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News: September/October 2007

French told to think less • Top Islamic philosopher dies • Georgetown embraces the Middle Ages — News reports by Sue Roberts

French Furore

A recent parliamentary speech by the French Finance Minister, Christine Lagarde, led to the ruffling of a great many intellectual feathers. In a statement to the National Assembly she told the French to spend less time thinking and instead be prepared to “roll up your sleeves!” In a nation that prides itself on intellectual debate in all walks of life, this is heresy. Alain Finkeilkraut, philosopher, writer, professor and radio-show host, responded robustly. “How absurd to say we should think less! If you have the chance to consecrate your life to thinking, you work all the time, even in your sleep. Thinking requires setbacks, suffering, a lot of sweat.”

Leading Islamic Scholar Dies

Muhsin Mahdi, the world’s foremost expert on medieval Arabic and Islamic political philosophy, died in August aged 81. His academic career was spent at Chicago (1957-69) and at Harvard (1969-96), where he held the James Richard Jewett Professorship in Arabic.

One of his former students, Steven J. Lenzer, attributed the universal respect in which Mahdi was held in part to his remarkable archival and philological work.

Mahdi’s most celebrated achievement was his critical edition of The Thousand and One Nights. His last book, the result of a life-time of study, was Alfarabi and the Foundation of Islamic Political Philosophy (2001).

Medieval Texts

Puzzled by that faded Latin manuscript you found at the bottom of your desk draw? You should have gone to Georgetown University in July. A four-week workshop brought thirteen young scholars of medieval philosophy and theology there for intensive training on editing techniques Directed by two eminent international editors, it aimed to give them the necessary tools to produce critical editions of original medieval documents, opening up previously obscure texts to scholars in the field. “Working from manuscripts is very difficult due to the errors and inconsistencies,” remarked Neil Lewis, professor of philosophy and coordinator of the workshop. “The views of medieval authors are often unknown until an editor gets in there and cleans them up to produce a scholarly edition”. The success of the workshop, which drew participants from universities across North America, Israel, Poland, Romania, Italy and Bulgaria, has led to discussions about hosting another workshop in the future.

Philosophy is Top of the Pops

A serious challenge was posed recently to many high-profile names in the Top 20 downloads on iTunes by Dr NigelWarburton, a senior philosophy lecturer at Britain’s Open University. His podcast of readings from his book Philosophy: The Classics proved to be a more popular download than such blockbusters as The Best Bits of Chris Evans; Danny Baker’s All Day Breakfast Show or Prime Minister’s Questions. The book is an introduction to 27 key works in the history of philosophy starting with Plato and Aristotle and including texts by Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke. The free downloads began in May and will continue until all 27 parts are available.

How Russell came to Albania

A fascinating glimpse of how one man’s passion for philosophy transcends his daily work has emerged from Albania. Agron Deliu is a chemist whose job it is to assess the toxicity of the country’s rubbish dumps. Frustrated in his wish to study philosophy as a young man living under communist rule, he studied chemistry instead. After years in the intellectual wilderness, having been sent to work in a brick factory for ten years following charges against his family, he finally realised his dream. After Albania’s communist regime collapsed in the early 1990s, Agron’s son went abroad to study. Books by Bertrand Russell were among those sent back to his father. So began a remarkable labour of love. Each morning for many years Agron has worked from 4:30am to translate the works of Bertrand Russell into Albanian before beginning his tour of the dumps. As a result, for the first time the British philosopher is to be published in Albanian.

Empathic Yawns

Finally, although we all know yawning to be highly contagious, little has been known by scientists about the mechanisms underlying the behaviour. Now a study reported in the journal Biology Letters appears to support those who think yawns are catching because we empathise with the other person rather than a reflex action. A study of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, a developmental disability that affects empathy, has found that they are not susceptible to contagious yawning.

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