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News: February/March 2006
Philosophy TV Pioneer Dies • Confucius Rehabilitated • Limbo to be Abolished • Work on Causality Wins Lakatos Prize — News reports by Sue Roberts in London and John Ruddy in New York
Ken Knisely, the creator of the philosophy television show No Dogs Or Philosophers Allowed, has died suddenly at the age of 48. Ken was one of the most popular and life-enhancing characters on the American philosophical scene. He produced a great television show on a limited budget, and after twenty two years of effort was achieving his goal of bringing philosophy television to a mass audience via satellite and cable. We will publish a full obituary in Issue 55.
Thoughts for Tots
One legacy of Ken Knisely was the APA special session on Pre-College Philosophy, which he had organized in the months before his death. His friends ensured that it went ahead as planned.
When most people envision a philosopher, usually they imagine someone old and craggy, perhaps smoking a pipe by the fireplace. This was definitely not the case at the 102nd annual meeting of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association at the end of December. Panelists here had taught philosophy to students aged four to sixteen, using everything from witty Monty Python dialogue to The Wizard of Oz as springboards to questions like “How do I see myself?” “What makes me unique?” and “Can someone be scared but still be courageous?” Participants also included more than thirty students from Bethpage High School, who took part in a debate on the Ethics of Consumption.
China Sponsors Confucian Revival
Voltaire, once known as the ‘European Confucius’, said that “there’s no virtue that has been neglected in Confucian teaching, and every line relates to the happiness of mankind.” Confucian thoughts are not merely the foundation of civilization in China, but of the civilization of East Asia generally. A new, definitive canon of works by Confucius and on Confucianism comprising 5,000 works and a billion Chinese characters has recently begun compilation. These Confucian works are being gathered from China, Taiwan, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and Europe. It is estimated the compilation will take 16 years to complete. The amount of text is not the only time-consumer: until the 1800’s, no punctuation was used in Chinese writing and in particular there were no full-stops or commas. Modern scholars and translators wish to add punctuation to make the canon clearer to general readers, and to make an on-line database more searchable.
Some 300 scholars from 25 universities and research institutes in the Chinese mainland have joined hands and embarked on this ambitious project. The massive project has an annual fund of 1 million yuan (US$125,000) from Peking University and the Ministry of Education respectively.
Wore of the Words
What do Nietzsche, Will Smith, Paris Hilton and Sartre have in common? You guessed it: fashion. A recently-started fashion house based in California has as their main selling point the wise quotations on their shirts. These include bon mots from Sartre [“Everything has been figured out, except how to live”], and Nietzsche [“There are no facts, only interpretations”] among others by Gandhi, Buddha, Oscar Wilde and Ingrid Bergman. Some of the buyers include Will Smith, Jessica Simpson, Paris Hilton, Tori Spelling and Shannon Elizabeth. But we always knew they had taste.
Spain’s Historian of Ideas
Julián Marías died on Dec 15 at age 91. He was an historian of philosophy, a prolific writer and critic, and the foremost disciple of the Spanish literary theorist José Ortega y Gasset, who introduced the works of Joyce and Proust to Spain. Marías is best known for his colossal History of Philosophy, which is widely regarded as the greatest work in the Spanish language on the history of philosophy, comparable to Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy in English. He won the inaugural John F Kennedy Prize for intellectual achievement and was elected to the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language in 1964.
Deceiving and Nothingness
Anyone reading the new biography of Sartre, Tête-à-Tête: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre might wish JPS had confided in Madame de Beauvoir a bit less during their long companionship. Tête-à-Tête translates literally as ‘head to head,’ but means ‘face to face.’ This Tête-à-Tête is certainly more ‘head to head.’ Among many revealing morsels, the book shows that Sartre had a strong fondness for pretty women over smart women, and that he made and dropped friends purely for de Beauvoir’s amusement. But what should a little malicious conduct and a few indulgences of the flesh mean to the history of philosophy?
Faces and Personal Identity
A team of French surgeons, led by Prof. Jean-Michel Dubernard, recently performed the world’s first face transplant. Following a mauling by her dogs earlier in the year, in which she lost her lips, chin and part of her nose, the patient received a graft of a triangle formed by the nose and mouth of a donor, using a technique known as composite tissue allotransplantation.
Stephen Wigmore, chairman of the ethics committee of the British Transplantation Society, was of the opinion that “Facial appearance is very closely associated with an individual’s sense of personal identity, and the recipient of a new face must adapt to this new ‘identity’ as well as to other people’s responses”. The recipient would not, however, look like the donor, since bone structure would affect appearance; this being particularly true of a partial transplant.
Ethical concerns have been expressed in the past few years over transplants and some surgeons believe that as a result, Britain has slipped behind in terms of research and procedure because of lack of support.
Limbo Faces Abolition
The Roman Catholic Church is set to renounce the centuries-old doctrine of limbo. For centuries many in the Church claimed that the souls of infants who die before they can be baptised go to a place called limbo, which is between heaven and hell (‘Limbo’ comes from the Latin limbus, meaning ‘edge’.) Being innocents, they don’t deserve to go to hell, but being burdened by Original Sin, and unredeemed by baptism, they cannot reach heaven. The poet Dante and others argued that the great sages of the pre-Christian past, including Plato, must also be in limbo. However, the new Pope is a long-term critic of the concept (which never had the status of official doctrine), and a commission of cardinals is expected to denounce it soon.
If you have ever dreamed of having an obedient, efficient, non-argumentative ‘extra’ in your home to act as companion, secretary and security guard, take heart. Selected households in Tokyo recently welcomed the first Wakamaru robots from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries for a test period. It is hoped that these cute, 3ft high, yellow ‘treasures’ will eventually be available in the rest of Japan and then worldwide. The Wakamaru can carry out many practical functions such as medication schedule reminders, weather forecasting and alerting you to accidents in the home. If an intruder enters during your absence the robot will send pictures and messages to your mobile phone. His sophisticated face recognition software allows him to remember and greet up to ten people.
However, it seems ‘he’ is more than the sum of his parts. The manufacturers claim that that ‘he’ soon feels part of the family and has some engaging features. Left to ‘his’ own devices one Wakamaru was reported to have been found watching television ... which is reassuring. Perhaps they won’t become more intelligent than humans after all!
Marxist Kitsch Draws Crowds
Over the past two years Trier, Germany, birthplace of Karl Marx, has seen an influx of visitors from China. In 2005 alone more than 30,000 arrived, and top of the must-do list for most was to be photographed in front of the baroque villa where the founding father of communism was born in 1818. The gift shop at the associated museum reported a brisk trade in plaster busts of Marx and wine from the home vinyard. Pralines imprinted with Marx’s bearded face were said to be less popular since visitors felt it was too disrespectful to eat him. After visiting the museum most visitors head for the shops. One tour guide remarked: “I think Marx might have found it difficult to understand this, but shopping is our new hobby.”
Research Provokes Yawns
While the act of yawning is common to a wide range of creatures, it has long been supposed that contagious yawning is confined to human and great apes alone, since only they were believed to be able understand how others of their species feel. Recently published research by a University of Stirling team in the journal Biology Letters suggests otherwise. Stumptail macaque monkeys yawn too, but it had been thought that they did not have the empathy to ‘catch’ a yawn. Yet video footage of natural yawns by macaques contrasted with footage of control mouth movements showed that the yawns triggered a statistically significant increase in the behaviour. It is proposed that this contagious yawning, recognising that a peer feels tired, may date back to a common ancestor of the monkeys and apes more than twenty million years ago.
Pain Control by Mind Control
The control of mind over matter is startlingly illustrated by recent research by a team at Stanford University medical school. A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science described how patients using high-tech imaging equipment were able to focus on their brains and control activity in one of their pain centres through mental exercises. Dr Sean Mackey, co-author of the study, claimed the ability to control chronic pain in this way, with practice, could “change people’s lives”.
The London School of Economics has announced that the 2005 Lakatos Prize, of £10,000 for an outstanding contribution to the philosophy of science, will go to James Woodward of the California Institute of Technology, for his book Making Things Happen: A Theory of Causal Explanation (OUP, 2003).
Interest in the notion of causal explanation pervades both ordinary and scientific life. We wonder what caused our computer to crash, whether the MMR vaccine caused increased levels of autism, whether increase in the money supply caused inflation in a particular economy, and so on. But it is very difficult to explain what exactly is involved in the notion of cause and of causal explanation – particularly in cases like these, where the systems are complex. Professor Woodward has developed an interventionist account of causation and explanation, according to which causal relationships are those that can be exploited for purposes of intervention and control, and are invariant under intervention. He argues that this sheds light not just on the cases from social science and biomedicine where its ingredients were first developed, but on causal reasoning across the board.