiet pride that we have proved ourselves worthy of the trust of others.
Self-respect in this sense is love for oneself – not the kind of self-love which made Malvolio in Twelfth Night sick, but a sense of worthiness: a confidence that ‘I am a good person!’. Many studies in psychology have shown that people who are regularly untrustworthy in their relationships have low self-respect. So, I think that to love others sincerely, we have to learn to love ourselves. And we prove this by trusting others and being trusted and fulfilling that trust in return.
When I became a parent, I remember realising that my infant daughter trusted me unquestioningly. Of course, when I had been her age I trusted my parents in such a way, too, and they gave little reason for me to doubt that they would act with my interests at heart. However, there was a moment when, as I held my child in my arms, I realised what trust really meant.
Alasdair Macdonald, Glasgow
Dear Editor: Sadly I have to tell you that a longtime friend of the Philosophy Now team, Dr Alfons Grieder, died last year in his home in London.
Originally from Switzerland, he became a philosophy lecturer at City University, London. There he was for years a close colleague of Prof. Peter Rickman, who some readers of this magazine will remember as a frequent contributor. Grieder was an exceptionally good teacher, never boring, with a sharp analytic mind. His strengths lay in his attention to detail and relentless questioning. He was good in almost all philosophical disciplines, but in particular philosophy of science, logic, and philosophy of mind.
A kind man with a mischievous smile, he always enjoyed his cup of tea with a piece of cake at various branches of Café Valerie while discussing some philosophical issues and raising interesting questions. He will be missed very much.
Filiz Peach, London
Dear Editor: In ‘The Philosopher with a Thousand Faces’ in Issue 147, Alex Gooch argues that the philosophical search for meaning is doomed to failure. He says “the philosopher’s life feels meaningful because he or she is on a quest for a final, definitive Meaning that is reliably resistant to all change or refutation,” but this quest can never be realized, and, in the end, the sense of meaning conferred by the quest evaporates like a mist in bright sunlight, leaving the philosopher in existential despair.
Having just finished the final edit of a new book, The Garden Path, describing the life path of a seeker of truth first in 108 illustrated limericks and then in an essay on the medieval Persian polymath Omar Khayyam, my immediate reaction was “Well, he gets part way, but he misses so much.” To quote from the book: “A variety of conflicting feelings follow recognition of the impossibility of any ultimate intellectual understanding of infinite reality, not because a lifetime is too short but because the tools of the intellect are inadequate. At this stage, the would-be seeker of truth is buffeted by emotional winds blowing this way and that, teetering on the brink between dogma and doubt, in danger of falling into blind belief or blind disbelief… Any rationalistic system must fail in attempting to capture the unlimited in its net of concepts and language. For a seeker who sticks to rationalism alone, the inevitable end can only be dogmatism or relativism… Honest seekers of truth eventually reach the limits of rational thought and face a choice.” But this is not a binary choice. Rather, it is the point where the Apollonian injunction ‘Know Thyself’ hits home. Out of the seeking for self-knowledge comes philosophy, science, the arts, and all of human culture. From this perspective, Omar Khayyam exemplifies the only state in which true faith is possible – a state in which the reasoning mind, accepting that it does not and cannot know ultimate truth, still remains open, seeking to drain one last drop from the cup, transmuting knowledge and experience into wisdom and gratitude. The idol of ultimate rational Meaning is transformed into real human meaning.
For those who say we live in vain,
Life’s only suffering and pain.
They don’t see the joy
Of a boy with a toy,
Or lovers in a summer rain.
A dead man walking passed my way,
I asked him, sir, what can you say?
He gave a quick grin
And said, It’s no sin,
To laugh and to dance and to play.
Burton Voorhees, Victoria, BC
Paradoxically Yours – Or Not
Dear Editor: I’m afraid I don’t agree with the argument expressed in ‘Paradox Lost’ by Paul Tissier in Issue 149. Bev and Ali argue that Russell’s Paradox isn’t really a paradox. They agree together that there is no answer to the question of whether ‘the set of all sets which are not self-membered’ is itself self-membered. They refer to that set as N. From considering N, Russell’s well-known paradox logically follows: Is N a member of itself, or not? If it is, then it isn’t; and if it isn’t, then it is! Yet, at what seems to be a crucial point in their discussion, Bev and Ali agree that because any statement about N being self-membered or non-self-membered would not be about anything that exists, it follows that there is no real paradox; rather, there is just the appearance of one, which arises “from following through a form of words which purport to describe an actuality.” However, I don’t think they have found a real flaw in Russell’s argument. It appears to me that his argument is one which cannot be logically opposed.
As I mentioned, the claim by Bev and Ali is that any statement about N would not be about anything that exists. However, given that N is apparently (self-) contradictory anyway, Russell surely wasn’t asserting that it actually described a truth, or something that exists. Instead, he was pointing out that any attempt at articulating N cannot avoid contradiction.
On the other hand, Tissier’s characters do support a statement according to which N is ‘neither self-membered nor non-self-membered’. This statement would mean that N is both not-self-membered and also not not-self-membered. That is clearly contradictory.
In summary, if there is a way out of Russell’s Paradox, I do not think that Tissier has found it.
Peter Spurrier, Halstead, Essex
Self-Censorship vs Insensitivity
Dear Editor: The essay by Mark Couch in Philosophy Now 148 on Kant and cancel culture was a lesson on how cringy philosophy can be when subjected to the self censorship of political correctness. Purged of potential trigger words and phrases, is a discussion still philosophical? Cancelling Kant because he proposed something others find offensive, is more offensive than the racism he is accused of. Statements can be offensive; but propositions require consideration. Propositions also require that definitions be provided, and definitions can evoke negative emotion – but the emotion does not nullify the proposition. The white men who originated the movement to abolish slavery did not worry about offending anyone. The 1960s civil rights movement would have been cancelled, had it originated in the 21st century.
Writing that does not challenge conventional attitudes, beliefs and assumptions is less philosophy than sociology. Cancelling ideas and moving them out of the sphere of public discourse is not what philosophy does. And what crime is greater than philosophical cowardice? Kant’s place in history, his philosophical superiority, if you like, is not seriously in doubt. His philosophical primacy cannot be cancelled because a dubious historical idea is part of his legacy. If a discussion is discussed philosophically, it has philosophical merit by virtue of the way it is discussed. The topics are irrelevant so far as philosophical relevance is concerned. It is also not important what sort of man Kant was. What matters is the sort of philosophy he did. One does not need to be politically correct to be a good philosopher. Civilization is not advanced by people who think non-offensive thoughts. Instead it ought to offend humanity when persons of dubious intellectual pedigree attempt to cancel their intellectual superiors. The audacity of judging Kant! Judge his philosophy so we can compare your intellectual acumen with his! Will the writers of ditties on washroom walls judge Shakespeare?
What is more offensive than a person who fears a debate? If philosophy only promotes a viewpoint, it’s advertising.
Robert Burk, Muskoka, Ontario
Dear Editor: In reference to Mark Couch’s ‘Should Kant Be Cancelled?’ (Issue 148), I think cancel culture is one situation which might benefit from something Jesus said: “He who is without sin, let them cast the first stone.” It’s especially disappointing coming out of an academic environment, given that such an environment is, by the rules of rationality, beholden to evolution, both biological and cultural. It should recognize that, in the process of thought, mistakes are made. That’s how natural selection works: by correcting those mistakes.
I come from the 1970s. As far as I’m concerned, Richard Linklater’s movie (and love letter to the 70s) Dazed and Confused was mostly accurate in its romanticism. I experienced it myself in the 70s Midwest. What’s often left out is that you always had a very clear sense of what group you belonged to. It was a time when the N-word dropped out of our mouths like it was nothing (we didn’t know any better), and we told stories of guys coming out of the closet as gay like dark tales told around a campfire. But some of us evolved, thanks to the efforts of others who did know better. It just seems to me that the process of getting others to evolve with us should be a little less destructive of lives and/or legacies. Rather, someone makes a movie (say) that contains something offensive to a given group; another points it out; and someone else comes along that makes another movie that corrects the mistake, and we’re all better as a society. This is a simple type of cultural evolution that doesn’t require any kind of cancellation.
What’s both interesting and ironic in ‘woke’ enlightened minds considering Kant for cancellation, is that they are basically embracing the deontological absolutist ethical standard that Kant himself promoted! By acting as if their own standards of behavior are above our evolution as a culture, they are engaging in the same implicit authoritarianism as Kant did in assuming whites to be superior. They’re just posing one form of authoritarianism against another.
D.E. Tarkington, Nebraska
Shooting Sartre Full of Holes
Dear Editor: I very much enjoyed the Raymond Tallis column ‘The Philosopher in the Cafe’ in Issue 148. In it Tallis takes shots at Sartre’s concept of Bad Faith, which I think is a concept worth shooting full of holes. Relating to Tallis’s response to Sartre that a person is not in Bad Faith when, in the course of employment they do not consistently express their true selves, there’s a great scene in the movie The Big Kahuna that makes the point very well. In it the Kevin Spacey character lectures a naive kid that his personal self isn’t relevant to the business they’re conducting. I only wished I had seen the movie when I was about twenty. I was never a fundamentalist Christian like the kid in the movie, but it doesn’t matter. I was just like him in other ways. Predictable that this got me fired from some jobs, and I paid other prices.
Dear Editor: I was pleased to see Brian Morris’s article on Buddhist metaphysics featured in Issue 146. Our earnest exploration of non-Western thought, theory, and practice is a testament to our dedication to the human experience in toto. However, while the article did some justice to so broad and nuanced a topic, parts of it merit fundamental revision.
First, Morris’s off-handed dismissal of the potential of hallucinogenic drugs reflects an unbefitting prejudice all-too-endemic in modern academia. While this staid attitude is rather typical, it ignores millennia of shamanic tradition and a burgeoning corpus of academic data. But that’s a practical, clinical matter. Philosophically, his categorizing the six Buddhist realms as being fundamentally ‘theistic’ also requires reconsideration. These realms are not best envisaged as spaces literally inhabited by spectral forms. A more viable inroad may be to view them phenomenologically. In The Myth of Freedom (1976), Trungpa suggests that we think of the six ‘realms’ (quote marks in original) as rough characterizations of experiential edifices arising directly from our own mindsets and core beliefs, erected and clung to with increasing force and fervor as the patterns in and of our lives become increasingly entrenched.
I am quite certain that a deeper exploration of the Buddhist realms will prove to be highly fruitful to any earnest lover of wisdom. Approaching an understanding of them is more akin to having gained empirical knowledge than to have engaged in theistic postulating. They are an attempt to account for the human experience as it actually is. I find it impossible to see anything else occupied by humans, anywhere I look closely enough. Especially when I look in the mirror.
Eric Fairchild, Taizhong, Taiwan
Dear Editor: I was deeply dismayed by ‘Liberal Individualism and Cultural Decay’ by Dr Raymond Boisvert in Issue 146. He uses three examples to explain what he describes as a decay in our culture – sexual promiscuity, unfair business practices, and gluttony – and he pins these on Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy.
I’d like to tackle head-on his assertion that Ayn Rand is somehow the cause of any of these phenomena. She was a staunch supporter of equal rights, no matter sex, race, background, or sexual orientation. She supported a woman’s right to make medical decisions about her own body, and she viewed sex as one’s most important way of expressing yourself to another. But she was very much against sex for the sake of pure pleasure. One must first respect and love one’s self and also the sexual partner. She was not about winning at all costs, either. In fact, ‘winning’ is not part of the Objectivist vernacular. Rand’s core principle of ‘rational self-interest’, which many wrongly equate with ‘selfishness’, actually means that you behave in a way that is best for you in the context of understanding and respecting other’s right to do the same. Violence, cheating, or underhandedness is never acceptable. And gluttony is the antithesis of Objectivism. Collect all you want, build all you want, but it is always earned through creativity and hard work. Even a cursory reading of her work defines these values.
Evidently, Prof Boisvert is only interested in the morals and ethics that speak to his point of view. In his article he failed to show direct cause and effect concerning any of the behaviors he criticises. He also failed to define what he means by ‘cultural decline’, except for implying that as a society we are pulling further and further away from Christian mores. His lack of objectivity is a distress signal of the actual decay in our education system and society, more than anything else. Hopefully his students can think for themselves and see through his ruse of proselytizing under the guise of education.
Dr Jeff Thurston, Columbus, Ohio
Are Philosophers Stoned?
We know that philosophy is consequential
in seeking answers to human potential
And to see if our presence in the universe
is in fact a blessing or a bane and curse
There were philosophers who were brought to the brink
of insanity, as they were compelled to question, and to think
So, philosophers belong to the kind
that risk stability of mind
That’s why they get paid to ask questions daring
And to sit around, drink, smoke, and do a lot of staring.
Yet not only do philosophers sit and stare
They also reflect, contemplate, and think
But sometimes little is produced in that chair
So they must reach for that bottle and drink!
Wolfgang Niesielski, USA