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Private Wittgenstein Dismissed • Vive La France • Men are for Dogs, Women for Cats • Sporting Chances? • Finding Further Fault With Foucault • Argument? What Argument? • Abandon Deism, or Abandon God? • God, Being & Time • On Creative Regret
Private Wittgenstein Dismissed
Dear Editor: According to Les Jones in ‘Plaiting Gravy’ in Issue 153, Wittgenstein “demolished the possibility of a strictly personal language developed inside one’s own head” and argued that “understanding is a public phenomenon.” Yet surely understanding is something that occurs within a consciousness, otherwise it doesn’t constitute understanding. A particular understanding may occur just within one consciousness or it may occur in more than one, but it doesn’t exist outside the particular minds that experience it. The understanding of meanings does not require communication with others. I can certainly decide to use a system of symbols that only I understand.
According to one interpretation, Wittgenstein was actually arguing against the possibility of a language that couldn’t be translated into a collectively comprehensible one, rather than one which merely hadn’t been translated. But even in the case of a language that refers to things that only one person can understand, I don’t see why that shouldn’t be possible.
I can never know if someone else means the same as I do by a word such as ‘pain’, that describes a privately felt sensation. Nevertheless, I mean something by that word when I use it.
Wittgenstein appears to have thought that the meaning of words could not be established except by reference to something external that’s independent of one’s private experiences. However, there doesn’t seem to be a reason why a person cannot know what they mean when they refer to those kind of experiences. (Admittedly, if, on a previous occasion they referred to those experiences, they may later forget exactly what they were referring to; but they may also remember.) Also, the idea that things which are external to the mind or which are ‘public phenomena’ can be used to prove something, while things which are in the private realm of consciousness cannot, seems to be the reverse of the truth. On the contrary, one cannot correctly deny the existence of one’s own consciousness – it is all that one ever experiences – and one cannot prove the existence of anything outside it.
Peter Spurrier, Halstead, Essex
Vive La France
Dear Editor: Manon Royet in Issue 153 seems confused in criticising French philosophy as being irrelevant but then citing French politicians quoting philosophers in recent electioneering. One certainly doesn’t hear British politicians quoting philosophers. I doubt most Australian politicians could even spell ‘philosophy’, let alone quote it.
She also criticised the 1978 French law banning the collection of ethnic or race details. It results in everyone being treated the same, she laments. In Australia, the opposite attitude has resulted in a proposal to create a separate section of parliament to give a voice to 3.2% of the population. A ridiculous token measure which will do nothing to help the hopeless plight of this 3.2%, who, if they were treated with the same rules and regulations as the rest of the community, would be much better off.
Paul Graziotti, Dalkeith, Western Australia
Dear Editor: I have to humbly object to some comments expressed in the ‘French Philosophy Now’ article by Manon Royet (Issue 153). She asks: can you name a French philosopher who is still writing? But of course. How can she possibly have omitted the great Bernard-Henri Levy? There is not a single mention of him in her article. Levy encompasses everything French philosophy was all about in years past, as well as today, his books and articles too numerous to mention here. A great omission in my opinion.
And yes, I should also mention the cafes and salons where vivid philosophical discussions take place, a favorite pastime not found in many other cities. French thinkers are alive and well today, and here to stay.
Marina Hall, Anti-thesis philosophical forum, Chevy Chase, Maryland
Men are for Dogs, Women for Cats
Dear Editor: I very much enjoyed reading Ansu Louis’s article, ‘The Bataillean-Freudian Cat’ in Issue 152, although I was surprised that it made no mention of one often-mentioned aspect of the cat/dog debate: the gender of their human companions. Dogs have generally been thought of as companions for males – in part because of their roles in agrarian communities – while cats have generally been thought of as companions for females. In my experience, this firm belief still dominates. With very few exceptions, any conversation I have with males which mentions felines, however innocuous the reason, elicits a reaction in their faces akin to physical pain. When pressed for even a reasonable explanation, nothing more enlightening is offered than “I don’t like cats”, or the more extreme “I hate cats.” Any mention of dogs, however, and all will be in resounding agreement that the canine can do little or no wrong. There’s always a caveat: the dog in question must not be anything remotely ‘girly’ like a Yorkshire Terrier, Pekingese or Chihuahua. No, the dog must ‘manly’ (though not human ‘manly’) in appearance, capable of seeing off assailants whilst always obeying its ‘master’.
Of course, many males like cats, but seemingly less so than females, possibly because males are reluctant to admit it, perhaps because of social pressures around masculinity. Or perhaps the male preference for dogs is something to do with many males (consciously or unconsciously) needing to control, to dominate, order about, and receive unquestioning obedience in return. Such (alpha) males are unlikely to ever like something that refuses to obey their every command, or even compromise; and cats more than anything perfectly fit the description of disobedient, uncompromising independence.
Stefan Badham, Portsmouth
Dear Editor: In Issue 152, Professor Matt Qvortrup wrote an insightful ‘Shorts’ on sport’s relationship with philosophy. Qvortrup referenced John Rawls’ letter to Owen Fiss in 1981, in which he famously professed his admiration for the game of baseball as conforming to the ideals of his ‘veil of ignorance’. Given the trajectory of professional baseball over the past few decades, I wonder if Rawls would have commented on the racial demographics of the sport. Ai Thu Dang explained that although Rawls’ revision of his book A Theory of Justice did not specifically include race, in Political Liberalism, Rawls acknowledged the role of race in the veil of ignorance (‘Eyes wide shut: John Rawls’s silence on racial justice’). In Political Liberalism, Rawls declared “the parties are not allowed to know the social position of those they represent… [or] information about people’s race and ethnic group” (pp.24-25). But we can no longer ignore the racial disparities in baseball. The percentage of African American players in major league baseball has declined over time from 18.5% in 1975 to 6.7% in 2016 (Baseball Demographics, 1947-2016). If race was acknowledged in the veil of ignorance, how could baseball reflect equal opportunity, considering this drop in the percentage of major league African American baseball players? I’d hope that Rawls would have revised his comments in light of the game’s reality.
Grant Sheft, New York
Finding Further Fault With Foucault
Dear Editor: I write in reference to the Brief Lives article on Michael Foucault in Issue 152. The article recognizes the importance of Foucault’s work, identifying him as one of the greatest philosophers of our generation, and references the positive contributions he made. But reflection on the potentially problematic aspects of applying Foucault’s theories seems necessary, and is notable by its absence. Particularly problematic, is the excerpt included in the article from Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, which lists homosexuality and pederasty (men loving boys) together as part of a suite of behaviours that have been subject to social condemnation.
Foucault’s contention that social norms are crafted by powerful interests as mechanisms to entrench social control provides an important lens through which social norms can be considered. This fails however to give due credit to genuine scientific bases for many such classifications; nor does it account for many cases throughout history where social norms appear to have been crafted not to support the strong but to protect the weak. Pederasty is a case in point, as the common (but not unanimous) position of societies throughout history has been to classify it as abhorrent. Unlike homosexuality or heterosexuality, pederasty is necessarily exploitative, as it is defined by the biological reality of the pederast’s superior physical and mental capacity. Applying Mill’s principle of liberty (‘Prevent harm’), social norms which prevent this are just, as exercising these behaviours necessarily harms others.
Mary Jane Streeton, Queensland
Argument? What Argument?
Dear Editor: I read Peter Mullen’s article on the Ontological Argument in Issue 152 with a mixture of interest and incredulity. God may exist, or He may not. I have no way of knowing (although I believe that He does not). But one thing I believe I do know is that the Ontological Argument is transparent nonsense. Decades after my first introduction to it, I still cannot even begin to understand how anybody, including the Reverend Dr. Mullen and Bertie Russell, could take it seriously. This is a mystery matching, to my mind, the mystery of God’s existence.
Let me explain. The Ontological Argument asks us to conceive of the greatest thing that can be conceived. Assuming we can do this, we have a concept. We are then persuaded that we must be conceiving of something that exists, for something that exists is greater than something merely imaginary. Fair enough; we have a concept of something that exists. And that’s it. We’ve taken two short steps to a dead end. The bridge between having a concept of something that exists and having something that actually exists has not been crossed. There is no bridge to cross.
If I’m missing something, and if you or your readers could point out to me what I’m missing, I’ll be very grateful. Otherwise, my belief that the Ontological Argument is transparent nonsense, and not even worth discussing, will remain unchallenged.
Dave Mangnall, Wilmslow, Cheshire
Dear Editor: Excellent breakdown of the Ontological Argument by Peter Mullen in Issue 152. Perhaps instead of choosing a side, I can offer a presupposition that will appease all [Fat chance of that! Ed]: We are all God, and there is nothing outside of God. There could be no conception of existence without its opposite conception, non-existence. Therefore everything we can conceive exists in interdependence with its opposite. With a complete interdependence of everything that exists, we are all God. And I choose the middle path, saying God both exists and doesn’t exist.
Nate Kain, Tacoma, Washington
Abandon Deism, or Abandon God?
Dear Editor: Robert Griffiths’ piece on deism in Issue 152 inspired me to comment here about why I think deism is flawed. Most creators seem intent on engaging and interacting with their creations. For example, an artisan creates a chair to sit on. This is likely the creator’s primary motivation for creating, and why a good creator puts so much love and care into their work. Likewise, I think a good, loving God, as evidenced by our existence and God’s willingness to share it, would not abandon his creation but engage and interact with it through revelation and religion: the Creator must be a God of relationships. However, some parents do abandon their creations.
Michael Pannaralla, Chicago
Dear Editor: Deism, discussed in Issue 152, differs little in practice from atheism. It is the same to us whether the universe arose spontaneously or was created by God, if he never intervenes in our lives.
Natural disasters, such as fires, floods and famines, cause great misery. We inflict terrible harm on each other. As the Bible says, “The wicked prosper and the righteous are afflicted.” So if God intervenes in the world, he must be cruel. If not, he must be indifferent to our suffering. Why then worship or try to obey him?
Perhaps God rewards or punishes us after we die. But there is no evidence of that which would be accepted by a secular court of law or a scientific journal. Also, each of the many religions has a different opinion about the nature of this afterlife and about what beliefs and actions earn reward in it.
What should we do in this situation? We could take Pascal’s Wager and adopt a particular belief just in case it is the right one and will earn us perpetual bliss (assuming that God finds mercenary motives acceptable). We lose nothing if we are wrong. Or should we forget religion and just enjoy ourselves, regardless of the interests of others?
Most of us cannot do that. Our natures make us suffer when others suffer, and we try to relieve their distress. We feel pride when our children or our nation do the same. So, we bring up our children to feel and act as we do, and we want our nation to be compassionate.
But all the many religions can fortify our desire to help others and can bring solace in our own distress, consoling us with ceremony, community, and prayer. Whether they’re based on truth is irrelevant to their effect, in the same way that marriages can be happy when one partner is unaware of the repeated infidelity of the other. Thus untruths can confer more benefit than truth. Consequences are what matter. So, it is good to follow any religion when it helps us and benefits our fellow creatures, and ignore it when its injunctions cause harm to us or others.
Allen Shaw, Leeds
Dear Editor: I read with interest the article ‘God & Humility’ by Benedict O’Connell in Issue 152. On first reading his argument seemed plausible, but the more I thought about it the more questions I had. My main concerns are these.
(1) Why would a philosopher think that humility might help one to know the truth about God? Is there some unique value in humility that helps us determine truth? Could some other virtue such as love or courage be just as helpful? Also, traditional philosophy has not placed a lot of value on humility. The ancient Greeks talked much more about virtues such as courage and temperance than humility. Aristotle did not discuss humility in his Ethics. The Nietzschean hero is more proud and rude than humble and gentle. Philosophy and humility seem like an odd pairing.
(2) How do we define knowledge? What kind of knowledge is most important? In my opinion a rational conclusion reached in a philosophical essay is not as important as some other kinds of knowledge. To me the most important kind of knowledge is the insight that enables me to live a meaningful and joyful life. This kind of knowledge can rarely be demonstrated logically. Can you prove that your car is reliable every time before you take it for a drive? Can you demonstrate that marriage is an effective way to enhance the value of your life? Can you prove that God exists? No, but I for one would find my life much more meaningless and barren without transportation and family and God (I’m not implying that all are of equal value). We often need to take a leap of faith (as one philosopher said) in order to find out by our own experience that something is true.
Daniel Boerman, Hudsonville, Michigan
God, Being & Time
Dear Editor: I write to thank you for Issue 152 of Philosophy Now, which I found particularly interesting with its several articles on the nature of God, Being and Time – though I freely admit that Anthony Proctor’s article on ‘Calling Time’ was beyond me! The only time we can know of is as part of the spacetime which we experience, and this time is logically not contingent on human experience. The creation of spacetime is possibly analogous to the ineffable nature of existence, since spacetime necessitates either a timeless supernatural commencement, or a timeless supernatural Creator, such as was postulated by Anselm (excellently reviewed by Peter Mullen in the same issue). A timeless, causeless commencement of time is logically impossible; therefore spacetime itself necessitates an ineffable supernatural Creator! We can only hope that the timeless Creator will logically understand the ineffable nature of existence and inhabit ultimate reality.
Human conscious experience itself is contingent on spacetime, since of necessity it rides on our physical being. And since spacetime is contingent on the Creator, our conscious experience is contingent on the Creator. Hence, we can reasonably postulate that our conscious experience is weakly analogous to the Creator’s consciousness within spacetime. And so, it is reasonable to postulate that spacetime must have a divine purpose – which to my mind puts in question most deist claims.
If we live and move and have our being in the Creator, and possess our own agency, then given a divine purpose for the creation of spacetime and the evolution of creatures to develop consciousness with agency, there is the real possibility that the Creator would need to communicate with our consciousness. That being the case, we would need to be capable of recognising, and trusting, such communication. And as it happens, we are equipped with a moral sense, as well as a sense of wonder and of agency. We would also need to be capable of choice between being open to receive and trust such communication or being closed to such – which indeed we are! Human claims to know or experience the Creator God are therefore possible, but must of necessity be limited analogies.
Mike Weekes, Reigate, Surrey
On Creative Regret
Dear Editor: With reference to Issue 153’s focus on Creativity, and its article ‘On Regret’, as a fellow creative, and a fellow regretter, I must wonder, do creativity and regret go hand in hand? One day I was fortunate enough to have a great conversation with a then-unknown but now famous multimillionaire monk (who shall not be named for the benefit of this story), who, during his time at the monastery, was told by his teacher that one should only feel regret for one minute, and then move on. One minute.
It’s more common than one might think to say you have ‘no regrets’ one minute, then regret saying that very thing the next. There’s actually a great band right now called The Regrettes, and I promise their music is 100% guilt free! Their latest album Further Joy is a must listen, and is their most philosophical album yet. (I have no affiliation with the band, I just wanted to shout them out.)
Kanako Okiron, Hobart, Tasmania