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People Discussing Ideas

by Rick Lewis

There are many ways of explaining to the curious what philosophy is about. When asked, G.E. Moore simply used to point at the books on his bookcase and reply “philosophy is what all those are about!” More helpfully, you can give examples of philosophical questions such as “how do I know the world exists”, “is it wrong to steal?”, “is there a God?” and so on. This still doesn’t identify what it is about these questions which makes them philosophical. Three characteristics of philosophy are demonstrated in this issue.

Firstly, philosophy often has to do with the analysis and clarification of concepts. This has been so ever since the days of Socrates, who used to ask fellow-Athenians what they meant by ‘courage’, or ‘virtue’, or some such. If they were foolish enough to reply, he would ask them questions to probe the consistency of their ideas, a process which usually made it abundantly clear to the victim, and assorted bystanders, that their understanding of the word was woefully muddled. This process gave Socrates the reputation of a gadfly and made him so popular that he was eventually tried and executed; in his column on page 46 of this issue, the reincarnated Socrates reveals that he has now modified his methods. Still, Socrates’ motive was to open up the way to a deeper understanding of the concepts which interested him. In his own quite different way this is what Michael Graubart sets out to do when he asks (on p.18) what we mean by ‘authenticity’ in music. Gordon Giles makes gentle fun of the whole musical authenticity issue by applying the same arguments to the cooking of spaghetti alla carbonara. Between them, they hopefully provoke a deeper understanding of the idea of authenticity in general, not just its application to musical performances.

The second characteristic is debate. Some philosophers would rather sit in a corner by themselves to think things through – Wittgenstein even built a hut in remotest Norway to allow himself to do just that – but generally speaking, philosophy is built on debate and argument as a way of testing out ideas. This issue contains several debates: for example, the articles by Richard Taylor (on Peter Singer’s ethics) and by Stephen Clark (on genetic engineering) offer radically different approaches to the same sorts of problem. And the writers of the two reports from philosophy conferences (pages 38 and 39) are so different in their attitudes to the gatherings they attended that between them they offer a fuller picture of the strange activity of conference-going than either does individually.

The third, related, characteristic of philosophy that I want to mention is the often overlooked fact that philosophy is done by human beings. You may mutter “Yes, of course I know philosophers are human, but so what? I don’t care what Aristotle had for breakfast; what I care about is whether he was right in his views on metaphysics. Who cares whether Einstein liked Lake Geneva? We want to know about special relativity; the rest of the stuff is for historians or sociologists, not for us philosophers.” However, if we want to understand the way the world is, then the ideas of philosophers past and present are worth studying, and those ideas were hardly ever developed in isolation, but almost always in reaction to something that someone else had said or written previously. Each contribution came as part of a conversation, and to get the most out of a particular thinker, you have to understand the context in which he or she was speaking. Therefore it is often worth finding out what the philosophers at the forefront of the subject thought about one another. So, in this issue with Richard Taylor’s article on Peter Singer we are lucky enough to have one of the leading figures of the senior generation of philosophers writing about one of the great figures of the generation that has followed. We’ve seen this once before in Philosophy Now, in Issue 20, when Antony Flew wrote about Thomas Nagel. However, the main reason for reading the articles by Taylor and Clark is that they lay out so clearly a great divide in modern ethics: should we start by considering life to be sacred, or should we above all else concentrate on minimizing suffering?

Our next issue (Issue 29) will have a Friedrich Nietzsche theme, to mark the 100th anniversary of Crazy Freddy’s sad demise on 25th August 1900.

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