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Letters to the Editor

Right to Choose • Free Will vs Determinism, Round 5 • Long White Beards • Philosophy and Politics

Right to Choose

Dear Sir,

Philosophers can debate till they’re blue in the face about the rights and wrongs of abortion (see Tim Chappell – last issue), so long as a pregnant woman ultimately has the choice whether or not to listen to them. There is something cryptopornographic about the entire argument, since it treats the pregnant women as inert objects over whom the various factions strive to claim their dominion.

Neither State, Church, Family nor Intelligentsia have the right to decide in these circumstances what a woman should do, nor pass legislation to prevent her decision from being realised. The foetus is neither their product nor their property. To treat it as such is to compound the crime by treating the woman’s body as their property too.

Yours faithfully,
John Green
Altrincham, Cheshire

Free Will vs Determinism, Round 5

Dear Editor,

Roger Squires is right in reporting (“Another Determined Effort”, PN4) that I believe that “it follows from the fact that we distinguish between movings and mere motions that ‘universal, necessitating’ determinism is false.” But then he proceeds to explain that, in his understanding, “The Determinist thinks that behaviour is necessitated in roughly the following sense. Given enough information about the constitution and history of an individual and the circumstances in which they are placed, there may be theories which would entitle us to conclude with certainty what their behaviour would be.”

I can happily agree with Squires that, given that non-necessitating misunderstanding of my “universal, necessitating determinism”, a Humian reconciliation ‘Of Liberty and Necessity’ can go through at the trot. But for me a necessitating determinism must actually necessitate. So those who maintain an universal necessitating determinism, in my understanding, are thereby committed to maintaining that the behaviour of human beings, like that of everything else in the Universe, is so completely determined by inexorable laws of nature that we are all always physically necessitated to behave in those ways in which we do in fact behave, and hence that it must always be physically impossible for us, given the circumstances in which we actually are, to behave otherwise than we do behave. Perhaps Squires will now complete our reconciliation by agreeing that, in that traditional understanding of physical necessity, universal, necessitating determinism is indeed falsified by the existence of movings?

Yours faithfully
Antony Flew
Reading University

Long White Beards

Dear Sir,

Having read with increasing interest the issues of Philosophy Now to date, I would like to offer congratulations on not only producing such a worthwhile, thought-provoking read, but on finally making philosophy accessible to the outside world.

This ‘outside world’ appears on the whole to consider philosophy as a subject well-hidden behind many closed doors, but suspected of incorporating a small group of old men wearing long white beards arguing over trivial points of …. what is it they talk about? Science? In any event it’s ‘probably a waste of time’. In short, few people seem to know and there is apparently no one there to tell. It is time the doors to studying philosophy were unlocked.

On the subject of unlocking those great doors to philosophy, as a science graduate, who does not think philosophy a ‘waste of time’, desperate to throw down Darwin for Descartes and Berstein for Berkeley, can anyone, anywhere tell me how to find funding for post-graduate study/research in philosophy? Or am I doomed to take up my microscope once more, (my fellow scientists would doubtless be glad to see me ‘regain my senses’) and study what I see, while at the same time not being entirely certain that what I’m seeing is actually what is out there at all? And people call philosophy a waste of time….

Yours sincerely
S. Granger

All government grants for postgraduate study in philosophy are handled by an organization called the British Academy. The application form can be obtained from any university or college, and you have to submit it to the B.A. by 1st May for courses commencing in October. Unfortunately not many grants are available, so only about one application in four is successful. There are also a few trusts and charities which make small discretionary awards – see your local library for a list. If you are an overseas student you can apply for funding to the British Council.

Philosophy and Politics

Dear Editor,

I note your comments on the Maastricht Treaty (PN4). If you accept that sovereignty, independence and democracy – and not just arguments about the rights and wrongs of the Treaty – are “legitimate objects for philosophical examination”, then surely it would be desirable to publish in Philosophy Now material dealing with these subjects, as related to the Treaties of Rome and Maastricht? It is not clear to me whether you oppose this or simply consider that, as editor, you should stay on the side lines.

In Philosophy News the death of Professor Kedourie is reported and this suggests that you do consider political philosophy to be a branch of philosophy. Will you please confirm that it is so regarded for the purposes of Philosophy Now ? This should help you cope with the fowl calumny of Dr. Shenkman. Do not chicken out!

Yours sincerely,
Oliver Stocker
Radlett, Hertfordshire

Cluck cluck! I simply consider that I should stay on the sidelines, or to use a more appropriate sporting metaphor, that I should hold the ring. I have no problem with publishing political philosophy, so long as it is interesting and wellwritten. Ed.

So What is Philosophy?

Dear Sir,

As a mathematician and scientist, may I comment on a couple of points made in passing by Paul StJohn Mackintosh, in his review of What is Philosophy?, by Dietrich von Hildebrand?

“Colours, for instance, exist as attributes of things, properly describable only by adjectival constructions … It is true to talk of orange things, even of orange light; it is false to speak of ‘orange’ if we mean by this an intangible yet real entity of which all actual examples of orange are simply imperfect reflections. Numbers likewise: Wittgenstein never tired of pointing out that one could well and truly use numbers in counting, but that to regard ‘two’ as real in its own right was simply to mistake a term for an entity; to carry over Augustine’s childhood habit of positing a thing for every name into wildly inappropriate realms.”

An interesting thing about orange is that to a physicist, it is not “elemental”. There can indeed be pure orange light, with a wavelength slightly shorter than red and slightly longer than, say, sodium yellow. But a suitable mixture of redwavelength and green-wavelength light appears pure orange (or pure yellow, if the amount of green-wavelength light is increased slightly). Look closely at a TV screen! Colours are physiological in a way that numbers (or, say, weights) aren’t. (Other animals don’t see colours the way we do.)

Numbers are different again. It has been said that all mathematicians are Platonists; to them, numbers are real and out there (and their properties are out there waiting to be discovered). However, the process of discovering the numbers and recognizing and accepting their reality took millennia.

There was not too much trouble with the natural numbers (1, 2, 3, and so on), although Wittgenstein seems to have had difficulty even at this initial stage. 0 came along much later, as did the negative numbers (-1, -2, -3, and so on). Fractions (1/2, 1/4, 3/4, and so on) were recognized long ago, but long occupied a kind of limbo in which their status as genuine numbers was questionable.

Following those prehistorical stages, the three major advances in number since then bear witness in their names to the profound suspicion which they were initially treated with. Irrationals, like v2, were discovered by the ancient Greeks, but not finally accepted until the 19th century. Transcendentals like p and e were discovered round about the 18th century. And imaginary numbers, i (=v-1) and its multiples were discovered in the 17th century. (Nowadays, the concept of number has been developed far beyond this, in a variety of ways.) So, to a mathematician, a formula such as

e + 1 = 0.

uniting 1, 0, -1, e, and p is a thing of profound beauty – and meaning. Mere adjectival attributes lacking entitiness, indeed: with all due respect to philosophers – piffle!

Yours sincerely,
Michael Harman
Camberley, Surrey

Dear Editor,

Paul Mackintosh, in his review of What is Philosophy? (Philosophy Now No.4), sets out with a pleasingly succinct style. The content of his criticism unfortunately does not compare. Perhaps I should declare myself untainted by an Nihil Obstat in order to merit his continued attention myself. Before he turns away I must raise two criticisms with the review as published.

With regards to the above Nihil Obstat let me quote you the relevant passage, which sees the author’s desire to have Catholic approval of his work as “almost enough to damn his work ipso facto”. Now, in my eyes, the work of a complete lunatic, or even a monkey typing at random deserves attention, if what is produced has a persuasive and coherent content. I don’t care if Hildebrand subjects his book to the criticism of his grandmother, so long as his argument is sound and persuasive. Of course, were his argument of little controversy, perhaps it would merit the status of a paper-weight, but considering the opposition of the reviewer I guess this is not the case!

Secondly, a philosopher can put his argument to whatever use he desires, so long as its content is competent philosophy that has a self-critical integrity. I am happy to read arguments to the conclusion that philosophy is a waste of time, that other universes exist where kangaroos have no tail or even that philosophy is all about clearing the way for a knowledge of God. No philosophical conclusion is foolish unless it does not arise from the argument, and it can never be declared foolish before the argument is set out before us. On the same point, it seems that our reviewer has come to some strange conclusions himself.

Firstly, that there is a common definition of philosophy available to us, and that there is some sort of boundary that demarks the limits if interest for any serious reader. If there was a mainstream in the first half of the 20th-century, Wittgenstein was only there due to the sheer impact of his thought, rather than working within a set form of “philosophy”, which is and was apparent to us all. Secondly, is Wittgenstein someone that Mackintosh can speak on behalf of with such authority in criticising a contemporary? Would all of us claim this to be a wittgensteinian motto: “In the last resort, one could always point.”? I always thought that given a failure to communicate by demonstration, he would probably have said something like “In the last resort, give up, you have come to an end of explanation” and retire to play the piano.

I felt his review might have been better if it had been the length he first intended, then we might have been spared the generalisations and grand assumptions that I found highly prejudicial against the book reviewed.

Simon Ross Harrison.

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