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News: March/April 2001

Plato-approved city rises from the rubble • Quine and Anscombe die • Scientists create mice with ‘human’ brains • Aussie philos leave the country

Welcome to Platoville

Turkish archaeologist Orhan Bingöl can be proud of the 17 years of excavation he did at Magnesia ad Meandrum. The ancient Greek city southeast of Ephesus, which Plato described as an ‘ideal city’ in his Republic, has reemerged from the dust of Anatolia. It has now been announced that some of the excavated buildings will be restored, including the impressive Temple of Artemis (see picture).

Sex and Drugs and Wittgenstein

After a few years spent in Britain and the United States, Korean rock star Shin Hae-chul has returned to his mothercountry with a new band: ‘Wittgenstein’. Asked by the Korea Herald why he chose to name his band after the Austrian philosopher, Shin, whose declared aim in life is ‘learning’, gave a short exposition of his interpretation of Wittgenstein: “I read a book on the philosopher in high school that really had an impact on me. He claimed he solved all the agony of the human condition in the process of writing just one book. In this respect, I thought he was a rocker. As I got immersed in music technology, his dictum, ‘Know first what you are doing’, greatly inspired me.”

‘Naivety’ of May 68 Philosophers

In their fight against outdated moral and social codes and their campaign for sexual liberation, the activists of the 1968 revolution may have well overstepped the mark by today’s standards. In February it emerged that thinkers including Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Foucualt, Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida all signed a petition in 1977 protesting against a jailsentence three men received for sex offences against 12 and 13 year old children. The petition stated that “French law recognises in 12 and 13 year-olds a capacity for discernment that it can judge and punish… But it rejects such a capacity when the child’s emotional and sexual life is concerned. It should acknowledge the right of children and adolescents to have relations with whomever they choose.”

Quine and Anscombe Die

The last couple of months have seen the demise of two very eminent thinkers – in America, Willard Van Orman Quine (on Christmas Day, at the very respectable age of 92) and on 5th January in Britain, Elizabeth Anscombe, who was only 81. Full obituaries of both can be found on pages 40-41.

Brainy Mice

California scientist Irving Weissman of Stanford University has produced laboratory mice with brains which were partly human: as many as 25% of the animals’ brain cells were human cells. The brains of new-born mice were seeded with human neuronal stem cells, which pervaded the mices’ brains by the time they had reached maturity. It was found that the ‘human’ cells were performing a full range of functions alongside normal mouse cells. The research is intended to explore various possibilities for treating diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. However, a number of ethical objections have been raised which must be overcome before experimentation continues. It would be possible, and experimentally useful, to produce mice which had a much higher percentage of ‘human’ brain cells – maybe almost 100%. However, this doesn’t of course mean they would have minature human brains – in terms of structure these would still be mouse brains.

The Artist and the Philosopher

The artist Balthazar Klossowski de Rola, known as Balthus, died on 18 February 2001 at the age of 92. Balthus will be remembered as a great figurative painter. Existentialist thinker Albert Camus greatly admired Balthus’ art. He wrote in 1949 in the preface to one of the painter’s exhibitions: “We did not know how to see reality and all the disturbing things our apartments, our loved ones and our streets conceal.” Though fascinated by Baltus’ work, Camus was too poor to ever be able to afford to buy one of his paintings. At the opening of one of his exhibitions in Paris, Balthus therefore told Camus that he had painted his portrait, and that if Camus could identify it among all the other paintings in the show it would be his. However, Camus was flummoxed when he found that all the paintings displayed depicted cats; how could he tell which one represented him? Balthus suggested that he should ask Picasso, who was standing close by, which of the paintings was the most important one. The one intended for Camus would have the inscription “For Albert” on the back. Picasso, after humming and ha-ing for a while, picked out one painting, and Balthus cried out, “That’s it!” Indeed, the canvas had “For Albert” written on the back, and Camus delightedly took it home, unaware that Balthus had written “For Albert” on the back of all the paintings!

The Coming of Human Clones

The message of most recent newsreports on cloning is clear: the advent of human clones is unstoppable. According to some, it will be technically feasible within the next 2-3 years, and Italian gynaecologist Severino Antinori has announced his intention to be the first to clone a human being “within a year.” Philosopher Peter Singer fears this may be too hasty, as there are still question marks over the life-expectancy of clones, but he comments that if this fear turns out to be groundless then there could be no objections to cloning from the point of view of the cloned child. Cloning could only become a social problem if it became too widespread, entailing a loss of genetic diversity. Since this, according to Singer, is unlikely, he declares with respect to Antinori: “Let him clone humans if he can.”

A full comment by Peter Singer can be found at www.theage.au.

Strine Brain Drain?

In Australia, some academics have become increasingly concerned about what they say is long-term government neglect of the humanities. They claim that lack of funding may be driving promising philosophers abroad. In February, Professor Jeff Malpas, head of philosophy at the University of Tasmania, attempted to back up anecdotal evidence by compiling a comprehensive list of those who had left since 1998 to teach abroad, and also (being a fair-minded chap) of those who had arrived from elsewhere to take up teaching posts in Oz during the same period. His list is still in the final stages of checking, but to date he has found the names of sixteen philosophers who left (including five full professors) and only four who arrived during the same three year period. Australia therefore does indeed seem to be a net exporter of sages.

Crack hack gets sack (but will fight back)

America’s leading philosophy journalist, Carlin Romano, was recently fired from his teaching post at Bennington College, Vermont in the latest installment of a long-running struggle over academic freedom and tenure.

Trouble between the college administration and faculty dates back to 1992. In June 1994 the college declared a state of financial emergency and dismissed 27 faculty members. It also suspended all its normal employment procedures and tenure arrangements and disbanded all faculty governing committees. Some of those dismissed pointed out that replacements had been immediately hired to teach their subjects, which suggested that the dismissals hadn’t been for financial reasons but because of their opposition to the policies of the college president, Elizabeth Coleman. They formed an Academic Freedom Committee, and won backing from a variety of outside organisations including the American Philosophical Association and the American Association of University Professors. There were more protests in the years that followed, more dismissals and more allegations that it was critics of the college administration who were being targetted. Last year Carlin Romano, who taught at the college as well as reporting on philosophy for the Philadelphia Inquirer, was quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education as calling Coleman “a serial violator of academic freedom.” He was promptly fired, his courses were cancelled in mid-semester and he was given 72 hours to clear his office. However, on 29th December a five-year legal battle between the Academic Freedom Committee and Bennington College ended in the complete capitulation of the college, which agreed to pay $1,885,500 in compensation as well as issuing a truly grovelling statement of apology. The statement included a recognition of the importance of faculty participation in college decision making.

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