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News: September/October 2009

Farewell to two political philosophers • Confucius comes to Houston • Train Your Brain (read Philosophy Now!) — News reports by Sue Roberts

Leszek Kolakowski

Leszek Kolakowski passed away in July. He was by turn a young Marxist theoretician in Poland in the late 40s and early 50s; then a well-known revisionist in the late 50s; then a political outcast, fired from his Warsaw University post in 1968, his books banned; then a post Marxist philosopher in exile in California, and finally an anti-Marxist philosopher at Oxford University. There, he eventually became a Senior Research Fellow at All Souls. In a telling remark about his political journey, he once said that “There are better arguments in favour of democracy and freedom than the fact that Marx is not quite so hostile to them as he first appears.”

G.A. Cohen

A second well-known Oxford political philosopher died of a stroke at the beginning of August. Jerry Cohen, originally from Canada, was a much-loved teacher at that university. He was a Marxist, and his book Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence was exactly that. In another book, Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality, Cohen developed a moral case for socialism and critiqued the Lockean notion of self-ownership underpinning right wing libertarianism.

Geographical split mending?

Of the two main contemporary schools of Western philosophy, Analytic philosophy has mainly been associated with the English-speaking nations, and Continental philosophy, as the name suggests, with France, Germany and the continent of Europe. However, this geographical division continues to break down, as evidenced by a recent flurry of conference announcements. The German Society for Analytic Philosophy (Gesellschaft fuer analytische philosophie) will hold a conference in Bremen from 14-17 September. The 4th annual meeting of the Portuguese Society for Analytic Philosophy will be a few days later, at the University of Évora. In January, the recently founded Dutch-Flemish Association for Analytic Philosophy will meet to discuss epistemology and philosophy of mind. As if to prove that the flow of ideas is a two-way trade, the newly established Bay Area Continental Philosophy Association (BACPA) will gather in San Francisco next March, to discuss ‘The Beautiful’.

Philosophy of Viagra

The trend for collections of philosophy essays examining aspects of popular culture and contemporary life is still going strong. Mike Austin is editing a book for Wiley-Blackwell publishers to be called Coffee and Philosophy, and the publisher Rodopi recently announced plans for a book called The Philosophy of Viagra. That book’s editor, Thorsten Botz-Bornstein, sent out an email inviting potential contributors to contact him. However, it is believed that few philosophers received his message, as it was stopped by their email filters.

Confucius Statue

A cast bronze statue of Confucius is to be presented to the residents of Houston to mark the 2,560th anniversary of the birth of the ancient Chinese philosopher and educator. It will be placed in the International Sculpture Garden, Hermann Park, in Houston. The statue is a gift from the local Chinese community and the Chinese consulate-general and a dedication ceremony will be held on 26th September. It will also mark the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the USA and the People’s Republic of China.

Bring Me More Brains, Igor!

Good news for computer game junkies. Research published by the journal BMC Research Notes, suggests that playing Tetris daily for half hourly periods over three months can cause measurable changes in the brain. Teams from the Mind Research Network in Alberquerque, New Mexico and the Montreal Neurological Institute asked teenagers to play Tetris, which involves arranging falling shapes into blocks on screen. After the trial period, scans showed ‘structural changes’ in areas of the brain “associated with movement, critical thinking, reasoning, language and processing.” These changes, which led to increased cortical thickness, were not reflected in a control group. The extra grey matter could mean that certain areas of the brain would not need to work as hard to carry out tasks. (For more about Tetris, see Robert Harries' article!)

On the downside, scientists at the University of Southern California have claimed that fast-moving virtual games and online news feeds may be encouraging indifference to human suffering. “In a media culture in which violence and suffering become an endless show, indifference to the vision of human suffering gradually sets in.” Their research, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Online Early Edition), involved studying the response of volunteers to real-life stories chosen to induce compassion for physical or social pain. It transpired, using brain-imaging, that humans could respond in fractions of a second to signs of physical pain in others, but that social emotions such as compassion or admiration took far longer to register, needing 6-8 seconds. The researchers said their study had implications for life in a digital environment: “For some kinds of thought, especially moral decision-making about other people’s social and psychological situations, we need to allow for adequate time and reflection.”

BBC Study of Brain Training

The BBC is recruiting thousands of volunteers for a large study into whether ‘brain trainers’ really works. Millions of these software packages are sold each year, claiming to improve mental aptitudes through repeated exercises of various skills, but until now independent data about their effectiveness has been lacking. To take part, visit www.bbc.co.uk/bang.

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