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A Pool of Philosophical Reflections • Arendt versus Anti-Semitism • Entertainment, Ancient & Modern • Additional Maths Problems • Back To Reality • Both Philosophical & Vegetable

A Pool of Philosophical Reflections

Dear Editor: In Issue 158 Eldar Sarajlic claims that “We do philosophy when we perceive how things are in the world.” This is too weak, as it fails to distinguish philosophy from science. Better to understand philosophy by contrasting it with science. Science is about things, or how things are in the world; whereas philosophy is about how we think about things. And since we use concepts to think communicable thoughts, the dominant method in philosophy is conceptual analysis.

This idea of philosophy was prominent in the mid to late twentieth century, but fell out of favour amongst those who viewed conceptual analysis narrowly, as ‘ordinary language philosophy’. But it is much deeper than how we use words; or perhaps a better metaphor is, ‘more elevated’: philosophy is a meta or second order pursuit. So the philosophy of history is about how we think about past events; philosophy of mathematics is about the concepts used in mathematics; and so on for other first order disciplines. And metaphysics is how we think about reality.

Edwin Wilkinson, Linlithgow, Scotland

Dear Editor: I think Dr Jeuk’s article, ‘What Happened to Philosophy?’ in Issue 158 describes obstacles to effective philosophy (and other disciplines) that have been in plain sight for decades.

Jeuk outlines how three structural aspects of modern academic practice work to stifle thinking: overspecialization, obligatory consideration of what’s considered ‘the current debate’, and the ‘single principle’ argument. Professional academics feel pressure to be published in respected journals. But those journals, and other publishers, have adopted these conventions so strictly they’re now inescapable requirements.

I want to introduce systems thinking in support of this argument. Dr Jeuk uses the term ‘systematic’ (methodical) but I suggest ‘systemic’ (relating to a system as a whole) is more helpful. It’s how the three aspects he cites work as a system, interacting with each other, that makes them so pernicious. Like many systems that have evolved rather than been designed, the system acts negatively, in this case imposing a strait-jacket on thinking. For a field that contributes to the betterment of humanity, this practice is inane, if not insane.

There is every likelihood we have more great minds at work around the world now than were at work at any point in history. We need to set them free.

Graham Leggett, West Sussex

Arendt versus Anti-Semitism

Dear Editor: Georgia Arkell’s pertinent illustrations of Arendt’s insights on totalitarianism in Issue 158 can be augmented by Arendt’s own words: “Any real catastrophe in Israel would affect me more deeply than almost anything else” (Arendt to Mary McCarthy). As the first post-modern political theorist, Arendt may have rethought the nature of political action, centring on the paradoxes of human rights and how they could be politically guaranteed, the tensions between rights and institutions entrusted with their protection, and the balance between nation, state and ‘national consciousness’. Yet as a legal analyst, Arendt was skilled in the art of manipulating evidence in her various identities: Jewish, liberal-democratic, socialist, Marxist, humanitarian academic – but her reducing Heidegger’s Nazi year to ‘an error of judgement’ was truly ‘banal’! But she also wrote, “I cannot get over the extermination factories… What happens when human beings are stripped of the right to have rights, no law existing for them and cut off from the world of the living?…The concentration camps are the laboratories where changes in human nature are tested… An organised attempt was made to eradicate the concept of the human being.” (Hannah Arendt: Twenty Years Later, 1996, p.140).

For Arendt, the European Jews of her parents’ generation were politically inexperienced, underestimated anti-Semitism, sought social acceptance and assimilation instead of securing their political and legal rights, and did not understand a political party that put itself above the law (p.319). In Aufbau, 26/12/1941, she wrote: “Ever since the birth of political anti-semitism, Jewish theoreticians have been preparing the Jewish people for defeatism… No one has ever found a political answer that addresses anti-semitism, and Weizmann’s statement that the answer was to build up Palestine has proved to be a dangerous lunacy.” (Jewish Writings, 2007) And in a 1942 article ‘A Way Toward the Reconciliation of Peoples’, she concludes: “Anti-Semitism turned out to be the agent of destructive fermentation for the entire European world.” She also warned of disastrous consequences for all marginalised peoples: “Conditions of radical atomisation jeopardise meaningful freedom”, and deduced there was no protection for Jews involved in bad bargaining via Jewish Councils or Zionist emissaries: “The notion that we can use our enemies for our own salvation has always been to me the ‘original sin of Zionism’.” (‘The Jew As Pariah: A Hidden Tradition’, 1944). Anti-semitism, as she predicted, was related to paranoia, millennial fantasy, homicidal hatred, and political cynicism. She concludes: “Anti-semitism, imperialism, totalitarianism… have demonstrated that human dignity needs a new guarantee, a new political principle in a new law, whose validity must comprehend the whole of humanity.”

Mike Bor, London

Entertainment, Ancient & Modern

Dear Editor: There were several articles I particularly enjoyed in Issue 157. However, the one that really got me thinking was ‘Nostalgia, Morality & Mass Entertainment’ by Adam Kaiser. I have often been bemused by the popularity among adults of cartoonish movies, especially those of an excessively violent nature. Mr Kaiser makes a good point when he explains that one reason for this childish amusement is that adults prefer not to think about the deeper issues of life and death: “Audiences want to immerse themselves in a simpler world.” Since I am currently reading Martha Nussbaum’s The Fragility of Goodness, I was pleased to come across a footnote of hers on p.15 in which she makes a similar point. She believes in delving earlier than Christianity’s beginning, going right back to the Ancient Greeks. Should one read Greek tragedies, one could “see how well the Greeks articulate intuitions and responses that human beings have always had to these problems.” Ideally, though, one would not only read these enlightening dramas, but also be privileged enough to see them portrayed on stage. Self-knowledge and emotional understanding could be much better achieved in this manner, than by viewing some of the current popular productions.

Only in a Utopia, methinks…

Marnie McGrath, Chilliwack, British Columbia

Additional Maths Problems

Dear Editor: In ‘Solving the Mystery of Mathematics’ (Issue 157), Jared Warren gives an admirably lucid and at least initially persuasive defence of ‘conventionalism’. But his defence raises some puzzling questions. Speaking of what he calls ‘conceptual truths’ such as ‘bachelors are unmarried’, he says that “the rules of language are the source of [their] truth” then going on to say that mathematics should be understood in the same way: “Our conventional rules for using mathematical terms like ‘number’, ‘zero’… determine our mathematical concepts. Conventional rules are the source of mathematical truth.” However, we need to ask which is the language whose rules are supposed to make ‘bachelors are unmarried’ true? It cannot be English, since that truth about bachelors would remain just as true even if the English language had never existed. Equally it cannot be true in virtue of the rules of any other language. In short, there is no language whose rules make it true that bachelors are unmarried. What is true, is that a truth a given sentence in English (in 2023) expresses, is determined by the rules of English (in 2023). But the truth which is thereby expressed owes nothing to any facts about English (in 2023). Parallel remarks apply to Warren’s account of mathematics. The mathematical truth that 1+1=2 cannot arise solely from the rules governing our use of mathematical signs, since we can change those rules at any time without in the least affecting the underlying mathematical truth. Even if the human race had never existed, and had therefore never formulated any rules governing mathematical signs, 1+1 would still equal 2. The rules which we have created for the uses of our symbols ‘1’ and ‘+’ and ‘2’ determine which truth we are expressing if we say ‘1+1=2’: but the truth of what we say is not dependent on those rules.

Warren rightly stresses that mathematical truths are eternal, necessary, and objective; but our linguistic conventions are none of those, and therefore cannot be the source of those eternal truths.

Nick Everitt, Norfolk

Dear Editor: In Issue 157, Jared Warren seeks to Solve the Mystery of Mathematics through conventionalism. He is wonderfully wrong. Wonderful, because he writes with panache. But let me illustrate why he is wrong, or rather, only half right – which fails to meet his purpose of demystifying mathematics.

As he says, conventionalism “is the idea that mathematical truths are a byproduct of our linguistic conventions.” He goes on, “Our rules determine what we mean and what we mean alone determines what is mathematically true.” So what’s wrong – or half-right – with that?

Imagine you’re a passionate advocate of metrification. You start with angles: ‘This business of 360 degrees in a circle is so messy, let’s make it a neat 100 degrees’ you think. Suddenly, there are 25 degrees in a right angle. Provided we all agree, there is no problem.

Buoyed with success, you go on to the ratio between the diameter and circumference of the circle. “This is even more messy!” you exclaim. “Pi is such an awkward number. So let’s change our convention and make pi a nice round metric number: say, ten.” But dear oh dear. However many of us agree with this change (even if it’s all of us), we are stuck. Maths will no longer work, pure or applied.

The value for pi as we specify it, is only true within the base 10 system. We have a different way of representing its value within a binary or duodecimal system. That much is a conventional truth. But whatever numbering system it’s expressed in, the underlying value of pi just is what it is – whatever we think, and whether we’re there to think it or not.

Jon Cape

Dear Editor: Thank you for the article on mathematics in Philosophy Now 157. More specifically, thank you to author Jared Warren for asking the important question of what math is and what abstract, human-concocted notions we imagine when we refer to mathematical concepts. It’s a good question, worthy of exploration. However, I take issue with his referring to math as a ‘mystery’.

Looking back through history, we can clearly see why languages were invented, how they’ve evolved, and where their strengths and weaknesses lie. Imagining an abstract thought is not a mystery; rather, it’s a human superpower.

Math was invented as a language so we could communicate with each other about quantities. Languages created by humans are not meant to be universal, even if the concepts they attempt to communicate are universal truths. Just so, math as a language can enable individuals to communicate abstract concepts, like the number four. So his claiming math to be ‘mysterious’ is akin to referring to the English or the French languages as ‘mysterious’.

Rahul Dhingra, Barcelona

Back To Reality

Dear Editor: My sincere thanks to Will Bynoe on his succinct and perceptive summary of John Austin’s philosophy in Issue 157. However, struggling through Austin’s book Sense and Sensibilia for a second time last year, I was struck by how his fascinating and painstaking analysis of foibles and interesting distinctions in English were seldom explicitly marshalled towards any conclusion.

In the book, Austin is arguing against A J Ayer’s claim that we directly see sense data rather than objects. In the case of illusions and hallucinations, says Ayer, there may be nothing in the real world corresponding to what is perceived, so something else – sense data – must be the object of perception. One chapter of Sense and Sensibilia is devoted to the distinctions between ‘look’, ‘appear’, and ‘seem’. These words associated with illusions often have no implication of non-existence. Indeed, if I say it seems as if someone is speaking to me, or it appears to be so, it may actually be the case that someone is speaking to me. One might expect Ayer to disagree, but if someone says ‘I only seem to be hearing voices’, then pretty clearly I am implying these voices’ nonexistence in the world outside my head. Ayer is suggesting all our perceptions are like this and not directly of something real’. This is reasonably clear in the case of delusions and hallucinations, while not in that of illusions, as Austin repeatedly emphasises. In summary, when Ayer says the objects of hallucinations are not real we know he means they do not relate to anything in the world. The distinction between a delusory and a real pink elephant in this context is crystal clear. Austin’s discussion of the uses of the words ‘seem’, ‘appear’ and ‘looks like’, together with that of ‘real’ is (I so want to say ‘seems’) largely irrelevant to the argument. Nonetheless, as Bynoe states, Austin’s pursuit of words that contrast with such philosophical terminology as ‘real’ is an invaluable first step to clearing away the scrub. My worry is that Austin seldom then rolls up his sleeves to deal with the substantial issues which remain.

Peter W. Keeble, Harrow, London

Dear Editor: I’m a medical doctor and emergency physician in Costa Rica, and an eternal reader of your magazine. I want to write to you about the unknown.

It’s the unknown that excites the ardor of scholars who otherwise would wither with boredom. Yet every effort to get out of our comfort zone generates an overwhelming resistance that attacks our perception of reality every time we try to modify it. It is a part of our nature to feel uncertainty, even bewilderment, in the face of the unknown.

In the Timaeus, Plato introduces the term noúmeno, which designates the object of intellectual knowledge, or what is accessible only to the understanding. It represents everything that cannot be perceived in the tangible world of sensations and which can only be reached through reasoning. As Kant argued, outside its representation in our way of perceiving it, the thing in itself is not the object of our senses, so is not of our direct knowledge.

Frequently doing activities with a high level of challenge stimulates the Anterior Cingulate Cortex, which happens to be the control center of the white matter tracts in the brain, in addition to suppressing the activity of the amygdala, which is strongly associated with an increase in the ability to face complex situations, or resilience. This turns the ACC into an interface between cognition and emotion, which allows humans to regulate those functions for efficient and assertive responses for achieving goals.

The cognitive psychologist Donald Hoffman takes as his starting point the idea that reality may not be just as we perceive it. He says the world consists first, of conscious agents and their experiences. These can be modelled and empirically explored in the normal scientific way, using theories that explain the biology behind the conscious mind. Hoffman proposes on this basis that each individual perceives an illusion which is in turn a multimodal user interface with the world. Reality does not resemble what represents it. Instead our ‘interface’ is formated in way useful to you, the user.

When we actively and intentionally embark on transforming reality, it is impossible to evade the personal transformation that also occurs. Raising consciousness towards the universal infringes that uncomfortable pain so attached to the action of ‘changing skin’. Yet we overlook it, giving rise to biases in our self-reflection – biases that could influence the language with which we interpret ourselves and others. This is why contemplation of each scenario becomes absolutely indispensable, to get out of unconscious patterns of thought.

How can we then ensure that our thoughts and introspections are free of bias? And to what extent can self-contemplation lead us to the summit of Maslow’s pyramid: that is, to self-realization in all its meaning? It is precisely where the questions and the brainstorm arise that raises the level of consciousness enough to be able to discern and reflect on the ideas we generate, increasing our cognitive revolution and reshaping the learning process to be able to position ourselves as individuals at the center. This is how we change paradigms; this is how we become fully reflective entities; this is how we advance in life, because this is how we manage to turn free will into something more than intellectual, but rather, something tangible in our actions.

Applause to you and to all of us who choose the path of self-knowledge, changing our skin voluntarily, exposing vulnerability, embracing the unknown, annihilating comfort, and taking the reins of free will through the elevation of consciousness by personal growth!

Dr Elena Vega, Costa Rica

Dear Editor: One thing that has bothered me for years now is that all serious philosophy seems to have abandoned the need for reality. This can be seen in Schrödinger’s cat in the box. As long as the box remains closed, we cannot possibly know whether the cat is alive or dead, or even actually in the box. The only really useful philosophic comment is therefore: “Open the box!”

In the real world, a comparable condition might be two human groups, one saying, “Those people are communists and therefore bad,” and the other saying “We are communist and therefore good.” More to the point is how each group treats people. What they say about themselves and each other is just a diversion from the practical reality.

Can we not therefore try to create a philosophical practice that emphasizes reality? Certainly it would be difficult, but it could lead to something better than purely theoretical exercises.

Roderick Rees, Woodinville, WA

Both Philosophical & Vegetable

Dear Editor: I’ve just started an MA on Existential Coaching. The fiction about Heidegger’s Onion in 157 was an inspiration to our class, raising an interesting debate and generating a poem from the Carrot’s perspective:

Kierkegaard’s Carrot

To understand, to self-reflect,
The carrot’s journey we can’t neglect.
While onions cry to join the soup’s embrace,
To blend into that mingled space,
The carrot turns with steadfast grace,
“I make choices to find my place.”
No stew to join, no pot to share,
In its solitude it has no care,
No chef or recipe to guide.
The carrot makes choice from deep inside.
“I’ll be a juice!” it declared with pride,
Pressed, pure essence, self-actualised.
I can learn from this concealed root,
And have hope in my existential pursuit.

Laura Birnbaum, London

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