Man and Superman

Nothing has gone right since that speech that Professor Tyndall made at Belfast.

Mrs Whitefield, in George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman. On the one hand I'm thinking "why doesn't this book have footnotes?", on the other hand it's all on the web these days. I'm finding M&S very entertaining - it's Shaw the provocative wit, rather than Shaw the hectoring vegetarian in wooly underpants.


Rousseau as proto-pragmatist?

As for those truths which have no practical or instructive value, how could they be something that is owed to us, since they are not even a valuable possession?
whether a piece of futile, unimportant and inconsequential information is true or false can be of interest to no one.
Something that is good for nothing cannot be owed to anybody; for something to be owed to somebody, it must be actually or potentially useful. Thus the truth which we owe to one another is that which concerns justice, and it is a profanation of the holy name of truth to apply it to trivial things of which the existence is a matter of general indifference and the knowledge totally useless. Truth without any possible usefulness can therefore never be something we owe to one another; it follows therefore that anyone who conceals or disguises it is not telling a lie.

Reveries of the Solitary Walker, Fourth Walk.

It's Rousseau in paranoid mode, wondering when it's acceptable to tell a lie (prompted by the belief that the Abbé Rozier has stolen his motto and is taunting him by sarcastically writing it on a pamphlet). He's talking about when you are obliged to speak the truth, rather than what the truth is, but there are some interesting similarities with the American pragmatists' thoughts on truth (I'm reading Richard Rorty's Philosophy and Social Hope, too).


Dogs Wake

I'm sure John Gray didn't write Straw Dogs with the intention that people would think it was laugh-out-loud funny, but that's how I'm finding it. It's Enlightenment's Wake (which I finished yesterday) rewritten for readers uninterested in structured argument, reasoning or (as Keith Sutherland notes in his review) properly cited sources. Enlightenment's Wake was fascinating (I read it with a pencil in my hand, underlining it in the way I would any philosophy text I am trying to understand, trying to work out how Gray is wrong and why), Straw Dogs is merely entertaining.


Chomsky on games

I'm speculating, obviously, but it seems to me reasonable to suppose that games are designed to be, in a sense, at the outer limits of our cognitive capacities. We don't make up games in which we are as skilled as we are in the normal use of language. That wouldn't be an interesting game. Everybody could do too much! What we do is make up games like chess, which is an extraordinarily simple game - its rule system is utterly trivial. Yet, even so, we're not very good at it. In using language we're all extraordinarily good, and we're essentially undifferentiable one from another over quite a substantial range, but when it comes to something like chess - which I assume is at the borders of our cognitive capacities - individuals of very similar make-up will diverge significantly in their ability to deal with its problems.

Noam Chomsky, interviewed by Bryan Magee in Talking Philosophy, a collection of interviews recorded in the mid seventies for a BBC TV series. I now have to investigate the seventeenth century British neoplatonists.


Warnock and Rousseau

Nigel Warburton is putting up podcasts of himself reading from his own Philosophy: The Classics (not terribly successful I think - he writes very well and he's not a bad reader but the recordings are somehow lifeless) and Philosophy Bites - short interviews with other philosophers conducted by him and David Edmonds. Those are very good so far - Simon Blackburn on Plato, Stephen Law on the weakness of various arguments for the existence of god, and Mary Warnock on philosophy in public life.

Warnock makes a point while discussing attempts to change the law on euthanasia - people who say our lives belong to God, she says, are arguing irrelevantly (her emphasis). Other people don't believe that, and (what I think she's getting at though she doesn't quite put it like this), laws must be based on common ground and reasons we can all agree on rationally, not on reasons which particular groups may feel very strongly about but which aren't universally accepted (so the religious belief is a good reason for the individual who holds the belief, but not for people who don't, so it's not a good reason when it comes to determining public policy).

I've got to write an essay on Rousseau's The Social Contract over the next couple of days, and I'm wondering how I can fit that in - it's a very Rousseauian argument, from a surprising source.

(Edit: Jonathan Derbyshire on the same subject)


William James

To be read later: "The Moral Equivalent of War".

I'm wondering whether this new biography of William James will be coming out in paperback over here, or whether I should just pay Amazon's price for the hardback.

Sceptical Essays

OU tutor is being a bit of a pain about essays - I still haven't received a marked copy of the last-but-one essay, and the one I submitted three weeks ago doesn't have a mark on the website yet, with the fourth due in a couple of weeks. I've got good marks for the two I know about, but if he doesn't improve soon (and start using the electronic system for marking and returning assignments, which he ought to be doing), I'm going to have to start pointing out his obligations. I wouldn't object so much if the two tutorials I've attended hadn't been so awful.

Anyway - Locke was pretty straightforward but not terribly exciting (we are basically living in Locke's ideal world of liberal democracy, and alternatives are always more interesting than the status quo). Rousseau now, who is strange enough to be fascinating (although repellent in many ways).

Re-reading Russell's Sceptical Essays, which I think is the best of his collections of popular essays. "Philosophy in the Twentieth Century" is an interesting overview of the state of things in the twenties, concentrating on the American Pragmatists, Bergson (largely forgotten now, but a bĂȘte noire of Russell's), his ambitions for analytic philosopy (or "the new philosophy"), and a discussion of the implications of Einstein's theories for philosophy.

"The Need for Political Scepticism" is a typically provoking discussion of politics. Russell never quite reconciled his liberalism with his enthusiasm for planned economies and world government, and his assessment of human psychology is by turns shrewd and daft.

Unwise people who keep beavers in their libraries find that, when wet weather is coming, the beavers build dams out of books, because they used to live on the banks of streams.

Russell's point is that we're living in a world very different from the one which our habits were formed for (or, as an evolutionary psychologist would put it, the world which we are adapted for). Perhaps not the best story to use to illustrate his idea, though.


Consciousness and Hobbes

Review of Nicholas Humphrey on consciousness.

I've "done" Hobbes now, sent off the OU essay on Friday, although I'm still reading Laurie Bagby's guide to Leviathan - the section about the second half of the book, on religion. I'll be reading the whole of Leviathan when I have time - I've really enjoyed learning about Hobbes. Locke next, and I'm planning to reread the Second Treatise on Government on the plane to Australia.



Visited Blackwells in Tottenham Court Road yesterday, and came away with John Dewey's Experience and Nature, and a collection of writings by Charles Sanders Peirce. I'm intrigued by Pragmatism - it's got a reputation now as a wishy-washy relativist "it works for me" kind of philosophy, the sort of thing that people who don't like science think will save them from having to believe things they would rather not. But the big names (Dewey, Peirce and William James) were absolutely committed to science (although I think there is more than a little bit of "god of the gaps" thinking in James, trying to find a little corner where his faith could still live).

The naturalistic method, when it is consistently followed, destroys many things once cherished; but it destroys them by revealing their inconsistency with the nature of things - a flaw that always attended them and deprived them of efficacy for aught save emotional consolation. But its main purport is not destructive; empirical naturalism is rather a winnowing fan. Only chaff goes, though perhaps the chaff had once been treasured. An empirical method which remains true to nature does not "save"; it is not an insurance device nor a mechanical antiseptic. But it inspires the mind with courage and vitality to create new ideals and values in the face of the perplexities of a new world.
(Dewey, preface to Experience and Nature)

I found myself trying to explain this bit to a friend as we walked alongside a canal in Camden (from the same source, I was scribbling in the margins in the lift up to the platform at Caledonian Road tube station) :

The office of physical science is to discover those properties and relations of things in virtue of which they are capable of being used as instrumentalities; physical science makes claim to disclose not the inner nature of things but only those connections of things with one another that determine outcomes and hence can be used as means.

I must read Heisenberg's Physics and Philosophy again, because I seem to recall him saying something similar.



I've enjoyed Lewis Wolpert's Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast so far, but chapter 4 (Animals) is very irritating. Wolpert initially argues (by repeated assertion, not a fantastic method of argument) that animals have no concept of causality. The rest of the chapter is stuffed with illustrations of animals having concepts of causality, which somehow don't count because animals don't have concepts of causality. Animals never make tools, apart from several species including New Caledonian crows which have impressive tool-making skills, but they don't count for some unstated reason. Animals never assemble separate objects into tools, apart from the chimpanzees who levelled an anvil by packing a stone under it (Wolpert admits that this is an example of physical causal understanding, but will only admit that it shows chimpanzees are "at the edge of causal understanding"). Rats and pigeons can watch a trained rat or pigeon moving a lever to get food, and will choose to move the same lever, but because they don't move the lever in the same way, that's evidence against their having concepts of causality (what?). And so on.

I know where Wolpert's heading. He's a "strong humanist" - humans have some sort of vril or soul (although being a scientist he's not going to call it by either of those names), and animals don't. The RCP cult on usenet used to waffle on in nature/nurture debates about humans having some special quality which means they transcend questions of nature or nurture because of their power to act as conscious agents. It's a rejection of materialism, by people who can't bear to think of themselves as not being materialists (which is why they are never clear about what this special pixie-dust is that humans are sprinkled with and animals are not). A shuddering revulsion at the thought that we might actually have more in common with monkeys, pigs, dolphins and crows than we like to think.



I bought Alistair MacIntyre's A Short History of Ethics a couple of years ago and have only just rescued it from the unread pile. Virtue Ethics is a slippery subject, but MacIntyre's making it clearer to me. As far as I can see (having only read the chapters on Greek philosophy so far), it boils down to rejecting Plato's view in The Republic of The Good as a separate quality, in favour of the more traditional Greek view of good as an evaluation of the fitness of something - it's conformance to a standard. MacIntyre gives the example of "a red book" - Plato's explanation of Good is that it's like redness, so you can say "there's a red thing here" and "there's a book here" - on Plato's account, "a good book" is a book which also has the quality of goodness. The other way of looking at it is that it's more like saying "a good footballer" - someone who is very competent at a skill, not a footballer who has the separate quality of goodness. So "a good book" would be a book which measures up well against the standard by which books are judged, and "goodness" is inseperable from the context in which it's being judged. (Links to moral relativism?)

I'm not sure that's clear, either here or in my mind. I probably need to re-read those chapters!


Thomas Hobbes explains the nature of comedy

Sudden glory is the passion which maketh those grimaces called LAUGHTER; and is caused either by some sudden act of their own that pleaseth them; or by the apprehension of some deformed thing in another, by comparison whereof they suddenly applaud themselves.

(Leviathan, chap. vi)



Only the born geniuses let themselves be worried and fascinated by these outstanding exceptions, and get no peace till they are brought within the fold. Your Galileos, Galvanis, Fresnels, Purkinjes, and Darwins are always getting confounded and troubled by insignificant things.

(William James, What Psychical Research Has Accomplished, 1890)

I didn't really feel up to reading On some Hegelisms in bed on Saturday morning, not knowing a great deal about Hegel, so I skipped to James on contemporary research into psychic phenomena. One of the incidental interests of the book is the lists of great men and examples of historical events which he obviously thought his audience would be familiar with. I'd never heard of Purkinje, and I'm still not sure why James thought he belonged in that list.

James is almost saying the same thing as Thomas Kuhn - "normal science" (Kuhn's term) excludes things it can't categorise, eventually the number of discovered facts it can't explain becomes impossible to ignore, and it takes a genius to change the way people think. James obviously thought a paradigm shift was about to happen with psychic research, but it never did. Psychologists made discoveries about the ability of the human mind to delude itself, and sceptics uncovered fake psychics. The phenomena were explained away rather than piling up to an intolerable level which demanded an explanation. (Interesting similarity to something mentioned on In Our Time the other week - scientists faced with an apparently falsifying fact usually don't do the "correct" Popperian thing of abandoning their now discredited theory, they try to find out what they've missed to explain away the anomaly - they posit another planet, rather than abandoning Newtonian physics because Uranus isn't behaving properly).

There's an interesting division between the hard-headed side of James's temperament (what he calls the "scientific-academic mind") and his desire to believe that psychic phenomena (and the spiritual world in general) could be given a rational explanation and integrated into science. He had enough scepticism to recognise that many psychics were frauds, but thought there was a core of phenomena which needed an explanation. He's scathing about the ability of the "feminine-mystical mind" to provide explanations for anything, but says people with that temperament notice things which scientists ignore because they can't be categorised within the current scientific system. An alternative explanation is that people who tend not to think rationally and sceptically will observe things which aren't really there, or read significance into coincidence and randomness.


Responses to James

James's essay The Importance of Individuals is a response to Grant Allen's The Genesis of Genius, and John Fiske's Sociology and Hero Worship, which in turn are responses to Great Men and Their Environment, a criticism of Allen's view (derived from Herbert Spencer) that individuals have no influence on the course of history.

I'm reading The Will to Believe / Human Immortality, a Dover collection of two books (The Will to Believe is itself a collection of essays, some originally given as lectures). I wish the Allen and Fiske pieces had been included in the collection.

Routledge charges an extortionate price for Bertrand Russell's What I Believe, a pamphlet he wrote in the twenties as part of a series. The series included Russell's Icarus, a response to Haldane's Daedalus, and Russell's then wife Dora wrote Hypatia, on women's liberation. It would have been nice to have at least Icarus and Daedalus included in the paperback of What I Believe (eight quid for fifty pages!).

The Dover collection of James is good value for money, but similarly it wouldn't have hurt to have added another couple of dozen pages to it, which would make James's response more understandable.

William James

Great Men and the Environment

We all recollect Mr. Darwin's famous statement of the influence of cats on the growth of clover in their neighborhood.

Well, I didn't recollect it, but here it is. Clover needs humble bees (bumblebees, I assume) for pollination, bees have their nests destroyed by mice, and mice are killed by cats, so bees are more common near towns (and by implication, clover).


Australian podcasts

The Philosopher's Zone - corny title aside, this is a very high quality half-hour of discussion. The host, Alan Saunders, switched from law to philosophy at the University of Leicester. He describes the philosophy department as a very bad one, which is probably fair (it was "merged" with Exeter's philosophy department at about the time I arrived at Leicester to study chemistry - this at a time when universities very rarely shut down departments). The ABC has some really good programmes available via podcast, putting the BBC to shame.

All in the Mind includes a lot of philosophy of mind along with the psychology and brain physiology (I had to stop listening to the one about brain surgery, it was making me feel queasy).

Some of the other shows I listen to out of general interest in Australian life (Street Stories, Perspective), and Dr Karl is genuinely popular science at its best. He is enthusiastic, absolutely firm about what's right and wrong (especially when it comes to "alternative therapies"), he admits what he doesn't know, and he's never condescending even to callers who are utterly loopy (his bemused discussion with an agitated young women who had read too much Buckminster Fuller and thought the planets have tetrahedral orbits was astonishingly patient).



The Strange Death of Ordinary Language Philosophy
I read Gellner's Words and Things early last year, I've been struggling with Ryle's The Concept of Mind for years (I made a concerted effort to start from scratch last year and am bogged down in the middle - it's not that I find it difficult, I find it intensely tedious and pointless after the first few chapters).

Stephen Law on religious defences of belief in God
I finished Law's The War for Children's Minds a couple of weeks ago. It's generally a good book, though Law could have done with an editor with a big stick. I'll write some more about that eventually. Probably. Maybe.

Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?
The Guerrilla Radio Show was recommended by someone on the OU AA311 forum. It's interesting, if you skip the first five minutes (ads for the show, which generally consist of Americans yelling over heavy metal). Once the yelling's over, you get an hour of intelligent American philosophy postgrads discussing various topics (with the occasional regrettable yelling interlude), and this paper was mentioned in the Knowledge 101 show.


And over five years later...

I'm intending to use this for jotting down thoughts about philosophy, not necessarily in a structured or well-thought-out way. Most of my reading over the last three or four years has been philosophy.

Last year I did two Open University courses, A103 (An Introduction to the Humanities), and A211 (Philosophy and the Human Situation). A103, starting in September 2005, gave me confidence in my ability to write essays and study on my own. I started A211 in early 2006, and got a distinction (mainly due to a surprisingly good performance in the exam - if you'd told me a couple of years ago that I'd spend three hours writing essays with a fountain pen, and that they'd be good essays, I'd have laughed at you).

I started AA311 (Reading Political Philosophy) in early 2007.