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Cartesian Confusion? • Virtue in wartime • War always corrupts • Unbounded God • Philosophy in High Schools • Global Warning • Blame People Not Governments • Algebra and Mistakes • Divine Intentions • Sex Lives of the Sages
DEAR EDITOR: Mary Midgley’s article on the mind/body problem (Philosophy Now, Issues 47 and 48) is an excellent example of a philosopher confusing what Descartes actually wrote with what is merely an unfortunate and misguided tradition within Cartesian scholarship. Her essay locates Descartes’ work within the Enlightenment response to science (particularly physics), claiming that mind/body dualism was designed to “fit the new science into European culture without harming its Christian background”. From here, Midgley argues that, after Descartes, “the physical universe was no longer a mighty living creature, but simply a more or less infinite pile of raw material provided for humans to exploit”. She reaches this conclusion after looking briefly at the work of McGinn and some recent, controversial work on consciousness and physics. The reader could therefore be forgiven for thinking that this was the sum total of Descartes’ intellectual legacy fortunately, however, it is not.
Midgley’s mistake is to assume that philosophy’s aim should be to resolve problems in support of some a priori ontologically-consistent Whole. Surely this explains why she reaches the conclusion that we need to reject dualisms in order “to move to more realistic ways of thinking”. What I assume she means by ‘realistic’ thinking, however, is a type of thinking which assumes that this ontologically- consistent Whole exists in the first place. I applaud Midgley’s attack on certain contemporary readings of Descartes and, certainly, I am not of the view that his own work is perfect but, by focussing on analytic responses to Descartes, her article risks blackening the name of a thinker on whom much valuable work is being done elsewhere in contemporary philosophy in particular, Slavoj Žižek’s excellent book, The Ticklish Subject, springs immediately to mind.
UNIVERSITY OF DUNDEE
Virtue in wartime
DEAR EDITOR: Having engaged with some philosophy after a military career, I was moved by Douglas Gearhart’s account of the moral issues facing the young marines and soldiers of today’s democracies. A consideration of practical jus in bello being especially welcome after the lengthy jus ad bellum debate of the Iraq war. Gearhart asks for philosophical guidance for these women and men.
I recently completed a paper on Virtue Ethics for the modern soldier, concluding that deep-seated and well - developed virtues, as traits of character, were particularly relevant to the conditions of the profession. Character development is usually already in place with the military, and relevant virtues include that of care – even care for prisoners, pace Abu Ghraib. The moral problems faced by engaged military personnel are often unique because of the urgency and intensity of the dilemma, and whatever the procedural training and prepared legal advice, the character of the subject is often the deciding factor. However, for an overall military system of ethics I would argue that duty, rules and an awareness of consequences also very much still have a place. I share his favourable opinion of how well today’s military are generally coping, far better I believe than would many an arm-chair or study-bound critic in similar circumstances.
Finally, I am sure Gearhart will one day be able to return to Iraq in an atmosphere of peace, just as I can now return to many areas in which I was once engaged, but perhaps not this year.
War always corrupts
DEAR EDITOR: Douglas Gearhart’s piece is a useful perspective from a soldier-cum-philosopher. But his essay begs many questions about the necessity for war and its moral legitimacy. The justification for war, as it is today with Iraq, always sits on a slippery moral slope. It is for this reason that war always tests the moral conscience of many of our best of leaders, thinkers, and soldiers.
Clausewitz saw war as an instrument of politics. He viewed it as a way of pursuing political ends, provided that the objectives for war are quite clear, i.e. the reasons for starting a war (jus ad bellum), what one does during war (jus in bello), and what one does after war with those who have been conquered (jus post bellum).
Classical theological scholars such as Thomas Aquinas and St Augustine, dreaded the idea of war and saw war as only justifiable if it was to save the lives of others, but they recognised that most wars could not meet the strict criteria distinguishing a war that that was done for the love of others – in what we call today humanitarian wars- and a war that was an act of self-love.
But, both Clausewitz, and Aquinas understood—like many others – that war breeds within humans a new kind of animal, denuding them of their humanity. Clausewitz in particular points out that war is fuelled by emotion( Gefuhl), and which always has the better of reason. War, no matter what others say in its justification, transforms the soldier from civility to barbarism – because war leads to the inevitable: revenge and acts of extremity.
War inflicts upon the conscience of the soldier that what the enemy does to one, and what one needs to do in retaliation must be doubled. For, through propaganda, the enemy is made less human, and becomes the object of vileness – for killing to take place an atmosphere needs to be created that makes it possible for the soldier to kill.
War is only possible when a group finds in itself the language to take what is in effect the murder of others, as a noble act in itself. Barbara Ehrenreich, many years ago, wrote a famous book titled: Blood Rites, where she traces the roots of war to our transformation from hunter-gatherers to sedentary life. Those who found themselves skilled hunters, needed to continue their profession in one form or other – they became warriors on behalf of others. As she seems to allude to, it satisfies some primordial instinct which cannot be tamed in places of civility – unless one of course turns the place of civility in itself as a gathering for war. It would seem that both barbarity and civility must coexist to make civilisation possible.
But, what was most interesting about her work is the study of the diaries and letters of soldiers: she found that many who were given this awesome power began to like the idea of killing, as well as many who suffered psychological trauma. War, as even Gearhart admits, is gruesome, and if we can avoid it, we should not put our young people through this.
I am always of the view that the failure of the multi-lateral system is bound to lead to those who have enormous military power pursuing wars of self-interest and revenge. It is for this reason that we need to protect the integrity of international institutions in order to ensure that guns and bombs are not pointed towards the innocent. These institutions, and their wise council we can draw from, exist in a state of fragility.
SALIEM FAKIR, DIRECTOR
WORLD CONSERVATION UNION
SOUTH AFRICA OFFICE
DEAR EDITOR: “A God stripped of all humanlike traits is not a God with whom one could have a personal relationship …” says Steve Stewart-Williams in his article ‘Can an evolutionist belief in God?’ in Issue 47.
That what is labelled ‘God’ does not fit into a, by definition bounded, belief set is to be expected. God, bound by belief is not God, but an idol. This is the problem of religion. The structure that is built cannot hold what is boundless, and we who experience from limited frames of reference grapple with infinities that do not neatly settle into well -behaved systems. What then is the calling of the seeker? The calling is to go beyond the limits to move into places and experiences that do not fit. The experience of drawing into what is not reducible and comprehensible reshapes us. When faced by the death of a deeply loved one, the experience rattles our cages and deconstructs neat and tidy understandings: Standing on the edge of the abyss, stripped, our nakedness without reflection. This is the state in which unburdened of belief a person experiences most directly the faceless face, the eternal, where joy and suffering and all other dualisms, collapse. If a person can stand and look, to become unmade as it were, on the border region between being and non-being, the unbound, non-anthropomorphic God is experienced fully.
Amidst the Chaos
Amidst the Chaos:
Reason is delusionary madness.
Within the Void: Eternal, Still and Whole.
On the Event Horizon:
Becoming and returning,
exhaling and inhaling the One breath.
Life: Death’s affirmation.
Death: Life’s fulfilment.
As two lover’s intimately intertwined:
Life and Death,
on the Event Horizon,
whirl around the Void.
A shard of melting ice,
scintillating the gaze of the Beloved.
BY EMAIL, CANADA
Philosophy in High Schools
DEAR EDITOR: In response to the recent letter that philosophy is not taught in most high schools, it should be noted that high school students in Ontario, Canada have had the opportunity to study philosophy since the mid-1990’s. Ontario schools may offer two courses in philosophy: one designed for students planning on attending university, and one designed for students planning on attending a college of applied art and technology, entering an apprenticeship programme, or entering the workforce.
I have been fortunate to teach philosophy to high school students since 1998. My students love the course, and I often hear from former students who tell me that studying philosophy in high school made them better prepared for their university studies, regardless of their field of study. Personally, teaching philosophy keeps me invigorated, and constantly learning about myself, and our world.
Hopefully, more educational jurisdictions will pick up the philosophy flag, as it will only improve the lives of students and faculty.
COBOURG DISTRICT COLLEGIATE
INSTITUTE EAST, ONTARIO
DEAR EDITOR: I agree with the premise of Stuart Greenstreet’s article ‘Plato’s Warning’. It seems highly unlikely that human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, will be reduced in time to halt global warming, certainly in the short term. However I differ with his assessment of the reasons the US will not join the Kyoto protocol.
The statement that stands out, namely that the US is “an exemplary democracy” clearly cannot be justified. Have the American people been given a choice on this issue? Were they presented with all the facts in an unbiased and reasoned fashion? Were they told that the future of their children, of many generations to come, could depend on the actions they now take? Global warming is an issue of such vital importance that within a true democracy the decision to take decisive action to correct the problem would be decided by some form of plebiscite or vote.
The US could start greenhouse gas reduction without serious disruption to their population lifestyle. Were they to reduce the engine capacity of their cars switching from 8 to 6 cylinders, they would reduce their oil consumption by 250,000 barrels of oil a day. This simple expedient would be a start in the challenge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This would not represent a major lifestyle change for the people of the US. Many other similar changes could be initiated placing the US on the path of substantial greenhouse gas reduction.
‘American realism’ in not ratifying the Kyoto protocol could be better defined as American blindness to vested interest groups influencing policy and thereby diminishing their democracy. Whether Plato’s philosopher kings would make a more appropriate decision on this issue is debatable. Plato’s four inferior types of constitution, after the rule of philosophers, were Timocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy and Tyranny. Perhaps while fighting Tyranny abroad the US political system is shifting from Democracy to Oligarchy. I might add that Australia, a huge greenhouse gas producer, has not ratified the Kyoto protocol.
Blame People Not Governments
DEAR EDITOR: I would be a great deal more receptive to Adrian Walker’s rejection of Stuart Greenstreet’s argument in ‘Plato’s Warning’ if there was any evidence that a significant number of people here in the West (including philosophers of course!) were, in the absence of serious Government action, vocally and voluntarily renouncing some of the ‘Comfort/Convenience’ technologies to which we have become habituated and, as carbon dioxide-producing heatengines of one sort or another, are known to be contributing to global warming. For the most obvious example (and there are many others), Heaven betide any government that dares challenge the spoilt and pampered motorist in his/her self-justifying myopia. Prescott still bears the political scars and the Green Party, otherwise sensible and solid, and presumably for the very reason that Greenstreet cites, seems more terrified of the motorist than the disruptive, probably disasterous effects of global warming their selfabsorbed activities are helping to make inevitable. Many good folk and true talk the talk but very few walk the renunciation quickstep.
Thus I see no evidence that any significant part of the electorate is demanding Government institute serious anti-global warming policies because people know it would hit them in the ‘C/C’ zone. I don’t doubt, as Walker states, that Western governments now see their chief responsibility to be facilitating global capitalism, with their electorates a distant second priority, but while there is so little public pressure on governments regarding their anti-global warming policies I think they have done somewhat better, at least here in Europe, than we all really deserve. (Maybe even the bloated plutocrats, whose wealth is steadily increased by sticking to the ‘petro-industrial’ status quo, are beginning to get worried!) Of course, it won’t be enough, on its own at least, to convince the Chinese to detour round the classic industrialisation program upon which they are now embarked with all the predictable, global consequences.
Cheer up folks, pessimism is still the order of the day!
Algebra and Mistakes
DEAR EDITOR: John Farley takes issue with me on two matters. First, he points out quite correctly that before anyone can start on the job of translating ‘right’ into algebra, or otherwise making it sufficiently precise, he has to decide that this is worth doing. There would seem to be four prerequisites: one needs first to have a notion, one has to perceive that it lacks precision, one has to think that making the fluffy notion precise is worth doing, and one has to have the force of intellect to actually do it. I have decided that I am not clever enough for the last part in the case of ‘right’.
I live in hope that someone else will work out how to assign a precise meaning to the term and would happily agree that this creative process is extremely valuable and a necessary precursor to saying it in algebra.
On the second matter, Mr Farley and I appear to differ in how we use the word ‘mistake’. I am unable to get excited about this. If a very small child who has imperfectly mastered the recognition of the arabic digits has a teacher write down a, possibly malformed, 3, and when asked to identify it struggles with a dim recollection of learning the names and pronounces ‘five’, the teacher might reasonably say the child has made a mistake, and tell the child “No, it’s a three” The child may not be in any position to do any self-checking. Neither were my programs. Neither the child nor the program had the sophistication to call into question their respective judgments, that is what the teacher is there for. Both child and program had a visual input and were required to make an identification. Both, in the judgment of the teacher, got it wrong. If this was not a mistake on the part of either the child or the program in Mr Farley’s usage, well, it is in mine.
(DR) MIKE ALDER
UNIV. OFWESTERN AUSTRALIA
DEAR EDITOR: I am advised that the news has recently reached God that, shortly before they have a opportunity for a face-to-face meeting, Antony Flew now believes He exists. I understand that God is very encouraged about this development, development, and that having the endorsement of such a noted philosopher as Professor Flew has done wonders for God’s self-image, coming as it does just before Christmas.
However, a problem still lingers. Antony Flew has stated that God “could be a person in the sense of being a being that has intelligence and a purpose.” Is it, perhaps, just possible that such a being, intelligent and purposeful enough to organize DNA, might also be intelligent and purposeful enough to wish (and attempt) to communicate with humankind? Indeed, is there that outside possibility that, knowing our intellectual arrogance and self-sufficiency, He believed that the only way He could communicate clearly was to limit His own Being by becoming one of us (indeed, dying for us) ?
PAUL D. MACK
Sex Lives of the Sages
DEAR EDITOR: I love your magazine, never having formally studied philosophy. I especially like Joel Marks’ Moral Moments column. He explains a lot for the layman. Last year I went to a Los Angeles screening of a film about Derrida, with the filmmakers doing a Q&A. One of the audience members asked the director why he (Derrida) never got into the nitty-gritty about the key questions: about ethics and metaphysics. I thought the film derivative as Goddard and Berman seemed to cover the same self-conscious “this-is-a-filmand- not-reality” ground. Nevertheless, I found one of Derrida’s comments interesting: he said that he was interested in the sex lives of the more famous philosophers, such as Heidegger and Schopenhauer. I wonder if you could produce an article or articles on the personal lives of some historically influential philosophers, which would inform their worldviews.1 Call it Freudian, I think it’s very relevant. I think the sexangle would both sell issues to the public and offer a valid insight into the minds of these thinkers. Anyway, that’s my suggestion. Otherwise, I always feel excited, no matter how bad a day I’ve had at work, when I find a brown 8x11.5 envelope containing your magazine stuffed in my mailbox. Good work!