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News: Summer/Autumn 1998

London debates • the Pope pronounces • New York certifies • the £2000 Encyclopaedia • Lyotard Dies • Hoerster Gagged • Philosophy For All

The Great Debate

In July, Londoners were treated to a great debate between proponents of the continental approach to philosophy and their Anglo-Saxon opponents. Three debates were held to mark the launch of Alan Sokal’s new book Intellectual Impostures. Each was packed to the gills and the third talk, at the ICA, needed an extra room with a video link-up to allow all those turning up to participate.

The first and third meetings dealt mainly with Sokal’s thesis that Continental philosophy has underestimated the reliability of science and the knowledge which it has discovered. These discussions centred on relativism, its consequences and its limitations.

The second meeting, at the London School of Economics, focussed on the objectivity of scientific knowledge and an in-depth discussion of relativism. The meetings were far more popular than the organisers had expected: over a thousand people came to the various discussions. The book has also sold well: around 10,000 copies in the UK alone at the last count.

Shell Sponsorship Debate

Much recent controversy has been caused by the sponsorship of the Centre for Philosophical Studies at King’s College London by Shell Oil, bugbear of environmentalists (the Brent Spar platform) and of human rights activists (Nigeria). Various student groups argued that by accepting its sponsorship, the Centre was lending Shell a spurious respectability.

Subsequently Peter Singer, the Australian philosopher and animal rights activist, refused to appear at an environmental conference at the Centre because of its links with Shell. At a meeting called by the Philosophy Department, staff and students voted narrowly not to break off links with Shell, but instead to express concern to Shell about the reports of its activities in Nigeria.

Philosophical Counsellors to be Certified

In Albany, New York, Assemblyman Reuben Diaz, Jr. is currently promoting a bill to regulate philosophical counselling.

The bill “will provide individuals who wish to become philosophical practitioners with a state certification attesting that such person has acquired a certain level of education, training and expertise.” If the bill is passed, a state board will be established to deal with matters of licensing and professional conduct.

To be eligible for a license, would-be practitioners will have to have a doctorate in philosophy, two years supervised employment in “an appropriate philosophical practice” and pass an examination. However, the final section of the bill exempts government employees, academics and apprentice practitioners from needing certification to inflict their skills upon the longsuffering New York general public. Philosophical practitioners themselves are divided over the bill with some (such as Louis Marinoff) strongly backing it and others opposing it (see letter on p.34).

Papal Encyclical on Philosophy

The Pope is preparing an encyclical on modern philosophy, probably focussing on its corrupting influence on belief. It will be issued (in Latin) in the Autumn. John Paul II has long had an interest in philosophy and metaphysics – and been much influenced by the writings of Edmund Husserl and Max Scheler who argued that certain knowledge is attainable through phenomenology. The Pope has also been influenced by Neo-Thomism, which aims at a similar defence of faith. It has been argued that 20th century continental philosophy has largely been a reaction to Husserl, and such thinkers as Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty certainly spent much effort on attacking Husserl’s theses. It thus seems unlikely that the encyclical will look kindly on recent continental developments such as the rise of postmodernism and post-structuralism.

(Reporter: Fr. Dominic Kirkham).

New Philosophy Encyclopaedia

Dictionaries come and go, but the publication of a multi-volumed philosophical encyclopaedia is a rarer event. The 1967 Macmillan 8 volume blockbuster was the classic of its time, but Routledge reckon that Macmillan’s time has gone and have now announced the publication of their own contribution to the genre which can be yours for a mere £1,995 ($2,995).

This equips you with a CD-ROM and 10 rather large books edited by Edward Craig and written by some 1,500 stalwarts dotted about the globe. The 6 million words cover a myriad of subjects showing how research into matters historical and continental have burgeoned over the intervening decades. About 25% of the entries relate to Eastern philosophy.

Lyotard’s Death

Jean-François Lyotard died on 21st April aged 73. One of the leading continental philosophers, he was a towering figure in the world of postmodernism. He criticised the various disciplines of ‘objective knowledge’ such as the physical sciences.

His most famous work, La Condition postmoderne, (1979) dealt with the destruction of the great cosmic schemes of Religion, the Enlightenment and Marxism in modern times. These ‘great historical narratives’, demolished by modern capitalism and remaining as damaged shards, could be explored by philosophy but not treated objectively.

A close friend of Jacques Derrida, Lyotard was lionised in America and spent much of his teaching career there.

Professor Forced to Resign

Prof. Norbert Hoerster holds two doctorates (philosophy and law). Until Winter 1997 he was the chairman for Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy at the University of Mainz,Germany. His main academic interests are in questions of religion, abortion, euthanasia, and the philosophy of law.

One of the legacies of the Nazi period is an acute public antipathy to anything resembling eugenics or euthanasia. (see Peter Singer’s experiences, reported in Issue 15) Prof. Hoerster’s subtle views were labelled as being pro-euthanasia, and at a conference in Trier last year, police had to protect him against rioters. After increasing problems including boycotts of his lectures, he has now resigned, complaining bitterly about a lack of active support from the university authorities for his right to free speech.

Death of Henry Blumenthal

On 23rd April Professor Henry Blumenthal of Liverpool University fell from a fifth floor window at the University of Catania, Sicily, which he was visiting to give some lectures. He may have suffered a stroke while leaning out. Blumenthal was an expert on the philosophers of late antiquity long before the study of that period became fashionable. His most recent book was Aristotle and the NeoPlatonists in Late Antiquity (Duckworth). He was working on a critical edition of Plotinus’ Enneads 4.3-5.

One for All and All for One

May saw the launch of Philosophy For All, an energetic and friendly organisation which aims “to encourage philosophical debate between professional and non-professional philosophers in a non-technical way.” The new group holds a monthly ‘Kant’s Cave’ evening at a London pub, consisting of a lecture followed by a brief discussion and general socialising. They also have a fortnightly ‘Philosophy Walk’ in the countryside. From October they will be holding a debate once a month on “issues at the focus of modern and 20th century philosophy”. And from September they will offer introductory courses on Chinese philosophy (by Anja Steinbauer) and Indian philosophy (by Dr Joseph Sen).

PFA is run by volunteers, many of whom are linked in some way to the philosophy department at The City University. See Society Columns p.48 and What’s On p.50 for more details, or visit the PFA website at http://members.aol.com/hronir/pfa.htm

Serbian Plea to World

Pressure from Milosevic’s bully boys has provoked Yugoslav academics to issue an open letter calling for international support – see p.40 for text.

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