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News: May/June 2008

Kripke Gets Centred • Wittgenstein Gets Clubbed • Ayn Rand Gets Funding • Simon Blackburn Gets Top U.S. Honour — News reports by Sue Roberts

Blackburn Honoured

Simon Blackburn, who is a philosophy professor at Cambridge University and a Fellow of Trinity College, has become one of the few non-Americans to be elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Blackburn has written several books popularising philosophy, but among academics is best known for his development of a ‘quasi-realist’ approach to meta-ethics: he argues that in moral judgements we project qualities onto situations which don’t inherently possess them, but that we can’t do this arbitrarily because we have to be consistent in our reactions.

Saul Kripke Center Founded

The world contains many university research centres dedicated to the study of one or other of the great philosophers of centuries past. It is unusual for a research centre to devote itself to the ideas of a philosopher who is still alive and working. However, the Graduate Center of the City University of New York has just announced the creation of the Saul Kripke Center, to “promote the study of the intellectual achievements of Saul Kripke.” Kripke himself will be a member of the Center’s faculty.

The key to understanding this surprising announcement is perhaps the statement that the Center “will archive and edit Kripke’s unpublished material and assist him in bringing it to publication.” Kripke, who is one of the world’s leading analytical philosophers, has published relatively little. While still a teenager he produced a handful of short but groundbreaking papers on modal logic which made him famous in logician watering-holes worldwide. Then in 1972 he published a hugely influential book named Naming and Necessity, which attacked Bertrand Russell’s ideas about how proper names have meaning, and proposed an alternative. The book is sometimes said to have made metaphysics ‘respectable’ again. However, a set of lectures he gave at Oxford in the 1970s called Reference and Existence has never been published, although photocopies of the official transcript have been illicitly but widely circulated. The same goes for much of Kripke’s work from the last three decades – it is public only in the form of old tape-recordings of his lectures or notes taken by attendees. As well as bringing such material properly into print, the new Center will also organize conferences and seminars devoted to his work. It will hold a grand Gala Opening Conference on May 21 with lectures, a street carnival, and a rock concert. (OK, I made the last bits up. But the bit about the lectures is true.)

Rand of Gold

The American banking giant BB&T is to make a $2 million grant to the University of Texas to establish a chair for the study of Ayn Rand’s philosophical system, which is called Objectivism. Ayn Rand died in 1982, but her novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead continue to be hugely popular. Rand advocated laissez-faire capitalism and strongly opposed socialism, altruism and religion. For more about her ideas read Prof. Tibor Machan’s article in our last issue. BB&T say their aim is to encourage a thorough and fair discussion of Rand’s philosophy and ethics on university campuses. The bank’s critics have accused it of using its shareholders’ cash to warp debate and influence the curriculum.

Chase’s Clever Clones

A new weapon has been revealed in South Korea’s fight against drug smugglers. Born to three surrogate mothers, six cloned Labrador puppies have passed their sniffer tests with flying colours. Each of the six puppies is named Toppy (from ‘tomorrow’s puppy’) and is identical to the ‘father’, a former sniffer dog called Chase. The project manager who trained them claims that they learn more readily than ordinary canines, which could be entirely down to their inherited characteristics. On the other hand, it could be that clones are more malleable – and where might that lead once human beings can be cloned?

Brain scientists sort out ethics

The journal Science has just reported a study examining the types of brain activity involved in ethical decision-making. Scientists from the Californian Institute of Technology and the University of Illinois performed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on 26 volunteers while they pondered a moral dilemma. The dilemma involved fairness versus efficiency in the distribution of food in an African orphanage. The results indicated that a brain area called the insula dealt with considerations of fairness or inequity, while another brain area called the putamen dealt with questions of efficiency. The scans seemed to indicate that in dealing with this hypothetical situation the insula was generally more active than the putamen; and most participants did indeed choose fairness over efficiency in the distribution of meals to the hypothetical orphans. This led the experimenters to conclude that “Against utilitarianism, our results support the deontological intuition that a sense of fairness is fundamental to distributive justice.”

Wittgenstein Club

The rehabilitation of spiky Cambridge genius Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) after a period of relative neglect continues with the establishment, finally, of a British Wittgenstein Society (motto: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence”). It will hold its first conference in June. The society is based at the University of Hertfordshire and will award a bursary each year to a student who wishes to do a PhD on Wittgenstein there.

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