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News: Winter 1999/2000

Thinkers in ‘Nazi language’ row • University philosophy threatened • Kojéve was a spy • Exiled philosopher seeks presidential pardon

Prenatal Selection??

A philosophical debate about the ethics of gene technology has turned into a public controversy in Germany, making the newspaper headlines for weeks. It all started at a conference on Heidegger held this July in Bavaria: at the convention, Peter Sloterdijk, professor of philosophy and aesthetics at Karlsruhe University, presented a paper praising the possible merits of gene technology, which could enable an elite community to exercise ‘prenatal selection’. Sloterdijk argued that gene technology would serve as a highly effective technique among more conventional ones, such as education and choice of spouse, to create an improved human race, to optimise human potential. Moral philosopher Ernst Tugendhat commented: “Why does Sloterdijk use the word ‘selection’? When I hear this word in this context, I think instinctively of the selection on the platform at Auschwitz. Is that just my problem?” – Clearly not, as Sloterdijk’s argument has met with widespread criticism and outrage in German intellectual circles, and involved him in a bitter feud with Jürgen Habermas.

University’s Death Sentence for Philosophy

In September authorities of Liverpool John Moores University announced their decision to close all philosophy programmes with effect from the end of this academic year. Sources close to the degree assert that John Moores had for some years operated a small but in academic terms rather successful BA Philosophy degree, which had been doing well in recruiting students and developing in them an interest in the subject, and that it seemed strange that at a time of general expansion in the discipline and wider interest in it a university should seek to abandon it. When contacted by Philosophy Now, the press office at John Moores said that the closure was due to “low student demand”. This claim is denied by other sources who maintain that there were no applications to this year’s first year because the University closed the course down and forbade any recruitment to the first year. Before, the course is said to always have recruited more than had been required.

If you would like to voice your opinion on the sudden closure, please write to the Vice Chancellor, Professor Peter Toyne, Egerton Court, 2 Rodney Street, Liverpool L3 5UX, with a copy of the letter to Dr Maureen Williams, Chair Elect, Board of Govenors, at the same address.

Queen’s Rep Marries Philosopher King

Adrienne Clarkson, Canada’s newest governor general, married the philosopher, John Ralston Saul this past summer. In her inaugural speech this October she quoted her husband – with tongue in cheek and to the delight of the audience – several times. She also made it clear that they come as a team. John Ralston Saul is the author of Voltaire’s Bastards and several books on politics. Both he and Clarkson are devout Canadians and will no doubt address the issue of Quebec separation as well as improve the philosophical well being of Canada.

Call for Support of Philosophy at Australian Universities

Professor Graham Priest, Head of Philosophy at the University of Queensland, has publicly expressed his concern over reduced funding of the humanities in general, and particularly philosophy, at Australian universities: “The reduction in support for the humanities is not a disaster merely for our universities, but for society as a whole. A country that does not recognise the importance of, nor provide support for, basic intellectual inquiry – a country that allows others to do its thinking, to write its history, to analyse its culture – is a country that has given away the resources with which it defines and reflects upon itself.” Priest appealed to the Australian government to recognise the importance of academic work in the humanities, which he described as “already seriously endangered”, and to provide the funding necessary to “reverse this decline”.

The Spy who was a Philosopher

The French secret service recently revealed that the prominent Russianborn French philosopher Alexandre Kojéve (1902-1968) had been working for the KGB for thirty years. Kojéve’s seminars on Hegel at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Paris during the 1930s influenced the thought of some of the most outstanding philosophers of the 20th Century, among them Georges Bataille, Jacques Lacan, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. His philosophy of history inspired Francis Fukuyama’s famous idea of the ‘end of history’.

Boston Sage Dies

Burton Dreben died this past summer. He was a student of Quine’s in the 1940’s and then went off to England where, amongst other things, he taught John Austin logic with a deck of cards: The game was called Symboli or Case and for some time afterwards Austin believed it was the only way to learn logic. He was known as a conversationalist and published virtually nothing. However, in the last thirty years, few philosophical publications have escaped Boston uncensored by him. – Putnam’s dedication reads: “To Burton Dreben, who still won’t agree”.

In his last years he was known as the only man who knew more about Quine than Quine (“That is what I said, isn’t it Burt?”). He was interested in the interaction of great philosophers, especially in the way in which they misinterpreted each other and was once heard, unofficially but loudly, to say: “Philosophy is all garbage! But the history of philosophy, that’s not garbage.” Other vigorous pronouncements include: “Wittgenstein said it was nonsense, and by God he meant it!”, as the Tractatus came crashing to the table.

Presidential Pardon for U.S. Philosopher?

Preston King, professor of political philosophy at Lancaster University, has spent thirty-eight years in exile following his request to be accorded the same respect as a white man. King refused to undergo a U.S. Army physical unless the all-white draft board addressed to him as ‘Mister’, as they did with white candidates, instead of calling him Preston. A white court convicted King of dodging the draft and sentenced him to eighteen months imprisonment, whereupon he left the country. “I never had any intellectual respect for racism and segregationism and had interacted with too many people to believe it could survive so lustily for so long”, explains King. After almost four decades abroad he wants to return to the States. – All he needs is a presidential pardon to restore his passport.

Wittgenstein, the Meme Man?

In a recent article, in Time magazine, Richard Dawkins discussed his idea of the ‘meme’ (not the same but similar in pronunciation to ‘gene’). A ‘meme’ is to culture what a ‘gene’ is to biology; a shared trait that travels from generation to generation. Memes, however, are learned behaviour and can travel not only longitudinally down generations, but also horizontally within generations as would a virus in an epidemic. Of interest though is that the article begins with a story of long long ago in an Oxford tutorial. Dawkins had a student who, when faced with a difficult question would “screw her eyes tight shut, jerk her head down to her chest and then freeze for up to half a minute before looking up, opening her eyes and answering the question with fluency and intelligence.” Amused, Dawkins described this behaviour to a colleague in the philosophy department. The philosopher responded: “That’s Wittgenstein!” and then identified the student as a child of two philosophers, both of whom had studied with Wittgenstein. The behaviour had passed from Wittgenstein, via one or both of her students to Dawkin’s student. Might Wittgenstein have been the source of Dawkins’ idea of the ‘meme’?

No Deep Thoughts in the Dome

Efforts to have philosophy represented in the Millennium Dome in Greenwich, London, appeared to have failed. The Dome contains exhibitions intended to represent all aspects of human life and culture, including a ‘Spirit Zone’ and a ‘Mind Zone’ to represent the religious and intellectual aspects of life. Former philosophy lecturer turned Member of Parliament Tony McWalter had lobbied hard for a display on philosophy to be included in the Mind Zone. He was assisted by Rudi Fara, who drew up detailed plans. However, the display was eventually ruled out on grounds of space. (The Dome is one of the largest manmade structures in Eurpoe). When Philosophy Now phoned the exhibition organisers in 1998, we were told that philosophy would be included in the Dome, “but maybe not called that, as we don’t want to put people off.”

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