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News: March/April 2013

Machiavelli ‘wanted notice’ found • Rats swapping sense data via the internet • Ronald Dworkin dead — News reports by Sue Roberts

You’re Nicked!

Stephen Milner, who is Professor of Italian at the University of Manchester, recently made a startling discovery while he was researching records of medieval town criers in the state archives in Florence. He found a page with the original 1513 ‘wanted notice’ calling for the apprehension of one Niccolò di Bernardo Machiavelli. The arrest of the controversial diplomat and political theorist (whose name gave the English language such terms as ‘Machiavellian’ and ‘Old Nick’) was ordered by the Medici family after they seized power in Florence and he was unfairly implicated in a failed plot to remove them. (If he had really been involved, it probably wouldn’t have failed!). He was tortured and then spent the next year under house arrest in a secluded farmhouse, during which time he wrote his masterpiece of realpolitik, The Prince.

Try Singing This!

The Royal Opera in London has presented an original challenge to four international composers. They have each been given a set of philosophical questions and asked to produce an opera responding to them. The questions are: “What preoccupies us today? How can we today stage ourselves? What are the collective myths of our present and future?” Slavoj Žižek, the Slovene philosopher, part-time Marxist and full-time provocateur who is also International Director of the Birkbeck Institute of the Humanities, collaborated in setting the questions. The participating composers are Kaija Saariaho of Finland, Mark-Anthony Turnage of Great Britain, Luca Francesconi of Italy and Jörg Widmann of Germany. They are expected to present their operas in 2020.

Telepathic Rats?

Crazed scientists at Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina have wired the brains of two rats to the internet, allowing them to exchange sensory information in real time, even though they were separated by thousands of miles (one rat was in North Carolina, and the other in Brazil). The wired brain implants allowed tactile and motor signals to be sent from one rat to another, creating the first ever brain-to-brain interface. It was repeatedly found that once one rat had learned to complete a task in return for a reward of food, the other rat too now knew how to complete the same task. The behaviour of the lab rats apparently indicated that the communication between them was in both directions. It is not yet clear how the information is coded by the rats’ brains so as to be usable by the other brain.

The head of the team, Professor Miguel Nicolelis, predicted that the system could eventually be tried with larger animals and in time extended to humans: “We will have a way to exchange information across millions of people without using keyboards, voice recognition devices or the type of interfaces that we normally use today.” Clearly this would depend on the development of non-invasive techniques to share information between human brains. Professor Christopher James, an expert in neural engineering at Warwick University, noted that it is not yet possible to put information into a brain using just electrodes on the surface of the scalp.

Law’s Philosopher Dies at 81

Professor Ronald Dworkin died of leukemia on February 14, 2013, aged 81. Seen by many as the most influential philosopher of law of the post-war era, Dworkin was particularly known for his rejection in his book Law’s Empire of the ‘legal positivism’ of thinkers such as H.L.A. Hart. Hart had argued that morality and the application of the law should be kept separate; that statutes should be applied as literally and consistently as possible with the benefit that citizens will always be able to tell in advance what the application of a law will be in any particular set of circumstances. Dworkin, by contrast, was an ‘interpretivist’, arguing that any set of laws needs to be interpreted in the light of overarching moral principles. He thought that the source of these overarching principles could be a constitution, like that of the USA, arguing that its broad and abstract language (e.g. due process of law, freedom of speech) itself needs moral interpretation by judges “in the way their language most naturally suggests.”

Dworkin also tried to show that liberty and equality are not necessarily in conflict, but are interconnected, as according to his conception of liberty we aren’t really free unless we have enough material resources to exercise choice. For many years Dworkin and the philosopher Thomas Nagel jointly taught a colloquium in legal, political and social philosophy at New York University.

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