When philosophers screw up!

IT’S almost a law of nature that great thinkers will be traduced by lesser thinkers. Think of Marx and Adam Smith and Schopenhauer and, well, almost every philosopher! But what happens when a great thinker is grossly misunderstood by other great thinkers? There was one extraordinary and original philosopher who’s thought was so thoroughly misunderstood that it led to a schism in philosophy itself.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

That philosopher is none other than the enigmatic Ludwig Wittgenstein and his equally enigmatic book the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Written in epigrammatic form, this remarkable book has probably led to more misunderstandings than any other in the philosophical canon. It is full of startling phrases like the ‘world is all that is the case’ or ‘what can be shown, cannot be said’ and, famously, right at the end ‘what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence’.

What Wittgenstein meant by all this was that pretty much everything that matters in life, including ethics, we must remain silent about. But there was a group of philosophers who catastrophically misunderstood him and believed that what he really meant was the exact opposite – that what we can speak about is all that matters. In his Confessions of a Philosopher Bryan Magee writes that this misunderstanding is all the more remarkable because Wittgenstein himself made it clear that ‘ethics cannot be put into words. Ethics is transcendental’.

The group of thinkers – whose philosophical ponderings are described as logical positivism – that blundered into this mistake came to be known as the Vienna Circle and included such luminaries as Robert Carnap and A. J. Ayer. They came up with the Verifiable Principle, which states that only assertions that are in principle verifiable by observations or experience can have meaning. As Magee writes: “Assertions that there could be no imaginable way of verifying must either be analytic or meaningless’. And ‘all discoverable truths about the world were discovered by the methods of science’.

According to Wolfram Ellenberger in Time of the Magicians however: “In Wittgenstein’s view, philosophy was not akin to legal writing, and neither was it intellectual enquiry: in fact, it wasn’t a teachable or thematically definitive science. But these were the precise convictions that lay at the heart of the Vienna Circle.” Amusingly, Ellenberger describes the situation as being akin to a tug-of-war with the Vienna Circle on the one hand asserting that the meaning of an assertion lies in the method of its verification ‘while a famously indefatigable Wittgenstein held his ground at the other end of the rope with Schopenhauer, Tolstoy, and Kierkegaard, waiting for the whole positivist troop to collapse’.

Ellenberger regards this situation as being ‘one of the strangest misunderstandings, not without its comical side, in the history of philosophy’. But there were some serious consequences of this misunderstanding in that two tribes formed – analytical philosophy and continental philosophy which are ‘dedicated to levelling mutual accusations at each other’, thus contributing to the distrust between the continental tradition and the analytical Anglo-Saxons – although it’s probably a bit of a stretch to say that it also fed into Brexit.

As it happens Wittgenstein is also allied by Ellenberger with three other great idiosyncratic thinkers – Martin Heidegger, Walter Benjamin and Ernst Cassirer who, he argues, from 1919 to the emergence of National Socialism remade philosophy. According to Ellenberger, Cassirer wanted us to ‘cast off your anxiety as creative cultural beings, liberate your original constraints and limitations’. Heidegger, meanwhile, urged us to cast off ‘culture as a rotten aspect of your essence, and sink on the groundlessly thrown beings that you are, each in your own way, back into the truly liberating origin of your experience: Nothing and anxiety’. And just as Wittgenstein claimed that a ‘picture is a model of reality’ so Benjamin used the ‘thought picture’ as a ‘tool in order in order to see the world correctly’.

If all this sounds a little esoteric it is nevertheless an object lesson in how even the mightiest intellects can get things horribly wrong – how tribes and echo chambers can evolve in any field and how the highly educated can be just as bias as the rest of us, even if they may be able to express themselves more eloquently. Although to be fair to Ayer he later quipped that ‘the most important’ defect of logical positivism ‘was that nearly all of it was false’.

Out of sight out of (your) mind?

WHEN did mental illness become a stigma, something to hide away – even punish? There was a time when the intellectually challenged member of the village was tolerated. But that’s a far cry from the horror stories we read about in the 19th century and the condition that inmates had to endure in Bedlam. Even in the 20th century we had the terror of Electric Shock Treatment so well exposed in One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest, and to the barbarism of lobotomies. Thankfully, things are a little more enlightened these days. However, as Dr Peter Kinderman writes in The New Laws of Psychology we still need a ‘wholesale revision of the way we think about psychological distress’. And he adds: “We should start by acknowledging that such distress is a normal, not abnormal, part of human life – that we humans respond to distressing circumstances by becoming distressed.”

So, it appears that there is still a long way to go. But it wasn’t always like this and we only have to recall Erasmus and his metaphor of the Ship of Fools in Praise of Folly to demonstrate this: “Then perhaps we shouldn’t overlook that folly finds favour in heaven because she alone is granted forgiveness of sins whereas the wise man receives no pardon.” (Of course folly is female and the wise male!). Then, of course, we have Dostoevsky’s ‘positively beautiful man’ who clashes with the emptiness of his society in The Idiot. And let us not forget the ingenious gentleman himself Don Quixote.

For Michel Foucault in his Madness and Civilization the last part of Erasmus’s tilt at the theologies and churchmen of his day is ‘constructed on the model of a long dance of madmen’. In this extraordinary book Foucault asks what it means to be mad and traces its history from the 1500 when insanity was considered part of everyday life, to a point when such people came to be seen as a threat and were locked away out of sight and out of mind. “Heavens above doesn’t the happiest group of people comprise those popularly called idiots, fools, nitwits, simpletons, all splendid names according to my way of thinking?” he writes.

According to Foucault it was the classical age that resolved to ‘silence the madness whose voices the Renaissance had just liberated’. He even identifies the moment in the 17th century when confinement became the defining element of mental disorder and combines with a ‘condemnation if idleness’. It was, claims Foucault, the royal edict of 27 April 1656 that ‘led to the creation of the Hopital General’ which set itself the task of preventing ‘mendicancy and idleness as the source of all disorder’, thus replacing leprosy as the great Other to be shunned and locked away. In this way work took on its ‘ethical meaning: since sloth had become the absolute form of rebellion, the idle would be forced to work in the endless leisure of a labour without utility or profit’.

Hence the pointless treadmill seen in 19th century prisons and here too is the start of equating poverty not with lack of resources but with idleness or the ‘weakening of discipline and the relaxation of moral’. We might also point to the late David Graeber and his identification of bullshit jobs in our own day – there just to provide work for the sake of working.

So it came to pass that where once madness and unreason ‘floundered about in broad daylight’ in less than a century it has been ‘sequestered and, in the fortress of confinement, bound to Reason, to the rules of morality and their monotonous nights’. Here we have a full frontal assault by Foucault on the Enlightenment or, as he calls it, the ‘age of reason’ which ‘confined the debauched, spendthrift fathers, prodigal sons, blasphemers…libertines’. It should be pointed out, of course, that the Enlightenment is often mis-portrayed as simply privileging Reason over all else, whereas many Enlightenment thinks were motivated by an acknowledgement that humans were often really rather irrational and it might be a good idea to introduce a little more Reason and a little less superstition. It’s interesting that Kant thought the Enlightenment was a like a coming of age for humanity. Nevertheless, this mis-characterization does not blunt Foucault’s main argument that the Lords of Misrule have been unjustly cut off from society and that too much emphasis can be placed on Reason to the detriment of our mad creativity. The mentally distressed were not seen as having any use except as a spectacle – and as late as 1815, for example, the ‘hospital of Bethlehem exhibited lunatics for a penny every Sunday’. And again: “Madness had become a thing to look at: no longer a monster inside oneself but an animal with strange mechanisms, a bestiality.”

Madness and Civilization is a paean to Unreason and the role it plays in human affairs. But Foucault is not alone. Nietzsche privileged the wild abandon of Dionysius over the cool rationality of Apollo and the former, it seems, has been dominant ever since. Nevertheless, it is possible to go to the other extreme – to over objectify and place too much emphasis on Reason. This was a problem explored by Iain McGilchrist in his classic The Master and His Emissary (which featured in a previous blog) in which he argues that the alienation and abstraction of the left hemisphere of the brain is seen in some circles as being superior to the worldly engagement of the right hemisphere. The answer seems to be not that we should privilege one side over the other but that we should try to unite the two. As McGilchrist writes: “Ultimately, what I have tried to point to is that the apparently separate ‘functions’ in each hemisphere fit together intelligently to form in each case a single coherent whole.”

The truth about truth!

IF, as we saw a couple of blogs ago, reason has taken something of a battering, then the same is true of the very notion of ‘truth’. Therein lies part of the problem, of course. For it is self-contradictory to proclaim that there is no such thing as ‘truth’ because, of course, the proposition ‘there is no such thing as truth’ is in itself either true or not true. Another problem is that if that is all that counts as truth, then we are in danger of disappearing in a puff of our own logic, as Douglas Adams might have said.

We have seen on this blog how Frances Bacon compared truth to climbing a hilltop and Tim Harford in How to Make the World Add Up provided us with 10 rules for navigating the dense thickets of statistics that shape, and, it has to be said, misshape our world. But Harford assumes that there is such a thing as truth. Enter Simon Blackburn and his book called simply Truth.

Our old friend – the Mountain of Truth

Of course, Blackburn makes the point that the ‘god of truth’ is best served by the attendant deities such as reason, justification and objectivity. But what exactly is truth? Well, in his book he takes us through the classical approaches to understanding truth and then applies them to difficult problems like ethics and aesthetics.

In the first instance he adumbrates the correspondence theory, which states that in the same way that a map, in order to be useful, should correspond with what is on the ground, so a justified true belief should, at the very least, correspond with the facts. The problem here is that this may simply be an elaborate way of saying ‘true’ so that that saying ‘true’ and ‘corresponds with the facts’ is a distinction without a difference.

One may draw an analogy within, say, ‘baby swan’ and ‘cygnet’. Nevertheless, recent events have shown us that simply aligning ‘truth’ and ‘corresponding with the facts’ is important when the likes of Trump and Putin do their level best to decouple them. The theory, of course, also assumes that the sense-perception process passively receives facts from the world rather than interacting with the world and, in some sense, constructing a model of the world that isn’t straight-forwardly out there. At its most extreme Kant and Schopenhauer hold that the ‘thing-in-itself’ or the ‘Will’, the world unmediated by our sense-perception, is something other than the phenomenal world in which we live.

But is it?

However, this may not be fatal for the correspondence theory because it may be that to say that the world is divided between the noumenal and the phenomenal is simply a fact about our perception of the world. Of course, the realist and the idealist positions cannot both be true but that does not in itself collapse the correspondence theory – we simply don’t know which one is true.

The second theory is referred to as the coherence theory in which truth is linked to rational enquiry that is a ‘coherent, interlocking structure, a reflective equilibrium in which all our beliefs about a subject matter fit together’. This an attractive theory which requires that we are coherent and consistent in our approach to the world. This idea does, to a certain extent, dovetail with the correspondence theory because a coherent theory must at least consist of statements that correspond with the facts. Nevertheless, it is not a complete theory because we may still be concerned that a ’roundly coherent body of belief’ might just be a ‘giant fiction’.

So, we need a further move and this is provided by the pragmatic theory, which focuses exclusively on successful outcome. The link between truth and success is associated with American pragmatists like C. S. Peirce, William James and John Dewey (who featured in a previous blog called The return of the public). It is founded on the idea that the truth of a theory is dependant on its success.

The pragmatic theory of truth

A classic example is quantum physics, which, while not fully understood, is nevertheless one of the most successful scientific theories ever. Who cares if we don’t understand it if it is so useful?

And finally we have what is called ‘deflationism’ which states that the notion of truth may work in the background but in the end it makes ‘no difference whether we simply assert something or assert it prefacing the assertion with it is true that’. So, by this Blackburn means that we don’t actually need the category ‘truth’ just assertion ‘that X’ and so-on. “Truth is only present as deflationists say as a device for pointing in the general direction in which the real explanation is to be found,” writes Blackburn. The problem with this position is rather similar to the one relating to correspondence theory in that by demoting truth to a signpost to the real explanation one is creating a distinction without a difference in that the proposition ‘real explanation that’ is the same as saying ‘it is true that’.

It is small wonder that postmodernists and populists have had such fun with the notion of truth if none of us can state exactly what truth is. It is a feature of all the theories that they don’t actually say anything about truth itself, rather they furnish us with methods of finding truth – even if they do so imperfectly. The problem with finding the truth about truth is that it is constantly in danger of plummeting down a vicious spiral of circularity. But maybe this is a feature of truth. Just as we can see but not see ourselves seeing or hear but not hear ourselves hearing, may be we can find the truth without knowing what truth itself is. Just as we can find out about the world by deploying the empirical method without being able to prove the method by deploying it, not at least without fatal circularity.

All that we can say is that, in the first instance, we can say with a high degree of probability that if a proposition fails to correspond with reality, is incoherent, is unsuccessful and fails to provide a ‘real explanation’ then it is untrue. Equally, the more of these theories that a proposition does meet then we can have increasing confidence that it is true – or at least as true as we are likely to get.

The logic of freedom

The absurdity of life

FOR some the Universe is simply absurd. This realisation happens when all our searches for meaning disappear into the silent Universe, which is indifferent to our petty struggles. It’s when we suddenly understand that we are not really attempting to save the planet against the ravages of climate change but just the flora and fauna (including humans) as they happen to be configured now – the planet will continue for the next 100 billion years or so before it is absorbed by the cooling sun.

But for philosopher Mariam Thalos this sense of absurdity happens when we step outside of the warmth of our collective lives into the cold of the ‘uncentred perspective’. And in an intriguing move in her book A Social Theory of Freedom she argues that this ‘stepping-out experience’ should actually ‘de-absurdize the life’ one lives because ‘afterwards it should feel warmer to reenter your life’. She adds: “If you feel a de-naturing of the world, upon stepping out of your life, you should feel a re-naturing of it upon your safe return.” Unfortunately for some of us this sense of de-naturing, absurdity and alienation persists if we ‘cannot execute the rentry’. Chillingly she writes: “They are those people who, prior to stepping out, lived without a sense of solidarity with others, for you will have an incentive to reenter and resume a much more enlivened life for the sake of those who mattered before you executed your initial exit.”

It may come as something of a surprise to learn that all this talk about solidarity comes at the end of a book about human freedom. But it is essential to her case because for there to be freedom at all there has to be a Self and it is this initial separation that creates that Self in separation from others. For her, and unlike Mary Midgley (who featured in Escaping the cage of the Self on this blog), the Self emerges out of the collective and we humans are ‘shifting constantly back and forth’ between the two – always supposing one isn’t stuck out in the cold of course.

A solitary trail out in the cold!

Thalos describes herself as a compatibilist, which normally means that you accept the terms of determinism but believe that human freewill is compatible with it – indeed many argue that determinism is essential for freewill. They deploy what is called interventionism, which means that although we are subject to the laws of nature, we are able to intervene and effect our own free actions. Thalos, however, argues for a form of compatibilism but one whose ‘conception of freedom will skirt the problem of determinism’. Instead, Thalos argues that freewill is centred on the Self, embedded in solidarity with Others. But crucially the Self cannot be found in experience – as Gilbert Ryle memorably discovered in The Concept of Mind – because it isn’t there. For her freedom is a logic and, she insists, logic is not subject to the laws of nature. From an existential perspective, she argues that the Self is a concept – more precisely a self-conception that emerges out of the logical ‘fit’ between an agent’s conception of themselves and the facts of their circumstances. It is in this very struggle between her self-conception and the constraints she encounters in society that her freedom emerges. Thalos insists that this concept of freedom is a logical, not empirical, form, even though it seems at times as though she is carrying out a delicate high wire act that is in danger of collapsing into the empirical and, presumably therefore, deterministic world.

Ryle is famously takes a derogatory line against Descartes’s ‘I’ which he brands the ‘ghost in the machine.

The ghost in the machine

But Thalos is much more sympathetic to Descartes. “Bodies, as Descartes envisioned, are under the sovereignty of the laws of motion (that we might refer to today as causal laws or dynamical laws), but minds are not. Mind is in no way a space-filler, subject to the laws of motion. Mind is subject to the laws of thought, to laws of reason, hence the separation between mind and body,” she writes.

Where Descartes went wrong was to jump to the conclusion that the ‘I’ was out there in experience. What in fact he had stumbled upon, according to Thalos, was the ‘logic of experience’. And even if, like David Hume and Ryle, we can find no evidence of the Self in experience, it does not follow that we should dispense with the Self. The logic of experience is ‘a theory of action that speaks of ongoing activity mediated by a Self (constituted in part by a self-conception) that is in turn subject to modification by a variety of interactions between Self and Others’.

One of the problems with this position is that it is difficult to see how the purely logical form of the self-conception can interact with Others without collapsing into the empirical world of causation. It is also in danger of a horrible circularity in that saying that the Self is a self-conception is close to the trivial statement that the Self is the Self. And it sails perilously close to the infinite regress because if we say that the Self creates the Self, who creates the original Self?

Although she doesn’t refer to it herself, the solution to the last two problems may be provided by the multi-disciplinary work of Kristina Masholt in Thinking about Oneself in which the author concludes that the Self proper is preceded by a non-reflective self which is able to develop a sense of the reflective Self through its entanglement with the Other. This idea seems to mitigate our concerns about infinite regress and circularity while establishing the foundations of a self which, on Thalos’s account, only achieves freedom when it steps out of the collective. But there remains two major problems: the first is the ever-present danger of collapsing into determinism and the other is that all this talk about the logic of the Self threatens to make freedom the preserve of the educated elite.

It’s fair to say that Thalos is sceptical about the truth of determinism but, nevertheless, is determined to escape its orbit. She attempts to achieve escape velocity by asserting that we do not ‘need to accept exclusively physicalistic, behaviouristic or biological terminology in the description of human behaviour. Instead, she argues for the social sciences because they are not universalistic like physics and biology but are ‘much more sensitive to the presence of individual variation’.

Her attempt to escape the elitist threat involves the use of what she calls Imitative Reasoning in which role models perform the function of creating the ‘fit’ between an individual’s conception of her self and her social circumstances from which her freedom emerges.

Thalos’s book has more surprises and plot twists than Line of Duty and as a result it is difficult to navigate one’s way through the thicket of ideas. It is not clear whether she has succeeded in freeing freedom from the clutches of determinism or whether her conclusion is as disappointing as that of the long-running TV show.

The return of the public

The traditional image of a dystopian future is belied by the reaction to the pandemic

ONE of the most fascinating phenomena in modern life is the tension between the widespread apathy about what might be called traditional party politics on the one hand and an increasing engagement with community activity on the other. If the pandemic has taught us anything it is that international crises do not necessarily lead to a dystopian society of a war of all against all – to mix popular science fiction and Thomas Hobbes. Indeed, the increasing interest in communal activity and a desire to help out seems to matched by an equal and opposite decline in party politics. People seem to be really engaged as long as you don’t call the activity politics. And yet, if things are to change for the better we need people to be engaged in both politics and community action. So, is there a way of achieving this? According to the pragmatic American philosopher John Dewey there is – and it involves deliberation.

Deliberation is important for democracy, according to Dewey

For Dewey legitimacy was as important in 1927 when he wrote The Public and its Problems as it seems to be today. Indeed, he links the majoritarianism of representative government and deliberation as a way of understanding and justifying democracy, not simply as two ideas that may, or may not, combine. He argues that the fact that there isn’t a conflict after every election so that society isn’t always split into friend and foe, is proof that ‘the governors and the governed’ in representative government are not ‘two classes’ but ‘two aspects of the same truth’. Of course, it may seem to us today that the present state of representative government suggests that there are indeed ‘two classes’ of the governors and the governed and that society really is split into friend and foe. Still, one may hope that this is a temporary state not a permanent one and one that can be tempered by deliberation.

Can deliberation bring us together?

In his introduction to the 2016 edition published by Swallow Press Melvin Rogers writes: “Forming the will of the democratic community, for Dewey, is a process of thoughtful interaction in which the preferences of citizens are both informed and transformed by public deliberation as citizens struggle to decide which policies will best satisfy and address the commitments and needs of the community.” And he adds: “It is no wonder that many see Dewey as an important spokesperson for deliberative democracy.” Dewey himself argues that the very forces that have brought about representative government have also halted the ‘social and humane ideals that demand the utilization of government as the genuine instrumentality of an inclusive and fraternally associated public’ which means that the ‘democratic public is still largely inchoate and marginalized’.

In a moment of pessimism Dewey suggests that his arguments seem ‘close to denial of the possibility of realizing the idea of a democratic public’. Many years before the rise of neoliberalism Dewey writes that ‘one of the many obstacles in the path is the seemingly ingrained notion that the first and last problem which must be solved is the relation of the individual and the social’. According to Dewey, however, ‘an individual whatever else it is or is not, is not just the spatially isolated thing our imagination inclines to take it to be’.

And this ‘demands, as we have also seen, perceptions of a joint activity and of the distinctive share of of each element in producing it’. This does not mean that groups, or indeed political parties, will always exist in harmony and without conflict or that an individual will not have conflicting selves. But what it does mean is that the division between the individual and the social is dissolved. If society can be oppressive it is membership of specific associations that is oppressive not our material and social being per se.

Dewey in a statement which could be the motto of Salisbury Democracy Alliance’s campaign for Citizens’ Assemblies, writes that the essential need ‘is the improvement of the methods and conditions of debate, discussion, and persuasion’. Further: “Ideas which are not communicated, shared, and reborn in expression are but soliloquy, and soliloquy is but broken and imperfect thought.”

It is difficult not to read into Dewey a plea for more deliberative democracy. His view is that the division between society and the individual is a false dichotomy that can lead to the kind of fallacies that demand that if you are not for us you are against us.

The real question, as this blog has noted before, is how the individual emerges as an embedded but critically engaged citizen – and for that we need the right conditions for such an agent to emerge, an agent that recognises its social being but also helps to shape that social being.

Reason versus reason

IT is often thought that the main threat to the kind of rationality so admired by enthusiasts for the Enlightenment is, well, irrationality – faith, alternative medicines and the New Age movement. Indeed this view seems to be cemented by the wild irrationality of Trump and his followers – although one does wonder sometimes whether Trump was actually being supremely clever by discombobulating his opponents. But that disturbing thought aside, what if the greatest threat to reason is not irrationality but misdirected reason?

Is irrationality the greatest threat to reason?

That is the view of Dan Hind in his fascinating book The Threat to Reason: How the Enlightenment was hijacked and how we can reclaim it. When you first open this book you expect an attack on the irrational but Hind startles when he announces that this approach misses the point. He calls the attack on irrationality Folk Enlightenment and he is dismissive of its adherents, including Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, who make a clear demarcation between the pure defenders of reason and its enemies mired in unreason. “It saturates our intellectual culture and informs many of our assumptions about public life. As a consequence political disputes about the distribution of resources are recast as metaphysical clashes between abstract nouns,” he writes. Further: “Some of those who defend the Enlightenment from its irrational enemies offer up ‘the great divide’ between faith and reason, rather than the old conflict between Left and Right, as the central organising opposition of our time.”

The great divide?

For Hind, however, the real division is between what he calls Occult and Open Enlightenment. He uses the word ‘Occult’ in honour of Francis Bacon, the father of experimental science who, nevertheless, ‘drew on the techniques and love of magic’ in much the same way as Isaac Newton, who wrote more about religion than science, drew heavily on the traditions of alchemy – more in tune with the great the great 16th century magus, alchemist and astrologer John Dee than modern day physics. (See this blog for two articles about Dee and his relationship with the Pembrokes at Wilton House).

It should be said that Hind does not downplay the dangers that can arise from the misuse of alternative medicine or the relativism of postmodernism, although he points out that the latter’s ‘concern that Enlightenment and modernity can provide cover for crimes has ample justification’. However, he makes a persuasive case against the kind of Occult Enlightenment that uses reason to undermine reason itself. And he reserves his main artillery for Big Pharma, which uses science to ‘undermine the open, humane science they claim to champion’ by ‘withholding information’ presenting ‘information to the public in misleading ways’ and then ‘punishing those who inform the public’. He adds: “Given that pharmaceutical medicine is fifty times more lucrative, and considerably more lethal than the herbal and homeopathic alternatives, the institutions that control the business might be suspected of posing a greater threat to reason than their Reiki-practising competitors. Other manifestations of Occult Enlightenment past and present include the ‘desire for total knowledge’ in the service of the British Empire and the invasion of Iraq.

According to Hind, the solution to the threat of misdirected reason is what he calls Open Enlightenment, or an enquiry into the world unencumbered by the self-interested ‘reason’ of the state and corporations. He argues that the Open Enlightenment will be met with ‘ridicule or worse’ but this will be worth it because it will allow us ‘to live at least part of the time as truth-loving individuals’ as we ‘become authors of our own Enlightenment’.

The main thrust of Hind’s argument is a powerful one and a corrective to those of us who have, perhaps, been guilty of taking a kind of perverse pleasure in attacking the easy targets of unreason, while underplaying those forces of reason that actually undermine the reason of the Open Enlightenment. In some ways it follows in the footsteps of The Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway who exposed ‘how a loose-knit group of high-level scientists and scientific advisers, with deep connections in politics and industry, ran effective campaigns to mislead the public and deny well-established scientific knowledge over four decades’.

In a side argument Hind makes the claim that ‘there is no way that reason can cause us to believe in God, but neither can it cause us to believe that it is wrong to kill’. This appears to be based on Davide Hume’s assertion that reason is the slave of the passions, which raises another mighty split between those who follow Hume and others, like the American philosopher Thomas Nagel who argues in The Possibility of Altruism that ‘just as there are rational requirements on thought, there are rational requirements on action’.

Are faith and morality equally distant from reason?

Indeed, there are some evolutionary biologists, including Dawkins, who argue that altruism is part of our genetic make-up. And it is certainly possible to define altruism in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. There are also various normative ethical theories that attempt to conceptualize and objectify morality. None of this is to say that the passions do not often, perhaps most of the time, trump reason, but nor does it follow that reason can never be deployed when considering ethics.

However, this is all something of a distraction from Hind’s argument, which remains untouched by the truth or otherwise of his moral assertion. It therefore remains a serious challenge for all of us who in one way or another support the ideals of the Enlightenment, not to fall into the trap of Folk Enlightenment but, rather, to have the courage to create a truly Open Enlightenment.

What’s the point of privacy?

The invasion of our privacy

MUCH has been written – not least on this blog – about the perilous state of our privacy. The problem is that over the past 30 years or so humanity has been slowly infantilized as advertisers, powerful lobbyists, think tanks, the state and social media have infiltrated our brains. According to Shoshana Zuboff in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, it was the psychologist B. K. Skinner who realised the political value of it all and ‘viewed the creative and often messy conflicts of politics, especially democratic politics, as a source of friction that threatened the rational efficiency of the community as a single, high functioning super-organism’.

The philosopher Byung-Chul Han has dubbed the whole phenomenon psycho-politics and, somewhat desperately, called on us to become idiots in the mould of Dostoevsky’s ‘positively beautiful man’ in The Idiot who clashes with the emptiness of 19th century Russian society.

But what if a) it’s too late for us to do anything about our loss of privacy and b) it may not matter too much because we give it too much significance anyway? This is the position of Firmin DeBrabander in Life After Privacy. DeBrabander argues that privacy is both a relatively recent phenomenon and, in a different form, much older than people think. For many, our modern conception of privacy is essential for representative government and requires a ‘legal and physical architecture’ to support it. Drawing on Stoic and early Christian writings, however, DeBrabander claims that the ‘virtues of privacy can be achieved by other means’. He continues: “Stoic philosophy…praises the virtue of emotional resilience and equilibrium.

Battling for emotional resilience

“The Stoics called it ‘constancy’ where one is not over excited or deflated by external events, the opinion of others, or personal interactions.” This is something that some of us at least find difficult to muster, especially when we see injustice. But importantly DeBrabander does not make the mistake of casting the Stoicism as a purely individualistic philosophy recommending that we retreat into ourselves. Rather, the way we interact with our environment and with other people ‘is instrumental to how you transform your mind and behaviour’. It has to be said that for some these principles will be easy to follow but for others…well, less so. But that does mean that they are without value in at least trying to follow them.

This view, writes DeBrabander, is very different from the Liberal turn of mind which ‘conceives citizens as atomistic individuals, responsible for their own values and destiny – who will reason and vote accordingly’. Another narrative, he claims, and one much closer to Stoicism, has it that we ‘develop the competency for autonomy through our social interactions with other persons’.

DeBrabander draws a distinction between the two as being the difference between the ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ sense of privacy. In the first it is assumed that we must ‘protect the space of individual freedom’ where we can do whatever we like as long as we don’t harm others, as John Stuart Mill put in his Harm Principle. In contrast DeBrabander writes: “Rather, we must reconnect to the values, virtues, norms, and habits of democratic life, in order to produce citizens who can better withstand the efforts of manipulation and control.” Indeed, as far as he is concerned, this is the only realistic way of containing the machinations of the State and Big Tech because as atomistic individuals we are vulnerable to manipulation, as Hannah Arendt noted in her masterpiece The Origins of Totalitarianism.

For centuries political liberals have conceived us as being first and foremost individuals and, in one iteration, argue that under social contract theory, society is ‘formed when individuals, after independent reflection, decide to contract together’. But DeBrabander will have none of this: “I suspect, rather, that we are social through and through.” For him the public sphere is where our true humanity thrives – in what the ancient Athenians called the Agora.

The glories of the Agora – apart from the slave bit obviously!

For the Athenians the private space was for the idiotes and was the realm of privation, of the unskilled and ignorant. For sure, we need solitude to restore our reflective selves, but this is far from the isolation and loneliness engendered by classical liberalism and is a by-product of democracy not fundamental to it. As DeBrabander writes: “A democracy worthy of the name requires that people are invested in policy-making decisions, and in the elevation and pursuit of guiding ideals.” Further: “To the extent that we have privacy or anything that approaches it, like the solitude conducive to thought, it relies on public action, interaction, and sustenance.”

The conclusion of all this is not that, as Han have it, that we must become Idiots – and certainly not in the sense that it was meant by the ancient Athenians – but, rather, that we reclaim the public sphere or Agora whence we can seek positive solitude when necessary, not have loneliness foisted on us.

It’s hard not to look to the deliberative democracy practiced every month by Salisbury Democracy Alliance at its Salisbury and Bemerton Heath Democracy Cafés or the Citizens’ Assembly it ultimately want to create and equate that with DeBrabander ‘s notion of people being ‘involved in public policy-making decisions’. At the same time one cannot help but wonder whether it’s too late, in the same way that it’s too late for our current concerns about privacy. But to quote the Ingenious Gentleman himself: “I know not whether I ought to avow myself the good one, but I dare venture to assent that I am not the bad one.” And maybe that’s just enough for us to continue tilting at windmills!

Many lives make hard work!

WHO hasn’t wondered how our lives would have gone if THAT hadn’t happened or, perhaps, something else HAD? Throughout our lives we make decisions, or decisions are made for us, and our narrative unfolds. But in the arts and in science the idea that there could have been other lives lived has gained traction. As Vimes says in Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch: “I know all about that. Like, you make a decision in this universe and you made a different decision in another one.” The idea is front and centre in Matt Haig’s popular novel The Midnight Library (One library. Infinite lives) in which the protagonist Nora Seed is given the chance to ‘live as if she had done things differently’. Yanis Varoufakis uses the idea in his Another Now. Dispatches from an Alternative Present in an extraordinary mixture of fiction and non-fiction to envisage the creation of a ‘non-capitalist world in which work, money, land, digital networks and politics have been truly democratized’.

But it is, perhaps, best expressed in Robert Frost’s enigmatic poem The Road Not Taken. As it happens, it is this work that Andrew H. Miller takes as the starting point of his book On Not Being Someone Else – Tales of our Untold Lives. For Miller it is actually his sense of singularity that makes him think of ‘unled lives’. And he believes that it is the singularity created by neoliberalism that has generated this modern sensibility. “The main engine driving this modern experience has no doubt been market capitalism, with its isolation of individuals and its accelerating generation of choices and chances, moulding behaviour in ever increasing ways.”, he writes.

Apart from the deployment of Robert Frost, Miller also calls on an array of authors and artists ranging from Ian McEwan to Virginia Woolf, who often felt that her singularity felt like ‘solitary confinement’ and that she was both ‘prison and prisoner, trapped in this body and these habits’. Miller writes: “At such moments, the thought of being someone else seems an escape. But who would be escaping? And where would they go?” Where indeed? It is in fact quite hard to see how dreaming about an alternative but unattainable life makes any difference. And as Dr Alexandre Leskanich in issue 141 of Philosophy Now on the the possibility of being someone she’s not writes: “I know this, but I don’t know what it means.” One can imagine trying to imagine who one might have been had things happened differently being an interesting parlour game, but is it any more significant than that other than, perhaps, useful material for a book? Nietzsche uses his thought experiment of eternal recurrence to determine one’s commitment to life which only an ubermensch could achieve. But this, of course, is the affirmation of one life lived over and over again – not many lives.

To be sure, imagining the life not lived may help to define the life one does live, but might it not also lead to the dissolution of the Self.

The dissolution of the Self

Ruminating on the lives not lived can lead to a loosening of one’s singularity as one one realises just how contingent the life one does live actually is. It might lead to the break down of the Self as an indivisible individual into a divisible dividual constructed out of a loose bundle of emotions and character traits which, say, our executive function is constantly trying to corral into a more or less coherently functioning unit. If so, this is not necessarily a bad thing and would, of course, chime with the Buddhist notion of the non-self. But it is hard work to live such a life.

It is curious that Miller never ventures away from literature or art into the world of science where there is at least some credibility for alternative lives (if precious little evidence) – especially in the weird and wonderful world of quantum physics. As Pratchett points out quantum theory posits the idea of multiple universe – indeed, some argue that the truth of quantum physics entails multiverses. The idea of many worlds existed in ancient Greek philosophy but also gained traction among 20th century physicists. Among the most vociferous is Max Tegmark who proposes a taxonomy of four levels of multiverses in his book Our Mathematical Universe in which each level is arranged so that subsequent levels encompass the previous. It should be said, however, that this a highly contentious theory with some critics arguing that such a thesis cannot be tested, bears great resemblance to theological discussions and is just as ad hoc as the creation of an unseen creator.

Undoubtedly, the multiverse hypothesis is a highly contested field but it is, nevertheless, strange that Miller never engages with it in his entertaining book. Is it anything more than just entertaining? Probably not. It is fine to speculate whether one’s odd dreams, for example, are actually glimpses into alternative universes – but it’s not clear whether such speculation is anything more than an indulgence and one that can be hard work. As Miller himself writes: “All you can do is try to see the bright present truly, and in seeing, join it.”

Can there be meaning in a silent universe?

LIVING in a silent universe (or universes) can be dispiriting. A previous article on this blog claimed that it was the reduction in a sense of a higher authority that had led to an existential crisis. If there is no God what meaning is there? In that article Frank Martela in his book A Wonderful LIFE argued that we should shift from trying to find the meaning of life to meaning in life.

The demise of God also plays a major role in A Significant Life – Human Meaning in a Silent Universe by Todd May. But May goes deeper still into the problems we face in a secular universe. He begins at ground zero exemplified by Albert Camus for whom the universe is indeed silent. For Camus thoughts about meaning are ‘symptoms of the absurd’. Todd writes: “The absurd itself is something very precise. It is the confrontation of our need for meaning with the unwillingness of the universe to yield it to us.” Camus draws on the Myth of Sisyphus in his book of the same name to bring out this sense of the absurd while urging us to gain freedom by courageously acknowledging this unavoidable absurdity.

Sisyphus, who was condemned to repeat the same meaningless task for eternity.

May, however, is not finished with meaning and turns his attention to Aristotle for whom the flourishing of human life is an ongoing activity involving the commitment to be ‘intellectually engaged with the world’. But while May admires Aristotle he asks whether a life that is lived well and does good is also a meaningful one. Unlike Camus, for Aristotle the universe is not silent – rather it is a structured, ordered telos which humans can discover. And it is this telos, embedded in the universe, that provides Aristotle with his meaning. But as May points out – we are not Aristotle. The universe is not ‘ordered in such a way that everything has its telos’ and the cosmos is not for us a rational place’.

A rational universe? Maybe not.

So, attractive though Aristotle’s conception of the flourishing human life may be, it lacks the meaning that he sought.

And even if we accept the existence of God, that cannot help us as Socrates makes clear in the Platonic dialogue Euthyphro when he asks: “Is what is holy, holy because the gods approve it, or do they approve it because it is holy.” (This not the first time that this question has featured in this blog). Now, we have to assume that because God is considered to be good he has to conform to what is actually good. “God cannot ground the good because God answers to it,” writes May. And, further, there ‘must be something about the universe independent of God that offers human lives a sense of meaningfulness that God himself must answer to’. As we have seen, however, the idea that some sense of the good forms part of a rational universe does not hold water either.

Rejecting God and Aristotle, May sees if he can also reject Camus’s bleak prospectus – and he begins this task by shifting to Martela’s position of attempting to find meaning in life. His first venture is what he calls the ‘narrative approach’ in which ‘humans must take the resources they are given, develop them into a flourishing life and then sustain (or in the case of great misfortune, restore) that flourishing over the course of their personal histories’. This, of course, sounds a lot like Aristotle but without the rational universe. May also acknowledges that there is another problem with this approach because not all narratives provide meaning in the way that he hopes they will. He writes about the depressed life – and we might also point to narratives that are attenuated by poverty and those for whom the past is something people would rather forget. Another problem is that for some people, like the philosopher Galen Strawson (who has also featured in a previous article on this blog), their lives are not driven by narratives and their self-experience is more episodic than diachronic.

So, in the light of this, May’s next move is to write about what he calls ‘narrative values’ like steadfastness, intellectual curiosity, intensity, integrity and so on.

Is intellectual curiosity the answer?

It still looks as though we are drifting back towards an attenuated Aristotle here but May ploughs on: “In approaching life by way of narrative values then, we find that the meaningfulness does not lie in the narrative itself. Instead, we are asking whether that narrative is characterized by or expresses a theme that would give it value.” With reference to Strawson, he adds: “It might be that although Episodic, his life is nevertheless steadfast in its attention to a small range of important philosophical concerns.” It’s important to point out that May is not referring to moral values here because, obviously, the steadfastness of Eichmann in pursuing the Final Solution is rendered morally worthless. However, he does claim that both moral and narrative values do have the required degree of objectivity to mean something beyond the purely subjective, even if, at the same time, they are made up. As he argues that, because values are subject to reasoning they are not arbitrary. “If this is right, then we can say both that our values are made up and that they are, in an important way, objective,” he claims. To be sure, values operate within a tradition and network of practices.

For May, our values are not ‘assured by the universe’ or in God, but nor or they product of blind whim. For some this might not be enough but for the rest of us, he writes ‘although this may not be all the objectivity we would like, perhaps it is the objectivity we need’. To use an analogy in the world of art, even Malevich’s famous Black Square contains within it traces of meaning, particularly when it is seen in the context of his life’s work.

Life in the void!

WE may often find ourselves in a sort of other world: that moment when we awake and momentarily are not sure where we are, or even who we are. Or perhaps one’s memory of a place does not match reality on a return visit. This may be, of course, that things have actually changed. But often it’s because our memories play tricks on us. Is there a space – a void – somewhere between perceptions? This a notion that occupies the maverick philosopher Slavoj Zizek in his Incontinence of the void in which he explores the spaces between philosophy, psychoanalysis and political economy. As he delves into the realm of pure thought he quotes Hegel thus: “The system of logic is the realm of shadows, the realm of simple essentialities freed from all sensuous concreteness. The study of this science, to dwell and labor in this shadowy realm, is the absolute culture and discipline of consciousness.”

And we are in shadowy world – but without the logic – in Beyond Philosophy by philosophers Nancy Tuana and Charles Scott as they peer at life beyond certainties ‘beyond formations, values, and meaning – and to the libertory power that attunements with beyond can occasion’. They want to ‘rattle the cages of our certainties’ and ask whether we can carry out our commitments ‘without the illusion of fixed certainty’. In doing so they explore the worlds of Nietzsche and his sense of ‘beyond good and evil’, Michael Foucault’s ‘unreason’ and Gloria Anzaldua’s Napantha – a liminal space ‘where you are not this or that but where you are changing’.

A liminal space

For Nietzsche, of course, it meant beyond ‘conformity, beyond those satisfied with their goodness, and beyond the evil created by their God. But not beyond the night sounds of the forest, the deep howls from the darkness’. For him it is the wildness of Dionysus that matters, not the cold, bloodless rationality of Apollo; the ‘joyful affirmation of life with its suffering and tragedies’ rather than the solace of life-denial. In part Nietzsche is valorising the noble warrior – the Ubermensch, although the authors wonder whether we can transfer our admiration to natural leaders or people who have an ‘exceptional energy to take charge’ over all those who are ‘low-minded, common and plebeian’, without losing Nietzsche’s dynamics.

The wildness of Dionysus

Tuana and Scott also home in on Foucault’s concept of unreason, which can refer to any ‘event, state of mind, or manner or behaviour that is beyond reasonable sense or rational authority’. But it not opposed to reason – it’s just different from reason. The authors praise the anarchic freedom ‘which will find shelter in unreason’, which is freed from ‘normal decency’.

The deliberate destabilizing of Nietzsche and Foucault finds its apogee in the thought of Anzaldua who eschews reform in favour of transformations ‘which occur in this in-between space, an unstable, unpredictable, precarious, always-in-transition space lacking clear boundaries’. It’s a state she calls ‘dwelling in liminalities’. More than Nietzsche or Foucault Anzaldua links this state with ‘social, political action and lived experiences to generate subversive knowledge’.

One might be forgiven for feeling a tad queasy after all this but Tuana and Scott attempt to bring it all together with what they call ‘liberatory philosophy’: “We are speaking of profound experiential and social transformation out of which people come to think, feel, desire, and act in ways that were not previously possible.” They are looking not simply to make reforms ‘if that means taking the same forms and expanding them or rearranging them’ but to transform in the liminal spaces’. One of the problems that the authors readily acknowledge is the fear of getting lost in these spaces but their, perhaps not entirely satisfactory answer, is to embrace this fear and a ‘willingness to be undone’. Further: “We wish to influence shifts of habits, affective dispositions, and attunements so as to catalyze transformations in ways of living.”

Liberatory philosophy?

One obvious response to all this is how do you live your life in a world of such instability and uncertainty; how do you break out of the world of unreason, the ‘dwelling in liminalities’ in order to establish a firm foothold for social action sufficiently coherent to effect the transformation one seeks? For those of us already in a permanent liminal state, in which there is no indivisible individual only what might be called dividuals – a bundle of character traits and emotions – and for whom the daily task is to coral all these disparate forces into some sort of coherent action, Beyond Philosophy offers only paralysis. It seems at times as though the authors are guilty of importing their previously held positions – particularly about climate change – without demonstrating why you need to plunge into the depths of liminality to have them. Without some sort of intellectual grounding there doesn’t appear to be any ‘reason’ or bulwark against Trumpism, alternative facts and amoral chaos.

And their answer to concerns like these is: “Perhaps the question is rather: How do we desire to live in the world? Apathetically? Without passion even though passion intensifies peoples living experience?” One is tempted to respond to this by saying that there is already much passion in the world, perhaps too much, and, to misquote D’Alambert, if we get rid of logic and reason and ethics, we would still have plenty of passion and ‘we would have ignorance in addition’.