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News: March/April 2009

Rhetoric teaching makes comeback • Galileo’s finger on display • French philo wins million-pound prize — News reports by Sue Roberts

MA in Sophistry?

The University of Central Lancashire has just announced a new MA course in a very old subject – Rhetoric. The School for Journalism, Media & Communication hopes its new course will run from September 2009. It will give students the opportunity to study the history and theory of rhetoric, the practice of discourse or ‘speaking well’ – and the chance to master that practise themselves.

The organisers claim that students of philosophy will find much to interest them in the course. Historically, however, philosophy has had a rather conflicted relationship with rhetoric, which was the main interest of those Ancient Greek teachers called Sophists. Socrates’ break with the Sophists was a defining moment in philosophical history. His student Plato argued that the Sophists were just teaching their students to win arguments rather than seek truth. Aristotle said that a Sophist was “one who made money by sham wisdom.” (Unlike the aristocratic Aristotle, the Sophists charged for tuition).

Philosophy Under Threat

In February, Liverpool University announced plans to close its large and well-regarded Philosophy Department, sparking fears of a new wave of philosophy closures across Britain. The department recruits students well, makes a positive financial contribution to the university and is admired by philosophers elsewhere for its innovative approach. However, it fared poorly in the government’s recent Research Assessment Exercise, and this was the reason given for the decision to close it. Three other departments were also slated for closure, including Politics. The announcements provoked a rising tide of protests from students, academics (including RAE panel members, who objected to their rankings being used in this way) and local MPs (a motion was proposed in the House of Commons). The university’s senate, which was expected to confirm the closures, instead decided to consult further and make a final decision in June.

Relic of a Heretic?

Galileo’s shrivelled finger is to go on display in an exhibition in Florence to mark the 400th anniversary of his first observation of the skies. The middle digit from his right hand was removed from his corpse in 1737 when his body was transferred to a mausoleum. Galileo was condemned by the Catholic Church as a heretic during his lifetime but the Vatican has become more tolerant toward him in recent years.

Charles Who?

In spite of all the hype surrounding the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, only 54% of a sample were able to identify him as author of On the Origin of the Species (1859) in a survey conducted by Theos, a theology think-tank.

Motioning Heavenwards

Britain’s Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, wrote that parents who don’t believe in God should have nothing to fear with regards to their children learning about the Bible. Motion, an atheist, feels that failure to be acquainted with biblical stories leaves children unable to fully understand literature and culture. He suggests including study of the Bible and other religious works in a new wider general studies curriculum as well as in everyday lessons. “If people say this is about ramming religion down people’s throats, they aren’t thinking about it hard enough,” he said. “It is more about the power of these words to connect with deep, recurring human truths, and also the story of the influence of that language and those stories.”

Paperless Papers

Well-known philosopher of mind David Chalmers has announced the launch of PhilPapers.org, a virtual environment for philosophical research. Developed at the Australian National University’s Centre for Consciousness by David Chalmers and David Bourget, the core of PhilPapers is a database of almost 200,000 articles and books in philosophy, concentrating especially on items that are available online. The database has been compiled mainly by automatically harvesting many Internet sources. It includes links to 124,000 journal articles from the websites of more than 200 philosophical journals and from 33,000 books on the Library of Congress database. Articles have also been collected from individuals’ websites, using a system designed by Chalmers’ colleague Wolfgang Schwarz. PhilPapers has many tools for accessing the articles and books online; for discussing them in forums; for classifying them in relevant areas of philosophy; and for creating personal bibliographies. At this stage PhilPapers is mainly intended for professional philosophers and graduate students. It is an outgrowth of the MindPapers project begun by Chalmers in 1990. This is a bibliography of work in philosophy of mind and cognitive science.

A Quantum of Solace?

The 2009 Templeton Prize, worth a cool one million pounds sterling (US $1.4 million), has been awarded to Bernard d’Espagnat, a French physicist and philosopher of science. The award was made in recognition of d’Espagnat’s work on the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics, on the nature of reality and on the limits of what is knowable. In his book On Physics and Philosophy, d’Espagnat re-examines many traditional metaphysical problems in the light of quantum physics, which has radically reshaped our ideas about space, material objects and causality. The prize is the biggest annual award made to individuals for scholarly work. The announcement was made at UNESCO headquarters in Paris by the sponsors, the John Templeton Foundation.

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