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The Big ‘H’

by Rick Lewis

You’ll always get a few bad apples, and it pains me to admit that down the ages certain well-known philosophers have been charged with serious crimes ranging from bribery (Francis Bacon) to murder (Louis Althusser). Nonetheless, if you should chance across a philosopher in the dock, then it is statistically most likely that he or she is being done for heresy.

Socrates was executed for crimes which included ‘inventing new gods’, and Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake by the Inquisition. Just to show that philosophers can dish it out as well as take it, St Augustine of Hippo managed to have a Welsh idea-wrestler called Pelagius declared a heretic at the Council of Ephesus in 431, though in those more tolerant times no incineration ensued. And 350 years ago this year, Spinoza was expelled from his synagogue in Amsterdam and cursed with terrible curses for his colourfully original ideas on the nature of God. We felt that this was an anniversary worth marking. Peter Cave has done so with his article, and generally we dedicate this whole issue on heresy to honour the gentle Spinoza.

Grant Bartley in his introduction to our heresy section makes clear that heresy pretty much goes with the territory of doing philosophy. However, you wouldn’t expect the Philosophy Now team to agree in every detail on a subject like heresy, and indeed for us to have done so would have been a sorry failure to enter into the spirit of the subject matter. Our disagreement concerns the nature of heresy. Grant considers that any set of ideas which contradicts an orthodoxy is an heresy to that orthodoxy. I demur, as it seems to me that a heresy, to even be heresy, must share some common ground with the orthodoxy. According to Grant, Buddhism would be a heresy from the point of view of Islam, whereas I would say that Buddhism and Islam are so different that neither can be considered a heresy of the other. However, Methodists might be considered heretics by Catholics, as the two groups have so many beliefs in common and yet disagree on matters important to both. What do you think?

Ian Smith throws more light with his article on William of Ockham’s philosophically intriguing but frankly rather cheeky attempt to have the Pope of his day dismissed for heresy. Islam too has a history of heresies, and Imadaldin Al-Jubouri dissects the latest – the terrible heresy which drives its adherents to fly planes full of innocents into tall buildings full of other innocents.

By such standards, the heresy of Colin Wilson looks mild indeed. His first book The Outsider, which was published 50 years ago (another anniversary worth marking!) was greeted with glad cries by the critics and established his reputation as the essential English existentialist. Later, however, Wilson was shunned for developing a serious interest in the paranormal. Some saw this as an offense against reason – surely the worst sin a philosopher can commit. Wilson has stuck to his guns, but despite its title this new and never previously published article has nothing to do with the paranormal and everything to do with phenomenology.

Of course we also have oodles of other articles too. As well as Colin Wilson, we are happy to welcome a second celebrity contributor to this issue – Professor Hans Lenk. A former Olympic rower, Professor Lenk is now a very well-known philosopher. His sports career has made him particularly well-equipped to comment on matters to do with human motivation and action, and in this issue he writes on a very topical topic – the nature of responsibility.

There have been quite a few structural changes at Philosophy Now recently. One byproduct was the lateness of the last issue, for which my apologies. One of the bigger changes is that we’ve hired the excellent Grant Bartley as assistant editor. One of the more minor is that, starting with this issue, we’ve slightly altered the shape of Philosophy Now, switching to the page size used by magazines such as the Economist. We’ll continue to tweak the magazine’s design and content over the next few months, so please send us your ideas for improvements!

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