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Get The Drift • Tractatus Tunes • Determined To Be Free • Love and its Disappointments • Psychology, Science & Behaviour • Feyerabend and Nightmares • The Missing Month

Get The Drift

DEAR EDITOR: From reading your editorial in Issue 77, ‘Continental Tales’ I learned that I do continental philosophy, since like the continentals I tend to think in terms of the abstractions that govern humankind; that is, in grand narratives.

It began with my seeking an explanation for the collapse of communism. I wondered, was there a single, overarching imperative that brought about communism’s demise? And was liberal democracy’s triumph due to it addressing that imperative successfully? Hegel, the master of the grand narrative, led me to what I considered the answer.

While other thinkers in Hegel’s day were busy concocting grand narratives based on fixed entities like authority, religion and culture – only to see them shattered by churning world events – Hegel based his grand narrative on change itself. That to me is the main reason why communism didn’t survive: because its governance was inflexible, outdated, and inherently couldn’t adjust to the changing world.What I believe ultimately led to its decline, is that the world was becoming culturally and economically both more interdependent and open, while communism was predisposed to remain both a closed and an isolationist society. But history and humanity had other ideas; hence it was swept aside, like other authoritarian regimes that resisted change and openness.

Hegel also saw the direction of history guided by the struggle for freedom and recognition. For him, this fundamental human desire and its subsequent accommodation causes the most profound upheavals in the world, from its organization to its governance. It also contributed to the demise of communism since it structurally obstructed this Hegelian struggle every step of the way.

Grand narratives should be taken with a grain of salt. But many a truism is found in them.


Tractatus Tunes

DEAR EDITOR: In the Feb/March issue News column there is mention of a ‘Wittgenstein Sonata’ and the item mentions an earlier reference to a musical setting ofWittgenstein. But the item omits a still earlier work, a piece known as the Wittgenstein Motet, or justMotet op.27 by Elisabeth Luytens. I have a recording from 1965 on the Argo label made in England and performed by the
John Alldis Choir.


Determined To Be Free

DEAR EDITOR: In his ‘MoralMoments’ column in PN 77, ProfessorMarks argues that determinism is true and our speech and actions are dictated by forces beyond our control.While I would agree with him that much of what happens to us is determined by natural forces, I believe that there is a corner set aside for us where we are free from these forces and we do control at least some our actions. I do not mean that when we are free from the forces of determinism that our actions are then indeterministic and therefore only by chance. It’s simply ‘up to us’. This ‘up to us’ element is not to be identified with reason (after all, we can choose to be silly) or belief (we may choose to do what is counter to our beliefs too). Several things bother me about Marks’ position:

1) Determinism is vacuous. That is, it claims too much. Its position is thus similar to that of psychological egoism – the view that humans are always motivated by self-interest: nothing can be counted as evidence against it. I take the position of Karl Popper, who dismissed theories that were not at least in principal falsifiable. To me determinism’s position is like the statement “The universe and everything in it is only 5 minutes old.” Following Bertrand Russell, nothing can be presented as evidence against this idea: our memories could have been created five minutes ago, in a world that only appears to be billions of years old.

2) Determinism seems to have its roots in reductionism, to yield the idea that all human action can be accounted for by reducing the action to its simplest elements. Example: ‘I love my family because my brain is awash with serotonin’. Marks states that “the trickiest part may not be the neuroscience and such, but the replacement of our everyday vocabulary with a more scientifically informed one.”What a philosophical muddle.Wittgenstein once said that people can get hypnotized by language: is this not the case here? If actions are only doing what must happen, then what of the word ‘choice’? If the determinist is right, then I could not help but fall in love with my spouse: I had no choice in the matter. Shouldn’t choice be eliminated from the dictionary? And why stop with choice?What about creativity? Newton was not creative.Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Plato et al are on an equal level with any village idiot – after all the idiot and the genius only both do what must happen.What becomes of knowledge? To choose between arguments presupposes freedom. That is, to become aware that one fact is true requires that I choose to believe that fact for good reasons. NormanMalcolm wrote “my acceptance of mechanism as true for myself would imply that I am incapable of saying or doing anything for a reason… it would also imply that I am incapable of having rational grounds for asserting anything, including mechanism.”

3) My last point is more of a psychological one. Determinism seeks closure. It attempts to provide a complete explanation for our actions. There is no mystery in it.When science fills in all the gaps, then all action will be explainable and determinism will finally sit upon its throne. Though I cannot empirically disprove it, I am highly doubtful of this. There is much mystery in the world and much that that we will never know. Free will is indeterminate, so there is angst accompanying it.We wish to shirk our duties to others.We abhor making tough decisions. Responsibility (which presupposes free will) is burdensome. We sometimes make problematic evaluations, which again presuppose free will. Determinism offers a way to squeeze out the angst. If only it were this easy.


DEAR EDITOR: I have just read Philip Villamor’s article in Issue 75 in response to Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, and I must say I have misgivings. I agree that we do have the freedom to choose our actions, while Sisyphus did not. Also, Sisyphus’ task of pushing a rock up a hill forever is certainly not the most fulfilling of actions.We usually choose that action which maximizes our sense of personal happiness, real or illusory. Camus surely chose the example of Sisyphus to show that, even under harsh conditions, life can be affirmed or even enjoyed. I don’t think Camus meant to imply that all of us have a life as hard as Sisyphus’. I cannot agree, however, with Villamor’s conclusion. He writes: “There are some things I will not accept. I am worth more, and life must be more than action for action’s sake.” This feeling of being ‘worth more’ is surely common in human experience. Many of us have encountered that voice which comes along, especially in mid-life, undermining our personal achievements, destroying our sense of who we are: “What have I achieved? If only I had… Aren’t I worth more?” Surely it’s this ‘worth more’ philosophy which is the real problem? If we can be satisfied with our world of actions, we’re not plagued with desires that there be something more.We are free to accept what we have. Villamor quips: “There is no shadow without light, and it is essential to know the light.” He thus implies that we can deduce from our shadowy hope of being ‘worth more’ that there is some light awaiting discovery. I think a more pertinent adage would be that the dream of a unicorn does not imply that we will meet a real one in our waking life.

We want to believe we are ‘worth more’, and that there is meaning and not absurdity; but surely this world of action is all we know?While we hope for ‘something more’ our unhappiness with ‘what is’ increases. Villamor believes this hope is positive, but in fact it is negative. He writes: “[Sisyphus] has hope precisely because of the beauty and freedom he has had to experience on earth.” But where is the beauty in the random earthquakes, tidal waves and floods we hear so much of? And where is the freedom in the lives of so many people chained to the finances of houses and families? Surely these things are simply ‘what is’ – with no greater meaning than the machinations of a world that stumbles on with no purpose, action following action? Surely a philosophy based on beauty and freedom is bound to disappoint, unless we disappear completely into self-deceit?

Villamor’s philosophy is, I think, that of the young, when everything seems fresh and exciting. My viewpoint is certainly that of the cynical old; but, I think, my ideas are less likely to lead to hurt. The sooner we accept the harsh rigors of reality, the sooner our illusions will be gone.


Love and its Disappointments

DEAR EDITOR: The article ‘Žižek on Love’ drew me to questions of domains. Is the domain ‘human’ a separate one from ‘inhuman’; or is ‘inhuman’ to be regarded as a feature of a single ‘human’ domain? It has been argued that every word is a generalisation, so a tight ‘mathematical’ approach to the article might not be appropriate. Even so, whether only one, or two domains are involved, does the behaviour of ‘monsters’ and of ‘pleasant people’ really need to be categorised in some sort of incompatible, doubtfully-authentic zoological way?

Who needs categorisation anyway? It has tended to lead to the sort of trouble which most folk don’t want any more.


DEAR EDITOR: As a layman who has gleaned much of his information about philosophy from the learned contributors to Philosophy Now, I write my first letter to you with the hesitancy of a novice student (though well into my seventh decade). I felt compelled to stick my neck out – perhaps even put my head into the lion’s mouth – by the article by Kathleen O’Dwyer on ‘Žižek on Love’ in Issue 77.

O’Dwyer’s starting point is to suggest that Žižek has analysed “the Christian injunction ‘to love one’s neighbour as oneself’.” I must assume she meant the injunction of Jesus of Nazareth, for indeed he quoted it from the law of Moses (Leviticus 19:18). If O’Dwyer has properly represented Žižek, then Žižek appears to have made little effort at analysis – which I understand requires detailed consideration of the elements of that being analysed (and I’m pleased that my Oxford Dictionary agrees with me). Žižek seems to have skipped such basic questions as,What does the language used actually say?What was the context of the injunction? And,What was the interpretation given by the person who gave the injunction (if any)?

Jesus spoke Aramaic, translated into the Greek of his day by the writers of the New Testament. The Greek had a number of words for love: eros was the word for sexual love, storge for family affection, philia may be translated ‘cherish’, and was used for loyal affection between close friends. The word used in the neighbourly injunction, agape, is not a word of affection at all. Agape is essentially a supreme act of will which seeks the highest good of the other (Barclay, New Testament Words). If our understanding of love is stuck at an emotional level, then of course Žižek is right in maintaining that we cannot be ‘directed’ to love (although, perhaps, we may be loved into loving). If, however, we correctly understand agape love as active willingness to seek the other’s good, it takes things to a different level.

The context of Jesus’ injunction is a more difficult issue, because Jesus used it in different contexts. The context I choose (Luke 10:25-37) is where he answers the question “Who is my neighbour?” (which is also the question Žižek is said to have asked). Yet again Žižek appears to have avoided analysis by ignoring the speaker’s own interpretation, which was given as the story of ‘The Good Samaritan’. The Samaritan and the man in need whom he helped were said by Jesus to be neighbours by their conjunction of need and care.

Jesus’ story also responds to Žižek’s assertion that “the universal love so promoted disavows that which is unlovable in human nature.” Jesus and his questioner agreed that the real neighbour was “The one who had mercy.” Thus neighbourly love has nothing to do with emotional ‘lovability’: the wounded man and his helper would have been mutually unlovable since they were traditional enemies. Rather, agape has to do with the will to overcome barriers to the expression of practical care.

To love the unlovable is of course a big ask, especially when Jesus elsewhere emphasised that such love was to include our enemies (Matthew 5:44). But we are still in the context of agape, of willingness to seek the other’s highest good, even of he whom Lacan calls the ‘Real’ – the person in all his frailty. But the recognition of our own frailty need not disavow “that which is unlovable in human nature.” On the contrary, our own frailty may awaken the essential motivations of empathy and compassion. In this sense it is both possible and desirable to “love one’s neighbour as oneself.”


DEAR EDITOR: Mary Midgley’s review of Love and Its Disappointment in Issue 75 accepted unquestioningly David Brazier’s analysis of the interaction of the emotional and technical aspects of psychotherapy. To do so underestimates the impact which professionalising the interaction between people has upon the quality or nature of the interactions involved. The discipline of ‘Rogerian detachment’ in therapy is an example of professionalising ‘Bad Faith’ – a deliberate suppression of the spontaneity of the heart which could be seen as an essential element of truly personal relationships. Therefore the good practitioner, in role, is an expert in giving the appearance of whatever attitudes are deemed to be in the interests of the client, and in the non-disclosure of any personal feelings the situation may evoke, for example, when experiencing his client’s lifestyle to be personally offensive. Therefore the sentiment underlying the therapist’s commitment should not be confused with feelings of personal intimacy (if that is what Brazier means by love). As soon as one participant in a relationship is paid, or assumes a professional mantle, there is a power relationship between the two. One party may be expected to dismantle the defences protecting their vulnerability, and the other is an expert at protecting their vulnerability. The relationship is one of patronisation, and is of dubious, if any, moral worth. Brazier appears to impose his moral preferences upon this relationship, and mistakenly infers that there is a rational association between moral commitment and therapeutic outcomes.

Therapists should have the courage to assert that moral relativism and illdefined ‘personal maturity’ are inadequate goals for social relationships. There are better aspirations for us to set ourselves and others, and these are justified because we feel that they have merit in themselves. One of those virtues may be to be prepared to be open and vulnerable in one’s relationships as a measure of one’s commitment and respect for the person of the other. Thus the therapist’s essential ‘Bad Faith’ is no foundation for a more general social morality, as Brazier seems to claim.


Psychology, Science & Behaviour

DEAR EDITOR: Peter Rickman’s article in Issue 74 challenging psychology’s status as a science raises critical issues, but is wanting in its description of psychology and of science. Moreover, his blame of psychology for a host of social problems is short-sighted.

Science is a process on a continuum, with some disciplines being more evolved than others. Placement on the continuum is dependent upon an individual discipline’s evolutionary course. Critics of psychology as science would do well to remember that chemistry sought to make lead into gold, physicians bled their patients, and the line between astronomy and astrology is not historically clear. Psychology’s history starts in 1879, and the ability to study the brain and behavior with sophistication is even younger. The textbook I used as a student in 1968 is far different than the one I teach from today. Rickman argues that a science is based upon “ample observation, experimentation, clear explanations, and reliable predictions” – from which early thinkers like Sigmund Freud fell woefully short. The use of ink blots and the analysis of their data was more of an art than a science.

The growth and formalization of psychology as a science has been rapid in the last 40 years. Theories and observations steadily increased in scientific rigor in the late twentieth century, to match that of many of our senior scientific cousins. Armchair theorizing, dependence upon single case studies, as well as fringe areas of the discipline, are rapidly falling by the wayside. Professor Rickman comments that the bulk of evidence given to psychology students are not observable facts, but opinions, or ‘communications’. In the past this was substantially true in some areas. Today, the centerpiece of psychology is the brain. Its structure, function and chemistry are measured with increasing precision. The facts derived are scientific by any measure.

The failures Professor Rickman attributes to psychology are not valid. He comments that “violent youths roam the streets… divorce rates are too high, and mental illness still occurs” – as if psychology bears sole responsibility for treating and preventing these social problems, which are economic, religious, sociological and political creations. Psychology is limited in its application by the same conditions. Psychologists know a great deal about human behavior, but getting people to use it is another problem. Humans often think of themselves as different, as above and outside the laws of nature.Witness the debates about global warming, overpopulation, and environmental degradation.

Behavior modification did totally change special education. It often actively transforms the educationally challenged into participating and functional citizens. Huge institutions that warehoused the retarded population have closed as their residents have been steadily and successfully integrated into society. Unfortunately, mental hospitals were prematurely closed too, and the ability to treat mental illness limited by politics, economics and social opinion. Once psychological problems could be controlled by medication, many people confused this with cure. The belief grew that hospitals were no longer needed. Society failed to ensure a health structure would be in place to guarantee that the patient would continue to take their medication, find housing, work, and help when needed. Gestures, half measures, and attempts to ignore the mentally ill became the rule.When the mentally ill could not be ignored, we move them to our new mental hospitals – prisons.We altered the laws that made treatment mandatory for severe mental illness. Patients have the right to refuse treatment, even when they desperately need it.We may have the psychiatric means to treat them, but we do not have the social will. This is an ethical problem. Similarly, divorce laws were not liberalized by psychologists: the public and its proxy politicians made that decision.

Hermeneutics would not be a solution for psychology. It has not resolved the debates about Biblical meaning, where controversy continues to explode in bitter arguments. Psychology needs more and better science, not less. As an example, brain scans may eventually provide objective diagnoses of disorders such as depression, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s.

Psychology continues to evolve. It will be far harder to bring to fruition than physics.We deal with the most complex of all phenomena – human behavior. Yes, we are going to have to employ special methods; yes, our progress has been slow; and yes, it will remain slower than in many other sciences. Psychology is a work in progress, becoming more scientific, rigorous, objective, and applicable to problems of human conduct and mind with each decade. It is not physics, but few sciences are.


DEAR EDITOR: In Issue 74, Peter Rickman conflates behaviorism with psychology while he argues that psychology and sociology are not science. I agree with his reasons for not defining psychology and sociology as science, but behaviorism is a different matter entirely, and dismissing it with a joke is not a meaningful refutation of behaviorism as a scientific endeavor. Rickman explains away behaviorism as an ‘extreme example’ of psychology, and for good reason: in contrast to psychology and sociology, behaviorism is based on empirical research and scientific methodologies. (Psychology tries to claim behaviorism as its own in order to obtain some semblance of scientific legitimacy.)

One example of behaviorism’s efficacy as an empirical science involves autistics and other socially-challenged individuals who cannot fill out questionnaires, answer appropriately in interviews, interpret Rorschach pictures, etc. Behaviorists must rely strictly on observed behavior, and by applying behavior modification and conditioning methodologies, autistics and others can lead productive, autonomous and mostly independent lives outside of institutions.

Rickman also differentiates science from psychology in terms of context. He claims that the science of physical objects does not require a context for explanation; only a reference to the class to which the physical object belongs: ‘this is a diamond, this is a table, etc, and they behave in such-and-such a way.’ By contrast, humans and their behavior can be explained and understood only within some kind of context; since the class of humans is not the focus of psychology (and behaviorism) but rather individuals. Rickman fails to recognize that context is also paramount in science, and equally important in understanding and explaining physical objects. For example, gravity is an entirely different thing when its context is changed from one of Newtonian mechanics to relativistic situations. Water boils at different temperatures depending on altitude, pressure, etc. So without the corresponding context, the class ‘boiling water’ is meaningless.

Behaviors are also explained by empirically determining their context – eg the stimuli that reinforce, shape, condition, modify or extinguish that observable general behavior. For example, conditioning a child to wash their hands (a general behavior) after using the restroom (context) will depend on the specific stimuli (also context) which reinforce that behavior, as well as the stimulus which punishes undesired behavior.

Rickman is unable to refute the science of behaviorism, and so he hopes to taint it by guilt of association with psychology and sociology. Ironically, by applying the hermeneutic method of analysing the context, Rickman would have noticed that behaviorism is not in the class of psychology, and is supported by decades of empirical research.


Feyerabend and Nightmares

DEAR EDITOR: Issue 74 was the first Philosophy Now that fell into my hands. I read with most interest Ian Kidd’s article about Feyerabend’s philosophy of science. It made me look at the original texts.My worries were confirmed: he did write the things Kidd quotes.

I am not surprised Feyerabend’s writing was not well received after Against Method! The text is full of unsustainable arguments, pure rhetoric and demagogy. He puts the scientific method on the same level as magic, mythology, theology and even fairy tales, and qualifies all scientists as narrow-minded anti-religious sheep following some unwritten sacred rules. The most sensitive sentence I found in the whole text was where he states that the ‘demonstrations’ and rhetoric used in his book don’t express any deep personal convictions.

I share Feyerabend’s worries about globalization (better, theWesternization of the world), but I certainly cannot agree about naming science as the cause. The aberrationsWesterners have inflicted on indigenous ways of life anywhere they have found them were (are) not done under the flag of ‘science is best’. The annihilation of cultures, people, species and placesWesterners performed everywhere they arrived was not driven by knowledge, but by a hunger for power. Science would have recommended a much more co-operative way of interacting with other communities – as it does now, and we continue to misread.

Science searches for the knowledge, but we decide what to do with it. If we allow technology to run our lives, it is our fault. The same way that God is not an excuse to kill non-believers, science is not an excuse to drown traditional ways of knowledge. The saddest thing is that we don’t even need a reason to do such things, we just do it.We change everything that is not like us, and if it resists the transformation, we erase it. But that is not a consequence of science.

It is not science that is being universally globalised, but the power of money and liberal markets, the ferocity of competition for resources, and the complete neglect of principles, ethics and humanity in our behavior. I am afraid that the monster of this nightmare is not science.


The Missing Month

DEAR EDITOR: Regarding the suggestion (Letters, Issue 77) that all past issues be retitled Philosophy Then, one exception may be the issue covering the period Jan 2010 which might more correctly be retitled, Philosophy When?


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