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News: August/September 2005

Marx Wins BBC ‘Greatest Philosopher’ Poll • Animal minds • Fears for academic freedom • GM monster weed stalks countryside — News reports by Sue Roberts

Top Marx

Karl Marx recently came top of a poll to find the public‘s Greatest Philosopher. The poll was organised by BBC Radio 4‘s In Our Time programme, hosted by Melvyn Bragg. Listeners were asked to nominate their all-time greatest thinker, and the twenty most popular names formed a shortlist which was then used as the basis of a vote on the internet.

The internet poll attracted much attention, with a Guardian editorial urging its readers to vote for Kant and the Economist weighing in on the side of David Hume. However, Marx led in the voting from the beginning. The Economist speculated darkly that this was due to internet block voting by left wing groups.

Philosophy Now asked Melvyn Bragg why there were no women on the shortlist. He replied: “There were women who came very close to getting onto our list of philosophers: Simone de Beauvoir; Ayn Rand and Mary Wollstonecraft, but none had enough nominations to make it into the final twenty. As regards women in philosophy in general, my impression is that over the centuries they have not had the opportunity to have had access to philosophy and classics in sufficient numbers – which has been the case in several other fields. Happily, that is all changing now I presume.”

Asked to speculate about how the voting might have gone differently if the poll had been conducted 50 years ago, or 50 years in the future, Bragg said: “I pass on all difficult philosophical questions to my good friend Anthony Grayling.”

Grayling, who was a consultant to the programme in running the poll, and advocated the merits of Immanuel Kant on air, said that “A list 50 years ago would look rather similar to the In Our Time top ten, I think, with the difference that Aquinas, Popper and Nietzsche would not be on it, Russell certainly would, and two out of Descartes, Locke and Hegel also. It is extremely hard to say who would be on such a list in 50 years‘ time, because as the current list shows philosophical fashion plays its part; but again at a guess I‘d say none of Marx, Wittgenstein, Aquinas or Popper will be on it, there will be at least two names we haven‘t even heard yet, or if we have, we would be amazed to find that they are so well-regarded by posterity; and I expect the true importance of Spinoza will be fully understood and he will be on it. So might Habermas. But prediction is a parlous game: remember that in the early days of flight, because biplanes flew better than monoplanes, everyone thought the planes of the future would have 12 wings. After all: what will philosophy look like in 50 years? If the ‘Continental‘ tradition prevails, the top ten will be full of Heideggers and Derridas.”


Can non-human animals think? To what degree are they self-conscious? Do they have emotions? If you are interested in such questions then you might want to join a new society formed in June. The Society for Philosophy & Animal Minds (SPAM) is the brainchild of Lori Gruen and Colin Allen, and sprang out of discussions at a recent meeting of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology. They hope to recruit philosophers and scientists interested in the implications of scientific work on behaviour and cognition for traditional philosophical questions about mental states in animals.

The new society aims to develop an online repository of resources that will help its members in their teaching and research efforts; to disseminate information about conferences, opportunities and new work; to identify and make available a shared set of canonical work in the field and to “foster debate and discussion among individuals with overlapping interests in animal minds and cognition.” To find out more, email colallen@indiana.edu.

Philosophy Students Get Organized

In Britain a new society has been founded for undergraduate philosophy students. The British Undergraduate Philosophy Society also wants to provide a contact point for A-level students or university students of other subjects, who are considering studying philosophy at university.

The new group will try to facilitate philosophical discussion among students at different universities; and will encourage them to attend conferences. In fact, it hopes to organise an annual philosophy conference of its own; the first such will be held this year at St John‘s College, which is part of the University of Durham, from 23rd-25th September. Details are available from: www.bups.org. Entry to the conference is free to students.

London Philosophers Get Institutionalized

The University of London has announced that it is establishing an Institute of Philosophy within its School of Advanced Study. The Institute, which has been made possible by a large private donation and matching funds from the University, will replace the existing Philosophy Programme.

Since it was founded in 1995 the Philosophy Programme has supported or hosted over a hundred conferences and other events and brought 24 philosophers to London as visiting fellows. The Institute will continue to carry out the ambition of the Programme to make high quality philosophy of all kinds available to everyone across the UK, but on a larger scale than was previously possible. In particular, from 2006 the Institute will offer funded visiting fellowships to philosophers at all levels from the UK and overseas, as well as new postdoctoral fellowships. For more details see: www.sas.ac.uk/Philosophy.

British Doctors Drop Opposition to Euthanasia

The British Medical Association voted at its conference in July to end its long-standing opposition to euthanasia. In future the doctors‘ organisation will adopt a neutral position on this highly controversial issue, neither campaigning for nor against any changes in the law. Specifically, doctors will not oppose legislation on assisted dying though they would insist that any such legislation should include ‘robust safeguards‘ for patients and doctors who would not wish to be involved.

Dr Vivienne Nathanson, the head of science and ethics at the BMA, believes a ‘conscientious objection clause‘ would be necessary. Opinions among the conference delegates varied considerably. Dr Evan Harris, MP, who had called for the change welcomed the vote as “a historic change of policy”. Dr Ian Bailey of the BMA consultants‘ committee felt doctors should not support physician-assisted suicide while Dr John Garner from Edinburgh proposed that an ‘open and transparent‘ system that allowed patients to request an assisted death should be allowed. Strong opposition to the decision was voiced by the Christian Medical Fellowship, accusing the BMA of “turning its back on the Hippocratic Oath.”

APA Worries over Academic Freedom

‘Academic Bill of Rights‘ legislation has recently been introduced in several states and the US Congress. The American Philosophical Association‘s Committee for the Defense of Professional Rights of Philosophers has expressed its concern over the implications for academic freedom. It urges its members to study the Bill and consider these implications.

It is proposed that the Bill would allow government oversight of university curricula, teaching, hiring and promotion. Its declared aim is the achievement of political balance and the reduction of liberal bias.

The Committee is particularly concerned over recent incidents when harassment or defamation of character have been used to express opposition to the alleged political views of professors of philosophy and other disciplines. According to reports made to the APA, these have included disrupting instruction by posting unauthorized signs saying that lectures are cancelled or publicly labelling faculty members as ‘communists‘ or ‘terrorist sympathizers‘.

Genetically Modified Fears Come True

Debates over genetically modified (GM) crops usually touch sooner or later on the fear that modified genes will contaminate other plants with unpredictable and dangerous results. It appears that this may have happened in Britain, resulting in a new strain of ‘superweed‘ which is resistant to weedkillers.

According to the Guardian newspaper, the superweed was discovered at the end of a three-year government trial of GM crops which ended in 2003, but was give no publicity until now. It is the result of cross-fertilisation between GM oilseed rape and a weed called charlock (also known as wild mustard), to which it is distantly related. When scientists sprayed the charlock with a powerful herbicide, it was unbothered. A letter in the same newspaper the following day pointed out that food historians and geneticists believe that most green vegetables grown in the western world, apart from lettuce, were originally developed from charlock. This implies that GM-rape may have the potential to pass its modified genes to a very wide range of vegetables indeed.

However, researchers quoted in New Scientist magazine were doubtful as to whether gene transfer had really taken place. Brian Johnson, an ecological geneticist at English Nature, said “There is no superweed and there never has been. It‘s more likely that herbicide resistance in charlock has evolved naturally.” Les Firbank of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, which discovered the weed, said that one plant surviving a dose of weedkiller was not positive proof that gene transfer had taken place, and that even if it had, the resultant plant might not produce viable seeds.

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