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Letters to the Editor

Nobody expects the… • Jagiellonian jinks • Chaotic choices • Replies to Shenkman

Nobody expects the…

Dear Editor,

Regarding Peter J. Lorden’s letter (PN3): I agree wholeheartedly with his remarks concerning what is still being written vis à vis Cartesian epistemology. I also endorse his view that Descartes was probably a ‘very confused young man’; but then, as he was writing with the Inquisitorial Fathers breathing down his neck, some confusion is understandable! And that brings me to the purpose of this letter.

The point to be made is that Descartes was and is important; or at least his texts are; but should we not be asking new questions about those texts, with the conditions they were written under in mind? Once we start to do that, they immediately assume different ‘meanings’ and significance. Crucially, the Meditations represent the social and personal anxieties, ideologies and conjectures, of Descartes time, which are ineluctably bound to religious and political antagonism inherent in the rise of early capitalism. Indeed there is a sense in which these conditions ‘produced’ the texts, paradoxically giving rise to their own textualized representation, by being both cause and effect!

There is also the problem of Descartes’ own literary style – discursive imagery and metaphor – to be taken into account; just what is that piece of wax a symbol of? And why is ‘God’ dealt with in such a naive way?

Doubtless, traditional Anglo-American philosophers will hotly assert that to smuggle in such theoretical contraband is to render analysis ‘unphilosophical’. But to insist on only one pattern of reading is itself philosophically controversial. How do we read? Lorden, for instance, reads Beckett as taking Descartes seriously; I read Beckett’s Murphy as a parody of Descartes; I read Waiting for Godot (partly) as a parody of Heidegger.

Yours faithfully,
Geoff Wade

Jagiellonian jinks

Dear Sir,

The Institute of Philosophy in the Jagiellonian University, with the assistance of its aesthetics department, has formed an Editorial Committee to work on the Dictionary of Roman Ingarden’s Philosophical Concepts.

Editions in two languages, English and Polish, are anticipated. We would like to invite all those interested to collaborate with us. We would be grateful if you would advertise this venture in your publication. Many thanks for your assistance.

Yours sincerely,
Andrzej Nowak and Leszek Sosnowski
Institute of Philosophy,
Jagiellonian University, ul. Grodzka 52
31-044 Cracow, Poland

Chaotic choices

Dear Sir,

I put this forward with some becomingly modest hesitation, because I am not a philosopher and because I did not see your magazine before Issue 3.

However, I would like to suggest that Professor Flew’s argument misses out a step made necessary by recent developments in applied mathematics. This step concerns a distinction to be made between determinacy and predictability.

I think that the core of the experience to which Professor Flew refers is that his behaviour in making any choice could not have been predicted. There are circumstances under which rational behaviour is in principle unpredictable – if you tell me what you think I am going to do in the next ten minutes, I might or might not do it. If you don’t tell me, I shall have to guess what your prediction would be, and the outcome is if anything even more uncertain.

However, it is now known that the behaviour of many of even the simplest physical systems, though perfectly determined, is in principle unpredictable. Take a pendulum with a magnetic bob and let it swing from a fixed support over a baseboard with two attractive magnets placed somewhere on it, close enough to the centre that the pendulum can come to rest pointing at either. There are release points from which it can be predicted that the bob will end up over Magnet A, and others from which the safe prediction is Magnet B. The trouble is that the boundaries between the ‘capture basins’ for A and B are fractals – complex squiggly lines whose invaginations remain just as complex however much they are magnified. There are finite regions within which it is necessary to specify the starting position to within more than any given level of precision before it can be predicted where the bob will end up. Since infinite precision is in principle impossible, the pendulum’s behaviour is unpredictable though fully determined.

It seems likely to me that conscious choice has just the same infinite sensitivity to starting conditions (what did I have for breakfast this morning, what’s the weather like, where did the other people involved go to school, etc, etc), and I am sure that Professor Flew cannot prove that it does not.

It follows that knowing that his behaviour is unpredictable should not lead him to conclude that it is also indeterminate.

Yours sincerely,
Musselburgh, Midlothian

Replies to Shenkman

Dear Sir,

As an engineer turned amateur philosopher in retirement, I read Dr. J.J.Shenkman’s cri de coeur in Issue 3 with interest and understanding because only now, after an decade of mental reorientation, am I better able to appreciate the need for philosophical reflection. It is a way of thinking that defies definition, although we can, with practice, recognize what it is to be philosophical much as we understand what the adjective ‘poetical’ means without quite knowing what poetry is.

We live in an immensely complex world where certainty in anything is a sign of philosophical naivety. This is not to deny the great achievements of science, but we should note that the ideas on which they rest are continually being revised. The ‘ultimate reality’ of which your correspondent writes includes, revealingly enough, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and other theories which are matters of further research and so not the final answers to the mysteries of the world. In like manner philosophy continues with an open mind offering promising lines of thought to its devotees or appearing like a headless chicken to the rest! Like the decapitated bird, philosophers have no sense of direction’, but why should that bother us? We are all heading towards the grave and whatever medical science can offer can only postpone the inevitable:

For every ill beneath the sun,
There is some remedy – or none.
If there is one, then try to find it;
If there is none, then never mind it!

Life is not easy, but this is the philosophical challenge – a removal of the personal voice and asking questions to which there are no definite answers. In the process I have found that life can take on a new meaning as one’s circle of likeminded people grows ever wider.

Yours sincerely,
D.W.Soughan Moulton, Northamptonshire

Dear Sir,

Congratulations on Philosophy Now. I’d like to comment on a lot of things.

Briefly, I’d suggest to Piers Benn (and many others) that the solution to “he or she”, “s/he”, etc., is “they”, which always seems right to me.

To Dr. Shenkman (Letters), I have learnt, tho’ not alas from philosophy that looking for rules for living (“how we should behave.....”, “how to conduct.....”) is a mistaken approach. What we “must” do is follow Socrates’ injunction, “know thyself” and then Shakespeare’s “to thine own self be true”. Insofar as ethics is rule-seeking, it is therefore flawed. The patients will learn more about living from a quality psychotherapy group than from philosophy.

Ralph Blumenau’s aesthetics piece depends fundamentally on “training”. But trained by whom? What sort of training? Who says the trainers have the ‘correct’ standards? (And I say this as one who much prefers Mahler and Nielsen to Manilow and the Pet Shop Boys.)

Returning to Political Correctness, while it’s fair enough to say that “no opportunity to detect evil.....must be missed” is “unworkable”, we should beware of using that impossibility to give up opposing at all. For an example, there’s the novel and film Gentleman’s Agreement by Laura Hobson, where a journalist realises that his silence in the presence of anti-semitism plays its part in maintaining the prejudice.

Tolerance has its problems too.

Best wishes,
Ivor Solomons

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