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The Word Is Not Enough • Feed The World? • Courage & Complexity • The Art Of Aesthetics • Argue, Argue, Argue • Existence & Creativity

The Word Is Not Enough

DEAR EDITOR: George Wrisley’s otherwise very good article on Wittgenstein’s ideas about language mentions the proposed difficulty for a child to understand ostensive definition without knowing the language game of, say, ‘pointing’. Surely language must be able to develop without knowing such ground rules, or how would it be able to start in the first place?

Ostensive definition has a very natural and instinctive basis, and is connected with the simple act of reaching. For instance, a child might reach for something that’s just a bit too far away. They then make a face at a nearby parent, sending the message “Hey you, why aren’t you immediately able to understand what I want and immediately getting it?” The adult, seeing quite clearly what’s being reached for, takes the opportunity to teach a word, as happens so often: “Do you want the apple?” (child nods), “The apple?” (child attempts to say yes) “Umpff.” The adult hands over the apple.

In this very everyday and instinctive way there is no need for a child to learn the language game rules for ostensive definition. It all happens quite automatically; and there are probably many other examples of such simple language games which are built into us, and our environment.


DEAR EDITOR:Two of the contributors to the special feature ‘Wittgenstein: Tortured Genius’ (Issue 58), Peter Caws and Mathias Brockhausen, graphically display the duality of Wittgenstein, as, on the one hand, the ‘father’ of linguistic philosophy and author of the doctrine that the world is the sum of meaningful propositions, and, on the other hand, a seeker after mystical–that is, non-verbalisable, non-sense-perceptible–union with a ‘higher’ realm of ethical, aesthetic or religious truth. Exponents of both these aspects of the man have been inclined to view Wittgenstein’s philosophical persona as unique and unprecedented; and, in this connection, Professor Caws states that he “chose for the most part to ignore the history of philosophy.” Wittgenstein’s mystical aspect is however strikingly anticipated in the teaching of Plotinus (A.D. 204-270), who postulated an unbridgeable chasm between the describable world of sense-data and a supreme reality (‘The One’ or ‘The Good’). This, Plotinus argued, is by definition ineffable, indescribable and, in the normal sense, unknowable, since description or knowledge of it would necessarily detract from its perfection. This baffling but remorseless logic would surely have commended itself to Wittgenstein! It is interesting, too, that the earlier, like the later philosopher, attracted a cult following by both his intellectual rigour and the simplicity and unworldliness of his personal life.


Feed The World?

DEAR EDITOR: Jean Kazez’ article (issue 58) on this needy world and the constant decisions we rich folk must make about our own spending and personal enjoyments made me feel guilty too. I suspect you, the editor, also recognized yourself when you made the choice to publish. So many of us ought to feel normal human pangs when we the privileged consider the under-privileged peoples’ needs and our own response to them. However it would be a great mistake to feel that after we have agonized and laughed at our guilt we can go on living as usual without change. This would be to trick ourselves, and that may be why both writer and editor raised tangential questions while avoiding the real one on this subject.

Surely the related questions, “How good do we have to be?”, “Am I doing all I should be doing?” “Transcendence or toys?”, whether we should aspire to sainthood or not, miss the point most essential to human maturity: Am I aware that I am growing in this area of life from past positions taken and actions made?

All of us who must file an income tax report each year have a practical way to find this out. We can look at our benevolent giving, add up our total income, put the figures into our calculator, get the percentage, and compare this year to past years. The answer to the above essential question may now become apparent to us. We will now know who we are.

And we can give a hurrah for our feeling of guilt. It means we have so far avoided slipping into a psychopathic personality. But still we have judgments to make and actions to follow, for this danger yet hovers over us.


DEAR EDITOR: Congratulations to Jean Kazez in Issue 58 for resisting the blackmail of the monstrous regiment of starving children and opting for raising the quality rather than the quantity of human life.

To the end of the 19th Century, on an earth with a population below a billion and seas teeming with fish, thousands of miles of forest and prairie waiting for the axe and the farmer, and minerals galore waiting to be exploited, the unsustainability of giving aid to fuel population expansion was not apparent, despite the warnings of Malthus over a century earlier.

The road to hell is notoriously paved with good intentions, and the consequences of blindly following the doctrine that the starving must be fed has left us in a world where we are told that it would take the resources of three earths to raise the living standards of all the current six billion to that of the West; and simple arithmetic tells us that every mouth of the current 80 millions a year by which the population is currently expanding leads to a lowering of the average quality of life..

In the UK our politicians cannot open their mouths without grandstanding about the billion here and the 10 billion there of taxpayers’ money that they’re about to squander on some corrupt basket- case black hole of an economy. Meanwhile, at home, the sick are dying because hospitals are being closed and nurses sacked because of shortage of funds. As Baroness Warnock pointed out (PN 55) support for the elderly is nearly non-existent. Two of the main signs of civilised life are the arts and the sciences, but orchestras and art galleries are closing because of underfunding, and Reading University has just become the 46th to announce the closure of its Physics department as unaffordable; part of a nation-wide pattern in which we have lost hundreds of chemistry, maths, architecture and even philosophy departments for the same reason.

On the rare occasions that the subject is raised, two arguments are advanced against garrotting Lady Bountiful with her own purse strings. The first is that economies can be made elsewhere, with military expenditure and space exploration the usual targets. Putting several hundred thousand squaddies and the workers in the industries which support them on to welfare would hardly constitute an improvement to the general quality of life as far as they and their families are concerned, and the curiosity which drives us to explore the universe is the one thing which distinguishes us from the other animals.

The second argument is that the sacredness of human lives demands that we accept the burden. But even when every university, art gallery and concert hall has been converted into a crèche for starving children, when the very idea of a family of four or five living in a house with six or seven rooms is anathema and we have four or five occupants to every room, when every square yard of the planet is devoted to subsistence-level nourishment, and every plant and animal not needed for that purpose is extinct, then, inevitably, the arithmetic of exponential population growth will still call out the Four Horsemen.

When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. The downward slide will have to stop some time. So why not minimise the damage by stopping it now? Help save civilization–shoot a do-gooder!


Courage & Complexity

DEAR EDITOR: Thomas Wartenberg in Issue 58 of Philosophy Now surely misses the point of why films such as United 93 and World Trade Centre concentrate on individual courage. In so doing I suspect he betrays the fact that he’s made up his mind what the only reaction ought to be, in a political sense, and moreover that that response is now held by all rightminded people. But one of the reasons for concentrating on the individual acts of courage in calamitous events, is that such acts are at least common ground between people. By contrast, a film having an overtly political agenda would necessarily be crude and presumptively shove a particular point of view down people’s throats,concerning a complex matter where there is, in truth, space for people of intelligence and good will to disagree. Non-political films manifest modesty about what we can say about events in the wider sense. I suppose one could trot out the old argument that by not tackling the political side of events one is being political by default, thus making the view that everything is political a tautology. But it’s a sad day when acts of courage cannot be admired without all the political baggage surrounding them necessarily being dragged into it. Why should two women hugging each other have to be interpreted politically, as Wartenberg does? An “adequate [my italic] emotional and intellectual response to the events of 9/11” as Wartenberg puts it, would be poorly served by any film, I reckon, and even worse by any film so close to the events. The response to such events is best left to individuals to work out for themselves, rather than our being told what they should think by filmmakers who have no special qualifications about the issues. Matters are just not that clear in this case.

My own objection to these films would be that they exploit our emotional sensitivity in an unnecessary manner, without much point. But that’s another matter.


The Art Of Aesthetics

DEAR EDITOR: I’d like to comment on three articles in your issue on art (PN 57):

Anja Steinbauer states, “it is in Kant’s system that aesthetics was for the first time assigned an autonomous place as a discipline within philosophy.” Kant’s ideas on the subject actually derived from Baumgarten’s earlier treatise Aesthetica. It was Baumgarten who identified the subjective and emotional nature of our appreciation of beauty, and the enormity of its impact on everyday life. Kant advanced this idea by proposing that aesthetic judgment bridges the chasm between the theoretical and practical aspects of our being. I would also suggest that Steinbauer not take Danto at face value. Danto’s art world is comprised of the elitist 1% of 1% of the total art being made in the world. Despite his hyperbole, he cannot focus beyond the conceptual product of this alienated clique; thus, for this and numerous other reasons, Danto’s claim that art is collapsing into philosophy is completely without merit.

Tallis’ essay is even more problematic. He claims, “Art can and must lay claim to the hole left by the absence of God…” Modern Art collaborated to kill God, I will agree to that: but only an academic who is not an artist would suggest the absurd claim that art could possibly fill the shoes of God. [Tallis is a published poet! Ed] Tallis goes on to make a categorical blunder, for the meaning of the word ‘form’ in visual art is the contradiction of its meaning in philosophy. Lastly, Tallis states, “the art of the future must be content to have no practical use.” Art production may flourish from surplus wealth, but given the fact that great works of art are the oldest artifacts recording human higher intelligence, and that art has always and continuously been with us in every society, indicates that it is a necessary aspect of human existence. You cannot get more practical than that.

Dzifa Benson’s essay was excellent, for it possessed something which none of your other writers could offer: the knowledge and authenticity of an artist. The others approach art as if it were some sort of exquisite detached object in space. So is a piece of driftwood. But with driftwood we can at least recognize the force and phenomena of tide. Art as philosophy, as aesthetics, must be discussed beyond object appreciation and groundless speculation. The discipline of aesthetics need not end with Collingwood. It deserves a new rigor, for art is the pre-eminent human creative adventure; it is an unbroken historical process; and it is the demonstrated record of human culture and higher intelligence. Philosophy needs to tackle it anew Very few artists study philosophy. It is a timeconsuming enterprise, and not necessary to the making of good art, so therefore I commend Ms Benson. More artists should study philosophy, and they would if it were made relevant.


DEAR EDITOR: In the introductory paragraph of her valuable essay, ‘Aesthetics and Philosophy: A Match Made in Heaven?’, Anja Steinbauer succinctly describes the classic paradigm of the conflict between ‘philosophy’ and ‘feelings’ (in this case, aesthetic experiences), and concludes that there are few if any common “universal truths to speak of” between them. I respectfully disagree. I suggest that shared universal principles inform both reason and the aesthetic experience. In order to clarify that assertion, allow me to digress for the moment and take up the subject of evolutionary biology.

According to the ‘modern synthesis’ as characterized by the ethologists Konrad Lorenz et al., it describes an evolutionary process that resulted in the development of our emotions (affections/feelings) as well as our capacity to reason. According to such evolutionary theory, our sensual feelings and aesthetic sensitivities were developed in accordance with the Darwinian principle of adapting beneficial survival behaviors in the struggle for life.

If this is correct, it follows that our adaptive behaviors are the vital primary qualities and our feelings and our capacity to reason (such as it is) are merely secondary qualities attached to the performance of those benign primary behaviors. But because of our narcissistic nature, both philosophers and artists prefer to think that the emotions/affects, and/or reason, or some combination of both, are primary and dictate our behaviors. This, I suggest, is the basic error that has left us with the infertile philosophical landscape that Steinbauer has accurately described.

Rather than trying to apply aesthetic theory to art practices, I suggest that we change the paradigm and start with the responses required by the environment. By describing how art forms may facilitate the adaptive behavior required; I suggest a more fruitful exchange between the philosopher and the artist can be effected.


Argue, Argue, Argue

DEAR EDITOR:The discussion in ‘An Argument on the Moral Argument’ (Issue 57) evidences the type of confused thinking present in much contemporary philosophy of religion. To be fair, both authors do a fair job of rehashing the objectivism/relativism debate and its relationship to moral arguments for the existence of God. But, the conceptual confusion is at the presuppositional level. The confusion lies in the belief that notions of objective and relative make sense.

Pollard makes the claim that sets the terms of the debate: “There are two views in ethics: morality is either objective‚ or relative.” Massey-Chase takes the bait and does her best to show that morality is indeed relative and thus the moral argument for God fails at its first premise. To her credit, she offers a glimpse into the conceptual confusion of Pollard’s claim of ethical objectivism. She looks at the complexity of our moral lives and how moral objectivist views do not fit this reality. But she fails to fully elucidate the implications of her observations. Conversely, Pollard notes some of the ways that relative conceptions of morality do not actually fit our moral lives (e.g. they do not allow for common claims of moral progress). Yet much like his counterpart, he fails to appreciate the consequences of his observations too.

To put it simply, moral objectivism and moral relativism do not make sense in the same way. They both fail to account for the way that morality actually functions in our lives. There are numerous ways in which both these labels and their philosophical implications cannot make sense of our most basic moral actions. I think it is time to move beyond this binary conception of the nature of moral statements and look at the ways in which we use moral statements. It is through a closer attention to the details of our moral lives rather than through the construction of an abstract, metaphysical taxonomy which fails to do justice to this moral life, that we might begin to make sense of morality.


Existence & Creativity

DEAR EDITOR: Colin Wilson’s exploration of the ‘mystical’ side of existentialism (Issue 56) was a quick study, and perhaps convincing for those of us who don’t look outside of ourselves for meaning in this world. Yet there’s a paradox, I think, in the author’s suggestion that we can ‘will’ creative vision. We know from Keats that strong poetry involves a slight of hand, a suspension of disbelief, the much-cited ‘negative capability’, the reservation of a judgmental impulse, and the rejection of certainty as well as absolutes. The game might be to ‘look at things a certain way,’ to will a more creative way of seeing or perceiving, but the strategy involves rather more the adoption of ‘wise passivity’ as the poet Paul Muldoon puts it. “I’m certain it’s there, and if I look hard enough it’s here” is fine, I suppose–yet nothing of excellence, of ‘hidden depths of meaning’ gives itself away easily, if at all, and certainly not by being hit over the head and dragged into the light of day by intention. Artistic excellence must be elusive as hell in some cases, and therefore waited for, deliberately, with as much energy as going out and looking for it on this side of the road and then on that side of the road. This wilful perceiving would embody phenomena with the meaning most of us so urgently seem to seek – while claiming not to–this meaning of the mind. Yet because it is forced it will come across as bad art. Perhaps we should perceive with intention while suspending perception. On the other hand, it’s probably best that most of us “walk around well-wadded with stupidity,” as George Eliot put it in Middlemarch.


DEAR EDITOR: Lewis Carroll, in his novel Sylvie and Bruno, wrote “We lose half the pleasure we might have in Life, by not really attending.” That statement means a lot to me because it seems to me that I am perpetually attending to Life with great vividness. It’s not that I necessarily see that as a great thing: In fact I’ve regretted that I could not descend into that respondingonly mode of perception characterised for me by being fully consumed in a football match or a piece of music. I wished I was less prominent in my own life–not seeing myself seeing all the time. Colin Wilson’s article shows me something different. What I had been doing all the time was active perception–something, as indicated by Lewis Carroll, that can greatly enrich Life. And yet I still wonder about “feeling almost sick with excitement” by walking down a country road on a Spring morning (Rupert Brooke). Is this a tolerable way to live Life?


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