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Literature is Vital • Passion For Peace! • The Thinker & The Thoughts • Formulating Science • Culture & Its Changes • Which Love, Anyway?

Literature is Vital

Dear Editor: I’d like to make four brief, interconnected points on ‘Plato versus Literature’ in Issue 161.

Firstly, mimesis [art copying life] is less (if at all) a ‘representation’ than it is a re-presentation of reality from a distinctive human perspective. The two are not the same. In merely mimicking reality the former would not serve much of a purpose; it would, indeed, be a needless, inferior re-rendering of the original.

Secondly, in re-presenting, literature is less a mimic than a commentary – a perspective on life, not a re-rendering of it. As such, to be a unique take on aspects of lived experience, it requires interpretation. Never mind poetry or abstract art, even something like a photograph – presumably an ‘actual’ representation of some aspect of reality – is never exactly equivalent to the image represented, given angles, lighting, perspective, choice of subject, context, etc.

Thirdly, as the article’s author Daniel Toré notes, literature, like history, is never a total rendering – an impossibility in itself. Life and reality, unlike literature and history, do not have a distinctive, objectively clear beginning, middle, and end. Rather, literature and history select some aspects, developments, and characteristics, and provide differing perspectives on them. This selection from the totality of existence is the very point of the arts and humanities.

Fourthly, Plato assumes there is a clear objective Truth, in his Forms, and so any re-rendering of them is by definition a dilution or perversion of this objective, unalterable, Truth. But Plato is dead wrong in assuming that the arts mimic the Forms. The Forms might have an independent life of their own, but that has little bearing on the human need to reflect on and ponder the complexities of lived experience and our place in existence. The arts are best suited to this vital, if often thankless, task.

Dr Enrico Cumbo, Toronto

Dear Editor: In your Editorial for PN 161, you mention the surprise you felt on learning that the English Literature departments of universities in the UK and US had begun teaching the ideas of Continental philosophers. This is not as unexpected a development as you imply. After all, you say that, coming from a science background, your own interest in philosophy began with your realization that the sciences require a conceptual clarity that can only be obtained by “close attention to how language works.”

Literature is an art form whose very medium is language, so it is no surprise that the close study of literature should frequently lead to a consideration of the nature of language. Modern theorizing about language was given a new impetus by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913). This not only prompted a proliferation of general theories about language, it also held out the tantalizing prospect that language might be the key to a general understanding of human societies – an ambitious project that became known as ‘Structuralism’.

It wasn’t too long, however, before this dazzling possibility began to reveal troubling self-contradictions, and many erstwhile ‘structuralists’ became sceptical of the project. A new generation began developing this scepticism: the ‘post-structuralists’ had arrived! One of the earliest essays by Jacques Derrida was a critique of structuralist studies of literature. Soon after, in Of Grammatology (1967), Derrida turned to a detailed critique of Saussure’s theories, concluding that they did not give an adequate characterization of the features underlying all language.

These developments were studied with interest by thinkers working in Literature departments: structuralist analyses of literary texts had become common, and a critique of the entire enterprise was obviously of interest. Reading Derrida became a necessary addition to their syllabuses. On the other hand, the majority of Philosophy departments in the Anglo-American world, completely steeped as they were in the Analytic tradition, studiously ignored these discussions, not even paying them sufficient attention to criticize them. As a result, a situation developed that remains largely true: if a student wishes to learn about European Post-Structuralist thinking, they are more likely to find courses within university literature departments than in the philosophy faculties.

Ideas that command justifiable interest will always find ways to propagate themselves. If their flow into academic philosophy is blocked, they will emerge elsewhere. Indeed, it is remarkable that these difficult and often technical writings have been so widely published, reaching receptive readers even outside the hallowed halls of academia. It is worth pondering on this fact in view of the current climate of opinion. The British Government (among others) has redefined the purpose of universities, and now judges them solely by their ability to increase the earning power of their students – this being taken as an ‘objective’ measure of the value of their courses! It is this assumption that underlies the continuing steady reduction in funding for humanities departments (including both Philosophy and English). But, as so often in the past, philosophy will continue to be studied, with official approval or not. It has always proved to be a resilient part of human enquiry, and interest in the subject remains high – as the continuing success of your magazine amply demonstrates.

Peter Benson, London

Passion For Peace!

Dear Editor: In Issue 161, Dr John Clark’s diagnosis is that philosophy is sick. He describes in detail how our worship of the intellect and our disregard for passion has become pathological. How can we cure it? Dr Clark tells us that in order to heal, philosophy must become more passionate!

Also in the same issue, ten mini essays appeared in response to the Question of the Month, ‘How can we achieve world peace?’ Some of the respondents skirted around the question, others expressed a desire to rephrase it, and one or two suggested that peace is of doubtful benefit. No one seemed convinced that peace is possible. There was little or no passion in their responses. But the question itself arises from our compassion, and it demands a positive answer.

One of the greatest philosophers, Shakyamuni Buddha, implored his followers to “Be the master of your mind – don’t let your mind master you!” When I attempted to answer the question, my mind (my intellect) told me that there are many reasons why world peace cannot be achieved, while my heart (passion) insisted that world peace can and will be achieved. I hereby respond to my heart. This is the same principle of ‘intellect and passion’ that John Clark invokes. I believe it can help us find our way out of the doldrums of modern philosophy and with our desperate need for world peace. As Dr Clark explains, “The health of our societies is founded on compassion.” Peace is a compassionate ingredient of a healthy society.

So how can we achieve world peace? The answer in one word is dialogue. We must talk to each other, about peace. Let us develop our deepest instincts for peace through active, friendly human contact. Make light-hearted and good-humoured conversation with family, friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and strangers, including those we don’t like – all of whom breathe the same air and walk on the same earth. Life is ultimately precious and we want to live in harmony with each other and with other species, and with our environment. We the people can thus create a powerful will that politicians must address. Obstacles will appear; use them as fuel to strengthen our resolve and never give up! With commitment and dedication we will succeed – just as the abolition of apartheid in South Africa and the civil rights movement in the United States succeeded. We will succeed, to paraphrase Dr Clark, by abandoning our overrationalising nature and giving ourselves over to the passionate virtue of love. And we must show that we love each other by learning to live in peace and harmony with each other.

Mark A. Bishop, Hastings

Dear Editor: Happy 300th Birthday indeed to Immanuel Kant. Robert Clewis’ article in Philosophy Now 161, ‘Kant The (P)Russian Philosopher?’, was poignant. Russia, and especially the good citizens of the city of Kaliningrad, appear to affirm their famous son. Yet by invading Ukraine in 2022, Russia violated a basic Kantian principle: “No country should interfere in the constitution and government of another state.”

I personally believe that Kant wrote Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch (1795) from the heart. He was no stranger to the impact of military action. He would have been sixteen at the start of the War of Austrian Succession, and in his twenties when it finished. It was a pan-European conflict in which an estimated 750,000 were killed or injured (bear in mind that the population of eighteenth century Paris was only around 600,000). So no wonder the seventy-one year old Kant wanted world peace.

In Perpetual Peace, Kant lists at least two requirements: (1) Countries must be constituted as republics. (2) Countries are to abolish standing armies.

In the eighteenth century, the first requirement was a pious hope. Twenty years before Kant was born, France was an absolute monarchy, ruled by the Sun King, Louis XIV. Yet in 1792 France did indeed become a republic. Yet if republics are difficult to conceive, they are certainly difficult to maintain. France has had five republics from 1792 to the present day. But republics can deliver in terms of democracy. It’s unfortunate that the Spanish Republic of the 1930s is perhaps best known for democracy’s demise. But remember (a) it did rule for some ten years, and (b) it initiated both public works and regional autonomy. And in the twenty-first century, Nepal abolished its monarchy. That country had been a monarchy since 1768.

The second of Kant’s requirements, the abolition of standing armies, also seems a pious hope. Perhaps a more realistic target would be a low military spending/GDP ratio.

Kevin Chubb, Barry

The Thinker & The Thoughts

Dear Editor: According to Dascha Düring and Marcus Düwell, “Human beings orient themselves in the world via judgments; factual, moral, prudential, aesthetic, and all kinds of mixed judgments.” In harmony with this, I find myself passing judgement on Raymond Tallis’s statement “you cannot be aware of thoughts unless you are the individual thinking them” (Issue 160). This statement begs a lot of questions about the nature of consciousness, like, where exactly does the individual begin and end in the wonderland of the human mind?

In Irish parlance it is quite acceptable to talk about ‘the thoughts myself is supplying’ – which happily distinguishes between the thoughts and the consciousness that’s aware of them. And in Buddhist breath meditation, the student is advised to allow their consciousness to rest on an awareness of the bodily act of breathing, and from there to observe thoughts as they arise and fall away, not accepting or identifying with them, but recognizing the various factors that gave rise to them, and thus nullifying them.

In his essay on ‘The Discipline of Assent’ from the same issue of Philosophy Now, Massimo Pigliucci mentions both Epictetus’s Stoical idea that ‘we should never assent with our reflex judgements’ (often experienced as thoughts), and Daniel Kahneman’s modern idea of the mind being divided into System I and System II (fast and slow) modes of operation. In A Hat Full of Sky (2004), after describing ‘first and second thoughts’, Terry Pratchett writes, “Third thoughts are thoughts that watch the world and think all by themselves. They’re rare, and often troublesome.” More recently, Avery Rogers wrote in the Stanford Daily, “Rather than thinking your thoughts, you are more often listening to your thoughts as they come into consciousness. That is, you are the consciousness observing your thoughts, not the thinker creating them” (Nov 11 2019), and Mike Kitko wrote “One of the most liberating days of my life was when I realized that I am not always the thinker of the thoughts, but I am the observer of those thoughts” (Jan 12 2022). It’s obvious therefore that for some people at least, it is quite common to be aware of thoughts without considering yourself to be the entity thinking them.

Gordon J.L. Ramel

Dear Editor: I agree with Raymond Tallis’s argument against ‘illusionism’, in Issue 161. I also share his rejection of physicalism. I think his position is that we seem to be unable to account for consciousness in terms of physical things as physics describes them. I agree with that. However, I think it’s possible to go further and to clearly demonstrate that consciousness is not physical, as follows.

A conscious experience has content. For example, an experience might consist of a view of a tree combined with a sensation of cold. I think it’s often assumed that there is more to an experience than its content. However, given that the content is what is experienced, the experience itself seems to consist of nothing except that content. If that’s correct, it tells us what an experience is: it is precisely the content of the experience. We can now assess whether experiences are physical, by comparing physical things to the contents of experiences. I think the difference that can be shown most clearly is to do with properties physical things have but which experiences lack. For example, everything that is physical has a physical location. By contrast, experience itself does not have such a property; rather, it only has the properties of what is felt, perceived, or thought in the experience. That means that our experiences do not have a property that everything physical does have. Therefore, logically, experiences cannot be physical.

Peter Spurrier, Halstead, Essex

Formulating Science

Dear Editor: In Issue 160, Patrick Brissey claims that scientific arguments are inductive arguments. Did Karl Popper die in vain? No-one nowadays should think that science works by induction! Theories are not sterile extrapolations of data: rather, they derive from our attempts to imagine why the data is like that. These attempts can begin after a single observation. So, if a person burns their hand unexpectedly, they don’t repeat the act multiple times to acquire the data to form a theory by induction. Instead, science proceeds by a process of forming theories then testing predictions made using them (Popper’s ‘conjectures and refutations’), then imagining a better theory to explain any discrepancies; and so on. Theory leads observation as much as follows it. We expect the sun to rise tomorrow not merely because it has happened before, but because we have a long-refined understanding of why it happens. This same understanding predicts that in time sunrises will cease, as the Earth becomes orbitally locked, with one face permanently towards the Sun.

So, against the idea behind induction, science does not assume the future will resemble the past. On the contrary, it can predict things not yet seen, such as the planet Uranus, or the missing elements from Mendeleev’s periodic table.

Paul Western

Dear Editor: Patrick Brissey gives an interesting review of David Hume’s paradox of inductive reasoning. However, I do not think he gives the scientific method its due. Science does more that just look for instances of one thing following another: the underlying mechanisms are also explored. This allows scientists to arrive at general principles. The combination of empirical observation and analysis leading to mechanistic explanations provides a tool for understanding nature which goes beyond simply noticing instances of the future resembling the past. Rather, theories are developed which can unite a multiplicity of evidence and which have the power to accurately predict new results.

Brissey offers several hypotheses concerning what might happen to a cue ball when it is struck by another; but he doesn’t explore why the different hypotheses might be accorded different probabilities. This seriously underestimates the evidence supporting a belief that the moving cue ball will push the ball it hits, and not something else. To take one more extreme hypothesis he suggests – that the cue ball might hover over the table after being struck – this lacks plausibility not only because past experiences suggest otherwise, but because that would go against a whole long-assembled theory of nature.

Brissey asks why we think the sun will rise tomorrow. A scientific explanation is more complicated than “Because we saw it rise yesterday and the day before…”, and connects to a complex set of theories which unite vast arrays of observations.

Colin Walsh, Dublin

Culture & Its Changes

Dear Editor: I found it somewhat paradoxical that Tim Madigan, following the lead of Thomas Duddy, wanted to broaden our conception of philosophy to embrace the wider culture (Issue 160, Irish Philosophy), and yet wanted “to avoid narrowly nationalistic or sectarian conceptions of Irishness.” The Catholicism of Ireland has been a dominant feature of its culture for centuries. If you embrace the wider culture, then you must accept the influence of that religion.

When England became Protestant in 1530, Ireland remained Catholic, and that difference generated long-lasting hostility between the two countries. Meanwhile, Catholicism defined Irish culture and shaped its history up to now. However, in the latter part of the twentieth century, Catholic strictures on divorce, contraception, gay rights and abortion were challenged, and those laws became more secular and liberal. Those changes imply a change of philosophy in a core part of Irish culture. This seems to have been driven by media events like The Late Show and Father Ted. But the influence of Catholicism remains strong (for example, 90% of primary schools in Ireland are Catholic). The Catholic church reveres Thomas Aquinas, and encourages young thinkers to become Thomists. A young person in Ireland faces a hard struggle to escape the force-field of Catholicism and find a world-view free of its assumptions. That’s why I agree whole-heartedly with Irish President Michael D. Higgins as quoted in the Editorial of Issue 160: “The teaching of philosophy is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal to empower children into acting as free and responsible subjects.” Hear, hear!

Les Reid, Edinburgh

Which Love, Anyway?

Dear Editor: I read with interest the article ‘Islamic Philosophers on Love’ by AmirAli Maleki (PN 160), and I’m encouraged to offer my view of this complex feeling. While many languages have only one word for love, the nuances and depths of the myriad feelings, emotions and experiences often require a more elaborate depiction of love. Indeed, given its multifaceted nature and the various forms it can take, a single, monolithic concept of love can be very limiting: How can we equate al-Farabi’s love for divinity with an attraction to a classmate, each with their own hormonal bases? How do we define the spiritual bind between Rumi and Shams of Tabriz? Where does the raging battle of flesh and spirit in Hermann Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund fall? In fact, I was hoping that Maleki, a scholar of hermeneutics, could elucidate the idea of love further for us non-philosophers.

Mehrdad Nadji, Coral Gables, FL

p.s. I ‘love’ reading Mr Maleki’s articles, including his engaging interviews.

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