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News: June/July 2010

Middlesex bowled out? • Soccer: Socrates crushed by Nietzsche • Venter team creates life • Haslanger is distinguished — News reports by Sue Roberts

Woman Philosopher of the Year

Professor Sally Haslanger has been chosen by the Society for Women in Philosophy (SWiP) as its Distinguished Woman Philosopher of 2010. Haslanger is known for her work on theory of knowledge. The awarding committee writes that “Sally is one of the very best analytic feminists in the country and her work in feminist epistemology is lauded.” It also praises her efforts to change the culture at her university, MIT, to make it more ‘woman friendly’.

Philosophy teaching crisis

Middlesex University caused astonishment by announcing plans to close its most academically successful department – Philosophy. The department, which has a particular strength in modern European philosophy, has one of the largest MA courses in Britain and was rated as excellent in the government’s last Research Assessment Exercise. It seems that the closure plan is prompted partly by a desire to recruit more students to vocational degrees, which attract greater government funding per head, while remaining within a cap on overall student numbers. Protestors occupied the university’s administration building and the university responded by suspending four students and three professors. Puzzlingly, a university spokesman told Philosophy Now that the suspensions: “should not impact on the delivery of students’ educational need. Whilst on suspension, staff are allowed, and indeed expected, to continue with essential duties.” It was claimed by opponents that the real intention was to prevent the professors from participating in meetings opposing the closure. The move drew condemnation from philosophers worldwide and a protest letter signed by some of America’s most prominent philosophers was published in the New York Review of Books. The latest news is that Kingston University in South West London has offered a new home to four of the six academic staff and all of the postgraduate courses from Middlesex. Updates can be found at savemdxphil.com.

Meanwhile, following widespread protests, the threat to Philosophy at King’s College London (see News, Issue 78) has been lifted, with the university abandoning earlier plans to sack three professors.

Artificial life

After 15 years and 30 million pounds the first basic form of artificial life has been created in the laboratory. Although its DNA is made of just 485 genes, compared with the 20,000 of a human, its creator Dr Craig Venter of Maryland believes it will eventually lead to more complex forms that could turn waste into fuel, eat pollution or make new medicines. Venter’s team reported in the journal Science that they started with the published genetic code of the microbe Mycoplasma mycoides. This information, stored on a computer, was used to reconstruct the DNA artificially in the laboratory, “from four bottles of chemicals”, introducing a ‘watermark’ to differentiate it from the natural version. Then after stripping all the DNA from some bacteria cells of another species, they substituted the artificial version. The synthetic cells began to replicate, thereby meeting the criterion of ‘being alive’. Although this is a long way from the creation of complicated species, Professor Julian Savulescu of Oxford University’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics said of Venter: “He is creaking open the most profound door in humanity’s history, potentially peeking into its destiny.” Further, “We need new standards for this kind of radical research, These could be used in the future to make the most powerful bio-weapons available.”


If you would like to readily access the views of philosophers on such topics as ethics, love, happiness, or business your wish could be granted at AskPhilosophers.org or if you have an iPhone or an Android device using the AskPhil.mobile app you can browse and read questions and answers to such moral and philosophical topics. Once the app has been installed it is possible to search the database of questions by keyword or category using the search bar. A team of over 30 philosophers have responded collectively to nearly 3,000 questions and are said to have made a ‘solid and serious’ attempt to provide answers.

Soccer News

The famous Monty Python sketch about German and Greek philosophers playing football was the inspiration for a match at Wingate & Finchley’s North London stadium on Sunday 9th May. The players were philosophers and other comedians, including Philosophy Now’s Rick Lewis. Socrates Wanderers were beaten 3-1 by Nietzsche Albion to the despair of their manager, the former England manager Graham Taylor. Despite their enthusiasm (from the Greek meaning ‘possessed by a god’) and a half-time pep talk by Taylor, the Wanderers were hammered in the second half as the Nietzscheans found their feet and played like übermenschen. Nietzsche Albion benefited from the conceptual subtlety of A.C. Grayling and the skill of several philosophers who had actually played football before. The match was organized by The Philosophy Shop in support of their ‘Four Rs Campaign’ to promote the teaching of reasoning skills in primary schools; the four Rs being Reading, (W)riting, (A)rithmetic and Reasoning. (thephilosophyshop.co.uk)

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