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Straussed Out • Mill’s Principle Pleasures? • The ‘I’s Don’t Have It • Thought and Feeling • Literally Philosophical • Fibonacci Sequels

Straussed Out

DEAR EDITOR: You do not refute all of the charges against Leo Strauss in your brief article in Issue 55 of Philosophy Now. Similarly I cannot here run down the list of all the serious accusations that speak against your defence of him. Instead, I will rely on an article by Nicholas Xenos, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, printed in the Spring 2004 issue of Logos, called ‘Leo Strauss and the Rhetoric of the War on Terror.’ In it Xenos quotes as follows from an as yet untranslated letter by Strauss to the well-known scholar Karl Lowith.

Strauss wrote to Lowith in May 1933, five months after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor, and a month after implementation of the first anti-Jewish legislation. In the letter he says “Just because Germany has turned to the right and has expelled us” – meaning Jews – “it simply does not follow that the principles of the right are therefore to be rejected. To the contrary, only on the basis of principles of the right – fascist, authoritarian, imperial – is it possible in a dignified manner, without the ridiculous and pitiful appeal to ‘the inalienable rights of man’ to protest against the mean nonentity” – the mean nonentity being the Nazi Party. In other words, in this letter he is attacking the Nazis from a right wing perspective. Strauss also wrote that he had been reading Caesar’s Commentaries, and valued Virgil’s judgment that “under imperial rule the subjected are spared and the proud are subdued.” He concludes, “there is no reason to crawl to the cross, even to the cross of liberalism, as long as anywhere in the world the spark glimmers of Roman thinking. And moreover, better than any cross is the ghetto.”

The most interesting facet of this quotation is Strauss’ avowal of allegiance to the principles of authoritarian fascism and his contemptuous reference to liberalism and ‘the inalienable rights of man.’ I don’t think it’s stretching the significance of this letter if we consider it proof that Strauss was a fascist.


Mill’s Principle Pleasures?

DEAR EDITOR: Peter Cave’s report on the life of John Stuart Mill (issue 55) raised a moral dilemma in me, especially, as I recently read the book, Marriage, a History, by Stephanie Coontz. It is her belief that most marriages in history were arranged by parents and guardians for social, economic or political reasons. If the Taylor marriage in the Mill article was one of these then I can understand why Harriet found love and intimacy with Mill, and why her husband, “accommodated things pretty well.”

However, Dr Cave includes a quote from a letter Harriet wrote to John Stuart which suggests that sex was not part of their intimacy. It would be interesting to know if this letter dated near the beginning or the end of their twenty year affair, while they waited for Mr Taylor to die. Whatever, to believe that this couple travelled together from time to time without indulging in sexual relations is to believe that snow does not melt at equator temperatures. If I believe either, then I am either believing a lie, or in a freak of nature.

My dilemma? If a man hides the truth of his emotional life in a lie, or colludes with one who does, then what weight should I put on his intellectual ideas, as summarised by Grant Bartley?

Mill may well have known things, which we do not know, which caused him to believe that he was not harming Mr Taylor by travelling with his wife, but actually contributing to his welfare. But my observations of human social relations make this sound to me like a very ‘pie in the sky’ rationalization. On the other hand, if he was helping Mr. Taylor for hidden social reasons, why be false about his own sexual relations? Hence, I suspect his reasoning on liberty may have had a strong personal emotional bias which may downgrade its value for humanity collectively.


The ‘I’s Don’t Have It

DEAR EDITOR: Roger Caldwell’s article in Philosophy Now Issue 54, ‘How to be Conscious’, while quite a good summary of recent thinking in the field of consciousness studies, illustrates a widespread lack of precision in language. I refer to the use of the word ‘I’ in making assertions about the first-person point of view. Consider:

1) “I have a privileged perspective on what it feels like to be me that is not available to anyone else.” (p 26)

2) “I understand that Searle resists the label, but much of what he says surely presupposes such a position.” (p 28)

The first sentence is intended to be applicable to everyone: the author is making a general assertion about all persons, not just making an autobiographical statement about himself. The second sentence however, is purely personal: it is the author, not persons in general, who understands Searle’s resistance. But the author uses I-language in both cases. The reader must grasp the distinction from the context.

Caldwell is certainly not the only writer to exhibit this confusion, and usually the context makes the meaning clear, but not always. For instance, take this passage from Dennett:

“As a left-handed person, I can wonder whether I am a left-hemispheredominant speaker or a right-hemisphere- dominant speaker, and the only way I can learn the truth is by submitting myself to objective, ‘third-person’ testing…. There are, however, some events that occur in my brain that I do know about, as soon as they occur: my subjective experiences themselves.” (Daniel C. Dennett, Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness (The MIT Press, 2005), pp 77, 78.) Is Dennett speaking autobiographically or generally? Or does he mix the two modes in the same paragraph?

I respectfully suggest that we avoid Ilanguage when we really mean to assert something applicable generally. It’s not hard to do. Here is an example of how I would restate the I-language found in Caldwell’s paper.

Original: “I have a privileged perspective on what it feels like to be me that is not available to anyone else; another person may empathise with my joys and sorrows, or my pains, but only I can actually experience them.”(p 26)

Restatement: “Each of us has a privileged perspective on what it feels like to be the person that we are which is not accessible to anyone else; another person may empathise with our joys and sorrows, or our pains, but only each of us individually can actually experience them.”

Such restatements might require a bit of extra work. But in all cases, the meaning will be clearer.


Thought and Feeling

DEAR EDITOR: Thank you particularly for ‘How to be Conscious: Mind & Matter Revisited’ in the February/March edition of Philosophy Now. Since retiring from teaching I have been attempting to rediscover my mind with the help of philosophy and developments in neuroscience, and Roger Caldwell’s article provided a helpful way of relating the findings of Dennett, Searle and McGinn.

However, I think that the entry for Aesthetics in ‘Philosophy in a Nutshell’ (p.4) under-represents the scope and nature of this ‘bigger bone’ in the ‘skeleton’ of philosophy. It seems to have fallen victim to the Baumgarten Corruption, (Dixon, R. 1995) and insufficiently emphasises, if not excludes, perception.

My view is based on many years of teaching aesthetics and drawing upon many contributions to this area, in efforts to augment rigour in the teaching and appreciation of the arts. Within the specific area of teaching children and young people with special educational needs, aesthetics in its more fully represented sense has proved to be very valuable and highly insightful. I would like to suggest the following:

Aesthetics = perceptive
Aisthanesthai = to feel or perceive
Aisthesis = referring to perceiving interesting objects

So aesthetics is the critical examination (1) of beliefs about our perception of and response to interesting phenomena; and in relation to this, (2) our beliefs about the nature of the arts. [Changes have been made – Ed.]

Aesthetic experience is the absorbed and engaged involvement of potentially all perceptual systems, visual, oral, auditory, tactile, haptic, orientational, olfactory, depending on the phenomena or object. To help students grasp the significance of perception in this experience I would urge them to contrast such experience with anaesthesia, where the senses are dulled to the point of unconsciousness.


Literally Philosophical

DEAR EDITOR: In your recent obituary of Julián Marías (Philosophy Now 54, Feb/March), Dr Marías is referred to as “the foremost disciple of the Spanish literary theorist José Ortega y Gasset, who introduced the works of Joyce and Proust to Spain.” For readers unfamiliar with Ortega’s work, allow me to quote Dr. Marías himself on Ortega:

“His first book, Meditations on Quixote, written in 1914… includes – delightfully written – new philosophical theories which anticipate a large part of European thought in the twenties, thirties, and forties; and some others that are not to be found anywhere else…. The original source of Ortega’s philosophy can only be discovered in this meditation on the novel of Cervantes, seen as a key for understanding Spain. Ortega dives into the depths of Don Quixote and comes back to the surface with a rare pearl between his teeth: an interpretation of Spain which includes, as a metaphysical core, one of the most powerful and original philosophies of our times.” April, 1960.

Although Ortega often used literary analysis to illustrate philosophical ideas, he is undoubtedly Spain’s greatest philosopher and should not be confused with a literary theorist – as any readers of his most famous work, The Revolt of the Masses, can quickly ascertain for themselves.


Fibonacci Sequels

DEAR EDITOR: Miriam Abbot quotes in Issue 54 some observations taken from greatdreams.com. These observations are taken as evidence that numerology is a pseudo-science. I would definitely concur; consider the ‘observation’ that “there were 11 floors on each of the Twin Towers”. This is true, but only trivially so. There were in total 110 floors on each of the Twin Towers. The quotation used is somewhat akin to stating “there are 5 people living in Kent”.

Pedantically and pointlessly yours


DEAR EDITOR: I am responding to Miriam Abbott’s article in Issue 54, ‘Bad News for Fibophiles’. In it, she states the idea that there are Fibonacci numbers in the human hand are “… easily countered with the fact that we have only four fingers and one thumb.” But that is only one hand. We actually have eight fingers and two thumbs – with the fingers divided into three sections by two knuckles and the thumbs divided into two sections by one knuckle. Two, three and eight are all Fibonacci numbers.


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