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Gordon’s Destructive Creativity • Just Words • Steiner Decliner • The Heart of Art • Free Existential Joke • Extraordinary Ethical Extractions • Not A Single Dual • Freedom Fudge • What Is Free Will, Anyway?

Gordon’s Destructive Creativity

DEAR EDITOR: It isn’t often that an article in a philosophy journal can provoke immediate anger in me. Nevertheless, Prof Gordon’s reflection ‘The Blood of the 3000’ (Philosophy Now 68) managed to do just that. From the heading I expected perhaps a philosophical reflection on the ethics of those who killed 3000 workers and passengers. But no: alas, the good professor goes on to blame the victims’ culture for the bloodshed. Evidently consumerism is the sole aspiration of American society, and the terrorism a fulfilment of a subconscious wish resulting from ennui and a craving for some excitement. No proof or evidence is offered apart from vague references to Schopenhauer, Zizek and Freud which appear to lend gravitas to what amounts to not much more than a self-flagellation worthy of the most fanatically world-hating monk.

Prof Gordon’s article also raises the question of context. Some years ago I taught philosophy at an Australian university, where the default intellectual stance sided always with the ‘other’, regardless of the other’s values or beliefs. This stance is reflexive, not reflective, and can only be attributed to the plague of deconstructionism that has infested so many humanities departments. This kind of faux intellectualism leaves its adherents voiceless when confronted by an other that sees violence, murder and contempt as essential qualities of its struggle to destroy a way of life it hates and replace it with its own. Prof Gordon appears to share at least some of this other’s views. However, this other would never accord him the freedom he takes for granted and which he seems unwilling to defend or acknowledge. “The perpetrators become the visage of Evil, the new focus of our infinite capacity for distancing the enemy from ourselves” writes Prof Gordon.What can this possibly mean, except that the professor is so utterly confused that he can no longer recognize an act of murder when he witnesses one.While it is true that the West hasn’t helped the disadvantaged of the world as much as we could, that is no justification for an unprovoked act of terror. It doesn’t take an ‘infinite capacity’ of anything for any reasonable human being to want nothing at all to do with any of the values, culture etc of this particular enemy. But it takes a special kind of comfortable middle-class ennui to entertain the thought that we might have something in common, or to think that the victims may have lost their lives so that some strange Freudian wish might be fulfilled. It is especially offensive to find these thoughts entertained by a professor who is happy to condemn the very culture from which he derives stature and material benefit. The enemy Prof Gordon chooses to absolve also wants to burn his books – a thought he should keep foremost in his mind the next time he is tempted to deplore the comfort that billions aspire to through study and hard work, not destroy because of a hatred of freedom.


DEAR EDITOR: In Jeffrey Gordon’s article ‘IsWar Inevitable?’ in PN 66, I read Freud’s assertion to Einstein that man is driven by two powerful instincts, one of creation and one of destruction. In other words, man has an inherent urge to create and then destroy. Freud was knowledgeable in the perversion of man.

Even though Freud was not optimistic that man would or could ever stop making war, Einstein seemed to be encouraged by Freud’s instinctive explanation, perhaps because Einstein focused more on man’s creative aspect than the destructive. Perhaps Einstein thought that as man got more creative in his ability to destroy himself he would eventually lose his desire for war and use reason instead. And in a sense that is what happened, with the help of none other than Einstein himself. Ironically, his discoveries allowed the creation of the atomic bomb, which would stymie future world wars. Because of its destructive power it became a deterrent instead of a weapon. Nations have not gone to war with each other as they once did.

I also thought of the economist Joseph Schumpeter, who labeled capitalism ‘creative destruction’. After WW2 and with the advent of atomic weapons, capitalism ascended around the world. Man still had his instinct for destruction, but now capitalism manifested and channeled this instinct in less harmful, more productive ways: with capitalism, man’s destructive instinct in combination with his creative instinct shifted to a more benign but peaceful form. Einstein’s optimism for mankind still triumphs over Freud’s pessimism.


Just Words

DEAR EDITOR: No reliable source has ever been found for the alleged Freud quote “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar!”


Steiner Decliner

DEAR EDITOR: John Lanigan’s review in Issue 68 does just what Rudolf Steiner suggested constitutes good criticism: it speaks of the work being reviewed in a way that reveals the author’s thought simply and objectively, restricting commentary to something that flows from that thought rather than being a soapbox for ideas of its own. However,Mr Lanigan makes one error, when he says: “As for Steiner himself, as he always declined to say how he knew about such things, we might most benignly conclude that he learned them from his natural gifts and from practicing his own meditation exercises.” Far from ‘declining’ to say how he knew about such things, Steiner’s entire life’s work lays out exactly how he knew, with great precision and with a comprehensiveness hard to associate with any idea of his ‘declining’.


The Heart of Art

DEAR EDITOR: Alex Tsander’s letter in Issue 68 critiquing my article, ‘Did Duchamp’s Urinal Flush Away Art?’ in Issue 67, betrays a very superficial reading. My piece was directed towards engaging a complacent philosophical position advanced by Arthur Danto and other proponents of the ‘institutional theory of art’, as my second paragraph made clear. According to this theory, art objects are whatever are so designated by members of ‘the artworld’.

I began with a consideration of Duchamp’s exhibition of a urinal, entitled ‘Fountain’, which, I argue, ought to have called upon philosophers of art to confront the import to art of what was an extremely provocative gesture. Instead of accepting this as their philosophical task, the institutionalists simply decided that the exhibition of the urinal adequately constituted it as an art object, and therefore required a profound redefinition of art. Danto later went so far as to claim that the “suggestion [is] almost irresistible that philosophy and art are one”.

Tsander ignores the core concerns of my challenge to the institutional theory. He begins by asserting that I claim that “Duchamp’s artistic heirs have no interest in ‘aesthetic’ qualities, and their work does not need to be seen.” I claimed no such thing. Rather, as evidence that Duchamp’s aim was precisely to underline the peculiarly provocative nature of his gesture qua gesture, I indicated that he himself “went so far as to say that [the readymades] need not even be seen.” This was germane to my dispute with Danto.Whether or not Duchamp’s ‘heirs’ held the same belief I do not know, nor do I need to know for my case.

In the same irrelevant way, Tsander quickly goes on to attribute to me a negative comment on a work of Carl Andre’s. The negative comment was Ian Ground’s, not mine – as was clearly indicated. It was introduced, not because I wanted to criticise Carl Andre, but because it was embedded in a comment which I presented as an example of “a healthy sceptical response” to Danto’s enthusiastic readiness to admit the readymades as bona fide art objects.

Tsander goes on to make much of my imagining Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe hanging in the men’s room. My point was this: the spirit in which one might say “What’s that doing in here?” is quite different from the spirit in which one might utter the same words upon seeing a urinal in an art exhibition. Danto knows this, of course: he tries to persuade us that there is a theory which sustains the urinal or the brillo box in the gallery, without which either object would collapse into “the real object it is” in its usual habitat. This is not a threat thatManet’s painting faces, no matter on what wall it appears, just because it is not a mundane object masquerading as art. Failing to see this, Tsander tells us – no doubt correctly, if irrelevantly – that “the members of an Amazonian tribe” would not perceive the Manet as an art object. No doubt members of an Amazonian tribe are equally ignorant concerning brillo boxes, but so what? Cross-cultural views of art are not the issue for Danto and Dickie, nor are they for me, and they have no bearing on the philosophical questions at stake. Tsander seems to be indignant that I accept that seeing the Manet as art, wherever it appears, depends on my taking for granted that most of us will “bring the same cultural precepts to a painted object wherever they see it.” I also depend, of course, as does Tsander, on our ability to take for granted the kind of discourse in which he and I are engaged. This discourse no doubt also excludes the members of the Amazonian tribe.

Having invoked the Manet painting, Tsander is determined to plunge further into irrelevancy. He now says that Manet was “preoccupied with the very things which… [characterise] post-Duchampian rhetoric.” Nothing could be further from the truth! According to Tsander, Manet’s paintings were considered to be “offensively crass” and “provocative gestures”, and therefore can be equated with Tracey Emin’s unmade bed. Manet’s paintings were judged by the conservative juries of the Academie des Beaux Art to be bad paintings, even offensive and poorly executed; but they were nevertheless paintings. There are more ways than one of being provocative. Painting vulgar subjects does not belong in the same category as exhibiting in a gallery either an unmade bed or “a doorstop fixed to a floor to let a door open only 45 degrees” (Martin Creed’s Work No 115).While it is true thatManet challenged the contemporary limits of acceptable subject matter in painting, his work did not require a profound redefinition of art itself.

Tsander wanders down another byway to nowhere when he makes it an issue that I “naïvely” accept theManet as “safe” art, and forget that it began life as deeply controversial. But being ‘safe’ has nothing to do with the issue about which I engage with Danto and company. I could just as easily have chosen a painting by Francis Bacon or Lucien Freud as my example.

Finally, I did not “denounce” the work of post-Duchampians.My quarrel was specifically directed at a school in the philosophy of art. Insofar as I denounced anything, it was Danto and Dickie’s failure to exhibit a proper philosophical scepticism.


DEAR EDITOR I am much in accord with the general tenor of Roy Turner’s arguments concerning post-Duchampian philosophy of art in Issue 67. However, in Art or Bunk? I did not declare that Andre’s Equivalent VIII was “not a work of art in the way that cauliflowers are not kings.” The relevant passages are clearly marked as describing the popular reaction to the work rather than my own. Moreover, later passages in my book try to offer a plausible story about how someone might come to see Andre’s sculpture as an actually rather interesting work of art.

A central claim of Art or Bunk? was that coming to see how a work of visual art looks is a matter of coming to see why it has been made to look as it does. The book argued that works of art are aesthetically intelligible objects, the essential joy and interest of which consists in their very intelligibility. The mistake is to think that to discover why a work of art appears as it does is only and always to refer to a theory of art. Turner is therefore right to decry the obsessive recourse to joyless theory. But we must also avoid the impression which Turner only barely avoids giving, that therefore the joy of the innocent eye will alone suffice.


DEAR EDITOR: In ‘Did Duchamp’s Urinal Flush Away Art?’ Issue 67, Roy Turner raises some questions about philosophy legitimating certain objects as art. A first reaction to his objections would probably be one of sympathy: looking for someone to blame for “the commonplace objects masquerading as bona fide residents of galleries” may be understandable. Consequently, the philosophers Danto and Dickie, being members of the ‘institutionalist school of art’, for Turner seem to be obvious targets as (unwitting?) champions of the infamous Tate awards.

Turner draws our attention to Danto’s focus in The Transfiguration of the Commonplace on what it is that keeps artworks from collapsing into the ‘real’ objects they are. Turner asserts that because there is no ‘real physical object’ into which Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (his example) collapses, Danto’s idea is irrelevant. However, both Manet’s Le déjeuner andWarhol’s Brillo Box do have physical counterparts, ie, what these objects are made from – canvas, wooden frame, patches of pigment and binder, printing ink, etc. As long as we attend only to these purely physical aspects, the art object will not appear for us. In the case of Le déjeuner, we will not see naked flesh or dappled light on grass in the various patches of pigment, and importantly, we will not see in the ‘elements of design’ the subjects and how they are treated (for they are not merely representations). An underlying art theory, which Turner denies as necessary for seeing Manet’s work, Constable’s landscapes and Cezanne’s still lifes, is actually essential to our seeing the material elements and representations as artworks. In the case of Manet and Constable, this theory stems from versions of imitation theory in relation to nineteenth century realism, and is part of the culturally- inherited frame of reference for seeing, whether or not consciously applied.

It wasn’t that “Danto could not get on board the Duchamp bandwagon fast enough.” Rather, for Danto, something being an artwork was an ontological matter, not an institutional one. One role for philosophers of art is to try to make sense of what is going on in the artworld – such as, why it might be that certain objects come to be regarded as art by those comprising this world and in its context. Philosophy of art’s role is neither to prescribe nor to proscribe. In the words ofWollheim (who draws onWittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations), “art, like language is ‘a form of life’.” All manner of things of which many might disapprove occur in the use of language, but it still functions as language. Consider ‘ Thx 4 the pics’, or ‘R u still in Bristol hve a gr8 time’.We may not approve; we may not think it ‘good’; but it still works as language – just asWarhol’s Brillo Boxes and the Turner prizes work for many as art, even if, like ‘txts’, in somewhat attenuated ways.


Free Existential Joke

DEAR EDITOR: Driving back home this weekend, the in-car discussion turned to philosophy and existentialism. Then the satnav instructed us to turn right at the next roundabout. “Wouldn’t that be acting in bad faith?” I asked. “I can’t help acting in bad faith,” quipped my partner. Very few people would get this joke, though.


Extraordinary Ethical Extractions

DEAR EDITOR: I enjoyed your ‘Animals and Philosophy’ issue (67). However, it struck me that Peter Singer’s philosophy as you have parsed it in the sidebar on p12, “we should act so as to minimize suffering”, could be used as an excuse to terminate all intelligent life. If the Buddhists are correct that all life is suffering, then it would seem that to minimize suffering, we should just kill everything.

On a (slightly) happier note, I was wondering if more intelligent life suffers more than less intelligent life. Elephants mourn their dead youngsters for years, while insects and worms just seem to get on with things. Perhaps the most intelligent animal, Homo sapiens, suffers the most, and among mankind, perhaps the philosophers are the most sensitive to pain. In order to minimize that pain, euthanasia indeed seems to be in order, at least according to Peter Singer’s logic – so it would seem that we should begin with him.We should then destroy all the primates, and then the mammals, leaving the heartless insects and worms to clean up.


DEAR EDITOR: People who advocate vegetarianism need to consider some of the consequences if no-one ate meat. For example, if we kept cows only for milk, what would we do with the surplus calves born each year which are necessary to keep cows milking? I doubt if wool alone would make keeping sheep financially viable in this country. Pigs may survive for a while; but wild pigs are rather dangerous and wouldn’t be tolerated in large numbers. If pastures and hay fields no longer needed for meat production were ploughed up to grow vegetables, many native plants and animals would be ploughed to extinction.

So if we stopped eating meat it would be a different kind of death sentence for the cows, sheep and pigs. It would change the face of the countryside, further removing natural habitats for our diminishing wild plants, insects and animals. Are vegetarians ready for this?


DEAR EDITOR: Intending to contrast them, Charlotte Laws’ summary of deontological and utilitarian moral theories in ‘GuessWho’s Coming to Dinner’ in Issue 67 actually reveals a fundamental similarity between the two. They are both rules-derived. Both assume that the fundamental moral categories are rightness and wrongness, and both assert rules to determine what is right and wrong. They differ only in how they determine the rules. Deontological theories appeal to absolute authority (religion, universal reason, etc), and utilitarian theories appeal to a pleasure calculus. But both beg a fundamental question: why should one obey the rules?Why should one do what the rules say is right and avoid doing what they say is wrong? I have yet to see a satisfactory answer to these questions that does not in some way boil down to an assessment of the effects of obedience or disobedience on the moral agent: one obeys the rules in order to avoid punishment, or to feel good about oneself, or to avoid contradiction, etc.

The failure to recognize this basic similarity leads to such exaggerations as Joel Marks’ comment in ‘Moral Moments’, Philosophy Now #66 about “the Achilles heel of any consequentialist theory of ethics…” Marks correctly notes that the utilitarian calculus is unworkable because it is impossible to predict long-term consequences; but utilitarianism is not the only consequentialist theory of ethics.

Another approach breaks out of the right-and-wrong paradigm altogether. A ‘Goodness Ethic’, as I like to call it, instead casts the moral discourse in terms of what’s good and bad.What is good promotes the welfare or optimal functioning of a person or thing.What is bad inhibits welfare and optimal functioning.

Good and bad are not absolutes, they are relative to situations. In a Goodness Ethic there are no absolute moral rules: there are only rules of thumb based on careful observation of what works and what doesn’t. Importantly, it is not our moral duty to promote what is good. Rather, we promote what is good because it benefits us to do so. A Goodness Ethic avoids lapsing into egotistic selfishness by recognizing that everything is related to everything else, and promoting one’s own benefit to the detriment of others or one’s environment is ultimately self-defeating.

For clarity of thinking it is important not to confuse the paradigm of rightwrong with the paradigm of good-bad. I treat this topic in more detail in my paper ‘Ethics: The Good and the Right’, available at bmeacham.com/whatswhat


DEAR EDITOR: TiborMachan in Letters 68 says that that “rights… are about a person’s freedom of choice.” He then finds himself in the awkward position of claiming simultaneously that coercion impinges upon that right and is therefore politically inadmissible, and also that “human beings do have the responsibility to act decently.” So this responsibility is apparently one that we must not expect or require in any way – thus evacuating the word ‘responsibility’ of any substantial meaning. Should we just hope for the best?

I’m afraid ProfMachan has missed the point of rights-based politics entirely. Our interactions are not so squeaky clean in actuality. Here’s the rub: politics is ethics writ large. Politics is, in essence, the rules of living among other people, and is based on ideas about how we ought to behave. The fundamental rule is one we all know: if you want to live among other people, you won’t be allowed to behave in an entirely selfish and unethical manner.

Libertarian philosophy remains the political holdout of adolescent thinking, marked by an inability or unwillingness to acknowledge the obligations we owe to our fellow man. In my family we put the children around their own table to eat when we judged them not yet capable of adhering to the same standards of etiquette as the adults. Let’s also leave the ethical children at their table – The Hoover Institution – to impress one another with their intellectual feats of derring-do. There they can discuss the merits of unrestrained negative liberty or the preposterously immature ideas of Ayn Rand until milk comes out their noses. But I humbly submit that I am not alone when I say that Philosophy Now has wasted enough ink on this group. There’s lots of room at the Grown-Ups’ Table, and plenty of meritorious topics to address there by people willing to take seriously the obligations inherent in social life.


Not A Single Dual

DEAR EDITOR: In Issue 67 Ryan Ruby advocates reinstating dueling. A duel, he believes, is justified under John Stuart Mill’s principle of non-harm: he states that a “mutual consent to accept harm is fully consistent with Mill’s non-harm principle” since governments “have no right, and ought to have no power, to enforce their protection against an individual’s wishes.” Yet, a duel involving weapons, which presupposes that some harm shall be done to the participants involved, is contradictory with Mill’s principle, which presupposes that no harm shall be done to any of the participants – regardless of government involvement, or mutual consent between adults. An action being between two consenting adults does not necessarily make the action itself moral, even in an expression of personal freedom. Two married men who consent to assist each other’s suicide does not absolve either from their responsibility to their wives and children. However, dueling also limits the participants’ expression of personal freedom. Since the duelers both consent to commit harm to each other, each will be responsible for defending their own lives from harm, and thus their freedom will be limited.

Ruby makes points to support the legalization of dueling. He states that dueling will help control the population. This would only be so if it were ubiquitously practiced. Yet, why should we consider dueling to be a form of population control if, in Mr Ruby’s words, “it rarely risks more than severe injury”? And is population control necessarily a good? I don’t believe it is, utilitarianwise. Mr Ruby also states that “the belief that one’s self-honor is worth fighting over imbue participants…with a sense of self-worth.” Honor in what, the ability to kill another man over any slight worthy of a weapon? Might does not make right. Is it more honorable to ignore an insult, or to challenge the insulter to the death? Honor has evolved, to where we do not have to choose between fighting to the death or a “shameless consumerism.” The third option is choosing to live in freedom without resorting to a “uselessly violent game of honor.”


Freedom Fudge

DEAR EDITOR: In ‘What Price Privacy?’ in Issue 66, John Goff hints that we own the information about ourselves. But if we did we could demand payment from everyone who sees us on the street because they have pilfered knowledge about us regarding our whereabouts.

Goff further writes, “The information predators’ game is complex but it has an overriding function: to define individuals according to information profiles so that they become increasingly predictable, and ultimately malleable.” But the knowledge that I like fudge doesn’t make me any more predictable to a company selling fudge than my knowledge that a company sells fudge makes them more predictable to me.What is relevant here is product, not predictability. I like fudge and this company sells it; a seller has found a potential buyer, and vice versa. It also does not follow that I’m more ‘malleable’ because it’s discovered that I like fudge. How pliable I am is a matter unrelated to my fondness of fudge.


What Is Free Will, Anyway?

DEAR EDITOR: I have a question in response to the debate about free will in PN 66. I’m not sure I understand the perspective that free will does not exist, when based on the idea that the decisions or choices we make can be traced back through a plethora of life experiences. I also fail to understand the connection between the random interaction of quanta and our ability to make choices.

As I understand it, we think therefore we are. Given this, could it not be said that we are our life-experiences? All our thoughts/feelings and reasons executed on the basis of these experiences are simply us exercising our ability to make choices using reason. Shouldn’t such acts of choice be considered free will?

I’m sure some will think I’m an absolute simpleton. However, could someone recommend some material about this as I’m not an official student of philosophy?


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