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Outsider Revisionism • Non-Violent Narratives • Marks on Animals • Philosophies About Children • Artful Doubter • Maths & Reality • Kant Not Dead, But Timeless
Dear Editor: I enjoyed the article in the last issue of this magazine on Colin Wilson, and also enjoy Wilson’s writings. I agree with the author, Vaughan Rapatahana, that Wilson has been unfairly neglected in the USA and England and deserves a wider audience (and I would be curious to know what other countries the author meant when he said Wilson was “vitally popular elsewhere”). However, the explanation for Wilson’s neglect cannot be solely that he has several public persona corresponding to his wide range of interests, or, as Mr Rapatahana puts it, “Wilson is something of a Hydra.” As Wilson has himself recounted, in-between the publication of his first and second books, there was a personal scandal which caused his public image to plunge like a meteor from the sky.
His first book, The Outsider (1956), was published to enormous acclaim, and became a bestseller for that year. It touched a nerve in the British psyche, and was one of the first works by a non-Continental to deal seriously with existentialism. Readers were amazed at the level of erudition displayed in a book written by a 24-year-old who had dropped out of secondary school at the age of 16, read extensively in the British Museum and other venues, drifted through various jobs, and even spent several months homeless, sleeping in Hyde Park. The media developed an image of Wilson as a mystical wonder-child gifted with a secret angelic wisdom that seemed to spring ex nihilo from his mind like a symphony from the pen of Mozart. He was placed on a very high pedestal.
However, between the publication of his first and second book, his girlfriend’s father stole passages from his diary that were somewhat pornographic in nature, and published them in a tabloid newspaper. The image of Wilson as a boy prodigy were shattered, and now he was perceived as a snotty, spoiled, anti-social adolescent who had fooled and deceived the public. His second book, Religion and the Rebel (1957) is not notably lesser in quality than The Outsider (I confess to having only browsed through it), but it was savaged in the press as the work of a pretentious, pompous, and shallow thinker, with all the energy with which his first book had been praised as the work of the greatest child prodigy of the century. The difference in the evaluation of the two works clearly had everything to do with Wilson’s shifted public persona and image, and little to do with the relative quality of the two works.
Wilson’s best-selling book after The Outsider was his comprehensive history of the occult (written at the suggestion of his publisher) entitled simply The Occult (1971). It has the virtue of being very well-researched and not advocating any particular esoteric creed such as Theosophy and Freemasonry. However, since it was his second best-seller, it became clear that he had now found a niche market, and so his focus turned away from existentialism and literature, and he continued publishing more books on poltergeists, psychics and similar themes. Wilson is a bit agnostic about these matters, but is he not a skeptic, and unless you are Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, this is a field of publication which does not endear an author to American or British academics. At any rate, the explanation of Wilson’s neglect in England and the US does not solely lie in his having published so many books in such a variety of fields.
Jonathan Harvey, Palo Alto, CA
Dear Editor: I read the article on ‘Colin Wilson as Hydra’ by Vaughan Rapatahana in Issue 85 with some interest. The reason Colin can appear a Hydra is exactly because, as he himself says, he is approaching the same problem from different angles. This holistic approach to philosophical problems reveals great insights. For instance, it does indeed appear that human history is one of a great fight against boredom, with philosophy, mysticism, literature, music and other entertainments becoming an outlet in this fight. It also reveals that some humans have odd abilities which mark them out as different, and which could reveal that the world is indeed very strange and hard to pin down. I have repeatedly made discoveries only to discover that ‘Colin got there first’. He has been conducting field research for a very long time, and with the advantage of seclusion he can dig to so much depth in so many fields to produce a truly unique view on things.
Jason Palmer, by email
Dear Editor: In Philosophy Now Issue 85, Yoav Tenembaum says that we know with hindsight that non-violence does not work against hardened regimes. But we need to guard against drawing simple lessons from the complexities of the past to substantiate a preconceived argument about today. Thus, Yoav says non-violence is futile against a force determined to kill the person adopting it; but it may be far from certain that the opponent is quite so determined or is unamenable to reason. Further, the proposition is open to the criticism that it justifies prejudice, inflexibility and a self-reinforcing demonisation of the opposition. Could it be an attempt to justify the refusal of the present right-wing Israeli government to talk to Hamas?
War and violence are not endless. Peace and non-violence will prevail, sometimes sadly very temporarily, but at other times more permanently. Students of politics and diplomacy, rather than concentrating on the dichotomy between violence and non-violence and drawing simplistic lessons from history, ought to examine conflict resolution in the round. This brings me, perhaps too neatly, to Pauline O’Flynn’s article, also in PN 85, on narrative and the self. She says we are continuously spinning a narrative which preserves the self and presents it to the world. However, we must beware of misusing this idea in the politics of identity, especially concerning the narratives of social groups, in which power relations sometimes act to the detriment of the freedom of individuals and the good of all. Tribal narratives can stifle individuality and reinforce prejudice, the hardline Zionist narrative being a case in point. Language is not just for me to utter my own narrative or that of my group; it is for listening to what others have to say for themselves. Politics and diplomacy should consist not of the deaf shouting their narratives at each other, but of each listening to understand the other. Yoav will know Churchill’s dictum that jaw-jaw is better than war-war.
Mark Frankel, Kingston upon Thames
Marks on Animals
Dear Editor: Raymond Tallis’s column in Issue 85 is surely a masterpiece of ‘pisstemology’, as he dubbed the philosophical plumbing of excretion in human life. However, I take issue with one of his themes, which is that how we urinate is yet one more example of “the great gulf that separates us from the animal kingdom.” For example, Tallis notes that dogs, too, are able to control their urination; but he says this only comes about “by being shouted at.” What myopia! First, it takes far longer to train a human being than a dog. Second, Tallis seems never to have walked a dog, if he believes that the dog is not exercising a great deal of discrimination about when and where. And third, were one to attend to the behavior of dogs, or wolves, in the wild, one would certainly observe there a preoccupation with the niceties of marking.
Tallis then goes on to make a deal out of our human preoccupation with the privacy of micturition et al. I could not tell if he intended this to be a sign of some kind of human superiority. More charitably, maybe he intended it only to demonstrate our greater cognitive complexity. For surely the privacy aspect is largely culturally relative even among humans. Who could forget the scene in Luis Bu ñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty when well-dressed guests are seated around what would normally be a dinner table – but on toilets instead of chairs?! Then at one point the protagonist excuses himself to go to a private room, where he proceeds to tear into the limbs and flesh of his chicken dinner – surely a disgusting and uncivilized act if ever there was one!
Tallis quite magnificently depicts the phenomenology of male micturition en masse; but when he likens this to being a hen in a battery cage, once again he is not telling us anything about the human/nonhuman distinction, but only about the inhumane subjection of nonhuman animals by human ones. Fowl left to themselves would not be fouling one another in close quarters.
Yes, humans are different from other animals, but in explicitly mentioning Mozart, Tallis conveniently overlooks Dachau. Our cognitive distinction is not an unalloyed blessing or virtue, to say the least. Presumably Tallis is concerned about the ‘great gap’ because he thinks this gives our urinating, and everything else we humans do, a leg up on those who lift their leg. But should he not take a cue from Lacan, whom he credits with the idea that we create meanings through opposition? Just as we construct gender by segregating rest rooms, do we not also create species hierarchies by housing hens in battery cages, and, for that matter, keeping dogs in houses?
Joel Marks, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Univ. of New Haven, CT
Dear Editor: In the book reviews for Issue 85, Joel Marks presented us with a position which I do not believe is tenable – in fact, it’s even unethical: no animals to be used in medical research.
The question of using animals to benefit humans is a complex ethical issue. Peter Singer’s position on animal research is to get humans to volunteer instead. But what if there are no volunteers? you may ask. He will keep on pushing for human volunteers. Now pose a scenario. A new drug needs to be tested. It has massive potential to prevent much human suffering. The testing could cause pain, with as-yet-unknown side effects. No volunteer comes forward. Singer will finally admit that we would have to use non-human animals.
Why is this the preferred, ethical choice? Because here we are deciding between two wrongs – the pain to the one animal against the failure to fully test a benefit to many (human) animals. We make this utilitarian type of moral choice constantly. Another stark example is the selling of human organs. Where is the right and the wrong for a seller with a family to feed? There are no absolute rules. It comes down to individual values and our judgement.
In animal research, it is also our judgement. There is no way that we can measure the pain of one animal against the relief of the pains of many; but common sense would suggest that the relief of many outweighs the single pain. Commonsense judgement would also tell us that the pain to a non-human animal is less than pain to a human being – there is no foreboding, no anticipation even of possible death, as there would be with a human volunteer. So, judgement would tell us that the possible pain to the animal must be outweighed by the potential savings in pain to humans. But laboratory work using animals which inflicts pain cannot be undertaken for frivolous issues, cosmetics testing for instance; or even the search for a cure for the common cold.
Dr Peter Bowden, National Secretary to the Australian Association for Professional and Applied Ethics
Dear Editor: Joel Marks’ review of What Animals Want in Philosophy Now 85 refers to the suffering caused by animal experiments, and by keeping animals in cages in laboratories. Peter Singer and others have shown how very difficult it is to justify animal experimentation, but the defenders of vivisection don’t tend to worry about that, as they assume – apparently correctly – that if we believe animal experiments can cure human illness, then we will support it, even if it is morally unjustifiable. However, animals do not get the same diseases as we do, and different species react very differently to the same drugs and procedures. Drugs that are shown to be safe in other animals have often later proved to be dangerous in humans, while valuable human cures and treatments can be missed if they fail in animal tests. Modern, state-of-the-art non-animal methods, such as human tissue and organ cultures, MRI scans, and computer modelling, allow us to obtain data that is more accurate and relevant to human health, and therefore more likely to lead to effective treatments. That is why many medical research charities don’t fund animal experiments. Animal Aid has a list showing which charities do use animals, and which do not. It’s obtainable via www.animalaid.org.uk or by calling 01732 364546.
Richard Mountford, Kent
Philosophies About Children
Dear Editor: I found the philosophy for children theme in Issue 84 truly enlightening. The magazine went into great depth on this subject, so it was a surprise that none of the articles explored why young people are such intuitive philosophers. Robert Fisher said they are ‘naturally curious’, which is undoubtedly true, but he didn’t go on to explain the reason for this. I propose that children are astute philosophers because when you are young the world hasn’t become a habit: it is still a miraculous, enigmatic place which provokes profound questions. Therefore, you are less concerned with trivial matters, and don’t jump to conclusions by dismissing seemingly abnormal possibilities. Unaccustomed to constraints such as the laws of causality and the passing of time, you have an inherent yearning to unearth the bigger picture. These are the essential qualities of a true philosopher.
The issue inspired me to hold my own ‘philosophical discussion morning’ at a local school, so thanks for all the invaluable advice of the magazine contributors.
Lucy Sabin, West Sussex
Dear Editor: With reference to the Philosophy and Children theme in Issue 84, our [British] education system is going through profound changes as well as deep cuts in school budgets, so perhaps now is the ideal time for us to look for innovative ways to improve the system. We believe introducing philosophy lessons in the classroom from an early age would have immense benefits, in terms of boosting children’s reasoning and conceptual skills, better equipping them for the complexities of life. Enhancing reasoning skills and habits is a proven and cost-effective way of enhancing pupils’ cognitive, affective and social skills, improving learning in other subjects on the curriculum, and it does not require purchasing expensive equipment and classroom resources.
The long-term imperative should be to recruit more specialist philosophy teachers, particularly considering the rise in pupils wishing to take A-Level Philosophy. However, in the short to medium term, we also call for the introduction of a new teacher training postgraduate diploma in Philosophy with Children, and the re-introduction of Philosophy into teacher training programmes. This will ensure children from all backgrounds have access to the advantages philosophy can bring in terms of intellectual and social development.
Emma Worley, COO, The Philosophy Shop [See philosophynow.org/podcasts for an interview with Peter Worley]
Dear Editor: Mark Roberts (‘Let’s Abolish ‘Art’!’, Issue 84) demonstrates a profound lack of comprehension. When encouraging us to consider how the word ‘art’ is actually used, Wittgenstein asks us to ‘look and see’, but Mr Roberts seems unable to see much beyond his spectacles. Only the ill-informed use ‘art’ exclusively as an evaluative term, rather than take the clues Aristotle gave us. To Aristotle, the application of the term ‘art’ to an object or performance allows us to say that through the medium used the work takes its form, which is its manner of presentation (how the medium is worked) to show the resultant subject matter or content. All those works that have been presented as art, from cave paintings, ritual performances, dance, theatre, pottery, urinals, pickled sharks, unmade beds and conceptual works, demonstrate these three aspects. No other thing demonstrates the three aspects that we recognize as art. So ‘art’ has a clear and unmistakably prestigious meaning, which is not the simplistic ‘if they call it ‘art’ it must be something good’ kind of prestige; rather, the kind of prestige that comes from recognizing ‘art’ as an educated pursuit offering enlightenment, not hedonistic appeal.
Launt Thompson, Armidale, New South Wales
Maths & Reality
Dear Editor: In the 84th issue, Dr Massimo Pigliucci wrote a piece on mathematical Platonism. Being a fan of Plato’s dialogues, I was excited to see what Dr Pigliucci had to say about the topic. At the end of his article Dr Pigliucci grabbed my attention with the claim that “if one ‘goes Platonic’ with math, one has to face several important philosophical consequences, perhaps the major one being that the notion of physicalism goes out the window.” Being an ardent attacker of physicalism due to my dualist leanings, I found Dr Pigliucci’s point to be a good weapon in the arsenal against it.
Mathematical Platonism is the position that the mathematical entities we experience, such as geometric figures (circles, triangles, etc …), are but imperfect representations of the perfect Form of the entity. So mathematical theorems and truths are timelessly true and need no bearer in order to be true. A true circle will always be 360°. However, mathematical theorems, or numbers have no physical extension. Physicalism holds that only entities which possess physical extension exist. Thus, physicalists must claim that mathematical entities do not exist. Physicalism might see mathematical entities as mere heuristics used to help explain various phenomena in the world, but how can a mere heuristic be timelessly true? And I do not see how mathematical entities do not exist. Mathematical entities describe and predict the various phenomena in our world. If mathematical entities don’t exist, then how can they describe or predict anything?
Physicalism lacks several key components as an explanation of the world, due to a stifling commitment to the existence solely of things with physical extension.
Abel Slinker, Evansville, IN
Kant Not Dead, But Timeless
Dear Editor: In response to Hawking’s contention that ‘philosophy is dead’, Christopher Norris writes in Philosophy Now 82 that he would not wish to “lumber science with the baggage of Kantian metaphysics.” But it seems to me that at least one aspect of Kant’s metaphysics is directly relevant to foundational notions of Hawking’s cosmology, that is to say, for such concepts as ‘the beginning of time’ and ‘the history of time’. As per Kant’s first Critique and The Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science, how can time itself have a beginning or a history, when the ideas of ‘a beginning’ and ‘a history’ pre-suppose temporality? Hawking’s fallacious reasoning was already evident in A Brief History of Time, where he writes: “As we shall see, the concept of time has no meaning before the beginning of the universe…” But clearly, the idea of anything coming into being presupposes a time when it was not. This applies just as much to the view that the universe originated as a divine act of creation, as to Hawking’s claim that the universe ‘began’ spontaneously 13.7 billion years ago.
Dr Lenval Callender, Liverpool