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  View the latest questions and answers at askaphilosopher.org

Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 11 (1st series)

Here are some of the questions that you asked a philosopher from April 2001 — May 2001:

  1. Fear of death
  2. Is Aristotle's Metaphysics only for erudites?
  3. Existentialism and ethics
  4. Is the purpose of life happiness?
  5. Scepticism in ancient philosophy
  6. What is Analytic philosophy?
  7. Can world peace be attained?
  8. Nagarjuna and the emptiness of 'emptiness'
  9. Locke on primary and secondary qualities
  10. Philosophical counselling and academic philosophy
  11. Do blind people dream in colour?
  12. Sartre on freedom
  13. Definition of 'cognitive'
  14. Why was I born?
  15. Ethical considerations on globalization
  16. How can we measure truth objectively?
  17. Can true happiness be achieved by taking a pill?
  18. Who was Hastings Rashdall?
  19. The origins of psychology
  20. Predicting the outcome of your calculation before you make it
  21. Space, black holes and quantum logic
  22. Do we need a government?
  23. Are philosophical questions all about language?
  24. Pseudo-Dionysus and negative theology
  25. What can science teach about values?
  26. Pornography and the search for pleasure
  27. How the soul can move the body
  28. Writings on euthanasia
  29. What exactly do philosophers do?
  30. Rational, scientific and existentialist views of human nature
  31. Kant's notion of the 'synthetic a priori'
  32. Aristotle's four 'causes'
  33. How much maths does a philosopher need?
  34. Worries about Berkeley's immaterialism
  35. I'm wondering if fairies are real?
  36. Skinner versus Sartre on free will
  37. Kripke on the notion of a 'rigid designator'
  38. What is your philosophy of teaching?
  39. How faithfully did Plato represent Socrates' views?
  40. Philosophy of photography
  41. 'Two worlds' in Plato and Nagel
  42. Is suffering good for us?
  43. What are the five branches of philosophy?
  44. The face and the soul
  45. What God is
  46. How Nazis used the term gottglaubiger
  47. Resources for philosophical counselling
  48. Difference between existing and living
  49. Value of philosophy
  50. Plato and Nietzsche on moral appearance
  51. Is it unethical to submit this question?
  52. When will the world be happy?
  53. Why we do things we hate seeing others do
  54. H.L.A. Hart and the autonomy of law
  55. How improvised is improvised music?
  56. How long should parents support their children?
  57. Is 'Om' a statement?
  58. What is a philosopher? Was Heraclitus one?
  59. Jobs for graduate philosophers
  60. Aims and methods of Phenomenological analysis
  61. Schopenhauer and Buddhist philosophy
  62. Can faith be rational?
  63. What Plato would tell us if he came back today
  64. I'm thinking of taking a philosophy class
  65. Philosophy in high school
  66. Relation between knowledge and belief
  67. Need for feminist ethics
  68. Can a sentence be neither true nor false?
  69. Varieties of dualism
  70. Aristotle's Politics and Ethics
  71. Is there a universal moral truth?
  72. Varieties of implication
  73. Eros and love
  74. Is the Auckland sky tower beautiful?
  75. Ethical relativism
  76. Why we expect politicians to be hypocritical
  77. Abelard and Heloise and the value of vulnerability
  78. Was Voltaire right about philosophers in Candide?
  79. Importance of Wittgenstein
  80. Aristotle on the mortality of the soul
  81. When affirmative action is justified
  82. Life and death

Matt asked:

Does the root of every human fear lie in a fear of death? For example: fear of the dark equals fear of the unknown, and the unknown may cause me harm (leading to death). The fear of anything that causes physical pain can also be traced to a fear of death because pain is simply the mind's warning signal that something is possibly endangering your life. I am writing a research paper on this, and have been scouring for information on this philosophy, but have come up short.

Why do we fear death? Have you asked yourself that? Is it rational to fear death? Some philosophers think it isn't. If they are right, and you are right that all fears derive from the fear of death, then it would follow that a fully rational person would not fear uncaged tigers or earthquakes or hypodermic needles discarded in alleyways or maniacs with guns. I take that to be an absurd conclusion.

The Greek philosopher Epicurus argued:

Death is nothing to us...It does not concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more.

Epicurus was an atomist. He believed that at death the human body is dissolved into the atoms into which it is composed. Philosophers have taken him to be saying something stronger than merely, "Don't worry, there is no place such as Hades that you go to when you die." There is no subject who undergoes the transition from life to death. "Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death" (Wittgenstein Tractatus 6.4311).

You can argue the point. If life is good, then death deprives me of something good, which is bad. But in what sense does that concern me? I won't be around to miss anything. Yes, but surely if I am told I am going to die tonight, then I miss the things I was looking forward to enjoying tomorrow now.

I actually think we need something a bit stronger than Epicurean atomism, if we want to show that all such 'fears' for a future reality where I am absent are irrational. In Naive Metaphysics (Chapter 9, p.120) I argue that the fear of death is irrational because there is no "I" that exists from day to day, or hour to hour:

My subjective world can never die, can never cease to continue, for with every new moment it is as if it had never existed, and will continue no longer than that very moment.

In the light of the illusoriness of personal identity, I would therefore distinguish practical fear and metaphysical fear. Practical fears are for things that we experience, that we go through, that are part of our lives. Those things are real. So the process of dying is very real, is very much something to fear. Metaphysical fear, such as the fear of death as such, the sheer absence of "I" from the world, concerns something unreal and is therefore irrational.

Geoffrey Klempner


Wemerson asked:

Hello! It is with pleasure that I write.

My questions are:

  1. Is Aristotle's Metaphysics a work only destined for erudites?

  2. If negative, how could an academical student read the work, without complications?

It is evident that English is not your native language. Aristotle, of course, wrote in ancient Greek, a language very different from both modern Greek and from modern English. There are very many translations and commentaries of Aristotle in various languages, with probably the best being in modern English, German, French and I'd guess Italian.

So, first, if you want to read Aristotle, and have little background in Western philosophy, start with a good commentary, not with the original. He is difficult, mostly because of the difficulty in translation. If there is a good commentary in your native language, I would advise your reading that first, before you go to the original. As I say, if you actually look at the ancient Greek (which I have done to some extent) you find huge differences in the way that words were used, defined, and combined, from the way they are employed in English.

Then, after you've read the commentary on whatever aspect of Aristotle you're interested in (and that's another question — he wrote an enormous amount in a variety of fields), go to the (translated) original, and read, carefully, the translator's introduction before you start on the text.

In general I would highly recommend, if you are reading in English, that you find recent commentaries and translations, for this reason: the older writers took themselves, for the most part, to be the final authority on interpreting Aristotle, in part because there were very few others, and in part because that was the style, some time ago. Modern translators are much more humble, and take a variety of interpretations and translations into account (if they're any good). So in finding a translation, try to find one which has footnotes and/or references to other translations. You will get a much more complete and rounded account of Aristotle and incidentally of the history of his interpretation.

I found, for example, H.G. Apostle's translation of the Nicomachean Ethics excellent for those reasons.

To answer your questions specifically, "Is Aristotle's Metaphysics a work only destined for erudites?" Basically, at this point, yes, because of translation problems, and because of his topics.

"If negative, how could an academical student read the work, without complications?" There's no way to read Aristotle "without complications"; he addresses some of the most complex problems there are. Try what I've suggested above. If you want something like a Reader's Digest watered-down version of Aristotle, well, I'd say don't bother. But if you insist, in the US there is a publisher which prints "Idiots Guides" to various subjects (I'm not joking, that's what they're called); they might have something.

Steven Ravett Brown


Caroline asked:

Is existentialism compatible with ethics? (looking at both Sartre's and Beauvoir's differing ideas of freedom).

Sartre was a moral philosopher. As an atheist, Sartre thought there was there no a priori way to establish the good or God, and because he thought that there is no essence to human nature there could be no objective principles and, furthermore because of the way Sartre characterises morality, there can be no moral knowledge. Morality, for Sartre, was a way of being, or an aspect of subjectivity so his moral stance might be described as inter-subjective. Man's subjectivity is defined by his relation to others, particularly with respect to guilt, shame and responsibility, which are ethical concepts.

A person feels shame when he is being looked at and judged. In Being and Nothingness Sartre gives examples of making a vulgar gesture or spying through a keyhole. You might be absorbed in spying through a keyhole and suddenly become aware of what you are doing, as seen through the evaluative eyes of others, and this gives rise to shame. There can be no such thing as shame without other persons. You cannot choose not to feel shame, since shame is in the face of others or an affect of the being of others. This form of moral description does not interfere with man's ability to choose what to do or determine what he thinks is right. The awareness of others, bringing a feeling of shame, is moral consciousness or a consciousness of values, and the individual is free to ignore this consciousness.

At any one time, genuine alternatives for action are available from which an individual is free to choose and for which he is responsible for as the "author of the event". As one amongst others, in possession of a moral consciousness in relation to others, a man may perform what he knows to be wrong in the eyes of others and he is morally responsible because he is free.

For de Beauvoir, on the other hand, freedom is curtailed by one's having been moulded by the world, especially society and past history. This implies less moral responsibility. As a feminist, de Beauvoir felt that she was oppressed rather than free, but limitations to freedom caused by social conditioning are not incompatible with an ethics based on relations with others. De Beauvoir saw ethics as emerging from close relationships, such as family, and affinities with others.

Rachel Browne


John asked:

I am young and nascent in my knowledge of philosophy but I have a pretty good idea of the philosophy that I think is the "right one". (Pardon my apparent naivety and arrogance). I have a good idea of it but I'm at a loss for resources and materials to help further my study of this topic. Here's my basic philosophy:

The purpose of life lies in happiness. Each and every individual deserves to and should be free to seek happiness. Government should exist to meet that ends. Therefore barriers that prevent a person from achieving happiness (e.g. genes that handicap a person and make their life worse), should be broken down by say, in this example, research and developments in the genetic engineering field. And at the extreme of this philosophy things like death could be eliminated or at least exponentially postponed so people can enjoy longer, happier lives.

Now the only book I've read that dealt with this was Charles Murray's In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government. Could you provide me with a bibliography or list of philosophers or works that are related to this manner of thinking?

Well, a lot of people would probably agree with you that the purpose of life is happiness: although there might be some debate about what happiness is, and how you decide whether you have achieved it. Aristotle (who, by the way, agrees with you) nevertheless cautions us not to call anyone (including ourselves) happy while he is still alive. The reason is that something that happens at the end of a life, or near the end of a life, may be so catastrophically bad, that it outweighs all else that has happened until then, and would force you to judge that overall, the life has been an unhappy one. Aristotle reminds us that just as "one swallow does not make a summer" one happy day does not make a happy life. So, it may be more complex than you think.

On the other hand, the great philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that (rather because of Aristotle's point above) that happiness cannot really be the purpose of life since happiness is really not up to us but is up to fortune; or as Kant puts it, to "stepmother nature." He thinks that what is the purpose of life should be something that is entirely in our hands, and whether we are happy is certainly not. Kant, nevertheless, thinks that the purpose of life does have something to do with happiness. He thinks that the purpose of life is "to be worthy of happiness." Whether you are going to be happy or not is a question of fortune; but it is in your hands whether you deserve happiness by being a good person, and, for Kant, doing what you ought to do; being a moral person.

Perhaps this will make you think more about your conviction that the purpose of life is happiness, although it may not change your mind about it.

Kenneth Stern

I'm really at a loss as to a simple answer here. The Greek ideal was termed "eudaimonia", which very roughly translates to "happiness". You'll find it in Plato and Aristotle. If you want an Eastern take on this, Buddhism's goal is to free oneself from the wheel of karma, the endless repeating of lives, in order to be delivered from suffering. Moving right along, back to the West, we find the religious philosophers, for example, Aquinas, for whom the goal was to live according to the laws of the Christian god in order to achieve heavenly paradise — a delayed happiness. We can look at Kant, for whom happiness was entirely intellectual, and move from there to, say, Rousseau, for whom it was entirely emotional. And so on.

The point I'm making, of course, is that you've hit on one of the two or three of THE questions, which have concerned people from day one. So, first, you're not alone. Second, take a deep breath and be prepared to dive into it, if you really want to do philosophical research on this, because there are libraries of discussion on this question.

You might think about what exactly happiness is. There are many many answers to this question. You might think about what exactly "purpose" means. Aristotle attempts to answer this, and it goes from there. Plato attempts to define what "government" and its purpose is. And so it goes, for the next 2000 years or so of debates.

Start with Plato, go to Aristotle (the Ethics). By then you'll have the beginning of an idea of where else to go (read the introductions, footnotes, and look at references). Don't, DON'T, get hung up on one person's answer to this...for at least the next decade or so.

Steven Ravett Brown


Gilead asked:

Skepticism of the existence of an external world, or the possibility of receiving artificial or false perceptions, has been described by Hume and other philosophers. I think that such Ideas were presented by ancient philosophers, such as Confucius and others.

My question is: How did these ancient philosophers visualize (if at all) mechanisms that will allow such false perceptions to be received by a person?

I wasn't aware that Confucius professed scepticism concerning the external world, but you are right that philosophical scepticism has been around since ancient times.

The foundations for scepticism concerning the external world were laid by the Greek atomists. Here is a fragment from the Presocratic philosopher Democritus (Kirk, Raven and Schofield The Presocratic Philosophers p. 412):

But we in actuality grasp nothing for certain, but what shifts in accordance with the condition of the body and of the things which enter it and press upon it.

What Democritus has seen is that if all perception involves a chain of causes and effects, then no inference from the way things appear to the way things really are can be certain. It is a familiar observation that a bowl of lukewarm water feels hot if your hand is cold, and cold if your hand is hot. Democritus means to draw the far more wide ranging conclusion that any perception involves the causal effect of both the object perceived and the state of one's own body. Those two elements can never in principle be factored out. We can never know how much of what we seem to perceive is due to the object and how much is due to us.

According to Democritean atomism, the experience of warmth, or of colour, smell or sound, is illusory. In reality, all that exists are atoms whirling in space. The seeming richness of human experience is merely the effect of the physical interaction between our sense organs and the external world. Democritus never doubts, however, that there is an external world. How could he? He is merely claiming that we cannot know for certain how things are in the external world because all knowledge relies on chains of cause and effect. In addition, our senses deceive us into thinking that there are such things as warmth and red when in reality these 'experiences' are nothing but atoms knocking into one another.

After Aristotle, the spectre of scepticism returned with the fearsome Pyrrho, who preached the gentle doctrine that we should 'follow nature' rather than strive to determine whether or not our naturally acquired beliefs are true, since every set of reasons in favour of a belief can be countered by equally strong reasons against.

To my knowledge, neither Democritus or Pyrrho go so far as to postulate hypothetical mechanisms that would explain how, e.g. my belief that there is a table in front of me might be false. This is the most significant difference between Ancient scepticism, and the far more radical scepticism explored by Descartes in his Meditations, with the aid of the hypothesis of an 'evil demon' who deceives me into believing that there exists a world of objects in space, while in reality all that exists are states of my own consciousness and their non-physical cause.

Geoffrey Klempner


Paulo asked:

I have several students asking me: What is this: Analytic Philosophy? I answer and explain but I don't get a short and good formulation. Could you help me?

I sympathize with you. I think a "short and good formulation" or even a long and good formulation is not going to mean much to a student in the abstract. The student really needs to see instances of analytic philosophy, and do some himself. Wittgenstein, one of the greatest of analytic philosophers, wrote that philosophy was not a theory but an activity. Moreover, the term "analytic philosophy" is not the name of just one kind of thing. There are many ways of "doing" analytic philosophy ranging from the very formal to the very informal. But, perhaps, what these all have in common is the conviction that philosophical problems have to be dealt with painstakingly with close attention to detail and trying to get to the root of the problem. Most analytic philosophers (although not all) would agree that philosophical problems are (very) generally speaking, problems about certain fundamental concepts like truth or knowledge, and that these problems will yield (or should yield. anyway) to the analysis of these concepts. It is, perhaps, generally agreed that this analysis will very much involve the language in which these concepts are expressed which is why there is a close relation between analytic philosophy and what is sometimes called "linguistic philosophy."

For an example of an analytic approach to a philosophical question, see my reply to Jenn, below.

Kenneth Stern


Chris asked:

Human nature and World Peace.
Can world peace truly be attained?

In an answer to Marcela on this page, I suggested that it is human nature to form strong beliefs and alliances and to be territorial. This is not necessarily incompatible with world peace as long as wars and terrorism are made impossible. Wars and terrorism will only be impossible if there is a worldwide ban on the production — or a total control of — weapons and arms. However, even if all national governments agreed to give up arms to some central control, or there was a global government with the power to command this, man still has the intelligence and ability to make weapons. There may be no wars if nations were to abide by international peace charters — or if they were all committed to one global government — but this would not rule out terrorism and terrorism tends to lead to war.

As I answered to Marcela, a global aspiration or commitment is difficult to envisage. Ideally, we could all commit to environmental conservation at this time, but man is too selfish. This selfishness is, though, part and parcel of our ability to form close connections in a beneficial sense, since it gives rise to commitments to communities. We care most for those with whom we live in close contact. Since mankind doesn't have a universal attitude which can bring unity between persons, war and terrorism seem inevitable.

Religious commitment is one cause for strife, and although atheism is now an option, it doesn't follow that religious zeal, where it exists, is lessened. Indeed, it is probably strengthened. Even if there were no territorial claims based upon geographical and religious alliances, there would still be individuals who strive for power and wealth who will make claims against which others rebel.

So, really, there is no hope for peace for mankind. It might be wondered whether mankind might change. If we were inclined to be peaceful we would be a strange passive, tolerant sort of being with no strong beliefs and no religious attachments.

Rachel Browne


Jenn asked:

I am taking Buddhist Philosophy, only including classical Indian Buddhism. I am trying to write a paper on Nagarjuna's doctrine of emptiness, specifically that emptiness itself is empty. I haven't figured out an argument that is small enough to encapsulate within 10 pages, but I think I was going to argue something having to do with the difference between sunya and sunyata — or perhaps that nirvana is really non-existence because it is in an "empty" realm...?

I'd like to define emptiness (the fact that is does not denote lack of function), then I'd like to define how "emptiness" is empty...but that's where I find myself unsure of where to go...do you have any thoughts, suggestions, or book references?

I don't know whether you are going to find my reply helpful in your work (in fact I rather doubt it) but others may find it helpful in theirs):

What I would like to comment on is your desire to "define how 'emptiness' is empty." You say that you are "unsure" how to do such a thing, and I think your instinct here is good because I don't think there is a way to do it.

Why not? Well, because "emptiness" is not the name of anything which could be empty, since it is not the name of anything at all. We say of a drawer or of a room that it is empty. By saying that we are not, I think, asserting that there is "really" something in it, but invisible to us which is called "empty." Rather, we are denying something. What we are denying is that anything is in the drawer or the room. So, by trying to "define" how "emptiness" is empty, you are assuming that "emptiness" is like a drawer or room that has something in it. That very assumption is wrong. Emptiness is not a "something" and so "emptiness" cannot itself be empty. Therefore it is impossible (or worse) to show that "emptiness is empty."

Kenneth Stern


David asked:

What did John Locke mean by secondary qualities in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding?

Secondary qualities, according to Locke, are the "powers" or dispositions the primary qualities of an object — for example, shape — have to produce in an observer certain ideas. However, these ideas, unlike the ideas of primary qualities, resemble nothing in the object itself. Thus, for example, color was a secondary quality because although the idea of color (say red) was caused by the (primary) qualities of the object, there was nothing "in" the object that the idea of red resembled. On the other hand, the primary quality of shape does produce in the observer an idea (say oblong) that does resemble something "in" the object itself.

Roughly: secondary qualities are not "really" qualities of the object, although their ideas are produced in the observer by qualities of the object, whereas primary qualities are "really" qualities of the object. So, objects are not "really" red, but they are "really" oblong.

Kenneth Stern


Shula asked:

I have been reading on various websites about Philosophical Counseling, and controversies within this new field.

What is the general feeling in the philosophical world regarding this hybrid? Does it have standing?

As a academic philosopher who is very interested in philosophical counseling and who is doing a bit of research in the field, my feeling is that the philosophical world has not, as yet, fully recognized philosophical counseling or granted it much respect. If I'm right about this, the reasons are probably manifold.

There's a long-standing tendency for theoretical philosophers to denigrate any sort of applied philosophy and the reasons for this lie and the nature of the work done in each broad area. Theoretical philosophy often invokes the technical framework of formal logic and conceptual analysis and usually concerns itself with questions that are dependent on, but multiply removed from, the "Big Questions" normally associated with philosophy as the classical pursuit of wisdom. "What is the meaning of life?" for instance, depends upon some notion of meaning, so theoretical philosophy turns from that question to a closer analysis of meaning itself. But an examination of meaning naturally leads to a philosophical study of language, the prototype of a meaning-bearing system, and that study leads to inquiries regarding what words mean, and sooner or later you're at Russell's analysis of definite descriptions, employing the resources of modern logic to unpack the meaning of "the." So, in general, theoretical philosophy tends to focus on tiny questions and tends to deal with them in a technical way. I like theoretical philosophy, so I don't think there's anything wrong with this. Big pictures are painted with little brushes, and by attending to the narrow questions on which fully satisfactory answers to the broad questions depend, theoretical philosophy is highly relevant and extraordinarily important.

But, although no less relevant or important, applied philosophy is different. Since applied philosophy needs to generate results that are useful now, it can't afford to spend time on narrow, technical issues at the expense of the messy and immediate questions posed by life in all its urgency.

This difference between theoretical and applied philosophy has two implications which often, but unfairly, reflect poorly upon the latter. First, the complex and dirty problems engaged by applied philosophy almost never admit of simple and clean solutions, with the result that attempts to think about sloppy problems can all too easily be confused with sloppy thinking. Second, because the issues addressed by applied philosophy are multiply-removed from the classic questions which serve as portals to philosophy, because an approach to those issues often requires the apparatuses of formal logics of various kinds, because the issues of applied philosophy are more immediately accessible, and because work in formal logic is less dependent upon the explicit application of technical training, applied philosophers can have a hard time understanding the work of theoretical philosophers, whereas theoretical philosophers can usually comprehend the work of applied philosophers. I've found that, in general, when person A can understand person B, but person B can't understand person A, person A often thinks of himself (or herself) as smarter than person B. Person B often shares this opinion, notwithstanding that the fact that asymmetry of comprehension need not imply a corresponding asymmetry of ability. (To see this, suppose that I make up a language all my own and proceed to speak it in to you. This would show that I'm a lot of things, but "smarter than you" isn't one of them.)

In general, then, philosophical counseling might never get the respect it deserves, or would like to enjoy, simply in virtue of its applied nature. As of this writing, however, I suspect that philosophical counseling is much worse off than this, and that academic philosophy is reluctant to even recognize philosophical counseling as a bona fide, but budding, twig on even its most applied branch. For one thing, philosophical counseling is new and there's always a justified concern that anything new is a flash in the pan. For another thing, some of the work in philosophical counseling really is third-rate, in my estimation, and there's no univocal conception of what philosophical counseling should be. Finally, there's the feeling that, in philosophical counseling, applied philosophy has at last gone over the edge into a touchy-feely morass of self-help treacle from which no clear and critical thought can escape. I'm not terrifically troubled by any of this. I doubt that philosophical counseling is a fad since the conviction that an unexamined life is not worth living has roots too deep in the philosophical tradition. There's third-rate work in all areas of philosophy, and the field of philosophical counseling continues to attract good minds. Every area of philosophy is home to debates about the nature of that field. And, as a matter of fact, philosophical counseling is not a sticky-and-sweet-as-molasses discipline but is, instead, fully amenable to serious, philosophical work.

So, to summarize, I'd have to say that philosophical counseling is often ignored (at worst) and disrespected (at best) by academic philosophy, but that this situation shouldn't distress anyone interested in the field. It's still the new kid on the block and can expect to get its ears boxed a few times before it gains acceptance. And, as a type of applied philosophy, it may always be dismissed by philosophers in thrall to the arcane. Outside the academy, however, philosophical counseling may just make philosophy relevant again.

Dona Warren
Department of Philosophy
The University of Wisconsin — Stevens Point


Marianne asked:

Do blind people dream of objects and colours? if so does that mean there would be evidence of a priori knowledge? and if that's so does that then point towards the possibility of the soul/spirit being separate? and if all this is so would there be a possibility of our awakening state being actually a dream, and our dreams being real? although there could be the possibility of maybe both being in some way real, as we only know what a small portion of our brains actually do? Please reply as this is a question my tutor wouldn't attempt to answer.

It depends on why they're blind. You experience colors, shapes, etc., because parts of your cortex are (1) processing "information" (a loaded term, since it comes from computers) from visual inputs in the eyes (2) because outputs from those areas in the cortex are then integrated into whatever system (prefrontal/reticular, probably) involves consciousness. So you can be blind because (1) there's no incoming visual information; (2) the cortex isn't working, (3) cortical processing doesn't get inputted into the "consciousness modules", or some combination of those.

If you've got eye injuries, so you're blind for (1) only, then you can indeed dream in colors, shapes, etc... assuming that the eye injury didn't take place too early, in which case you probably also have problems with (2), because early input is necessary for cortical development. Hey, I didn't claim this would be an easy answer, did I?

There are, I think, extremely rare instances of (3) being the case, where people have been in an accident and lost consciousness of all or some part of vision without losing processing. See "blindsight", also see the Sachs write-up of the painter who had a concussion and lost color vision (and nothing else — he still had black and white — but he also forgot colors).

Now, I do not think that any of the above is relevant to the issue of a priori knowledge. It is clearly the case, for people blinded because of brain injury to the appropriate areas of the cortex, that they completely lose sight, including dreaming in colors, and so forth; yet of course they remember that they once saw. This is an interesting example of a memory being of something without being that something, isn't it, whereas usually when we remember, we also "bring up", to some extent, the original stimulus. It is also the case, for the rare person born with such brain damage and no other damage (so they survive, are able to speak, etc.), that they have no knowledge at all, except by inference from other people, of what seeing is like. Think about the difficulty of explaining colors to a color-blind person, or sounds to a person born deaf.

There is a huge amount of literature, in the areas of neurophysiology, vision, and cognitive science, to name only a few, dealing with this and related questions, which many many people are very interested in and actively investigating. You might look at Stephen Palmer's work; he's an expert in vision and cognition. But you need some background in biology to follow this literature. This is a case where, unfortunately, people with little background in the field cannot just plunge in.

Steven Ravett Brown

Your tutor probably didn't have time to answer this question!

You must be thinking of "one born blind", as Berkeley says, since if a person has experienced sight there is no reason why he would not dream of objects and colours. Ideally, we should ask "one born blind" and I wish I knew such a person now that you have raised the question!

Berkeley would say that without sight there could be no dreaming of colours and objects and I think most philosophers — and non-philosophers — would agree.

You cannot have a priori experience of empirical states of affairs. A priori knowledge is acquired non-empirically, i.e. not from the world, but within the mind, or rationally. If a person who was born blind did dream of colours and objects it would be because he moved in a world with such things — but this does not make the knowledge a priori. There are cases of "blind sight" — and I'm afraid I cannot remember the sources of these cases, but they probably come from psychological experiments — in which a person can detect what is before him. While this person is blind (not necessarily born so) he can identify a triangle, as opposed to a square with no phenomenological experience. That is, there is no sense experience, no "look" that the person experiences, but he identifies and so perceives a shape. Somehow the object to mind relation bypasses sense-experience, but this is still empirical knowledge. If this can be so, then such a person may well dream in a way we, who have not any idea of what blind sight is like, cannot imagine. I don't think that there are "blind sight" cases of colour. However, if this is true for shape there is no reason that such a person cannot dream of shapes. Components of dreams are based upon sense-experience, but there may be some sort of experience involved in blind sight. That perception without phenomenology is some sort of experience is evidenced by our wondering what it can be like.

There is no essential connection between a priori knowledge and the soul. Even rational thought involves the use of concepts acquired from the real world. It might be thought that this is not true for mathematics and logic, for instance, but Wittgenstein has argued that we cannot follow rules alone.

It wouldn't follow specifically from the separateness of souls that we couldn't tell dreams from reality. This is a possibility which is considered in relation to embodied existence: This is the problem of scepticism. If you haven't encountered this yet, you will.

Rachel Browne


David asked:

I have been reading Sartre's Being and Nothingness and am interested in his account of freedom. Does Sartre really account for freedom through an argument that I'm missing, because it seems that he presupposes its existence. Is this because consciousness is 'not a thing'?! If consciousness is not a 'thing' with causal relations/properties, how on earth does it affect that which does (i.e our bodies?)? I can't help but think that Sartre fails to move away from Cartesian dualism — I assume that Sartre would assert that he does move away from Descartes but I can't see how.

I accept that you might agree with this point of mine but I would be grateful if you might perhaps respond in a way that looks at both the for/against arguments here. How do I become more comfortable with Sartre's freedom?! I have heard that another existentialist, Merleau-Ponty, has problems with Sartre's freedom. Namely that Sartre forgets about (a) the body (b) that we are already in a meaningful world (c) we are 'in history' and our past 'has a weight'. What are these problems?? (I am not really familiar with Merleau-Ponty). Why does he have them? Finally, are these problems the same as my problem relating to dualism or are we worried about different things?!

You're having trouble reading Being and Nothingness? Join the club! Sartre's dualism, if that is the right word, is very different from Descartes'. You may have been mislead in that Sartre repeatedly says that he begins with Descartes 'I think therefore I am', but the distinction for Sartre is not between mind and body, but a dualism between things which are things in-themselves and those which are for-themselves. A tree or a stone is a thing in-itself, because it is what it is and can be no other. A stone is a stone is a stone, so to speak. But we humans are things for-ourselves; we choose to be what we are. Not only do we have complete freedom to make ourselves, but we have no other choice but to do so. That is why Sartre says that we are 'condemned to be free'. Unlike the tree or the stone we cannot simply be what we are, we are left utterly alone to make choices to define ourselves, and in doing so we have no hope of any help from outside. His view of consciousness is more like Hume's than Descartes', he sees it as a vessel through which things pass, rather than a thing itself, aware of itself only when 'nothingness' becomes apparent, and with it an awareness of all the possibilities which we are free to fill it with. Failure to admit this freedom is to have 'bad faith' with yourself. Freedom IS uncomfortable, very uncomfortable indeed.

Having said that, you, and M. Merleau-Ponty, are very probably correct in thinking that Sartre overestimates freedom — if for no other reason than freedom for a prosperous leading French intellectual of the 1940's is far from the same thing as freedom for the rest of us struggling humanity. Being and Nothingness is very obscure, deliberately so, I suspect. You might care to have a look at Sartre's rather more straightforward Existentialism is a Humanism, which covers much the same ground in a quarter of the words, but do try to get the Frechtman translation as the one by Philip Mairet has some horrible errors which mess up the meaning.

Glyn Hughes


Natalie asked:

It's not so much of a philosophical problem but i am having trouble defining the word 'cognitive' in terms of philosophy. Please help!

"Cognitive" comes from the Latin "cognoscere" meaning "to know" or "to be aware of." So, in philosophy, what have been called "cognitive attitudes" are knowledge, belief, awareness, and maybe, experience. Philosophers often distinguish between the cognitive meaning of a sentence or a word, which concerns its implications for knowledge and truth, as contrasted with the emotive meaning of the term or sentence which concern its emotive implications for the speaker or the hearer. For instance, the cognitive (sometimes called "descriptive") meaning of the term "dog" would be something like a middling sized domesticated animal of the genus, "canis" While the emotive meanings (sometimes called "connotation") would be (in our society) friendly, brave, loyal, etc., (at least for most people in our society).

Kenneth Stern

Oh, this is a good one! I like this question! Most philosophers will hate you if you start throwing around terms like "cognitive" because fields like cognitive science, cognition, and cognitive linguistics involve what is termed the "naturalization" of various questions in philosophy. Most philosophers regard that as a kind of betrayal of the philosophical ideal of putting and answering questions through pure logic and perhaps a little induction, if pressed. Cognition actually involves (whisper) "data", that awful stuff you have to get by actually investigating the "real" world (yes, scare quotes).

However, I, and a few other contemporary philosophers, usually involved with questions about the mind and consciousness, believe that there is literally no other way to answer some of the most persistent questions in philosophy except by using data.

Notable philosophers who agree: Mark Johnson; Alvin Goldman; Paul Churchland; Owen Flanagan; Fred Dretske... etc. Take a look at Goldman's Readings in Philosophy and Cognitive Science.

I haven't actually answered your question: "Cognitive" involves the processes underlying intellectual thought (although emotions are beginning to be brought into it) and language. So philosophy which investigates those is, or should be, cognitively-informed, i.e. informed by data about those processes.

Steven Ravett Brown


Hatice asked:

Immanuel Kant's ideas about the causality law made me think that if the cause/result relationship originates from us — this means there is no such relationship in the nature and real — why should I ask this:

Why was I born? What is the meaning of the world and my life?

These are nonsense, so philosophy is nonsense too.

Could I explain? This is too important for me.

"Why was I born?" is a question which cannot be answered by citing an kind of reason or cause. If we persist in asking the philosopher to answer this question, then we have indeed made a nonsense of philosophy.

A biologist will say that I was born because a particular sperm fertilized a particular egg. That unique event in the history of the universe explains why there came to be GK, this GK, — you may substitute your own initials — but it does not explain why I am GK; why I am here rather than not anywhere; why there is I rather than no I; why there is this for me.

My existence is indeed doubly absurd. Because it cannot be distilled from the contingent facts. And the contingent facts are themselves absurd in relation to all the ways the world might have been; the worlds that might have been instead of this world.

It is perfectly consistent for the philosopher to say, "This question is important, but I accept that it cannot be answered." There is no law that every philosophical question must have an answer. To hold on to the absurd question, "Why was I born?", to refuse to give up that question no matter what, is one of the ways of keeping the sense of philosophical wonder alive.

Geoffrey Klempner


Marcela asked:

I have a work to do about "globalization" and I would like to know if globalization has an ethical fundament and, if it is true, what or which is this fundament. I am thinking especially about the consequences of globalization on the Third World.

Globalisation is an international rather than a national attitude or approach to many aspects of life. You can have political and/or economic and/or social and/or cultural and/or legal globalisation and internal to these are narrower classifications. For instance, social globalisation would include employment and/or welfare rights and legal globalisation would be concerned with justice as civil and human rights.

In a recent answer I spoke of globalisation as the exploitation of poor countries (I think the PC description is "least developed" and we don't talk of "Third World" and more) by rich countries. This was a simplification of the term or what it has come to signify at the moment. Obviously, there can be no ethical foundation for exploitation. However, there are, in fact, international charters which are attempts to achieve good international relations. The ethical foundation for a charter is international peace and also human rights are involved in, for instance, the American Declaration of Rights and the European Convention. Another positive aspect of globalisation, as it stands, is development assistance — though this isn't going too well. The ethical foundation for this is the idea that poverty is not a good thing. A reasonable foundation — but the question is "what is the right thing?" Should development aim at industrialisation, for instance?

Western cultural values which are consumeristic and materialistic are found attractive and adopted by the least developed countries before they are able to receive and benefit from global economic aid. People are being corrupted by values which are not proper to them because they are not economically viable. Consumerism is properly a product of rich nations. To become a rich nation may mean industrialisation if there is no source of raw materials with a world-wide demand. It is not enough to base a policy on the principle that poverty is bad, without considering whether what looks like the inevitable end is good.

You could also think about international peace and whether this ethical foundation is realistic or fanciful and idealistic. The "least developed" countries are often the least peaceful. So perhaps globalisation through international peace charters might be beneficial. On the other hand, it is human nature to form strong beliefs and alliances which can lead to territorial claims.

If you think of globalisation as an imminent global government with political control which could ensure peace and could provide economic and educational homogeneity worldwide, there would be benefit to the Third World. However, this may lead to a transformation in human values which it is difficult to envisage. Current values of shared religion, kinship and loyalty with a people, responsibility for and identity with a geographical area might fade away in favour of some global aspiration. Now, in a multi-cultural society, there remain cultural loyalties but these will weaken as new generations come to choose their own values from the diversity available. With a weakening of cultural ties may come global "America", materialism, kitsch, and, perhaps worst of all, international non-smoking!

Rachel Browne


Jigs asked:

Any assistance with these questions would be most appreciated:

  1. What is truth and how do we measure it in philosophically?

  2. Does the conscious part of the mind control/influence the brain? if so, how can philosophy be deemed scientific?

  3. Can we conclude with Feyerabend in his Against Method that anything goes such as voodoo, astrology, God, etc. since these standpoints are just as valid as scientific ones, i.e. astronomy, physics, etc.?

1. The most accepted theory of truth among philosophers is called "the correspondence theory." According to the correspondence theory of truth, truth is a two-term relation (dyadic relation) between on the one hand, a belief, or a sentence or statement, or even a theory; and, on the other hand, a fact or a state of affairs in the world. This relation is called "correspondence" between the first term of the relation and the second term of the relation. So, for instance, (to take a favorite philosophical example) the statement (belief etc.) "The cat is on the mat" is true if and only if there is some fact of state of affairs such that there is a cat, and a mat, and the cat has the relationship of being on the mat. In that case, the statement in the example "corresponds" with the fact. If, on the other hand, there were a cat but no mat; or a mat but no cat; or there were a cat, and a mat, but the mat was on the cat, (and so on) the statement in the example would not correspond to the facts, and the statement would be false. Just how to understand this relationship of "correspondence" is a considerable problem in epistemology.

The next issue is, of course, supposing we understand this correspondence relation, how to "measure" it, or rather, how to establish that it obtains, is another issue in epistemology. That is, the question of how we establish in different cases, whether or not a statement does correspond with the facts. There are cases in which this is not at all straightforward. For instance, consider "counterfactual" hypothetical statements, as for example, "If that were a dog, then it would bark" when I am pointing at a cat.

2. I do not quite understand what you are asking. To start with you are assuming that the mind is one thing, and the brain is a different thing. Many philosophers (and physiologists) would disagree, and say that hold that the mind was identical with at least some part of the brain, or some function of the brain, so that there is no question of the mind's control of the brain.

In the second place, it is not clear to me how this question, however you answer it, connects with whether or not philosophy is scientific. This is partly because, in turn, I don't know just what you mean by philosophy being scientific. Philosophy is not, I think, a science like physics or biology. Like any subject that requires careful thinking, and attention to detail, philosophy also requires such qualities too. But why should this requirement conflict with the mind's control of the brain (given there is such a thing)?

3. According to you, Feyerabend presents the following argument:

(1) Voodoo, astrology, God, etc. are "standpoints" which are just as "valid" as scientific standpoint such as astronomy, physics, etc.

Therefore, (2) "Anything goes" (meaning that voodoo and so on) are sources of knowledge about the world as established science.

My answer would be, no. My reason is that the above argument is unsound because the premise (1) is clearly false. There is absolutely no reason to believe it is true, and much to disbelieve it. I find it peculiar that so obvious a fact even needs to be argued for. But it is well discussed in David Stove's Anything Goes: The origins of the cult of scientific irrationalism.

Let me just repeat here David Stove's first two sentences from his first Chapter:

(1) Much more is known now than it was fifty years ago, and much more was known then than in 1580. So, (2) there has been a great accumulation or growth of knowledge in the last four hundred years.

Notice, that in contrast to the argument you gave above, this argument is sound. The premise (1) is clearly true, and (2) the conclusion clearly follows from the premise. Therefore, the conclusion is clearly true.

Does anyone seriously believe that had we still been, and if we were now, using voodoo, astrology, and religion instead of physics and astronomy, we would have known and would know now, what we have known, and do know now?

Kenneth Stern


John asked:

If it could be shown that happiness was merely a result of neurochemical conditions, then wouldn't it be fair to say that true happiness (in the most scientific sense) could be reached through pharmacological means, just as authentically as through religious or philosophical means?

There is a tradition in philosophy going back to Aristotle which contrasts the subjective feeling of happiness with objective reality. We can only call a man or woman truly happy provided that certain objective conditions are met. So that a man who died thinking he had been the happiest man alive, could not be said to have been truly happy if his wife and family, and the people he believed to be his closest friends despised him.

You would no doubt reply that Aristotelian happiness or eudaimonia, embodying as it does a moral judgement about the quality of a person's life, is not a scientific concept. In any case, it does not follow from the fact that no-one would want that kind of deluded happiness, that in such a situation one would not in fact be happy.

It is important that we are talking about happiness and not the sensation of pleasure. In a famous experiment, monkeys' brains were wired so that by pressing a button, they experienced intense pleasure. The result was that the monkeys could not leave the button alone, and died of starvation. Perhaps the same would happen to humans. However, a happiness pill is not a pleasure pill.

What would a happiness pill do? It would fill you with energy and a joy for life. The dullest task would be undertaken with a relish. The pain of failure would be minimized, the joys of success magnified a hundredfold. One would be filled with the love of humanity. One would be incapable of envy or malice. I am not talking about drugging yourself up with Ecstasy tablets and dancing until you drop. The effect would be precisely the effect that is attained by a few fortunate persons through philosophy or religion. A feeling of serene, confident joy.

"How can this be genuine happiness if it is purchased so cheaply?" Well, we could make the tablet really expensive!...Seriously, I can't see that price has anything to do with it, whether measured either in monetary terms, or in terms of human striving and effort.

No, I don't see how one could rule out a priori that there might be such a pill. Or, better still, let's suppose one could re-write a few lines of human genetic code to achieve the desired effect. Then there would be no danger of coming down to earth with a thump when the pill supply ran out.

We need not take seriously the killjoys who complain that they prefer to remain unhappy in the face of the world's miseries, because the kind of happiness I am talking about is a spur to action rather than a temptation to complacency. And besides, there wouldn't be any misery. With the happiness pill, or with your genetic code altered, you could be happy, even in the face of imminent starvation.

I just have this niggling suspicion that it wouldn't work. Not necessarily for any reason that can be derived from philosophy, but because of the complex nature of human psychology. Because we do not understand enough about the psychology of happiness, we imagine that you could take one aspect of our mental life and turn it up, the way one might turn up one of the control buttons on a music centre, while holding everything else constant. I suspect that what we have overlooked is the contribution of the down side — boredom, depression, anxiety, all the 'negative' feelings and emotions — to the overall economy of human psychological well being. But I could be wrong.

Geoffrey Klempner


A.Z. al-Ramady asked:

I am a faculty member (Ph.D), and I would like to know about the philosopher Hastings Rashdall to support my research. His birth place, his religion, which philosophers he was effected by. Thank you for your concern.

If you go to the site: http://www.google.com on the web and put his name into the search box, you get about 259 web sites with information about him, among which you find the information below:

Philosopher and theologian, was educated at New College, Oxford. His most important work, The Theory of Good and Evil (1907), expounds his own version of what he called 'ideal utilitarianism'. The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages (1895; new edn, ed. Powicke and Emden, 1936) is a standard work.

Steven Ravett Brown


Deanna asked:

I am a college student in America researching Philosophical Psychology and the origins of psychology. I was hoping that you could point me in the right direction as far as credible articles on the internet about this subject. Any help would be most appreciated.

William James springs immediately to mind; there's also Tichener and the Gestaltists. I'm not sure what you mean by the origins of psychology — that was probably Brentano and Freud insofar as psychology as a science is concerned. Mesmer, perhaps, also. But if you mean psychology as the study of the mind, then of course the origins go back to Socrates in the West and Buddha and Confucius in the East, at least.

Steven Ravett Brown


Kevin asked:

Give an individual the ability to understand the biological outcomes of humanity to an undeniable level of determinism. A Mathematician, for example my friend Marvin Minsky. Could he determine the outcome of himself? For example, could a Mathematician calculate the outcome of his own math calculation before, without calculating it? He could not use anything to symbolize the problem because he would be doing it. Does it have any significance? I was just wondering. I have not had too much time to think it out. Seems like common sense, that he could not answer the question without somehow symbolizing, and actually doing it.

Wow! You could spend a day just figuring out all the angles to this question. There are four issues that I would like to deal with first, just to get them out of the way. Then we can get to the core of the question, and my answer.

1. We are considering a hypothetical subject capable of knowing its own internal physical state to the point of being able to make predictions about its future states with hundred per cent accuracy. In order to do this, it needs to be capable of knowing its internal state without any margin for error, and without omitting any detail. If we allow it to omit a single detail, or allow any margin for error, then the predictions it makes will involve cumulative errors resulting in greater and greater inaccuracy as time goes on. (This is related to the mathematician Lorenz's famous speculation about the 'butterfly effect'.) The point is a familiar one from discussions of free will and determinism. In principle, no measurement of physical reality can be error free. So even if my actions are determined, there is no way they could be reliably predicted by anyone on the basis of knowledge of my physical state.

2. But let us suppose that our subject does know its own internal state totally, and with hundred per cent accuracy, and not worry about how it knows this. Immediately, one runs into the following puzzle concerning self-knowledge. A being that knows everything there is to know about its internal state must seemingly represent that state of knowledge in some symbolic form. Let us call the representation, R. Representation R must be as complex — in terms of Wittgenstein's Tractatus it must have the same 'logical multiplicity' — as the state which it represents. But now we run into an infinite regress. For now we need a second state, R*, which has sufficient logical multiplicity to include both the representation R and the state of affairs which R represents. By similar reasoning, it follows that we need a third state, R**, which includes R* and R, and so on.

As an illustration of this, imagine a room with a fireplace, and a picture on the fireplace. The picture is a perfectly accurate picture of the room, with no details missed out. However, included in that picture is the picture on the fireplace! If we examine the picture within the picture, then it too will contain a picture, and so on. This potentially infinite series is plainly inconsistent with what we know about physical reality. There is a physical limit to how 'fine grained' a physical representation can be. Even if physical reality did not impose this limit, however, the construction of such an image would set an infinite task.

Does this show that the idea of perfect self-knowledge involves a vicious regress? The regress is only vicious if the task has to be undertaken one stage at a time. There is no logical inconsistency about the idea of an infinitely fine grained representation such as I have described. A further point to make is that it is not even clear that self-knowledge would necessarily involve this hierarchical structure of representations (although I have no idea what else it could be).

3. So let us take that on board too. It is arguable that the being with total knowledge of its internal state can only exist in a possible world where there is no limit to how fine grained a representation can be. Now we encounter the third problem. How can a subject do anything, perform any action, if it is capable of predicting in advance every decision that it makes? This is the problem which prompts Thomas Nagel in The View from Nowhere to talk of a 'penumbra of ignorance', a necessary blind spot concerning the cause and effect process that leads an agent to make each decision that they make, as a presupposition of our having 'free will', of our having a conception of ourselves as agents.

One reason I am not totally convinced by this is that the physical prediction will not be given in terms that one would recognize in terms of the language of human action. For example, the action which I would describe as, "I will go down to the corner store to buy a six pack of beer" will be predicted as a complex series of bodily movements. It would be perfectly possible to know what those bodily movements were going to be, without grasping their upshot. I would not recognize myself, or my actions, from a purely physical description.

4. The last point to clear out of the way specifically concerns the idea that one might calculate the outcome of the physical process which embodies the action of calculating the solution to a maths problem. This calculation too involves a physical process, which would itself be capable of being calculated. Is there a vicious regress here? Not necessarily. One might imagine an individual whose brain was partitioned in such a way that the first partition did the actual maths calculation, the second partition calculated the outcome of the physical process taking place in the first partition, while the third partition calculated the outcome of the physical process taking place in the second partition, and so on.

Incidentally, the description of the physical process involved in calculation will not require any reference to 'symbols', as you seem to suggest. Numbers appear simply as marks on paper, or shapes represented in the brain, without any associated meaning.

Now we get to the core problem.

Our subject's brain is partitioned, as described in 4. Presented with the algebraic equation, "x2 x3 + x = 49". The subject calculates that the outcome of the brain process involved in solving this equation will be that the subject writes on the piece of paper, "- 3.634". (This result is incorrect, but I wouldn't bother trying to find the correct solution!) So now the subject knows the outcome of the calculation, or do they?

To know the outcome of a calculation you are going to make is not the same as performing that calculation, for the following reason. It is possible that in attempting to make the calculation one will make an error. Performing a calculation involves following certain rules, while predicting the outcome of the physical process involved in calculation involves different rules. Trying to get a calculation right is a different task from trying to make a correct prediction about the answer, perhaps the wrong answer, that one will give.

In terms of our scenario, this result is mildly paradoxical. If I try to predict the outcome of the calculating process I intend to perform, it seems I have given up on trying to get the calculation right. Yet, by hypothesis, it is not going to make the slightest difference if I do try to get the calculation right, because the result will necessarily be the result which I would have predicted.

Geoffrey Klempner


Mark asked:

As part of our 3rd year work, we've to do a presentation on philosophy and physics — a topic which has been assumed to be related to our dissertations. One of us intends to write about space, another on black holes and another is on quantum logic. Any ideas about how we could bring these three topics together for a presentation? We're thinking about things such as time travel and parallel/ possible worlds, and how far we are capable of travelling through space. Perception will also be related.

What a fascinating issue! You know, I assume, about the information-theoretic analysis of black holes, right? And that because of Hawking radiation they're supposedly losing information? Now, surely, the relationship between black holes and space is pretty clear (warping, gravity waves, etc.)... was it Wigner who was theorizing about physics and information theory? Quantum logic is also interesting, in the context of black holes... what about a black hole being a single quantum state (or very few)? Then we might be able to use them to do quantum computation. What if the information being lost relates to that, in some way? Unfortunately, Hawking radiation makes very small black holes extremely unstable, so they probably aren't good for pocket computers... If you want to go the whole route, there are the old Gordon Dickson novels involving instantaneous space travel through controlled use of the uncertainty principle, but I don't think this is very workable, really. However, there are experiments now being done relating to the indefinite storage of information in quantum states (see the articles on the arresting of light — which really involves storing information about the light, not arresting it).

Steven Ravett Brown


Khalid asked:

Do we need a government?

It seems to me like we don't really have to ask this question. Whether we need it or not, we will still get one. it is in our nature.

People feel a need for a government — I include dictatorships here — because the alternative is anarchy and the lack of organization implied would be difficult to accept in an advanced culture.

A government is also able to maintain relations with other states, so that in advanced cultures we are able to take advantage of cheap workforces, goods and raw materials from less developed countries. This seems to be becoming a global goal which the international anarchist movement is trying to put an end to. It is this goal, rather the concept of a government, which is wrong.

The role of a government is to maintain a legal system, impose taxes and distribute wealth in a way the people think is just.

I think is Locke's view. Locke thought that people want a government because of the inconveniences of a state of nature which is lawless. It can be argued against this that the impositions and restrictions maintained by government are not actually preferable to a lawless state of nature, but unless we are able to live in small self-sufficient communities — which we do not seem to want to do — then government is necessary.

Rachel Browne


Libby asked:

Are philosophical questions actually questions of language?

I think that it would be a mistake to believe that philosophical questions are anything but philosophical questions since philosophers should not assume there is but one way to approach them. But, still, it is true that close attention to what the questions mean is extremely important to trying to answer them. It would be nearer the truth to say that philosophical questions are conceptual questions, and that concepts are expressed by language.

It would be useful to cite an example: Immanuel Kant is not someone who is usually thought of as a "linguistic philosopher". Yet, it was Kant who famously said that existence is not a predicate, which is, after all, a linguistic point. What he meant is that although when we say that something exists (like tigers) or deny that something exists (like unicorns), we are not ascribing to them or denying of them some property that all existing things have, and non-existing things lack. This, despite the fact that the sentence "tigers exist" looks as if we are predicating a property of tigers, and the sentence "unicorns do not exist" looks as if we are refusing to predicate a property to unicorns. And, in fact, as Bertrand Russell, expanding on this point of Kant's argued, when we say that tigers exist, we are not actually referring to tigers at all (again, despite appearances to the contrary) but we are referring to a description of a certain kind and saying that at least one thing answers to that description. (The description is "large striped ferocious feline") And, when we deny that unicorns exist, we are not talking about unicorns (for how could we since there are no unicorns to talk about) but, once again, we are talking about a particular description ("Large white equine winged animal with magical powers and a horn on its head") and saying of that description, that nothing answers to it.

The central point — that when we ostensibly ascribe existence to something, or deny existence to something, we are not really talking about something at all, but we are saying something about a description, and saying of that description that something answers to it, or, alternatively that nothing answers to it — may, I suppose, be called linguistic, since it is about descriptions and they are items of language if anything. Nevertheless, we could have said the same thing, perhaps more obscurely, in the language of concepts instead of descriptions. Calling this an exercise "a paradigm of philosophy" as one philosopher called it is, it seems to me, a not particularly important thing to say. It is Kant's insight (which by the way, I must mention was had much earlier by a contemporary of Descartes Pierre Gassendi) and its later expansion and refinement by Russell, about existence that is the important thing. Whether you choose to call the question, "What is existence?" transformed into the question, "What are we asserting when we assert of something that it exists?" seems to me a matter of taste.

And, of course, I have provided only one example. It would be rash to say that every philosophical problem would yield to the kind of approach just described. I think that in philosophy, it is a matter of, we try and we see what turns out successful. It would be a mistake, I think to believe that there is one formula, and that answering philosophical questions is formulaic.

Kenneth Stern


José asked:

Hello my good friend.

I'm writing with a short question about a writer and philosopher who is mentioned in the New Testament by Paul in the book of Acts 17 when he is in Athens. Thank you very much.

I take it you mean Dionysius the Aeropagite (Acts 17:34). Dionysius is known as Pseudo-Dionysius, because he was what we call today "a literary fraud." Philosophically he clarified what is called "negative theology" and coined the term "mystical theology", both rather important movements in the history of thought. Thomas Aquinas quotes him about 1,700 times in his writings and would surely have known that his writings did not predate the early Councils of the Church, although it was Erasmus in the 16th century who exposed the fraud, first discovered by the Italian humanist Lorenzo Valla in the century before.

The writings attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite were unknown until the year 532. At this date Innocent the Marionite was in conference with the Severians, followers of Severus of Antioch who a Monophysite [the heresy that Christ had one nature not two]. The purpose of the colloquy was to discuss differences between the two parties arising from statements of the Creed made at the fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451. Among a battery of authoritative citations for their positions, the Severians quoted the apostolic authority of Dionysius the Areopagite against Innocent. Innocent's Conference Report makes mention of this peculiar authority. It is the first he has heard of Dionysius and the first time we too hear of him. A member of Innocent's delegation, Hypatius of Ephesus, queried the Severians: "Those quotations that you claim to have come from the Blessed Dionysius the Areopagite — how can you prove they are authentic, as you maintain? For if they do come from him, they would not have been unknown to the Blessed Cyril."

Cyril of Alexandria (c.376-444) had never mentioned Dionysius. He should surely have done so had Dionysius been the one associated with Paul, rather than a literary fraud. What Cyril did not know about theology was scarcely to be known. But an authority as ancient and as well connected with St. Paul as Dionysius was so great as to usurp the authority of Cyril himself.

The name of Dionysius the Areopagite began to resound through the world. In short, the writings of Dionysius the Areopagite came to prominence through the Syrian and Arabian provinces of the Eastern Church; areas dominated by Monophysitism and Nestorianism. There was every reason to suppose that "Dionysius the Areopagite" was a tool of heretical propaganda.

John of Scythopolis was the first orthodox theologian to fire back at the heretics with their own weapon. The 'divinising' or Monophysite tendencies of Dionysius' writings were read by him in such a way that it seemed as if he uncannily anticipated the credal formulations of Chalcedon (451) by four centuries.

[From Matthew Del Nevo The Theological Imagination Sheffield Academic Press, forthcoming.]

Matthew Del Nevo


Tottens asked:

What can empirical science prescribe with regard to values and goals?

Empirical science can give us the means to pursue the goals we wish to achieve, but can it tell us which goals we ought to choose?

Consider first a plausible case where science describes a goal, which, from its very description, we recognize that we have reason to pursue. Medical science tells us that there are certain conditions of the human body which are states of health, and certain other conditions which are states of unhealth. It would seem to follow, other things being equal, (i.e. there are no other relevant considerations to take into account) that presented with two courses of action, one of which would result in our being in a state of health and the other a state of unhealth, we should choose the first rather than the second.

According to G.E. Moore, this would be an example of the naturalistic fallacy. Moore would point out that we first have to ask whether it is a good thing to be in a state of health rather than a state of unhealth. What is good about being fit and living to a ripe old age? Why should be prefer that to being unfit and dying young? If you try to say what health is good for, you merely give a list of other things. Of each of those things, one can ask the further question whether it is in fact good.

One version of ethical naturalism involves the idea that there are certain mental traits which are intrinsically preferable to other traits. The preferable mental traits are the moral virtues, and the traits to be avoided are moral vices. The empirical study of what is psychologically good for us, what makes for a good character, a good life, leads to the prescription that one ought to pursue certain moral goals. The reason ethical naturalism fails, according to Moore, is that it has no means to justify the claim that, e.g. it is good to be courageous, and bad to be a coward.

There is one way for our ethical naturalist to resist Moore's argument. The philosopher Aristotle, the originator of this notion of ethics as based on a study of the virtues and the 'good life', never doubted that the world conformed to certain teleological principles. In other words, the world we inhabit has telos, purpose, built in from the beginning. The major task of the moral philosopher is to discover what is the telos of a human being. On this metaphysical view, the empirical study of causes and effects is part of a wider scientific study of our place in the universe. With this assumption in place, there can be an unequivocal answer to the question which human traits are virtues and which traits are vices.

I have encountered one example of a contemporary 'philosophy of nature' according to which the universe possesses an intrinsic teleological structure, in the work of the neo-Hegelian philosopher Errol E. Harris. While the idea of a teleological science remains alive, it holds out the hope — admittedly slim — that 'empirical science' can, in Aristotelian fashion, prescribe values and goals.

Geoffrey Klempner


Cassandra asked:

Currently I am enrolled in an Ethics class at my college, and we have been debating major subjects that our country is held in controversy today. I was involved in a Pornography debate, which seeked to limit the use of Pornography. I took the approach that Pornography is like a drug because it becomes addictive using the case of Ted Bundy as my example.

One thing which I have found as I have searched within the bounds of Philosophy is that Pleasure is something that is questioned, and continuously strived for. My question is why is this. Why does one have to seek pleasure? For me pleasure is farthest away when one is seeking for it. Whereas if one sits back and enjoys life one finds automatic pleasure and happiness. With a relaxed approach, there is no competition. It seems to me that when one strives to find happiness one spends more time searching for it then actually involving oneself in it. I was just wondering what someone else thought of this argument.

If the line is taken that people seek pleasure or happiness as an end, then it would follow that pleasure and happiness are the ultimate values. To achieve the ultimate end of pleasure or happiness there must be a means such as becoming rich or attaining goals which will provide you with the satisfaction that constitutes the end condition. You do not search for happiness in itself, but search for ways of becoming happy.

But as you say, we do not actually seek pleasure as an ultimate value. Happiness and pleasure are feelings and we can feel pleasure in the pursuit of goals or simply by doing nothing but wander in the garden in the sunlight.

Pleasure may be distinct from happiness. You can take pleasure in doing something while happiness is brought about by something such as an achievement or the sunshine.

Rachel Browne


Ryan asked:

How does an immaterial mind move a material body? I feel that Descartes does not give an adequate answer in his letter to Elisabeth. How does the soul interact with the body or does it?

Given the formulation of the issue, perhaps Descartes' reply is the best that can be provided. The reply seems to be that indeed, it is difficult to see how what is immaterial and non-spatial can interact with what is material and spatial, but that it is a matter of ordinary experience that it happens, so perhaps we had better leave it at that. You should notice how un-Cartesian this answer is for a philosopher who customarily disdains "ordinary experience." (Although, it was just this sort of reply that the empiricist Hume, who while he did not allow that mind and body were two different substances, did accept. Hume agreed that mental and physical events did interact and gave that interaction as an illustration of his view that for all we can know a priori, "anything can cause anything.")

I said that given the formulation of the issue, Descartes' reply to Elizabeth might be the best reply that can be had. What I meant is that the unsatisfactoriness of the reply, which you recognize, might be taken as a reason to revisit the terms of the issue, and, in particular, to question Cartesian dualism. Are indeed mind and body two substances with the opposite characteristics Descartes describes them as having? Perhaps we should look for a different concept of mind which does not have the problems of Cartesian dualism. There are several of them out there. Gilbert Ryle's analytical behaviorism, and various form of the mind-brain identity thesis, as well as functionalist views.

Kenneth Stern

Descartes cannot prove that an immaterial substance interacts with material substance since we have no idea of how such a substance would be able to interact with spatial substance which falls under physical laws. It follows from Cartesian dualism that if the mind is distinct from the body, which includes the brain, no account be given of why mental impairment results from brain damage. That brain damage does affect the mental can support a claim that there is physical-to-mental causation if you want to maintain that the mental is distinct from the physical, but it doesn't work the other way around.

Rachel Browne


Jennifer asked:

I am trying to find philosophical writings on euthanasia. I cannot find a philosopher's arguments for euthanasia. If you could help me out, I would be extremely grateful.

This is not a classical question of philosophy, it is a recent question and writings on the subject are not really philosophical, but philosophising. It is a social question as much as anything and plenty of social scientists and cultural theorists and journalists have their opinion. However, if you want something short and to the point, from someone with good credentials, there is A. C. Grayling's The Future of Moral Values (1997), a Phoenix paperback available in Great Britain. The good thing about this little book is that it sets the question in the wider liberal context of "the good life in the good society." Peter Singer has written in favour of euthanasia as well.

Matthew Del Nevo


Erin asked:

What is philosophy all about, I mean what is it, what do philosophers do exactly?

My first reaction to your question was to say, "How can you possibly be asking that, when there are all these examples of philosophy to go by? Have a look at the questions and answers, have a look at the other pages on the Pathways site. This — for example, what I am doing now — is the kind of thing that philosophers do!"

Then I began to wonder whether that answer is adequate. Am I a philosopher? Is what I am doing now philosophy? Is what my colleagues are doing philosophy? All of it? All of the time? Or do we only succeed some of the time, and fail at other times? In that case, how do you tell when an attempt at doing philosophy succeeds, and when it fails? Or is that wrong? What I mean is, can't there be such a thing as bad philosophy, or being a bad philosopher? Yes, but there must be some limits to how bad a philosopher you can be, and still be a "philosopher", aren't there?

On reflection, I think it would be a complete mistake to define philosophy in a way that by definition there couldn't be such a thing as bad philosophy. I would rather say that there is something that motivates us to do this — whatever this is — and it is that 'something', the source of philosophical wonder, that serves as the fulcrum around which any acceptable definition of philosophy must turn. Bad philosophy responds to that 'something' in an incompetent way, good philosophy responds in a competent way.

Let's cut the rhetoric and get to the point. You can never know what philosophy is, no matter how clever and elaborate the explanations and definitions, if you have never been motivated to philosophize. You may not have realized what it is you were doing, the call you were responding to. In that case, reading these pages may help after all. "So that's philosophy!" That won't be the answer you are looking for, but it will be a start.

If you want my best attempt at defining philosophy, have a look at my talk, Can Philosophy be Taught?.

Geoffrey Klempner


Howie asked:

Could you compare the rational, scientific and existentialist theories of human nature? What do you think is the most important feature of humanity?

The theory of a human being as a rational subject belongs to analytical philosophy. Plato and Aristotle described man as rational and both thought that it is through the use of reason that we become better human beings. Descartes identified the subject as essentially a thinking subject. From these starting points, analytical philosophers have engaged in discussion of issues such as the nature of rationality, means/end reasoning, and how the subject relates to or adopts normative principles.

Existential theories, in stark contrast, look at the non-rational side of man's inner nature, such his freedom, his dread, anxiety and fear of death, guilt and responsibility. Consideration is given to what it is to be, or exist, as mankind in relation to his environment that is quite different to Cartesian approach that considers the nature of man as a lone subject.

You cannot easily choose whether or not it is more important that man is rational or an emotional agent in the world because man is essentially both. If you took man's rational nature away, it is hard to how that he could experience guilt, responsibility or decide to act in virtue of his freedom. Thought is essentially involved. If you took away man's non-rational view of himself as perfectly free, subject to dread, anxiety and guilt, you would have a strange being compelled by rational principles.

A scientific theory would presumably be biological and neurological. Scientific theories see man as an object and are important for medical reasons, and while it is an important feature of humanity that we are able to increase knowledge our physical nature, it leads to the possibility of genetic engineering, which is morally dubious.

Rachel Browne


Iain asked:

How is it possible to have a synthetic a priori statement? Rationalists seem to be suggesting that 2+2=4 is not analytic yet there seems to be no other way of describing it. I would say that writing (2+2) is equivalent to writing 4, only in long hand. I would be grateful if you could explain.

Although I do not want to defend Kant's view that there are synthetic a priori judgements, I think it is easier to see what Kant had in mind if you do not consider so simple a proposition as 2 + 2 = 4. (After all, although Kant would have disagreed, it might be that very simple arithmetical propositions like the one you offered as an example is not synthetic a priori, but more complex ones are. Much may depend on which examples you choose to think about.)

Suppose you consider a far more complex proposition in mathematics. For instance the Pythagorean theorem that the square on the longest side of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides. Now, do you think that writing the right hand side of this equation is simply short hand for the left side? I think it would be difficult to maintain this unless you were already committed to the view that all of mathematics is like the simple equation you gave as your example. And, if we think about other (supposed) examples of synthetic a priories outside of mathematics, the view that they too are "analytic" is even more implausible. Kant's prime example of a synthetic a priori was "Every event must have a cause." It would be vastly implausible to think of this as an analytic proposition (true "by definition") Indeed, to think that "event" could be "defined" as a something that is caused, would be to confuse the terms "event" and "effect." That is, although "Every effect has a cause" is analytic, since an effect is, by definition a caused event, it is not true that every event has a cause is "true by definition."

So, what I am arguing is that even if it is difficult for you to see why 4 is not just "short hand" for 2 + 2, it should not be difficult for you to see why it would be very implausible to argue the same thing about propositions that have been said to be synthetic a priori.

Kenneth Stern

An analytic truth can be described as a truth which can be known by looking at the terms. Kant's semantic example is "all bodies are extended" — it is part of the concept of a body that it is extended. Synthetic truths on the other hand, such as "all bodies are heavy", are truths in which the concepts are not analysable in terms of each other, such 2+2 = 4. To think of a body is to think of extension so this is analytic, but to think of 2+2 is not to think of four, so this is synthetic, and it is also a priori because you can come to know this regardless of empirical facts in the world.

You obviously think the above is simply false.

However, Gödel has shown that you cannot 'define' numbers on a purely axiomatic basis, as most mathematicians had argued. Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems showed (oversimplifying a very complex argument) that a number has properties not shared by its components. The number, say, '12' has properties that '10' and '2' do not have, even when you add the properties of component '10' to the properties of component '2'.

This supports Kant. If 10+2 has properties that 12 does not have they cannot be the same concept so this is a synthetic truth known a priori.

Rachel Browne


Ziomara asked:

What are the four causes in Aristotle? Does any one resemble the Platonic Form?

Aristotle discusses the four causes in Book II of the Physics. He is working from a definition of "cause" which in plain English would mean, what we need to know in order to give a full account of the nature of a thing. The Greek word for cause (Latin causa) is aition, which means 'that to which something else is indebted.' "The four causes are the ways, all belonging at once to each other, of being responsible for something else." (Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology). Heidegger argues in this essay that the four causes are not what we mean by causes, but what we might mean by "modes of occasioning".

These are the four causes. (i) the causa materialis, the material, the matter out of which, for example, a silver chalice is made. (ii) the causa formalis, the form, the shape into which into which the material enters; (iii) the causa finalis, the end, for example, the sacrificial rite in relation to which the chalice required is determined as to its form and matter; (iv) the causa efficiens, which brings about the effect that is the finished, actual chalice, in this instance, the silversmith.

Matthew Del Nevo


James asked:

In an attempt to filter text to ensure that any text my children study has the highest probability of excellence, I have suggested to them that any modern philosophical text they read should be written by a philosopher who has demonstrated ability in pure mathematics to the level of at least a first in Part 1 of the University of Cambridge Tripos in Pure Math, or to any similar standard. Philosophers who do not meet that standard are not necessarily poor philosophers; however I consider that they have a significantly lower probability of being good ones, and are arguably not worth the investment of one's time to interact with them. I am introducing my two children (12 and 13) to philosophy, initially ethical, while developing their skills in math, logic and probability. I am interested in the possibility of their taking a Pathways or Diploma program. However in view of my filter, I would want them to be tutored only by a philosopher with the appropriate level of math I suggest above. I'd be very grateful were you to advise if it would be worth their while to apply for admission to the Pathways program.

The obvious question is, why? Why do you want to impose this mathematics requirement? I suppose that the answer might be either (or both): because you think that only those who have that kind of requirement are intelligent enough to teach philosophy (to your children?); or, that somehow, mathematical abilities are transferable to philosophy, so that those proficient in math, are likely also to be proficient in philosophy. So that although, as you allow, mathematical ability (and knowledge) are not a necessary a necessary condition of philosophical ability, and surely not a sufficient condition, nevertheless, such ability makes it more likely.

Now, I admit, that a high standard of achievement in any kind of subject that rewards sequential thinking argues that a person is more likely to be good at the kind of sequential thinking that is necessary for doing intelligent philosophizing; for instance the ability to follow and assess an argument, that intuition of mine is just that-an intuition. I don't know what the evidence for it is, and I don't know whether there is any evidence for it. To give an analogy, chess playing ability has been studied, and, although you might intuit that mathematical ability might have a high correlation with chess ability, it turns out that although there is some correlation, it is not nearly as great as the correlation between the ability to see patterns and chess playing ability. So, our intuitions about such matters might be way off. Intuitions may suggest connections, but we need evidence to test and confirm intuitions once we have them.

In fact we don't have a lot of information about what makes a good philosopher: especially since there is, as you might imagine, not a little disagreement about what a good philosopher is. But, isn't what you are looking for not so much a good philosopher, for which mathematical ability may be helpful if not necessary, but a good teacher for your children? For all you know, as we philosophers say, a priori, mathematical ability may be inimical to the ability to teach well, or teach philosophy well.

But I hope you find what you want: more importantly, what your children need.

Kenneth Stern

Your filtering system seems a bit risky to me. Why not get in touch with Michael Dummett at Oxford University and ask him to be personal tutor to your children?

Rachel Browne

[Answers to James Howe's question from the PHILOS-L and PHILOSOP professional philosophy e-mail lists have been collected in my Glass House Philosopher notebook for Tuesday, 1st May. See Page 101.]


Glouisel asked:

I wondered if you could help me with the good Bishop of Cloyne.

(1) How does Berkeley explain illusion e.g. a pole that seems to bend in the water (involuntary, vivid) as opposed to imagination?

(2) Why can only spirits and not ideas cause and does this mean that God is constantly intervening rather than writing laws and then sitting back?

(3) Isn't our way of perceiving and God's different? Isn't this a problem for Berkeley?

(4) Is the doctrine of abstract ideas supposed to underpin all of Berkeley's arguments against matter or just the one against substance?

(1) Illusion occurs at the phenomenological level of appearance. The illusion is a given and Berkeley does say that ideas imprinted on the senses, as opposed to imagined ideas, are "real things" but in the case of an illusion we apply knowledge of things, circumstances and standard conditions. A perception is more than appearance as it entails a judgement. For Berkeley, ideas are sensations or experience and a thing is a cluster of ideas. You cannot get the idea of a stick from a visual experience alone, you need tactile experience to form the concept of a stick because you need to experience it as firm and unbending. We know the pole in the water is an illusion because we know the stick is not bent yet will appear to be so in water from experience of other appearances of sticks in water. Imagination presupposes ideas, so you can imagine that a pole seems to bend in the water, which is an activity of will.

(2) Ideas are inert, so cannot be causal. Causes are what we talk about, but at the level of metaphysical explanation, there is only spirit. God is constantly acting rather than intervening and so he could not rest. His will is the cause of all changes including perceptual changes, so he would have to constantly cause perception of movement, for instance as well as "the succession of ideas". God is described as an "author" and as possessing a "governing spirit" and without his activity there would be nothing to perceive and all change would come to an end.

(3) God's perceptions are active rather than the mixture of passive and active perceptions given to man. This is a problem because we can't understand perception not based on a sense-perception model. Presumably God perceives all parts of things since his perceptions will not be relative to a type of being. But if that is so, it leads Berkeley to realism because there will be parts of things that we don't perceive, which he denies. A C Grayling in Berkeley The Central Arguments suggests that God's way of perceiving should be seen as conceiving.

(4) Berkeley actually argues at some length in Principles of Human Knowledge against "abstract ideas". He thought you cannot abstract a colour from extension by separation to achieve an abstract idea of red, nor can you compare different shades of red to achieve an abstract idea of what red is. An abstract triangle which is "neither oblique nor rectangle, neither equilateral" is the sort of thing Berkeley would regard as a "manifest repugnancy".

Berkeley doesn't argue against substance, only against matter. We can have no conception of matter because it is beyond sense and concepts are developed from experience. Substance cannot be matter so it must be incorporeal, or spirit. I think that support for Berkeley's argument against matter and external objects is to be found in his account of perception as outlined in Essay towards a new Theory of Vision (this was written prior to the Principles and the Three Dialogues) in which he argues that there is no necessary relation between visual and tactile experiences so the mind has to form connections through various sense experiences in order to achieve the idea of things. If our perceptions are not brought about by the fact that there is material substance an internal account in terms of spirit is needed to explain perception.

Rachel Browne


Bill asked:

OK. I am wondering if fairies are real. I believe in them. I believe in angels and unicorns and Santa Claus and hippies and giants and the Devil and God and stuff like that. I believe in peace and love and all that stuff too. I believe that there is life on other planets and that aliens exist. Am I wack nut???

You may be whack nut, but I am not one hundred per cent sure. A lot would depend on how sure you are about all the things you say you believe.

Let's go through the cases, one by one.

Fairies. There is a problem relating to the invisible variety of fairy (which most are, apparently). No-one has ever seen a fairy, we only see what they do (for example, move stones around the garden). The question is not so much whether this is true, but whether one has any conception of what it would mean for it to be true. This is one occasion when I can well see the utility of the verification principle.

Angels. There is ample Biblical evidence for the existence of angels, from Genesis onwards. If you are a follower of the Jewish, Christian or Muslim faiths, then you ought to believe in the existence of angels.

Unicorns. It does not stretch credulity too far to suppose that once upon a time, there might have existed a variety of horse which boasted a horn in the middle of its forehead. It is rather more difficult to accept that a unicorn has the power to sense whether or not a woman is a virgin, as unicorns are reputedly able to do. One question for the theory of knowledge is whether one would accept that unicorns had this power, purely on the basis of an observed correlation, or whether we would require some account of the underlying causal mechanism, whatever that might be.

Santa Claus. Obviously you don't have children, otherwise you would know where their Christmas presents came from. To test the Santa Claus theory would require an experiment which is at least morally questionable: namely, refuse to buy your kids Christmas presents and see if Santa Claus brings any.

Hippies. To 'believe in Hippies' is to believe what the hippies believed in. The trouble is, the Hippies believed in a number of things, not all of which are equally credible.

Giants. There is no conclusive proof that the Yeti and the Big Foot do not exist and never have existed. Nor, I gather, is there sufficient evidence to conclude that they do exist or have existed. Given, however, that there is some positive evidence, albeit tenuous, the reasonable thing to do in this case is keep an open mind.

God and the Devil. The same thing applies to the Devil as applies to angels (see above). To believe in 'God and the Devil' as two independent forces neither of whom has the power to overcome the other is the Manichaean heresy. What is wrong with Manichaeanism is not that it is heretical, but that it provides us with a Deity whom we do not have sufficient reason to worship.

Peace and love. I believe in both of those things.

Life on other planets. It is an intriguing question why the radio telescopes have not picked up any evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligent life. One gloomy explanation is that civilizations naturally tend to extinguish themselves after a few thousand years — a very short period of time in relation to the history of the universe. Hence the relatively low probability of our being around at the right time to pick up radio waves sent out by alien TV shows.

Geoffrey Klempner


Svend asked:

I'm working on a paper concerning the question of "free will". I have been told, that Skinner and Sartre in various articles have debated this. Where were these articles published, and when?

I do not believe that Skinner and Sartre have debated each other on this matter. But perhaps you just mean that they have each discussed the problem of free will. That they have. Skinner is a "hard determinist," which is to say that he believes that every event has a cause which , if it occurs, makes the event (or effect) inevitable. He also holds that human choices, and the actions which flow from these choices, all are determined by antecedent causes. He believes that since Determinism is true, there is no free will. One place to go here is Skinner's Science and Human Behavior. Another is his Beyond Freedom and Dignity. And a third is his novel called Walden Two.

Sartre is an Indeterminist. He holds that human beings make undetermined or uncaused choices. In fact, Sartre makes uncaused choice which he thinks constitutes free will, the center-piece of his philosophy. The locus classicus of this is Sartre's Being and Nothingness. His much earlier lecture, "Existentialism is a Humanism" also contains the gist of this view. Sartre's plays are a dramatic expression of his views, and his novel, Nausea is another expression of his understanding and advocacy of human freedom.

Kenneth Stern


Ravi asked:

What did Kripke achieve in his rigid designator theory? Why are logically proper names rigid designators?

The theory of rigid designators is a challenge to the descriptive theories of reference which basically hold that there is a sense or description under which a person is known and this description determines which person you are referring. According to a descriptive theory, you may know Aristotle as the philosopher who taught Alexander the Great and this description, or sense, determines the reference. However, Kripke points out that Aristotle may not have taught Alexander. When we talk about Aristotle as having done otherwise, we still mean the man Aristotle. Only if we can refer to Aristotle without any particular description can we make sense of saying what he may and may not have done. Aristotle as a rigid designator picks out Aristotle in "all possible worlds" and we can talk about Aristotle as having had a completely different life than the one he did.

Kripke is able to explain the fact that we may know of someone and refer to him even when we possess a false description. We may know Gūdel as "the man who discovered the incompleteness of arithmetic" and this may be the only thing we know about him. On the description theory, if Schmidt really made this discovery then if we talk about Gūdel by means of the identifying description "the man who discovered the incompleteness of arithmetic", we would identify and refer to Schmidt, who we have never heard of and do not mean to refer to. Kripke suggests that there is a causal or historical chain between the use of a name as a rigid designator and the person named. When we use the term Gūdel there is a chain of usage leading back to the particular man Gūdel. Within this chain false beliefs can be spread.

Kripke takes language as very much something we use, and we can use language without knowing very much at all. Because it is difficult to deny that we use names as Kripke describes, this constitutes a very strong challenge to any theory of names which relates a name to an essential description or a cluster of descriptions.

Kripke has shown that necessary truth is not to be essentially related to the a priori. Kripke admits it is a contingent truth that Hesperus (the evening star) and Phosphorus (the morning star) designate one and the same star. We can imagine a possible world in which a man sees the evening star and sees the morning and they turn out to be different, but this would be a world that contained not Venus, but two distinct stars. As rigid designators both Hesperus and Phosphorus refer to the planet Venus which is a necessary identity relation because the names have meaning by virtue of a single referent, but this cannot be known a priori — it is an empirical discovery. Before Kripke's Naming and Necessity, empirical truth was understood to be contingent and necessary truth was that which we can determine without reference to the world. Kripke has shown that necessary truth is not about how we come to know things but it is about what things we think could be different.

Rachel Browne


Roger asked:

What is your philosophy of teaching? What do you like most and least about teaching philosophy? Is there a philosophical perspective that you want your students to learn? Of what benefit is philosophy to a student in science and technology? Do you have a reading list of books you'd recommend to the layman who has not studied philosophy? I look forward to reading your input about these matters.

I don't understand the meaning of the words, 'teaching', 'education'. I don't see how teaching or education can achieve what they are meant to achieve. I believe in learning. In Pathways, students are not educated or taught, they learn. Learning is an active process of inquiry under the control and motivation of the learner, whereas being taught is passive. I am guide and mentor to my students, not their 'teacher'.

I believe in lifelong learning, because the active process of self-motivated inquiry has no natural end. We should never cease to learn, to inquire, all our lives.

I am a learner, and I seek to learn from my students. That is what is so great about being a philosophical mentor. I am happy to admit when one of my students knows more than I do, when I can learn from them. The one thing I hate is grading and awarding marks. Thankfully, that is something I never have to do. I leave that to the Philosophical Society Examiner!

I have my own philosophical perspective, my views which I hold with more or less confidence, in a range of philosophical areas: metaphysics, ethics, philosophy of mind and language, logic. I have no desire that my students should acquire my perspective, or believe the things that I believe. I am much happier when a student disagrees with me than when they agree with me.

As a student of science and technology, philosophy will benefit you because it will make you more flexible in your inquiries. Philosophy asks us to see things differently. That is what all the great discoverers, innovators and inventors have been able to do. From philosophy, you will also learn the true value of what you do. Science and technology are beautiful things, to one who has learned to appreciate their particular form of beauty.

If you are looking for books to get started in your philosophical inquiries, you might like to take a look at the Pathways Introductory Book List. Enjoy!

Geoffrey Klempner


Kim asked:

How dow we know that Socrates' philosophies are that of his own when Plato wrote the dialogues? Is it not possible that ones perception could vary from another's, thus leading to a misguided or incorrect translation?

Your question expresses a central problem in Plato scholarship. We are quite sure that Socrates himself never wrote anything (at least that we have). From a little external evidence, but mostly internal evidence, most scholars are agreed that the early dialogues like Apology or Crito are closest to Socrates' own thought, unadulterated with Plato's views. The "Middle Dialogues" starting with the Meno and ending with Republic and Theaetetus in which Plato's central metaphysical doctrine of the Forms is introduced and expounded begin to use Socrates more and more as a spokesman for Plato's own philosophy. The later dialogues like Timaeus and Parmenides are thought to be expressions of Plato's thought alone. It is very unlikely that Socrates had the views expressed in the later or even the doctrine of the Forms in the middle dialogues. These views are too "synoptic" to fit what we know of Socrates' mostly analytical way of thinking.

I don't see why mistranslation itself is made particularly possible by any ignorance of the distinction between the views of Socrates and Plato. Translation is, after all, mostly dependent on the knowledge and aptitude of the translator. ("To translate" goes a French saying "is to betray," but even so, there are degrees of betrayal.) But I agree that the interpretation of what is translated is, guided to a large extent, by our beliefs (what you call "perceptions") concerning the relative core views of the two philosophers. It is always possible that we are mistaken: whether it is probable that we are is a different matter, and it is probability that counts.

Kenneth Stern


Edi asked:

Hello, philosopher. I have some course in the university called philosophy of photography and I wonder where I can get some information about it? We also study about Descartes. I will appreciate if you answer me. Thank you.

You could look at the following:

Roland Barthes Camera Lucida (Hill and Wang)
Susan Sontag On Photography (Anchor Books)
Roger Scruton "Photography and Representation", Critical Inquirer Spring 1981, pp 577-603
Stanley Cavell The World Viewed (Harvard University Press)
Gombrich Art and Illusion (Princeton University Press)
Trachtenberg Classic Essays on Photography (Leete's)

You could search for articles in your library by Scruton and also by Kendall Walton — actually I suggest starting off this way. John Searle and Nelson Goodman have also written articles on photography.

Rachel Browne


Shana asked:

Hi. I'm a freshman in college and have to write an essay 4-5 pages for the end of the year. My class is called Knowledge and Reality; basically introduction to philosophy. My paper is supposed to compare Thomas Nagel and Plato's philosophies. Plato's included theories are from Phaedo and the Apology. Could you give me some help on what Nagel thought. He really confuses me.

Both Plato and Nagel could be described as holding two world theories of reality.

For Plato, the two worlds of sense experience and the immaterial 'Forms' or 'Ideas' correspond to two different modes of understanding. The world of sense experience, of sights and sounds, is a world where nothing remains constant and true knowledge is impossible. There can be no true science of empirical reality, only more or less well founded opinions. In stark contrast, the object of philosophical inquiry is the timeless world of 'Forms', such as the Form of Justice, or Virtue. Forms are the objects of intellectual vision.

The best source for Nagel's views is his book The View From Nowhere (Oxford 1986). Nagel's theory may be seen as a reaction to a view first expressed by Plato's predecessors, the Greek atomists Leucippus and Democritus. According to the atomists, our familiar world of sights and sounds is illusory, not for the reasons Plato gave but because all that really exists is physical atoms and the void. The smell of a rose, the blue of the sky, the deepest passions of love are just mechanical movements of atoms. What the atomists stumbled across was the idea of the objective standpoint. This is what Nagel calls the 'view from nowhere'.

Modern science upholds the fundamental logical assumptions of the atomist theory, even though the basic elements are no longer simple inpenetrable nuggets of matter but more mysterious entities such as muons and quarks. The basic idea is still the same. The external view tells the complete story of what we are. Everything that happens in the universe is ultimately a physical process of cause and effect. We are nothing but tiny clumps of matter pushed here and there by forces outside of our control.

Nagel's response to this picture is to deny that such a conception could ever fully replace the view we have of ourselves, as agents who possess consciousness, who experience colours, sounds, smells, tastes, who make decisions and act out of our own free will, who perceive a world imbued with purpose and value. All these aspects of the subjective standpoint are incapable of being reduced to statements about the world conceived from the objective standpoint. The result is that our vision of the world and ourselves involves an irreconcilable duality.

I think what Nagel would say to Plato, if the two philosophers ever chanced to meet in the afterlife, is that Plato should not have been so quick to despise the world of sights and sounds. What Plato would say to Nagel is that Nagel's failure to find values in the world viewed from the objective standpoint is the result of failing to take a sufficiently distanced view of the physical world. On a truly objective view, values — the Form of the Good and all the other Forms arranged below it — are the most real thing.

Geoffrey Klempner


Larrance asked:

I'm considering wisdom, joy, strength, and harmony that arises out of suffering. I've never taken a course in Philosophy, so I don't know which school of thought this references, but would appreciate some reading recommendations from the originator, please.

Is there validity in the belief that through perseverance, and ultimately transcendence, in the face of suffering, gives impetus to spiritual enlightenment if steadfastly sought? If so,why is the journey so vital in reaching such destination? If not, can there be any redemption in suffering without hope? Also,is this concept rooted in theological beliefs or philosophical thought? Faith or reason?

I don't think you have to take a course in philosophy, only a course in living, to discover that the view that wisdom, joy and so on arise out of suffering is vastly exaggerated and indeed, generally false. It is more likely that bitterness, despair, and further pain come from suffering.

I suppose that if suffering must occur, it is better to try to endure it with dignity and fortitude, but it is just cant to think that suffering is somehow compensated for by other goods which may, but most likely will not, be caused by it.

To the extent this is a theological view, it assuredly is not rooted in reason.

Kenneth Stern


Todd asked:

Who came up with the five branches of philosophy? — metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, and esthetics? I first encountered this division in my studies of Objectivism. A friend, in explaining something to me about Objectivism, told me that these were "The Five Branches" as if this were set in stone.

I decided to investigate for myself, but have so far found nothing. It wasn't Aristotle, which was my guess. It couldn't have been Plato. If it was then Aristotle would have used a classificatory scheme that would been at least a little similar to his teacher's scheme. I'm guessing it must have been someone since then.

It has occurred to me that this arbitrary classification might not be the most useful of systems, but I figured that somebody somewhere must have thought it was, since everyone (that I talk to) knows of it.

There was a question a while ago asking what the five branches are — and to my knowledge no-one answered. Now we know! The five branches were probably drawn up within the American educational system, since they are not recognised in England and they don't seem to be very adequate as they fail to include one of the most important subjects in philosophy which is logic.

Rachel Browne


Lauren asked:

How would you explain the quote "the face and its expression are the doorway of the soul"?

That you can often tell what a person is thinking or feeling by studying his facial expressions?

Kenneth Stern


Rasmi asked:

What is the god?

There are a number of conceptions of 'God' each peculiar to a religion. A prevalent conception of 'God' is of a supreme being with a number of different properties like omnipotence, omniscience, infinite goodness, and a number of others. But that is the concept of God. So the concept of 'God' certainly exists. However, whether anything answers to that concept, or any other concept of 'God' is a very different matter. That is the matter of whether there is a God, or whether God exists. We should never confuse the concept of 'God' with God, and think that because the first exists, so does the second. That would be a mistake in logic.

Kenneth Stern


Kurt asked:

What is a gottglaubiger and how did the Nazis use this term? For example, Adolf Eichmann at his hanging claimed to be a gottglaubiger. Can you recommend any resources?

From my (sparse) knowledge of German, "gottglaubiger" means only, "believer in God." So I suppose that Eichmann like many who are "atheists in foxholes" was proclaiming that he believed in God. I am not aware that the Nazis used this term in any special way, but I would be interested in being enlightened on this point if someone knows better.

Kenneth Stern


Robert asked:

I have a master's degree in philosophy and looking for work... in philosophy! I'm very interested in philosophical counselling and I would like to develop the proper abilities.

Can you help me finding books or any appropriate resources? (It could be in English or French). I'm living in Quebec, Canada.

Here are some websites:

Jobs: http://www.uky.edu/ArtsSciences/Philosophy/PhilosophyJobs.html

American Philosophical Practitioners Association: http://www.appa.edu/

American Society for Philosophical Counseling and Psychotherapy: (ASPCP) http://www.aspcp.org/

Steven Ravett Brown


Rob asked:

I'm a grade 12 student at a small private school in Nova Scotia, Canada. I take an International Baccalaureate course called 'Theory of Knowledge', it is essentially a class that is based on metaphysics and the like. I am doing an essay on a topic that has bothered me for some time, Is there a difference between existing and living?

Would you agree that people that exist are people that question the life they lead? They are the people that try to break free of the box of dogma, or have broken free! Or if I may use Plato as a reference, are people that exist the ones that break they're chains and try to walk out of the cave and into the light! And then all the other people that do not do this and do not even recognize the importance of this, are the people that simply live. Would you agree with this?

I have started to take the view that in all "learning" one must try to lose their ego. Its hard for me to put this concept into prose as I am not complete in my views yet. But, I think that before anyone can become "enlightened" they must lose their ego. Ego, more or less, represents a "false" or straw foundation that they build their truths on. Once one has broken this ego or come to terms with it, they begin to learn or rather see things for what they are. Is this a valid assumption, and are there any other clearer ways to explain this?

There is much about your question I do not understand. It is, I think, partly because of the way you use some words like "exist" and "enlightened" and "living"; but also because your way of thinking about philosophy is very different from the way philosophy is thought about in most of the English speaking academies.

It is, for instance, clear to me that there is a big difference between existence and living. Inanimate objects like chair or stars certainly exist, but they do not live, they are not alive, or even capable of being alive. So, let us confine your question to just living things like animals and people. I think that your use of the term "living" ("vivant") carries with it more than only its biological meaning. It carries also a judgement of value and also an emotional meaning which might be expressed by someone who says of someone, "He does not live, he only exists." This would perhaps be more prosaically expressed as, "He lives only a very dull and pointless life." But I think this would be a very personal judgement about how another lives his life, which the person himself might very well not agree with. The great philosopher, Immanuel Kant, lived what might be called a very dull life. For instance, he never left his native city in Prussia. But he is universally acknowledged to have been one the greatest philosophers who has ever lived. So, whether a person is "alive" in your sense, can be a very subjective matter and not anything for which there is some generally universal standard.

You seem to believe that there is a kind of "enlightenment" that some people achieve which makes them different from others, and that they are those who "live" rather than "exist," in your way of speaking. But there have been philosophers (and I shall speak only of them since I know most about them) who like the English philosophers John Locke and David Hume, or even the more recent philosophers, Bertrand Russell, or G.E. Moore, or Ludwig Wittgenstein, tried to think though and understand very complex problems like, for instance, the nature of human knowledge and belief; or the nature of causal connection in science; or whether we could know there is a world external to our minds; or even what we mean when we assert of something, human or not, that it exists (or deny it exists) and who would not have claimed any great experience of "enlightenment" in the way I think you mean that term, but who have made great contributions to our understanding of philosophy: perhaps as much as Plato, or perhaps even more.

So, I think, myself, that it is not true that what you call "enlightenment" is the difference between those who "only" exist, and those who, as you put it "live." I think that the value of men's lives differ in more complex ways than that, and are largely judged by the contributions they make to the world and other men in various ways.

Kenneth Stern


Luana asked:

I am studying philosophy in high school and I would like to know what the value of philosophy is. Besides Bertrand Russell, are there any other philosophers who wrote on the value of philosophy?

Most philosophers have something to say somewhere about the value of philosophy. Usually it relates to their philosophy. To simplify the complex question of the value of philosophy we could just ask, Why study philosophy? Here is an excerpt from a handout I give students:

The study of philosophy is really only the recognition and placing on a formal and justified footing of what everyone always already does. Because all of us act and think in terms of some 'philosophy' that guides, steers or orients us. We perceive things in terms of our 'philosophy'. How many people are victims of the philosophy of others? The answer is probably, most people. And how much of other people's philosophy has been neither examined or only ill examined by them? The answer, again, is probably, most of it. That is a scary thought. Another example of our pre-existing relationship with philosophy that all of us always already has, is relationships, and love in particular. Our ideas about relationships and other people guide our behaviour. The way we react to other people's behaviour toward our self in relationships affects our self-regard. We form habits from our beliefs that have arisen out of our patterns of thought, which have become ingrained. In short, the way we think is of the essence of the way we are.

If, then, we turn our thinking upon itself, if we decide to improve this area of our being, we will need to study philosophy. Of course there are different methods of study and different areas of philosophy that we might take up. The point here is that we are already caught up in philosophy whether we like it or not. The choice to take up philosophy in this or that way, or to take up this or that kind of philosophy is itself philosophical. I am not taking you round in circular arguments here: the fact is that philosophy is embracing. A human being cannot step outside its embrace without ceasing to be human.

So, philosophy is for people who want a life that is more worth living and to live in a world which is a better place. This "more" and this "better" depend on philosophy, no matter what the circumstances.

I go on to quote a couple of passages from the opening part of Jostein Gaarder's book, Sophie's World, which I recommend to my own school students (advising them which bits to skip otherwise they give up).

Matthew Del Nevo


Esther asked:

I have a question on Nietzsche and Plato. How would Plato's distinction between appearance and reality in his cave allegory apply to the realm of morality, for example, actions humans should and shouldn't do? and what happens practically in society if, following, Nietzsche, we cannot arrive at any reasonable standard with reference to which we can distinguish between moral appearance and moral reality?

There is a similarity between Nietzsche and Plato in that both regard moral appearance as the values of their day, and moral reality as rooted in human nature.

Socrates seeks to strip others' of their false opinions and for Plato false opinions belong to the realm of appearance rather than knowledge. Reason is the means of acquiring moral knowledge and in the Gorgias, Socrates argues that virtue is knowledge of what benefits the agent and justice is to do with behaviour to others. Justice is tied to virtue because a man is worse off if he behaves unjustly to others. Socrates claims he would rather suffer injustice than do it, and also says that the unjust man is wretched and pitiable. He cannot claim this on the basis of appearance or beliefs about others. A man may be unjust and yet thrive. The use of reason involves conceptual analysis in Plato's dialogues, but to know moral reality also involves being able to recognise the truth. What Socrates is saying is that if you are able to see with clarity you will know that it is not of benefit to yourself to commit evil. This is because if you come to see — again with clarity — what you have done and how another has suffered, and how this has its source in the evil within you, you cannot avoid being pitiable. The unjust man who thrives is deceiving himself.

On Nietzsche's view rational thinking curbs the will to power. What Socrates sees in mankind is different from that identified by Nietzsche. For Nietzsche, the remorse or guilt felt by the evil-doer is weakness, standing in contrast to a strong creative Nietzschean vision of a powerful will which contains no inner conflict between justice and self-interest. Nietzsche is not interested in justice as a social concept.

I don't think that Nietzsche thought that there was no standard of reference because he identified traditional values as false and the true value as "life-enhancement". The falsity of traditional values such as Christianity is made apparent by what Nietzsche thought was their imminent collapse and the focus of new values must be found within the individual. In fact, we still have traditional moral values and their strength lies in the fact that they are internal to the individual in the sense which Socrates describes.

Rachel Browne


Susan asked:

Is what I am doing now (submitting a question to Ask a Philosopher) unethical, in view of the fact that if everyone else were to submit a question at the same time chaos would ensue? (I'm thinking of something I once read, but can't remember clearly, about Kant's Categorical Imperative.)

The Pathways web site currently receives around 50 visitors today. Add to that an unknown number of surfers who come across a link to Ask a Philosopher on other philosophy web sites and the result of everyone submitting a question who had the opportunity to do so would be an avalanche. The service would collapse.

According to Kant's Categorical Imperative, the intention that everyone should do as you do should not turn out to be self-contradictory or self-frustrating. "Act only on that maxim that you would wish to be a universal law." So if your maxim is, "I want to know the answer to my question, that is why I am submitting it to Ask a Philosopher", then it seems the corresponding general rule or universal law would be, "Everyone who has a philosophical question should submit it to Ask a Philosopher". The result would indeed be chaos.

In reality, the number of questions submitted to Ask a Philosopher each week remains surprisingly constant, between 10 and 15!

Consider a different case. You are walking down a country lane and see a beautiful wild flower. (Let's ignore the fact that in the UK, there is a law against picking wild flowers.) Suppose you thought to yourself, "If everybody who saw a wild flower they liked took it home with them, there would be no wild flowers left for the rest of us to enjoy. I agree that's a bad thing which I do not want to happen. But most people will not do this, because they will not feel justified in making an exception in their own case. So if I pick this flower, there will still be plenty left." There is no doubt that such an action would be unethical, according to Kant's Categorical Imperative, even though you are confident that no bad consequences will ensue from your action. You are making an unjustified exception of yourself, relying on the ethical behaviour of others.

In the case of Ask a Philosopher, you are not making an unjustified exception of yourself. It is perfectly reasonable to think, "Everyone who has a question which they think would be suitable and who wants to know the answer to their question as much as I do should submit it", knowing that, in fact, not everyone has a suitable question, and, out of those that do, not everyone wants to know the answer to their question as much as you do. You are not making an unjustified exception of yourself. You are merely acting on the basis of your prediction of what other people will do for their own self-interested reasons.

That still leaves a puzzle about how such a service is able to work. The secret of success is that reward for submitting a question should not be too high in relation to the effort required. If, for example, everyone who submitted a question received 1000 Pounds, then as soon as word got round the money would soon run out. Would it be unethical to submit a question under such circumstances? If no-one submits a question, then no-one benefits. If you get your question in first, then you benefit at the expense of others. If you delay, then others benefit at your expense. If those are the only alternatives, I do not see how it can be more ethical not to submit rather than to submit. It's a fair competition. If, however, the maximum total benefit could only be secured by agreeing with other users of the service on restricting the number of questions submitted to ensure that the money does not run out, then the ethical thing to do would be to hold back, and strive to set up such an agreement.

Geoffrey Klempner


Jennifer asked:

Do you think that we will ever come up with and ethical definition of happiness? Do you think that the world will ever be universally happy?

I don't think that "happiness" does have an "ethical" definition at all. After all, isn't happiness a state of mind that even bad people may (perhaps undeservedly) have? It may be that you think that we all ought to seek happiness although clearly, the three questions: what sort of state of mind is happiness? how can that state of mind be achieved; and whose happiness should be achieved? (only our own or that of that of others?) But a great philosopher, Immanuel Kant, once said that the moral question is not how to achieve happiness, but how to deserve happiness. For would you not agree that undeserved happiness is not a good thing? (Although it need not be a bad thing.)

Will all people someday be happy? I would, myself, doubt it? But is that necessarily a bad thing. Would you want evil people to be happy? I wouldn't.

Kenneth Stern


Deborah asked:

Hello. My name is Deborah Lyu from Virginia high school. Recently, I was assigned to write a persuasive essay for my English class. I questioned myself why we unintelligently redo the things that we hated? For example, I read from the Reader's Digest that one male had hated his father because the father did not care about him but when we grew up and got married, he was doing the same thing his father did. I think people hate something that they will unintentionally accept without looking within themself. Do you understand my point? If you do, I would like to hear your opinions about this. Thanks.

Augustine of Hippo wondered about this kind of thing in North Africa in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. The questions were already old. Why do we do what we hate when others do it? Why do we end up like the person we strove not to emulate? Why do we repeat the mistakes of the past generation when we are conscious they were mistakes? You will find as many explanations of this as there are schools of psychology. A lot of philosophers will take the 'cognitive' approach. This seems reasonable because of its scientific pretension. The more Antique approach, my own, would be to think as follows.

Although physically and materially individuals appear to be separate entities, as verified by sense certainty, at the more personal level, that of an individual's thoughts, values and attitudes, beliefs, limits and language they are not. We are dictated to by our nationality, locale, history, historiography (there is a great difference here), educational and political systems. We belong to all these things not just as 'individuals' but as leaves of a tree.

There is a living and real sense in which we are very much part of each other. The individual is the illusion of a certain mind set. In reality we belong to necessary forces which we are, but which are not reducible to you or I. Just because our body is not that of our father (in your example) much of the rest of us — the necessary forces — is. Further, our father is not just our father, he is his father and his brother and so on back and besides. We are contained by larger forces and the whole not by ourselves. Therefore it is not enough, as the individual will be inclined to do, to 'look within'. This is psychology's (mis)take. To Know Thyself you must start the journey of philosophy, on which thinking really begins. Hope you get my drift!

Matthew Del Nevo

Freud would say that the man who has a father who did not care about him represses the hurt (i.e. it becomes removed from he conscious to the unconscious) but the hurt lingers within him even though it is not conscious and it will have its effect on behaviour in a way that the man cannot control because the cause is in his unconscious. A person with bad memories does not want to repeat the experience, but is driven by repressed memories. According to Freud, if such a person can be brought to remember the initial fact of not being cared for, he can break out of repetitive behaviour.

At a more accessible conscious level, the lack of love may lead to a lack of self-regard or a feeling of unworthiness. If a such a person had self-regard, he would not behave in a way which ideally he would know from experience is harmful to others and that it is unworthy of him. It is sad that a person who has suffered himself to such an extent that he cannot recognise or think about the past truthfully goes on to behave in such a way that he becomes like the person who caused his suffering. Because the person cannot look within his consciousness to cure himself there is a sense in which he is not to blame. There is a protective mechanism at work in his mind.

Of course, there be a genetic explanation and then there would be little possibility of behaving otherwise.

Rachel Browne


Paul asked:

Is there a way in which the British legal philosopher can be regarded as a defender of law's autonomy? What is exactly the Rule of Recognition and how can we account for its legitimacy?

The type of legal philosopher who defends the law's autonomy is a formalist, as opposed to a philosopher who argues in favour of natural law, such as H.L.A. Hart who introduced the Rule of Recognition. However, there are problems with a formalist view.

Hart believed that the law was to some extent open because where there is no clear written legal guideline a judge will have to create new law. This is clearly true for case law. The formalist, on the other hand, argues that the legal system is a closed system and there is no discretionary law made by judges. This is obviously false given that case law is always created by judges. Although judges have to follow decisions made in previous like cases, where precedent is lacking, new law must be made. Furthermore, statutory law must be complied with by judges, but sometimes a statute is open to interpretation and when a judge interprets a statute in a particular way, he lays that interpretation down as law.

Hart thought that the law imposed rules of obligation. In a primitive society there are primary rules of obligation which are restrictions on violence, theft and deception, and if a society is to survive the majority should accept these rules. There are three defects in the rules, one of which is uncertainty and there are three secondary rules which eliminate the defects, one of which is the rule of recognition which aims to eliminate uncertainty.

Uncertainty is doubt concerning the scope of primary rules and the problem that there is no procedure or authority to settle uncertainties. The rules of recognition become enacted rules. So on Hart's description, the law arises from a natural state of a society and there is reliance on the acceptance of obligation and recognition of normativity by members of the society.

Although I mentioned the problems of formalism above, legal philosophers can still defend autonomy of the law since judges' rulings are part of the legal system, and their interpretations of statutes are not independent decision-making but directly derived from the wording. Another problem for the formalist is that law gets overturned and lacks stability, but what Hart calls rules of change are also internal to the system.

You could look at the following: Raz "The Autonomy of Legal Reasoning", Ratio Juris 6 (1993), Raz The Authority of Law, Dworkin Law's Empire, and Finnis "The Authority of Law in the Predicament of Contemporary Social Theory", Ethics and Public Policy (1984), 115.

Rachel Browne


Nina asked:

How improvised is improvised music?

For something to be improvised in a technical sense it should not be pre-planned. However, when making improvised music, there is usually a lot of planning involved. How long? How loud? What instrument? Where you perform? Where the audience stand? (Should you have an audience?) Yes, this does not mean that the music is not improvised, but should it be the first time you have played an instrument for it to be truly improvised? Are there rules for improvisation? If so is it improvisation? If you plan what your next note will be that is planning therefore not improvisation. Is anything improvised?

My answer to Garry's question on the Fifth selection of questions and answers covers similar ground. The problem that concerned Garry was how it is that, when improvising on the saxophone, he can know and yet not know where he is going with an improvised piece, how the notes he plays can be intended, rather than merely accidental.

One particular point that stands out about your question is the idea of something's being 'pre-planned'. It seems to me that some of your worries stem from understanding that term in two quite different senses. Deciding on an instrument, a venue, and all the other features provide a context for the performance, for the improvisation. They do not themselves have to be improvised in order for the performance to be considered an improvisation. It is like a painter deciding what canvas to use. In this sense, there is nothing wrong in allowing these details to be fully 'pre-planned'.

A piece of music that you are playing cannot be described as improvised if you have thought out in advance exactly what notes you are going to play. However, it doesn't follow that you cannot use any sequence of notes that you have not used before. If one thinks of a piece of music as constructed out of phrases, then it is perfectly possible to construct a piece of music using certain phrases that one has used before, provided that you have not decided in advance which phrases to use, or in which order they are to occur. Jazz musicians have particular sequences of notes which they like, which become like a 'signature'. From just a few bars, you know that you are listening to Charlie Parker. It doesn't follow that when Charlie Parker uses one of his favourite musical phrases he is not improvising.

Geoffrey Klempner


Heather asked:

I am not sure if this ranks as a philosophical question or not, but here goes. I am wanting to know how the way humans raise their children as opposed to all other species on the planet affects the human race. Since many human parents will take care of their children for many years past maturity and continue to support in many ways after the children leave, does this weaken their ability to become strong and independent?

It is more a psychological than a philosophical question, but it does, I think, contain value questions which are, I suppose, philosophical. Anyway, forgetting about division of labor, I will try it.

I don't think there is a universal answer to this question. It would, it seems to me depend on the individual, and also on the particular circumstances. I think all parent want, or at least should want, their children to be strong and independent, and "stand on their own two feet." They will have to, eventually. But it may be that some children take a longer time to mature than others; or that although a child is mature, he or she nevertheless continues to need help from his parents because of the kind of career he or she is being educated for. After all, a career in medicine, for instance, takes a lot of time and also money. So, as in so many cases having to do with people, just as one shoe size does not fit all, so one answer will not fit all. General rules cannot take the place of individual judgements.

Kenneth Stern


Ahmed asked:

Is a statement a form of judgement? How about the assertion that "The acceleration due to gravity is constant". Is this a statement or a judgement? In other words are all statements a form of judgement or an expression of some value? How about a single cry like "GOD"? or "OM" as in Hinduism?

I think it's the other way around. A judgement is a form of statement. A statement or an assertion (which expresses a proposition) picks out or refers to a state of affairs, such as your gravity example. You may know the gravity sentence to be true, or believe that it is, but you don't judge that it is. A sentence can be used in various ways such as to assert, deny, imply or judge. A judgement is a use of a sentence which is more evaluative or personal than an assertion — it's a sort of assessment. When a person makes an ethical judgement, for instance, there is no criteria to go on that will enable you to claim your judgement is true. You cannot know that something is wrong but you can make a judgement about it.

Words, as well as sentences, are used. A single cry would be an expression of a feeling or an expressive act.

Rachel Browne


Helen asked:

What is a philosopher?

Can it be said that Heraclitus was not one?

A philosopher, according to my nine-year old daughter, is "an argument waiting to happen". Though one might quibble with this definition, on the grounds that it would make my wife a philosopher (only kidding!) it has more than a germ of truth. Philosophers are aficionados, critics and practitioners of argument. That is what they do. To have 'a philosophy' is not to be a philosopher, if you are not prepared to argue your case. Moreover, to argue philosophically implies an interest in truth, rather than mere persuasion. An argument should persuade because it is valid.

The problem with Heraclitus is that knowledge of the Greek philosophers before Socrates (the 'Presocratics') has come down to us via reports and surviving fragments of their works preserved by students and commentators. The result is that we have to make do with a patchwork quilt of snippets, rather than completed works. This has had a particularly unfortunate effect in the case of Heraclitus, whose highly quotable epigrams were preserved at the expense of the surrounding context in which he laid out his ethics and philosophy of nature.

Many of these saying do indeed sound obscure, earning Heraclitus the nicknames, 'The Obscure' and 'The Riddler':

Of the Logos which is as I describe it men always prove to be uncomprehending, both before they have heard it and when once they have heard it. For although all things happen according to this Logos men are like people of no experience, even when they experience such words and deeds as I explain, when I distinguish each thing according to its constitution and declare how it is; but the rest of men fail to notice what they do after they wake up just as they forget what they do when asleep.

And as the same thing there exists in us living and dead and the waking and the sleeping and young and old; for these things having changed round are those, and those having changed round are these.

Things taken together are wholes and not wholes, something which is being brought together and brought apart, which is in tune and out of tune; out of all things there comes a unity, and out of a unity all things.

Upon those that step into the same rivers different and different waters flow...They scatter and...gather...come together and flow away...approach and depart.

This world-order did none of gods or men make, but it always was and is and shall be: an ever living fire, kindling in measures and going out in measures.

(Taken from The Presocratic Philosophers 2nd Edn Kirk, Raven and Schofield Cambridge 1983 pp. 181ff.)

An important clue that Heraclitus was not content to speak in riddles comes from the first of the fragments: "...when I distinguish each thing according to its constitution and declare how it is..". One can only assume that this analytical process of carefully 'distinguishing each thing according to its constitution' occurred in works which have been lost.

From the many preserved fragments of Heraclitus I believe it is possible to reconstruct a coherent and powerful philosophical theory, as well as the arguments for that theory. Of course, there is always room for disagreement over interpretation. My feeling (which, it should be noted, Kirk et al. do not share) is that Plato was right in his interpretation of the famous river saying. As Plato reports in his dialogue Cratylus, "Heraclitus somewhere says that all things are in process and nothing stays still, and likening existing things to the stream of a river he says that you would not step twice into the same river."

The main advance Heraclitus made over his predecessor Anaximenes, who said that the universe was made out of a single material, 'air' in different stages of 'condensation' or 'rarefaction, was in his denial that there exists any permanent substance that continues from one moment to the next. In place of substance, there is simply the Logos, the law governing all appearances. Heraclitus was the first process philosopher. Every existing thing — the table I rest my hands upon, the houses and trees outside my window, the earth itself — is like a flame, or a river. Continuity of form is a mere appearance, which hides the realty of constant renewal and change.

Geoffrey Klempner


Phil asked:

I want to be a philosopher. I know that, but I get, say, my degree in philosophy and then what? I know there is teaching but what are the possibilities with a degree in philosophy and how do I find those? Its not like I can open up the newspaper and see an ad for "philosopher for hire".

I'm only a 16 year old still in that "I know I'm gonna be a rock star cause my mommy told me so" phase, so obviously I want to be the next modern day Plato or Aristotle, or wait — even better — Leonardo da Vinci. I'm doing this not only for personal use but I'm also in a "speech/tech" class and I have to do a powerpoint presentation on my chosen career: a philosopher. Not really a very easy thing to do for one who has no clue where to start. Basically, I know that Princeton has the highest regarded philosophy department, but my enlightenment stops right there.

At a Freshers induction day for the Sheffield Philosophy Department, I was asked by young student just starting out on her BA degree what were the job prospects for philosophy graduates. "I complete my degree, then what?" "Then you sign on the dole!" (social security) I replied. This did not go down too well. I think she was expecting me to say, "Then you get a job teaching philosophy, have a brilliant career, become famous and live happily ever after." You will not be surprised to hear that I was not invited to any more induction days.

It wouldn't have been so bad, had our conversation not been overheard by a young woman from MIT who had recently joined the Sheffield teaching staff. She was outraged. How could I justify living off the state? A parasite financed by taxpayers hard-earned money? I said something to the effect that the tax payers were getting "good value for their money" from unemployed philosophers who worked hard at what they did best. She replied coldly that people with jobs didn't have the choice whether or not to pay taxes.

Back in 1987, only three or four years before this incident occurred, I was unemployed, driven to the desperate expedient of putting up 'Philosopher for Hire' cards in the windows of local shops. Everyone deserves at least one lucky break in life. Mine was having a sharp-eyed reporter from the Sheffield Star notice my little advert. A week later, I was being interviewed and having my photograph taken. The article appeared under the headline, "Philosopher in Bid to Hire Out His Talents". The reporter, Donna Saul, came up with the happy phrase, 'Soul searching for ordinary people', which later inspired the title of one of the Pathways programs. (For a more recent Sheffield Star article, with photo, see Mind Games on the Glass House Philosopher etc site.)

Donna Saul's article led to my getting a job teaching philosophy evening classes for the Workers' Educational Association (which I am proud to be still doing today) and other teaching work, including work at the Sheffield Philosophy Department. I could have continued down that route, making a respectable living as an academic philosopher, but I chose not to. Instead, I resigned my university work to pursue my dream of having my own school of philosophy.

You can make it in the academic world if you are the best. If you think you've got what it takes, then go for it. I'm talking about a first class degree, a PhD, articles published in philosophy journals. Maybe one day you could make it up the greasy pole to the Chair of Princeton. That won't make you a Plato or a da Vinci. It's worth remembering that most of the great philosophers in history were not academic philosophers. The majority of the philosophers teaching in universities today who have gained fame and recognition for their work will be forgotten in a hundred years time.

And what if you fail to make it to the big time? That is when you will have to decide just how much philosophy means to you. Would you still want to be a philosopher, even if it meant poverty, obscurity? Working at a petrol pump or as a janitor, or — horror of horrors — living off social security and food coupons? I wouldn't blame you if you said, 'That's not for me.'

Geoffrey Klempner

Actually, there are websites, etc., for "jobs for philosophers," and in this country (USA), about 2/3 of PhD's get jobs. Pretty bad, all told... and they don't pay well. Suppose you wrote poetry, and loved it, and had talent in that area... what would you do? Or, to put it another way... the only things I have ever really been interested in (after trying probably 50 different jobs) are philosophical issues, problems, questions... and I've finally bitten the bullet, and I'm about to get my PhD in philosophy, and I've started publishing (in my 50s). Um... if you gotta do it, do it... there are how many... 6 or 8 billion people in the world....? Do what you want... if you fail, so what? If you die poor, so what? The ethics of doing philosophy, in part, at least, is that it's ideas trickle down, so to speak, and have great and general influence... rather than science, which goes the other way, initially.

Steven Ravett Brown


Frank asked:

I am a psychiatrist and Psychoanalyst (plain vanilla Freudian) I have recently been studying Phenomenology (Jaspers) but am confused by several matters.

(1) Just what constitutes a Phenomenological "analysis", and just what is it's aim and method?

If the answer is "to appreciate or understand another's "BEING", then what is that? I think I understand this but I am not certain.

If this is merely to elucidate this "being", then what is the purpose in doing that? Since Jaspers was a Psychiatrist like myself, was there a therapeutic aim...or was it merely something of a voyeuristic activity on the part of the analyst.. and maybe even for the "patient" (?) To know just to know, like some of "hollywood analysands", a fashion or fad.

This is difficult to answer because I would not like to lead a professional astray on the basis of only having read Jaspers' paper "The Phenomenological Approach in Psychopathology" which, however, seems very clear. It is in the British Journal of Psychoanalysis (1968) 114, 1313-1323.

The aim of Jaspers' phenomenology is to acquire knowledge of the subjective experiential world of a patient, where the phenomena which it aims to describe, in furtherance of this understanding, is conscious and individualistic, since no two patients will be alike in all experiential respects. "Being" is a difficult, vague, general term and should be abandoned in favour of the notion of subjectivity or the inner mental life of a patient. Phenomenology aims to describe the qualitative nature of specific experiences such as pseudo-hallucination with reference to other qualitative experiential states, an example being the connection between pseudo-hallucination and normal voluntary formation of images. Whilst the former is clear cut and involuntary, the latter is incomplete and voluntary. The point of this investigation, defining psychic phenomena in relation to other elements of such phenomena, is that it describes the mind itself rather than reducing the psychic to alien states such as the firing of brain fibres and tries to understand what the mental is like, free of psychological theory. Each individual will have a variety of phenomenological states which it may not be possible to pick out and define as easily as hallucination, which is common, but this is the initial approach.

Phenomenological knowledge will then be a body of knowledge about mental experiences which will help the psychiatrist to understand his patients, or will "enrich" his understanding. It does not mean you need to abandon psychiatric treatment.

However, the method of phenomenology is not compatible with taking a Freudian attitude to a patient since to achieve an understanding of another's inner experience the psychiatrist must empathise, which is "self-immersion in other people's self-description". To listen to someone as having a form of neurosis described by Freudian theory, for instance, is to adopt a theoretical stance, which is to impose your ideas onto a patient rather than to try to understand what things are like for him.

This may be a fashion, but it is not voyeuristic unless it is to satisfy some warped pleasure of the patient and analyst which is unlikely.

Rachel Browne


Seth asked:

I am beginning research on a thesis whose topic is (generally as it is not yet fully formulated):

"An examination on the connection between Arthur Schopenhauer's view of the Will and the need to quiet it, as compared to Buddhist philosophy and the elimination of desire"

I was wondering if you could point me in the direction of any texts or essays you may know of on the subject as well as interjecting any thoughts you may have on the subject itself.

A must-read is R.Safranski's Schopenhauer and the Wild Years of Philosophy (London, 1989). This was originally in German and was hugely popular. It is not a specialist work, but is bound to be insightful on your topic, as being insightful is Safranski's hallmark. Your topic is one that has intrigued me too. May I make a few comments.

Schopenhauer upholds the Buddhist doctrine that there are two kinds of truth: worldly or relative truth (samvriti satya) and absolute truth (paramartha sataya). This is the world as will (absolute truth) and representation (apparent truth). However, Schopenhauer is secretly much more akin to Christianity than Buddhism. For it is Christianity not Buddhism that speaks of an absolute will (God) and of the need to attune one's own will to it by training (ascesis). "The will is the [Kantian] in-itself of all phenomena" World as Will and Representation §63. This absolute is a unity by contrast to the principle of individuality which is sunk in maya (illusion) to the extent of its self-righteousness. The philosopher will see in her own will a representation of the All-will. The truth is not self in the individual sense but in the returning of the separate will back into the primordial Will.

Schopenhauer spoke highly of Vedas and Upanishads ("the greatest gift this century." §64), but his philosophy is only partially Buddhist. The Three Dharma Seals (Dharma mudra) are the marks of every one of Buddha's teachings (Dharma). The first is impermanence, the second is non-self the third is nirvanah. For Buddhism it is nirvanah, not Will which is the ground of being. Nirvanah is like the ocean, phenomena are like the waves that come up out of it and go back into it. The Dharma is the raft that helps you cross. What is really lacking from Schopenhauer compared to Buddhism is any sense of the Twelve Links of Independent Co-Arising. This is where Schopenhauer, I think, is completely overshadowed by the sophistication of Buddhist philosophy. His Will remains like a Christian dogma.

Matthew Del Nevo


Brian asked:

What is religious belief from the perspective of philosophy? Is faith rational? What is the relationship of faith to human life?

The answer you get is apt to differ from philosopher to philosopher, since religion is an emotional topic.

It seems to me that religious belief should be thought of as similar to all other beliefs (although, of course, important to those who have it). This leads me to your second question, is faith rational? Faith seems to me just a kind of belief, although, no doubt very fervent belief. It is, therefore, not an alternative to belief, but like all beliefs, it needs reasons for it to be a rational belief. It seems to me a bad error to say something like, "I don't need reason because I believe 'on faith'." That treats faith as a kind of reason, when, in fact, it isn't. It (to repeat) needs reasons. So, to say "I believe on faith (or worse 'on the grounds of faith')" is only to say, "I believe because I believe." So faith (or religious belief) is not rational on its own. It is rational only if it is backed up by reasons.

Sometimes, faith is identified with revelation: direct communication with God. The philosopher, John Locke, pointed out that even if we accept (as he thought we must) that revelation is true, since it is the direct word of God, nevertheless we have to determine whether what we believe is a revelation really is a revelation and not, perhaps, from the Devil, or because we are under the influence of some drug. And the only way to decide that is by reason. So even in the case of revelation, reason trumps faith.

Kenneth Stern


Joshua asked:

If we (philosophers) could go back in time and bring back one philosopher to help us understand what wisdom is and how it may be attained and we brought back Plato, what would he tell us?

Plato would say the same now as he did then, i.e. in the Symposium he said that wisdom is a state of perfection and knowledge. Wisdom is not attainable, but an ideal state to be sought. Socrates was a seeker after wisdom, trying to gain an understanding of the world through the use of reason, but he didn't achieve much even though he identified all sorts of false opinions. There is probably more false opinion around day — in fact, opinions and stances on issues are the "in" thing. People are also busier and do not have time to seek wisdom, especially if it involves hanging around in the market place deep in discussion on a daily basis. Plato would say that they should try, and if the model of Socrates is a guide to how a wisdom-seeker should live, it is an effort which should be practised constantly and so would not easily fit in with ordinary social living.

Pierre Hadot describes the "strangeness of the philosopher in the human world" and goes on:

One does not know how to classify him, for he is neither a sage nor a man like other men. He knows that the normal, natural state of men should be wisdom, for wisdom is nothing more than the vision of things as they are, the vision of the cosmos as it is in the light of reason, and wisdom is also nothing more than the mode of being and living that should correspond to this vision. But the philosopher also knows that this wisdom is an ideal state, almost inaccessible. For such a man, daily life, as it is organized and lived by other men, must necessarily appear abnormal, like a state of madness, unconsciousness and ignorance of reality. And nonetheless he must live this life every day, in this world in which he feels himself a stranger and in which others perceive him to be one as well.

Pierre Hadot Philosophy as a Way of Life (Blackwell 1995)

Rachel Browne


BJ asked:

What is philosophy? What types of questions does it ask? Why are those questions important? I am trying to decide if a philosophy class is something I would like to take.

Of course take a philosophy class. You will be introduced to a new world of thinking about things. It will be unfamiliar, but if you have any intellectual curiosity you will find it fascinating.

Philosophy is the study of the key concepts we all use in thinking about the world and human beings in the world. For instance, all of us sometimes say that we know some things and believe other things. But what is knowledge, and how does it differ from mere belief? We are always making moral judgments about whether actions are right or wrong, or whether people are good or bad. But what is right and wrong and what is good and bad? What are we saying when we employ these concepts. And what is a moral judgement anyway? How does it differ from (say) a scientific judgement? And, can moral judgement be shown to be correct or incorrect, or is it all just a "matter of opinion?" And, what about God? Is there a God? How can we know there is one. What good reasons are there for thinking there is a God? How can there be a God when so many bad things happen. Does an all-powerful God permit evil? Why?

These are just some of the questions philosophers have asked and to which some of the greatest minds that have ever existed have sought the answers. Men like Plato and Aristotle, Spinoza, Descartes, David Hume, John Locke, and Immanuel Kant. You may not have heard of many of these people, but believe me, they were amazing, and fascinating to read and to think about and even to argue with and against.

Philosophy is an important part of your college education. And, who knows? After you take one course, you may want to take another. With me it was like peanuts; I could not stop with just one.

Kenneth Stern


Audrey asked:

If philosophy was taught in high schools, more so than it is, what kind of effect or ripple might happen? In other words, if they are taught to think earlier, how would it effect their choices, and interactions?

The lack of awareness of philosophy in British secondary education (ages 11—18) is a scandal. School students can opt to do Philosophy for one of their Advanced level, pre-university entrance subjects but relatively few schools offer the option. The syllabus for the A-level Philosophy exam is stodgy and old-fashioned, with the same well-worn texts appearing over and over again. The problems of philosophy are consigned to neat little pigeon holes and the answers learned off pat with student essays scored on a strict points system. Nothing could be better calculated to dampen a youngster's interest in philosophy.

I would like to see philosophy taught in all high schools. The difficulty is, the teaching methods that would be required to do the job properly are at odds with a system designed for the sole purpose of grading and classifying. Let's face it, young philosophers can be a pain in the ass. They ask too many questions. They answer the teacher back.

Those few students who are lucky to have been taught to philosophize rather than pass an exam in philosophy, have the best chance of doing well in whatever field they choose to pursue: art, science, teaching, business, politics, sport. There is no area of human activity that is not enhanced by the depth that it adds to a human personality. To be aware of the ultimate questions of human existence adds to our appreciation of what life has to offer, makes us more effective in whatever we choose to do. Not to mention the thinking and communication skills honed by philosophical dialogue and debate.

A good case can be made, I believe, for schools hiring philosophers from outside the teaching profession. Since the days of Socrates philosophy at its best has always been a subversive activity. The professional teacher's thinking is too geared to keeping discipline and awarding grades. It is impossible to teach philosophy when your main concern is keeping order in class. Disrespect for authority should be the rule. The kinds of philosophers I would hire would not get on well with other members of the school staff room.

Geoffrey Klempner


David asked:

I am curious about the relationship between knowledge and belief. One person I know argues that belief is a requirement for knowledge, in the sense that "X knows Y" entails that "X believes Y to be true." It seems to me that this is unnecessary and that it misrepresents the cognitive process: ordinarily one does not consider that one "believes" what one "knows" (e.g. I do not say that I believe the world is round if I know the world is round or that I believe my name is David if I know my name is David). What is the reigning philosophical position on this question?

It is true that it would be misleading when asked a question to say that we believe something when we know that thing. Just as it would be misleading to say when asked how many people there are in a room that there were 10 people in a room when in fact we knew there were 20. It is a condition of "assertibility" that in normal conditions, we should not give less information than we have when asked for the information. But "assertibility" conditions of communication are not the same thing as truth-conditions. So, if there are 20 people in a room, we are asserting what is true when we say there are 10 people in the room, since if there are 20 then there are 10. In the same way, even if we ought not to say we believe something is true when we know it is true, it does not follow that when we know something we do not also believe that thing.

Of course, we should not say that there are only 10 people in the room when there are 20, and very often our saying there are 10 people may be understood as our saying that there are only 10 people because of the conversational rule that it is expected that we give all the information we have when asked; similarly, if we say we believe something when we know it, that will be interpreted as only believing it for the same reason. But clearly, when I say there are 10 people even when there are 20, I am speaking the truth: and when I say, "I believe" even when I know, I am speaking the truth too.

After all, to believe some proposition p, is to accept that p is true. And when I know that p, I must be accepting the truth of p. So, I think your friend is right, although your objection is interesting and answering it brings out important points. (Some of the best philosophy consists in making mistakes.)

There is a different objection to the view that knowledge entails belief that is also pretty interesting. Suppose a schoolboy who knows the answer to the question, "In what year did the Normans invade England" (1066) is so intimidated by the teacher who asks the question, that he replies very hesitantly "The date was 1066." Does the schoolboy not believe the answer even though he knows it? Think about it first, and then look at my answer:

My answer is, yes, the schoolboy does know the answer and so, does believe the answer. But, he does not believe he knows the answer. What do you think about that?

Kenneth Stern


Lou asked:

Is there a need for something called feminist ethics at all? I know that J.S. Mill argued that there are no essential differences between men and women, that they have, at least in theory the same status as moral agents, so how can feminists deal with their claim of the equal rights they are entitled to? How can one define the advantages and inadequacies of a feminist ethics?

I looked up feminist ethics on the internet and, to my surprise, found that its quite interesting. You can go to http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-ethics/ for details on the subject.

Apparently, Mill thought that women's moral nature — their inclination to subservience and sacrifice for others — was not a result of their inner propensities but imposed upon them by a patriarchal society, so there is no such thing as "women's morality". As far as we behave morally, free from social conditioning, we are all the same. The contrary view makes a distinction between male and female virtues and claims that female virtues — nurturance, empathy, compassion, self-sacrifice, kindness — are morally superior. So the question arises whether men should try to develop these virtues, or whether women's virtues should not be seen as virtues, since this won't help them to break free of their subservient role in society. But, as mentioned, it is also argued that there is a value to subservience and sacrifice especially within the family. So basically, feminist ethics draws a distinction between men and women which is both sociological and biological.

Mill's view supports women's rights because he doesn't think that women are naturally given to subservience and sacrifice, so they ought to fight to overthrow a male dominated society. To champion women's superior virtues is not compatible with claiming the right to equality, because it is to recognise that women are naturally caring and supportive so they are best suited to bearing children and caring them, or looking after the elderly. However, women can agree with Mill and claim being caring is not a virtue, or support their claim to equal rights simply by denying this supposed difference between men and women. Its easy enough for women to deny that they are kinder and more compassionate than men, and it may not be a natural tendency in a woman to be nurturing, since this can be the result of social conditioning, or the way women are raised differently from men and treated differently by their mothers. However, women have different experiences from men, such as being pregnant and giving birth which naturally prepares them for the role of nurturing.

If it is argued that there is difference between men and women, then women can claim the right to greater recognition of their value because of their natural moral superiority.

The interesting aspect of feminist ethics is that it constitutes an attack on traditional ethics which is held to value so-called masculine traits such as reason, autonomy and transcendence. Feminist ethics places value on emotion and interdependence. Any new approach to ethics, based upon human nature, should be welcomed. It also raises questions about what we take virtue to be.

However, drawing a distinction between reason and care in masculine/ feminine terms is of doubtful use if there is no real truth to it, which would be an inadequacy to focus on. Also, the idea that sacrifice is related to subservience and is only made by women is questionable, and there is no sacrifice in being caring and supportive if this is what is natural for women. Men make sacrifices too. It is not a natural propensity in a man to go to the office eight hours a day, for instance and men are often subservient in the work place.

Rachel Browne


Glouisel asked:

Are sentences that are neither true nor false still meaningful for some anti-realists, e.g. Dummett, in a way that they are not for logical positivists?

If so, where do such sentences get their meaning? True and false ones can get their meaning from truth conditions even if these are just conceived of as verification conditions but those that are not verifiable/ falsifiable must get their meaning somewhere else.

If not, how can sentences that are neither true or false violate bivalence. Surely a sentence that is neither true nor false just because it is meaningless is not a problem.

Anti-realists are careful not to say that a sentence is 'neither true nor false'. If 'true' and 'false' are the only truth values, then 'P is neither true or false' is tantamount to a violation of the law of non-contradiction. Nor are anti-realists proposing a 'third truth value', in between true and false, a device that has been used by logicians to deal with problems of vagueness. (So, for example, you might be unhappy to say about a man with very little hair on top that it is true that he is bald, or that it is false that he is bald. The truth of the matter is in-between.)

A Dummett-style anti-realist worries over sentences like, 'A tree stood here on this spot a million hears ago.' Supposing that we could agree what would count as a 'tree', and what we mean by 'here', this is a statement whose truth value we have no reliable means of discovering, no 'effective decision procedure'. The anti-realist's view is not that the sentence is neither true nor false. The anti-realist merely refuses to assert that the sentence is 'either true or false'. According to the Dummett-style anti-realist, no argument based on the premise, 'Either a tree stood here a million years ago or not' can be a logically valid argument.

I think this account of anti-realism limps on both feet, but I'm going along with it for the sake of your question. At least one can say that it is a view that has been held by at least one philosopher of note. (For my views on Dummett, realism and anti-realism see my answer to Rute and Alan.)

A logical positivist such as the young A.J. Ayer would have no difficulty in accepting that 'A tree stood here on this spot a million years ago' is a meaningful statement. According to Ayer's verification criterion of meaning, a statement is meaningful if, and only if, it is verifiable in principle. There are all sorts of difficulties with this notion. But it is intuitively clear that there is a world of difference between sentences whose verification is a mere medical or technological impossibility, and sentences for which it would be impossible even to conceive of circumstances under which they would be empirically verified. For example, 'The entire universe and all the matter in it is shrinking by half every ten seconds,' 'In between typing each word of this sentence, every process in the universe came to a standstill for a million years,' or, more controversially, 'God exists'. According to the logical positivist, all three statements are equally meaningless.

The short answer to your dilemma is that, yes, statements such as the one about the tree for which the law of bivalence or law of excluded middle fails are still meaningful according to an anti-realist of Dummett's persuasion. Our knowledge of their meaning does not give us the capacity to undertake a decision procedure which would reliably tell us whether the sentence is true or false. By contrast with decidable statements, we do not have the ability to recognize the truth or falsity of the statement whenever it occurs. All the same, we have a knowledge of rules and procedures for making inferences from present evidence to statements about the past which could conceivably be put to use were the appropriate kind of evidence to turn up.

Geoffrey Klempner


Jane asked:

Besides Cartesian mind-matter, or mind-body dualism, in what other ways is the term "dualism" used in the philosophical sense?

There is "epistemological dualism." This is the view that human beings know about the material world only by inference from the subjective sensations or perceptions which are the "given." This sets up the "problem of the external world," how can we know that there is a material world external to our minds? This view also gives rise to solipsism; the suspicion that each individual is alone in the world, or that, at least no one can know he is not alone in the world.

In the 18th century, Spinoza among the major philosophers questioned epistemological dualism (as he did the metaphysical dualism you mention in your question.) He also repudiated it. So did Thomas Reid in England.

In contemporary philosophy, epistemological dualism has come under sustained attack by philosophers like L. Wittgenstein (the "private language" problem); Wilfred Sellars in his "The Myth of the Given," J.L. Austin has argued for the kind of direct realism first argued by Thomas Reid. Although some philosophers still accept epistemological dualism, and argue from the possibility of "brains in vats" based on it, it is losing a good deal of its supposed self-evidence.

Kenneth Stern


Brian asked:

I would like to learn a lot more about political and theological philosophy. My current background in these areas is limited to personal experience, my own thoughts and various ideas scattered from around the internet. All of this is very unorganized and daunting. I was hoping I could get some assistance on selecting a some good starter books in these areas.

Aristotle's Politics and Nicomachean Ethics are invaluable books in political and theological philosophy respectively. They are books to start with and which you will find you never finish with. As philosophical theology is my area I would strongly recommend The Principles of Christian Theology (Revised Edition) by John MacQuarrie (SCM Press, 1977) It is an solid grounding for whatever you may subsequently work with in the area.

Matthew Del Nevo


Renee asked:

In your opinion do you think there is universal moral truth and why?

The only moral truth which is universal is that you should not do what you consider to be wrong, since this may lead to remorse. However, this means you already have moral values. There is no universal moral truth about values since nothing is absolutely wrong in all circumstances. Even if we claim killing is wrong there may be circumstances in which we would deem it to be acceptable.

The search for universality in morality is driven by the fear that there is no absolute reason to be moral, or that morality is relative and we can adopt any values or principles we please. However, one view of morality put forward by R. Gaita in Good and Evil: An Absolute Conception describes morality as moral understanding which is understanding of value concepts and critical terms. Morality is not about what to do and what not to do but about understanding the meaning of what we do which involves coming to know the difference between kindness and sentimentality, or the connection between evil, unreality and a lack of remorse or pity. Good is absolute in the sense that in the deepening of one's understanding of morality it comes to have an intrinsic worth to you as a human being.

Rachel Browne


A.V. Ravishankar asked:

What is the major difference between material, strict and causal and counterfactual implications? Which one captures the "common sense reasoning" involved in our daily discourse?

(1) Material implication is truth-functional implication. This means that P materially implies Q is true when either P is false or Q is true, but when P is true and Q is false, P materially implies Q is false. There need be no connection between P and Q so that we can determine the truth of the implication between P and Q solely by the truth values of P and of Q. So, for instance, "If Dogs are reptiles, then The Earth is spherical" is true because "Dogs are reptiles" is false.

(2) Strict implication or entailment is not truth-functional implication. P strictly implies Q when it is impossible for P to be true and for Q to be false. That is, when P, but not Q would be a contradiction. Thus, "This figure is a triangle" strictly implies "This figure has three sides".

(3) Causal implication would state a causal connection between P and Q. Thus, If this piece of copper is heated, then this piece of copper will expand.

(4) Counter-factual implication (often called a "counterfactual conditional") states an implication between P and Q where the antecedent, P, is contrary to fact. An instance would be, "If this piece of metal were being heated now, then it would expand." Note that the proposition, "This piece of metal is being heated now" is false. Of course, that counter-factual is true. Here is another instance: "If this stone dropped from my hand, then it would fly upward." This counterfactual is, of course, false. The problem is to determine the truth-conditions for counterfactual conditionals.

Your second question has no clear answer. It involves the interpretation of formal systems which is very complex. None of these different kinds of implication replicates "common-sense," but it might be that a formal system might actually improve on common-sense implication by refining it. Commonsense need no more be the touchstone of truth in logic than it is in physical science. An interesting book on the relation of logic to ordinary language (and to that extent, commonsense) is Logical Forms by Mark Sainsbury.

Kenneth Stern


Brandon asked:

Have any philosophers (since Plato's Symposium, say) attempted to comprehend the nature of love, in the sense of Eros, etc.? I'm not so much interested in strictly psychoanalytical approaches, but philosophical.

There is a book called Eros and Ethos by Sergio Givone. Or you might try Kierkegaard or the Platonist Iris Murdoch. I have looked up eros and love on the internet but it is connected to religion and sex.

Rachel Browne


Star Chen asked:

Is the Auckland sky tower beautiful?

I am an architecture student in New Zealand. I felt it is hard to design a buildings when I fail to know about what feeling people have towards buildings. For instance, what shape, what colours, what scale or any other things that affect people's feeling in different ways.

Can you tell me about the feelings people have? (intimate, comfort, graceful, subtle, calm or any feeling from people you could think of).

I haven't been to New Zealand, but a sky tower may be thought to be beautiful architecture if it is elegant. It is possible to appreciate tall glass tower blocks but this sort of structure doesn't draw you in to look more closely. A response which draws you in needs structural detail. Old buildings with gargoyles and intricate stone work are beautiful because they admit of interested and prolonged contemplation or the aesthetic gaze of pleasure.

One theory of aesthetic appreciation which applies to architecture is that interest and enjoyment is more intense if there is an historical background to set a current structure against, but it should still be a structure is worthy of interest and appreciation in itself. The non-intricate art deco structure is the precursor of the minimalist modernist sky scraper and on the historical background view of appreciation, it might be said that the modern sky scraper does not even have an interesting historical precedent.

Beauty should not depend upon the fact that its features allow it to stand out rather than blend in. So for shape, colour and scale, beauty can be achieved by creating something which complements the surroundings. Otherwise, it might simply be "surprising" or "different".

A building is for use but I'm glad that you don't feel it should be purely functional and that feelings don't matter. Most people would like comfort, subtlety and calm — but intimacy might not be right for an office block! Space, natural light and real air are what I go for. Tall stifling buildings with claustrophobic lifts, strip lighting and double glazed windows which cannot be opened are unnatural — and a lot of people complain about this.

Rachel Browne


Sian asked:

Is relativism a doctrine hostile to ethics?

As so often, it helps a great deal in answering such questions to know that you mean. Relativism in ethics (ethical relativism) is the philosophical view that there are no "valid" or "correct" universal standards of right and wrong, or of good and bad. This kind of ethical relativism should be contrasted with the view that there are, in fact, no universal standards leaving aside the question of whether there are any which are "valid." This last kind of relativism is known as "cultural relativism." This second issue is one that can only be settled by anthropological and sociological investigation.

Is ethical relativism hostile to ethics? Clearly it is if you identify ethics with ethical absolutism, the view that there are "valid" or correct universal standards of what is right or wrong, good or bad. But the ethical relativist will say, "I am not maintaining that there are no valid ethical values, which would be hostile to ethics, but I am maintaining only that these values are valid only relative to particular societies. What I am saying is that what is ethical (not only what is thought ethical, but what really is ethical) in one society need not be ethical in a different society." Therefore, the ethical relativist claims that although value judgements can be correct or incorrect, their correctness or incorrectness must always be qualified as relative to a particular society.

Compare this view with the claim that whether an object is to the left of you, or to the right of you, is relative to your position in relation to the object. Call this "positional relativism." If an object is to my left, it is not just because I think it is to my left. It is not subjective whether of not it is or isn't to my left, It really is to my left. But whether it is or is not to my left is relative to my position "relative" to the object. Is relativism of position "hostile" to positional "absolutism", that it makes no difference to whether an object is to my left or right where it is relative to me. Yes, it is.

You should not take me as saying that ethical relativism is true as "positional relativism" is true (although I am inclined to think it is) but only that ethical relativism is like "positional relativism."

Kenneth Stern


Brian asked:

You and I regard hypocrisy as something not to be encouraged yet politicians seem to get away with it with very little comment. Is it forgivable for them? Should we regard them as people who have neurological disorders where they believe themselves in spite of all evidence to the contrary or should we regard them as criminals but not worthy of punishment?

I find this question difficult, because I can see why there are times when a politician is forced to be hypocritical — when professing a belief which they do not really believe, is a choice forced on them as the lesser of two evils — yet I also want to say that hypocrisy is always a vice whenever it occurs, and we should without reservation desire our politicians not to be hypocrites.

First off, let me say that the reason we are so disinclined to comment on the hypocrisy of politicians is that we are cynical and disillusioned with them. The reason politicians are so inclined to hypocrisy is that they are cynical and disillusioned with themselves and with us. A sad state of affairs! That still leaves room for the question whether there might be occasions in politics when hypocrisy is acceptable, or even required.

One should note that there is a kind of incoherence in making any statement that conveys either directly or by implication that you do not always say what you believe. 'I sometimes tell lies' is a more subtle form of the ancient paradox of the Liar (the infamous Cretan who said, 'Everything I say is a lie'.) To make any statement is in effect to say to an audience, 'Believe that I believe this...'. A statement which implies that one's words are not always to be believed is therefore self-undermining. 'I intend that you should believe that I believe this, but you shouldn't necessarily believe it, because this might be one of those occasions when I don't say what I believe.'

It is hardly surprising, in the light of this, that no politician has ever got up and said, 'Occasionally, I am forced to be hypocritical, but I try to avoid hypocrisy as much as possible!' That sounds like hypocrisy to me.

The best illustration of a case where hypocrisy can sometimes be lesser of two evils comes from where religion intersects with politics. Not so very long ago, the profession of atheism — or even the mere lack of positive religious belief — would have been political suicide. Yet some religious believers have, or had, sufficient tolerance to realize that a person can be an atheist and still be a fine, upstanding member of the moral community. Lack of religious belief does not necessarily prevent you from being a moral and honourable person. It does not necessarily incapacitate you from political leadership. Thus, at a time of crisis, such as natural disaster or war, it might be required for these honourable people to go through the motions of prayer, to say the words with solemnity and conviction. I would regard that is an act of leadership, not hypocrisy.

Geoffrey Klempner


Carrie asked:

I am attempting to use the story of Abelard and Heloise to answer the question, "To what extent should one seek to eliminate vulnerability from one's life?" The problem is, I can't decide what the worth of vulnerability is to me.

It is excellent to use a love story, especially a tragic one, to answer the question. I have mentioned the writer Rollo May in these pages before, but he is the only person I know who writes about such things as love and vulnerability, and if you can find his book Love and Will, this will help you see the value of vulnerability.

May connects love to anxiety and fear of death. When we love we "give up the centre of ourselves". We are open to an intimacy so extreme that we are vulnerable to hurt, to the fear of separation from the loved one, the loved one's death and as May says "the paralysing fear of one's own tenderness".

"The tragic is a deepening and ennobling aspect of our experience" — what reason do we have not to love just because it will end badly if we can experience the height of tenderness and intimacy? A tragic love which involves separation describes a "perpetual yearning of each other, a thirst for completion which is doomed to be temporary". May thinks that unrequited love creates less anxiety than love which is returned, because you can go about your daily business. When you are in love and it is returned your life changes completely and however fraught with intensity love is, you cannot avoid the anxiety of loss. Personally I think this goes over the top a bit, but it is a highly suitable description of literary love and tragedy.

May also talks of vulnerability of sexual love. "Man is the only creature who makes love face to face, who copulates looking at his partner". "This opens the whole front of the person . . . all the parts which are most tender and most vulnerable — to the kindness or the cruelty of the partner." Whilst this aspect of vulnerability may not have much relevance to Abelard and Heloise, it might illuminate how valuable vulnerability can be.

The bad aspect of vulnerability is its connection with sensitivity. Over sensitive reaction to one's own setbacks and to the suffering of humans and animals is something one might strive to avoid. Nietzsche went mad when he saw a horse being flogged in the street.

Rachel Browne


Leon asked:

Having read Voltaire's Candide, it seems that Voltaire is suggesting that all philosophies (in particular Leibniz's Optimism and Pascal's pessimism) are futile because they only lead to inaction. Common sense appears to be the only thing we can rely on in this world full of moral and natural evil. But is it not ironic that Voltaire's opinions are very so often classified as a branch of philosophy in itself? And is it strange that Voltaire is sometimes classified as a deist, even though he probably finds that most insulting?

I have to disagree with some of what you say in your question. I don't think that Pascal was a pessimist. Schopenhauer was, but not, in my opinion, Pascal. I think that the message in Candide is that a certain kind of philosophy is futile, namely the kind of view of Pangloss in Candide which is a parody of Leibniz' theodicy.

Pangloss' philosophy was to explain away evil by his mantra "all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds." But Leibniz did not attempt to explain away evil, but to explain how the existence of evil could be reconciled with the existence of an all-good and all-powerful God. "Explaining away" evil and "explaining" evil are quite different. Pangloss's attitude toward evil is that it doesn't matter: Leibniz' attitude was that it mattered a great deal.

Furthermore, the point of Candide seems to be the sardonic one that it is absurd to say that this is the best of all possible worlds when an all-powerful and all-good God could have created a world with no evil in it at all. But this is quite unfair when Leibniz' argument was to show that although God could, indeed, have created a world with no evil in it, that world would not have been as good as this actual world with the amount of evil it has in it, because of the evil in this world is logically necessary for a greater good that morally compensates for the evil. And, when Candide and Cunegonde go to tend their garden at the end, the message is not the rejection of all philosophy for common sense and action, but rather the rejection of Panglossian philosophy.

I also disagree with your remark that Voltaire would have found being characterized as a Deist insulting. Voltaire despised religion, the French version of Roman Catholicism in particular: he did not despise belief in God. Deists just believe in God as the creator of the Universe. They reject religion and the accompanying doctrines of revelation, prayer, and so on. In fact they do not hold that God and Man have any contact with each other.

Kenneth Stern


Sean asked:

Why is Wittgenstein important?

There are two questions here: Why is Wittgenstein important in the history of philosophy? and why is he important today?

The effect of Wittgenstein on the history of twentieth century philosophy has been incalculable. Without the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) — inspired by the philosophical logic of Gottlob Frege, and published at a time when English speaking philosophers on both sides of the Atlantic were still largely in the grip of the idealism of F.H. Bradley and Josiah Royce — there would have been no Vienna Circle, no logical positivism, no Carnap, no Ayer, arguably no Russell (it is sometimes forgotten that Russell was an idealist in his younger days, though he ascribes his first emancipation from the grip of idealism to fellow Cambridge student G.E. Moore). Certainly, Russell's philosophy would have taken a very different shape in the absence of the influence of his most famous student. It is six of one, half a dozen of the other whether you credit the birth of analytical philosophy, still the dominant philosophy of the English speaking world, to Frege or to Wittgenstein. Without Wittgenstein, Frege's pioneering work might have gone largely unnoticed.

Wittgenstein's later and radically different philosophy of the Philosophical Investigations (1953) came to dominate a large sector of English-speaking philosophy, though its influence was not so universal as his earlier work. (The elderly Russell never understood Wittgenstein's later work and complained bitterly that Wittgenstein had given up on serious thinking.)

These are interesting and controversial issues. In my view, however, the main question is why Wittgenstein is important today.

I have just done a search of the Pathways and Philosophical Society web sites, and found a staggering 511 items matching the search words, Wittgenstein, Wittgenstein's, Wittgensteinian. Reviewing the entries gives pretty conclusive evidence that the philosophy of Wittgenstein is continuing importance to myself and the other contributors, and not just his historical influence. How can I justify this?

In both his early and late philosophy, Wittgenstein perceived the central importance of language, not merely as a fruitful subject for philosophical study, but as the vehicle in which our philosophical perplexities are expressed. We misunderstand our own language, its logic, and because of that we talk nonsense when we think we are talking perfect sense. We ask 'questions' which cannot be answered because the question itself does not mean what we thought it meant, or perhaps it means nothing at all. There is a real question, a philosophical question, about what it is that prompts us to say the things we say when in a state of seemingly philosophical perplexity, but it is buried under a rubble of useless verbiage.

This is not the place to go into the details of Wittgenstein's lasting contribution to philosophy, his ground-breaking inquiries into the nature of subjectivity and self-knowledge, the importance of community, practice, the idea of language games. It is the broad picture that I am interested in now. Wittgenstein made us aware of language in a way that no philosopher has done since Socrates. We can no longer pose questions and answer them with the naive confidence that takes our knowledge of our own meaning for granted.

Geoffrey Klempner


Justin asked:

Why does mortality of the soul follow from it being the form of the substance according to Aristotle?

The Aristotelian soul is mortal because no part is separable from body. At De Anima Book 3 Chapter 5 Aristotle distinguishes a passive and an active intellect and the latter is described as "separate, unaffected and unmixed, being in substance activity" and "it is this alone that is immortal and eternal". However, this is a suggestion that doesn't cohere with the main account he gives of the soul as a hierarchical set of faculties, the higher dependent on the lower, nor with his description of the soul as "homoeomerous", which to say that it is not divisible into parts, except conceptually. The soul is the life force of a living organism, or what it is to be alive, and when the physical matter of an individual is destroyed so too is the soul or life force. A further reason why the soul is mortal is that form and matter are inseparable because the form is the identity and definition of a being.

For Aristotle, the soul as form is physiological. Sensation is not clearly distinguished from perceiving, but both are part of complex process which is a "receiving of form without matter" by a sense organ and this is a non-propositional state shared with animals. Thought is dependent on this physiological process because our capacity to form images is dependent on perception, or as Aristotle says, imagination is "an affection belonging to the common sense". The abstract thinking of the active intellect implies no physiological process, but there is a dependency if Aristotle's claim that there is no thinking without images is accepted.

Rachel Browne


Tiffany asked:

Can you tell me if affirmative action is a form of discrimination?

I assume you mean to ask whether affirmative action — introducing a deliberate bias towards the recruitment of members of minorities or other disadvantaged groups — is a form of unfair or unjustified discrimination. By definition, affirmative action is a form of discrimination, hence the term sometimes used, 'positive discrimination'.

(By the way, I don't like the term 'affirmative action'. It is a euphemism, a term used by people who are not prepared to call a spade a spade.)

Consider one argument in favour of positive discrimination. The governors of a school with a high proportion of children from underprivileged black neighbourhoods institute a policy of deliberate bias towards the recruitment of black teachers, on the grounds that black teachers will serve as better role models. Following this policy, a black teacher might beat a more able, or better qualified white teacher to a post, on the basis of skin colour alone.

Can that be justified?

I believe that it can. The crucial question is which teachers would be the best in the context in which they were required to teach. 'Best' means most effective, most likely to produce beneficial results for the pupils in their charge. Thus, a teacher who was qualified to the hilt might be less effective in a given situation than one who had lower qualifications, but other virtues not possessed by the better qualified teacher. Few would have any quarrel with that.

Most would agree that skin colour is not a 'virtue' in this sense. It is not an attribute with any intrinsic worth. Its value in a given situation is merely extrinsic and consequential, the result of the way a teacher's having that skin colour will be perceived. Yet that is sufficient, I would argue, to demonstrate that skin colour alone can be a relevant, justifiable consideration. There is no axiomatic rule of justice according to which the teacher with the highest 'intrinsic virtue' automatically deserves to gain the post. The students' needs are paramount.

My conclusion is the modest one that affirmative action or positive discrimination can sometimes be justified. The case of positive discrimination I have described is consistent with the demands of justice. I am fully prepared to allow, however, that there may also be real life cases where positive discrimination is unjust, and therefore unjustified.

Geoffrey Klempner


Margot asked:

What are your views on life and death?

Life is good, death is bad.

But if life is not good then death is not bad.

The difficulties we have arise because of the "if...then..." bit.

Brian Tee
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield